Death Through the Mill, by Laura Colburn (1979)

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of mysteries go through my hands. My fondness for collectible paperbacks has taught me that if it’s unusual and weird, or even inexplicable, then it goes into my collection. The ugly, the silly, the ridiculous, and the meretricious — all these things have found a home in Noah’s Archives.

I’ll have to confess here, though, that occasionally I guess wrong about the future demand for certain books. Today’s book is an example of just how wrong I have occasionally been.

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

9780890835258-us-300What is this book about?

The interest in this book lies not so much in what it is “about” but how it was packaged and produced. But to keep to my format, I’ll give you a plot summary first and discuss the production later.

Carol Gates is a freelance artist who has been selected to illustrate a volume of true-crime stories written by well-known writer Henry Marston, who lives in Millerton, a charming small town in Vermont. Henry is engaged in renovating a quaint old mill with a long history into a living and working space, as well as writing his new book. After she’s spent a few days getting to know the author, and the inhabitants and history of Millerton, she discovers Henry’s body — after it’s been mangled by a trip through the mill wheel.

Carol has solved a mystery before (Death in a Small World, #23 in this series) and thus finds it perfectly natural to investigate what she believes to be a murder, even though she knows no one in town — her father is the sheriff of a nearby town and an old friend of Millerton’s sheriff, and this gives her just enough purchase to manage an investigation. Is the motive concerned with the bad blood surrounding a collapsed real-estate deal to locate a ski hill near Millerton? Or perhaps one of the instances of historical feuding among members of the older families in Millerton? Is it concerned with a string of local burglaries? Or is it something that no one’s thought of except in passing, to do with antique furniture or the history of the mill itself?

After realizing the truth and arranging to confront the killer and prove her theory, Carol finds herself “trapped in total darkness with an enraged, desperate killer”. Luckily she thought to arrange backup and thus has the chance to explain all the mysterious goings-on after the killer is arrested.

Why is this book worth your time?

As a mystery, it’s not worth a minute of your time. The writing is … ghastly. It’s as though the author worked with a copy of some entry-level textbook on “how to write a mystery” and ticked off the points one by one as they were achieved, but taking great pleasure in seeing how many cliches it would be possible to work into the text. Here’s a horrible portent of things to come from page one, sentence two, where the author takes a moment to acquaint the reader with a physical description of the detective:

As she passed the coat closet, she stopped, opened the door, and scanned her reflection in the full-length mirror. She noted with approval the calm, unfurrowed brow, the wide gray eyes, the long aristocratic nose, the noncommital set of the lips. She ignored the paint-stained khaki shirt, several sizes too large, and the torn jeans rolled up almost to the knee. She nodded with almost royal condescension to the image in the mirror, then let her lips curve into a grin and shouted, ‘Whee!’

Is that not what everyone does in the morning, stand in front of the mirror and do a quick up-and-down with approval? Stopping to notice that our brows are unfurrowed and that our lips are set in a non-committal way — whatever that means — but skipping entirely over anything below the neck except to note that it’s thoroughly covered. Yes, every single bit of prose in this book is dumbed down to that horrible level of G-rated pap. And to quote a cheeseball text that purports to teach novice writers the mistakes they shouldn’t make, this is a “description dump” on page one. Just the first of many dumps to come, believe me.

The experienced reader will begin to take pleasure in just how horrible this novel is … when the protagonist arrives in Millerton, for instance, and meets her landlady, who greets her with a home-cooked meal and an indigestible chapter of backstory — sorry, local history. The landlady’s name is not Mrs. Exposition, but it should be.

Everything in this book makes an episode of Murder, She Wrote look daring and avant-garde. It’s a massive wad of half-understood writing cliches, presented in a prose style that is apparently aimed at ESL students, and culminating in a denouement that is so massively predictable, it’s very nearly boring. You’ll be flipping through the part where the murderer is threatening the detective in what the author no doubt thought of as the “gripping climax”, because it’s patently obvious that she’ll survive. Although, like me, you may be wishing otherwise.

Here’s something that brought a smile to my non-commital lips 😉 when I realized the full value of just how horrible this writing was. Carol’s been given the job of illustrating this true crime book, and drives up to Vermont to meet with the author — and they never spend a moment talking about the job for the first week she’s there. They even mention this oversight every once in a while in the first half of the book, in the manner of, “Gee, we really should talk about this, but I’m too busy right now laying a trail of red herrings with a subsidiary character — why don’t you come up to my place tomorrow and discover my body, so we’ll never have to think about this again?” It begs the question of why anyone would bother to illustrate a true crime book with Carol’s cute drawings anyway, but that is not the only mysterious gap in logic in this horrible book. They come at you so thick and fast, you’ll hardly notice one over another.

There is, in fact, a reason why I purchased this book, other than its general level of illiterate awfulness. As you’ll note from the cover above, it’s #34 in the series of Zebra Mystery Puzzlers. And I think the blurb on the cover will explain the idea better than I can:

Can you solve the crime by finding the clues in the story, on the cover, and in the illustrations — before you cut open the final sealed chapter? / The novel that lets YOU be the detective!

Yes, Gentle Reader, that’s the point of this. YOU are the detective, because you have the opportunity to examine a series of terrible drawings that are scattered through the text, to read the descriptive passages that explain what you are seeing, and solve the crime.

The shoe and crank.pngHere’s an example of what the terrible drawings look like — and please pardon my limited photographic capacity. If you weren’t told on the facing page that “The rusty crank rested on the desk, next to a plastic bag that contained the fatal shoe,” would you have known? The clue, such as it is, is the series of parallel scratches on the sole of the shoe. Oh, sorry, the fatal shoe. Why it’s the fatal shoe, I have no idea, other than the fact that the victim was wearing it. Since it’s clear that the artist has no idea what a mill-wheel crank looks like, neither shall we, so it’s conveniently slithered off to the side of the desk. That tells you that it’s not a clue. Immediately after this is revealed, “Carol stirred herself,” so in the burst of laughter that the experienced reader will emit at the thought of Carol as a self-mixing cup of coffee, you’ll forget all about the crank anyway.

And then, of course, the “final sealed chapter”. Indeed, the last signature (eight double-sided pages) has been bound into the book without being cut, so that — if you have suffered a traumatic brain injury or have an IQ hovering around room temperature in Fahrenheit and thereby failed to solve the mystery — you will not be in any danger of discovering the identity of the murderer without the deliberate act of cutting the pages. Here is what most of us know from the pages of Ellery Queen and Rupert Penny as the “Challenge to the Reader”:

It's your turn.pngAnd be sure to Write your Answers Here!, because otherwise how would the next reader have her enjoyment spoiled? The author does not, after the manner of C. Daly King, provide a “clue finder” to tell you exactly which clues were where. That’s because there’s so much denouement crammed into the final eight pages that they actually have to be printed in a type size about two points smaller than the rest of the text, so there isn’t room to explain anything like that.

8af78c9a-9b65-11e5-966a-5ac58b93acfbSo my faithful readers will now be well down the path of just why I have half a box of these damn Zebra Mystery Puzzlers in my basement, and as many as possible with an uncut final chapter. I’m too young to have been able to buy “dossier novels” when they first came out, but I know that these exercises in detection now command a fancy price in the marketplace. A 1936 original of Murder Off Miami is today selling for more than $100US, and even the 1979 reprint is commanding a hefty price. I can’t describe these better than has a bookseller on ABEBooks, so I’ll quote him:

The four crime dossiers devised by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links in the 1930s were a completely original novelty and, at least initially, immensely popular both in Britain and around the world. Although there had been ‘solve it yourself’ crime books in the past, such as the ‘Baffle Books’ created by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay, Wheatley and Links were to take the format one or more steps further. What makes the crime dossiers so unique was that they presented the reader with all the evidence that an investigating team of detectives might gather and then ask him to solve the crime. To this end, a variety of physical clues and reports were housed together in a cardboard folder, which if worked through methodically as any detective might, would yield the correct solution to the problem. Having used deduction to arrive at a prime suspect, the reader could then check his findings with the actual solution to the mystery that was concealed within a sealed section towards the rear of the folder.

Yes, you guessed it. I rather thought back in the day that Zebra Mystery Puzzlers were to the 1970s as crime dossiers were to the 1930s, and that today my forethought in laying down uncut copies of as many ZMPs as possible would pay off in the future. But alas, they have not. Zebra even commissioned a couple of these from a fairly well-known author, Ron Goulart (they’re the ones as by Josephine Kains, if you’re curious), and those two sell for a slightly higher price — perhaps $8 for an uncut copy. My own (cut) copy of Death Through the Mill cost me $4, and I think I probably paid three times what it’s worth today. I note today on eBay that you can get a package of eight uncut ZMPs, including one of the Goulart titles, for $20.

Well, I hope my foolish investment has given you a moment of amusement … Now you know that experienced paperback collectors have to lay down a lot of bottles of plonk in the cellars to come up with the occasional desirable vintage. I hope your own collecting instincts are better than mine!

Obelists at Sea, by C. Daly King (1932)

WARNING: 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 many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Note that there seems to be some small disagreement among booksellers as to whether this book was first published in 1932 or 1933.  Since my copy of Hubin is not at hand, I’m going with what Penguin says in the frontispiece to the copy from which I prepared this review, October 1932.  

And also note: according to a brief note before the book begins, an “Obelist” is a person of little or no value.

13187293416What’s this book about?

Many of the passengers and some of the crew on the S. S. Meganaut, making a trans-Atlantic journey, are gathered in the “smoking room” to attend an auction of “the numbers”. (Passengers lay wagers upon the number of miles to be traveled by the vessel the next day by bidding for the right to own a specific number; the winner may take in more than a thousand dollars, which was a huge sum in 1932 dollars.) Bidding against each other are the wealthy Mr. Smith, traveling with his lovely daughter, and Mr. DeBrasto, a New York lawyer, for the right to own 648, felt to have the best chance of sweeping the pool; the auction has reached $800 and there is felt to be some acrimony between the two men.

Suddenly a number of things happen one after the other in rapid succession. The lights in the smoking room begin to fade and dim to blackness; a woman’s voice from the doorway bids one thousand dollars; there are sounds of breaking glass and a noise of gunshots. When the emergency lights come on, Mr. Smith is dead on the floor, apparently from a bullet to the heart; Miss Smith is lying in a dead faint from which she cannot be roused, and her valuable pearl necklace is missing.

The aficionado of GAD will be delighted to learn that although Mr. Smith’s corpse contains two bullets, both of which appear to have entered his heart simultaneously through the same hole — he did not die of the bullets but from a poisoned cocktail some minutes before. The same poison has affected the young lady to lesser degree, since she only took a single sip of her drink; she is close to death but remains comatose. A number of people in the smoking room were armed and firing shots; a small rubber bulb that had contained poison is found in the pocket of one of the suspects.

C. Daly King

C. Daly King, apparently at sea

Although most of the rest of the events of the book I should and shall leave for your reading pleasure, the remainder of the plot concerns four world-class psychologists who are traveling on the Meganaut. Each apparently represents a distinct school of psychological thought and they collectively offer a hand to investigate the crimes, each one for a few chapters. (I recommend you speak these next names aloud so you’ll more quickly understand the type of book this is, although occasionally the names are missing a key syllable.) Dr. John B. Hayvier (a behaviouralist) first looks into the crimes in chapters sur-titled “Conditioning”, Dr. Rudolph Plechs’s (of the psychoanalytic school) segment is called “Inferiorities”, that of Dr. L. Rees Pons is called “Dominance”, and finally Professor Knott Mittle’s section is called “Middle grounding” (he apparently represents a kind of centrist viewpoint of the “integrative psychology” school that encompasses the other three theorists). Each approaches these events armed with the knowledge of what has gone before, but colours it through his own theories about human psychology. This extends beyond mere theory; one psychologist administers a timed word-association test to a suspect in order to try to demonstrate guilt or innocence.

In a concluding chapter called “The Criminal: Trial and Error”, the investigating team sets a trap for the guilty party, whose identity should be greatly surprising to the reader. There is a lengthy sequence that explains exactly what happened, how, and by whose hand — some of which is known, but much of which will also be quite surprising — as the book ends.

3472877575Why is this worth reading?

Last December, I did a post here about how I would like to read, for Christmas, some extremely unobtainable volumes whose properties combined scarcity and value. Obelists at Sea was one of those books. As far as I know, there is a single paperback edition, Penguin #160, which was published in England in 1938. Since this pre-dates the first North American paperback (Pocket #1 was published in New York in September, 1939), and Britain had extensive paper drives during World War II, its scarcity is easy to understand. The hardcovers are even more valuable due to rarity and age; a near-fine copy of the Knopf first edition (with black Art Deco design on silver cloth — gorgeous!) with the super-rare jacket is offered today on ABE for US$850 and the two available paperbacks are about US$50 each.

A very kind British reader of my letter to Santa got in touch and offered me a copy of Penguin #160 from his personal collection.  I will repay his generosity by not mentioning his name because he’d be inundated with requests for similar great favours, but I will simply thank him with this review.  My copy won’t be leaving my shelves any time soon!

I actually did have a copy of this in my hands once before; my friend, the Edgar-winning author L. A. Morse, whose book collection is exceptional, let me sit in his home and read his first edition over an evening and I gobbled it down, retaining only an impression of what I’d read and few of the details. That was in the 1970s and I was delighted to re-encounter this delightful book because, as you can imagine, I’d forgotten most of the details.

Yes, this is a very difficult mystery to solve, and I don’t think the average reader will manage it. I certainly didn’t, even the second time around. And it’s not exceptional in its “fair play” aspects. One key clue that would immediately solve the mystery is held back by it being enciphered for police secrecy, and the officer who receives it neglects to decode it until the case is solved. There are some complications to the plot, like the two bullets that enter the same wound, that seem more designed to astound the reader and snarl the solution to no purpose.

But there are a couple of things about this book that are so interesting that it seems that this scarce book lives up to its reputation. One is that it has on every page the very rare feeling that the author is having a great deal of fun writing this book, and that’s just a great thing to read, because it communicates to the reader and provides pleasure. I do not mean that this book is about a trans-Atlantic journey of the nature of John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber. In no sense is this a farce; but the names of the psychologists, Drs. (com)Plechs and B. Havier for instance, should give you the flavour of the charm of this book. There’s also a character named Mr. Younghusband and another whose name is I. Gnosens — innocence.  There is very little realism that’s being attempted here, and that makes it slightly easier to take that the reader must accept that the victim was shot twice but died of being poisoned, et cetera. This book is fun, but not silly.

obelists_sea_coverSpeaking of fun; apparently the definition of “obelist” differs with each of King’s three Obelists mysteries. (The third is the unbelievably scarce Obelists En Route, which I am told takes place on a train. Someday I hope to find out.) In Obelists Fly High, for instance, it’s defined as “someone who views with suspicion”. Well, when you make up words, you get to define them however you like!

The other thing that’s interesting about this book is the way in which the four competing schools of psychology are depicted and contrasted. The author was a well-known psychologist who had written a 1932 volume called The Psychology of Consciousness that apparently led the way in its field — he knew what he was talking about. No doubt if you were a world-class psychologist in 1932, this novel would have been absolutely hilarious, and King apparently had to make it clear at the time that he was absolutely not mocking real people with his psychologist characters. I’m not sufficiently educated in the history of psychology to completely understand what’s going on here, but I imagine the theories and ideas that are tossed around in the course of this mystery were very cutting-edge for 1932. In this aspect this book is a “don’s delight”; we’re privileged to overhear the shoptalk of advanced scientific theorists being applied to a rather far-fetched plot structure. But not too seriously; one of the four is hesitant to accept the concept of consciousness at all, and keeps saying so.


C. Daly King

And all things considered, this book is very satisfying. When you learn the identity of the murderer, your reaction is likely to be something like my own: “Oh, rats, I missed that completely!”  Yes, the author’s antics have misdirected you completely and you didn’t think about where people were at a crucial time. Well done, Mr. King.

So — a fun book, with a lovely sense of humour underlying it; an exotic mystery with extremely unusual amateur detectives investigating it; and an extremely difficult puzzle mystery at the heart of it all. I wish you the best of luck in finding your own copy. Given the current interest in classic Golden Age mysteries, I certainly hope an enterprising publisher can acquire the rights to these great mysteries by C. Daly King and make it possible for more than a lucky few people to read them.

The most unobtainable of all of King’s work is a very sad story. Apparently his sales were not very good and he finished a mystery in about 1941 that was never published, because he was dropped by his publishers. But it should give us the hope that someday someone will bring us THAT novel.

My favourite edition

Trust me, any edition of this that you manage to acquire will be your favourite; until and unless this gets reprinted, it will probably be the only one you ever see. For a book hound like me to hold only two copies in 50 years makes it likely that you’re not going to find one at the Junior League Thrift Shop; if you do, you’ll probably have to fistfight a bookseller to get it out of the store.

But if you’ve just won the lottery, the first American edition, with the striking design in black ink on silver cloth, is just lovely. If you had it in original jacket, that would be delightful. In the meantime, I really do like my copy of Penguin #160. Early greenbacks have a kind of literary dignity with their uniform design that did not translate well to the aspirations of American publishers, and they are always nice to look at.


The Murder that had Everything!, by Hulbert Footner (1939)

12540270_10208104766567176_726760561_nWARNING: 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 many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

Mystery writer and well-known New York amateur detective Amos Lee Mappin is called in by pretty socialite Peggy Brocklin, whose $40 million have been abandoned before the altar by a disappearing fiance, Rene Doria.  Rene is not from the highest drawer; in fact, he’s a coarsely handsome nobody who’s spent the last four years in Hollywood trying to get into the movies, and he captivated Peggy with his sexual magnetism. A man like that always has more than one woman on the string to provide the large sums of money that fuel his activities, and we soon meet the wealthy and middle-aged Mrs. Vosper, who loaned Doria a valuable piece of  jewelry when he said he was in a jam. Mappin quickly locates Doria, or at least his lifeless body, and nearby in his apartment are three clues. One is a flower — prepared to be worn in a man’s lapel. The second is a strange doodle on a desk blotter, with four dots in the centre of a circle. (Much as you see on the cover of the latest edition, depicted at the top of this review.) And the third is a tiny piece of broken glass that has a strange shape; maddeningly familiar but unidentifiable.

As Mappin continues to investigate, he has occasion to take advice from a couple of well-connected reporters on the society circuit, including Beau Gramercy, whose column can make or break anyone in modern cafe society. Using his extensive contacts in the upper social echelons, Mappin starts to uncover the outlines of something larger than this isolated incident, where a number of handsome impoverished men have been systematically fleecing wealthy women. The detective identifies the mastermind behind these schemes and solves the case.

1363Why is this worth reading?

If you aren’t familiar with the life story of Hulbert Footner, I recommend you to his Wikipedia article found here. I’m a Canadian, and he was too — but I wouldn’t recommend you to his work merely for that, or that he explored the rather remote area of the Canadian Rockies in which I live in 1911 and gave his name to Lake Footner in northwestern Alberta. He was at various time an actor and a dramatist, but eventually settled into writing detective fiction until his death in 1944. This is one of the writers who used to have the most interesting biographic paragraphs on the inside back jacket flap … not much seen these days. That alone might interest you in his work, though.

He wrote two different detective series. His first was from a series of short stories in a “slick” magazine about Madame Rosika Storey that were accumulated into books, and these are perhaps his best-known works. But later in his career he switched over to writing about mystery novelist Amos Lee Mappin, protagonist of this novel, who moved in New York’s cafe society. Both detectives have young women who assist them in something of the Watson role; this is an unusual thing in GAD and gives both series a bit of proto-feminist interest. Really, though, it seems to me as though he was merely writing for a female audience.

dell0074And in terms of a female audience, I thought this book was very interesting. Without revealing too much about the book and potentially spoiling your enjoyment, I can say that the criminality that underlies the book is the getting of money from wealthy women who become emotionally involved with the wrong man. Some of it seems like blackmail, some of it seems like merely … social pressure. It can’t be easy to be young, pretty, and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the world, if you happen to meet a devilishly handsome “bad boy” who sweeps you off your feet.

dell0074backSo the crime here is one in which men prey on women, and Amos Lee Mappin and the young woman who assists him together find out who is guilty and stop the blackmail. An interesting story and an interesting premise for a story at a time when, even though women were reading detective fiction in large numbers, they weren’t finding themselves often represented as either the partners of male investigators or the targets of large-scale criminal operations.

At least, that’s the point I was going to make when I first started to write this review. Because up until then, the picture in my mind was of a charming piece of GAD written in the 1920s. Nothing disturbed my picture of a detective of the early 1920s; everything that was described seemed to be contributing to this picture, whether it was clothes, patterns of speech, and a specific detail that I cannot explain for the sake of your potential enjoyment, but which explains two of the three main clues noted above. Then I realized that this had been published in 1939! It really did surprise me, and I went looking for evidence that this had been written and kept in a drawer for 15 years, or perhaps was a re-writing of an earlier book or story … but no. This book was written in 1939 but if you start the book with the presumption that you are in 1924, you won’t be any worse off.

This, to me, is strange stuff, and I can’t explain it. I mean, more famous authors like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, as they advanced in age and were nearing the end of their careers, wrote books that took place in the year of publication and yet contained the attitudes, vocabulary, and social mores of a time 20 or 30 years earlier. I suspect that the context is long gone that will let me understand how this book achieved publication when it, to me, seems to be completely out of step with its context. I mean, 1939 — the year of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Rawson’s Footprints on the Ceiling, and Stout’s Some Buried Caesar. Okay, this book is not quite antimacassars and voh-de-oh-doh, but neither is it seemingly set in the same social context as any of those novels, all with wealthy women who do pretty much what they choose.

Anyway — unless you are over 90 and read this when it first came out, and have a social context in which you can place it, you’re probably going to enjoy this novel; just ignore the copyright date and revel in a time when “cafe society” meant something different than hanging with your crew at Starbucks.

My favourite edition

Full disclosure: Although I’ve had the Dell mapback edition shown above for years, and even read it way back when, I’d quite forgotten about this minor work until Coachwhip was kind enough to send me a review copy of the edition shown at the head of this review. I’m sorry to say that my first love will always be for the mapback, but I have to say this is an attractive modern edition. The typography is attractive and the book has a nice hand-feel to it, in weight and cover finish; I am happy to see that Coachwhip avoids the bad habits of other small presses and sticks to simple cover designs like the one here.  I venture to guess that their edition will be about the same price as a Very Good to Near-Fine copy of Dell #74, the first paperback edition, and will look considerably less lurid on your shelves. So call this one my second favourite, but if there weren’t a mapback, it might be my first.



The Hog’s Back Mystery, by Freeman Wills Crofts (1933)

$_57WARNING: 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 many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Note: This book was also published in the US under the title The Strange Case of Dr. Earle, although that title is considerably more uncommon.

9781842323960What’s this book about?

In the opening chapters, we are introduced to a small-scale domestic situation near Hog’s Back, which is a geographic feature of Britain’s North Downs (and close to where the author lived). Dr. and Mrs. Earle, and the doctor’s assistant physician Dr. Campion, are entertaining some house guests, Julia Earle’s sister Marjorie Lawes, and their mutual friend Ursula Stone. Everything is bucolic on the surface, but Ursula soon learns that her hostess appears to be conducting at least a flirtation with rabbit-faced young Reggie Slade from the next-door manor. (Everyone else is close to middle age or beyond.) When Ursula visits Dr. Campion’s sister Alice, who lives close by, she confirms that the Earles are not the happy couple they seem on the surface; Julia has a roving eye and likes to spend money, and the spouses quarrel frequently. Then, quite by accident, Ursula sees Dr. Earle giving a lift to a striking woman whom she doesn’t recognize — and the doctor later lies about where he was at the time.

The evening before she leaves, Julia spends the evening with Dr. Campion, Alice, and another sister Flo, talking about old times and admiring Dr. Campion’s woodworking shop. The party drives Ursula back to the Earles’ home only to learn that, in the last few hours, Dr. Earle has mysteriously vanished from the house, hatless and wearing house slippers.

The household raises the alarm and begins to search the grounds and vicinity, but Dr. Earle, alive or dead, is nowhere to be found. The local constabulary is also unable to locate any trace and so Inspector French of Scotland Yard is called in.

mlhd0mHMQFTtqcpu0kN_GbwFrom this point, the remainder of the novel is told from French’s view. He repeats his thorough search and then begins to widen the net, trying to consider whether Earle has disappeared of his own accord or by the acts of an enemy. There are a couple of tiny clues that are more loose ends than anything concrete, but French investigates Ursula Stone’s sighting of the striking woman in more depth. Similarly he takes in the information about the possible extra-marital activities of both the Earles into account.

I think you’ll enjoy this book more if I say very little about the plot beyond this point. I’ll merely say that two more people connected with the strange case of Dr. Earle also vanish mysteriously, and Inspector French’s dogged and painstaking investigation of the underlying crimes and motives occupies the entire remainder of the novel. He learns many things about many people, finds some tiny physical clues from which he gleans a surprisingly large amount of information, traces everyone’s movements in the smallest detail, and all in all exhibits magnificent police skills that allow him to solve the crime and enable the guilty to be punished. The ending is quite surprising, especially in some details of what really happened and the degree to which the crime was planned in advance.

6546Why is this worth reading?

In this blog post from last year, I talked about the difference between the police procedural and what I call the “detective novel”. This, to me, is a detective novel, because it follows the actions and thinking of a single detective as he solves a single crime. I agree that there are other levels of the Scotland Yard/constabulary organization in play here, especially the wonderfully-named Sergeant Sheepshanks; they do things like follow people around and confirm French’s suspicions about various elements of the case. Importantly to the distinction, though, we don’t really partake of their investigatory thoughts. Indeed the constabulary function is pretty much to leap to the wrong investigatory conclusion so that Inspector French looks smarter.

This is, in fact, a timetable novel. And what is a timetable novel? Rather a specialty of Crofts, who may not have invented it but certainly perfected it. Essentially Inspector French starts investigating the alibis of every person in his case, in order to find who might have been at a certain place at a certain time. One character’s perfect alibi cannot be confirmed in some detail, or seems a little off.  French digs and digs and worries at every tiny portion of the alibi until a thread comes loose, and he is finally able to demonstrate that the perfect alibi has been hocussed by the murderer in some complicated and difficult way. The reason this is known as a timetable novel is — well, let me give you a quote that shows the issue for Inspector French. (I’ve omitted full names so as not to give too much away.)

“But this matter of the alibi was fundamental to his progress. … Item by item he went over the thing again in his mind, with the sole result of becoming more puzzled than ever. X and his car were definitely at Petersfield at 4.0 p.m. Of that there could be no doubt; it was checked by the people he had visited. From St. Kilda to Petersfield was something like 21 miles, part of it over narrow and twisting roads. It would be impossible to run the distance in half an hour. But at 3.30 W was alive. The servant, L, had seen her just before going out. And L had unquestionably caught the bus which passed the house at 3.35. There was her own evidence, and that of the friends to whom she was going, as also of the bus company as to their service, all of which points French had checked. It was certain, therefore, that X could not have committed the murder before reaching Petersfield.”

970Note the phrase, “all of which points French had checked.” We have indeed met “the servant, L,” and had her evidence, and we have seen that French is delighted to telephone or visit bus companies — or any other corporation — to find out that the 3.35 bus had run on time that day, and if not why not. French, indeed, is like Robert Heinlein’s character of Anne, the Fair Witness — who, when asked what colour a distant horse is, says, “It’s white on this side.” Inspector French checks everything right down to the smallest detail and we get to see him do it.

To me, this is delightful stuff. Some critics of Crofts will suggest that his work is lacking in characterization and I entirely agree. The servant, L, for example, is barely even there. There’s not a word of description of what she looks like, merely a recitation of her evidence. One lady “replied frigidly, but with evident irritation” to one of French’s questions, and this is pretty much the only description of her emotional state that we are given (although she is quite condescending to him in a way that you can only get by reading the entire exchange). These aren’t really characters as we know them in modern novels. They are little plastic figures that French is moving around a board, trying to figure out what happened. I expect Crofts would have said that he deliberately kept characterization out of it, so that the grander game of the solution to the puzzle could get on without causing false trails due to one or another character being more vivid or dramatic than others. Part of it for me is that, although French is faultlessly polite, he doesn’t really care or need to care about the emotions of the people with whom he interacts, except as those emotions provide a possible motive for criminal actions; at least, that seems to allow me to suspend my disbelief that a man who can spot a fragment of paper with a few letters on it can fail to notice that a woman is furious at his questions.

But without characterization, what we have is a large scale logic problem that we see solved before us by Inspector French. It’s not quite as cold and artificial as “The lady in blue who lives next door to the man who owns the sheepdog is not named Barker.” People are variously unhappy; they are sad when they lose their loved ones, and they are angry at being involved on the periphery of a murder investigation even though they have nothing to do with it. But to be honest, this whole book is about the experience of watching Inspector French solving this puzzle, and feeling on-side with him as he does it.

This is cleverly built in two ways. One is that Crofts has written this particular volume to lead you down a certain garden path; French doesn’t jump to conclusions, but it seems as though he gets to the gist of a clue a millisecond before the reader does. He has his little “aha!” moment, and then you do … because Crofts has phrased it in such a way that the reader allows himself the tiny logical leap that isn’t perhaps justified, but is very satisfying. “By golly, I’ll bet *I* could have been a Scotland Yard inspector, I figured that out!” Yes, because Crofts carefully led you to the threshold and let French carry you over. The second cleverness is that we find it easy to identify with French because he’s so damn … nice. He’s four-square and plays the game and is pukka sahib and stiff upper lip and any number of other cliches that purport to describe the essential goodness of the British character. He is straight up with his suspects; in fact it’s charming to see him getting pouty when they accuse him of trying to trick them. He is thoroughly married, it seems, and never has an impure thought about any female. But he does disapprove of inappropriate behaviour among any of the classes, disreputable servants and rakish aristos coming in for a larger share of his internal tsk-tsking.

In this volume, I came across a tiny paragraph that just sums up Inspector French to me.

“Tired but not discouraged, French went out after dinner to try what Farnham could do in the way of amusement. He saw a first-rate film about a trainload of persons who were held up by bandits in the disturbed East, but who after surprising adventures safely reached their journey’s end, and much refreshed in mind, he went up to bed.”

And that’s the guy I want to investigate my murder. As near as I can tell, Crofts is indicating by French’s choice of cinematic entertainment that he is either of the upper reaches of the lower classes, or, more probably, in the middle or artisan class. This is not the film that an upper-class person would have chosen; it seems wholesome, unromantic, and un-bawdy and thus would not attract servants. I like Inspector French; I would like to entertain this shy little man to dinner and hear the stories of his adventures after a brandy or two. And Crofts has given him just enough personality to make that the case, possibly because it stretches the limits of his skill at characterization to do so. Not too little — not too much, so that he anticipates modern ScandiNoir. Just right.

When considering any Golden Age mystery, I try to always find things in the book that educate me about the social context at the time. Here there is frankly very little of interest … nothing of the minutiae of everyday life that I find so fascinating. There were a few points that interested me, though. My understanding is that Crofts was what one might think of as a “moral” writer — PG-13, in modern parlance — and I was surprised at the general attitude in this book towards the possibility of both Dr. Earle and his wife having an extra-marital affair. To be honest, there is not really a suggestion that either party is slipping off for a cinq-à-sept with anyone; the idea is that one spouse would have occasion to complain about the potentially inappropriate friendships of the other. Certainly there is disapproval and a sense that the spouses are making a mistake. But there’s nothing that indicates they’re going to lose their social status as a result, and that interested me.  However, it’s difficult to analyze what the absence of a reaction in a novel means.

There are certainly things in this book about which I want to learn more. Apparently, for instance, DIY types in 1933 were being offered the chance to construct a doll’s house from pre-made pieces, and this was an unexceptional idea. And there is quite a bit of observational material that depends upon the social status of a hospital nurse in society that is tantalizingly enigmatic. Crofts is not precise about whether he thinks a member of the upper classes is having it off with a nurse; it’s as though the characters are all agreed that either “Yes, that’s the sort of thing nurses do,” or “No, nurses would never do THAT” — but they don’t tell you what their assumption is. The unspoken assumptions are much more clear to the author, the characters, and the putative readers than they are to me. She’s not quite a servant and not quite a member of the middle class. I remember a reference in another mystery to a servant who was addressed as Cook, and who was voluble about one’s employer having to pay for the privilege of “calling you out of your name”. Parlourmaids were merely Judkins or Smoot, but one had to be earning a larger salary to be called Cook — or Nurse, as this lady was. And yet not a member of the professional or artisan classes — almost like French himself. I’m sure Miss Silver or Miss Marple could lay it out for me in detail, but the social context is just a little elusive in this novel.

There’s an elegant conceit at the end of this novel that I feel compelled to mention. In the “blow-off” in the final pages, where Inspector French Explains It All To You, there is the very scarce device of the “clue finder”. That is to say, when Inspector French says that he noticed such-and-such a clue, you are referred to the page upon which the revelation took place, so in the e-version the last chapter is a forest of hyperlinks. This is actually very good for the novice mystery-solver, who can bounce around in the book and know just where they’ve gone wrong. There aren’t many mystery writers who expended the time to put in these clue-finders; Crofts, Ronald Knox,  John Dickson Carr, and C. Daly King are among the few. It signals that, whatever caveats you may wish to put upon the definition, the author of a book containing a clue-finder is trying to “play fair” with the reader, and I like that.

Summing up: reading this novel is rather like sitting behind the shoulder of Inspector French as he solves the case, but it’s less like an exciting narrative and more like someone who has enlisted your help to solve a difficult crossword. French seems to get there just a moment before the reader does, and to this reader at least, that’s a very enjoyable experience. There’s no real way that the reader could determine why the criminal plot works the way it does, so all that you can do is observe the clues as French sees them and hope to put them together before he does. The plot is tricky, and the solution to the puzzle is difficult but based on clues that you can look back and see. French is a charming detective with whom to share the experience.

My experience is that Crofts novels appeal to a wide spectrum of readers, which I think is unusual. Admittedly there is none of the depth of characterization that seems to attract many readers to the modern mystery, but Inspector French has a quality that I term “charm” that carries this novel (and many other adventures of Inspector French) very successfully to a satisfying conclusion. If you like the idea of a timetable mystery, you’ll really like this one.

I realize that I have been known to focus on rare mysteries that cost a lost of money if you are lucky enough to find one to purchase. It’s therefore delightful to say that for once you can have this novel inexpensively with the click of a mouse; it’s in print in both paper and e-book and available on Amazon at prices ranging from $7.27 to $150-plus.  My thanks to British Library Crime Classics for bringing this great mystery back into print.

Crofts-HogPBMy favourite edition

Although the first editions, both US and UK, are very attractive indeed, and worth the pretty prices that I see on online bookselling sites — I like the look of the Pan paperback you see at the left very much indeed. The colours are beautiful, the antique wood-cut look is very attractive and the artwork is dramatic and striking. Even the typography and general design evoke a period of Pan when they were at their height in selecting good mysteries for their line. I’d love to have a copy of this one.

However, my current favourite edition is the British Library Crime Classic reissue in shades of sage green seen at the head of this article. Not only is the faux-30s illustration done very well indeed, but it has the added benefit of a good introduction by mystery expert and fiction writer Martin Edwards, who produced an engrossing history of the Detection Club last year. Martin Edwards gives you enough background information about Crofts himself to make the book’s context more interesting, and the little introductory essay is a pleasant appetizer before the meat of the novel.


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

The Tuesday Night BloggersIn the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary, it was proposed recently that some members of our Golden Age of Detection Facebook group should undertake “The Tuesday Club Murders”, which has transmogrified into the Tuesday Night Bloggers. Simply put, we’re going to publish a Christie piece every Tuesday in October. You’ll find a list of participants and associated links on Curtis’s blog. We’ve recently decided to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.


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

Unknown#5: Book-scouting Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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