Men Die At Cyprus Lodge, by John Rhode (1943)

3034156528WARNING: 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 be able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The little village of Troutwich is crowded with war workers connected with a training base on its outskirts, but no one ever seems to want to rent Cyprus Lodge until Colonel and Mrs. Guestwick, bombed-out Londoners, find it suitable. The rumours of ghosts are nonsense, of course, everyone agrees. A middle-aged pork butcher died there in the last century, but people who report hearing the jingling of the coins in his pockets or the sound of his wooden garden clogs echoing off the tiled floor are considered, at least for public consumption, to be delusional. The house’s history includes having been used as a house of ill repute, at least until the police shut it down, and then a homeopathic doctor took the place and lasted two years — until he was found dead in the dining room, poisoned by taking aconite. He wasn’t well known in the village, and it’s considered to have been an unexplained suicide.

As the Colonel and his household are about to move in, Troutwich is receiving official scrutiny because there appears to be enemy espionage going on in the village; events at what is hinted to be more than a simple training camp are being passed to the enemy on a regular basis. Series detective Jimmy Waghorn (here using the pseudonym James Walters and purporting to be from the Ministry of Coordination) comes to investigate the espionage, and stands by as the local constabulary look through the empty house and find nothing.

4740105709However, local squire Sir Philip Briningham has made a hobby of investigating haunted houses. When the Guestwicks and their servants report hearing the ghostly clogs and jingling coins, they think it’s some kind of joke. But when a mysterious voice says “Beware of the Monk’s Hood,” they seek official help. Sir Philip is asked to take a hand and is anxious to assist with the local haunted house. Monkshood, the officials know, is the source plant for aconite, so perhaps this has something to do with the homeopath’s suicide. Sir Philip determines that he’ll spend the night in the house alone. When he does so, all the spooky effects obligingly appear, but in the light of day, he and the officials realize that the production of the effects appears to be connected with a sealed-off cupboard. A small group assembles to open the cupboard and, sure enough, the investigators discover a mysterious panel which, when opened, reveals a grinning skull. As Sir Philip reaches in and pulls on the skull to remove it, a group of sharp objects fall from the top of the recess. One of them stabs Sir Philip in the wrist — and he dies almost immediately of aconite poisoning.

The modern reader will, of course, recognize the basic Scooby-Doo plot; someone is creating these supernatural effects for a purpose, and another plot twist has generated the underlying motive. With the occasional assistance of Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, Jimmy Waghorn investigates the history of the house and many of the inhabitants of the village, including local shopkeepers and the late Sir Philip’s family. Then there’s another murder using aconite in the vicinity of the spooky old house. Although Jimmy gets it wrong, events unfold in such a way that the true engineer of the plot is revealed in a surprising conclusion. In the final chapter, the senior series detective Dr. Priestley explains why his occasional comments were misinterpreted and tells Jimmy why he should have brought the crimes home to the real criminal.

2759Why is this worth reading?

Recently I remarked that John Rhode (a pseudonym of Major Cecil Street, who also published extensively as Miles Burton) and E. C. R. Lorac were the two Golden Age detective writers most unjustly overlooked by modern-day publishers, and a comprehensive reprinting is certainly in order. Both have very large backlists — essential to the publisher who wishes to entice a paperback audience with a large plot of undiscovered new ground. Major Street published four novels in 1943 alone and more than 140 titles in total; an astonishingly large body of work.

Curtis Evans devoted a huge amount of work and thought to Maj. Street’s writing in his  Masters of the ‘Humdrum‘ Mystery; if you really want to know everything there is to know about John Rhode, both the man and his work, that volume is the place to start and probably finish. But just to hit the high spots; Julian Symons, in his volume (Bloody Murder) looking at the history of detective fiction, classified certain early writers as “Humdrums” — because their focus was the puzzle plot, rather than meeting Symons’ preference for “stylish writing and explorations of character, setting and theme”. In 1972 when first published, Symons’ opinion led critical thought. However, today the wheel has spun and many critics and literary historians are today finding that John Rhode and the rest of the Humdrums did precisely what they set out to do and did it well.  We are now learning that Symons may not have delved very deeply into a school of writing that he simply didn’t like, and that there is plenty of interest in these books about the social context against which they are set, and even the occasional piece of artistic writing. If you’re interested in the Golden Age of Detection, John Rhode is certainly worth investigating.

That being said, this novel is not excellent but merely competent and intelligent. I think my readers will agree that the story hook is very strong. Ghostly hugger-mugger in a spooky house is music to the ears of the GAD aficionado, since we all know that the detectives will ultimately reveal that a nefarious character has been producing supernatural effects in order to keep people away from some sort of criminal activity. Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the rest of the Mystery Machine gang solved that crime many times, unmasking kindly old storekeeper Mr. Hooper as the Glowing Ghost who was trying to keep the uranium mine all to himself, or whatever. The stakes here are heightened by the fact that nosy people don’t just run away screaming and phone Daphne and Velma for help, they fall down dead from aconite poisoning.  When Sir Philip exposes the fakery but dies in the process, the reader’s attention is firmly locked in place; this unexpected development kicks the interest up a notch.

That’s where everything pretty much grinds to a halt, though. Jimmy Waghorn investigates, certainly, and meets a wide range of characters connected with the late Sir Philip and the town’s tradespeople and police officers. We learn the details of how information is casually mentioned in the local pub by off-duty servicemen, and Jimmy realizes — or is told by higher authorities — that the information must be being transmitted somehow to a person who takes it to Ireland, whereupon it makes its way to Germany. (We never quite get the details of this; the author merely invokes “security” and saves himself the trouble of thinking something up.) But nothing much really happens until a second murder, and Jimmy Waghorn is still completely baffled. The astute reader, meanwhile, testing his/her wits against those of the investigators, will have realized the obvious investigatory course for the officials, which is twofold. They should follow anyone who sets foot anywhere near Cyprus Lodge and investigate them intensively, and meanwhile they should be looking into the history of everyone who’s had anything to do with the place since the death of the original pork butcher. Had they done so, this book would have been much more brief and simple.

2760Apparently the lack of investigatory power has to do with the war, of course. And this book has a constant element of the war as a background — easy to understand for a book that was published in 1943. The details range from small to large. For instance, one hard-working shopkeeper re-uses a piece of glass and constructs a frame for it out of scrap wood, to replace the smashed window of his tobacco shop, because a large pane of glass simply cannot be had in wartime England. A pub keeper mentions that although his customer base is thriving due to the nearby training base, he isn’t profiting unduly because he’s only allowed a certain amount of beer per month to serve all his customers, and so he must balance the needs of the soldiers against those of his long-time customers.  The ubiquitous blackout curtains prevent people from seeing any mysterious figures moving around in the dead of night. And everyone accepts the presence of Jimmy Waghorn because he says he’s with the Ministry of Coordination; if the Ministry were to open a small facility in Troutwich, Cyprus Lodge would be ideal, and so he can poke through the house to his heart’s content. There is a secondary plot strand, wherein the late Sir Philip’s relatives are suspects because they inherit his estate.  The heir is maintaining his manor as an open house for the officer class of the training base because his father would have wanted it that way (and, of course, this alerts the reader to the possibility that the espionage originates in the manor house as the officers play billiards and casually talk about the day’s events).

But the espionage plot has the defects of its virtues. If the war permeates the fabric of the village to such an extent, then the information leaks must be more crucial; surely they can spare a couple of police officers from patrolling for cracks of light from blackout curtains to keep an eye on people surreptitiously dodging in and out of Cyprus Lodge. And if the appropriate Ministry truly wanted to find out the trail of the information leaks, they surely would have asked Dr. Priestley to take a more active role, rather than merely bringing in Jimmy Waghorn, a complete doofus, on a part-time basis. (At one point near the finale, Jimmy actually thinks casually that if he runs into the individual who turns out to be the murderer in the course of some late-night investigations, he’s going to take that person into his confidence so that the real murderer can be identified. D’oh!) Either the espionage is important or it’s not. For the purposes of keeping the novel afloat, it seems to be only important so far as it baffles Jimmy and forms the background for Act II up to the midpoint of Act III. The way Dr. Priestley talks in the final chapter, he would have solved the murders in about 20 minutes after he arrived, by focusing official attention on the correct aspects of everyone’s history and background. I agree, and that just points out that Act II and most of Act III for this novel are padded like a Canadian winter jacket.

This is not a terrible idea, considering that John Rhode is a writer who knows how to hold an audience. The characterization is subtle but good. Particularly noteworthy is a local tobacconist  who’s a member of a religious cult concerned with the Vision of the Great Prophet. Such cults are commonplace in GAD novels (off the top of my head, I can think of novels by Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Daly, Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher that feature some variation on the theme) and this one is just as loony-tunes as the rest. The tobacconist, however, is the only really distinctive character; everyone else is average and everyday, going about their daily business and contributing to the war effort as best they can. But John Rhode was good at portraying this kind of person, especially military men. They may be reserved in demeanour, but they are consistent, honourable and stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. Oddly, there are almost no female characters in this novel. I haven’t managed to read enough of Rhode’s work to know if this is a commonplace thing or unusual, but it’s worth noting. Dr. Priestley himself is very nearly completely offstage for the entire novel, popping up a couple of times to say enigmatic things and then to be a complete pain in the ass in the final chapter, waggling his finger and saying, tsk, tsk, you should have listened to me more carefully. Apparently Rhode thinks we know him sufficiently well from other novels; I didn’t, but that’s what seems to be being conveyed here.

I think Rhode’s real skill in this novel is with dialogue, which is not something that often calls itself to my attention. There are subtle differences in the language used by various characters that let you know from what stratum of society they come; really well done here. Other writers, particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, make the speech of members of the lower classes that of illiterate bumpkins with what a dear friend of mine, the late mystery writer Greg Kramer, used to call “ha’penny-tuppenny fortnight come Michaelmas” dialogue. But here the speech patterns of everyone concerned are not all that different. Shopkeepers, indeed, seem upwardly mobile — as though they’re trying to improve themselves — and the lords of the manors are more egalitarian. Perhaps this is a wartime thing, and it makes analysis difficult, but it’s more true to life, I think.

For the pleasure of the reading public, particularly my friends who enjoy good Golden Age of Detection work, I certainly hope John Rhode comes back into print soon. I have the feeling that if it were possible for me to read 60 or 70 of his novels, it may well be that I would draw different conclusions about the excellence of this particular volume. With what little I know, and my experience with this kind of novel, I think I’d give this one a B+ and look for better work from the same author.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada #274; I used my own copy of this book, in much better condition, as the basis for this review. Although I’ve always had a certain fondness for the “green ghost” Crime club edition pictured here, the CWCC edition is delightfully — well, I think the word is “lurid”. The background is a greyish shade of mustard, which makes the black/green cypress trees and touches of dusty brick red in the house stand out. The publishers wanted this to scream off the shelves, and it certainly does. My own copy is in Very Good condition, holding together physically better than is often the case with CWCC books, and if I were to sell it — which I have no plans to do, since it’s so scarce — I think I’d price it at $60 to $75.

Of the nine copies today available on ABEBooks, the cheapest is an ex-library copy of CWCC #274 at $28 plus shipping, fit only for reading or filling a hole in a run of John Rhode, and a first edition in jacket will set you back more than $600. Like so much of Rhode, this is a rare and expensive book in any condition and any edition.

200 authors I would recommend (Part 4)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 3, is here; I’ll link here to Part 5 as soon as it’s written.

adonis31. Caudwell, Sarah

The late Sarah Caudwell only wrote four novels about a professor of mediaeval law, Hilary Tamar, who is both the narrator and the principal detective, and a group of young lawyers who all investigate crimes together. All four novels have a taste like fine old Scotch whisky. The degree of literacy needed to understand all the offhand references is phenomenal; this style of writing is what was meant by the “don’s delight” mystery, very little practised today. The language is elegant and difficult — so are the plots. The mysteries are frequently based on obscure points of tax law or inheritance law; not especially realistic characters, but quite modern despite the antique flavour of the language. And there’s one tiny but delightful point that it takes a while to grasp — it’s never mentioned what sex Professor Tamar is. 1981’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered is a good place to start, since it’s the first novel of the four.

Cecil-ATTE Pan32. Cecil, Henry

Two legal eagles in a row — Henry Cecil was a British County Court Judge who wrote mysteries and novels in his off-hours. It’s hard to call some of his books “mysteries”, in the strict sense, although they frequently have to do with criminals and legal processes, but his fiction is worth reading whatever you call it. I think I’d have liked to have been in his courtroom; he has a wicked sense of humour and, of course, a huge knowledge of the back roads and byways of the law. Many of his plots have to do with people who go to great lengths to exploit a legal loophole. He was also great at writing mystery short stories that turn on a single point, something like Ellery Queen, and the collections are certainly worth looking into. Even the most serious pieces have a lovely sense of sly fun in them, especially in the language, and there’s a recurring character named Colonel Brain, the world’s most unreliable witness, who is good value whenever he appears. No Bail for the Judge is a story about a judge who finds himself on trial for the murder of a prostitute and can’t remember anything that happened on the night in question; Alfred Hitchcock was going to make a film of it before his death.

1292147456533. Charles, Kate

Kate Charles writes quite traditional British mysteries, most of which are based around, or have something to do with, the Church of England, its background, rituals, and people. She started in the 90s, kicking off her first series about an artist with a solicitor boyfriend. I found the first book quite gripping, A Drink of Deadly Wine; it was based around the then-current topic of “outing”. Her second series deals with a woman who is a newly-ordained cleric (with a boyfriend who’s a police officer) and the issues she faces, of course complicated by murders. These books have a uniformly high quality, excellent writing, and are by a writer who has really dug deeply into many issues that crop up when religion intersects with crime.

b03a1f091b363aa2776bcca7930ba53334. Chesterton, G. K.

Two religious mystery writers in a row! As my readers are almost certainly aware, Chesterton was responsible for creating that well-known figure of detective fiction, Father Brown, a Catholic priest who investigates crimes and saves souls in the process, over a long series of short stories. I was surprised to note that the stories started as long ago as 1911, since the fifth volume came out in 1935; Chesterton wasn’t prolific but the stories are clever and fascinating. Of course these famous stories have formed the basis for films and television series, and there’s currently one in process, but you’ll have to go back more than 100 years to read about the origins of this meek little cleric. I recommend you do just that; each generation that reinvents Father Brown does so in a way that the original stories usually don’t support.

df8618da651bc3bf05aba53fe9c6961135. Christie, Agatha

There are many well-known names in the mystery field whom you will NOT find me recommending here, but Agatha Christie has sold more fiction than anyone else in the history of the world, and there’s a reason for that. She’s simply a great, great mystery writer. I can’t imagine anyone reading my blog who hasn’t at least dipped a toe into the large body of Christie’s work, so I won’t go on about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, since you pretty much have to know who they are already. I’ll merely say that if you’re looking for a place to start that is not with the most famous works (Ten Little Indians, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Body in the Library) that have been made into films, some of my favourites are Five Little Pigs, Crooked House, Sad Cypress, and The Moving Finger. And I think Spider’s Web is an excellent play, if you have a chance to see it!

34319336. Clark, Douglas

Douglas Clark’s series of mysteries about Scotland Yard’s Chief Superintendent Masters and DCI Green is well overdue for a revival or at the very least a complete reprinting, start to finish. These are charming, low-key mysteries of the police procedural variety, almost an 80s take on the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts. Masters and Green are friends as well as colleagues, and their respective families are also part of the background; the books have the gentle, nearly cozy, flavour that may remind TV viewers of Midsomer Murders. Clark knew a lot about poisons and frequently each volume’s murder has a rare poison as its cause. Perennial Library printed a lot of these titles in the 80s, and Dell did a couple as part of their “puzzleback” series at around the same time. For a while you couldn’t be in a used bookstore without finding a stack of them, and now they seem to have disappeared. There are a bunch of titles that are all equally good places to start; perhaps you’d like to find out from Roast Eggs why a man seems to have burned his house down in order to kill his wife. (It’s from an old quote about selfishness; “He sets my house on fire only to roast his eggs.”) Any of the Perennial Library or Dell titles will get you started, though.

1356595637. Clason, Clyde B.

Clyde Clason wrote ten novels featuring the elderly Theocritus Lucius Westborough, expert on the Roman emperor Heliogabalus and amateur sleuth, between 1936 and 1941. Quite a pace! These books are intelligent and packed with information, with a very elegant writing style; Professor Westborough sprinkles his observations with classical references. Perhaps the most well-known novel is Murder gone Minoan, which reminded me somewhat of Anthony Boucher‘s The Case of the Seven Sneezes; one of a group of people isolated on an island that can be reached only by speedboat is murdered, and Professor Westborough takes a hand to solve the murder as well to try to restore a millionaire’s piece of Minoan treasure. Many of the ten novels feature a locked-room mystery or an “impossible crime”. Rue Morgue has recently brought these novels back into print, and you’ll have a much easier time than I did in getting hold of them; I envy you the opportunity to stack up all ten and knuckle down, since they’re both pleasant and difficult puzzles.

229114938. Cleeves, Ann

Ann Cleeves is the author of the novels upon which the currently popular television series Vera is based, about a dogged and emotional Scotland Yard DI in Yorkshire; there are six original novels and they’re all in print. My exposure to this writer came long before, when I picked up the eight novels about George Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly. George and Molly are from the cozy amateur school, but Ann Cleeves has a lot more up her writing sleeve than can be covered by the word “cozy”; she has a great deal of insight into how people’s minds work and why they do what they do, and her art makes George look as if he’s quite intuitive. I really enjoyed this series; the other three Cleeves series are a bit harsher, but not really hard-boiled. I recommend the first George and Molly story, A Bird in the Hand, as a good place to start.

978044011944939. Clinton-Baddeley, V. C.

Another “don’s delight” writer, although not so much for the erudition as the attitude and background. The author wrote many things, including film scripts as far back as 1936, but produced this lovely set of five mystery novels featuring Dr. Davie of St. Nicholas College, Cambridge, between 1967 and 1972 at the end of his life. Dr. Davie is an elderly don with an almost childlike delight in the wonders of everyday life, and a general unwillingness to do much in the way of exercise. But his bright, intelligent eye takes in everything around him and he finds himself in the middle of mysterious murder cases that only he is able to solve. Death’s Bright Dart mixes a stolen blowpipe with the murder of an academic — in the middle of giving an address to the college — and Dr. Davie takes a hand, mostly by pottering around and chattering with people. All five novels are good fun and contain interesting puzzles at their core. The writing has a great deal of gentle humour of the observational variety. I’ve always felt Dr. Davie was gay, mostly due to a brief passage in one of the books where he observes what must be a group of gay men chattering over drinks, but it’s never mentioned and not really relevant. Any of the five books is a good starting point.

n11303940. Cody, Liza

Every so often I find a book that just sets me back on my heels, it’s so powerful and strongly observed. That’s how I felt about Bucket Nut, the first Eva Wylie novel about a young woman wrestler/security guard/minder in 90s England who goes about her business as best she can despite being what I think of as an emotional basket case. She is rude and crude and powerful and very damaged by her past, and you won’t forget her in a hurry. I’d been following Liza Cody’s work from a previous series about Anna Lee, a woman PI, but the “London Lassassin” stories are, I think, Cody’s best work. There are three Eva Wylie stories and six Anna Lee novels; Anna Lee is a great private eye and worth your time, but you must read the Eva Wylie novels. (I’ve been told by some that they had the reverse of my reaction; they couldn’t get beyond a few pages because the character was so unpleasant. Your mileage may indeed vary.)



200 authors I would recommend (Part 2)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; Part 3 is found here.

11.  Bentley, E. C. You’ve got to like a guy whose middle name was used as the name for a style of verse (the “clerihew”). You’ve also got to respect his creation of Trent’s Last Case, which was written in 1913 and is an absolutely crucial volume in the history of detective fiction. There are two follow-up volumes from the 30s but Trent’s Last Case is just a necessary book. You have to read it and remember that it was written in 1913 — this writer invented things that we take for granted today.

not to be taken12.  Berkeley, Anthony I’ve written about Mr. Berkeley elsewhere, in connection with his creation of an absolute classic of detective fiction, The Poisoned Chocolates Case. To my mind, the guy is just brilliant. Writing as Francis Iles, he pretty much invented the “open mystery”, where you know whodunnit from the outset but the story is still gripping.  I read a comment recently that said that Berkeley seems to specialize in “trick” stories, where if you know the trick the book is over. There is a little bit of truth in this, but honestly I’d rather try to figure out Berkeley’s tricks than those of a dozen other authors. He’s funny, he’s sardonic, and his puzzles are extremely difficult. Not To Be Taken is generally considered to be right up there with his finest work (Before The Fact, Malice Aforethought, Poisoned Chocolates) but few people have read it.

a90bf282e3fa430250641e41423bdb4f13.  Biggers, Earl Derr Biggers created Charlie Chan and wrote the six novels in the series between 1925 and 1932. So there are about six times as many movies as actual novels, and the movies were created as B-level commercial products. You’ll get a different idea of the Chinese-American detective if you go back to the source material and actually read the books, and I recommend it. The stories are clever and it’s nice to read something from the 1920s that treats Asian-Americans in a little more enlightened way. They’re approaching 100 years old, so don’t be surprised if you find them a bit creaky, but remember that these are the six novels that created a character whose name is still a household word. n59669

14.  Blake, Nicholas Nicholas Blake was the mystery-writing pseudonym used by Cecil Day-Lewis, who late in life became Poet Laureate of England. I’ve heard it said that he will be remembered more for his politics — he was a Communist at a time when that was violently unpopular — and his detective fiction than his poetry. I can’t speak for his politics but his mysteries are exceptional, especially the ones featuring Oxford man-about-town Nigel Strangeways. His most famous mystery seems to be 1938’s The Beast Must Die, which has an excellent premise at its core, but I have liked nearly all of them (a handful of later ones I found a little disappointing). Malice in Wonderland is a witty portrait of a bygone English institution, the “holiday camp”, and a bygone profession, the “mass observer”; Minute for Murder is a favourite of mine. I understand that Head of a  Traveller and The Private Wound both draw heavily on his personal life. I’d recommend any of them, but the earlier the better as a starting point. (And yes, his son Daniel Day-Lewis is the famous actor.)

15.  Block, Lawrence In a long and distinguished career like Lawrence Block’s, you’d expect that there would be a bunch of clunkers among the gems. The gems are there for you — the brilliant and gritty and powerful Matt Scudder private eye series makes up for his beginnings writing “Lesbian confession” paperback originals, I hope — but Block is a master of so many styles and niches that you will certainly find things you love and things you don’t. I’ve found that Scudder fans tend to not like the lightly amusing Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, and vice versa, and that’s fine. Block writes a lot and publishes often, and has tried his hand at a lot of different things. He’s a damn good writer and you’ll find something to your taste, I think. Just don’t give up quickly if you don’t like the first one that comes to hand.

92cbb48cc04905a1e4147d1c5ece6ba516.  Boucher, Anthony I’ve written about Boucher’s novels before, here and here.  He only wrote seven full-length mysteries, but every single one of them is worth reading and is important to the field. He was, in my opinion, the best reviewer of mysteries ever; he knew what to look for and what to point out, telling the reader just enough to pique curiosity without giving away too much. Boucher was frighteningly intelligent and knowledgeable in widely separated areas, from opera librettos to Sherlock Holmes to craft beer; his career spanned books, reviewing, radio scripts, and perhaps most importantly his role as a catalyst around whom other writers coalesced. Strangest of all, he had an equally strong presence in the nascent field of science fiction. I always recommend the Fergus O’Breen series, start to finish; if you’re interested in science fiction, Rocket to the Morgue is a roman a clef about west coast writers such as Robert Heinlein (and yes, the victim is apparently based on Adrian Conan Doyle, whom a lot of real-life people thought needed murdering).

179 Edgar Box (Gore Vidal) Death Likes It Hot Signet05517.  Box, Edgar Edgar Box was the pseudonym used by Gore Vidal for his three mysteries from the early 50s starring randy PR consultant Peter Cutler Sergeant II. It’s a shame he didn’t continue the series, but these three are acerbic, bitterly funny, clever, beautifully written, and fascinating looks at a bygone era. It’s hard to imagine at this remove that it was considered shocking to write about a gay ballerino as a minor character in Death in the Fifth Position, but it was even more shocking at the time that the protagonist didn’t find it shocking, if you follow me. Vidal was a great writer and these are a fascinating little sideline; I frequently recommend these to people who have a taste for “literary fiction” and consider genre works beneath them. Vidal knew how to say just enough to get his point across, and the books are smooth as silk.

18.  Brackett, Leigh Leigh Brackett gets wedged into this category because she ghosted an interesting mystery novel for George Sanders, and wrote a few non-series mysteries that are above average and screenplays for some famous movies, but really she’s much better known as a master of science fiction. Her science fiction is still very readable and has the delicious flavour of high adventure that appeals to adolescent boys of any age; the Eric John Stark series will appeal to 14-year-olds and lure them into reading in a painless and clever way. It seems as though she could write in any genre in both screenplays and print; she novelized Rio Bravo, wrote the screenplay for one of the early Crime Doctor mystery films, an episode of The Rockford Files, the screenplay of The Big Sleep — and has a screen credit for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. That credential alone will hook your 14-year-old non-reader!

19.  Bradley, Alan Alan Bradley is one of the few writers who knows how to write from a child’s point of view; his series protagonist, teenage Flavia de Luce, is a brilliant creation and one of my T0p 10 Women Detectives in books. The stories are balanced on the knife-edge between sympathetic and twee; my opinion is that they never go too far, but I know some people find them cloying. Try The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and give it 50 pages. You’ll either set it aside, which happens occasionally, or you’ll immediately go and get the other six in the series and savour them slowly.

29571371_christianna-brand-tour-de-force-1955-trad-marilena-caselli-classici-del-giallo-mondadori-1164-del--120.  Brand, Christianna I’ve been a champion of this writer ever since I first read the incredible Tour de Force — about murder on a package tour of the Mediterranean. The central clue is so squarely and fairly planted that it gave me the wonderful forehead-slapping moment I so often want but rarely find — I SHOULD have known whodunnit, but Ms. Brand slipped it right past me. She often does. Death of Jezebel is wonderfully difficult and satisfying, I think. Not all her works are perfect; Heads You Lose has a brilliant story hook but a truly disappointing finish, Death in High Heels has a few false moments, and I don’t personally care for Cat and Mouse much at all, although many people love it. Green for Danger is a well-known puzzle mystery that was made into an Alastair Sim movie, and many people come to her work via that classic. I recommend nearly everything she wrote; I even like Suddenly at His Residence where few others agree. One characteristic of her writing I enjoy is that she added characterization at a time when it wasn’t considered appropriate to detective fiction; the portrait of an adolescent hysteric in Suddenly at his Residence, for instance, is beautifully observed and rather unnecessary; she was writing like a novelist, not just a mystery writer.  She also tried her hand at other types of story; I think it’s almost funny that this great mystery writer may be more remembered for creating the children’s character Nanny McPhee.

Part 3 will be along soon.

The Case of the Solid Key, by Anthony Boucher (1941)

The Case of the Solid Key, by Anthony Boucher (1941)

415BWWnlvBL._SL500_What’s this book about?

Under-employed playwright Norman Harker, fresh on the Hollywood scene, gets involved with a small semi-amateur theatre company, formed and financed by a group of actors to bring themselves to the attention of casting directors. His main interest is the lovely but mysterious ingenue Sarah Plunk, but he also wants to have his play produced under the auspices of managing director Rupert Carruthers and business manager Adam Pennworth. The company is currently working on a strange allegorical play called The Soul Has Two Garments, written and financed by famous and very nearly saintly Arctic explorer (but terrible playwright) Lewis Jordan. The experienced mystery reader’s ears will prick up when we learn that there’s a strange insurance policy in existence that pays $50,000 if one of the principals behind this awful play should die before the production is mounted.

Almost immediately, a horribly burned corpse is found backstage, alone in a room locked from the inside, apparently a casualty of an experiment in on-stage pyrotechnics gone wrong; Rupert Carruthers has spent the preceding days quarrelling with his associates and has a long history of gouging and swindling unsuspecting playwrights and actors, and everything points to an impossible murder. The door to the workshop where Carruthers has been working is locked with a very peculiar key; it’s one solid piece, which means to Lieutenant Jackson of Homicide (and amateur actor/detective Fergus O’Breen, part of the company) that no standard jiggery-pokery to hocus the door could have been possible.

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Besides the company of actors, many of whom have suspicious backgrounds and motivations, the plot is complicated by the involvement of Lieutenant Jackson’s brother Paul, well-known movie star, and his screen partner (and “girlfriend for publicity’s sake”) Rita La Marr, whose sweater seems to contain her principal assets — and Fergus O’Breen’s sister Maureen, publicity agent at Metropolis Pictures, home of the Jackson/La Marr pairing. Is this well-known romance finally over — and why? And since everyone wants to be noticed by Metropolis, has someone hired well-known “ribber” Vernon Crews to impersonate an important person and get some publicity?

Finally Lieutenant Jackson, assisted by Fergus and Norman, works out what must have happened and brings the criminal to justice. In the process, a romantic pairing reaches a satisfying conclusion and many mysteries, large and small, are solved.

10122566014Why is this worth reading?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, anything by Anthony Boucher is worth reading. They named the world’s largest mystery convention after him — what else do you need to know? His specialty was locked room mysteries and/or impossible crimes. This is the third of four Fergus O’Breen mysteries written between 1939 and 1942, and taken as a whole, they are great work by this great mystery aficionado, prominent critic, and all-around polymath. Fergus O’Breen is brash and charming and devil-may-care; some of the characters are unusual and interesting; and the crime at the centre of the novel has a number of satisfyingly twisty interpretations before the detectives reach the correct conclusion.

In fact, as you can easily tell, I’m a big Boucher fan, whether he’s writing mysteries or science fiction or fantasy or radio scripts or criticism, at all of which he excelled. That being said — this is not his best work. But let me add, Boucher’s second-rate work is better than a LOT of other writers’ first-rate work. I’m not saying this is a bad book, merely that it isn’t as superb as most of his others.

There are a number of things wrong with the plot, most of which I can’t go into in depth because I will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely say that a handful of the characters are not easily distinguished one from the other because they’re rather bland; the central premise of the locked room isn’t all that gripping or indeed necessary to the plot; and if there is anyone who doesn’t figure out the “surprise” behind the Jackson/La Marr subplot before the book is half over, well, they should go back to Young Adult reading. A couple of the characters are petty squabblers, and it doesn’t seem that there is any reason for them to be so except that the book needs a little tension. And the character of Vernon Crews, perhaps the most interesting idea in this and other Boucher novels, is offstage, to the detriment of the plot. Crews is based on someone who actually existed in Hollywood at about this time; Vince Barnett was a bit-part actor who made more of a living from acting by being hired in real life to impersonate people or play preposterous characters so that wealthy Hollywood people could play elaborate practical jokes on each other. Now, THERE is the basis for a mystery I’d like to read some day.

There are a couple of other minor issues that niggled at me as I refreshed my memory of this book; I like the character of Fergus O’Breen, but he’s not much on view here because the viewpoint character is most often the bland playwright. And Boucher is well known for adding little snippets of side information that cast an oblique light on the plot; here, the excursions into other areas (such as the visit to an all-girl rooming house near the end of the book, or an amusement park) seem a little forced and artificially vivacious. The romantic sub-plot between the playwright and the ingenue is … sticky sweet and a little unpleasant, especially when you contrast Sarah Plunk with a sad alcoholic actress with whom she chums around.

There’s also a character in the book who is what we would call today gay and, as I remarked in my last piece on a Boucher book, this is unusual for the time and place. I can’t say exactly why I have a problem with this character for fear of spoiling your pleasure, but you’ll know by the end of the book what my issue is — I just cannot accept that he does what he does for the reasons that he gives. It’s an interesting take, but it doesn’t come together, to the detriment of the book. Similarly, Lewis Jordan is probably based on someone in real life, but he doesn’t ever actually come to life; he’s simply cardboard, which is a shame.

I wish Boucher would have taken a little bit longer with this book, or perhaps run it through one more draft before publication; the elements are here to produce a tremendous mystery but it doesn’t actually quite come together with the satisfying “click” that marks his best work. Nevertheless — a second-rate novel by Boucher is still a damn good mystery, and there’s an opportunity here to see a certain element of 1940s Hollywood society depicted by a brilliant writer who actually knew people like this. All four Fergus O’Breen novels are worth your time, even if this one should be fourth on the list.

8f6ed6d8fdef0d7e04a716cf440d2cd7My favourite edition

To the left is Popular Library #59 from 1945, a delightfully lurid cover of an early number from this ground-breaking publisher before they moved to their equally delightful “breasts and guns” themes in cover art exemplified by the great Rudolph Belarski (check out this cover). Other than the fact that there’s a key, I can’t figure out what the cover is intended to depict; it doesn’t appear to relate to the book at all, and I don’t really care. Look at those colours! A Near Fine copy of this early paperback will set you back $40 as of the date of this writing and I think I’d rather own this edition than the Simon & Shuster Inner Sanctum first, shown above (and today’s price for a Near Fine one of those is $400).

Also noteworthy — perhaps for different reasons — is the edition shown at the head of this review, Pyramid X-1733 from 1968, possibly the paper edition most commonly available. This is an entry in their “Green Door” series that could have used the linking device of the green door to great effect, except they’d apparently moved on by that point. So the front cover is merely ordinary. And I have to say, the back cover material intended to give you a taste of the book’s contents is simply and egregiously wrong, almost to the point of giving away the answer to the book. Although there are collectors of the Green Door series, and I’m one of them, if you don’t have a particular interest in this edition you should avoid it.

Quick Look: Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

nine_times_nice_coverWhat’s this book about?

Matt Duncan is an impoverished writer who’s just been let go from the Los Angeles WPA writers’ project (it would take an entire article to explain this idea to the millennial reader; Wikipedia has one here). He runs into a wealthy school friend and rapidly finds himself working as an assistant to Wolfe Harrigan, a professional debunker of phoney religious cults; meanwhile Wolfe Harrigan’s beautiful niece Concha is attracting quite a bit of Matt’s attention, even though she’s engaged to his wealthy school friend.

Currently, Wolfe Harrigan is investigating a religious figure calling himself Ahasver, the Man In Yellow, whose “Temple of Light” is developing a huge following. Sure, it looks like another loony-tunes cult, but Ahasver is raking in a lot of money and developing a lot of fanatical converts. The Temple of Light has a cursing ritual that it enacts in order to bring disaster to its enemies, called the “Nine Times Nine”. When Wolfe Harrigan is the latest recipient of the curse, he laughs; but the next day, Matt Duncan looks up from the croquet lawn to see a man in a yellow robe in the study with Wolfe Harrigan. Harrigan’s sister is sitting outside the study, and she didn’t see anyone leave … all the doors and windows are locked from the inside. But Wolfe Harrigan’s murdered body lies on the floor and no one knows what happened. Lieutenant Marshall of the LAPD investigates, with the help of his wife, who’s a retired burlesque dancer (coincidentally, she’s reading the locked-room chapter from John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins at the time), and learns that, at the exact time of the murder, Ahasver was lecturing to a group of his followers miles away. It takes the talents of Sister Ursula, amateur detective and member of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany, to figure out the answer to this difficult locked-room mystery.

4476825990Why is this worth reading?

Anything by Anthony Boucher is worth your time, to be honest. Boucher — yes, the guy after whom they named the BoucherCon mystery convention — was a prominent critic (for the San Francisco Chronicle) and mystery writer, expert on Sherlock Holmes, creator of mystery-oriented radio programmes, and also an expert on science-fiction. And in general he was a polymath; one of those people who knows everything about a few things and a lot about everything in general. He only published seven mystery novels, but each one of them is intelligent, inventive, and brain-crackingly difficult. Boucher only wrote two Sister Ursula novels, of which this was the first; the other, Rocket to the Morgue, is a fascinating roman a clef set against the background of the actual science-fiction writers group of which Boucher formed a part. Both were first published as by H. H. Holmes (who was an actual turn-of-the-century murderer in Chicago), but Boucher’s other five mysteries came out under his own name.

I won’t say much about the mystery itself here, for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. Trust me, it is a genuine locked-room mystery, and you can imagine that if Boucher had the nerve to suggest to the reader that the locked-room chapter from The Three Coffins would be worthwhile reading, you can bet that he came up with a solution that will make you slap your forehead at the end of the book. If you follow the plot very closely and don’t allow yourself to be fooled by preconceptions, you will possibly be close to the solution at the end; it’s a satisfying and smart answer to a difficult puzzle.

il_570xN.672463820_t2nxBut there are other reasons why this book is worth your time. For one thing, Boucher gives us a wonderful glimpse of West Coast U.S. society just at the U.S.’s entry into the Second World War; these pseudo-religious cults used to be a regular thing in Southern California, and Boucher has produced a delightful insider’s view. The characterizations are charming and, while some of them might be difficult to believe (it’s not likely that burlesque artists marry policemen and settle down, and this is just as unlikely as a mystery-solving nun) they hang together and definitely interest the reader. In fact this novel has a lot about people and how they react to stressful situations. I think it’s safe to say that the mystery is the strongest point of interest in the book, but the background interactions are fun too.

One small point I did notice particularly; Boucher is one of the few mystery writers of the time to introduce a homosexual character, Robin Cooper, into this work (someone who wouldn’t yet identify as a “gay man”, but that’s what we see). Yes, the portrayal is of an effeminate “swish” who’s in cahoots with Ahasver; pretty offensive to the reader of 2015. But two things stand out. One is that there’s a homosexual character at all which, believe me, was very rare in this time and place for a mystery novel. The other is that, interestingly enough, Boucher gives us a glimpse of the social context and tells us that not every 1940 adult was so simplistic as to partake of knee-jerk homophobia.  Listen to this little passage, from page 199 of the IPL edition:

[Lieutenant Marshall is speaking to Matt Duncan] “But Mr. Cooper still interests me. I’ll go further — I am fascinated by our sweet little Robin.” “Why, Lieutenant!” Matt imitated the cherub’s birdlike cadences. “It’s a good act. It’s a honey of an act. But it is an act, and it slipped at the end. He’s no ecstatic hanger-on of the Ancients. He knows what he’s about; and unless my guess is way off, he’s probably about as influential as any member of the Temple.” “You think so? Him?” “The stupid tendency of the normal male is to discount everything said or done by one who seems effeminate. You think, ‘Nuts, he’s a swish — the hell with him.’ It’s about as clever a front as you can pick. Smart lad, our Robin.”

Still not especially politically correct or even enlightened, but further down the path than one might have expected.

I know you’ll enjoy this novel, if you just relax and let it roll along. If you are like me and always want to try to solve the mystery, you’ll find this one quite difficult but not absolutely impossible. And you will also enjoy the milieu of 1940s California, and Boucher’s insightful eye for social change and ear for dialogue. There’s also a romantic subplot, some interesting observations on religious belief, and Sister Ursula, who to me should have been the hero of a few more Boucher novels.

My favourite edition

ninetimesholmesI am given to understand that the first edition of this book was issued without a dust jacket, probably because of wartime paper restrictions. (Added a few days later: I listened to the wrong bookseller — see the comments section below.  The paper restrictions idea was mine alone, and it was wrong.  I’ll add a photo of the first edition’s jacket in the middle of this post for the reader’s edification.)

I think my favourite edition would be U.S. Penguin #553, pictured here. #553 is not, as you might, think, their 553rd book; their numbering system is quite bizarre but this would be one of their first 50 publications, in 1945. I like the deep green that is shared by this line of books; the illustration is cheerfully bad and I like the idea that this is the only such paperback as by H. H. Holmes.



The Case of the Seven of Calvary, by Anthony Boucher (1937)

The Case of the Seven of Calvary,  by Anthony Boucher (1937)

7calv1Author: Anthony Boucher was a very talented man who became well-known in a couple of different competencies. He was a mystery writer, of course, of both novels and short stories; he was also a popular writer of science-fiction novels and short stories. A huge annual conference for mystery fans and readers, Bouchercon, is named after him. In the 1940s, he was the principal writer not only on the Sherlock Holmes radio program but The Adventures of Ellery Queen and his own series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. He was an esteemed editor of short-story collections, particularly of science-fiction short stories, and received a Hugo Award in 1957 and 1958 for editing Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. And perhaps in the foremost of these multiple occupations, he formed the opinions of generations of mystery readers by his power as the mystery reviewer for the New York Times.

In short, a fascinating, intelligent, and multi-talented man whose life and friendships were just as interesting as his multiple streams of work. I am happy to recommend you to a book called Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography, by Jeff Marks which as you may have gathered is a cross between a biography and a bibliography. I’ve gotten to know and like Jeff over the internet, where he shares his erudition freely, but you don’t have to take my friendly word for the book’s value; it won an Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction Work, and was a finalist for the Agatha. You can find a copy of the book here, and I think you will find it very interesting. It will also give you full bibliographic detail of Boucher’s many streams of work which, honestly, is a godsend to finally have assembled in one place. I’ll also happily refer you to my friend and fellow GAD blogger John Norris, who reviewed this book insightfully and with useful detail in his blog, Pretty Sinister, with the specific review found here. (And in fact I am indebted to him because I lifted his scan of Collier #AS97 to illustrate this review, since it was the only image available on the entire internet.)


Anthony Boucher

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Simon and Schuster (1937). It has not often been reprinted. I suspect there might be a Japanese edition, but I don’t read kanji. The copy that I used for this review is my paperback from Collier, #AS97, published in 1961; this may actually be the latest edition as such, although the novel is collected as part of a four-book omnibus in trade paper format from Zomba in 1984, which to my knowledge is the only UK edition.

Collier #AS97, shown at the top of this review, is so far away from what’s currently fashionable in terms of book design that it has a kind of normcore beauty. Ah, for the days when the book’s title in large and poorly-kerned Helvetica Bold and a crummy, hard-to-see woodcut at the bottom right was sufficient to cause it to leap off the shelf and into the buyer’s hands. (If you see it at its original cover price of 95 cents, it should leap into your hands; it will probably cost you at least $20 at an antiquarian bookstore if the proprietor knows what she’s got.) I note with particular approval that the potential reader is tantalized by the blurb telling them that this is one of those books where “the reader is given clues to solve the mystery”. Considering that this book is most attractive to highly literate and experienced mystery readers, this seems rather like alerting people at the entrance to the Kentucky Derby that they are likely to see some horses. But 1961 was apparently a more solicitous time in the marketing of paperbacks.

This mystery has recently become available on Kindle from Amazon and I’m happy to see that it’s now available for reading by a wider audience.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

12309174502The framing device for this novel is that Martin Lamb, a graduate student at UC Berkley in San Francisco, is out at dinner with Anthony Boucher; Boucher is writing up the story that Lamb tells him over dinner. This gets a tiny bit confusing because most of what happens in the book is that Lamb sits and tells things to a different listener in a different armchair, but eventually it becomes easier to pick out where we are. Lamb sits and tells the story of recent on-campus events to his advisor, Dr. Ashwin, an eccentric professor of Sanskrit. Lamb goes into great detail about the events of a recent evening among a group of international students on campus, while Dr. Ashwin listens from his armchair, a glass of scotch in his hand. The evening ends with the stabbing death of an elderly and apparently inoffensive Swiss humanitarian and quasi-diplomat as he is out for a stroll, and a scrap of paper is found nearby that contains what we learn is the symbol of an obscure religious sect, the Seven of Calvary. (There’s an illustration below.)

I think you’ll enjoy the way the events of this novel unfold, so I’m not going to go into an enormous amount of detail in case you haven’t yet read them;  I’ll give you the bare bones to whet your appetite. Martin Lamb is falling in love with a beautiful Hispanic fellow student, Mona Morales, and thus becomes a kind of bemused spectator at the string of events. The late Dr. Schaedel has a nephew in the graduate school, Kurt Ross, and he and a number of other young men have spent the evening drinking and talking. (This book has quite a bit of drinking and talking in it.) And many of these young men (including one Alex Bruce) have an interest in the beautiful young Cynthia Wood, at whose house Dr. Schaedel, she says, asked for directions moments before his murder.

Everyone thinks that the mysterious illustration of the Seven of Calvary means that some sort of religious fanatic is responsible for the murder of Dr. Schaedel, and while there are a number of people with strong religious beliefs, including Cynthia, whose wealthy father recently embraced a strict form of Christianity, none appears to be a fanatic attached to an obscure European sect. Paul Lennox, one of the young men who spent the evening of Dr. Schaedel’s death drinking and talking, goes on for a chapter about the history and background of Gnosticism, and Vignardism, and the history of the Seven of Calvary in the Swiss Alps and their belief in the septenity of their god.

Meanwhile, the police, whose efforts to solve the mystery are almost entirely invisible in this book that focuses upon armchair detective methods, appear to be getting nowhere; most of the principal characters find themselves involved in a university-based production of Don Juan Returns. Martin Lamb plays the murderer and Paul Lennox plays Don Juan, his victim. But during the first-night performance, something is wrong with Lennox’s performance as he is strangled on stage; he actually does die.

12663737861_4Lamb finds himself in over his head in the murder case and turns to Dr. Ashwin’s insight (and never-empty bottle of Scotch) to establish his innocence. Ashwin deciphers the mysteries from the comfort of his armchair. He gathers the group together in his rooms and explains that he had only had three remaining questions before solving the case. The first was answered by an express parcel from the head librarian at the University of Chicago that very afternoon; the second was answered that day by a discovery of Martin Lamb in a novelty and theatrical shop near the campus; and he asks the third on the spot. When he receives a surprising answer to this surprising question, he has everything he needs to solve the case, and explains everything.  In the course of his explanation, he reveals that he had started with seven questions to be answered (and had whittled them down to four before the session began. This further instance of the Seven-ness of the case gives him a way to explain everything that happened, and in great detail, just by answering those seven questions. It’s completely clear who did what and to whom, and why. At this point, Dr. Ashwin explains that there is actually an eighth question; that of the Seven of Calvary. He explains exactly where that idea entered the case and why, and there is nothing further to reveal (except a few paragraphs of “where are they now” as the framing story, wherein Martin Lamb is telling the story to Anthony Boucher, is tied off.)

Why is this book worth your time?

As I mentioned above, Anthony Boucher is of the premier rank of mystery critics and editors; he understands how mysteries are constructed and written. He only wrote a handful of novels and every single one of them is worth your time. If you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery, you will find something to amuse and/or challenge you in every one of his novels — guaranteed.

This particular book is in fact his first published mystery novel. With many writers’ careers, it very often happens that their first novel is a kind of false start; they manage to sell a book which is their foot in the publishing door, and then after a while find their voice and begin to write the books for which they become known. Is this one of those?

7ofcalvWell, yes and no. Certainly this book is very clever and very original, and obviously written by someone with both a great knowledge of and a great love for murder mysteries. At the second paragraph, the Anthony Boucher character starts to lecture about the nature of a “Watson” to Martin Lamb, who actually plays the Watson role throughout most of this book, and the self-referential nature of having the author be a character adds a kind of bizarre Wonderland quality. Really, given that the author is a character and considering the nested “story within a story” conceit that is framed within the prologue and epilogue, this might almost pass for an early attempt at a kind of self-referential post-modernism. Just like Scream was a slasher movie about people who have seen a lot of slasher movies, this book is a mystery for people who have read a lot of mysteries. The first pages of my copy are a cast of characters with asterisks thoughtfully inserted against the names whom Boucher wishes us to know are possibly guilty; minor characters and spear-carriers are ruled out.

This is also a mystery for people who have read a lot of everything else. Only a very few authors in the mystery genre have this enticing quality, where the action frequently stops dead in its tracks for a two-page lecture on ancient Swiss religious beliefs, Sanskrit tongue-twisters, or the origins of the Don Juan mythos. (At one point Boucher inserts an asterisk to a footnote that says, in my paraphrase, “If this doesn’t interest you, skip two pages ahead; you won’t miss anything relevant to the murder.” Saucy, but useful.) I can only think of John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as sharing this quality whereby they spray nuggets of information, relevant or irrelevant, through the pages of a mystery. (Yes, others do it too, but more sparingly; these guys are the big three.) Speaking as a reader, I find it charming and diverting but I know that some people find this kind of information dump annoying in the extreme.

The actual mystery element is a strong and predominant part of the novel’s plot, which is why I’ve been, for me, relatively uncommunicative about its details. There are only a few suspects and while it is not terribly difficult to assign responsibility for the murders, it is considerably more difficult to figure out howdunit. John Norris, in his review referred to above, makes the point that there are a couple of easy deductions available at the beginning of the mystery that may well make the incautious reader think they’re about to beat one of the great puzzle constructors, but, at about the midpoint of the book, there’s a revelation that completely recontextualizes everything that’s happened thus far and throws all those earlier deductions up in the air. (And again, I’m indebted to him for saying it first.) In other words, the author has been a couple of steps ahead of the reader the whole time and has led you down the proverbial garden path; in a way, this is a kind of Ellery Queenian “false solution then the true”. The ending, with everyone gathered for the “blow-off”, is certainly a Golden Age trope but the manner in which it’s conducted, with the kindly old professor listing off the seven crucial points and following with the unexpected eighth, is pure John Dickson Carr/Dr. Fell.

And that’s my only small quibble with this great book; it borrows here and there. One of the central puzzles is strongly suggestive of an earlier novel by S.S. Van Dine; there are elements reminiscent of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout. Another small problem is that the premise of having Dr. Ashwin sit in his armchair and have stories brought to him (the Rex Stout aspect) means that there has to be a way to introduce action into the plot or it descends, as it does here, into long chapters of storytelling by someone who isn’t guaranteed to be a reliable narrator. I note that this is the one and only adventure of Dr. Ashwin; Boucher’s subsequent creation of brash California PI Fergus O’Breen is much more suited to tell interesting stories. Let me be clear, though, this is more a meta-problem; there’s nothing at all wrong with the way that this book is constructed and written. The characterization is sufficient to the needs of the plot, the settings are obviously something of which Boucher had personal knowledge, and the language is elegant and erudite.

Really, there is a huge amount here to enjoy, especially if you like to experience an author’s growth by reading his work chronologically. If you like an unexpected spate of learning about — well, about something you didn’t know that seems interesting — then Boucher is one of a very small group of authors with a style of sufficient authority that they can just shut the plot down for a moment’s lesson, or a joke, or even a little puzzle that pays off in a later chapter. It’s a fun and charming style and it takes a great deal of obscure knowledge to bring it off. It’s not impossible to solve this mystery upon first reading, but I suggest that even an aficionado of the puzzle mystery will find it difficult. I enjoyed this book a lot and it’s part of the oeuvre of an important mystery writer and critic; I urge you to read it.

807072190Notes for the Collector:

As I’ve noted above, the first edition is from Simon and Schuster, 1937; first UK is as part of an omnibus volume published by Zomba in 1984, and first paper is from Collier, 1961. There’s an ugly Macmillan edition as part of their Cock Robin imprint, some sort of “bringing back the oldies” line from 1954 (the primarily blue cover earlier in this review). A facsimile of the jacket of the first edition is $18 and it’s the cheapest Boucher-related item in AbeBooks.

If I were going to get a reading copy, I’d be after a crisp Fine copy of Collier #AS97 for $20 to $30 or the Kindle edition; if I had just won the lottery, I’d be investing $600 to $800 in one of the three — three! — signed first editions on sale today. They may not be the prettiest editions — the $600 one has a facsimile jacket and none is what I’d call crisp — but, gee, the thought of having a copy that my favourite mystery critic of all time had held and signed, well, that would be worth every penny.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1937 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “G”, “Read one academic mystery.” Very nearly every single character in this novel is either a student or a professor and the action takes place on the UC Berkley campus. I’d originally meant to read this as “a book with a number in the title”, but I have a couple of those in mind and close at hand. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.



Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

129248Author: Helen McCloy (1904 – 1994) came from a writing family and began her writing career as a journalist, first for William Randolph Hearst and then as a freelancer. Her first mystery was published in 1938 to great acclaim and she continued to write 13 novels about her psychiatrist-detective, Dr. Basil Willing, on and off until 1980. She published 16 volumes of non-series mysteries (and there are some posthumous collections of short stories, etc.) Her marriage to Davis Dresser, who as “Brett Halliday” created the Michael Shayne series, lasted from 1946 to 1961. She was the first woman to serve as president of Mystery Writers of America (1950) and received an Edgar award in 1954 for her mystery criticism.

I think it’s safe to say that connoisseurs of detective fiction regard McCloy as one of the best American writers of detective fiction during her career. Her work is uniformly of a high quality; she’s skilled at planting clues and especially at delineating the psychology of murderers and murder suspects. Mike Grost suggests that although Cue for Murder is considered to be one of her better novels, his preference is for her later works and regards her work after 1945 as better than her earlier books; I tend to agree. I have elsewhere reviewed what might be her most famous work, Through A Glass, Darkly (1950).

dell0212Publication Data: The first edition is from 1942, William Morrow. The book was frequently republished in the 1940s, including its first paperback appearance as Dell mapback #212 in 1948, and then appears to have fallen out of publishing favour. Anthony Boucher selected it as one of his World’s Great Novels of Detection series for Bantam (F3027) in 1965, and it doesn’t appear to have been reprinted since. Amazon gives a peculiar listing which suggests that the book will be republished by The Murder Room (a subsidiary of Orion in the UK who’s been reprinting other of her titles) at the end of 2015. No e-book appears to exist.

McCloy’s work was very occasionally adapted for television; “Cue For Murder” was adapted for a French-language television program, “Le Masque”, in 1989. I have not been able to view this production.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. You will probably learn enough here to be able to solve the mystery without really thinking about it. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of this book’s details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

dell0212backThe book begins at an art gallery opening in Manhattan, filled with smartly-dressed women and attentive men. Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who consults to the police department, is attending, and meets Broadway star Wanda Morley and her surrounding players. Wanda’s new play opens that night; we see her with a handsome young actor, Rodney Tait, who stars with her and who is said to adore her. (His erstwhile girlfriend, also present, seems to disagree.) Wanda will share the stage with Leonard Martin, returning to the stage after a year’s illness.

We learn that something strange has happened recently from a tiny snippet of a newspaper story, of the “human interest” variety. There’s a tiny knife-grinding shop sharing the alley with the rear of the theatre (see the map back’s map, nearby, for a better idea of what everything looks like and where it is). Someone has broken into the shop and used the equipment to surreptitiously sharpen a knife — and, before leaving, the mysterious sharpener has released the shop owner’s pet canary, which is found fluttering around the shop.

Dr. Willing decides to attend the opening night. At this point we need to know a little bit about the play itself. It’s a revival of Sardou’s Fédora — not a well-known or especially good play. (Wanda is said to only choose lousy plays as her starring vehicles because her acting looks so much more realistic against the unbelievable events, and this tells you a lot about Wanda and her view of art.) Victorien Sardou is not remembered today except perhaps as the playwright whose original play was turned into the opera Tosca by Puccini, and this work which became the eponymous opera Fédora by Umberto Giordano, which actually brought the fedora hat into popularity for first women, then men. Fédora was written for Sarah Bernhardt; it concerns a young noblewoman (who in the original production wears a soft hat, which ended up named after the play) whose lover, a revolutionary, is brought to her home in Act I, mortally wounded. The lover is attended by a doctor and then discovered by a police officer; he dies at the end of Act I and Fédora vows revenge. (This revenge doesn’t come to pass because all anyone ever gets to see of the play is Act I.)

Since the part of the dying revolutionary has no lines and is required to only lie there motionless until he is kissed goodbye by Fédora and then expires, Sarah Bernhardt used it as a publicity vehicle; she enlisted her handsome young aristocratic friends to play the role onstage, giving them all the excitement of acting without requiring any actual talent or experience. Edward VII was one of them, and he delighted in having gone unrecognized. The novel tells us that Wanda Morley learns of this and decides to revive the tradition; the producers don’t care who plays the role and are pleased to save the money required to hire a motionless supernumerary. So the casting of her lover is up to Wanda.

Immediately before the play begins, an unknown man who will play Fédora’s lover is seen to make his way to the alcove where he lies down and begins to pretend to be near death, lying motionless. After the curtain rises, the only three actors who have any business near him are Rodney Tait as the doctor, Leonard Martin as the policeman, and of course Wanda Morley who kisses him good-bye before he is said to expire. Act I curtain and the stagehands begin to strike the set; of course, the unknown man is truly deceased. Dr. Willing comes up from the audience to possibly assist with first aid and notices something very odd. Although the dead man is lying in a pool of blood with a surgical scalpel sticking out of his chest, a passing housefly ignores the blood and seems fascinated with the handle of the knife. No one is quite sure why, but a number of witnesses note that the housefly will not leave the scalpel alone, even though the blood would seem to be a more attractive target. We also learn that a mysterious figure in a long dark cloak has been hanging around on a fire escape and no one can identify him … or her.

Basil Willing soon identifies the victim as wealthy young John Ingelow, who is said to have been leaving his wife Margot, aka “Magpie”, in order to marry Wanda. Is Wanda’s romance with Rodney Tait just a publicity stunt? She’s certainly done this before with other co-stars, one of whom was Leonard Martin. Did she truly mean to run away with the victim, or is this merely another example of her desire for publicity? Wanda is constantly saying that she wants to leave all the annoying hurly-burly and glitter of the theatrical life and be merely a homebody housewife … was John Ingelow the man for whom she meant to abandon her career, or was she merely stringing him along for more publicity as a femme fatale?

The investigation progresses, but the public’s demand to see the play now that it’s been involved with murder is so great that the show must indeed go on. A brash young playwright named Adeane seems to be the only person who wants to take the ill-fated role of the dying revolutionary ( so that he can get some attention paid to his unpublished scripts); the theatre is standing room only when the production resumes. And, as the experienced reader will have already guessed, Adeane is found dead in the same position in the same set at the end of Act I on re-opening night, and again only the same three actors have gone near him.

Very shortly after the second death, Basil Willing works out the identity of the murder and, more importantly, the reason behind all the murderous activities. He confronts the killer in an exciting climax, and then explains everything.

n246275Why is this book worth your time?

This is certainly a highly-regarded novel by a well-known and esteemed mystery writer; it’s absolutely worth your time if for no reason other than the collective intelligence of a lot of mystery critics suggests that it is.  It really is a good book.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way; I didn’t like this as much as I might have done — I didn’t even like it as much as I felt I should, given the admiration I have for other critics who think it’s a great mystery. There is some beautiful writing in this book, not just descriptive pieces like showing the reader what it’s like to be acting in a play, or viewing it from the audience. The beautiful writing is also concerned with what people are thinking and why they do what they do, and from that point of view it’s masterful. When McCloy talks to the reader about how shallow Wanda Morley is — selecting cheeseball revivals of lousy plays in which to appear so that critics will say, “Oh, why doesn’t anybody put Wanda Morley into a play that’s worthy of her talents?” — we get it. We get it in a way that adds value to the book because we grasp not only what underlies Wanda’s career, but that McCloy understands the theatrical milieu well enough to give us inside information about it and the motivations of the people within it. Wanda’s tired protestations — about how she’d really rather be a housewife, and yet she never actually does anything about achieving that goal — are both funny and entirely understandable. McCloy (and through her, Dr. Willing) understands human nature and understands how to tell us, and show us, so that we can understand it too.

The problem with it considered strictly as a piece of detective fiction is that the murder itself is easy to figure out. My God, is it easy. Let’s face it. There are really only three suspects for whom the murders are physically possible; the murders are committed onstage in front of an attentive Broadway audience and a stage full of actors. Unless you’re prepared to put in a lot of thought considering ways in which people could be dropped in by ropes from the ceiling, or knives thrown 60 feet with unerring accuracy — all of which are stupid and generally impossible, and I’ll tell you right now, they aren’t the answer — there’s only three people on your list of suspects, and they are all three of the principal actors. If you can construct a list of circumstances and conditions that the identity of the murderer must meet, and then hold those three people up against it, it’s childishly simple to figure out whodunit. Even if the title of the book wasn’t telling you exactly which clue was the vital one …

The point of this book is not so much whodunit, though, as whydunit. And that’s a slightly more difficult issue. It is clear from the way the material is presented that any solution to the mystery must explain (1) the fly that buzzes around the knife handle; (2) the repeated liberation of the knife-grinder’s canary from its cage, and (3) the motive for wanting to kill these people in the first place. There’s also a minor physical clue that must be explained away, the circumstances surrounding someone seen in a long dark cloak standing in deep shadow.  (And there’s a tiny point about the nature of an outdoor clock at the top of a skyscraper that today’s reader will not really understand, since analog clocks are out of fashion, but it doesn’t really matter since the time sequences in the book are precise and clear.) For me, the only unclear point was the motive.

That’s because, in the decades since 1942, other authors have manipulated these same facts for the pleasure of the reader. As far as the fly buzzing around the knife handle, well, I might have an unfair advantage since there’s a particular medical condition in a member of my immediate family that is directly relevant. But anyone who has read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon has seen the same material presented in the same way. The underlying principle was apparently known in Babylonian times. With respect to the liberation of the canary; that’s not really a physical clue but a mental one. If you understand why the canary was freed, you’ll understand the motivation for the crimes and, honestly, the symbolism is a bit tacky. It’s the kind of thing that sounds good in a book, but that I doubt would actually occur to someone. And as far as the person in the long dark cloak — I’ve seen that same idea used as the basis for the central “trick” in a mystery novel by E. X. Ferrars from about the same time period (the wartime blackout in England, as I recall), and I dimly remember but cannot name a couple of other novels that used it too. I’m not saying McCloy didn’t use it first, far from it, but at this remove I’ve definitely seen it used by others and thus it is not really surprising.

The problem is that although I was clear about the identity of the murderer from a fairly early point, due to one of those “casual remarks” clues that I find so easy to spot these days (you know, when one character drops an off-hand remark about the earlier history of another and there’s no real reason for mentioning it), there’s no proof until very close to the end of the novel and that pretty much comes from the murderer confessing the details. Although the murderer’s motivation is lying right there for any police officer who cares to go looking for it, it takes a tiny leap from the facts to the circumstances which apparently no one but Basil Willing is capable of making, even though he doesn’t seem to have done so either. Instead, Dr. Willing pretty much does what I did; creates a list of circumstances and conditions that the murderer’s identity must meet, figures out whodunit, and then starts to investigate the motivation for the crimes.

I mean, let’s face it. The murders are committed in front of hundreds of people; I can’t actually imagine that anyone would hope to get away with it in a plan that has hundreds of ways to go wrong and only one way to go right. I suggest that it’s much easier to acquire a sharp knife in dozens of ways that are easier and safer than by breaking into a shop and sharpening one. If the murderer actually wanted to kill the victims and ruin a third party’s life in the process, I can think of a lot easier ways than committing two murders in the middle of sold-out theatrical performances (a blunt instrument and a dark alley come to mind). What this book is about is a crazy person doing insane things, and mostly for the purposes of making an interesting mystery. And that kind of spoils my enjoyment. For a book that people esteem so highly for containing so much psychological insight, the central psychological issues are pretty much nonsensical.

All things considered, there is a lot to applaud in this book and a small core of disappointment. Like I said, the writing is beautiful. You can see the production of Fédora unfolding before you (in fact, you see it so many times you’ll never need to actually go to see it should anyone be silly enough to mount a production). There are little moments of description that are so evocative and clear that you can see things happening, and take in tiny details of clothing and background. It all clicks because it has a basic rightness about it; the author has seen these things, either in real life or her mind’s eye, and is showing them to you as they are. Nothing is slurred or fuzzed over; if it’s in the book, it’s clear. Essentially everything about this novel is beautifully arranged; if it were a film, I’d be praising things like set design, costuming, and production values. You will believe most of the people are doing things for real reasons — the only exception being the murderer.

It’s a truism of literary analysis that you have to work with the book you actually read, not the one you want to have read. Helen McCloy is a great writer and, let’s face it, Anthony Boucher thought this novel was worth including in a “Great Novels of Detection” series. Who am I to argue with Anthony Boucher? Well, all I can say is that if this book had left out the silly path from the murderous idea to the actual murderer, and allowed the murderer to act like a rational human, I think I would have liked it better. It probably wouldn’t have been a detective novel. It would have been an interesting crime novel at a time when such a thing was not yet possible (the psychological crime novel was still some years away in inception), because the only flaws in this book have to do with the mystery plot in and of itself. The murderer would have confessed, possibly after the first murder but certainly after the second, because the motivation which is given for the murders would have been completely accomplished and nothing else would have been necessary. Then Basil Willing in his psychiatrist’s persona would have been an interesting commentator on why the murderer did what was done, and this would have been an extremely powerful book. It’s been sacrificed for the puzzle mystery. Now, as a reader who has spent most of his life tracking down and appreciating well-written puzzle mysteries, I can’t say with a straight face that I think this is bad. Helen McCloy wrote good puzzle mysteries and I love puzzle mysteries. I just can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the puzzle mystery had been left out and the sheer intelligence behind this book had been allowed to shine through.

In a way, there’s an analogy with something in the book. Wanda Morley picks bad plays in which to star, because they make her talents look more impressive. It makes me wonder if Helen McCloy wrote a poor puzzle mystery because it makes her beautiful writing look more impressive. It’s kind of a shame that the puzzle per se is the least interesting thing about a book that’s known as a great puzzle mystery … I suggest that you read it for yourself to see if you agree. Whatever she’s writing, Helen McCloy is worth reading.

thNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is from William Morrow, 1942. Other contemporaneous editions exist, including ones from Detective Book Club and World. First paper edition seems to be Dell mapback #212 from 1948 (it appeared in an edition of “Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine” in 1946, it’s up to you whether that counts as a paperback or not). The Bantam Great Novels of Detection paperback edition, with entries selected by Anthony Boucher, is from 1965.

I note that, as of today, on Abe Books, there’s a copy of the mapback edition that is signed and inscribed; even though it’s only in Fair condition, $30 plus shipping seems like a fantastic price for a copy. I may grab this one myself! The second most interesting copy available is a Very Good copy of the first edition in jacket for $50 plus shipping and this may actually be the one that is of more interest to collectors. I’m very fond of mapbacks, is all. The 1965 Bantam Great Novels of Detection series was a very good series, containing writers like Hake Talbot, Ellery Queen and Christianna Brand, and you could do worse than focus on collecting a set of them.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1942 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; sixth under “G”, “Read one book set in the entertainment world.” Everyone agrees this is one of the great backstage mysteries. I’m surprised I haven’t yet managed a complete line of six books, but I’m getting closer.