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!

549198483bbe59f9f75a6a0bc1899594 12791188340 14784120943 b18e23e5a565c0a296a77ab4d5d45bf1 c452ce21282c9b63083d049011df9fdf christieonepb d65331f7555ab7f2850976d3b5a9a781 e171bc315da9e688c50f5b745790e7c0 f6fa0f6a7680abf0ac207a375fad0c5c fa175a4fdd2e62428f919388d0c23543 ggpb0359 images-1 images-2 images Penguin 6 806 7688963228

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers #5: Book-scouting Agatha Christie

The Tuesday Night BloggersIn the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary, it was 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. You’ll find a list of participants and associated links on Curtis’s blog. We’ve recently decided to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

agatha-christie-460x343

Someone’s very nice collection of Fontana Christie titles that I scooped from the internet.

Unknown#5: Book-scouting Agatha Christie

A book scout is an intermediary for books; she buys books at yard sales and charity shops inexpensively and then hopes to recoup her investment, at the very least, by selling the book to a book dealer or used book store. If you know your business well, you can buy inexpensive books “on spec” because you know someone will always want that particular book, sooner or later. But if you’re just starting out, or even want to start out but don’t know how, here’s what you do.

christielisterdalepbGo to the bookstore that you yourself shop at most often; perhaps you’re already well-known to the proprietor. Ask if you can book-scout the bookstore’s “want list”– come prepared to make a list of books that the bookstore already has had requested by other customers. “But,” you are saying already, “that’s why we have eBay and Amazon and the like, right?” It’s true, books are more available than they used to be. But the economics of the situation are such that unusual/rare books frequently have a commensurate price over the internet, and when you add in the bookseller’s mark-up (booksellers have to eat!) sometimes their customer will be looking at a $30 bill for a book that the customer probably thinks is expensive at $10. End result, no sale. So if the book scout can bring in that particular book at $5 — perfect. It never hurts to try.

67e1942bb86f2ef873b6b5e68a9f56f2If you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has a murder mystery bookstore, they frequently have a want list of mysteries you’ll never see in your lifetime; booksellers write these names down to be polite to the customer, mentally commenting, “Yeah, if anyone comes up with a copy of Obelists at Sea by C. Daly King, it’s going into MY collection!” Nevertheless, Obelists at Sea is going to be on the want list; if you find a Penguin paperback, it’s worth $25 to $50, except you won’t find one. But if you want to be a book scout in the real world and keep your mystery dealer happy, you can profitably focus on low-level bread-and-butter titles by, for instance, Agatha Christie.
0007154852Mystery fans tend to focus on reading in “sets”. They’re the people in used bookstores with little notebooks or iPads, because their collections are so large that they can’t remember if they own a certain book or merely have read it. They tend to collect, they like to collect uniform editions, and they are assiduous about wanting to complete those sets; they are the people who will spend that $30 if you have the one book that will complete their collection of, say, Agatha Christie. And collecting Christie is quite common. Some people say, “Oh, I’ll collect the Miss Marple novels.” Another’s collection will be “all the Miss Marple novels and short stories”. Or “All the Christies with the Tom Adams covers from Fontana”. “All the Christies.” “All the Christies under every title.” “Everything Christie ever wrote in every language and edition.” There’s medication for that last one 😉

When I was behind the coun24191ter of a mystery bookstore, the purple unicorn of Agatha Christie paperbacks used to be a short-story volume called The Listerdale Mystery, especially with the Tom Adams cover featuring the banana morphing into a handgun. I used to get $20 for that at a time when a new paperback was about $7. For some reason, although there were a couple of British paperback editions, not many copies of that title seem to have made it to the west coast of Canada; I constantly had a list of perhaps ten people who needed any copy in any edition to complete some kind of collection. I know Listerdale is back in print, but most used bookstores will have one or two titles that they need to serve their customers’ needs; the trouble is, all bookstores have a different list. A suburban bookstore may be looking for a specific romance novelist; a bookstore near a university may be looking for a cyberpunk classic; and one near a residence of the elderly may be looking for specific classic westerns. It’s all in the clientele.

imagesBut mystery sellers always need a couple of unusual Agatha Christie titles if you can find them inexpensively (and, I can’t emphasize enough, in good condition; a book with loose pages is worthless). Talking to local booksellers is best, but here are a couple of principles that will let you buy Agatha Christie titles on spec … these are more likely to pay off than others.

  • 0652668181e91855978566f54514141414c3441Perfect, unopened, mint copies of any edition of any Agatha Christie title are worth buying and holding for the future, as long as you pack them away carefully.
  • Anything unusual with Christie’s name on it.  If it makes you think to yourself, “Oh, that’s out of the ordinary,” that’s what you’re looking for. This includes her Westmacott romances, biographies, plays, collective novels with other members of the Detection Club, and books about Agatha Christie and her works. Weird stuff like Agatha Christie cookbooks … someone’s always going to want that.
  • surprisepbEditions of any Christie paperback that predate about 1970.
  • Agatha Christie titles from Fontana with the Tom Adams cover art.
  • Agatha Christie titles that are movie tie-ins or TV tie-ins; anything with a picture of David Suchet or one of the TV Marples on it. Anything with 16 pages of “pictures from the film” bound into the centre.
  • Compendium volumes of Agatha Christie titles; especially ones which bind together three or more novels in hardcover format with a dust jacket. These might have a value all out of proportion to what you’d think, because some of them are first editions “as such”.
  • 4422Collections of short stories with variant titles. Publishers of Agatha Christie have a long and unfortunate history of repackaging collections of Christie short stories with a different table of contents and selling it with a different name. No one is really fooled by this, and it really annoys completists who have to have every title. But there’s always a collector who needs a copy of Surprise! Surprise!.
  • Audio books. I understand that some voices are esteemed while others are not, but you’ll have to ask your bookseller for more information.
  • And finally — pretty much anything I’ve shown you in my previous Christie paperback related posts this month. If it’s old and weird or funky and strange — if it sets off your spidey sense — go for it.

The Tuesday Club Murders #4: Christie’s worst paperback editions

c3a5ddf268c9c4adb2f1c7bd607a8560In the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary,GAD mystery blogger Curtis Evans proposed recently that some members of our Golden Age of Detection Facebook group should undertake “The Tuesday Club Murders”. Simply put, we’re going to do a Christie piece every week on Tuesday, “for a while anyway”. You’ll find a list of participants and associated links on Curtis’s blog. I’ve been using the cover art for Dell #8, The Tuesday Club Murders, as my symbol for this effort and want to emphasize that I don’t think this is one of the worst editions.

Pocket #753

Pocket #753

The competition for “worst Agatha Christie paperback cover” is stiff indeed — my shortlist was some 40 covers — so I thought I’d put some boundaries on what I was labeling. One aspect of cover art that drives me crazy is where the artist has realistically depicted a scene … that has nothing to do with the book. I don’t mind old-fashioned artistic styles like Good Girl Art (in fact, as you probably realize, they rather appeal to me) but I draw the line at GGA that is only tangentially connected to the action of the novel, if at all. Books that mislead the reader about the kind of book they’re getting are a terrible idea, I suggest; if you pick up a book because you think it’s a romance, and it turns out to be a mystery, you have good reason to be upset.

4488357591_3047ee37d3_b-600x924

Pocket #6109

There are a couple of Christie designs that just boggle my mind. Look at Pocket #753, above; the cover for Crooked House depicting a giant hypodermic needle. (It is highly esteemed among “dope art” aficionados.) I mean, okay, you’ll find a hypodermic needle in the book. But it’s like advertising Moby Dick as a novel about scrimshaw. Another really strange set of choices is shown in Pocket #6109 nearby; So Many Steps to Death (aka Destination Unknown). I agree the action takes place in Morocco; the fashions of Morocco are only vaguely known to the artist, who appears to have concealed the swordsman’s lower regions with a lacy quilt. But the sullen redhead to me bears very little relationship to the doughty heroine who agrees to become a spy. And, um — I don’t remember any menacing swordsman playing a significant role in this book.

44125252-7891973012_a64bc3c931_k1-600x1029

Pocket #80290

I don’t usually object to book covers that attempt to realistically depict scenes from the book — unless, like Pocket #80290, with the acid-green cover for Crooked House, they set the action back 25 years and get the period hopelessly wrong. (Crooked House was published in 1949, not 1924.) And unless I miss my guess, that’s not a scene from the book unless someone changed the ending. Speaking of changing the ending, Avon #690, The Big Four, depicts one of the villains restraining the innocent young actress, although I think the off-the-shoulder peasant blouse is a bit of a stretch. But the enormous head of the Chinese gentleman in the rear has nothing to do with the action at this point, I’ll suggest.

Avon 245 (1950). Reprint of Avon 3 with Different Covers

Avon 245 (1950).

Perhaps I’ll just leave you with a gallery of weird Christie covers and let you make your own selections — or pick from your own shelves.  If you have a cover in your collection that makes you think, “What were they thinking!”, perhaps you’ve found it here already. Your comments are welcome.

I should add that although I didn’t mean it that way, I seem to have duplicated the approach of another website, Pulp Covers, whose interest in “interesting, lurid, and awesome” paperback covers is shared by me. You should definitely check them out; the particular article on Christie is here. We seem to have a similar disdain for certain kinds of covers and my thoughts and choices of covers for this article were influenced by that site, so I thought I’d give credit where credit is due and give you an interesting link in the process.

44565147-8004326233_a5e84d3ab5_o1-600x900

Avon T-149. Perhaps this is what the victim slept in, but I doubt that her murderer was wearing a fez at the time.

Pocket-Books-617.-1949-600x902

Pocket #617, from 1949. Looks more like a romance than a mystery, doesn’t it?

42473560-4908194350_4696972fcb_o1-600x886

An early Avon. The artist has failed to appreciate that Tommy and Tuppence in 1922 wouldn’t dress like it was 1940.

41097982-7197667182_7117940c79_o1-600x907

Pocket #2088. Unless I’ve mis-remembered the book, the body found on the beach was that of a male. (Amended the day of posting: I HAD mis-remembered the book, as was pointed out by a friend in the comments below. I’ll leave this up for my readers’ amusement … it’s not all that terrible if it’s true to the book.)

 

26173380-5400080052_6aae7b82de_o1-600x920

This scene isn’t in the book, and the profile portrait of Poirot makes him look half-asleep.

46166350-8239740084_5d37c8457f_o1-600x919

This is actually a rather nice graphic of an actual scene from the book … but it completely misleads the reader. And if you’re going to show a murder on the cover, shouldn’t it be the one described by the title?

33204584-6152638501_0e9b0c19dc_o1-600x954

No, she wasn’t killed in the library.

35222221-3768225075_5fa59f40bd_o1-600x977

If I saw a woman with that hairdo, I’d look askance at her too.

Pocket-Book-2319-1957-600x916

I’m not saying exactly what this makes me think is happening, but it doesn’t necessarily remind me of murder.

46113682-8228894479_8c8f014d63_h1-600x918

This goes a little beyond Good Girl Art … and I can’t figure out why the victim has been reduced to line art.

42531831-4953412335_45b787be4a_o1-600x917

I have no doubt this describes something in the book, although it seems like it’s trying to draw our attention to the boutonniere. This cover makes the list because of the infelicitous phrase, “the master mistress of crime”. Ugh.

44291137-7942376306_14af11c642_o-600x902

A pretty girl is surprised! Yeah, that looks mysterious.

2758073296_9e3f7aa4c7

The clocks relate to the nursery rhyme — but not the novel.

A Caribbean Mystery

I’d be wide-eyed too, if my eyebrows looked like that.

de34c716da33c31b2416a666a27000d5

HARLEQUIN tea set. It’s a series of interlinked diamond shapes. Not bright red.

fbe277185db68daec7d1963dafb0ac8a

This romance novel seems to think it’s a mystery (that particular shade of pink is an unfortunate choice).

be5b6afda4c47f7079c5533a39441ea1

This Dell edition stands for a bunch of silly-looking editions where they commissioned an illustration that is vaguely creepy and mostly ridiculous. In this case, nothing shown here is related to the murder in the slightest, except perhaps a bullet.

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Where do we go from here?

The Tuesday Night Bloggers

A clever logo produced by group member Bev Hankins.

About a month ago, The Tuesday Night Bloggers (TNB) began as a kind of impromptu celebration of all things Agatha Christie to celebrate her 125th birthday. Essentially  members of a Facebook group decided that they were going to post something in their own blogs about Agatha Christie every Tuesday for what turned out to be a little more than the month of October, 2015. Yes, we’re still doing it. I’ve personally had fun working to a tighter deadline than “whenever”, and it encouraged me to find interesting things to present that could be explained in 500 words or so. Which, as you know, for me is barely a clearing of the throat 😉

dc9f2677eTuesday Night Bloggers (alphabetically by last name;the blog’s name links to the blog)

In conversation with a couple of my fellow TNB bloggers, I’ve learned that they are attracting a new and improved readership as a result of these Christie posts, as have I. Apparently people come for the Christie and look around for the Golden Age mystery, I guess, and welcome aboard! So I was wondering what would happen if we kept up the frequency but changed the topic a little bit … and we’re about to find out.

roundtableThe seven bloggers in Tuesday Night Bloggers have come to an agreement that, provisionally at least, we’re going to keep posting on Tuesdays but we’re going to change the topic once a month. We’re going to talk about a different Golden Age writer for a month of Tuesdays, and hope that our new readers are as interested in the other major names as they have been in Agatha Christie.

Personally I think this is going to work best if we focus on the major writers — as I put it, writers with a large number of novels that have been printed in a large number of editions. My TNB friends are all all aware of mystery writers whose work is rare and expensive, and when we find rare and expensive novels that we enjoyed or understood, I believe we’ll continue to bring you our opinions. (E.C.R. Lorac and Miles Burton are the literary equivalent of $500/bottle Scotch!)  In the meantime there are a bunch of Golden Age writers whose names many people will recognize and whose books are abundantly available at libraries and bookstores, and I think our breadth of information can shed light on these writers in a way that will interest people who may only be glancingly familiar with their work, or even people very familiar with their output. If you’ve read two Ngaio Marsh novels, well, we’ve frequently read all 29, and we have reasons why we like our favourites that we’ll share with you. I’m hoping this will encourage more people to share our pleasure in Golden Age mysteries.

sdc13504So here’s the list of suggested topics for a year.

  • October: Agatha Christie
  • November: Ellery Queen
  • December: Ngaio Marsh
  • January: Rex Stout
  • February: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • March: John Dickson Carr
  • April: Phoebe Atwood Taylor
  • May: Erle Stanley Gardner
  • June: Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • July: Arthur Upfield
  • August: Patricia Wentworth
  • September: S. S. Van Dine

Believe me, I’m open to changing this list, any part of it or any name on it. (I alternated males and females.) And I know that the TNB would join me in welcoming any blogger with an interest in Golden Age mysteries to add his/her blog to this list, even if — especially if — they’re not members of our Facebook group. There is no need to post every single Tuesday, for existing members or new ones; I’m sure we’d even welcome guests who merely wanted to contribute a single post from their own blog.

Your comments below are welcome and earnestly solicited. I have shamelessly swiped the logo that Bev Hankins designed for the group since I like it better than mine (and I will now retire my variant terminology for this effort of Tuesday Club Murders); thank you Bev!

 

 

The Tuesday Club Murders #3: Early Dell map back editions of Agatha Christie

c3a5ddf268c9c4adb2f1c7bd607a8560In the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary,my friend and fellow GAD mystery blogger Curtis Evans, whose highly recommended blog, The Passing Tramp, is found here, proposed recently that some members of our Golden Age of Detection Facebook group should undertake “The Tuesday Club Murders”. Simply put, we’re going to do a Christie piece every week on Tuesday, “for a while anyway”. I believe you’ll find a list of participants on Curtis’s blog.

Here’s my third contribution; last time it was the most valuable paperback editions of Christie and now on to some early American printings. Agatha Christie was remarkably widespread in that a number of different publishers did a couple of titles each, in the earliest days of US paperbacks … by looking at her editions you can get a good cross-section of what different companies thought was good marketing for a mystery. And since I’ve been using The Tuesday Club Murders (Dell #8, above) as the symbol of this  Tuesday Club blogging effort — let’s start with Dell. As I mentioned previously, Dell mapbacks are sought after by collectors because of the linking motif of the map on the back cover which depicts a scene from the novel; sometimes useful, sometimes not, but always funky and strange.

Dell experimented with a number of different styles of cover art but settled with a stable of reliable artists, principally including Gerald Gregg. A Chicago artist named Ruth Belew proved best at creating the maps for the back covers and produced almost all of them.

Mapbacks are also known for their innovative marketing gimmicks inside the books themselves. The opening pages were devoted to a series of fairly standard features such as “Wouldn’t you like to know …”  (What happens when a dinner party made up of four suspected murderers and four detectives winds up with a victim?) and “What this Mystery is about …” (Nineteen pair of extremely expensive HOSE which help to solve some puzzles). And of course the “List of Exciting Chapters” and “Persons this Mystery is about …”  “Hercule Poirot, that good-natured little Belgian with the remarkable gray cells which haven’t come up with a miss in years, admires the perfect murderer as he does a splendid tiger, but he will not voluntarily step into his cage — unless it is his duty to do so.” (Examples taken from #293, Cards on the Table.)

Prices vary: Christie is always very collectible, and condition is crucial to value. You’ll be able to find most or all of these titles on ABEBooks or even eBay if you’re interested in one of the most collectible Agatha Christie paperbacks you’ll ever see. As Dell progresses through time, the prices decrease and the cover styles change. This is all the Christie titles with numbers lower than #200 — there are more to come in a future post.

Dell #46, The Boomerang Clue (front)

Dell #46, The Boomerang Clue (front)

dell0046back

Dell #46, The Boomerang Clue (map back)

Dell #60, 13 At Dinner (Lord Edgware Dies) (front)

Dell #60, 13 At Dinner (Lord Edgware Dies) (front)

Dell #60, 13 At Dinner (Lord Edgware Dies) (map back)

Dell #60, 13 At Dinner (Lord Edgware Dies) (map back)

Dell #105, Appointment With Death (front)

Dell #105, Appointment With Death (front)

Dell, #105, Appointment With Death (map back)

Dell, #105, Appointment With Death (map back)

Dell #145, Murder in Mesopotamia (front)

Dell #145, Murder in Mesopotamia (front)

Dell #145, Murder in Mesopotamia (map back)

Dell #145, Murder in Mesopotamia (map back)

Dell #172, Sad Cypress (front)

Dell #172, Sad Cypress (front)

Dell #172, Sad Cypress (map back)

Dell #172, Sad Cypress (map back)

Dell #187, N or M? (front)

Dell #187, N or M? (front)

Dell #178, N or M? (map back)

Dell #178, N or M? (map back)

Dell #199, The Secret of Chimneys (front)

Dell #199, The Secret of Chimneys (map back)