Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

As promised in my most recent post, I thought I’d apply my Not The Top Ten (Personal) approach to Ellery Queen.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Ellery Queen. In at least one case the identity of the murderer will be obvious. If you haven’t already read these titles, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read any book whose title is unfamiliar to you (I’ve put them in bold italics) before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

Most overrated novel

472113f2176c6dff7e5e4c30bb818db3This is a tough call, but for me — and I emphasize this is based on personal factors — the most overrated EQ novel is And on the Eighth Day by a hair over The Fourth Side of the Triangle. Both, strangely enough, were written by science-fiction writer Avram Davidson under the direction of Messrs. Dannay and Lee; I’ve read his science fiction and it’s fairly … tepid. And yes, I am aware that And On the Eighth Day received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Each to his own, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.

To me, this book is gallingly annoying. It is clearly the product of a storyteller who is self-consciously constructing a parable; it pauses on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, like the “Locked Room lecture” chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, about the moral imperatives that underlie the agonizingly predictable activities of the book. “Look at me! I’m writing in metaphors! and look how abstract I can be!” Okay, not quite that far. But the authorial presence is clumsy and overbearing, at the “nudge nudge wink wink” level. Please, leave me alone and let me read the damn book.

I don’t like the intertwining of Naziism with religious parables; I don’t like the intertwining of the detective story with religious parables. (Let religions do their own work in their own way, say I, without coopting the forms of genre fiction. One of the conventions of detective fiction is that even the most basic assumptions must be verified and nothing is taken on faith.) And I don’t like an authorial presence that muscles its way into the moral high ground without allowing you to decide if it’s merited. So I’m the critic who likes this book the least, but there are a lot of smart people who esteem it highly, and you will have to make up your own mind what you think.

Most underrated novel

4e882a3ea7e348579188dc3e10dbaf48For me, the most underrated Ellery Queen novel would have to be The Murderer is a Fox (1945). I like the Wrightsville period of EQ because it represents the finest example of the Dannay and Lee trying to push the boundaries of the puzzle mystery. And I think The Murderer is a Fox is a better Wrightsville novel than Calamity Town. In Calamity Town the cousins had already established the focus on small-town America and its foibles; here in The Murderer is a Fox, I think they captured atmosphere better than in any other novel. You can see the dust motes dancing in the thick atmosphere of the attic, feel the weight of the heavy blue glass tumbler … and we can sympathize with the hero afflicted with “shell shock” who has to endure clacking tongues and being misunderstood, and with his adolescent self coping with a murdered parent. The solution is truly surprising and effective; it prompts the reader to real emotions and to sympathize with a character in an impossible situation. Just because it’s a book on a small scale doesn’t mean it can’t work on larger themes.

51cuw5ymffl-_sy445_A close runner-up would be Halfway House. I think if it had been called The Swedish Match Mystery as originally planned, we’d right now be acclaiming it as among the best of the Nationalities period.  As it is, it’s not quite Wrightsville and not quite bloodless logic, but in many ways it has the best features of both periods.

If the cousins had actually written A Room To Die In, instead of Jack Vance, I would have considered it in this category; it’s a smart little locked-room mystery that should be more widely read. As it is, it’s definitely the book that would have been better written by John Dickson Carr if I ever do that comparison.

The novel containing the best hook

siamese_twin1This one has to be The Siamese Twin Mystery, which starts with the realization that Ellery and his father are going to have to confront a forest fire in the course of the novel. It’s got everything, as the saying goes, “excepting Eliza running across the ice floes with the bloodhounds snapping at her ass”. I can’t think there’s a single reader who could stop reading once the Queens in the big old Duesenberg take that first fateful turn up to the top of the mountain hoping to escape the blaze… I was hooked like a trout and I think every other reader was too. A skilled authorial presence is saying, “Have I got a story for YOU.”

It’s also really difficult to start your novel with a bang, and then keep it rising steadily until the end; lesser talents can’t avoid a sag in the middle. Siamese Twin makes that work, and the finale is beautifully handled and truly exciting. It pays off every promise of the story hook and then some.

d4fb6aa891c234f7961d426e6e6f2090I suspect many people would suggest that The Chinese Orange Mystery was the best hook — except that it takes so long to get to, for me the little corpse with the spears stuck into his reversed clothes doesn’t really qualify as a story hook but more like the midpoint of Act One. A story hook starts bang! in Chapter One, and you’re either hooked or you’re not. It doesn’t count as a story hook if you expect it in Chapter Five because you read about it on the jacket flap’s précis. There’s a similar problem with The Lamp of God — yes, the vanishing house is a gripping plot development, but it doesn’t happen until too late in the story to qualify as a hook.

The novel containing the best murder method

Queen-Avon425This is a difficult topic that requires a little logic-chopping. The word “method” means, to me, “cause of death”. This lets out novels like The Chinese Orange Mystery, where the scene of the crime is truly outre — but the corpse was prosaically biffed on the head with a poker. The King is Dead certainly has a complex method, but is it “best”? No, it’s just overwrought.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery with the multiple decapitations is certainly a strong contender. I also like the methods in The Door Between, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery; they’re inventive and logical.  But for me the winner is The Tragedy of X, with the ball of needles coated with nicotine stuffed into the coat pocket of the victim. That method was produced by a creepy and inventive turn of thought. And best of all, it has a specific contribution to the book that helps identify the murderer (you’ll understand this if you remember the ending).

The novel containing the best motive

br02b_tragedy_of_yI struggled with this one because I wanted to be sure I understood what “best motive” meant. After much thought, I think “best” means the motive that you would never guess, but that arises organically out of the material.  So that means I’ve dismissed novels where the motive is to get a lot of money, or escape from a terrible relationship; those motives are commonplace. EQ occasionally has a plot structure where someone commits a bunch of actions or murders in order to conceal the only murder they wanted to commit — what you might call the ABC motive. This is a little bit fresher but honestly, in EQ’s hands most often it just means that the actions of the book are strained out of proportion in order to include whatever improbable linking structure the authors thought appropriate. (Ten Days’ Wonder and The Finishing Stroke come to mind.) So I’ve eliminated those, and I’ve also eliminated novels where the murderer is simply insane.

01d_RomanThat leaves me with kind of a tie, for different reasons. The Tragedy of Y is my winner by a hair — the murderer is following the written instructions of a dead man without understanding why. No one could intuitively grasp that, but it actually does arise organically from the characters and setting. A very close second is The Roman Hat Mystery, but the reason that no one would guess that motive is quite different. The book was published in 1929, and back then, it was actually a feasible motive that a person would commit murder because they had “just a drop of coloured blood” and wanted to keep that a secret. Wow — just, wow.  And thank goodness we’re beyond that now.

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

ac6b6a80250c6057f2ff0499a38e931bThe French Powder Mystery is well-known for having its final words reveal the name of the murderer for the first time. That was kind of a stunt, but for me it was a very surprising ending and a very surprising way of revealing that information. The other novel that truly surprised me was Drury Lane’s Last Case. EQ managed to build that ending organically until the reader is at a pitch of excitement before the reveal of what should be a very surprising murderer … the only trouble is, I didn’t really believe it was psychologically reasonable.

The novel you should avoid 

9780451045805-us-300I’ve had my say about the awfulness of A Fine and Private Place elsewhere, but I think I have to give pride of place to The Last Woman in His Life. This book is significantly ugly and ill-informed on the topic of homosexuality. It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that, you know, I don’t blame Dannay and Lee all that much (actually Lee probably didn’t have much to do with this one, since he was nearing the end of his life) — I think their hearts were in the right place even if the outcome was atrocious. They were trying to be forward-thinking and liberal, and they got it wrong, wrong, wrong.

This novel was written in 1970, two years before I came out, and even then I already knew that the stereotypical gay man they present either didn’t exist or had ceased to exist before I was born. Is it that the cousins never bothered to actually, you know, talk to anyone gay? Or that someone had filled their heads with these weird stories of guys built like football players who liked to wear evening gowns, and they accepted second-hand information rather credulously? Perhaps they were told about a bunch of different sub-groups of gay society and somehow conflated them all into one ghastly stereotypical gay equivalent of Little Black Sambo. We’ll never know.

The other problem with this book is that it is really a very poor mystery per se. EQ here offers a puzzle that is very Queenian, as it were: there are three obvious suspects, ex-wives A, B, and C, with little to differentiate them. The plot doesn’t go very far to make us think that any of them is guilty either. Speaking as someone who’s seen this EQ pattern many times before, it was crystal clear that the killer had to be none of the above. And since there are virtually no other people in the book who fit a few other crucial criteria, such as being present during the murder, it’s quite obvious whodunit. The rest is just foofaraw. And it’s foofaraw that EQ went to preposterous lengths to set in Wrightsville, which merely drags down our understanding of Wrightsville instead of adding anything.

This book is irredeemable. It is not merely poor, it is poor and offensive. It’s an ugly stain on a great body of work by two masters of the genre, and I hope no one ever reads it again.

The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

UnknownThe Greek Coffin Mystery is definitely a superb puzzle mystery; I think it’s the finest of EQ’s “Nationalities” series. It’s beautifully plotted, subtly clued, it has one of the least-likely murderers ever, and the book’s structure is one of the finest examples of leading the reader down the garden path in English literature.  (Yes, seriously. THAT good.) I’ve praised it even more extensively here. And yet — this is not the one I think you should read in your lifetime, even if you only read one Ellery Queen book. That honour belongs to Calamity Town.

Since I’ve said above that it’s not even the best Wrightsville novel, let alone the best EQ novel, you may be puzzled at this point. But I do have a reason. EQ mysteries like Greek Coffin and Chinese Orange are brilliant examples of the Golden Age’s finest achievement, the strict-form puzzle mystery. But they did not change the genre, they were merely among its best examples.

Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, tried something that only Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers had achieved thus far; they pushed the boundaries of the genre and changed detective fiction, not merely exemplified it. Christie did it by “breaking the rules” in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. EQ did it by boldly trying to add emotions to detective fiction in the United States, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers created her “literature with bowels” in England with novels like Gaudy Night.

Calamity Town is the book where the creativity really happens. (I think of Halfway House as a kind of false start; the two books have many similarities.) It might not seem like much to readers who have grown up with every detective revealing his or her inner humanity, but merely trying to write about people realistically was a great step forward. At the same time, they tried to use the town of Wrightsville as a kind of character in the book, giving us the massive ebb and flow of a small town on a large scale, from Emmeline DuPre to the depths of Low Town. It’s a huge step forward in the idea of putting characterization and reality into detective fiction, because the technique tries to mirror reality.

Inventively, EQ use intense recomplication in this book as a story-telling method — the sections where we get a whirlwind of comments and reactions from a wide variety of minor characters, and even newspapers and radio broadcasts. Not an absolutely original method of telling the story, since E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case did it in 1913 and Philip MacDonald did it in 1930 with Rynox and 1931’s Murder Gone Mad. EQ, however, have a really nice take on the technique by stretching it out into a longer, less frenetic process, and using it to build the rising tide of the action as part of the plot.

All things considered, Calamity Town is not a magnificent book. But it is an original and ground-breaking book and it took the American detective novel a great step forward in 1942, breaking the grip of the Golden Age forever. So it’s an important book, and if you only read one Ellery Queen title, it should be this one.

Top Ten Lists are boring!

carr-vs-christieMy friends Brad of ahsweetmysteryblog and JJ of The Invisible Event are two mystery experts in the blogosphere. Both are well-read gentlemen who make very insightful contributions to the ongoing GAD dialogue and are fun to read too. Recently they’ve been having fun with the 2017 Christie vs. Carr Smackdown — essentially a series of fun exercises in which they compare and contrast Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. I’ll link to a couple of useful entries here and here that will let you follow these guys on their own, which they deserve.

The Smackdown process has transmogrified into an interesting format they call Scattergories that has allowed Brad and JJ to work into something that’s quite different than the usual Top Ten list. I’ve done Top Ten lists myself at various times and it can be kind of fun to come up with a schema for how to rank your favourites and least favourites. But I’ve found the Top Ten format stale and unprofitable, mostly because it’s quite peculiarly personal. As my two blogfriends put it, “Top Ten Lists are boring!” It’s like trying to convince people that your favourite flavour of ice cream should be theirs.

Here’s their basis that underlies their Scattergories process:

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The most Carr-like Christie (or the most Christie-like Carr)
  8. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer . . . )
  9. The Christie that Carr would have made better if he had written it (and vice versa)
  10. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one Christie/Carr

As you might imagine, when I read this, I was fired up to get busy on my own and happily disagreeing with their choices. (You kind of have to be a book blogger to understand how disagreeing with someone you like can be fun. 😉 ) As I started to dig into the topics, I noticed they divided into two types of observations: one set about an author’s work ranked internally (“most underrated”) and a smaller set about how an author’s work compares to that of another author. Let me split these out and make a few alterations …

Observations about individual books in an author’s oeuvre

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer …)
  8. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

And then

Observations about how one author’s work compares to another

  1. The novel by one author that brings to mind the style or focus of another author
  2. The novel by one author that would have been improved if it had been written by another author
  3. Of two authors’ best books, which is the best?
  4. Of two authors’ worst books, which is the worst?
  5. Of two authors’ entire body of work, which is better?

Those last questions I’ve added were intended to suggest, say, that one decides what Ngaio Marsh title is her best, and then what Christianna Brand title is her best, and then which is the better of the two.  And vice-versa for their worst efforts. And then — considering all the Nicholas Blake (for instance) novels against all the Michael Gilbert novels, who has the body of work which best repays study?

I like this way of looking at books and oeuvres and authors in this way; it seems fresh to me and is a kind of structure against which I can improvise, rather like jazz. And honestly the possibilities are endless. If I want to compare Anthony Berkeley to an endless succession of other authors, I can try … or I can blether on about someone obscure like Pat McGerr. And the process works quite well, heaven help us, for non-mystery authors as well. With apologies to Brad and JJ’s idea of Scattergories, I think I’m going to call this “Not the Top Ten”, or NTTT. In fact NTTT Personal and NTTT Comparisons.

elleryqueenAnd because I was provoked (a delightful process, I assure you) by the comments section into considering other authors by the addition of comparisons involving Ellery Queen works, my first NTTT Personal attempt will be a separate post on EQ, using the eight questions above.  See what you think!

A Murder is Announced, by Agatha Christie (1950): A Bayardian exploration

WARNING: This essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you WILL learn a huge amount about the plot of Christie’s A Murder Is Announced (1950) including the murderer’s name and motive, and a similar amount about Christie’s The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (1926). I’ve also needed to talk about the solution to Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die (1938)If you read on, these books will have completely lost their power to surprise you, and that would be a shame, because they’re excellent mystery novels. If you haven’t yet read any of the books mentioned above, go do that and return; if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

fa9d7ccb2654906bd6f9c04460fb1110I’m sure your first question will be, what is a “Bayardian exploration”? A while ago, I came across a pair of similar volumes by Pierre Bayard, who previously was only known to me as the author of How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. My first discovery of his witty deconstructive talents was with Sherlock Holmes was Wrong: Re-opening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles (and I gather there also exists a volume on Hamlet as yet untranslated from Bayard’s native French that argues that Claudius did not kill Hamlet’s father). It should be clear from the title what he’s about; essentially he approaches the text of The Hound of the Baskervilles from a number of different perspectives and demonstrates that the real murderer is not identified correctly in the text, and also that the author subconsciously knew who the real culprit is. I found his writing to have an overall air of sly humour, but that might just be the effect of all that post-modernist literary theory; your mileage may vary.

RO60073769What piqued my interest extremely, though, was Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery. In the Bayardian spirit, since I haven’t actually read this volume, I’ll tell you my understanding from reading comments about this volume. Essentially Bayard takes apart The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and “proves” that, in a very post-modern approach to the text, the murder was not actually committed by the doctor/narrator but by his sister Caroline, whom Christie has said was a precursor to Jane Marple.

I went back and checked the text, and by golly the doctor never actually SAYS he committed the murder. After the body is discovered he did, in a famous turn of phrase, “what little had to be done”. This is an important point in the text since we are reading the doctor’s handwritten diary in which he describes the events of the novel that involve him directly. First his diary describes the crucial period:

“The letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.”

e20e09ded6c1e347c3e3fdec0c102ca6The reader of Christie’s text is meant to understand in the final chapter, as the doctor is contemplating suicide, that in the ten-minute interval the doctor had murdered Ackroyd and set up a few red herrings. When he later says he “did what little had to be done”, the reader understands that the doctor is saying “went over and shoved the dictaphone into my medical bag, pushed back the chair, and left”.

But since the narrator is unreliable, Bayard seems to suggest, he can be even more unreliable than we’ve been told in Christie’s text. Apparently the alternate suggestion is that the doctor fakes his diary entry to conceal the involvement of his sister, for fraternal reasons, and hopes to take the blame if a detective like Hercule Poirot should be on the case. If you re-examine the text, there’s a curious passage that is open to a couple of interpretations. After all is discovered and the doctor is writing his suicide note, he adds:

“My greatest fear all through has been Caroline. I have fancied she might guess. Curious the way she spoke that day of my ‘strain of weakness.’ Well, she will never know the truth. There is, as Poirot said, one way out… I can trust him. He and Inspector Raglan will manage it between them. I should not like Caroline to know. She is fond of me, and then, too, she is proud… My death will be a grief to her, but grief passes…”

If Caroline has killed Ackroyd (for reasons connected with the blackmail of Mrs. Ferrars, for which the doctor takes credit in his confession) but does not know that her brother knows this, and intends to take responsibility for it, the passage makes as much sense, don’t you think?

So these are amusing diversions; M. Bayard is clever and intelligent, and allows people familiar with Christie’s text to have some intellectual fun. I don’t actually suggest that Bayard is “correct”.  Christie’s text says what it says, and it’s considered a classic text of detective fiction because it introduces the idea of the unreliable narrator who is attempting to keep the reader from the solution by misdirection.

imagesParenthetically at this point: there’s a 1938 novel by Nicholas Blake that relates intimately to TMORA and takes it one step further. The Beast Must Die is initially presented in the form a diary in which the diarist announces his desire to kill a certain person but later announces the diarist’s innocence when the person is actually killed. The diary, you will not be surprised to learn, has been faked to protect its writer; it’s truthful up to a point and then, as I recall the precise wording of the text, veers into untruth. This is different from Christie, where the doctor’s diary is scrupulously truthful but very, very carefully worded. (Poirot remarks upon the doctor’s reticence after reading his manuscript but emphasizes that the document is accurate.) Find out more about The Beast Must Die from a fellow GAD blogger and keen analyst here.

Anyway — as it contributes to my thinking about another Christie text below, here’s what I’m taking from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Agatha Christie was capable of creating a character in a detective novel who was … well, not precisely lying, but not telling the whole truth either. And this character specifically creates a written text that appears to say one thing and actually says another.  The character shows and tells us things about himself and his actions that are true, but presented in such a way as to mislead readers and detectives.
So I had stored M. Bayard’s high-spirited gedankenexperiment in my head as amusing but largely irrelevant to my own interests, which are in the text of Golden Age mysteries as they’re actually written. But the other day, I came across a comment that interested me in this kind of meta-analytic way, with reference to another Christie novel; 1950’s A Murder is Announced.

358d942b1ad1c9c88400b00e1ed1e7a2A Murder is Announced had been on my mind of late for a couple of reasons. I wrote a rather long essay, published elsewhere, about recognizing the presentation of LGBT characters in Golden Age detective fiction (here, GAD) — and two characters from AMIA, the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, played a large part. My thesis was that characters in GAD were not said to be LGBT but sometimes were; the way you could explore this idea is by looking for stereotypes. To make a long story short, Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd are my best example of a long-term lesbian couple. The text never makes it clear, in words of one syllable, that they are a romantic partnership as well as a domestic one. (They raise chickens together.) But to my mind, it’s clear that Hinchcliffe’s anguish at the murder of Murgatroyd is that of a spouse, not a business partner.

Then there were a couple of little things that contributed to this picture. One was an idle thought that the process of concealing one’s LGBT identity, of being “in the closet”, is quite a bit the same as concealing one’s identity as a murderer in a piece of detective fiction. Rather like the experience of the doctor in TMORA. A gay man working in a conservative office environment — or a few decades ago anywhere — doesn’t have to announce his sexual preference, and doesn’t need to tell lies, but can leave things around like, say, a snapshot of himself with a beautiful female friend tacked up over his computer monitor. This is neither an original nor an especially complex insight, just one that was on my mind.

a murder is announced book coverFinally what coalesced everything for me was a comment I read here, in a discussion of the perception of Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd. The basis is an intelligent note that is focused upon the relationship of these two women, but the poster says two quite extraordinary things that got my mind working. The first is:

“It’s clear Christie was a close observer of human nature and the subtleties of relationships. In fact, in this same book she has two other women who are longtime friends and companions in the same house, but there’s zero undercurrent as in the [Hinchcliffe/Murgatroyd] case.”

And the second was even more striking for me:

“Incidentally, while thinking about this case, I realized that almost every possible non-polygamous relationship exists among the main characters in this one book, from single to married to widowed to trophy wife to lesbians to friends.”

One comment from a different writer suggests that “Letitia Blacklock and Dora Bunner have a Boston marriage but of the friendship-only variety.” (It was actually Charlotte masquerading as Letitia, but let that pass.) There’s an extensive discussion of the concept of “Boston marriage”, but what it boils down to is, according to most of the people who have read the book and given this matter some thought, Letty and Dora are not having sex and Hinch and Murgatroyd pretty much are.

The part that hadn’t struck me previously is the relationship between Lotty and Dora. Now, bear in mind two things here. One is that, in this novel, Lotty is the murderer of both Dora and Murgatroyd. The second is that, in Christie, we have precedent for murderers to provide testimony about their own activities that is partially true and partially false.  With that in mind, this is Jane Marple speaking in the denouement of AMIA about the relationship between Letty/Lotty Blacklock and Dora Bunner.

“The whole thing was going splendidly. And then – she made her big mistake. It was a mistake that arose solely from her kindness of heart and her naturally affectionate nature. She got a letter from an old school friend who had fallen on evil days, and she hurried to the rescue. Perhaps it may have been partly because she was, in spite of everything, lonely. Her secret kept her in a way apart from people. And she had been genuinely fond of Dora Bunner and remembered her as a symbol of her own gay carefree days at school.”

Pan-G144 Christie A Murder is AnnouncedNo, I’m not going to make a big thing about Christie’s using the word “gay”; she meant it in the sense of “festive”. But I started to wonder — how does Jane Marple know this stuff? The police have evidence, yes, that Rudi Scherz saw Charlotte in Switzerland when she was a patient, and that’s why she has to murder him. But if you think about it, it’s impossible for Miss Marple to know why Miss Blacklock has done anything that she’s done. The final chapter is full of “must haves” — “Charlotte must, I think, have overheard a good deal that morning she came into the cafe.” So this is not evidence that Miss Marple and the police are getting from Charlotte herself; this is what Miss Marple knows happened and why she THINKS it happened.

My astute readers will have gotten to my central thought by now, I think. There’s already one instance in the book of a lesbian couple who don’t exactly conceal their relationship but make it look like something more innocent. Why shouldn’t Charlotte and Dora have been in a youthful relationship at school? And why shouldn’t they have corresponded all these years?  Frankly, that stuff about “an old school friend who had fallen on evil days” isn’t substantiated by anything and could be just so much nonsense. And it could be nonsense that Miss Marple was led to believe by tiny clues that the pair scattered in their path; perhaps even faked letters about the circumstances of their past. There’s nothing textually that stops this from being the case; I’ll be scrupulous and say that there’s nothing that really suggests it, either.

Well, now, wait.  Even Miss Marple says “[Charlotte] loved Dora – she didn’t want to kill Dora – but she couldn’t see any other way.” And Charlotte Blacklock, in the dramatic scene where her guilt is revealed in her kitchen, says

“‘I didn’t want to kill anybody – I had to – but it’s Dora I mind about – after Dora was dead, I was all alone – ever since she died – I’ve been alone – oh, Dora – Dora -‘ And once again she dropped her head on her hands and wept.”

Does that sound to you like a Boston marriage? Or does it sound to you, much like is suggested by the vehemence of Miss Hinchcliffe’s desire to physically injure her lover’s murderer in the same scene, like Charlotte and Dora were more of a long-term couple than you’d heretofore thought? Jane Marple says Charlotte loved Dora; she didn’t say exactly how much.


All of the events of the novel, if you care to consider them in a harsher light, can be brought to the doorstep of a considerably more evil Charlotte Blacklock than you may have considered. All you have to do is treat the text with the same respect that Miss Marple and the police treat the evidence; corroborated evidence is fine, and speculations about people’s emotions are just that, speculation.

tumblr_nn6x3yNypg1rrnekqo1_500Here’s how my version goes. Miss Blacklock didn’t get a letter from Dora pleading poverty; they made that up to explain her presence in the household as “companion”. In reality, they have been, and probably still are, lovers. They settle in a village which is known to accept a pair of women living together without scandal being aroused. And they safeguard the fortune they have cheated to obtain. Then Charlotte realizes that she has to dispose of Rudi Scherz and enlists Dora’s help in generating an alibi. Charlotte must safeguard herself from her lover’s carelessness and Miss Murgatroyd’s awareness, and kills them both, and finally is found out by Miss Marple, who uses a trick to force a confession.

I’m not going to be specific about what surrounds the killing of Dora Bunner in my version.  I’ll merely say that if some of the individuals concerned were males, it would be more tenable that Charlotte kills Dora and Murgatroyd in order to end up with Hinchcliffe, but as the text stands it’s not reasonable. Hinchcliffe appears to be truly in love with Murgatroyd. There are other possibilities for the person with whom Charlotte sees herself after the police investigation dies down; the various permutations of Pip and Emma in the novel, wherein just about anyone of the right age could have been either, may have meant that Charlotte intended to control the fortune even if she had had to relinquish it. But once I started considering, there’s one person whose presence in the Blacklock household is equally inexplicable — the volatile Mitzi. Mitzi, who has escaped from war-torn Europe — perhaps Switzerland, where Charlotte and her sister stayed for a year during the war. Mitzi, who is of a closer age to Charlotte than any other potential lover; Mitzi, who finally cooperates in forcing an admission of guilt out of Charlotte because, after all, Charlotte has just finished killing her previous lover, Dora.  Perhaps it’s Mitzi who will be Charlotte’s lover after all is said and done.

But these are all speculations … they’re based on a premise that Agatha Christie, like other writers of detective fiction, had the job of creating characters who looked like one thing and acted like another. I don’t think you can say that it’s wrong for a reader who is aware that he has signed up to be fooled by the author to range through a wide spectrum of theories in an attempt to not be fooled; it’s merely that my speculation is after I know who Christie says was the murderer, that’s all.

If I were to be really getting wild in my speculations, I’d start thinking about who in the volume might have had a sex-change operation. It’s that pesky Pip and Emma dilemma. They turn out to be both women … but did they both start out as women? It’s always been curious to me that Charlotte’s medical operation in Switzerland was for goitre, which I understand was quite a bit less curable than it is today.  (We have iodine in salt these days, which forestalls it.) What other reasons are there for people to have a secretive operation in a European country — and then to come home with a lifelong habit of wearing a concealing strand of pearls?  Scars from goitre aren’t the only things that pearls serve to conceal; there’s also the telltale signs of a shaved-down Adam’s apple… Did the deceased financier actually fake his own death and then return as his secretary?

I apologize to anyone whom I’ve offended by these speculations, or anyone who thinks I’m crazy for speculating that the story could go beyond the only text. In closing, I thought I’d offer a long quotation from Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read:

“When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… What we preserve of the books we read—whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully—is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies. … What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.”

Further recast by our private fantasies, indeed.  Enjoy your own imaginative takes on books you have read!


The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Sealed Room Murder, by Rupert Penny (1941)

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

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

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

What is this book about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite edition

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

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

The Dartmoor Enigma, by Sir Basil Thomson (1935)

The Dartmoor Enigma, An Inspector Richardson Mystery, by Sir Basil Thomson (2016); originally published in 1935 as Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery. With an introduction by Martin Edwards (who is the current president of the Detection Club and author of last year’s superb history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder).

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

the-dartmoor-enigma-an-inspector-richardson-mystery-by-basil-thomson-1911095765Last week, I ran across a note of a 2016 electronic reissue of Basil Thomson’s eight mysteries. I’ve read quite a few rare mysteries in my day, but I’d barely heard of this author and only had a dim memory that he had had some sort of personal scandal associated with his life. Sir Basil had been quite a guy who, in a long and varied career, had become Assistant Commissioner for Crime at Scotland Yard, before he mysteriously lost his job. As best I remembered, Thomson’s mysteries were not of a level of excellence that had recommended them for paperback republication in later years, but were well regarded. They were also so little known that I had never managed to read one. And he is so obscure that that excellently exhaustive resource, Stop, You’re Killing Me, did not for once contain a list of his entire oeuvre. Now THAT is a little-known author.

So in a moment of curiosity/weakness, considering the tottering heap of my “to-be-read” pile, I picked up the inexpensive e-book of the fifth book of eight at random and thought, “I’ll look at the first few pages…” Famous last words, of course, but I have to say (1) I didn’t put it down, and (2) I went back and got the other seven in the series the same day.  So you can assume in advance I enjoyed this.

What is this book about?

As a result of both the Chief Constable of Devonshire and Scotland Yard receiving an anonymous letter suggesting that the writer knows the death of the late Mr. Dearborn was caused by a bash in the head rather than his contemporaneous car accident. Chief Inspector Richardson is assigned to the case. The Dartmoor man who died in a car accident soon proves to have been bludgeoned to death. But the victim soon proves to be a complete enigma. He arrived in Dartmoor with a huge sum of money in cash, bought a house, got married — and apparently never existed before he arrived in Dartmoor.

Within a page or two, “The junior chief inspector made his appearance.” We learn nothing about Richardson other than that he is young, having received promotion quickly, and has many fine personal qualities that endear him to his fellow officers. Richardson takes Sergeant Jago in tow and begins his investigation. The local constabulary rather quickly fastens guilt upon a disgruntled ex-employee of the late Dearborn, but Richardson progresses further in short order.

There is not much point in my retailing the activities of the plot here because, frankly, they are the principal virtue of this novel; if I give much of it away, you will enjoy the book much less. Suffice it to say that the deceased’s affairs are considerably more tangled than it would appear at first glance, and that his history appears to contain a film star improbably named Jane Smith, a Borneo gold-mining company, a defalcating young lawyer, and a blameless wife. Richardson tracks down the different threads of the investigation and determines the true identity of the late Mr. Dearborn and also the identity of his murderer, bringing the case to a satisfying close. And in the best Humdrum traditions, there is a smart twist at the end.

1_bacb819f-7bcc-4515-93bf-64e9452f0a2f_grandeWhy is this book worth your time?

A theme that seems to repeat a lot in my reviewing work is my search for charm within the pages of the books I review. It’s a difficult concept to nail down and not very rigorous in its boundaries. Essentially, when I find a book to have charm, it means that the writing is somehow likeable, the story is pleasant to contemplate, the author’s voice is amusing, there are no horrible errors of authorial judgment that I am forced to ignore — and I can close the book with a sense that I have just had a “nice” experience.

When I say this book has charm, and it absolutely does, it doesn’t necessarily have to emanate from the author himself. To be honest, much of the pleasure of this book came from the introduction by Martin Edwards. He understood the book completely, and most of all was able to place it very accurately within a constellation of other authors with whose work I am more familiar. So if I tell you that this is rather like an Inspector French novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, but minus the “timetable mystery” aspect and with the addition of considerable accurate detail about police procedure, you may well understand what that means. This is, indeed, what I’ve called elsewhere a proto-procedural. That is to say, it’s a “detective novel” that focuses on the activities of Chief Inspector Richardson and shows in detail how he works with his fellow officers, but written before the term “police procedural” was invented.


Sir Basil Thomson

Martin Edwards’ introduction indeed places Thomson precisely in relation to two other GAD writers. Here’s the sentence that says it all: “Thomson’s mysteries are less convoluted than Crofts’, and less sophisticated than [Henry] Wade’s, but they make pleasant reading.” Yes, indeed. There is enough cleverness in this volume to make me smile at the obligatory twist at the end, but, as Edwards says, “… intricacy of plotting — at least judged by the standards of Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr — was not Thomson’s true speciality.” I agree, but to be honest, that was kind of a pleasant relief. This was an uncomplicated tale, well-written and rather unambiguous. If you are the sort of person who actually tries to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed, you may well, as I did, get all the way to the end first (which in my case makes me puff up my chest with pride for the rest of the day, so there you are). Or you may have the almost as pleasant experience of getting 3/4 of the way to the solution but being fooled by the clever final twist. You will still feel as though you have accomplished something.

500My current interests in social history as woven into detective fiction were also very nicely satisfied by this story. There’s quite a bit of material here about social class. In chapter five, for instance, the disgruntled ex-employee Pengelly, a kind of labour agitator, is visited by the police. “Evidently he had been told by the foreman the quality of his visitors; he was on the defensive.” If you know me, you’ll know that my ears pricked up at the word “quality”. But Scotland Yard is not terribly unkind to Pengelly overall, although it does arrest him for a petty crime — Robertson has a word with the foreman at his new place to save his job. Similarly there is a dotty old peeress who is lavish with money and gives someone a £500 note. Honestly, I hadn’t realized there was such a high denomination of British banknote, it must have been extraordinarily rare. That sum would have paid a maid’s wages for a decade. There’s plenty more of these tiny fascinating details, from a young servant-class woman “dressed in her best walking-suit with its rabbit-skin necklet and her latest hat” to the problems of being a young man with an amazing amount of freckles who gets remembered for them wherever he goes. I enjoyed the activity of stopping reading for a moment while I tried to figure out just what was meant by a tiny detail, like visualizing that rabbit-skin necklet.


Sir Basil Thomson

I did mention above that I dimly remembered that there had been some kind of scandal in Thomson’s life, and I will leave you with this thought. Having this rare old book to read was a pleasure. But having Martin Edwards’s introduction to it really was worth the money because of the  details that he provides, about that scandal and everything else. I do actually want to encourage you to buy this particular edition because of the excellence of the introduction, replete with biographical and personal detail. So I will merely quote one single sentence and let you judge for yourself if you want to find out more.

“In the same year [1925], [Thomson] was arrested in Hyde Park for ‘committing an act in violation of public decency’ with a young woman who gave her name as Thelma de Lava.”

“There!” as PT Barnum might have said. “If that don’t pack them in, I’m a Dutchman!”

I think you will enjoy this pleasant mystery; it is not of the first quality but it is far from the worst. If you like the police procedural or the detective novel, you will broaden your horizons here in an interesting and worthwhile way. You have the introductory remarks of the insightful and expert Martin Edwards to guide you in placing this writer’s work into its precise context with respect to the boundaries of the Humdrum School. Both Dorothy L. Sayers and Barzun and Taylor commented with great favour upon the author. And, holy moly, there’s a woman who “gave her name as Thelma de Lava.” What more could you want?



The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #009

13563606What’s this book about?

In a British seaport town, a constable is summoned to the scene of an assault. The locale is squalid and poor, and the particular lodging house at which the assault took place is owned by one Spotty Jim, well known to the police. A Chinese lodger in the house has been assaulted by another Chinese man using a carpenter’s hammer, although the police are experiencing some difficulty in correctly identifying the assailant and the victim.

Desmond Merrion, the series detective, doesn’t claim to be an “Old China Hand”, although he has spent some time in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. He takes a hand in the investigation at the request of Inspector Arnold and helps to untangle a complicated tale of a Chinese laundry worker with too much money in the Post Office Savings Bank, opium smoking, politics, and murder.

9781627550840_200_the-chinese-puzzleWhy is this worth reading?

Well, you know, it’s not. To paraphrase Monty Python, this is not a book for reading; this is a book for laying down and avoiding.

I could understand this book having been written in, say, 1917 or 1923. Ignorance about Chinese people is a hallmark of the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age literature that portrayed them as the “Yellow Peril”, and pretty young white girls were forever stumbling into the clutches of a Chinese mastermind puffing his opium pipe with his eye on world domination.

33f3aa9e0e5e47d913d3b0304c97ec60There was so much of this literature at the time that in 1929 Ronald Knox, a mystery writer and cleric, made one of his “Ten Commandments” for the writing of a detective story that “No Chinaman shall figure in the story.” My idea is that Knox was reacting against a type of story where a criminal mastermind like Fu Manchu could cause plot developments to happen without the necessity of them being sensible or even possible — “Send a thousand coolies to search the city until the woman is found!” type of thing. The authors were white people writing for an audience of white people, and no real knowledge of Chinese people or customs were necessary because, in 1929, the chance of any reader actually having first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture was pretty much non-existent. Authors like Agatha Christie (“The Lost Mine”) and Conan Doyle (“The Man with the Twisted Lip”) wrote stories about opium dens and Chinese secret societies, apparently without the benefit of any research or personal knowledge. In short, they made it up to amuse readers who would never be any the wiser, or care about the reality of the Chinese experience. And they did it so much that it became a cliche.

So in the late 1920s, it was already quite passé to write about mysterious slant-eyed adventuresses luring innocent young white men into a Limehouse opium den. Besides, there weren’t that many Chinese people living in Britain at that point anyway. “The 1921 census figures put the Chinese-born resident population at 2,419.” (From Wikipedia, here.)

chinee-laundryman-never-sleeps1.pngIn the ensuing decades, Britain restricted Chinese immigration and treated Chinese workers and seamen very poorly, forcibly repatriating thousands of Chinese seamen back to Asia after WWII. Most of the Chinese people in Britain in the ’50s were employed in the declining “Chinese laundry” industry and the burgeoning Chinese restaurant industry. In 1951 there were 12,523 Chinese in Britain, and in 1961 the Chinese population was 38,750 — they apparently invented the “takeaway” style restaurant which is now dominated by a later wave of South Asian immigrants.

And in 1957, “Miles Burton” (Maj. John Street, who also wrote as John Rhode) wrote this piece of nonsense.  To start with, the names of the Chinese people themselves are made up out of whole cloth; one of the principal characters is Ah Lock, which is nowhere near a realistic name for a Chinese person. (Something like calling a character “John Smithsky” or “John Smithovich”, I think.) (**See the end of this post: I’ve added a comment that indicates I was wrong about two things in the preceding sentences.) All the white people are constantly making general remarks about the nature of the Chinese personality — “Chinese are apt to scrap among themselves at the slightest or no provocation.” “The others are always chattering away like so many monkeys, but Ah Lock very rarely said a word.” “Most Chinese men are remarkably clever with their hands.” The book is full of such generalizations.

And their command of English is ghastly. Here’s a fairly characteristic passage.

Chu Shek nodded. “That light. They no come back till half-past five. Me all alone. Wife she go sit in gardens. She say flesh air good. Me no likee sit do not’ing.”

“That light” is meant to indicate “That’s right.” Ugh. Sure, this is pidgin English, but these people have been surrounded by white English speakers for years; pidgin should have been far behind them at this point. Apparently the author found it amusing to write, though, so it fills the book. Chu Shek is another nonsensical made-up name. Another fairly major character is a man named Lo Fat, and the author invites you to snigger along with him at how, by golly, this means something quite different in English. And the man isn’t fat! Hilarious.

As I’ve noted previously, Street pays a lot of attention to social class; a common preoccupation for Golden Age mystery writers, it seems. He is on familiar ground when he is talking about the precise social distinctions that separate rural farmers and tradespeople from their “social betters” up at the Manor, and why a doctor’s widow can lord it over a storekeeper’s widow, et cetera.

This book, though, is just … ugly. Really ugly. It’s clear that Street thinks that there’s nothing wrong in comparing Chinese workers to monkeys. And it’s clear that he knows little or nothing about how they speak, or what they think about, or what motivates them. The characters execute their functions in the book with no regard to realism — because Street doesn’t care about them as people. To him, they’re monkeys. They don’t fit into the English class structure because they are below it.

soapine-boston-publ-libraryThere’s an unspoken but obvious assumption underlying the narrative that white people are superior to Chinese people, and it penetrates every level of society. The shared understanding of the white people is that if they go to Asia, they can become an “old China hand” by being able to understand a few words of Cantonese or Mandarin and making business arrangements with the locals. But when Chinese people from Hong Kong — who were putatively entitled to British citizenship — come to Britain, unless they are extremely wealthy they are relegated to doing white people’s laundry and crewing their ships. The Chinese people are expected to make all the adjustments to whites, learn English, and put up with whatever scorn white people care to heap upon them.

Here’s the comments of a (white) lady at the Post Office asked to comment upon one of the Chinese people who paid into the Savings Bank: “He always came to me, for I seemed to be able to understand his few words of funny English better than the others.” It’s clear from her tone that she regards her customer as the equivalent of a child or a mentally handicapped person. And when a Chinese man who works for the “Anglo-Chinese Aid Society” shows up, Inspector Arnold notes:

“… Mr. Ling Tam … was a comparatively young man, remarkably well dressed and wearing tortoise-shell spectacles. Apart from his features, which were unmistakably Oriental, he might have been an English professional man. Somewhat relieved by his appearance, Arnold asked him to be seated.”

chineselaundry03There is much, much more of this; it permeates the book like a bad smell. Honestly, I just couldn’t read a lot of it. It takes an awful lot for me to be unable to finish a murder mystery, but upon my first attempt at this book, I was so frustrated and angry that I just skipped through the middle section of the book and read the ending. Which, incidentally, is permeated with more racism and generalizations about the Chinese character. When confronted, the murderer confesses — because, as Desmond Merrion says, “I was gambling on the Oriental temperament, which has a strongly defeatist element in it. … faced by a sudden and unexpected accusation, an Oriental nearly always collapses. And once he has collapsed, his native fatalism prevents him from recovering.”


George Bernard Shaw – but I couldn’t resist the picture

I suppose I’ve gone on far too long about the disgraceful attitudes and comments that fill this book. The picture that formed in my mind is of an elderly white male, wallowing in white middle-class privilege, near the end of his writing career, who decides to write about a group of people about whom he knows nothing. Nothing. So he just makes it up to amuse his audience, because, heavens, it’s not like anyone Chinese could ever master English sufficiently to read this book. Chinese people are sub-human, and you can say anything you want about them (in a constantly pompous and lecturing tone) because their feelings don’t matter.  I would have been barely willing to accept this level of pompous ignorance in the context of 1927; it was the general lack of knowledge of the times. In 1957, it’s disgraceful. The author just didn’t bother to find out anything about an entire race of people before he turned them into performing monkeys to amuse his audience.

It’s never crossed my mind before to suggest that a book be banned; I disagree with the whole idea. We need to see the mistakes that have been made in the past so we don’t repeat them, and covering them up allows them to breed in the darkness. But if some enterprising publisher takes on the complete works of John Rhode/Miles Burton, I hope that somehow reprinting this particular volume gets overlooked. This is an ugly, nasty, squalid little book and I hope no one ever reads it again.



**The day after posting this, Shahrul Hafiz, a Facebook friend in my Golden Age Mysteries group, mentioned that “the name of Ah Lock, Ah Chong, Ah Meng, Ah Mei and others are very common calling name for Chinese people in Malaysia. Their real name maybe Tan Chee Lock, but most would prefer to call Ah Lock or Ah Chee or Chee Lock or in formal situation Mr. Tan. Nothing wrong or uncommon about calling Chinese people, Ah Lock.” So I was clearly wrong on that one, although I will say in my defense two things: one is that I’d never heard of anyone named Ah-anything although I lived for 35 years in Vancouver, which has a huge Asian population, and second … this is more tenuous … that the individuals concerned are said in the novel to have been born in Hong Kong and aren’t from Malaysia.  But those are poor excuses for having been wrong, and I apologize.

I was sufficiently curious to look at; in their 300 million listings f0r North Americans, there are none for “Ah Lock” but two for “Ah Lok”, none for “Chu Shek”, and there is a 101-year-old man in New York named “Lo Fat” (long life to you, sir!). There are, however, enough people whose names are quite close that I can accept that these names are not just syllables that Street pulled out of the air.

I’ve changed how I represented the author’s name here.  His full name was Cecil John Charles Street, and I made that Cecil Street, but he preferred to be known as John Street.