Too Many Magicians, by Randall Garrett (1966)

2262290596What’s this book about?

Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for His Royal Highness Richard of Normandy. If you’ve never heard of Richard of Normandy, that’s because this is both a novel of detection and of fantasy; specifically, in the sub-genre of “alternate history”. What if Richard the Lion-Hearted had survived that archer’s arrow in 1199 and then financed the research that codified the Laws of Magic? Fast-forward to 1966, to a world where magic works and science is in its infancy, where men wear swords and where the major enemy of the Angevin Empire (after Britain conquered France once and for all) is the Polish Empire of King Casimir X, and the two empires are currently in the middle of a cold war.

907891267In the middle of some espionage activities that have produced a corpse for the investigative attentions of the great detective Lord Darcy, his “Watson”, forensic sorcerer Sean O’Lochlainn, is attending a meeting of the Royal Thaumaturgical Society at a London hotel. When the Empire’s Chief Forensic Sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, is found dead behind a locked door in the hotel (and one that has been well-protected by magic spells), Lord Darcy and Master Sean have two cases to investigate that soon reveal international ramifications at the highest diplomatic level. Lord Darcy and Master Sean are inveigled into solving the case by the machinations of the Marquis of London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe, ordinarily loyal allies but in this case needing to push to achieve fast results. Meanwhile, the relationship deepens between handsome Lord Darcy and Mary, Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, and a young prince of Mechicoe finds a way to express his rare magical talents in a way useful to the investigation. The story proceeds at a rapid pace, pausing only as Lord Darcy rescues a beautiful Polish sorceress from the icy waters of the Thames, and ends up at a gambling club, the Manzana de Oro, where the crimes are brought home to a guilty party who should be a surprise to many readers.

275352632Why is this worth reading?

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care for the idea of a fantasy detective story in an alternate timeline where magic works, then you are not likely to find much of interest here. That’s a shame, because this is a very clever story written by someone who was well-read in both the fantasy and mystery genres. Randall Garrett died regrettably young, and so only produced three volumes about Lord Darcy; this novel, and two volumes of short stories. But his fellow writer and friend Michael Kurland knew there was a great demand for more stories of murder and magic, and produced two further novels in the series.

And why was there such demand? Well, there are two major reasons I see for this set of stories being so popular. The first and foremost is that Garrett got the balance right between fantasy and mystery, and that’s very difficult to do — and satisfying to read.

When you begin with a premise like this, there are two competing sets of storytelling themes that have to be balanced. Yes, it is fascinating to speculate on what a gambling club would be like in a world where people have a Talent to affect the laws of chance, or how everyday items like refrigerators and house keys would have developed when based on magical principles. But if you stop for a lecture every time a character in the book opens the fridge or the front door, the action of the book soon grinds to a halt and gets bogged down beyond redemption. Garrett managed to give the reader just enough to interest, and titillate the imagination, without delving too deeply into details.

10562694527The other theme that has to be balanced is the need to have an internally consistent world-view that produces a fantasy murder mystery, without solving the crime by merely making up the rules. For instance, if you tell the reader that only women can use a particular magic spell, but then solve a crime by revealing in the final chapter that a male criminal had come into possession of the long-lost Amulet of Nermepherr that allowed him to cast that spell — well, you’ve just lost my interest once and for all. That’s the equivalent of a Golden Age of Detection writer introducing a master criminal in the last chapter who’s disguised as the local vicar; not fair and not interesting. I can tell you, there are a number of well-known authors who haven’t managed to pull off that balancing act, including the pseudonymous J.D. Robb, where all the technology is cutting-edge 2060 and half the social attitudes are 1985.  Here, it’s balanced beautifully. You learn the details of the spells that the sorcerers are talking about, their limitations, their effects, and everything you need to know to solve the crime. But the actual locked-room mystery itself is clever and very fair. (I don’t think it will be giving away too much to reveal that Garrett was familiar with a specific Carter Dickson novel and a specific Agatha Christie novel to produce this plot, but if you’re relying on what you think you recognize, you’ll be fooled. Very pleasantly, I may add.)

The second reason why these stories were so popular is that Randall Garrett had a very unusual sense of humour that is present in nearly every sentence and paragraph of his stories. I think it’s a conceit that’s based on the idea that in a parallel universe, familiar people and things from our own universe might be barely recognizable; here, Garrett allows himself every opportunity to drag in references to fictional characters from our universe, sometimes in a very hard-to-understand way.

TooManyMagiciansMost of my audience, being familiar with the Nero Wolfe canon, will find themselves smiling at the idea that the gourmandizing and horticultural Marquis of London never leaves his townhouse and employs a womanizing investigator named Bontriomphe to do his legwork. Bon = good; triomphe = win, therefore the gentleman is Archie Goodwin, and that’s an easy example of the kind of referential and macaronic wordplay with which these books are riddled. (See if you can figure out why his chef’s name is Frederique Bruleur.) But Garrett goes much, much further than that, and buries his punning references in the depths of obscurity.  For instance, I mentioned above that Lord Darcy rescues a Polish sorceress; her name is Tia Einzig, and she makes reference to her uncle Neapeler Einzig having escaped Poland and found safety on the Isle of Man. Those facts have very little to do with the story per se, but when you begin to dig into the etymology of the words and their possible cognates in other languages — Tia = Aunt, and Einzig is a bastardized translation of, essentially, “one in a zillion” — “Solo”.  Neapeler is a German word for Neapolitan, a person from Naples; again, a bastardized translation might be Napoleon. So her uncle is Napoleon Solo — the Uncle from Man.

In this volume, there’s a long, long chain of explanations that leads you to a moment where you slap your forehead, because a man named Barbour is a Pole by birth. There’s another set of allusions grafted into a short story that reference, believe it or not, bidding conventions in contract bridge. (If you play bridge, the explanation of why a “short club” was used to hit the victim will leave you giggling uncontrollably.) There’s a James Bond character, hidden references to the Grey Lensmen and the Pink Panther … one of the attendees at the magicians’ meeting is named Gandolphus Gray, which refers to Lord of the Rings. I will hold out temptingly the idea that it’s clear to me that there are other references in these books to people in our own universe but I just don’t know enough to know what they are; some are science fiction writers. The victim, Sir James Zwinge, is apparently based on the famous “magical debunker” James Randi. And to complete the circle, Garrett’s collaborator and continuation writer, Michael Kurland, is here represented as Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Coeur-Terre.

I think why this works so well for the reader is because I suggest that the kind of mind that enjoys solving murder mysteries is the same kind of mind that can look at “Neapeler ” and think “Neapeler = Naples-ian = Napoleon” and from there get to Napoleon Solo and the Man from U.N.C.L.E, and then be amused by the Uncle from Man. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then you will not actively dislike this book for that reason; it’s quite easy to overlook every instance of such wordplay if you’re simply not looking for it. But once you realize it’s there, and you do like that sort of thing — you’ll want to read this book to find out whodunnit, certainly, but you may also re-read it to see if you can catch yet another layer of wordplay that’s been buried by the clever Mr. Garrett.

So for mystery fans, you have a difficult locked-room mystery (and a light espionage plot). For fantasy fans, you have a clever alternate-history story and the interesting idea of state-regulated magic. And for paronomasiacs, you have the kind of word play that is only available when a dedicated and widely-read punster devotes considerable time and effort to burying a level of humour in a novel that’s only there if you look hard for it. I really enjoy this book, and all the Lord Darcy stories; I hope you do too.

Lord DarcyMy favourite edition

This volume and all the Lord Darcy stories have a complicated publishing history, but an interesting one. This novel originally appeared broken into sections in successive issues of Analog magazine, devoted to science fiction stories; so that’s the true first. It was then published in hardcover by Doubleday and the first paper is an ugly edition from Curtis. Someday I’ll write a monograph on how Curtis did nearly everything wrong as a publisher, mostly with covers, but choosing Garrett was one of the few good publishing decisions they ever made. All the Lord Darcy pieces by Garrett have been collected into a single compendium volume, Lord Darcy, and I think this is my “favourite” volume. My favourite is frequently the most valuable and/or the most beautiful, but in this case, it’s the most functional. If you need to flip back and forth to trace the appearance of a single character through different stories, this is how you want to do it.

Quick Look: Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout

Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout (1940)

24073PWhat’s this book about?

Take a deep breath: this will be complicated. Nero Wolfe has been overspending and a new case drops into his lap that will pay the bills. June, May, and April (oldest to youngest) are three sisters. June is a famous author whose husband is Secretary of State; May, a brilliant chemist, is the president of Varney College; and April is a celebrated star of stage and screen. When their wealthy older brother Noel dies, his will’s provisions for distribution of his multiple millions leave the sisters aghast; he’s left it all to what they are too mealy-mouthed to call his mistress, femme fatale Naomi. The sisters come to Wolfe to broker some kind of agreement — it’s not the money, they all say, it’s the scandal. Meanwhile, Noel’s widow Daisy is a bizarre figure. She had been a great beauty until the late Noel shot off a stray arrow and hit her in the face. She apparently lost an eye and is terribly scarred, but nobody knows for sure because she has worn a veil ever since. Daisy arrives at the brownstone and announces that she doesn’t care about the scandal, she wants to squash Naomi like a bug in public. The family conference deteriorates.

n61493Very shortly thereafter, we learn, in what will be a surprise to very few by now, that Noel was actually murdered and everyone is a suspect who was at his country house that weekend; all the people mentioned above plus a couple of State Department guys, a lawyer or two, a swain for the intoxicating April, and June’s two early-20s children. Everyone is gathering (for no better reason than to scrap it out en masse, it seems) and Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house to meet with them all. Many, many plot complications ensue in short order; the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that if you have a person whose features are always veiled, don’t be terribly surprised if someone impersonates her in the course of a murder mystery. The intense activity culminates in Archie Goodwin’s discovery of the second victim, about 90 seconds before Wolfe hightails it out the door so as not to be detained by the police and miss dinner.

Wolfe quickly talks to many of the principals but it’s not till he works his way down to Sara, June’s young daughter, and learns that someone has tried to steal a bunch of old photographs that she took the day of the murder, that he gets a vital piece of information. Coincident with Inspector Cramer showing up at the brownstone with a warrant to arrest him as a material witness, Wolfe delivers the murderer instead and gets to stay home counting his fee.

409f094176c73647da1f66f30edcbbc0Why is this worth reading?

Occasionally I am willing to recommend books just because they are by a certain author, mostly because, well, if you are seriously interested in this Golden Age Detection stuff then you need to have read everything this person wrote — because it’s important. Some of these are, off the top of my head, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout.   So all the work of Rex Stout gets an automatic recommendation from me. Even if it’s a lousy book, it’s still important to understand where it fits into his entire oeuvre because you have to assume that everyone else who wrote at that time and henceforth will be familiar with it.

That being said, there are not many Stout books that are dreary to plough through; even given my relaxed standards and great affection for his work, this is a pretty good book. It’s a lot of fun; there is a cheerful spirit that underlies it throughout and it almost seems as though Stout had a good time writing it. The plot moves at a HELL of a clip, darn close to the pace of a Phoebe Atwood Taylor novel or a Craig Rice story about Jake and Helene Justus. When you look back, the entire novel takes place in a completely compressed time frame that almost seems like 24 hours or so. There are lots and lots of vivid subsidiary characters, Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house on work! and, let’s face it, this book has a veiled scarred lady and three extraordinary sisters named June, May, and April. If there is anyone that’s ever put this book down halfway through, I’d like to know why and how.

b78e1e402bd573e96d98ad955f0a515aThere is also some really good writing in this book. Stout has a little writing trick I’ve noticed. He tends to not describe rooms and locations unless something is actually going to happen that requires you to know what the location looks like. So about halfway through the book when he goes into detail about what is where in something like a rec room in a mansion, with a wet bar, the Stout fan’s ears prick up just a tich. But the precise writing of that section of the book was a pleasure to re-experience. Certainly the lives of the characters and their personalities are larger than life. But there is some nicely observed writing where Archie, who has “a month ago paid a speculator five dollars and fifty cents for a ticket to Scrambled Eggs” and professes himself a big fan of April’s work, nevertheless has a moment where he sees her truly: “she came in and pressed her hands to her temples like the heroine at the end of the second act …”.

And of course the brownstone itself is eternal. Barring Johnny Keems, who … well, it’s best to read these books in chronological order, isn’t it? Wolfe is peevish and unpredictable, Archie is faintly lecherous and keenly observant, Saul, Fritz, and Fred are their usual selves, and the red leather chair is in its accustomed place. All’s right with this world.

6bd2ef9cb824cd475ba920f2a38dff3cMy favourite edition

This has in the past been a very difficult book to find in print. It’s a long story and I’m not sure I understand it all, but when Bantam acquired the Nero Wolfe novels to print as paperbacks, it was forced to leave this one book in the hands of Avon, who reprinted it sporadically and let it lie until Bantam finally acquired it. Added to which, there is a clue in the book of a group of photographs. In the first edition, and in the edition to your left, and not very many other editions, that set of photographs is reproduced in a small and fairly useless form (in the Avon edition it’s tipped in between pages 162 and 163). In most later editions, at least until fairly recently, the photographs were absent.

Anyway, my favourite edition is the one you see to the left, Avon 103, part of a brief experiment they did with putting picture frames around their book covers.  Because of its scarcity, I used to find all the editions of this book very beautiful, because they meant I would shortly be quite a bit wealthier (depending on edition); mystery bookstores used to have a long waiting list for any reading copy of this book, and the vile green undistinguished edition above could bring me $20. Those days are gone!

 

Quick Look: Petrella at Q, by Michael Gilbert

Petrella at Q, by Michael Gilbert (1977)

3810843What’s this book about?

This volume is actually a collection of short stories that were published in various outlets, including EQMM, between 1972 and 1977. I certainly haven’t gone back to the original publication; it seems to me off-handedly that these would be difficult to read in a stand-alone version since the linking information is rather scant.  I suspect that some editing may have been done to make the book more “novel-like”; I don’t mind that, but purists may want to go back to the originals.

The stories are about Patrick Petrella, the protagonist in five other volumes of short stories and one novel by Gilbert between 1959 and 1977. Petrella is at this point rising through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police (London, UK) on his way to his eventual achievement of Detective Chief Inspectorial rank. At this point in his career he has a wife and young child and is involved in the kind of “everyday peculiar” problems that every large police force must face. Here he deals with small robberies, a missing baby, petty theft, shoplifting, etc.  The stories have a great deal of charm and intelligence in the writing; we like Petrella and want him to succeed, and we get to see a kind of police procedural approach to generalized crime in society. He generally does succeed, against sometimes heavy odds, although at one point he nearly derails his own career by misinterpreting the actions of his superiors. In the final story Petrella faces off against a particularly evil criminal known as The Pole and wins, although at great personal cost to his family. He actually resigns but the final moments of the book detail two of his superior officers who think it’s likely they can convince him to withdraw his resignation, and they intend to make the effort.  (Given that there are three more volumes in the series, I think it’s safe to say they succeed.)

This volume contains an introduction by Gilbert about Patrick Petrella that is of interest to the student and will make the book easier to get into.

5320080727Why is this worth reading?

Michael Gilbert is an excellent writer who had the misfortune to be able to work in a number of different styles and backgrounds; as a result, he was difficult for publishers to pigeonhole and he possibly hasn’t had the promotional opportunities available to someone who is writing a long series about one individual. His first mystery, Close Quarters (1947) introduced us to Inspector Hazelrigg, and all the books in this series are exceptional; one, Smallbone Deceased (1950), is generally seen as a classic.  Petrella has a similar background of London police work. In the 1990s Gilbert started writing espionage novels both in a couple of series and as stand-alone entries; his stand-alone work is by far the largest portion of his output.  Personally I prefer his mysteries to his espionage work but he has adherents in both areas.

This collection of short stories is definitely a worthwhile addition to the body of work of the police procedural. Some cases for Petrella involve crimes that are petty; some are very serious. Once or twice there is humour, notably in the story about overcharging for car repairs, and one story about a group of young petty criminals has such a sad ending that it stuck with me for days. There’s one story about a clergyman working in a very poor area of London which is remarkably perceptive and unflinching in its approach to how ministers serve their flocks and the resources upon which they draw to do so (and you will probably be smiling at the end). The final story as I mentioned is quite exciting and violent and would make a great film, I think.

If you enjoy the British take on the police procedural and want a volume of uniformly good short stories to while away some moments, I recommend this and its companion volumes.  And if you want Gilbert’s best books, I endorse the selection of Smallbone Deceased but I’ll also mention a great favourite of mine, the unusual Death in Captivity (1952), a classic puzzle mystery that takes place among Allied soldiers in a prisoner of war camp.  And his first book, Close Quarters, is so Golden Age that it even has a cryptic crossword to solve as part of the volume.

2965085482My favourite edition

I don’t think there are any exceptionally beautiful editions of this book; the muddy blues and greens and 1970s typography of the first edition are not especially well conceived. (It’s depicted above.) My own copy is from the Perennial British Mystery series, shown here, a paperback imprint of Harper and Row and has a vaguely surrealistic flavour about it because of the human face where the Thames should be.

As of today’s date on Abebooks, there’s an inscribed first edition for about US$100 plus shipping; I’d be interested in owning that if I was a Gilbert completist.  But my reading copy will do me just fine.

 

 

 

Quick Look: Too Many Women, by Rex Stout

I’ve been rather lazy about blogging lately, although I have to blame the pressures of work. I just don’t have a lot of time right now to write the huge chewy treatises that are the reason I got into GAD (Golden Age of Detection) blogging in the first place. It’s not that I’ve stopped reading genre fiction, far from it. But I’m accustomed to working in a leisurely way on a 5,000-word essay and, while I have a number in various stages of done-ness, I note to my surprise it’s been five weeks since I published anything.

I think the pump needs a little priming, and so I’m going to see if I can offer brief comments on books that are passing through my hands (I have a spare room filled with books that puts me a couple of boxes away from an episode of Hoarders and so books pass through my hands a LOT).  So let’s see how this goes:

Too Many Women, by Rex Stout (1947)

260px-Stout-TMW-1What’s this book about?

I’ll have to assume you’re familiar with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, as narrated by the irrepressible Archie Goodwin.  If not, go and correct that mistake immediately (and in chronological order, if possible); these are magnificent stories.  In this one, Wolfe sends Archie undercover at the huge Kerr-Naylor Engineering Corporation to investigate the hit-and-run death of one Waldo Wilmot Moore, employed as a correspondence checker. The very handsome Moore had attracted the attention of the wife of the company’s president, as well as the favourable glances of a room full of women employed as typists and stenographers. He was loved by women and hated by men. Archie goes in as a new employee with a flimsy cover story and soon runs up against Mr. Kerr Naylor — mid-level executive with impeccable family credentials whose mean-spirited attitude towards his fellow humans horrifies Archie, and whose abstemious vegetarian diet horrifies Wolfe. When Kerr Naylor also gets a little run down ;-) Archie intensifies his efforts and solves the case. In the meantime he runs up against an assortment of women to whom he reacts in his characteristic way.

rstoomanywomen0581Why is this worth reading?

Any Nero Wolfe novel is definitely worth reading, and that’s my starting position. They’re all better done than your run-of-the-mill detective novel; the prose is sparkling and the characterization is delightful.

In this outing, Archie is more than usually involved with women suspects and/or women informants, ranging from pretty secretaries who can’t spell right up to the middle-aged wealthy lady in mink who wants Archie to replace Waldo Moore as her — well, “escort” gives you the wrong idea. Let’s say “close personal friend”. But the high point of the book is the characterization of the acidulous Kerr Naylor, who takes Archie to what in 1947 was called a “health-food restaurant”, Fountain of Health. Naylor orders “a raw unholy mess” called “Today’s Vitanutrita Special” and follows it up with Pink Steamer — hot water with tangerine juice. Archie orders three apples and a glass of milk and saves the story for later, to annoy Wolfe.

Oh, and this is one of the novels where Archie and Wolfe are having a spat and thus making it more difficult for each other to solve the case. I expect this is because the solution would not occupy either of them very long, and this book is quite slender as it is. That merely means, for a writer of Stout’s excellence, that the story is fairly tight and moves quickly; not the brownstone’s finest moment, but none of the volumes are a disgrace.

As I noted above, I recommend that you experience these books in chronological order if you can; this is middle-period Stout, which contains what are perhaps his finest moments, but this is only a B or B+ outing.  If you read it out of order, you won’t be disappointed, but a chronological reading will allow you to build up goodwill for ordinary excursions in between the truly fine works.

Toomanywoman2My favourite edition

My favourite edition is definitely my beautiful, near-mint copy of Bantam 722, a worn copy of which is the picture shown to the left. It illustrates for me that a copy of just about any book in near-fine condition is worth paying a premium to acquire, because the value will increase as long as you maintain the quality. I paid about $35 for mine perhaps 20 years ago, and I note a similar copy on AbeBooks today listed at $157 plus shipping.  Ah, if only they all appreciated like that!

Other than that, the first edition is attractive and then there is a large morass of similar editions from Bantam, with very little to tell them apart from other volumes.