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

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.

basil_thomson

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.”

1

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.

*********************************************

ERRATA:

**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 whitepages.com; 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.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite Ellery Queen novels

The Tuesday Club Queen

A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

A note: henceforth when I refer to “Ellery Queen” I mean the literary character. Any reference to “EQ” will refer to the two real-life cousins who wrote together and signed their work as Ellery Queen.

My five most and least favourite Ellery Queen novels

It’s always difficult to pick just a few titles from a lifetime of writing, but rather than simply present you with my “five best/five worst” list, I thought it would be worthwhile to give you an example of the factors that bounded my decision. I trust that will make it easier for you to decide if you agree for yourself or not, because it’s usually the case that there are as many opinions about such things as there are devoted readers of any author. What I think is most important is not whether you agree with me, but if you get to spend an enjoyable moment thinking, “Why, that nitwit, it’s perfectly clear that the best/worst one is X because what *I* like most about the work is …”. So have fun deciding exactly where I went wrong!

It seems to me as though for many mystery writers there is something that they’re trying to say, or a theme they’re trying to express, that you can find repeating throughout their work. One underlying theme is “Police work is demanding and difficult, but somehow rewarding.” Another is, “I wrote this so that you could have fun figuring it out, but I’m not really serious.” (Freeman Wills Crofts and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, respectively.) Sometimes an author will have two modalities: Robert Barnard, for instance, was as wacky as Taylor half the time and  wrote dark and complex literary mysteries the rest of the time.

Ellery Queen, though, showed us FOUR different themes during different time periods. Period 1 is generally acknowledged to be the “nationalities” mysteries, where the focus is on pure logic. Let’s call the short Period 2 “trying to get Hollywood’s attention”; plot-heavy, snappy dialogue, simple caricatured characters. Then Period 3, “Wrightsville”, where EQ mixed crimes and small-town American values. Period 4 was “solve the imposed pattern” mysteries, where Ellery met a situation where there was some sort of structured pattern of events that didn’t make sense unless you knew the hidden theme. Next, Period 5 was when Ellery Queen became a house name, and the theme was “here’s an exciting, shallow, and straightforward story about a crime”. I think instead of defining a Period 6 it’s easier to say that Period 4 resumed after Period 5 had run its course; the quality declined at the end of this long oeuvre but the theme of the imposed pattern remained the same.

I differentiate here between my idea of a theme, and something that many people have noticed about Ellery Queen stories — they’re frequently structured like “first the false solution, then the true one”. Yes, I agree, this is frequently the case — but it’s not thematic, it’s a way of telling that thematic story. That’s why it cuts across all the EQ periods in the same way as their standby short story structure (which is, “X is dead, A, B, C are the suspects; they all look equally guilty but two are disqualified because of Z”).

I’ve gone into this in a little detail because I think it’s important for you to know that I enjoy Periods 1 and 3 the most, and that’s likely to colour my ideas of which novels are my most and least favourite, and why. I don’t really think Period 4 is the equivalent of Period 1 … your mileage may vary simply because you prefer one theme to the other. In the same vein, I’ve deliberately called these my “most and least” favourites — not “best” and “worst”; and I’ve excluded volumes of short stories.

My five most favourite Ellery Queen novels

And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite EQ novel is at the end of this list.

5. The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)

siamese-twin-cover-pocketbookThere’s not much to the puzzle issues in this book; the clues are slight and well-hidden. There’s a tiny bit more coincidence in a few of the plot twists here than I ordinarily prefer (the initials of one character, for instance, are a stretch). But the situation that underlies this book is perhaps the most exciting thing EQ ever wrote; all the characters are stranded at the top of a mountain and, chapter by chapter, the fire is creeping up the mountain towards them. As Thelma Ritter observes in All About Eve, “Everything except the bloodhounds snapping at her behind.” This book is beautifully put together to increase the tension in a long slow slope. By the time the fire reaches the mountaintop your nerves are pitched at the point where you want to scream and hide your head, but you absolutely must know what happens next. It’s a wonderful experience and masterfully written.

4. Calamity Town (1942)

d90baa33c135fd52b915c8f508884828This book is so excellent in so many ways … It’s from Period 3 and is really the volume where Wrightsville comes into full flower. Halfway House seems to have given the EQ cousins their first taste of making small-town America a character in their book, or an ongoing landscape against which morality plays were displayed. In Calamity Town they have a sure-handed mix of the detective plot and the small-town America setting, and a story that links them both together. This is one of the two novels in which EQ demonstrated their understanding of how a media frenzy works; the other one is my next entry, Cat of Many Tails. I really think this is what Dorothy L. Sayers was talking about when she wanted detective fiction to become “a literature with bowels”; this is a strong family drama about horrible things happening to nice people. Ellery, as the outsider, is the perfect narrator and begins his process of worming his way into the heart of Wrightsville.

3. Cat of Many Tails (1949)

cat-of-many-tails-2An absolutely crucial step in the development of the serial killer novel, this beautifully written book is a look at the investigation of a Manhattan-based serial killer who is strangling victims with pink and blue cords: pink for girls, blue for boys. It’s told in a recomplicated style that introduces dozens of characters and follows them for varying lengths of time; a few close relatives of the first victims form a small group of amateur investigators helping Ellery solve the case. The tension builds and builds and this novel is a classic in EQ’s best story-telling modality; the false solution, then the true. Brilliantly written in a whirlpool of action and tension.

2. The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

the-greek-coffin-mystery-1960-illus-james-meese-1I’ve written extensively about this novel before and how and why I like it so much.  (The previous piece is here.) Simply put, I think it’s the best pure puzzle mystery from Period 1 and one of the best puzzle mysteries EVER. It’s a long and complicated puzzle with lots of clues and some interesting characters. The narrative leads you in many directions but if you understand the tiny clues correctly, you can only come up with one very, very surprising killer. This is also the novel that contains the reason why Ellery never talks about his inferences and possible solutions until the end of each case, because he gets so badly burned here by speaking in advance. I can remember distinctly thinking I’d finally solved this one, in my teenage years, only to realize I’d been beautifully led down the garden path by a typewriter key.

1. The Murderer is a Fox (1945)

25b_FoxThis is my favourite Queen, and I suspect I may well be alone in this. It’s a Wrightsville novel from Period Three and most people automatically accept the consensus that Calamity Town is the best Wrightsville novel of all. That novel is certainly fine. But this novel has all the good points of Calamity Town, plus it has a wonderful familial intimacy that the other novel only hints at. These are real people who are suffering greatly, and trying to reconstruct the actions of a fateful day years ago. And the writing is just so beautiful … you can
tragedyofy-avonsee tiny dust motes dancing in the air of the attic, you can see the lines on Davy Fox’s face that shouldn’t be there but for the war. There is not a lot of evil intent here, but there is great and powerful sadness. It’s also one of the few endings where Ellery cheats justice in a good cause; ultimately this novel is about how we should treat war veterans and rarely do.

And two explanatory notes. I have deliberately drawn my terms to exclude the four Barnaby Ross novels but if I hadn’t, I would have had to find
ARoomToDieIna way to wedge The Tragedy of Y (1932) into this list. And if you want to know what my favourite ghost-written Ellery Queen novel is, it’s A Room to Die In (1965), written by science-fiction writer Jack Vance.

My five least favourite Ellery Queen novels

Again, in reverse numerical order.

5. The Glass Village (1954)

ggpb0776I don’t care for this novel for a number of reasons. One is that it pretty shamelessly takes off the real-life Grandma Moses, which is a bit lazy. What really bothers me, though, is that this novel is like a Wrightsville novel, if Wrightsville had been populated by inbred cretinous bigots. Wrightsville has the advantage of being balanced and realistic in other novels; this is the Dark Side, and it’s very unpleasant. The book as much as admits to the reader at one point that the plot depends on nobody having access to a long-distance telephone, which is unlikely, and to me the central plot point that identifies the murderer was clear and obvious. Yes, I get that this is about McCarthyism and the mob mentality. But it’s just unpleasant and unhappy and discouraging.

4. The American Gun Mystery (1933)

dell0004This one is on my list as one of two Queenian adventures here where I just flat-out cannot believe the solution. In this case, without getting into details, I cannot accept where the gun was said to be hidden; it’s not built up enough to be remotely possible. All the foofaraw with closing the circle and searching 80,000 people in the audience was just so much fluff. The suspects all seem phoney and there is one character whom we never get to meet for long enough to see something that would have been nice to have a chance of assessing; a bit of a cheat. And the way in which Ellery attains the solution is, when all else fails, pull something ridiculous out of your ass because it’s the only thing left. Rex Stout did it much more elegantly and much more tersely in a 1960 novella, The Rodeo Murder (found in Three at Wolfe’s Door). 

3.The Origin of Evil (1951)

UnknownUnpleasant people doing unpleasant things against a backdrop of Atomic-Age paranoia makes for a very unpleasant book. And in this one, just as the outset of And on the Eighth Day, EQ makes fun of Period 2 — they mock the reader for ever thinking that Ellery could have been a screenwriter. The common theme that underlies this Period 4 novel is so far-fetched that it’s impossible to figure out even if you had more useful clues than being required to know that worthless stocks are called “cats and dogs”. And there’s something in this book that is so unpleasant to read … the misogyny and sheer hatred that EQ express for the “poisonous orchid” woman at the heart of this mystery through the lips of Ellery himself. It’s almost as though there was someone in the lives of one or both of the authors against whom they were taking revenge with this vicious portrait of a woman who is married to an impotent cripple and still has the nerve to want to be sexual.

2.The Four of Hearts (1938)

1543-1This is the most commercial novel the EQ partnership ever wrote, to my mind, and it’s meretriciously setting itself out to be a screenplay without caring that there’s nothing of any substance here. The movie-star characters seem as though they were created with specific actors in mind — fine, but if you expect them to be suspects in a murder mystery, don’t make them so darn perfect, because then the reader cannot help but solve the mystery by elimination. The plot line is flat and shallow and things happen for no really good reason, except that a change of location is needed to move the story along. The ending is both hard to understand and just plain silly. And perhaps it’s a very small thing, but I really prefer it it an author doesn’t treat me as sufficiently credulous to believe a “fact” that he just out-and-out makes up. Why anyone would accept that “in fortune telling, cards that are torn in half reverse their meaning” is beyond me; how many times have you accidentally torn a card in half? What they were getting at, of course, is that in a Tarot deck the meaning is reversed if the card is upside down. But apparently I cannot cope with the exotic knowledge that Tarot cards are one-side-up. Bah.

1. And on the Eighth Day (1964)

930-1I know I’m going to take a lot of flack for this — many people regard this as one of their favourite Ellery Queen novels. For me, this is a philosophical religious parable and not a detective story. You can tell that because the characters aren’t referred to as people, but as functions: Storekeeper and Teacher. And I find that kind of story intensely annoying, because to me it seems lazy. If you really wanted me to reach a philosophical and/or religious point, don’t take me by the nose and lead me through cardboard sets and silhouettes to illustrate that point — hide it from me and tease me with clues as to what it might be. (Some people say this book does that for them, I admit.) Put real people and realistic events into it and leave me a little ambiguity as to whether I’ve figured it out, but let me try to figure it out. The other part of why it annoys me is that it’s just so damn pompous. It’s as though the writer wants to tell you a story complete with a musical score filled with shrieking organs to let you know that this is a Really Important Story. It’s histrionic and overwrought and overwritten, and does everything except part the Red Sea to make the point. Oh, how I wish Manny Lee could have done the first draft of this instead of Avram Davidson; he would have been able to rein in Dannay’s plotting and make a real story out of this. And by the way, this book won the Grand Prix de Litérature Policière — it’s entirely probable that they know better than I do.

41sbh8qx8qL._SL500_I’ll note here that I’ve left out the final two Ellery Queen novels, The Last Woman in His Life (1970) and A Fine and Private Place (1971). Yes, folks, I believe these are pretty awful, and have said so here about A Fine and Private Place since it is #1 on my list of “mysteries you should die before you read”. But I’m willing to cut some slack to EQ on these two since they were written by elderly men who were at the end of a long and distinguished career. Both books are poorly executed, but they are at least trying to entertain; there is no point in reading them,
9780451071231but they have not gotten off on the wrong foot entirely like a couple of novels in this category.  Last Woman is impossible to discuss in any detail without giving it away in its entirety. But I think it would be fair to say that it couples an advanced and liberal view of a social issue with the most profound ignorance about its actuality; again, I can cut some slack here for elderly men who are trying to be progressive, but this book casually makes statements that are the equivalent to the modern ear of Agatha Christie using the n-word in the title of a book. For 1970, perhaps that might have been an advanced viewpoint; it’s pretty ugly today.

Let me pause at the end of this month of Tuesdays to tip my hat to Messrs. Dannay and Lee, who had a long and distinguished career in which they entered upon a path of untrodden snow and over the decades left the trail cleared and marked for everyone else to follow. They are one of the most important names in detective fiction and any criticism I have to offer is a small thing against their larger achievements.

Next month’s Tuesdays will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh. I hope you’re enjoying this guided tour and will continue to follow along! Your comments, as always, are welcome.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My favourite Agatha Christie paperback covers

The Tuesday Night BloggersIn the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary,my fellow GAD mystery blogger Curtis Evans proposed recently that some members of our Golden Age of Detection Facebook group should undertake “The Tuesday Club Murders”, which has transmogrified into the Tuesday Night Bloggers. Simply put, we’re going to publish a Christie piece every Tuesday in October.
9eb1f129816deb6c879fb727e3d57109We’ve recently decided to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; the first three weeks of November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

#6: My favourite Agatha Christie paperback covers

Although I’ve had some fun recently showing you some of the “worst” paperback covers for Agatha Christie,
37ce9eb3f6234e8af79da9f12ce888bcI hope you realize it’s all in good fun. What seems modern and avant-garde to the contemporaneous eye may cause laughter 40 or 50 years later … every generation has its preferred style. What I find most attractive about early paperbacks is the raw and unaffected nature of the design. These folks weren’t running on research telling them where focus groups think they should be putting the author’s name, and how large, and what fonts they like most and least. They were inventing things that they thought would appeal to people and
58f85d84857417bee436ef6a985e4887marketing books as best they could. Sometimes they got it wrong; sometimes they got it hilariously wrong. But sometimes they created beautiful books.

Some of my favourites include, of course, early Dell mapback editions (I’ve talked about those separately); they will always be dear to my heart. But other houses had interesting approaches as well. I’ve always liked the “picture-frame” covers from perhaps a year’s worth of early Avon editions (check out Death in the
73d30ffb6304150ed794938186069a7cAir
 and Holiday for Murder nearby); Avon seemed to do a nice job in its early days with skilful illustration with a healthy helping of Good Girl Art (GGA). Similarly Pocket had a point in time when they seemed to be linking mysteries with surrealism (see Evil Under the Sun). Highly-regarded Christie cover artist Tom Adams also specialized in surrealism and there’s a copy of The Murder at the Vicarage near here that is a riff on a classic Magritte painting.

796b61befc1d8925869903994f9fbf39Some people may find it odd that I’ve got a classic Penguin greenback as a favourite — I’ve always thought these were the essence of minimalist chic, and their preferred font of Gill is one of my favourites.  There’s something just so audacious about it, like saying, “Oh, all our books are worth reading; the cover just lets you know that we’ve endorsed yet another title.” The very earliest Penguins come with matching dust jackets and I love that idea too.

Cards-on-the-Table-200x300And finally — one of my favourites is the crazy-looking cover for Cards on the Table where a clever artist has created a portrait of Christie herself out of a deck of playing cards and household objects! Perhaps not beautiful but original and challenging.

Enjoy! Next Tuesday night we’ll be switching to three weeks of material celebrating Ellery Queen. My first two pieces will be about books that I consider pivotal to understanding EQ’s oeuvre and that signal
308377518an intention to change literary direction; Halfway House and The Finishing Stroke. I hope lots of my new readers will be persuaded to continue along!

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