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.

My favourite puzzle mystery writers (Part 1)

A still from “The Kennel Murder Case” showing Archer Coe’s dead body as seen through the keyhole of his locked bedroom. A great mystery film!

Years ago, I stood behind the counter of a murder mystery bookstore and recommended books to people. Those recommendations were based on my having read 25,000 of the damn things — yes, you read that right, 25,000 mysteries, and I’m not even the best-read person I know. My recommendations usually went down three specific lines. (1) “If you like this writer, you’ll like that writer.” (2) “This is an absolute classic that almost everyone enjoys.” (3) “If you’re interested in [fill in name of occupation, background, locale, whatever] you’ll like this book/author.” As you can see, most of my recommendations were based on memory… knowing that Joan Hess fans will usually like Joanne Fluke novels, for instance, after having read enough of each author’s work to be able to make the connection with a degree of certainty. Or remembering that the only murder mystery about croquet is H.R.F. Keating’s A Rush on the Ultimate.
Occasionally, someone was sufficiently interested to ask “But what are YOUR favourites?” I usually sloughed that question off since the answer was not likely to be helpful to the person who asked it. Frankly, my taste is for a particular kind of antique story that’s very much out of favour these days, the puzzle mystery — and to be precise, I like the subgroup of that set called the locked room mystery. (If you’re not grasping these definitions, try Wikipedia; I contributed to those articles.) These are absolutely not to everyone’s taste. For one thing, there’s a tradition in that genre that the characterization is more or less absent; all the characters are cardboard caricatures. They kind of have to be; the novels themselves are on the level of a game of Cluedo, and if the characterization is not all at the level of Miss Scarlett and Colonel Mustard, any characters who are more realistic stand out like a sore thumb and call attention to themselves as potential murderers. The classic puzzle mystery is more about timetables and maps and alibis than it is about who WOULD have committed the murder. (And, obligingly, most victims in antique puzzle mysteries have thoughtfully quarreled with everyone in sight and changed their wills twice on the day of their demise, just to make it possible for everyone to be a suspect equally.)
Why do I like this style? Oh, I suppose it’s the same instinct as leads people to do crossword puzzles. It’s like a two-handed game between the author and the reader, for me. The author tries to fool me or mislead me, and I try to see through the stratagems. It’s pretty much just based on the kind of mind one has, and the kinds of entertainment that particularly amuse that kind of mind. I like puzzle mysteries, duplicate bridge and crossword puzzles, and you can see how those things go together. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you just don’t — no harm, no foul. (Although I love to quote, or misquote, the esteemed critic Mrs. Q. E. Leavis, whom I recall as saying “The novels of Miss Dorothy L. Sayers present the appearance of intellectual activity to people who would very much dislike such activity if they were forced to undergo it.” Now THAT is my kind of bitch.)
Occasionally, I will encounter someone who shares my interest in the Golden Age puzzle mystery, and whom I sense will not be bored by recommendations of my favourite authors. So, if you’re one of those people — here you go. These are in no particular order and I’ll try to indicate the books that have most pleased me. You can find out more about these authors in Wikipedia, by and large, and I recommend you start there if you’re curious. Since this is likely to be a long list, I’ll only do a few authors at a time over the next while and make this a series of posts.

Christianna Brand

Christianna Brand
Ms. Brand is better known these days for having written the children’s books upon which the Nanny McPhee films were based, but she got her start writing mysteries. Her mysteries have always been difficult to obtain — one of them, Death of Jezebel, may take half your life to track down — but they are both delightful and nearly impossible to solve, although quite fair. (For instance, a vital clue to the solution of 1955’s Tour De Force is displayed openly, but in the opening paragraphs of the book, an excellent piece of misdirection; by the time the information is useful, you’ve forgotten all about it.) Green For Danger was made into a brilliant film in 1946, starring Alastair Sim, and is her best-known novel. It is certainly good, and I also enjoyed Suddenly at His Residence (also published as The Crooked Wreath), London Particular (also published commonly as Fog of Doubt) and the three mentioned above. Heads you Lose and Death in High Heels, from the beginning of her career, are less successful; try not to start with them, if you can. One of the things that I find most enjoyable is that Brand has the ability to create characters who are quite realistic, and flawed, without making them stand out as being obviously guilty of the crime by dint of being the only realistic characters in the book. This set her apart from her contemporaries. Yet, the puzzles at the heart of the novels are so difficult and complex that you could never, ever guess the answers; these are mysteries that need to be solved with logic and observation, not intuition.

Mystery writers Dannay and Lee, who wrote as — and about — Ellery Queen, and as Barnaby Ross

Ellery Queen
At the beginning of his/their career, between 1929 and 1936, the authors who wrote as and about Ellery Queen produced a series of ten puzzle mysteries that I’ll call the “nationalities” series. Each novel (except the last) has a nationality in its title and almost all of them are brain-crackingly difficult. At that point, the authors were tightly focused on creating difficult puzzles that admitted of only one logical solution. To that end, the books stop at a specific point and the authors issue a “Challenge to the Reader”; at that precise point in the book, you have all the information you need to solve the mystery. The nice thing is, you do. I find it hard to recommend any of these in particular, although The American Gun Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery are probably the worst through being too histrionic and overwrought — the rest are uniformly brain-crackingly brilliant. 1936’s Halfway House was originally planned to be called The Swedish Match Mystery and its removal from the series signals an intention by Queen to stop writing this sort of novel, which is a shame from my point of view. Queen’s later mysteries tended to focus upon themes and to my mind were less successful. 1943’s There Was an Old Woman, for instance, sacrifices intelligibility for the purposes of fitting the book into the scheme of a nursery rhyme. You might enjoy the later works Calamity Town, The Door Between and Cat of Many Tails, which is actually a very early example of the “serial killer” novel. 1958’s The Finishing Stroke returns chronologically to the era of the earliest novels and makes it clear that the authors have really finished mining out that lode; their hearts aren’t in it and they never published another decent mystery that wasn’t ghost-written by someone else. 1970’s The Last Woman in His Life is so awful that it ought to be withdrawn from publication to preserve their honour.
PS: As Barnaby Ross, the authors wrote four novels, two of which are certainly worth your attention; The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y. Y, particularly, is a brilliant piece of logic — these novels are only marred by the detective characters themselves, who are even more deliberately conceived as cardboard than was usual.

More soon — stay tuned!

Anthony Boucher

As I’ve commented here, I’m not reading very many actual physical murder mystery books these days.  Indeed, many of the ones that have passed through my hands recently were *not* read for pleasure but skimmed for ideas and/or to analyze where they went wrong.  So I will not be treating you all to a scathing review of the work of, say, Leslie Meier.  For one thing, it wouldn’t really be all that scathing.  Ms. Meier writes simple cozies and I am emphatically not her target audience, so why should I take offense at being treated like a dummy if that’s what her readership — which I take to be considerable — actually wants from her?  I was merely curious about how she manages to sell what she manages to sell, and how well she writes, and so on.  So I picked up three of them at a garage sale and skimmed them to see the voice she was using, and the underlying structure, and the opening lines, and how she handled the introduction of characters, etc. Possibly it will be considered scathing to say that she is a “competent” writer. But I think it’s just a case of what an old queen of my acquaintance used to call NOSD — “not our sort, dear”. If you like her work, feel free to keep liking it.  I will continue to avoid it, but not for any vituperative reason, merely that it’s not to my taste.

But a friend recently returned to me a copy of The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) by Anthony Boucher, and THAT was worth re-reading for pleasure. Yes, I’d given him the edition whose cover you see here — I love Dell mapbacks. (Look them up in Wikipedia if you’re not aware of them.) Boucher’s mysteries are relatively scarce in paperback and one or two of them are darn near impossible to find, notably The Case of the Seven of Calvary. But they are decidedly worth tracking down if you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery.

Mr. Boucher was many, many things in the writing field and good at all of them.  He was a superb reviewer of mysteries, he wrote them himself, he was also a science-fiction writer of note, and a great anthologist.  He was also responsible for an enormous body of work writing radio scripts and you can probably find the Sherlock Holmes radio programmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as MP3s, freely available, if you go searching for them.

His mysteries are fascinating examples of the puzzle mystery and one or two of them are even locked room mysteries, or “impossible crime” mysteries.  (Again, if you’re not up on this sub-genre, I recommend Wikipedia.) This particular novel takes place on a tiny island and, in the classic pattern, all entry to and exit from the island is controlled in such a way that the suspects are limited to only the people on the island at the time — no extraneous characters can possibly be responsible or even accomplices.  Someone was killing cats and people at a wedding reception 25 years ago and seems to be repeating the pattern in the present day (which is in the 1940s, as I recall without having the book at hand).

I admit that this sort of book held much, much more delight for me in the past than it does these days. As a younger reader, I found myself able to overlook certain mawkish elements like cardboard-y characters and silly plot twists — at one point in this particular novel, a man escapes certain death by stabbing because his heart is on the wrong side of his body, which is a little too much like a cheap radio script for my tastes — in favour of the sheer inventiveness and creativity that Boucher brought to his work, and large quantities of cutting-edge daring. To the modern reader, some of the inventiveness and creativity may go unnoticed and the daring may be overlooked. For instance, in TCOSS,  there is a character (Alyx) who is, essentially, what used to be called a “nymphomaniac” (in present-day terms, a sex addict).  It’s she who is depicted on the cover, threatening to cry rape and tearing her stocking to add verisimilitude. Well, that you can see on daytime TV these days.  But in the 1940s, OMG, that was shocking. Dangerously close to unpublishable. People just did not talk about sex in mysteries of the 1940s in such an open way. They also didn’t speak of these things in terms of psychological syndromes. In this novel, Boucher actually lays the groundwork for the realization of the reader that not only is the nymphomanaical Alyx a sex addict, but she is that way for reasons connected with traumatic events in her past.  Again, that seems simple to the modern reader, but that was not the type of conclusion that people were encouraged to draw in the 1940s.  Think of Carmen Sternwood, for instance. It was only at the level of Raymond Chandler’s writing that this sort of sexual pathology was acceptable.  In the pulps, I think the best explanation for the lack of that kind of verisimilitude is that (a) there was a kind of self-censorship to stay within the obscenity laws of the time, and (b) I suspect there was a common understanding among pulp writers that the audience just wouldn’t get it.

But I digress.  One of the reasons that I enjoy Boucher’s work so much is that he has, simply put, a great sense of humour.  It’s not especially evident in this specific novel, but it permeates his work like an undercurrent.  His detective, Fergus O’Breen, is not especially realistic, but constantly lulls the reader into a sense of mild amusement with his brash comments and general approach.

The main reason, though, is the thought that went into the plotting. Obviously it would be terrible to reveal whodunit, for instance, and I have no intention of doing that here. But Boucher’s level of intricate plotting is equaled by very, very few writers — people like Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Hake Talbot.  The amount of thought that goes into constructing such a plot is monumental.  I can’t say you will never figure this one out, because I actually did (but based on a principle that is unfair to this great writer, since it’s more based on my knowledge of the way mysteries work than anything else).

Incidentally, the “marooned on the island” theme is of course common to the country-house mystery genre of this period; if I were teaching this novel, I’d suggest that students would “compare and contrast” this to, say, Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery and/or The Spanish Cape Mystery, or Hake Talbot’s The Hangman’s Handyman.  Especially now that I’m not one of the few people in the world who’s read that last one, since Ramble House has re-published it. Or, of course, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. You can find examples of the closed circle throughout this sub-genre, but this one of Boucher’s is especially well-done.  Sometimes OTT, but a good, solid, enjoyable read that will probably surprise you at the end.