Brief looks at a stack of books

97450_shutterstock_74821612It may well be that I’ve been concealing my reading habits from my friends and blog followers. It’s true that I’m relatively lazy about writing blog posts about books I’ve been reading, at least compared to other bloggers; I’m always astonished that my fellow bloggers can come up with so many interesting things to say every 48 hours or so. And I thank them for it.

51QnFtRcB4LThat doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t been reading. My actual reading rate is at least a book a day, every day, and quite a bit of it in areas that would be of little or no interest to my readers — heritage cookbooks, for instance. I’m currently going through a lot of self-published zombie apocalypse novels, pandemic stories, and others in the EOTWAWKI/SHTF genre; my interest in LitRPG novels is still with me; and I’m reading Gore Vidal‘s novels as I find them. (Julian is excellent.) A couple of months from now, I’ll be on to other things.

Last month I picked up a couple of boxes of paperbacks at an excellent used bookstore a few hours’ drive from my home; I’m still sorting through them looking for things to re-read. Here’s a handful that don’t offer me the opportunity to talk at greater length but I can still recommend or not, as the case may be.

51Hfc0nsaFL._SX281_BO1,204,203,200_Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Queenly Contestant (1967). The last few Perry Mason novels are the most difficult to lay your hands on in paperback, and if you’re interested in courtroom drama they may be the last titles you tick off your list. I buy them when I see them … this one is not all that gripping, and there’s elements of the story that seem to be recycled from ESG’s earlier books. Although, as I’ve noticed before, Gardner always has something to teach us. (This time it’s the apparent tendency of hotel-based cat burglars to strike while the hotel guests are in the bathtub, because nudity inhibits the desire to chase thieves.)

Cody_dupe_2Liza Cody, Dupe (1981). The very interesting Anna Lee is a British private investigator and all six of the books in the series are worth your time; this is the one that got the ball rolling. Anna is tough and yet vulnerable, and she was those things before it became a cliche of the female PI novel. Her debut case involves investigating a fatal car accident that proves to be connected to a ring of Hollywood film pirates. Beautifully written, a terse and intelligent writing style, and an interesting plot. If you like these, seek out Cody’s other series, three outstanding books about security guard (and amateur wrestler)  Eva Wylie.

2101483Sara Woods, Naked Villainy (1987). The final entry in the 48 books chronicling the adventures of British barrister Antony Maitland, this was published two years after the author’s death. I have often complained about the tendency about elderly authors to write lousy books near the end of their careers; this one is not as bad as all that, but there is rather a lack of tension and excitement. (I note that the author was exactly my age when she wrote this, so obviously it’s not senility LOL.) Woods is an engaging writer who focuses on character nearly as much as plot; the books usually contain an extended courtroom scene and that’s clearly the author’s major interest. This particular story is a rather muddled tale of witchcraft rituals in a wine cellar.

PrintKitty Curran and Larissa ZagerisMy Lady’s Choosing (2018). I picked up this e-book because it was such a peculiar idea; it’s a “Choose your own adventure” type of interactive novel, but with the storyline of a Regency romance. A distinctly modern Regency romance, frankly, because the heroine seems to spend a lot of time moaning with pleasure as the baronet presses his straining manhood against her crinoline, or something. The joke rather palls after a few minutes, I found, but then I don’t read Regency romances at all. This may be gentle mockery or bitter send-up, I can’t be sure.

35881952Ellery Adams, Murder in the Locked Library (2018). Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this one. Adams is by all accounts an extremely popular writer, at the level of the New York Times bestseller list; I’m willing to believe she writes something that the public wants to read. But this is way beyond the slight suspension of belief I associate with the modern cupcake cozy. This is out-and-out fantasy. There’s a mysterious semi-rural hotel that’s like a castle and spa designed to attract bibliophiles; a secret society that’s protected the hotel’s secrets for centuries; and every other aspect of a woman’s fantasy that you might expect, including wonderful gourmet food, a castle filled with dedicated servants, a village filled with charming shopkeepers and handsome attentive single males, and the protagonist’s delightful twin teenage boys. It’s actually leading me to think that there might be something going on within the cupcake cozy after all — this is on the level of the literary school of magical realism. So this is either really, really good or really, really bad. I do know that it’s not meant to appeal to me in the slightest since there is almost no logic or rigour to what’s going on here. The mystery plot is nonsensical and mercifully brief; almost there merely to serve as a carrier wave for lots of bumph about banquets and personal relationships and the love of books. I can’t say I think most of my readers will enjoy this; I certainly didn’t. If you happen to have enjoyed this, please feel free to comment below and tell me what I have apparently missed.

UnknownAnthony Berkeley, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927). Amateur sleuth and well-known silly ass Roger Sheringham travels to Hampshire on behalf of the Daily Courier to investigate what looks like the accidental death of Mrs. Vane. Roger’s cousin Anthony follows along and promptly falls in love with the principal suspect; Inspector Moresby keeps his nose to the grindstone and solves the case. Berkeley is famous for his revisionist takes on the Golden Age traditions of the traditional puzzle mystery; this is yet another one of his exercises about the “most likely suspect” being the “least likely suspect” and therefore the “most likely suspect”. I love Berkeley in general for his brilliance, and his sense of intellectual humour, but some of his books are more for the scholar than the reader; this one is Berkeley arching his eyebrow at some mystery cliches and coming up with a surprise ending that you didn’t expect. Here’s the final lines of the book, which sums it up for me: [Inspector Moresby saying to Roger Sheringham] “Do you know what’s the matter with you, sir?” he said kindly. “You’ve been reading too many of those detective stories.” So, apparently, had Berkeley.

the-last-equation-of-isaac-severy-9781501175121_hrNova Jacobs, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy (2018). The subtitle is “A Novel in Clues” and I think that’s the signal that this is some sort of merging of the traditional detective novel with … I’m not sure. Post-modernism? Some sort of highfalutin’ literary movement with which I’m not familiar. It’s as though Raymond Chandler had been asked to write a story about a group of advanced theoretical mathematicians and physicists but not been given all the facts until too late. An elderly scientist dies and members of his family hunt for his final equation; the search takes them to many strange locations, including within themselves, I think. I really did want to find out what happened and persevered, but I’m not sure the ending was worth the effort. None of this could really have happened, which brings me back to the same idea of magical realism.

9780008280260.jpgJ. V. Turner, Below the Clock (1936); the edition shown contains an informative and useful introduction by David Brawn (whose acumen gets more impressive each time I encounter it). Before I say anything about this novel, I learned from the introduction that Turner also wrote as David Hume, and was as such the king of the British hardboiled thriller for decades; all of a sudden, much more interesting. Here, solicitor-detective Amos Petrie takes on a case of murder within the British House of Commons, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer is poisoned with the exotic substance strophanthin. You don’t need to know much more than that — a traditional detective story populated with men in high places who are not as honest as they should be. There’s a fine ending where the murderer poisons himself on the floor of the House rather than be arrested. All in all this is a rather antiquely-flavoured mystery but it’s logical and smart, with a fascinating background and somewhat exciting plot. Well done, David Brawn and the Detective Story Club at Collins, for unearthing this from obscurity and bringing it back for our enjoyment.

pile-of-booksI find to my surprise that I have recently acquired enough books by Michael Gilbert as both e-books and paperbacks to devote an entire post to this excellent writer, even in this brief format, and so I’ll save that pleasure for a later time. The more I read of Gilbert the more I come to think that he rarely, if ever, put his literary foot wrong; I’ve enjoyed everything of his large output that I’ve read, and I hope to recommend some of the better ones to you.




It’s all my fellow bloggers’ fault: three lazy reviews

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

It’s been a little while since I’ve been a very regular blogger, I’m sorry to say, and I’m going to take the liberty of blaming some of my recent laziness on the excellence of my fellow bloggers. Allow me to explain. Three times in the last few weeks, I’ve thought, “Oh, that particular piece would make a good blog post, because reasons.” Two books and an old mystery movie, to be precise. So I take the work and go through it a couple of more times, looking for themes, something unusual about this particular item, etc. And then I go and look on the internet and, darn it, someone by whose intelligence I have been impressed in the past has already taken the same item apart and explained it much better than I would have done, and — and this is the killing part — in fewer than a third the words it would have taken me to do it. How galling. 😉

So may I recommend you to a couple of other reviews?

The Six Iron Spiders, Phoebe Atwood TaylorThe Six Iron Spiders, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (she liked to sign herself PAT) from 1942, was well covered by the excellent (and enviably prolific!) Kate Jackson here, in her blog crossexaminingcrime in 2016. Kate notes the idea right off the bat that also made me think the book was interesting; that the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot as well as of the setting in this story.

WW2 First aid courseAsey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”, is involved with a murder that happens in his own home at a meeting of volunteer first aid attendants being instructed in advanced techniques by Asey’s cousin Jennie. The story proceeds at PAT’s characteristic high-speed pace, with bodies that disappear and reappear and people running in all directions at high speed. The difference here is that everyone speaks through the shared lens of The War at its everyday level for the American populace. Thus high-speed chases are discouraged because tires for one’s personal vehicle are impossible to obtain, and people are constantly doing war-related things like spotting — sitting in a dark place looking for enemy aircraft/submarines — or studying first aid, or doing a kind of orienteering, where everyone agrees to meet in 90 minutes at an encoded location on a list everyone should have memorized.

As Asey remarks to himself near the end of the book,

“… it would be hard to plan a murder, and harder to commit one after you’d planned it. You couldn’t ever quite tell where your victim might be, what he might be doing, or how many other people might be watching you from a spotter’s station, or how many people might suddenly fly to the scene on a problem of one sort or another.”

Given the type of plotting that PAT is famous for, no wonder; the more confusion with people running around on secret business, the better. So that was the main point of interest for both of us. I must agree with Kate’s dislike of PAT’s less than charming observations about women in slacks; I can only add in PAT’s defence that generally she was more tolerant of difference than many of her contemporaries, and actually seemed to me to champion a specific kind of ultra-competent womanhood. There are many examples of highly competent women in PAT’s novels, Jennie Mayo herself being a prime example.

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

And to answer the question shared by everyone who cannot see the cover art for most editions: “iron spiders” in this case are a Cape Coddy way of referring to cast-iron frying pans. The spider appears to me to have a longer handle and a deeper bottom than similar skillets.

Atomic Renaissance, by Jeffrey MarksIf you want more information about Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this most fascinating writer of fast-moving wholesome Americana, the only reference book worth your time is by a friend of mine, Jeff Marks.  Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s is the only volume to give you the background on this madcap writer. I will forgive Jeff that his blog, The Corpse Steps Out, doesn’t get enough attention because I know that his biographies of mystery writers always take a long time to research and are just fascinating when they get to us … write faster, Jeff!

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931


Next I was going to have a look at an old film from my archives, Murder by the Clock from 1931, based on two works by mystery writer Rufus King. “Oh, good,” I thought idly, “there’s a book AND a movie that I can talk about, and Inspector Valcour deserves some attention.” Cliff Aliperti at his blog Immortal Ephemera, to my horror, had more to say about the movie in his excellent piece found here than I would have done, and — oh, the shame — at even greater length, because he knew about many

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

Murder by the Clock, by Rufus King (Popular Library #31 from 1944)

filmic things I’d never heard of. Then when I found that my superbly well-read friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books had in 2012 done an in-depth look at the book … found here … my review was mentally being wadded into a ball and tossed away. Why bother, when these guys totally get it already? John’s assessment that this book is more like Ross MacDonald than any of King’s contemporaries is just brilliantly insightful, and I like King’s playful way with language just as much as he does. One tiny correction to a comment in John’s column; the William Boyd who plays the lead here is not the same William Boyd as became Hopalong Cassidy. The lead actor here called himself William “Stage” Boyd to distinguish himself from the man who later became Hoppy, and nearly ruined Hoppy’s film career by being involved in a scandal.  Fascinating stuff.  But the two actors had the same name, which made it very confusing.

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

Anyway, the movie has a creepy element injected into it that has nothing to do with the book of the same name, that I understand is taken from a stage play of Rufus King’s. An elderly woman is terrified of premature burial and has had an elaborate system installed  that sounds a booming horn outside the family mausoleum, if she should wake up in her coffin. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, right? The horn, as you may well expect, goes off at least once during the movie and if you’ve been following along, it will make you jump when it booms. The really amazing thing about this movie, though, is the performance of Lilyan Tashman playing, apparently, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Tashman takes the ball from Theda Bara and runs with it. She is the Vamp ne plus ultra and can apparently rule every heterosexual male in sight with just a whiff of her perfume. Valcourt is made of stronger stuff, though — although the fact that Rufus King was gay may have something to do with his resistance. Lilyan Tashman is a fascinating figure who died only a few years later at age 33, probably from breast cancer, leaving only a handful of fascinating performances by which to judge her. Here, she’s really something. The movie is definitely worth a look for her alone, since the mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long. As of today, you can find it here on YouTube.

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

After being outdone twice, I thought I’d have a look at something by a favourite author of mine, Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (1933). (Published in the US as Dead Mrs. Stratton.) This time I looked first to save myself some time — sure enough, Kate had looked at this book six months ago. Karyn Reeves, at A Penguin a week, also had a look at this one some years back. Both bloggers have insight into what’s going on here and have given us interesting assessments; not much more for me to add. I’m going to have to start unearthing books that are far more scarce!

I agree with Kate Jackson that this is a kind of variation on The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in that Berkeley’s plot makes it clear that the truth about what happened to the completely obnoxious Mrs. Ena Stratton is entirely a function of who happens to be telling the story of her death. The story begins by … well, sort of telling you who commits the murder, but anyone familiar with Berkeley’s over-the-top cleverness knows that it can’t end there. Ena is constantly threatening to kill herself, as one of a vast range of attention-getting stratagems that have infuriated everyone around her, and when she is found hanged after a bizarre party, no one is surprised. Berkeley’s detective, the Silly Ass Roger Sheringham, traces the peculiar course of a chair upon which Mrs. Stratton did or did not stand, as various characters report having moved it here, there, and everywhere around the roof upon which her body is found. It seems as though everyone lies to the police at every opportunity and Sheringham is the only detective in a position to find out what really went on. Again, the experienced Berkeleyite will know that there is always one final twist at the end of the tale, and so it is here. I think you will be ultimately surprised when you learn who did what to Ena Stratton, and when; the final pages hold the final punch.

“Jumping Jenny” is a colloquial back-formation from Robert Louis Stevenson for a hanged woman, which practice thankfully died out some time in the 20th century nearly everywhere on earth. Its male equivalent is the “jumping jack”, the phrase Stevenson used; to my knowledge the exercises that one does in calisthenics classes are named after the jerks and spasms of a person who’s just been hanged. Perhaps your instructor will switch to more strenuous pushups, as mine did when I mentioned this cheerful fact. I need to learn to keep things to myself sometimes. 😉

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping Sphinx, by John Dickson Carr (Bantam #996)

The reason I mention the bizarre nature of the party is that it has an echo in another great mystery by a great writer. Here, as in John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), there is a party at which people dress up as “a well-known murderer or his victim.” In Carr’s book, this is two days before Christmas (!). Okay, who has parties like this?

Sheringham notes that the host is a writer of detective stories and that the idea of the party

“… exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well-known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original …”

This seems to me to be saying that at some point in the past someone had given such a party, and not in a fictional sense either. My online searches revealed nothing about who might have done so, but either Carr and Berkeley are referring to the same thing or else Carr is referring to Berkeley, which is likely — the idea has a certain Grand Guignolerie about it that would appeal to Carr. My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death”, a novella by Rex Stout, this newspaper insert edition from 1943

I know from an old Nero Wolfe story, “Cordially Invited To Meet Death”, that there was such a profession as “party-arranger” that encompassed activities like that. Bess Huddleston, in the story, arranges “the Striker dwarf and giant party”, among other such extravaganzas (including an abortive attempt to hire Wolfe to attend a party and solve an imaginary crime). But enticing people to dress up like murderers or victims to have a party is just beyond me. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I hope the Carr/Berkeley reference to such a party is merely a detective writer’s way of establishing mood and not a kind of party that actually existed.

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for “chicken à la Toulousaine”. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.


I think the lesson is clear that I will have to look further into the recesses of Noah’s Archives to find things about which my fellow bloggers haven’t already spoken. Well, consider me as doing the literary equivalent of spitting on my hands … But it is a pleasure to recommend good work by other bloggers too. Now that I have managed to master the intricacies of the linking function at the top left of this page, I can recommend entire blogs to your attention where I merely cited individual articles before. Go through the three dozen links there and see where your fancy leads you!





Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, by S.S. Van Dine (1928): Some thoughts

In the last couple of days I’ve been following a discussion in my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection (you can find it here, although you may have to join the group to see anything). As you’ve probably already guessed, group members were discussing Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, an article from the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.  

Although I’ll quote extensively from this article, you can find a copy of it here and I recommend the full article to your attention.  The rest of this piece will assume that you have indeed gone and read it.

why-men-drinkIn the process of considering the various arguments, I realized that although I’d certainly read Van Dine’s 20 Rules, it had been so many years that I’d forgotten the article entirely. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at it and share the results here.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, in an introductory paragraph before he approaches the rules themselves, Van Dine outlines what he’s trying to do. And there are two things that are fairly crucial here. One is that he’s talking specifically about the “detective story” and the other is, as he says in the opening sentence, that “The detective story is a game.” In fact, he compares it to my favourite game, bridge.

Gaudy_nightNow, I’ll just ask you to agree with me that “detective story” has a very particular meaning, and it’s differentiated from other similar concepts like “crime story”, “spy story”, etc. First, a detective story must, ipso facto, contain a detective. I think you’ll agree that there must be a crime within the story that is investigated (“detected”) by that detective, and by and large that crime is murder. For the most part that crime is solved in the course of the story by the detective, and the criminal is brought to justice. This all seems very simple and straightforward, but I’ve learned in the past that when you’re dealing with slippery ideas it’s best to define your terms. Certainly there are detective stories not concerned with murder (Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) and occasionally a criminal gets away or “cheats the hangman” by committing suicide, etc. But for most detective stories, there’s a detective and a murder and a solution and a criminal.

e837293de9a79e7c468db088cea80a1a--cluedo-table-plansWhether or not detective stories are a “game” is something that I’ve seen discussed, and participated in discussing, practically to the point of screaming when the topic arises. So I will merely say that many, many people consider detective stories to have the nature of a game, a kind of battle of wits; but I don’t believe the definition of “detective story” should be restricted in this way, so as to entirely outlaw non-ludic approaches.

What follows purports to be “laws” governing the creation of a detective story. When I started looking at these 20 rules of Van Dine’s, I thought “Hmm, some of these aren’t rules.” And indeed, some of them aren’t. Quite a bit of the content of Van Dine’s article is two other things: (1) material that will enable you to discern if something is a detective story or not, and (2) material that lets you know which elements of detective stories Van Dine doesn’t like, or thinks are overdone.

Here’s a transcription of my notes as I read through the 20 Rules. You might want to open a copy of Van Dine’s original article in another window and follow along.

  1. Mostly correct, although it assumes that detective stories contain detectives, mysteries, and clues. I’d suggest the reader must have AN opportunity to solve the mystery before the detective announces the solution and should be in possession of all necessary information; deductions are another matter entirely.
  2. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect it has to do with mysteries that feature an unreliable narrator, like at least one Agatha Christie novel that I bet all my readers are muttering the name of at this point. Whatever Van Dine means, I’m not sure I care to bar anything from the detective story, and I like stories with an unreliable narrator.
  3. 51Cil1Cm-yLJust plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. If the A plot is a murder mystery, the B plot can be anything the author desires, and I think Patricia Wentworth demonstrates that romance works quite well.
  4. Ditto, although Rule 1 applies.
  5. Mostly correct, although Trent’s Last Case is an example of where this premise can fail. There’s an entire school of humorous detective story writers that would disagree also.
  6. Agreed, at least with the first sentence. The rest is either obvious or a statement of the kind of book Van Dine likes to read.
  7. I agree there usually should be a murder, although I offer Gaudy Night again. I am pleased to see Van Dine note that Americans (remember, this was published in The American Magazine) wish to bring the perpetrator to justice. The quote is from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet and might be rephrased as “Murder is always horrible.” I think personally a lot of mystery writers and detective story writers tend to forget that murder is horrible, and I’d like us all to remember that; we’re a bit desensitized these days by television programmes that are thinly disguised torture porn.
  8. HangmanI completely agree, although I have no issue with stories that raise the spectre of supernatural activities as long as they are debunked completely by the end. Vide John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot.
  9. Just plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. He assumes that his way of telling the story is the only way. I believe, however, that it’s a tenet of good fiction writing in a general sense that there should be a single protagonist, or a single individual with whom the reader identifies. So this is a generalized quality of good writing and not merely of good detective stories. For the rest of it — I give you The Moonstone, with its multiple narrators.
  10. Absolutely correct, although “in whom he takes an interest” might be overstating the case.  John Dickson Carr, in The Grandest Game in the World, put it as “any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.” I also disagree with that stricture; I wrote about it three years ago in a review of New Graves at Great Norne by Henry Wade. See also Rule 11.
  11. 1682156-inline-inline-2-a-real-life-butler-weighs-in-on-downton-abbeyWrong, wrong, wrong; merely Van Dine’s personal dislike, and snobby and elitist to boot. If Rule 10 is correct, Van Dine is saying here that servants cannot play a prominent part in the story; the way this reads, Van Dine thinks servants or menials are not “worthwhile” and capable of offering a spirited chase to the detective (or, perhaps, that they don’t have thoughts worth sharing). That’s a statement of his ideas about social class, but it should have nothing to do with detective stories.
  12. 95dec7a7d8f170fa5f4024758664a26fPossibly correct, in terms of guiding the “indignation of the reader,” but why bother making this rule? Half of the output of Freeman Wills Crofts disproves it, to name but one author.
  13. Correct; what Van Dine is saying here is that detective fiction is neither adventure fiction nor secret-service romance. It’s just a definitional issue. I gather he doesn’t care for those sub-genres.
  14. Correct, with the same stricture as I applied to Rule 8.
  15. I agree with at least the first sentence, although I think that the number of people who actually solve Golden Age mysteries before reading the final chapter is much, much smaller than Van Dine seems to think. The last sentence of this goes way beyond the evidence he’s offering and although it seems reasonable, I’d like to sit down and argue this out with a couple of well-read friends. Yes, there are readers who spurn the “popular” novel but read detective stories. But to assert that this is because of the possibility that the reader can possibly solve the mystery before the fictional detective is far, far too all-encompassing a statement to suit me. Frankly, I think it’s far more likely that they — we — read Golden Age detective stories because they eschew emotional content and we prefer that kind of emotion-free story. It may be a bug and not a feature.
  16. UnknownIt’s certainly true that Van Dine wrote his own books as if he agreed with this extraordinary statement; they mostly lack atmosphere and description (although Benson turns on subtly worked-out character analysis and Bishop and Dragon rely on creepy atmosphere for part of their charms). It rather makes me sad to think that he thought so little of the intelligence of readers and/or the writing abilities of his fellow writers that he thought it impossible to write a book with descriptive passages, character analyses, and atmosphere that would still perform all the functions of a detective story. Instead he prefers to pigeonhole detective stories and make them equivalent to a “ball game or … a cross-word puzzle”. I really dislike this idea; I want more. In fact I want as much atmosphere and description and characterization as I can get, along with the mystery, and I feel that many writers who wrote after Van Dine give it to me.
    My understanding is that many Golden Age detective story writers felt that in-depth characterization was inappropriate because it gave the reader a way of bypassing the correct “game” structure and instead allowed them to pick the murderer by his/her psychological profile — or, simply put, that the murderer was the person whose character the author most wanted you to understand. Well, as Van Dine himself notes, there are people who get their “answer out of the back of the arithmetic” and whether or not detective stories are a game, they’re not playing properly.  Too bad, but let’s not cater to that lowest common denominator.
  17. Just plain wrong (had he not read the Father Brown stories featuring Flambeau?) and I suppose a personal prejudice. There’s at least one novel by Anthony Berkeley that turns this on its head.
  18. 37dec98c957979fa20eadf6394380fc2Although I agree for the most part, I can think of at least one Sherlock Holmes story that disproves this idea conclusively and, frankly, there’s no reason for it to be a “rule”. If Van Dine is playing a game, and if the logical chain of events leads to accident or suicide and is fairly before the reader, how can this be wrong?
  19. Again, this is Van Dine distinguishing between detective stories and secret-service tales and war stories. The part that interests me is the two final sentences here; I think the emphasis on gemütlichkeit is misplaced, given Rule 7’s emphasis on the horror of murder. The last sentence is quite astonishing and I’m not sure I quite understand what Van Dine was getting at. If there are readers who have everyday experience with puzzle mysteries, I think I’m happy not to be one of them. And as an outlet for “repressed desires and emotions”? I think anyone who uses detective stories as that kind of outlet needs psychiatric help. Is he suggesting that people read detective stories because they want to commit crimes in their everyday life — or even solve them? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood; no doubt my readers will lead me to the light in their comments.
  20. imagesI must note right off the bat that Van Dine threw this in to make the numbers up to 20 Rules; he says so. That being said, this is nothing more than a list of ten things that Van Dine thinks are out of style. and in no sense a “rule”. It amused me to consider that (a) is so different in 2018 that, if you did manage to find a cigarette butt on the scene of a crime, not even considering DNA evidence from saliva, there are so few people who actually smoke these days that your criminal would stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure what (g) is referring to. For the remainder of these I can actually think of at least one specific story to which Van Dine would object; one is Poe’s Thou Art The Man. I’ll leave that exercise for the reader, for fear of spoilers.

I’m not sure if this next suggestion will strike fear into the hearts of my readers, or perhaps make them guffaw at how far out of my depth I am, or perhaps merely raise a dubious eyebrow, but I’m now working on my own set of rules, as yet undetermined as to number. I hope to bring that to you in the very near future.  Your suggestions are welcome.



The Dartmoor Enigma, by Sir Basil Thomson (1935)

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

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

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

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

What is this book about?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sir Basil Thomson

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

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


Sir Basil Thomson

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

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

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

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



Death at Dyke’s Corner, by E. C. R. Lorac (1940)

UnknownWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book,although the identity of the murderer and other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

11831756_10207661356081152_1492410585426506123_nWhat’s this book about?

Medical student Steven Langston and barrister Roland Straynge are driving through an exceptionally rainy night, returning to London after a Hunt Ball. When they are navigating a double hairpin turn, they are blinded by the lights of an oncoming lorry as they realize there is a motionless car immediately ahead that is standing in the worst possible place for it to be. With the help of exceptionally good driving by all concerned, the unavoidable crash is not very serious; Langston and Straynge and the lorry driver escape shaken but uninjured, but soon find a dead man at the wheel of the wrecked Daimler. Except that the late Morton Conyers was dead before the crash, and appears to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation.

The late Mr. Conyers is the principal of a very successful company called John Home & Co. — and it will save the modern reader time and effort to think of this company as equivalent to Walmart. When John Home sets up shop in a village, it sells everything and anything, and drives most local merchants out of business. Thus Conyers himself is the object of great hatred among the small businesspeople of the villages into which his company expands. The personal life of the deceased is also tumultuous; his elegant and long-suffering wife has managed to keep quiet about her husband’s many sexual infidelities among women of the lower classes, but her son Lewis has harboured a burning resentment for many years. When they learn of the death, there is a brief but  unusually frank exchange between mother and son. Lewis learns almost immediately that his late father’s valet, the ferret-like Strake, has been eavesdropping when Strake makes a crude attempt to blackmail Lewis; Lewis strikes him to the ground in fury and puts him in the hospital. The Conyers’ chauffeur is also resentful of his late employer and had recently given his notice; suspicion also falls on him since it seems as though the Daimler had been tampered with in order to generate a fatal dose of carbon monoxide.

1911_Daimler_Landaulette_crashedInspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called in and immediately begins to investigate not only the family but the economics of the local market town of Strode. From the local squire, Colonel Merryl (and his beautiful daughter Anne) they learn of the social context in which the Conyers family operates. Local opinion of Mr. Conyers is that he was an upstart tradesman and a dirty dog who would not be admitted to the social circles of the upper classes, despite his great wealth; most people felt a little sorry for the innocent Mrs. Conyers and her son, whom Anne describes as “a nicely behaved young man with a pleasant voice and an inferiority complex”), but they were regrettably tarred with the same brush as the father.

Opinions in the village are equally strong since it has been learned that Conyers planned to open a branch of John Home in the village. Macdonald interviews the local chemist, the butcher, and other smallholders in the ancient village; since it seems likely they were about to be driven out of business, they were of course resentful and angry. Opposition seems to be led by a nasty local moneylender, Shenton, who boasts that he has managed to acquire property such that Conyers’s plans to open in the Market Square would be frustrated; Shenton wants to keep many of the local businessmen under his extortionate thumb as he always has. But was Conyers out driving the evening of his death to make a secret cash deal with someone for a key piece of property? Some local businessmen were apparently resigned to progress … many were not. And none of the villagers were prepared to put up with Conyers’s buying of the favours of foolish young local women with presents of expensive jewelry.

Lacock_01As the investigation progresses, Macdonald realizes that local opinion is that Lewis Conyers murdered his father, but Lewis appears to have an alibi of sorts. Apparently he worships Anne Merryl from afar and, the night of the accident, was mooning about hoping to have a brief word with her at the Hunt Ball (from which the first-chapter drivers were returning, and at which Lewis would not have been welcome). The villagers, however, seem to think that the police are stalling on arresting Lewis, whom they believe is obviously guilty. Emotions in the village begin to run high and Lewis Conyers is attacked by an unknown party and seriously injured.

bourton5Macdonald has now got a pretty good idea of who committed the murder, based on some perceptive observations of tiny physical clues that will probably have escaped the reader. But emotions are running high and many of the villagers now seem to think the unpleasant Shenton is the guilty party. When one village suspect attempts to commit suicide, possibly prompted by Shenton’s apparent impersonation of a police officer, things come to a head. Shenton is taken into custody and is later released, swearing revenge upon the police; the villagers are agog and a little group of vigilantes goes to Shenton’s house to carry out some impromptu investigations in a threatening manner. But Shenton has a store of petrol that gets ignited. One of the little group of villagers dies horribly in the burning building and the fire threatens to spread to the entire village; all the villagers are running around madly rescuing their relations and their possessions. Meanwhile Macdonald is told that Shenton has escaped the fire and the police officer begins to track him through the village; there is an exceptionally tense finish as the two men are locked in a tiny room at the back of a shop as the fire races through the village. But Macdonald breaks free and arrests the murderer, whose identity will probably be a complete surprise to the reader. In the final chapter everything is explained to the local police and the Justice of the Peace — and of course the reader.

6129Why is this worth reading?

I’m starting to think that E. C. R. Lorac, aka Carol Carnac (pseudonyms for Edith Caroline Rivett, about whose personal life not much is known, and to whom I’ll refer here as ECR) is the Golden Age mystery writer who has been most unjustly neglected by the passage of time (although John Rhode/Miles Burton is a close second). Other writers have a few of their novels that have survived the years, and get the occasional reprint. For instance, one or two of Anthony Berkeley‘s tours de force like The Poisoned Chocolates Case continue to remain in print, and when a reader discovers this great book, s/he has a hint that tracking down other Berkeley titles will be worthwhile.

But ECR’s work suffers from two problems; one is that every single volume of her more than 70 titles is scarce, and thus difficult and expensive to obtain (barring a few very late works of no great excellence that you may find occasionally in a secondhand book store), and the other is that there is no single work that stands out and that has been cherished by critics as her finest work. They’re all good, but none of them seems to be great. (I like to call an author like this a first-rate second-rate writer. Not famous, but a really satisfying writer of good books.) ECR’s scarcity and relative obscurity has resulted in many aficionados of the Golden Age of Detection missing out on some very fine mysteries, and I for one would love to see that change. In the meantime, every copy available is frequently snapped up by a collector who cherishes it. And some are so rare that it is speculated that fewer than ten copies exist.

019This particular volume is satisfying and delightful, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a damn good mystery. The solution is intelligent and surprising and you will have the uncommon experience at the end of thinking, “Oh, I should have seen THAT!” ECR does an excellent job of balancing at least two major plot trails, those of the victim’s family and those of his economic victims. It’s rare that a reader enters Act III of a typical mystery without having eliminated at least one major plot trail — here, everything is in play.  Unless you are paying an exceptional amount of attention, you will be fooled; I freely confess I was, and I enjoyed that experience.

The characterization is excellent. Other volumes of ECR I’ve read tend to focus on the upper classes and merely sketch in the “servants and villagers” who provide information to the plot but nothing really important to the novel. Here, we’re dealing with real people. The shopkeepers are quirky and realistic. ECR has done a good job here on making morally unsound characters like the valet and the moneylender three-dimensional and not merely cardboard characters who kick the occasional puppy to demonstrate their complete wickedness.

The flow of this novel is first-rate. ECR’s works occasionally suffer from their slow deliberate pace (as I noticed in my look at another ECR volume, Still Waters, where virtually nothing actually happens in the action of the novel). This volume starts with excitement, lets you get interested in the victim’s family issues, then switches to the larger viewpoint of the village resisting change and starts to build a double line of tension. And I suspect few ECR stories build to such an exciting climax as a manhunt through a burning village that finishes up in the near-death of the detective and the principal suspect and then a final surprise twist in the ending. This novel is really well constructed and built.

The writing, as usual, is excellent. ECR has a good touch with dialogue that displays character; people speak in the way that reveals who they are, but it feels more natural than cliched. And the author’s love of the countryside is apparent here. There are no long rambles through farmland and countryside, as sometimes happens in her novels to slow things down for a moment while she gives you the feel of the land; this is because, as seems to be a bit unusual for ECR, nobody in this book is motivated by their love of the land and thus there is no occasion for anyone to get all lyrical about it. But there’s enough here that we can see the little maze of twisted streets and Tudor-era shops and outbuildings that make up this so-typical ancient village — and we understand what’s going on when Macdonald is racing through its streets and alleys after his suspect.

I have to say that the part I most enjoyed here, though, was what I think of as social context. That’s one of the reasons that Golden Age mysteries are so interesting to me — the chance to find out about a way of life that was commonplace not too many years before I was born, but has its bases and mores rooted in systems of social class and interaction that are completely foreign to the modern day. It is not often done as well here as ECR provides, mostly because many Golden Age writers are standing in a position of agreeing, pretty much, with the upper classes. In this volume we find out how people feel about the potential destruction of the traditional village way of life by the encroachment of modern methods of trade and commerce. This means that the villagers will have access to stylish clothing and a wider range of food and entertainment, to the great dismay of the upper classes who think such things are vulgar and unsuitable for their inferiors. They will also be able to have jobs working in stores rather than being destined for domestic service and work on the land.

The thing that I thought was really delightful about this book’s approach to the social context was made plain by the squire’s daughter, Anne Merryl. When her father begins to whinge about how vulgar and unsuitable it is that the village will be “spoiled” by the economic development inherent in the building of a John Home store in the village, she refutes him. She speaks of her desire to do something useful and earn money by perhaps working at the store as a beauty consultant or a fashion advisor — to the horror of her parents. But she compounds that horror. When her parents remonstrate with her for buying a delicious cake from a not-too-distant John Home store, since it takes business away from local tradespeople, she faces up to them. “If our own tradespeople would sell cakes like this, I wouldn’t go to John Home’s. In Laing’s Baker in Strand you can buy three cakes. One is rich fruit. Awful. One is seed cake. Awfuller. One is Maderia. [sic] Awfullest. Then there are little sponge cakes with pink, green or white icing. I’ve eaten them since I was three.  I never want to see them again.” Her parents remind her that the local tradespeople will be squeezed out — “decent folk with a tradition all their own, all pushed out to make room for John Home”. Anne angrily reminds them of the improved social conditions for staff in the John Home stores as opposed to being bullied by the local tradespeople in the old-fashioned way, and speaks forcefully about “Manton the butcher — another horror. Look at his shop in summer. Flies all over the meat and no cold storage.” Another character remarks about “The small trader, owning his own shop, was a monopolist, and he has underpaid his employees and exploited the necessities of the country folk who had to buy their goods at his shop or go without. Independence has often been used as a cloak to inefficiency, and unwillingness to oblige, and economic unsoundness.”

Now, this is something you just don’t see in many works of Golden Age detective fiction. Bucolic “Mrs. Bumble who runs the village shop” is generally portrayed as merely the centre of gossip and the occasional bit of background information about potential suspects — but the unspoken assumption is generally that her store has everything the locals need at fair prices. (Think about why Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel needs to travel to London to visit the Army and Navy Stores.) ECR has put her finger on the oncoming wave of progress that will shortly sweep away this antiquated lifestyle, but the really interesting part to me is that ECR is saying the villagers themselves knew it was coming and didn’t know how to deal with it. There’s a recent thriller by the excellent John Sandford (Shock Wave) that addresses the same issues, when a thinly disguised version of Walmart is moving into a small Minnesota town, and honestly, there’s not much difference between the two sets of reactions. But many Golden Age mysteries merely sketch in this issue by having the local squire bemoan the advent of progress, or Lady Poobah remark that it’s SO hard to get housemaids these days. ECR gives us both sides of the coin and it’s both fascinating and surprising.  It’s also rather sobering to think that when the village burns down at the end, it will merely make it more likely that John Home will clear the burned sites and build a modern store immediately.

To sum up — good writing, good plotting, great social context, interesting characterization, and a clever and difficult mystery. They don’t write ’em like that any more, and for the life of me I can’t think of why we can’t get our hands on these.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada nn#30 — this is “unnumbered #30” from the first year of this company’s publications, 1942. Another way of describing this, based on internal evidence bound into the book, is “C1”. (I can’t confirm this because my copy is, paradoxically, too tight to show this identifier. But I accept this assertion because it’s shared by a number of knowledgeable individuals.) An experienced dealer in Collins White Circle Canada cites it as “Very rare” and suggests that 20 to 50 copies are estimated to still exist. My copy (not the one depicted here), in reasonable condition (VG) with a good binding, is missing a small piece of the spine at the bottom (essentially the word “Lorac”). I think it might bring $60 to $70 at auction but, believe me, it’s not leaving my hands; it’s irreplaceable. This is the only paperback edition (no, it’s not, see below); as of today, there are no copies of the first edition available on AbeBooks. Similar first editions are trading at a base level of $500 US! So this is my favourite edition mostly because it’s the only one I’ve ever seen or I’m ever likely to see.

(Later the same day as this review was published, I learned that there is a Crime Club paperback of this novel; it’s still scarce, just not AS scarce as I’d thought. My thanks to my Facebook friend and fellow GAD aficionado Louise Davis who generously provided the information and a photograph of a book from her collection — second picture from the top.)

Quick Look: The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)

The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)


Collins White Circle (Canada) #87, first paper, 1944

What’s this book about?

Mr. Justice Unwin is summing up a great deal of evidence at the trial of Peter Gaskell for the murder of Walter Drage. In an extended flashback, he sums up the evidence by, for, and against the prisoner. Gaskell and Drage were staying in a rural hotel, Gaskell recovering from a breakdown from overwork. They both became involved with the same pretty young girl, and at the end of a week the evidence ends in a great mass of detail about the last hours leading up to Drage’s body being found at the bottom of a seaside cliff. We meet and hear from chambermaids, a hotel manager, various other guests at the hotel. We become very familiar with the ways in which barristers at trial are guided and corrected by the judge as to the admissibility of various kinds of evidence. We peek into the thoughts and preoccupations of the jurors, learned counsel, and even the judge himself, who apparently solves crossword clues in one part of his mind while summing up with another.

As Mr. Justice Unwin approaches the last phase of his summing-up, having left the reader with the impression that Mr. Gaskell is going to be found immediately guilty by the acquiescent jury, he has a mild heart attack and the trial goes into abeyance until he recovers.

The second half of the book depicts the activities of investigator Morley Aston, who travels to the hotel with the intention of overturning the case against Gaskell. As we meet people whom we’ve previously seen testify, and hear them tell their stories in a different context and manner, a completely different picture of the events of that fateful day begins to form in the reader’s mind. As Aston investigates, he collects sufficient evidence to bolster a surprising new theory about the murder case; this is explained to the reader in a long chapter, and the final moments are devoted to an unusual ending to the trial, once the Justice returns to the bench.

Why is this worth reading?

J. Jefferson Farjeon has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest, thanks to the republication of his Mystery in White by British Library Crime Classics to delighted critical and public reception. And rightly so, judging by this volume. It is a very intelligently written work of classic detective fiction and I highly recommend it. I haven’t gone into too much detail about the events of the book; I think it’s very unlikely that most of my audience will have already read it, which is not the case with many of the books about which I’ve written. This is such a clever little mystery that I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment once you do manage to find a copy (there’s every chance this will soon be reprinted).

You will note on the cover illustration of the first paperback edition (and pretty much the only paperback edition, as far as I know) that the judge has noticed a single word that “has given him a new approach the problem of guilt or innocence”. This is in fact true; unfortunately I worked out the word to which the cover refers and it helped me work out the approximate solution before the end of the novel. It spoiled my enjoyment just a little, because it was truly an elegant and detailed solution that had been painstakingly created to take the trial evidence and turn it on its head. I think of this kind of novel as a “snowglobe mystery” — halfway or two-thirds through the book, the author gives the plot a shake and all the familiar features and inferences of previous events are transformed into something with a different, nearly opposite meaning. Perhaps it’s that I have a fondness for this kind of plot, which is difficult to manage. But if you enjoy Golden Age Detection classics I think you will enjoy, and be surprised by, this book. So pardon me for not telling you much about it; just this once, trust me. If you like Anthony Berkeley and Christianna Brand and Freeman Wills Crofts, you’ll like this book too.

And if you haven’t managed to work out the crucial word, the judge’s thoughts explain its importance in the final sentence.

My favourite edition

I’ve only ever seen the edition at the top of this post; I have a rather more bedraggled copy than shown here. Collins White Circle paperbacks were not well made, for the most part, and many have disintegrated over the years. I’m aware of about three other editions including the first, which has an undistinguished type-only cover, and a strange publication as an insert into a Philadelphia newspaper in bedsheet format. There don’t seem to be any beautiful editions; the Collins White Circle has at least the charm of being ugly in a naive retro way.

Quick Look: Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)

Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)


Fontana, their 4th paper edition from 1974

What’s this book about?

Elderly, fussy Mr. Pyke Period, quite fixated on lineage, is sharing his house with a brace of excellent servants and has recently taken a roommate, retired solicitor Harold Cartell (whose boxer bitch Pixie keeps the household in a constant uproar). Mr. Pyke Period is writing a book on etiquette and to that end hires Nicola Maitland-Mayne as a temporary typist, mostly because of her family connections. Harold Cartell’s family connections include being the second husband of Desiree, Lady Bantling, blowsy and rackety, who lives nearby with her third husband, the bibulous Bimbo Dodds and aspiring painter Andrew Bantling, Desiree’s son by her first (deceased) husband.  They also include his sister Constance “Connie” Cartell, loud and brash, whose slutty adopted niece “Moppett” and her unspeakably awful and vaguely criminal boyfriend Leonard Leiss are creating social havoc in the neighbourhood. Aspiring painter Andrew and semi-aristocratic typist Nicola meet and fall in love — Nicola will soon introduce him to her good friend, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, and her husband Roderick “Handsome” Alleyn, Scotland Yard Inspector. In fact, Nicola and Andrew are a common sight in Marsh mysteries, the young couple in the throes of new love, and they have a charming romantic relationship that serves as a relief from the unpleasant nature of most of the rest of the characters.

434051142After we meet the principals and the neighbourhood, Mr. Pyke Period gives a strained luncheon party at which his heirloom cigarette case disappears, and later that day Lady Bantling gives a hard-drinking scavenger hunt on the occasion of April Fool’s Day. Pairs of party guests are all over the neighbourhood searching for clues. It will be no surprise to the experienced mystery reader when Harold, who has quarrelled with or is an impediment, financial or social, to pretty much everyone in the novel, turns up at the bottom of a workmen’s ditch the next morning, having had a dirty great sewer pipe rolled down upon him.

Superintendent Alleyn takes charge and leads Inspector Fox through a brief investigation — brief, because it doesn’t really take a lot of effort to eliminate a great mass of red herring subplots and narrow the focus to motive and opportunity.  Everyone’s movements during the long and confused party are traced, and various lies, mistakes, and subterfuges are put to rest in a remarkably short time; the disappearance of the cigarette case, why the strained luncheon was so strained, why Connie Cartell got a letter of condolence the day before her brother died, the events of the party, and the criminous activities of loathsome Leonard and manipulative Moppet. Things come to a head when one character is bopped on the head,non-fatally, and Alleyn soon works out why and by whom. And since the murderer is helpfully the only person who meets a single physical criterion necessary to the killer, and the reader is directly shown that, it is not a huge achievement to figure out whodunnit just as fast as does Handsome Alleyn, but it does feel good to figure out the mystery, doesn’t it?


1st edition, U.S.

Why is this worth reading?

I believe it’s generally agreed that the works of Ngaio Marsh begin to decline in quality, pretty much at this precise point in her career. Before this point, she had a long period of, say, 90% well-crafted books, and after this point the comments are of the “Well, this is good BUT” variety. Flaws begin to accrete: poor pacing, unbelievable characters, clearly manipulated plot structures, anachronistic social contexts.  Worst of all, the books got boring. Marsh has always been known for mishandling Act II; Alleyn meets the characters and interviews them, one per chapter,until the reader wants desperately for something to happen. Her skill in characterization frequently had to carry the reader through to Act III, when the solution begins to coalesce. In books written after this point, believe me, you’ll occasionally want to scream.

I have been known to be unkind about many of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries, although I’ve certainly read every single one a number of times. I don’t seem to like the same ones other people do, although there’s a certain pleasure in revisiting Marsh’s characterization skills even in ghastly failures like The Nursing Home Murders — or Last Ditch, which I reviewed here, and which actually made my “Die Before You Read” list. My personal favourite is Overture to Death (1939, a great year for art in many media) but I also think 1955’s Scales of Justice is a fine mystery novel. Most of the rest of her novels have various flaws, but the ones set in New Zealand have an assuredness of place that is sometimes absent in her work. By and large, though, my opinion is, if there are four Queens of Crime, she for me is #4.

That being said — I have recently re-read this novel, never having thought it particularly distinguished in the past, and I have to say, it has considerable skill and intelligence that I missed upon previous readings. Perhaps it’s that I’ve finally realized what she was setting out to do; this book has a Theme. It is About Something; there is a central concept at its core. In previous essays here, I’ve mentioned that for me an essential element of a well-written mystery novel is this kind of dovetailing of the pieces around a central concept. For instance, if a mystery’s central crime (the A plot) is focused around plagiarism at a university, then the B plot should eventually also resolve itself to be focused around plagiarism, in a different way. I used the imaginary example of a popular restaurant owner plagued by a blackmailer because, as it later turns out, her best recipes were stolen — or plagiarized. Everything in the book is sooner or later related to the theme of one person stealing another’s creative work.


First edition

I can’t think of how I came to miss it before, but this book does have a theme that just revealed itself to me: the subtle one of family. In this book it includes pride in one’s family tree for Mr. Pyke Period (who has created his own family of servants); this contrasts with the light approach of Desiree, Lady Bantling, who is on her third marriage but still casually uses the title she acquired with the first husband. Charmingly, it includes an actual family tree in the novel — which I hadn’t realized until now is a big clue as to what Marsh was on about here. Nearly everyone in the book is somehow focused upon matrimony, or divorce, or lineage, or their lives have been affected by someone else’s concerns. Connie Cartell, for instance, is child- and boyfriend-free, but she has somehow “adopted” a young girl — to create her own family. Her niece Moppett and her ghastly boyfriend are creating a partnership like Bonnie and Clyde. Nicola and Andrew, of course, are clearly going to be affianced by the end of the novel. And from high emotions to low comedy … Howard’s boxer, Pixie, is in heat– she wants a family too! There’s a reasonably funny scene in the book where Pixie once again slips her leash, every male dog for miles ends up competing for her sexual attentions, and a huge dog fight ensues. At moments of such large-scale crisis, people get unguarded and important clues might appear…

Once I realized that there was this theme built into the structure of the book, I was quite charmed by how deftly the plot had been constructed. I began to see the way in which certain less prominent characters had been designed to provide counterpoint to a different view of family; there was a kind of organic quality to the book so that it seemed that the characters’ differences were merely casual and random, but they had to have been planned. It’s a difficult thing to do for any mystery writer, because it means the book has to be consciously mapped from the outset to make sure that all the pieces contribute to the theme. The late Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels contain great examples of this technique, where the crime that Wexford is solving has strange reverberations in the activities of his family — at the end of the novel, you realize that “everybody has the same problems”. That’s what Marsh does here, and it’s very well done indeed.

I’m more used to finding mysteries that are constructed like this in what I might call more serious works; novelists like Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar and Fredric Brown, telling dark stories of how people deal with, for instance, insanity. It’s a nice surprise to find that level of construction in what “Francis Iles” (Anthony Berkeley) said in the Guardian (at least according to the blurb on my Fontana paperback), is “Light, entertaining and disastrously readable.” You know, it is. It’s fast-moving, clever, funny, and she’s managed to avoid the sag of Act II by telescoping the action into a very brief time period and having engrossing sub-plots.

It was a pleasure to discern this structure because I felt pleased at being able to find more ability in her work than I sometimes have. For many readers she is a favourite, and it’s hard to be objective about someone who admittedly has a reputation for writing great mysteries that will endure my opinion. Perhaps someday I’ll write about why there are so many of her books where I say to myself, “I like this book, BUT …”.  In this case, I learned something about how to structure a mystery novel and had a chance to appreciate why she really is a Queen of Crime. You may not care for the general air of unpleasantness among most of the main characters, as I didn’t for many years, but I hope you will now be able to discern the great bone structure beneath the surface of this novel. Enjoy.

Berkeley F-777My favourite edition

Most editions of this novel have been relatively undistinguished. In 1974, the edition with the cover art shown at the head of this piece and which I read to produce it, I remember being chagrined because it was the signal that Fontana had changed its mind about the uniform edition they had been doing with a photographic representation of the dead body on the cover — as my readers know, I like that idea for some reason! So there is no photo edition of this particular title. I’d have to go with Berkley F-777 shown to the left, although it too was a signal; it’s about when Berkley switched from small size paperbacks to a taller format, and the industry followed along. This was from the early 60s, and if it had been produced a few years earlier, the book would be cut off at her calves. So the size was unusual and “modern” for its time, although it doesn’t seem so to us. And I like the cheerful way that the striking cover art flirts with giving away the secret of the contents.