An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note on editions

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

 

 

 

Calamity at Harwood, by George Bellairs (1945)

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

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

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

What is this novel about?

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

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

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

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

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Why is this novel worth your time?

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

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

George Bellairs, mystery author

George Bellairs (detail from a dust jacket)

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

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

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

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

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

George Bellairs, Calamity At Harwood, 1945

What do we learn about the social context?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note on editions

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LitRPG and other ludic fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ace50eca80706ae1dff28766a855fa22--brody-reborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Murder in Thebes, by Paul Doherty (1998)

Note: This book was originally published as by “Anna Apostolou”; the author whose work it is has many pseudonyms but is generally known as either Paul Doherty or P. C. Doherty. It is now published as an e-book under Paul Doherty.

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

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I’m never quite sure how to feel about authors with a huge output of published writing. I’ve had bad experiences with Gladys Mitchell just lately — similarly Edgar Wallace, Elizabeth Linington, and John Creasey. Simenon leaves me relatively cold, although his skill is evident. But Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie are always interesting to me. It’s too simplistic to say that if an author produces a huge number of volumes they must automatically be a hasty and poor writer. It does sometimes make me approach a prolific writer with caution, though.

And that’s the frame of mind I brought to the work of Paul Doherty, who has written, by Wikipedia’s last count, more than 100 mysteries; I believe all or nearly all of them can be categorized as “historical”. I read a few of his earliest books back in the 80s, but have forgotten very nearly everything about them; at that point in time I was already surfeited with Ellis Peters’s adventures of Brother Cadfael (yes, you read that right, I’m not a fan; I think they’re ersatz and bland) and didn’t feel I needed more mediaeval hijinks in my life.  When you couple that with the idea that I only occasionally read anything written after I was born, you can understand why I’ve only experienced about 5% of his output, if that.

But then I discovered that, as Anna Apostolou, Doherty had written a couple of mysteries featuring Alexander the Great. Now, I’ve always had a huge interest in Alexander the Great; I’ve read a bunch of books about him, sparked off by the excellent novels of Mary Renault, and will always pick up anything about him, fiction or non-fiction. When I happened across a copy of #2 in the series, A Murder in Thebes, I thought, what the heck? How bad can it be?

I say this because my pessimism for once had no payoff.  I found, to my pleasure, that while this is not a novel for the ages, it’s very competent and smartly done, and Doherty (whom Wikipedia tells me is an expert on Alexander the Great in his own right) has hit most of the right notes along the way.

The story is actually about sister-and-brother Israelite detectives Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus; they are fictitious and the conceit is that they were sent to be educated by Aristotle along with Alexander. Miriam is an intellectual with a “determined mouth” who acts as a kind of … well, let’s say “private eye” for Alexander, who apparently keeps running into locked-room murders unknown to history.  Some other characters are actual historical figures in the correct time and place as we know from history; the events in this novel and most of its characters are imaginary, though.

5176BX692ALI suppose you can’t write 100 mysteries without having, if not a formula, then at least a pattern.  This one was easy to see, and the book is well-constructed.  The A plot is the murder case that involves someone killing Alexander’s officers during the siege of Thebes (and after Alexander takes the city); apparently there’s a spy among them in the pay of Persia, known as the Oracle.  Most of the book is devoted to the identification and unmasking of the spy/murderer and, honestly, since I spotted the central clue pretty much within seconds of its transmission, the problem didn’t occupy my mind much. (I will merely say I’ve owned dogs; I got the right answer for mostly the wrong reasons, so that little clue will mislead you.)

The B plot is involved with “The Iron Crown of Oedipus”, a sacred relic of Thebes in its own shrine with attendant priestesses.  The crown itself is fixed to a post, and the post is surrounded by pits of fire, pits of poisonous snakes, and pits of spears. In fact, it’s an “impossible crime” situation; the chief priestess knows how the crown can be removed (without the use of tools, which are blasphemous and sacrilegious in the context) but nobody else is aware.  When the crown vanishes, just before Alexander needs to wear it publicly to confirm his acquisition of Thebes by Macedon, Miriam has to figure out who took it and how.

The reader will not be surprised by this puzzle either, if s/he ‘s paying attention; there are a couple of very broad hints that seem a little anachronistic and thus obvious even to a reader of limited experience with detective fiction.  I’ll accept that Doherty is a historian and thus I’ll suspend my disbelief about what he says was a common toy among Theban children and Macedonian soldiers. But honestly, it might just as well have had a neon arrow in the text saying, “Big ol’ clue right here.” There was just no reason to include its repetitive mention otherwise.

I actually think the reader is supposed to grasp the central premise of what’s going on; it’s an interesting idea, that the author should build in opportunities to make the reader feel better about his/her intellectual gifts.  After you put two and two together — well, okay, I’d figured out the killer and I’d figured out the puzzle, and I felt very clever for a moment. It’s not an experience I often have with detective fiction, and it would have been very unusual to have it with, say, Christie, Carr, or even Gardner upon my first reading of their works way back when. I suspect I might be able to solve other volumes in this series, and others of Doherty’s many series, without too much strain, and while that seems superficially an attractive prospect it does rather pall when I contemplate the great books which have so cleverly pulled the wool over my eyes and provided me with more pleasure by fooling me.  Your mileage may definitely vary, and I know Doherty has a lot of adherents, so perhaps I’m extrapolating far too much from a single example.

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I’m not sure why Doherty inserted the distancing mechanism of having the central characters as Israelites … for me it doesn’t work as well as merely having a Macedonian do the job. I suspect it has something to do with offering the reader a female character with whom to identify and having her not be, as one might say, overly troubled with sexual activity. Miriam protects children and the innocent and wields great power as a favourite of Alexander, and reacts angrily for the most part when she is sexually harassed.  I just find it hard to accept that a female from what today is called Israel would be in that position; it strains my suspension of disbelief somewhat.

The part that Doherty really has nailed on the head is the character and situation of Alexander. I’ll be blunt and say that I was expecting Alexander to have been de-gayed for the lowest common denominator of reader; not so, and full marks for having Hephaestion described as Alexander’s companion and lover, and kissed once in a while to boot.  Indeed, the everyday socialization of what we would think of today as “kinks” is a part of the narrative, and not in a sniggering or heteronormative way either; it’s part of everyday Macedonian life and this murder too, since many of the male characters have male partners and casual lovers, and cross-dressing is an accepted idea that bears upon the plot without being meretriciously paraded.

Similarly, this is not your average cozy, in the sense that as the book begins, Alexander breaks the siege of Thebes and captures the city, killing many of its inhabitants and enslaving the remainder. We’re not spared the stacks of dead bodies and the terrible smell and floating ash of their funeral pyres; there’s also a rough-and-ready cure for diarrhea offered by Alexander. The punishment for just about everything is death. The characters lead lives, at that everyday level, that seem appropriate for the time and place without any sops to 21st century morality.  (Neither do any characters decry the backwardness of their own existence, thank goodness.)

All things considered, I enjoyed this. It’s a nice easy mystery story based firmly and accurately in historical knowledge — and you don’t “walk out humming the research,” as occasionally happens with other historical mystery writers. The characters are simply drawn and pleasant to contemplate and there is the “impossible crime” aspect, although not much of a one to be honest.

Would I go out and get more of these? I hope to track down the remainder of the Alexander series, certainly, but I would have done that anyway just to see how the rest stack up. I think I’ll spare myself his mediaeval mysteries for the moment; while I’m sure it would be delightful to have a further hundred books to add to my To Be Read list, I just can’t face all that mediaevality (with the disembodied face of Derek Jacobi floating in my mind, exclaiming pompously, “But this is positively mediaeval!”). It is, however, a sharp lesson to me not to be so fast to assume that because a writer is fast, his quality suffers. This is a well-written book with good characterization and an excellent balancing of the plot structure and I’ve read a lot worse — a LOT worse — in the cozy genre.

 

 

 

 

She Had To Have Gas, by Rupert Penny (1939)

SheHadToHaveGas315As I mentioned in my last post, after struggling hard with Gladys Mitchell, I felt I needed something a bit more … structured to read. A few weeks ago a copy of this Rupert Penny novel was on top of a box of books I was moving… and I spent an hour flipping through it refreshing my memory as to its contents.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

More than five years ago I first looked at a Rupert Penny novel here and another one here last year; I’ll just hit the high spots. Rupert Penny used to be one of the most difficult tastes in mystery reading to satisfy. His books were nearly impossible to get and commanded astronomical prices (in the range of US$500 for ANY hardcover). He was only published in flimsy wartime editions, many of which did not last, and his occasional paperback publications similarly came on the market in small editions and then vanished.

As of today, ABE Books has none of the first editions available, and the very rare paperback copies from the 1940s are US$75 to $100. I had a scarce Collins White Circle paperback edition of Sealed Room Murder that I recall brought me $75 some years ago. But then the excellent Ramble House brought all nine of his books back as print-on-demand trade-format paperbacks and the GAD world could finally read its way through Penny’s oeuvre. To the best of my knowledge, She Had To Have Gas was published once in 1939 by Collins Crime Club, and that was it until Ramble House reprinted it. My copy has a curious error; the back cover is a blurb for a different Rupert Penny novel, Cut And Run. But in the way of POD, possibly mine is one of a very few such misprints.

For those of you who have never encountered Rupert Penny’s work — well, his focus is definitely on the “impossible crime” story in the manner of the Humdrum school. In Penny, the puzzle is all, and characterization is not much in evidence. The novels are structured around really difficult puzzles that theoretically are “fair play” , in that Penny asserts that the reader is given all necessary information to make a solution possible.  To that end, I believe all his novels contain the Queenian conceit of the “Challenge to the Reader”; the novel comes to a halt while the author breaks the fourth wall and poses some questions that the reader should be able to answer (but, frankly, is unlikely to be able to).

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

What is this book about?

It is October, 1938 in the small town of Craybourne and we are introduced to Mrs. Agatha Topley, a somewhat meek widow and first-time landlady who is having a problem with her only lodger, a slatternly Londoner named Alice Carter. Miss Carter is behind on her rent and Mrs. Topley needs the money. Alice has introduced her frequent male visitor as her cousin, Mr. Ellis, and Mrs. Topley has written him a note to urge him to mention the matter to Miss Carter. Since she hates to cause a fuss, she hopes this will be sufficient.

When Mrs. Topley returns from a shopping excursion, she immediately loses her temper. Her lodger has apparently taken charge of Mrs. Topley’s cherished radio and moved it into her room, since it’s playing at full blast. Miss Carter’s door is locked and she’s not answering. When Mrs. Topley smells gas, her anger turns to panic. She pushes a chair in front of the door and peeps through the transom window, only to see Miss Carter’s body shrouded in the bedclothes, with a rubber tube disappearing beneath them.

Mrs. Topley immediately runs to get the local policeman and a few minutes later they return to find — the bed is empty and all Miss Carter’s possessions have vanished.

Meanwhile, mystery writer Charles Harrington is puzzled about the seeming disappearance of his niece Philippa and discusses the problem with his friend, the Chief Constable. Philippa has requested a huge sum of money (£5000, which in 2017 terms would equal the purchasing power of roughly US$320,000) and refuses to say why. The Chief Constable enlists the assistance of policemen Tukes and Best (whose girlfriend is Philippa’s maid) and both cases are investigated. Apparently Philippa got romantically entangled with a sleazy actor who has been blackmailing her …

The police quickly follow some clues and make a grisly discovery at the actor’s studio — the body of a young woman missing her head, hands and feet. The body is clad only in undergarments and the wrists and neck are concealed by tennis racquet covers. It’s not clear whether the corpse is that of Philippa or Alice Carter but everyone fears the worst for both girls.

At this point Penny’s series detective Inspector Beale, accompanied by journalist Tony Purdon, becomes involved. Assisted by Tukes and Best, they investigate. You should experience the details of the investigation for yourself, but as noted above, the action stops at page 200 and the author poses three questions. If you can answer them, you’ve solved the case. If not — Inspector Beale explains everything in the final chapter and unmasks the criminal, whose identity should prove to be very surprising to the average reader.

14675Why is this book worth your time?

If you’re an aficionado of the classic puzzle mystery, Rupert Penny is for you; particularly if you prefer your difficult logic problems unencumbered by excessive realism in the characterization department. The plot is not especially original, but Penny learned from the best. This particular volume has elements that reminded me of Freeman Wills Crofts (the minute-by-minute timetable involved in Alice Carter’s disappearance), Ellery Queen (I’ll merely mention the decapitations in The Egyptian Cross Mystery), John Dickson Carr (a certain sexual liberation of one of the female characters that may remind you of The Judas Window) and even, dare I say it, Agatha Christie (an aspect of the solution that I expect will surprise most readers, but I cannot identify which of her titles because I’d give the whole thing away).

Although I’ve suggested that Penny in general prefers to avoid in-depth characterization, this volume has some nice touches. The landlady Mrs. Topley, although offstage for most of the book, is a crucial witness to the events of the first chapter and if you hope to solve this mystery, you’ll have to understand both what she did and why she did it. And for once this is not unfair; her actions and reactions arise organically out of the text and she’s presented in sufficient detail that you won’t feel cheated when you learn what you overlooked.  You may even feel sorry for the widow who can’t bring herself to ask her lodger for the back rent due to an excess of gentility. Inspector Beale and his friend Tony are rather “jolly chums”, chaffing and teasing each other in the manner of public-school boys; you might find them a bit too carefree about the facts of brutal murders, but honestly I found this more believable than if they wrapped themselves in a shroud of gloom.

And there are some amusing asides from the character who is a mystery writer. I always enjoy seeing mystery writers put mystery writers into their books as characters, and here Charles Harrington has a bit to tell us about the business:

“Charles Harrington … had contrived twenty-three such works, and the plot for the twenty-fourth was in course of construction. His sales averaged thirty thousand copies per book, including the United States and editions down to half a crown, and as well there were at least five magazines of repute which would take a short story whenever he cared to offer one, and send him by return a cheque for round about forty guineas. … He had a good car, and servants, and every year he invariably passed one month in Scotland and one on the Continent; and all these things cost money.”

Harrington also supports his niece Philippa to the tune of £20 a month at a time when a young woman could survive on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. He also has what seem to be genuine feelings about his missing niece. I have a feeling that Penny himself was not finding detective fiction so lucrative as his invented character, since he published no short stories and no cheap editions to my knowledge; perhaps this is the same instinct that made Dorothy L. Sayers live vicariously by allowing Lord Peter Wimsey to buy first editions and fancy motorcars with a lavish hand. It’s also mentioned that the sleazy actor twice tried his hand at detective fiction, which invariably piques the interest of the alert reader, but no further details of his efforts are given.

The puzzle at the core of this volume is a very difficult one. One essential element — and I’ll try and describe this without spoiling your potential enjoyment — requires the reader to connect two different viewings of the same physical object and identify a crucial difference. Again hoping not to spoil a different book, this certainly reminded me of John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murder because you need to form a picture in your mind of what you’re seeing and not just accept the description. You’ll probably find yourself at the denouement flipping back to an earlier page and thinking, “Oh, yes, he DID say that about that object, didn’t he? Damn, I missed that.” There’s another crucial aspect that requires one of the detectives to jump to a conclusion and for the murderer to gratefully agree and bolster the erroneous conclusion with some hasty lying, which is tough to spot. I didn’t solve this one, although frankly I rarely do, and if the pleasure of a difficult puzzle like this is of primary importance to you, you’ll enjoy reading this book slowly and carefully.

There are a number of interesting sidelights on social issues that are small but, to me at least, satisfying. Mrs. Topley, for instance, considers the various ways in which “three and six” could make a difference to her everyday life, including funding her contributions to the Christmas Club and getting in a quarter ton of coal before the price goes up. There are details of the grubby undergarments worn by the dismembered corpse that will interest my friend Moira of the excellent blog Clothes in Books (but very little else that will pique her interest, frankly), and quite a bit of background on the ways and means of gas in terms of household heating as well as suicide/murder. (How many minutes does it take to smell gas? You’ll find out.) There’s also an interesting moment or two about the state of the scientific art with respect to blood analysis in 1939.

But make no mistake, this is not a classic for the ages. By virtue of the difficulty of the underlying puzzle, it’s definitely a cut above a time-passer, but there’s a pervasive air of cardboard throughout that allows the characterization to be sufficient to conceal the murderer, if you follow me. The characters do what they’re said to do because the author says so, and not because Penny has troubled to construct them so that they will logically do those things.  Let me merely say that this is a first-rate second-rate mystery.

However, if you’re looking for a really difficult puzzle and don’t require much realism in its presentation — this is definitely a book for you.  Enjoy!

 

 

Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

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

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

Most overrated novel

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

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

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

Most underrated novel

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

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

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

The novel containing the best hook

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

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

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

The novel containing the best murder method

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

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

The novel containing the best motive

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

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

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

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

The novel you should avoid 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Lists are boring!

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

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

Here’s their basis that underlies their Scattergories process:

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

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

Observations about individual books in an author’s oeuvre

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

And then

Observations about how one author’s work compares to another

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

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

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

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