The Birlstone and other gambits

GroombridgePlace01

Groombridge Place, the real-life counterpart of what Doyle called “Birlstone”.

The other night I was re-reading an old mystery from the 1930s and muttered to myself, “Oh, pfui, this is the Birlstone gambit.” A family member in the room, who is probably accustomed to me talking to myself, said, “Huh?  What’s the Birlstone gambit?” And so a conversation was born, and hence this post.

I’m afraid before I start I must go much, much further than my usual spoiler warning. Ordinarily I warn people about my discussion of a specific book because they may spoil their enjoyment of the book if they haven’t read it yet.  Here, I’m going to be discussing the patterns of plots of Golden Age mysteries — various structures that underlie certain mysteries that are not related to each other but which repeat as what I’ll call “gambits”. Gambits are related to “types” of mysteries, like “locked room” or “Had I But Known”, but they relate more to the way in which the plots are constructed.  You’ll understand more as you get into it.  The point is, if you keep reading, you’re going to be better able to recognize certain repeating structures of murder mysteries regardless of who wrote them or when they were written.

I will be revealing the solution of certain well-known mysteries that either originated these gambits or are famous for having used them. If you are well-read in detective fiction, you will already be familiar with the solution to, say, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But if not, your enjoyment will be spoiled irreparably.  Really I only mean this post for the enjoyment of very well read mystery fans; be aware, and please be prepared to pass on to other reading if there’s a possibility I’ll spoil your enjoyment.

Here, alphabetically by author (so that there will be no chance of you making an accurate guess based on proximity) are the novels that will specifically be spoiled for you by reading the following article.  

  • Blake, Nicholas: The Beast Must Die (1938)
  • Brand, Christianna: Tour de Force (1955)
  • Carr, John Dickson: The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)
  • Christie, Agatha: After the Funeral (1953)
  • Christie, Agatha: Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Christie, Agatha: Hallowe’en Party (1969)
  • Christie, Agatha: Peril at End House (1932)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Hollow (1946)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Plague Court Murders (1934)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Red Widow Murders (1935)
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan: The Valley of Fear (1915)
  • Flynn, Gillian: Gone Girl (2012)
  • Hawkins, Paula: The Girl on the Train (2015)
  • Lorac, E.C.R.: Still Waters (1949)
  • Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) et seq.
  • Van Dine, S. S.: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Catherine Wheel (1949)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Chinese Shawl (1943)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Silent Pool (1954) 

The nomenclature I’ve used to label these gambits is not necessarily the earliest such example, or the best, or the best-written. Frankly, it’s just how I have personally come to think of them over the years; a kind of mental shorthand, if you will. You will not find many of these gambits so labeled anywhere else. If it makes you happier to think of these ideas as tropes or even cliches, feel free. Does it seem like half of them were invented by Agatha Christie? Well, that’s why she was a great mystery novelist.

The Birlstone Gambit

doyleart32893289In this gambit, A is found dead and B is a suspect. A has died in such a way as to render the body unrecognizable; B frequently provides corroborating evidence as to the identity of the corpse.  The corpse, however, is actually that of B, and A has taken his place at the time of death. The gambit probably originated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear (1915), or at least he made it his own; this has henceforth been known as the Birlstone Gambit, after Birlstone Manor House, the scene of the action in that novel. I like the way it was handled by Christianna Brand in Tour de Force (1955).

Recognizing this gambit: B sometimes displays an odd lack of knowledge of the details of B’s life, or alternatively knows too much about the details of A’s life. It’s usually cast such that B is better placed (wealthier, happier) than A, and there’s a strong motivation for A to disappear.

The Lion’s Mouth Gambit

Peril_at_End_House_First_Edition_Cover_1932A decides to murder B; A creates a situation where it looks as though someone is trying to kill A. After a few faked attempts on A, B is murdered by A, apparently by someone trying to kill A. Sometimes A continues to fake attempts on his own life to convince detectives that B was killed in error for A; sometimes A puts his hand in the lion’s mouth and makes a great show of hiring a detective to identify the killer of B. To my mind this was best handled in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House in 1932.

Recognizing this gambit: A usually benefits a great deal by the death of B, to A’s mock surprise.

The Distinctive Garment Gambit

0950711f7e25a0734232811e47bb0e8dThis is rather similar to the Lion’s Mouth Gambit. There are two similar patterns to this one. In one, A decides to kill B. There’s a distinctive garment that is associated with A, and B is found dead wearing that garment. A has killed B, and it’s assumed that B was killed by someone who thought they were killing A. In the main variant, the actual murderer is C; A provides the garment to B unbeknownst to C, and C actually does make a mistake and kills B, having mistaken B for A.

In Christie’s Peril At End House in 1932, the garment is a shawl; it’s also a shawl in Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl (1943) and in her The Silent Pool (1954) it’s a coat with a pattern of huge checks in vivid colour.

Recognizing this gambit: The minute you hear of a distinctive garment (for men, it can be a hat) you should be listening for people who want to wear it; they’re about to die.

The Most Likely is Least Likely is Most Likely Gambit 

Hollow-WhiteCircleThis gambit was a specialty of the great Anthony Berkeley. Essentially, A has a strong motive to kill B. When B’s corpse is found, A is in such a position that the blood is literally dripping from his hands. The experienced reader knows that the most likely suspect is always the least likely suspect, and that there is some X out there who has set this up.  The VERY experienced reader knows that when someone is the least likely suspect, they are the most likely suspect; A looks as guilty as possible because they’re actually guilty.  My favourite of these is Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (1946) but she also worked a variant of this in 1937’s Death on the Nile. Berkeley’s variants are frequently arranged so that the most likely suspect is, after much investigation by Roger Sheringham, ultimately found to be the killer and hasn’t set anything up at all.

Recognizing this gambit: When A points out, midway through the murder investigation, that had he wanted to kill B, he could easily have done it in a much less obvious way and escape detection, you should pay close attention.

The Complicit Victim Gambit

the red widow murders, carter DicksonIn this gambit, A wishes to kill B. A creates a situation such that, unbeknownst to anyone except A and B, the two arrange a plot so that B will be able to, for instance, kill C with the assistance (alibi, etc.) of A. But halfway through the plot, A kills B (which was A’s plan all along) and, because B has helped to arrange the circumstances of his own death, A hopes to escape detection through impossibility. I like the way this was handled by John Dickson Carr (as by Carter Dickson) in The Red Widow Murders (1935) but there are many other examples.

The-kennel-murder-case-1933Sometimes the assistance of B in his own death is accidental. There’s a sub-gambit of this that I’ve given its own name: the Elizabeth of Austria Gambit. In 1898, that noble lady was stabbed by an anarchist with a thin blade, and managed to walk unassisted to her cabin on a boat, where she died. I use this to stand for the cases where A kills B and then, unbeknownst to A, B continues to move around and lock himself into rooms and the like, and muddies up the path to A’s having murdered him. Principal among these is S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933).

Recognizing this gambit: you have to recognize that the plot is quite simple if the deceased person has cooperated cheerfully in setting the scene of their own demise, and then figure out who might have convinced them to do that.

The Somebody Else’s Problem Gambit

a8f966f5701d90d5fb1f82a450a8c7dcBack in the 1980s, the late mystery novelist Greg Kramer and I used to earn small sums by writing and producing live murder mystery games over the course of a Saturday in Vancouver, culminating in a banquet in which All Was Revealed. (And may I add here that actor Curtis Armstrong, who played a supporting role in Moonlighting, is the finest real-life detective we ever encountered; a natural-born Sherlock.) There’s probably a novel or two based on the crazy stories Greg and I created for those games, but one gambit that we used over and over was a character to whom we referred as the SEP, or Somebody Else’s Problem.

00422813607212c7a4f38ab57ca34796Essentially we gave a single character a crucial fact and told the actor to conceal it by being annoying. A woman with a high squeaky voice who wanted to tell you the details of her recent encounter with aliens; an elderly man with a severe drinking problem and a failed marriage who wanted sympathy.  Most of the players weren’t prepared to put in the work to dig that crucial fact out of such an annoying person and tended to encourage their teammates to do so, with greater or lesser success. But you couldn’t solve the case without getting that little fact possessed only by the SEP.

In mysteries in the print medium, this is a more difficult element to maintain; it’s usually done by creating a character whom no one believes or whose evidence is “clearly” incorrect.  Agatha Christie did this best, I think, in 1953’s After the Funeral but also in 1969’s Hallowe’en Party.

Recognizing this gambit: when a character is either so grating that you don’t want to read about them, or you’ve become convinced that their evidence is unreliable, that’s the person who knows what actually happened, if you can only dig it out of them.

The Unreliable Narrator Gambit

9780008164997Just lately, this has become a big thing in the literary world with the huge success of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 debut novel, The Girl on the Train and 2014’s Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Essentially the protagonist represents a situation to be a certain way in the earlier part of the book and then, over the course of the action, reveals that she’s been “lying” to the audience and the truth is quite different. Successful films were made from both these books and seem to have spawned a spate of imitators.

Blake1In GAD, of course, this concept is represented by the magnificent novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and the equally clever The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake (1938).

Recognizing this gambit is very difficult. Essentially you have to mistrust what you are reading from the very beginning and always have the potential for an unreliable narrator in your mind. If the narrator says something that seems to gloss over an essential fact — “I did what little had to be done” — focus in on that.

The Scooby-Doo Gambit

Scooby-DemonShark-05-Unmasked

plaguecourtA situation is outlined that contains a supernatural or creepy element; something that tends to keep people away from a certain building, or area, or room. It might be the rumour of a ghost or other monster. Upon investigation, it turns out that the supernatural element has been deliberately falsified and bolstered so as to keep people away from a criminal activity.  “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been

still-watersfor you meddling kids!” In other words, every single episode of the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and its sequelae, but also many different novels by writers like John Dickson Carr (many times, but I like 1934’s The Plague Court Murders and 1947’s The Sleeping Sphinx). Carr had a stronger emphasis on the supernatural; other practitioners created less spooky and more outright threatening situations to cover crimes like smuggling, such as E.C.R. Lorac’s Still Waters (1949) and Patricia Wentworth’s The Catherine Wheel (also 1949).

Recognizing this gambit: Frankly, if it’s a ghost, the tradition of GAD is that it has to be revealed by the end of the story as not being of supernatural origin (except that one Carr story LOL).  So if you see a story element that involves people being warned away from the Spooky Old Woods — it’s a Scooby plot.

*****

635508844151936194-BasilRathbone-SherlockHolmesI know my friends and fellow GAD enthusiasts are champing at the bit to tell me their own gambits. Feel free, with appropriate spoiler warnings. I would suggest that a “gambit” per se is something that’s used in more than one book and by more than one author, but I’ll be interested to know your thoughts.  If I’ve gone wrong, feel free to say so.  And if you have a better title for one of my gambits, I’d love to hear it!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

imagesThe other day, I published the first half of this essay. It was based upon the experience of picking up four mysteries at random from a box of recent acquisitions and finding that they all, to my surprise, contained children — unlikeable, unpleasant, and vaguely sticky children — as principal characters. This will be slightly less of a hatchet job than Part 1, since I actually liked one of today’s books … but I was in a mood to be less than pleased by children in mysteries.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) The Widow’s Cruise, by Nicholas Blake; (2) Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth; and some others, including one by Christianna Brand to which I refer obliquely but specifically below, and Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_The third in my unbroken sequence of children in mysteries occurred when I picked up a copy of The Widow’s Cruise, a 1959 novel by the great Nicholas Blake. I provided a very brief biography of this writer some years back here; under his own name of Cecil Day-Lewis, he was indeed Poet Laureate of England (and his son is indeed the famous actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

As his career wound down, he published fewer novels in the series about amateur detective Nigel Strangeways and this is almost the last really satisfying one, I’ll suggest.  (That would be 1961’s The Worm of Death, which has small problems but large brilliancies.) In this outing, Nigel and his life partner Clare Massinger, a sculptor, board the Menelaos to cruise around the Greek Islands in the company of an assorted group of fellow passengers. The two of most interest are a pair of middle-aged sisters, one of whom is Melissa, a wealthy and glamorous widow, and the other a frustrated academic (Ianthe) recovering from a nervous breakdown.

447a5923b4b047fca5a624e0f32b639fOne of the other passengers is a teenage girl who attended the girls’ school where the bitter academic had taught until her breakdown; Faith and her brother are eager to snap at the heels of the former schoolteacher, who is withdrawn and unpleasant. Also in conflict with Ianthe is the scholar Jeremy Street, who is leading the “Greek history” part of the tour aboard the Menelaos; Ianthe’s last rational act before her breakdown appears to have been to publish a scathing review of Street’s scholarship.

UnknownBut it’s not teenage Faith who aroused my dislike; it’s another fellow passenger who is very little seen in the book but leaves an indelible impression. Little Primrose Chalmers, aged about nine, is the child of two psychoanalysts and her hobby appears to be spying on her fellow passengers and writing things down in a notebook. This unpleasant child contradicts her elders, doesn’t appear to realize when people don’t want her around, and appears to regard her fellow passengers as analytic subjects rather than adults to whom one should be respectful. Things build rapidly to a head and one afternoon, after a shore excursion during which Ianthe disappears, missing and presumed dead, Primrose is found face-down in the swimming pool and her notebook is missing. Apparently she saw or heard the wrong thing at the wrong time.

tumblr_lhm2a4iPD31qd7ygho1_1280Just imagining what it must be like to be trapped on a cruise ship with a child spying on you — let alone under circumstances productive of sexual dalliance, over-indulgence in food and drink, bitter arguments with persons on board from one’s past, and scholarly infighting — it all sounds very unpleasant to me. I’m not suggesting that Primrose deserved to be killed, that’s not fair to say at all about a child, but … how shall I put this? … the experienced mystery reader is not truly surprised.

517AXFNBzAL.SX316.SY316For the most part, this is really more a character study than anything else. Blake does a wonderful job of making us see bitter Ianthe and her less than virtuous sister Melissa, the pouty teenage Faith, the pompous but wounded Jeremy Street, and even the minor characters like a Bishop and his wife whom Nigel befriends, and the Greek cruise director, the greasy and highly-sexed Nikolaides. As you reach the conclusion of the book you will realize that you have actually been fooled by a complex and very deliberate plot, and that you have been given a large number of clues as to what actually happened — and you’ve overlooked or misinterpreted most of them.

My blogfriend, the percipient Kate Jackson, looked at this book last year with her usual acuity, and I do think her opinions and mine coincide for the most part. She made a good comparison of the central plot device here to certain of the works of Agatha Christie, and I agree. However, I think there’s even a stronger parallel in a novel of Christianna Brand’s from 1955 (don’t look up this piece by blogfriend Dan at The Reader Is Warned unless you are prepared to have some enjoyment spoiled of both this book and the Brand one).

51Mbiq780FL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_What I enjoyed most about The Widow’s Cruise was the quality of the writing, which is head and shoulders above Blake’s contemporaries. The prose is elegant and intelligent, the plot is tidy and masterful, and the characterization, as I said, is the strongest point. Just a pleasure to read something this well-written, where intelligence leaks through the pores, as it were. I’m prepared to sacrifice a couple of Primroses for a book this smart and engaging.

4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7cAnd so I turn from a child who was a victim to a child who ought to have been a victim, as I mentioned yesterday. Grey Mask, a 1929 novel by Patricia Wentworth, is the earliest of my four encounters with the under-21 set and the very first in the long series of novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a private investigator.

I’ve had quite a bit to say over the last few years about the work of Patricia Wentworth; The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944); The Dower House Mystery (1925) (a non-Miss Silver mystery); Poison in the Pen (1954); and a long piece about Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949) that contains quite a bit of general observation about her entire oeuvre. I’m thinking of another more major piece in the future (in that regard, does anyone know why you would want to poison an innocent caterpillar?) but in the meantime it’s been pleasant to dip into the many mysteries she currently has available thanks to e-books. I’ll let those other pieces speak for themselves, if I may.

6a00d834515bbc69e2019101ea6a4f970c-600wiHowever, this is Miss Silver’s first outing, and honestly I suspect it was nearly her last. It took nearly ten years for the author to create a second Miss Silver novel and there were well more than a dozen non-series novels in the interval. I think it’s clear that Miss Silver got re-worked a little bit in the interval. She’s more aggressive here, less self-effacing, and, if you’ll pardon a more modern metaphor for this antique character, she’s more in your face. It’s the only book in the entire series where Miss Silver is heard to speak using contractions.

51B6LNvU-FLGrey Mask comes from a more antique tradition, and one that will not be well known nearly a century later. Essentially this comes from a style of novel that asks the reader to believe that (a) there is a secret society devoted to a large-scale cause, usually political, personal, or financial gain; (b) the people involved in this secret society wear masks at their meetings so that they won’t recognize each other if they meet mask-less; and (c) innocent and brave young people, frequently with troubled romantic lives, are constantly getting mixed up with these societies and bringing them to an unpleasant end. Indeed, you may have already read one of these (Agatha Christie’s 1929 novel, The Seven Dials Mystery) or seen this repetitive element used in film or television (for instance, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut and a vast array of direct-to-video gialli about witchcraft and female frontal nudity).

9781453223628-book-coverSo in 1929, when this was written, I suspect it may have been about the final point in time in which the reader was meant to take this seriously. This book, like all such books, chronicles the involvement of an innocent young person with the masked secret society; the innocent person decides that s/he is going to find out just what’s going on and do the job that the police cannot. Here it is Charles Moray, who four years ago had his engagement broken by the beautiful Margaret Langton. He travels the world, trying to forget (yes, the book is pretty much at this level of cliche) and upon his return he finds out that Margaret is a member of a masked secret society that is … blackmailing people? It’s not absolutely clear. But any clandestine meeting of people where everyone gets a mask and a number has got to be more than vaguely criminal. So Charles decides to take on Grey Mask, the leader of the group, and win back Margaret.

Wentworth_Patricia_Grey_Mask2Meanwhile, and this is what brought this so unfavourably to my attention, a new character arrives. Margot Standing is approximately 18 years old, fresh from a European finishing school, and the beautiful blonde daughter and heir of a wealthy shipping magnate who was recently lost at sea.  There’s a lot of money at stake and Grey Mask has his/her eyes on controlling Margot’s inheritance, so plans begin to take shape.

But Margot — oh, my, Margot. Oh, my. Apparently she’s been living in an extremely limited environment for the past decade or so, possibly one for the mentally challenged. She acts like an unsophisticated girl of about 12; she is credulous, pleasure-seeking, slightly rebellious, lazy, and oh, so stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Walking-into-traffic stupid. One of the first things she does is reply to a want-ad that is clearly designed to lure girls into the white slave traffic . She has no sense of self-preservation and apparently no sense that anyone would want to injure or inconvenience her. Why? Well, mostly because …

“A glance in the mirror never failed to have a cheering effect. It is very difficult to go on being unhappy when you can see that you have a skin of milk and roses, golden brown hair with a natural wave, and eyes that are much larger and bluer than those of any other girl you know. Margot Standing’s eyes really were rather remarkable. They were of a very pale blue, and if they had not been surrounded by ridiculously long black lashes, they might have spoilt her looks; as it was the contrast of dark lashes and pale bright eyes gave her prettiness a touch of exotic beauty. She was of middle height, with a pretty, rather plump figure, and a trick of falling from one graceful pose into another.”

What happens is that every single eligible male and a few who aren’t fall immediately in love with her, and wealthy aristocrats are competing for the right to buy her dinner and listen to her burble about whatever is on what passes for her mind.

9780446301350So that’s half the plot right there; Margot charms everyone. The remainder consists of Margot doing things that are unimaginably stupid and to the immediate benefit of Grey Mask and the group of conspirators, and then Margaret and Charles quite obviously falling in love all over again (but first, of course, he has to find out why she jilted him). And there’s a small percentage about Miss Silver acting rather in the role of private investigator Paul Drake from the Perry Mason series, whose job it is to pop up every now and then and provide information about who lives where and what they did last night. Miss Silver actually does save the day at the end, after some moderately surprising plot developments, and rescues Margaret and Charles from their imprisonment in a soundproof cellar. You will not be surprised to know that Grey Mask is someone who has not previously given any signs of the ability to be the mastermind of a powerful criminal organization — and has been fooling everyone for years.

51XlQmHKasL.SX160.SY160I suppose for me Margot was the sticking point. Frankly, if you have a plot that allows you the freedom to have just about anyone — passers-by, delivery boys, taxi drivers, waiters — be in the pay of your secret society, you don’t need the active cooperation of your victim in walking directly into every trap in sight. Similarly if you’re trying to keep Margot disguised and out of the hands of the secret society, it doesn’t help that she lets her secret slip to every man who talks to her politely for five minutes. She is a fifth wheel in the budding re-romance of Margaret and Charles, she eats all Margaret’s food and can’t afford to replace it, and is constantly gushing about how fabulous all the men in sight are and whether they are romantically interested in her. In later decades and milieux she might have found herself a preppy, bon chic bon genre, or a Sloane Ranger. But in this volume she’s a pompous little Valley Girl before her time. It’s unpleasant to consider that a wealthy man would have left his daughter so completely unequipped to meet the exigencies of modern life; her idea of work is apparently asking her father’s lawyer to give her money.  And I rather think this is the kind of person the Communists wanted to stand up against a wall and shoot; I’m somewhat more sympathetic now.

29010So Margot is carrying the weight of the plot and just cannot stand up to it. If you find yourself unable to countenance Margot, as I was unable, then you will not enjoy this book very much since it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen from the outset. The day will indeed be saved, the lovers will reunite, and the villain will be killed while trying to escape. I did have a moment’s pleasure thinking of what Miss Silver might have made of this lazy nitwit as a governess but I think Miss Silver would have more sense than to waste her effort. There is not much here but the bare bones of what Miss Silver would become in the future; she’s the only person in the book I wanted more from.

EUni12TPatricia Wentworth made the error of introducing repellent children at least once more; Vanishing Point, from 1953, features a young girl who is simultaneously an invalid and a plucky young thing with dreams of becoming an author. The result may leave the reader needing insulin because of a sugar overdose. But I haven’t heard anything from most of my regular commenters about other awful children in detective fiction. Does no one remember the xiphopagous twins from Ellery Queen‘s The Siamese Twin Mystery? The impossibly perfect offspring of Lieutenant Mendoza in the works of Dell Shannon? Horrible little Billy and Jackie from Queen’s The Tragedy of Y? Agatha Christie is full of them: the Girl-Guide-aged taxi dancer in Christie’s The Body in the Library, or Hallowe’en Party, with two repellent little girls (one sweet, one sour); the little ballerina in Crooked House, or the pudgy and unpleasant victim in Dead Man’s Folly; Pippa Hailsham-Brown from Spider’s Web or Linda Marshall from Evil Under The Sun. That creepy little group in Margery Allingham‘s The Mind Readers; brats in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s TCOT Empty Tin, Deadly Toy and Spurious Spinster — and that’s just with thinking about it for ten minutes.  There’s possibly a long series here!!

 

 

 

 

“Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 2

Charity shop booksA few weeks ago I published part 1 of this … let’s call it a “how-to”, as in How to Become a Book Scout. As I look back, there were two halves to it. One half talked about what books to buy, with instructive examples from my recent foray to a charity shop, and the other half talked about what to do with the books once you had them.

The half about what books to buy — that part was solid. I think there’s a market for the books I buy, and in the intervening weeks I’ve given more thought to giving my readers some rules of thumb to use in order to profitably buy books. Those few strictures, I’ll pass along in a minute.

Venetian bookstoreBut first I wanted to comment on what I had to say about what to do with your scouted books once you buy them. As frequently happens these days, I’m going to have to walk all that back; that would have been a good guide to how to be a book scout if the year were, say, immediately before the invention of Amazon and eBay — call it 1993. All I can say is, I didn’t realize I was so out of date when I was writing it. At that point in time I was a veteran book scout; I can’t say I was enormously financially successful at it, but I occupied a useful niche in the bookselling industry. I will add that the ability to frequently come up with a volume for which a particular bookseller had a customer was a popular one among booksellers, and I think it’s reasonable to say I had “most favoured nation” status among a handful of booksellers, many of whom had become friends. I scouted books for them; they scouted books for me.

What I neglected to take into consideration was the massive disintermediation of the book industry that’s become available since the internet. So to make a long story short — yes, you can still be a book scout. All that’s changed in the interim is that, instead of your forming a relationship with a local bricks-and-mortar bookseller or two, and earning a few bucks on the side, you have to go into business for yourself selling the books through eBay or some other website.

The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr

Dolphin C 369, 1962, 95-cent cover state

In part 1 I used the example of a paperback copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey by John Dickson Carr, a 1936 retelling of a 1678 murder case (so sometimes filed as “true crime”).  It’s a scarce volume that should only appeal to serious students of John Dickson Carr or detective fiction in general, or historians. 30 years ago, if I did occasionally happen upon that scarce paperback copy (Dolphin, 1962, shown here) I might have been able to get $50 for it; no other reading copies could be found unless you bought books by mail, a sometimes chancy process.

Today I can get a copy of the IPL reissue from 1989 from ABE shipped to me in Canada for as little as, seriously, $3.98 plus $3.98 shipping. eBay is a little different; its cheapest offering is $5.23 with free international shipping. That means if you’re competing on price, you just about have to pay zero for the book, since any profit will be eaten up by shipping. That’s not a great business model.

So in order to compete, you have to offer something that “coasbooks” of eBay, they of the $5.23 with international shipping, apparently does not; and that, frankly, is the most important of the strictures I mentioned above with reference to buying books to resell.  The most important quality you can bring to this effort is knowledge.

the murder of sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr, 1936

The International Polygonics edition, cover art by Edward Gorey

If I did have a copy of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which I don’t believe I do at the moment, and I wanted to sell it, here’s what I’d do; I’d read it carefully and write a piece on my blog about it, discussing where it fell in Carr’s oeuvre and how it measured up to his other historical works, and at the end offer my personal copy at such-and-such price to the first person who asked for it in the comments. And such-and-such price would be, to be honest, twice what I’d actually paid for it plus shipping.  I wouldn’t compete on eBay. Unlike coasbooks, I don’t need to sell dozens of copies of anything, or thousands of titles a day; I only need to interest one person in taking my copy off my hands at what actually is a fair price. Because my customer would be buying not only the book but the knowledge that goes with it.

the bride of Newgate, John Dickson Carrcoasbooks is not prepared to tell you that John Dickson Carr was a pioneer of historical mysteries, or the names of the others he wrote and where to find more information about them if you’re curious. It’s VERY unlikely to know that there are at least two cover states for the Dolphin and thus if yours says $1.25 you have a second printing or later; and that the IPL edition has an introduction by Douglas Greene, and here’s who Douglas Greene is (he wrote the book on Carr, literally). (See comments; I made an error the first time around on this.) And as far as your personal opinion of the book in question — that’s what brings the boys to the yard, as it were. Be an expert, and share your expertise, and the book-buying public will learn to trust you and prefer you.

Murder without Icing, Emma LathenIn bricks-and-mortar bookselling, there’s a process called “hand-selling”. Give me two minutes and I can find out SOMETHING about you to which I can tie a specific murder mystery … if you work in a law office or you like ice hockey or baking or cats. The place you’re from, your favourite TV show, whatever. “You’re a legal secretary?  Here’s a book where a legal secretary finds a skeleton in a deed box.” (Half of you know the answer to that one without looking — go ahead, tell me in the comments LOL.) I sell you the book by hand, because I have the knowledge to do that.

These days, given the disintermediation of the book industry, I would take a different tack — I’d hand-sell a specific book to a wide faceless audience by giving away my knowledge. And if I get an urgent and potentially lucrative demand for four or five copies of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey through having written an article about it, well, I know where to find them and apparently they don’t.

So here’s my three rules of 2018 book-scouting.

  1. Knowledge. Know everything you possibly can about the book and
    Christie, Cards on the Table, Tom Adamsall its editions and the author and the rest of the author’s books and the authors that are like this author. If your area of expertise is very narrow — for instance, you know everything there is to know about Janet Evanovich novels, or the editions of Agatha Christie with the covers by Tom Adams, but not much else — great.  Just buy and sell those particular books and tell people what you know about them in the process.  You’ll learn more about Agatha Christie without Adams covers, or the edition of Raymond Chandler with the Adams covers, and start to branch out …
  2. Condition, condition, condition. And here you need to be
    roughly-handled Penguinsruthless. If you see a scarce book that a toddler has used for colouring practice, pass it by. A book with loose pages or equivalent damage is worthless. Some people admit the possibility of “reading copies”, which are trashed copies of books you want to read. I don’t sell trashed copies, nor do I buy them, but I’ll give them away. The corollary is that a book in perfect unread condition is worth more than its well-thumbed cousin and should be priced accordingly. Here is an article on how to describe books for sale; very sensibly put, and if you follow it, you can link to it. But as far as I’m concerned, selling beaten-up books at anything but bargain prices is like leaving the house without combing your hair; that’s not how you want the public to know you.
  3. Buy low, sell high, and work to sell. The first part of that is a
    Book hoardertruism, but there’s a well-trodden path to wasting your time concealed within it. If book scouting is going to be work for you, make it work. If you know you can’t re-sell a book for twice what you paid for it — don’t buy it in the first place. And doing nothing but buying books and never selling any is not, after a certain point, “building up inventory” or anything like that. It’s a few dozen boxes of books away from “a very special episode of Hoarders“. There’s nothing in the slightest wrong with collecting books; in fact I recommend it.  But if you’re going to buy five copies of Sir Edmund Godfrey I suggest you should have at least three customers for it. Collect if you want, but try not to kid yourself that you’re going to sell all your books “some day” if you’d rather die than let that happen. (And, important note: at least in Canada, you have to have a “reasonable expectation of profit” within seven years, I think, to write off book purchases on your income tax. Consult a professional, but don’t hold your breath.)

mind blownMy good friend and perceptive critic JJ at The Invisible Event recently published this gloss upon part 1; since he notes he’s not ranting I will gladly agree ;-). Yes, many times charity shops and Amazon sellers and even garage sale proprietors try to sell books for more than they’re worth, and that is sincerely regrettable and drives me crazy, especially when they won’t accept a reasonable offer for the damn thing. Of course we all want to find a crisp copy of Death of Jezebel in the “Buck a book barrel” instead of the far more appropriate £120 that some lucky bookseller in Lancashire wants as of today. on ABE. What it boils down to is knowledge, point #1 above. It’s absolutely infuriating to see a book in a charity shop that is priced at twice what it should be, I completely agree. But that’s a side effect of the knowledge of what the price should be in the first place. And when it’s half what it should be, I buy it and get the other half for myself.

messy bookshelvesI think JJ puts it very well when he says, “… I want to support the people who work to make them available and the bookshops that sell them. I support second-hand bookshops that actually seem interested in selling the books for affordable prices for the same reason …”. I think if you restrict yourself to taking twice what you paid for something and expenses, you will limit yourself to passing along bargains and people would support you, even when coasbooks is a click away. But the real thing that’s going to get your books sold is knowledge.

In upcoming posts I’ll try to share more of the things I look for when I’m out buying books for resale. And I’m sure there’s going to be a very special episode of Hoarders about me in the not too distant future 😉

 

 

Some thoughts on Herbert Resnicow’s mysteries

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Herbert Resnicow. In no instance here do I reveal the identity of a murderer, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read Resnicow’s works, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read his books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. (The second-last paragraph mentions the two volumes by name that I think you will enjoy the most.)

Herbert_ResnicowThe works of Herbert Resnicow have recently become available to me — okay, I opened a dusty box in “Noah’s Archives” and there they were, held firmly in place beneath the weighty output of Ruth Rendell. As is my habit, I picked one up to flip through in order to remind myself of his work, and eight books later, I thought I’d make some notes. 😉

I mention my personal process only to indicate why I’ve chosen to go against my habit. Generally when I look at an

9780380692781-usauthor, I choose a single book and examine it in depth as a way of talking about a broader view; the author’s themes or preoccupations as exemplified within the pages of one of his/her works. In the case of Resnicow, I found not that much that can be examined in depth and so I thought I’d look at everything at once to see if there was anything of interest that could be teased out with a wider viewpoint.

Resnicow’s oeuvre

Herbert Resnicow’s publication history began in 1983 with The
9780380699230-usGold Solution
, which was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel. There were four more novels in five years in the Gold series, about the adventures of a middle-aged Jewish married couple who trade barbed insults and solve crimes, rather after the model of Mr. and Mrs. North, Nick and Nora Charles, and a host of other married sleuths.

In 1985, he began a second series about a male attorney and his romantic partner, a female university dean, against a background of crossword puzzles and having crossword blanks as part of the story, to be filled in by the reader so as to provide clues to the mystery for the perspicacious.  There were five of these in two years, with the collaboration of well-known crossword compiler Henry Hook (who here has exceeded even his usual brilliance in many instances by constructing puzzles that meet the needs of the plot).

UnknownIn 1987 and 1990, Resnicow published two novels about Ed Baer and his son Warren, a financier and a philosopher respectively. The first of these was The Dead Room and I’ll suggest it’s one of his best known books: it’s the one that appears on lists of locked-room mysteries including the relevant Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of his brief career, he published five novels with famous co-authors: two with Edward Koch, and one each with Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, and Pelé. I must confess I haven’t seen these in a long time and would have been unlikely to re-read them; the celebrity names are uppermost in large type and Resnicow’s name is presented as “with”. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this “ghost-writing” if your name is actually on the book; a writer friend of mine once referred to this as “withing” and that word suits me just fine. Resnicow was a “wither” for celebrity mysteries and there are five of them.

Gold-CurseWhat you’ll find in his work

As I said, I flipped through a bunch of these in a short time, although I’ve certainly read all these volumes and more previously. I re-read all five crossword mysteries and the first two Gold volumes, and The Dead Room. My archives appear not to contain a copy of the second Baer novel, The Hot Place, and I think I shall have to remedy that; I remember it as being quite readable.

The Gold novels set the tone for much of Resnicow’s remaining work. Alexander Gold and his wife Norma are introduced to a mystery that involves some sort of impossible situation. There is a motivation supplied for the Golds to solve the mystery, either financial or in order to save someone from being unjustly convicted of the crime. And the circumstances of the crime are … well, “impossible” is perhaps more precise than I can be in these circumstances. Let’s say it usually seems as though no one could have reasonably committed the crime and then the experienced Golden Age reader will know what’s coming.

md1077001541I don’t think the “impossible crime” puzzles at the centre of these novels are as clever as others do. I have to say, though, that the critical faculties which my fellow bloggers bring to the defence of Resnicow’s abilities are sufficiently significant that I can’t ignore them, and honestly I feel a little guilty for not liking these as much as my peers. Smart and insightful people think these puzzles are clever, and all I can respond is, “didn’t seem that way to me”. I suspect my faculties have been dulled over the years by overexposure to the particular brand of cleverness that produced these plots … or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what others see. For a really detailed look at Resnicow’s career from someone who esteems him more highly than I do, I recommend my blogfriend TomCat’s 2011 opinion at Beneath the Stains of Time.

9780345322821-usIn the background of each Gold novel is some consideration having to do with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gold. Mr. and Mrs. Gold are nice. Indeed, they are what one would call “good people”; they care about each other and trade barbs and witticisms with the ease of a long relationship with strong bonds of affection (but it’s clear that either would die for the other). They take care of each other, help their friends, and are valuable and productive members of society.

And that’s kind of a problem for me. In modern genre studies there’s a concept that has arisen from the bottom up (rather than as the product of, say, academic thought that gets translated down-market to mere fans ;-)); the Mary Sue. This is seen as a common cliché of wish-fulfillment in fan fiction; an “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ensign Mary Sue, age 16, single-handedly saves the Enterprise with a bobby pin and starts dating Captain Kirk, etc. And it’s linked to the slightly more academic concept of self-insertion, whereby “a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.” The author writes him/herself in as the star of their own story; in academic terms, the character is the raisonneur. Here it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Gold is based on Resnicow himself, as is the male protagonist of the crossword novels. If you read the biographical details in TomCat’s piece linked above, I think you will be even more convinced that this is probable.

9780345327321-usI’m not saying that Resnicow does this in any way objectionably; in fact, it’s quite cute and naive. However, I think it is commonly understood that novels based on a Mary Sue protagonist are usually quite boring, and that’s certainly something to consider here. If the impossible crime is the A plot, then the B plot is — well, it’s not much of a plot of all, it’s mostly characterization. The Golds and their best friends are charming and delightful, but nothing really bad ever happens to them, and not much happens to change them or their personalities. They don’t grow, and this is a characteristic of Mary Sues. Now, fans of Nero Wolfe like myself can stand the idea of a B plot about personalities who don’t change much. But unless you are a writer of the quality of Rex Stout, the B plot tends to fade away, and that’s what I find happens here. I remember the A plots quite clearly after 20+ years, but all but the simplest recollection of the Golds’ personalities had gone.

the-dead-room1The two novels about a father-and-son amateur detective team where the father is a businessman and the son a philosopher seem to me to be Resnicow’s best work; at least, The Dead Room has considerable critical acclaim. I certainly liked it, partly because there is some tension between the protagonists. The story is very strong and is an impossible crime mystery, although with a modern twist; it takes place in an anechoic chamber at the headquarters of a stereo manufacturer. I have to say, though, that I solved this one without thinking very hard about it, which frankly surprised me. I’m not very good at solving these plots, even though I’m very interested in how they’re constructed; when I get one first crack out of the box, it’s a signal to me that either I have a bent for this kind of story or it’s not well done.

md1077051789I actually liked the solution of The Gold Deadline the best of all, and here TomCat and I are in agreement, it seems. The book itself has tinges of homophobia (although to be clear it’s actually biphobia about the unpleasant victim), but the central premise is an ass-kicker. The victim is alone in a theatre box during a performance, under observation and someone is guarding the only door to the box. How the crime is committed will doubtless surprise you but it’s really clever, a contrivance at the level of a Death of Jezebel or The Chinese Orange Mystery. 

The five Gold novels and the two about the father-and-son team, the Baers, are the best of the lot; the other nine are distinctly minor.

3185460The five crossword novels feature a couple similar to the Golds, except that one is the world’s most esteemed crossword composer unknown to anyone. They have a number of good things about them, principal among which is four or five original puzzles per book created by the late great Henry Hook. I’ve read plenty of other crossword mysteries and I have to say these might just be the best crosswords ever found in a mystery. They are integral to the plot — you really should solve them as you move through the book in order to understand what’s going on. They are difficult but not impossible to solve, at the level of a New York Times Sunday puzzle. And in at least one instance Hook created a new kind of puzzle which he gives many names; I’ll call them Crossonics, because the sounds of the words are important to the context of the novel.

Unknown-1The most successful of the five to me is the entry about a group of cruciverbalists who are the stars of a New York crossword club, Murder Across and Down. This is the only one where the addition of crosswords actually makes sense to the plot and the crosswords’ solutions have a bearing on the solution. Other than that, there are various specious excuses under which Resnicow assembles precisely six suspects (why six, I wonder? Ellery Queen got by with three) and has them solve and/or create puzzles. Other plots range from far-fetched (six heirs to a cruciverbalist’s will, six candidates for a plum job) to the absolutely ridiculous (a nonsensical Russian spy plot that involves coded messages in the daily crossword puzzle of a newspaper). This last one reminds me of an equally preposterous bridge spy/mystery novel by Don Von Elsner in which codes are transmitted via the bridge column … just not a very good idea.

Murder_City_HallThe worst thing about these is that really they are not mysteries that are solved, per se. I believe all five share the common thread that the murderer is induced to reveal his/her guilt by the process of solving or setting a crossword. Sure, there are clues to guilt that are noted after the fact, but … what it all boils down to is the old “set a trap and the murderer falls into it”. Not plotting for the connoisseur. I have to say that the characterization is well-done throughout these novels; Resnicow does an excellent job of helping us keep the six suspects distinct each from the other.  The Crossword Hunt is particularly good, where Resnicow lets us see six job candidates and then at the end reveals why five of them shouldn’t have gotten the job — for reasons we’ve seen, but may not have thought about. The author shows an excellent grasp of psychology here. But ultimately these five suffer from the same problem as all “crossword mysteries”; it’s nearly impossible to make crosswords a necessary part of the plot of a mystery without structuring the book with impossibilities.

9780688067168-usAnd as for the five withed novels, the less said about those the better.  I did read these on their first publication and they are … competent examples of commercial writing. It’s hard to say if his collaborators contributed anything at all to the novels except their names and a couple of “shooting the shit” sessions to provide background; I rather think not. It’s just that, as Phoebe Atwood Taylor found with Murder at the New York World’s Fair, when half the book has to be there for reasons which have nothing to do with the mystery, and you really need the money for the book, the mystery suffers. The two books with Ed Koch I recall to be particularly egregious; they are determined to present Koch in the best possible light regardless of how much it strains credulity. If the authors had dared to tell the truth about Koch’s everyday life and political manoeuvrings, they would have been much more interesting and less “safe”, and a lot more readable. As they are, they’re what booksellers think of as instant remainders. (Apparently Resnicow died before he did much with the second Koch title beyond an outline, but he gets credit.)

PeleIf you do decide to try Resnicow’s work, I suggest the Gold novels and the two Baer novels, of course, but probably The Dead Room and The Gold Deadline will be sufficient to give you the highlights.

To the best of my knowledge, most of these books are unavailable in electronic editions. You can see that the crosswords would be tough to make available; all five of the Gold novels are available from Kindle Unlimited but I don’t see any evidence of the Baer novels or the “with” novels having made the E-transition. The Dead Room I used to see everywhere as a used paperback, but here in Canada it was issued by Worldwide Library, a prolific subsidiary of Harlequin. Amazon or ABE should get you any of the others you need, though.

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

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

8769890271

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

What’s this book about?

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

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

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

Why is this worth reading?

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

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

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

My favourite edition

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

Guest editorial: Scott Ratner on The Myth of Detective Fiction: “Fair Play”

This is the first time I’ve offered space to a fellow Golden Age of Detection enthusiast to express his views, but I couldn’t resist this opportunity to bring this interesting material to a wider audience. Scott Ratner and I have gotten to know each other through a Facebook group devoted to Golden Age Detection (GAD) as fellow aficionados who share an interest and have gone deeply into it; our views are generally similar, but occasionally quite different. As it should be. Over time, I’ve come to respect his knowledge and analysis.

I’ve known for a long time that Scott has a well-developed argument about the words “fair play” in the mystery context, and I’ve  read short comments that interested me in hearing the full argument.  Recently, in the course of a wide-ranging discussion on various GAD topics, Scott mentioned that he wanted to lay out this argument, but didn’t have anywhere to publish the result; I offered him the space below.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no actual spoilers in the material below but it’s possible that you will learn more than you wish to about the plot and construction of various Golden Age mysteries by a number of authors. I’ll approve on Scott’s behalf any comment that seems relevant to the discussion (I draw the line at advertisements disguised as general praise) as fast as I can manage.  Scott’s opinions are his own; I’ll comment or not as I see fit, and I didn’t edit his work (although I’m sure I reflexively corrected a typo or two; I can’t help it, it’s a disease).

Thanks to Scott for his contribution — I hope you enjoy it and find it thought-provoking!


The Myth of Detective Fiction: “Fair Play”

by Scott Ratner

Time to ruffle some feathers. I’ve already upset and inadvertently insulted someone I admire with my views on this subject, but I know that that’s no good reason to deny my own convictions. And please note this disclaimer: if the arguments I present do not all seem to hold, please consider that it may be not that the ideas themselves are unsound, but rather that my ability to convey them is weak. At any rate, here goes:

“Fair play” is one of the key and most oft-cited principles of Golden Age and Puzzle Plot Detective Fiction. However, what is rarely examined is what that term really means, how it can be measured, and whether it even really exists in relation to the genre.

First, it should be noted that “fairness” (and by this term, of course, I mean its definition relating to equitability, not lightness of hue, or or attractiveness) is always treated as an objective concept, and always considered in reference to a presumed exact and objective standard.  Our language reflects this: we speak of “fairness” in binary, “lightswitch” terms– things are either “fair” or “unfair.”  Moreover, the very fact that questions of fairness are disputed is evidence of its perceived objective status; subjective concepts cannot logically be disputed– one may argue the merits of a work, but a sincere subjective statement such as “I don’t like it” is inherently and inarguably true– the maker of the statement is the sole arbiter… he doesn’t like it!

As with the concept of justice, we may not agree upon where the standard of fairness lies, but recognize that, if it indeed exists, it exists independent of our personal judgment. A phrase such as “that’s more than fair” further demonstrates a recognition of the exactitude of that standard, suggesting a level of generosity beyond it. Even such subjective statements as “that strikes me as unfair” or “it seems fair to me” do not imply a subjective standard, but rather indicate a subjective understanding of an objective standard; that is, they assert “the line of fairness exists, and I believe this is where it lies.”

This is an intuitively understood notion, and its value is realized even by the small child. The child cries, “It’s unfair!”, and while he may be feeling merely that wants more of something or that he is unhappy with the treatment he is receiving, he appeals to this presumed objective standard, a threshold above which he is being treated fairly, and below which he is not (in many cases with children– and even with adults– this is equated with equal treatment: “you let Tommy do it!”). He realizes, even at this early age, that reference to this standard carries more persuasive weight than a mere expression of his desire;  even if all the grownup  responds with is “no, it’s not,” in disagreeing where the standard lies he is confirming the concept of the standard, and that it is a valid basis for decision. For many children, this is perhaps their earliest attempt to get their way via reason; realizing that while they can only express a desire, they can argue a point of fact (fair or unfair).

The concept of “British Fair Play,” which is most probably the direct source of its use in detective fiction, may seem more casual and inexact, based on a personal, subjective sense of “gentlemanly” conduct– indeed, one might think I’m taking the whole matter too literally. But this use of the term is also integrally related to the others, and just as solidly tied to the concept of an objective standard. It is a reference to the very rigid and explicit rules of British sports (“it’s not Cricket!”) and military regulations, which are in turn presumably based on the “real,” objective standard of fairness. Thus, while our personal decision of what constitutes giving an enemy or opponent a “fair” or “sportsman’s” chance may be entirely intuitive, that intuition is presumably based on what is truly fair, independent of our belief.

The point of all this is not that there is necessarily an exact, objective standard of fairness (I don’t really know if there is), but rather that the concept is always treated as such, and that every use of the term “fair,” “fairness,” or “fair play” implies and references such a standard, regardless of its actual existence.

So, how does this apply to the detective fiction genre? Well, in citing fair play, the reader of such a work is holding it up to an subjectively felt, though recognized-as-objective standard. And because he recognizes the standard as objective, if he feel the work falls short of it he does not complain that “this is not satisfying to me!” but rather that “this is unfair!” However, unlike with the child, it is not sufficient for the author to reply “No, it’s not!”– not sufficient, that is, for either his sales or his pride. It is important to him that the reader believes that the standard has been met. And that’s where the “rules” of the genre fit in. They are cited to define the standard of fairness, to arbitrate whether a work is fair or unfair.  But can they really achieve this?

In regard to one aspect of detective fiction, I believe they can. That is the realm of what might be described as “narrative fairness” (not a particularly satisfactory term, but I’ve not been able to come up with a better one). By “narrative fairness” I am simply referring to the question of which techniques the author is or is not allowed to employ in the “telling” of the tale. People may argue about what be the rules should be, but at least regarding this aspect it is possible to establish and cite clear-cut rules.  I myself subscribe to Dorothy L. Sayers’ notion in that there is only one thing an author may not do in this respect, and that is to make a false statement “on his own authority.” In other words, a third-person narrator cannot lie. This does not prohibit the author from employing deception– deception by omission, deception by misleading inference, or falsehoods by first person narrators, who, as Sayers reminds us, are “not necessarily the author.”  Thus, the Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd is exonerated on several counts (it’s rather stunning how “clean” this once-controversial book is in this regard), while a rarely-questioned work such as Death on the Nile turns out to actually be unfair, based on an extremely minor technicality. A book such as Carr’s Seeing is Believing is admittedly difficult to judge, but that doesn’t affect the rule– the question of whether it plays fair depends upon how one interprets the tricky ambiguities of the English language. Similarly, the narrative fairness of Christie’s A Murder in Announced must  based on how we answer the question of whether that which we call ourselves is our true name. Whether these works follow the rule is in question, but the rule itself remains constant. Now, others my argue that narrative fairness consists of more or less than my (or Sayers’) single rule, and I’m not insisting that I’m right about it. I’m just pointing out that that it is possible to define clear-cut criteria for this question, and judge works according to it.

But what about the issue of clue sufficiency? Here’s where it all blows up. Let’s look at some of the offered “rules” regarding this question. The first category would be those rules that state “the reader may not be denied any clues granted the detective” or “the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery” (there are several other versions of this which say the same thing). And that’s fine as far as it goes– I’m sure that most would agree that fairness dictates that the reader is provided with all the clues granted the detective. The problem is, it’s a rule with no minimum standard. For, if that’s all there were to it, a story in which the detective arrives at the solution based on little or no evidence must be deemed fairly-clued, just as long as the reader has been provided with the same sparse or nonexistent evidence. As you can see, that rule really gets us nowhere.

Nearly all other clue sufficiency rules consist of variations of the idea that “the reader must be provided with all the clues necessary to solve the case.” This initially appears to be much more useful, until one faces the task of defining or measuring its terms. What is really meant by “all the clues necessary”? Indeed, what does it even mean to “solve the case”? (I can’t help thinking of Robert Benchley’s hilarious “Does the average man get enough sleep? What is ‘enough sleep’? What is ‘the average man’? What is ‘does’?). Seriously, though, what does qualifiy as “solving” a mystery? If a reader has arrives at the solution of mystery thru sheer guesswork or an arbitrary hunch, can he be said to have solved it? If not, does the fact that a reader has employed indications (clues) provided by the author to arrive at the correct solution mean that the he has “solved” the mystery?

Suppose that I arrive at the solution that Phillip Latterby was killed by his nephew Nigel based on the fact that Nigel owned the crossbow employed in the commission of the crime, and that Phillip had stated that he planned to disinherit him. Can I be said to have solved the mystery if that turns out to be the correct solution? If so, then what about another reader who decides that the culprit was Phillip’s wife Adeline, who may have stolen the crossbow from Nigel’s’s room (it had been earlier established that she had once been arrested for shoplifting), and whose disagreement with Phillip’s political beliefs was well known? Is this reader less correct than I am, or is he justified in claiming that the author was not “fair,” that he had not provided the reader with “all the clues necessary to solve the mystery”? Again, we are referencing some invisible but objective standard.

The question, then, is clearly:  how many indications qualify as “enough”? How many constitute “all the clues”? One? Five? 50? Outside of the standard of “some” clueing (which means at least one clue– and I doubt that many would agree that the inclusion of a single clue guarantees that a work is sufficient to be called fairly-clued), there is only one standard of clue sufficiency that can be clearly defined and universally agreed upon as sufficient, and that is the standard of total deductive provability.

Now, total deductive provability is a great, solid standard, against which no cries of “unfair” could ever be raised, but unfortunately it entails certain problems in relation to detective fiction, not the least of which is that no works of detective fiction have ever met it! A bold statement, I realize, and one that I certainly can’t back up from personal knowledge– I haven’t read (nearly) all works of detective fiction. There is certainly the possibility that I am wrong about this point. But I have read a great deal of the most lauded works of the genre (all of Christie, most of Carr, Queen, Berkeley, Brand, and several others), and none of what I’ve read (or heard about) suggests that there are any works that qualify.

Admittedly, there are occasional works that prove that “x and only x could have committed the crime” (though even these are rarer than it would seem, as the “logic” that “proves” this point is more often than not flawed). However, even those works that do arrive at this point by unassailable deductive logic do not meet the standard, as the solution to the mystery in these books never (in my experience) consists solely of this single point.

Rather, the solutions to detective stories (presumably) all consist of a scenario of contentions, some of which may be arrived at deductively, but which are all linked together by abductive reason (inference to the best explanation). This abductive link itself can not be proven, and very often the details it connects (and which subjectively strengthen the credibility of the solution) cannot be deductively proven either.

A large category of such details are behavioral discrepancies, clues which very often (in my personal opinion) offer the most fascinating, satisfying and convincing of evidence, and yet which can never be deductively proven. Examples of such behavioral discrepancies are the suddenly heightened volume of Simon Doyle’s voice in Death on the Nile, Avory Hume’s abrupt apparent change in attitude toward Jimmy Amswell in The Judas Window, and the uncharacteristic comportment of the two Generals in Chesterton’s The Sign Of The Broken Sword. The solutions of these stories not only explain these discrepancies, but are made more interesting and convincing by them. The explanations fit in with everything else in the solution, and reinforce the solution’s sense of inevitability. Yet none of them can be deductively proven, as there are countless other possible explanations for these behavioral discrepancies. For instance, Simon Doyle’s sudden vocal volume increase might have been due to the fact that at that moment he felt a sudden surge in pain from his injured leg. Or, he may have suddenly gone deaf in one ear and was attempting to compensate. That such explanations have no clues to support them and do not otherwise bolster the solution is of no importance; the point is that they are no less provable than the more satisfying explanations ultimately given, and in fact no less logically possible.  Furthermore, not only are the explanations to behavioral discrepancies unprovable, they in turn prove nothing.

Are then works that consist largely or solely of such clues—works that are richly and satisfyingly clued (IMO) and include many of the most lauded works of the genre—“bad” detective stories? Or are they not even detective stories at all? Carr, Van Dine and others call the genre a game, but if these works cannot “play fair” (which, as we’ve seen, is nearly impossible to do), do they not qualify as of the genre? Certainly Christie’s Five Little Pigs and Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (again, for me and others, beautifully and satisfyingly-clued) never strive for anything even remotely approaching total deductive provability (heck, not even partial deductive provability)—are they not legitimately detective stories?

Note, moreover, that any (possible) detective story of total deductive provability would also have to exclude motive as part of its solution. After all, due to the impenetrability of the human mind, motive can never be deductively proven. Sure, we might be able to prove that Uncle Phillip threatened to disinherit his nephew Nigel, that Nigel threatened Uncle Phillip (“I’ll kill you before I let you change you will!”)… even that he DID kill him, and shouted afterward “I killed him because he was going to change his will!” But we still cannot prove that that was the reason he killed him. All that we can prove is that he had a strong possible motive. (Though people often refer to a strong possible motive as a motive, only the actual desire to commit a crime [or other action] constitutes an actual motive. Otherwise, any person with a weak possible motive [“I’ve never cared for Australians”] must be deemed to have a motive for, as with the matter of clue sufficiency, there is no way to objectively define the threshold between weak and strong possible motives).

And, as I mentioned before, even if we were able to deductively prove all the individual points of a detective story solution (which would be an incredibly tedious and lengthy process), we would still not be able to prove the abductive chain that links them (the cause and effect relationships  between them). So then, am I suggesting that the greatest works of the Golden Age masters are all failures? Well, set against the either uselessly vague or virtually unattainable standards of “fair play” I’d say… yes, they are.

Now, before anyone brings out the tar and feathers and starts referring to me as the “21st-century Edmund Wilson,” let me state emphatically that I love Golden Age Detective Fiction! It is my favorite genre, and John Dickson Carr is my favorite author (with Agatha Christie running a close second). Further, I consider their greatest works (along with those of Queen, Berkeley, Brand and several others) as masterpieces of their art. But I consider them brilliant examples of what they are, not of what they’re not, just as I consider Twelve Angry Men a triumph of drama and a failure as a musical comedy. The fault then, dear Brutus, lies not in these works but our model. And that faulty model– that model that does not fit the genre– is that of the “game.”

Now, there’s no doubt that games and games-playing were extremely important to the world of Golden Age Detective Fiction. The people who both wrote and read GA fiction were by and large games-playing people, the type that Anthony Shaffer memorialized with the character of Andrew Wyke in his play Sleuth (though most of them were presumably more likable and kind-hearted than Wyke, of course). Games were indeed all the rage in that era, and it is quite natural that a type of fiction bearing resemblances to games would be appealing to those people who reveled in playing them.  Games-playing and GA Detective Fiction undoubtedly fed and fed off each other. But resemblance is not the same thing as identity, and just as singing at a karaoke bar does not constitute a concert, I maintain that a work of detective fiction is fundamentally distinct from a game.

Of course, much depends on how one defines the concept of a “game.” There are many definitions out there, some of them admittedly broad enough to include detective fiction, but those definitions are also broad enough to be of no use in resolving the question. For instance, the first definition of a “game” on dictionary.com is “an amusement or pastime.” Well, yes, by that definition, a detective story clearly is a game, but then so is watching The Sound Of Music. That really doesn’t help us, I’d say. One might enjoy or not enjoy The Sound Of Music, but the mere watching of it does not constitute playing a game, and even those who do not like the film wouldn’t claim that is unfair in not giving the viewer sufficient opportunity to “win” (whatever that would mean in this case).

Another “game” definition (same source) is “a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.” This is clearly closer to the definition we seek, but it matches rather badly with the genre, as we’ll see below. But let’s first take a look at the descriptions provided by the people who were actually insisting on the connection in the first place. First, here’s the way S. S. Van Dine put it:  “The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more – – it is a sporting event.”

Similarly, John Dickson Carr wrote: “It is a hoodwinking contest, a duel between author and reader.”

So, what both are suggesting (and also corresponding to that second, more specific dictionary definition) is that, more than just a pastime, detective fiction is specifically a competitive match, a battle of wits between the author and the reader. But is it? I’d call attention to several points that illustrate the distinction between this pastime and all other competitive games. I’ll start with my weakest assertion.

1) COMPETITIVE GAMES ARE PLAYED BETWEEN OPPONENTS ACTIVELY COMPETING AGAINST EACH OTHER AND AWARE OF EACH OTHER’S EXISTENCE.

As I mentioned, this is the weakest of my assertions, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with it. But when I read the works of Golden Age Masters– who clearly never knew of me or my level of intellect– am I really competing against them? Doesn’t their lack of opportunity to rebut or parry against my moves disqualify it as a competition? And if I’m able to arrive at both the identity of the culprit and the motive of a mystery prior to the author revealing it (as I did with Christie’s The Body In The Library) did I actually outwit them? It would be nice to think of myself of as the man who outwitted Agatha Christie (clearly I’m much more clever than she), but I don’t honestly consider it an valid claim.

And even if we do accept the idea that someone totally unaware of us (and who in certain cases has died before we were born) can be competing with us, it certainly gives detective fiction a unique status among games. Admittedly, in such activities as crossword puzzles, the puzzle has been designed without knowledge of us or our intellectual capacities (and the crossword puzzle deviser might too have died before we were born). But no one refers to a crossword puzzle as a competition or battle of wits between the person trying to fill in the answers and the puzzle deviser. And there is also another important distinction between a crossword puzzle and detective fiction…. :

2) PLAYERS OF A GAME COMPETE ACCORDING TO SPECIFIC RULES.

I suspect that many who buy into the detective-story-as-game scenario think this one is covered. What about, they may say, the lists of rules set forth by Van Dine, Knox, Gorell, Milne, even Carr? To which I call attention to one monumental point they’re overlooking… the matter of just who these rules are written for! Van Dine’s rules are titled “Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories” and, similarly, the rules propose by Knox, Gorell, etc… are all placed upon the writers of the stories. If the detective story is, as proposed, a competitive match between the author and the reader, where are the rules that the reader must follow?

To my knowledge, none have ever been suggested, let alone laid down as law. I can only think of one possible rule placed upon the reader, and that is the tacit rule that he mustn’t peek at the end of the book. But whereas the reader may call “foul” at the writer not following the “rules” (whosever’s rules they choose to appeal to), no one is insisting upon (or even mentioning) that the reader must heed the “no-peek” rule– it is both unspoken and self-enforced. What other competitive game lays down rules for players on one side and not on the other? None which I can think, which brings up the next distinction.

3) RESULTS OF A COMPETITIVE MATCH ARE DECIDED EITHER BY MUTUAL ASSENT  OF THE PLAYERS (BY REFERENCE TO ESTABLISHED RULES) OR BY AN EXTERNAL ARBITER (ALSO, PRESUMABLY, IN REFERENCE TO ESTABLISHED RULES).

This axiom applies to all competitive games, from thumb wrestling to baseball to hopscotch to championship chess.  When the players themselves call the decision (as in, say, a card game) it is in reference to a specific set of rules, calling upon such rules to provide an objective arbiter of victory. Other competitions do admittedly have more subjective rulings (e.g. a beauty pageant, a dog show, or a singing competition), but these too are presumably following specific set guidelines and, more importantly, in such cases the judges are not the players themselves but external arbiters. The outcome of the detective fiction “game” is neither decided by mutual assent of the players (J.D. Carr is not there to agree that I outwitted him), nor is there an external judge deciding the outcome (“No, Scott, you did not properly solve this one before Ellery Queen revealed it. I’ll be back next Thursday, and have the check postdated”). No, the outcome of a detective fiction match is decided by a judge solitary, subjective and “of the players”… the reader himself. And what if that reader arrives at a solution he deems superior to the solution subsequently revealed in the book? Was he wrong? Did he “win” or did he “lose”? Who is to make the call? Not only is the reader himself not an objective arbiter, but he has no standards to appeal to other than varying, unstandardized sets of “rules” (we play cards according to Hoyle, but are we playing the detective fiction game according to Van Dine? Knox? Carr?). Further, the most frequent grounds for crying “unfair”– insufficient clueing– has, as we’ve seen above, either no objective standard to appeal to, or else an objective standard that is never met. In essence, only the gut of the reader can decide whether he is victorious, and certainly no other competitive game is decided by the subjective belief of one of the players.

So far, I’ve noted that in at least three important ways, detective fiction is unique from competitive games of the type suggested by those who promote the “whodunit-as-game” theory: it has players often unaware of each other’s existence, it has no rules set forth for players on one side, and it offers no objective (or external subjective) arbiters of success. I think these points alone are enough to raise serious doubts that detective fiction falls into the category of games. But I believe the fourth distinction puts it beyond doubt:

4) PLAYERS COMPETE IN GAMES WITH A DESIRE TO WIN.

No doubt, one can enjoy playing a game even if one loses it. And there also unrelated reasons for desiring to lose a game (“If I let her win, she’ll sleep with me, give me the promotion, etc…”). But I can think of no game which many people play actually hoping– for no other ulterior reason– to lose. Yet, there are many, many people (myself included) who would a actually prefer to “lose” the detective fiction “game.” For, if detective fiction were indeed a game, “winning” (for the reader) would consist of correctly arriving at the solution to the mystery prior to it being revealed by the author, and “losing” would mean not anticipating it (or arriving at an incorrect solution). And a substantial portion of the mystery reading public would actually rather be proven wrong, to “lose” under this definition. Why? Because, if the author is able to successfully conceal the truth from them until the moment at which he chooses to reveal it, the reader may experience– in the dramatic way the author intended– a pleasing sense of “sudden retrospective illumination” (or paradigm shift, or epiphany, or in Aristotelian terms, anagnorisis)– that is, the sudden simultaneous sense of surprise and inevitability.

If you are not among the people who prefer this sensation to correctly anticipating the answer, I invite you take a survey of fellow mystery readers. I’m not suggesting the that our way of enjoying detective fiction is superior to the other, only that we constitute a substantial portion (perhaps even majority?) of the mystery readership.

Why then, one might ask, do we “hopeful losers” still try to solve the mystery while reading it? Well, I certainly can’t answer for everyone here, but I can explain my own reasons. I try– earnestly and intently– to solve the mystery, all the while hoping in my heart to be proven wrong because, if the author can surprise me with a richly clues-solution I had not foreseen despite my best (and frankly, “seasoned”) efforts to anticipate it, my regard for his skill will be all the greater, and my pleasurable experience of “sudden retrospective illumination” all the more intense and powerful. Thus, I’m employing my own “puzzle solving” prowess as a measure by which I judge the quality of the work. And this I would characterize far more as an act of “art appreciation” than of “games playing.”

Moreover, there are many readers who claim to read a detective story without trying to solve the mystery at all– they’re just there for the ride. How does that fit in with the games concept? Quite simply it doesn’t. Which brings us to another point about games:

5) A COMPETITIVE GAME DOES NOT EXIST AS AN ENTERTAINMENT INDEPENDENT OF SERVING AS A COMPETITION

Of course, many people do try to solve the mystery they are reading, and would rather arrive at the correct solution prior to being given it by the author. It is quite fair to say that these readers are treating the  detective story as a game– they are “playing” it as such (serving as their own rule makers and arbiters of success). But there’s a fundamental distinction: a detective story exists as an entertainment independent of its employment as a game– one can actively participate in its function as designed (i.e. one can read it and enjoy it) without anyone treating it as a game. This same is not so of entities designed solely or even primarily as games. Yes, one can enjoy baseball or chess as a spectator, but someone must be playing it as a game in order for anyone at all to enjoy it. Not so of detective fiction.

Also note that ultimately any entertainment– not just detective fiction– can be treated by an individual (or even a group) as a game. Even the aforementioned activity of “watching The Sound Of Music” can easily be turned into a drinking game (take a shot every time Gretl cries “Fräulein Maria!”). But this doesn’t mean that The Sound Of Music or the act of watching it is inherently a game. Admittedly, the puzzle provided by a detective story more readily invites its treatment by individuals as a game– that is, they make a game of it for themselves. But as with The Sound Of Music, The ABC Murders can be enjoyed as an entertainment without the reader choosing to treat it as a game. Thus, if we say call detective fiction a game– merely because it can be treated as such– it follows that we must say the same for all types of fiction, and indeed for all types of entertainment.

Speaking of comparison to to other entertainments, let’s make a comparison of the activity of reading a whodunit (say, Death on the Nile) with playing an actual game (we’ll use baseball, though the comparison would work with chess, backgammon, croquet, or any other real game) and with watching the film Citizen Kane:

FullSizeRenderI believe that side-by-side comparison makes it easy to recognize what type of activity detective fiction more closely resembles.

One further point (and it is indeed an important one): that element of “sudden retrospective illumination”– a key element of the detective fiction genre, and described by Carr and other genre experts as a euphoric, almost religious experience– is  found nowhere in games. One might be surprised by the outcome of a game, but games are not specifically designed to provide an ending that both surprises and seems retrospectively inevitable. It is however, found elsewhere in art, not only in detective fiction, but in other genres as well (e.g. the 1945 romance film Brief Encounter— anything but a murder mystery– concludes with a revisit to the first scene, with a new, more intense audience understanding of the meaning of the events).

And so, one further comparison:

FullSizeRender-3

An interesting case is that of Cluedo (or Clue, as it is known here in the States) which, much as the character in Chesterton’s The Man With Two Beards is described as the reverse of a ghost (“not the antic of the soul freed from the body. It was the antic of the body freed from the soul“), is in several respects the exact opposite of detective fiction: whereas a detective story is a fiction that in some respects resembles a game, CLUEDO is a game that resembles detective fiction. For, despite involving many of the stylistic trappings of the classic Golden Age Detective Story (the Victorian British setting, the stock character types, the genre-common instruments of death), it is indeed a true game which is played by employing strict deductive logic. Moreover its solution offers no sudden retrospective illumination. One might be surprised that Colonel Mustard committed the murder in the conservatory with a lead pipe, but there’s nothing in the game designed to make that scenario seem any less likely than any of the others. Conversely, there’s nothing (in the way of clueing) provided to make one feel, “Of course! I should’ve known! It was there before my eyes all the time!” At the same time, it does provide the true “fair play” which detective fiction cannot.

Finally, what is my point in “attacking” the idea that detective fiction is a game and the notion of detective fiction “fair play”? I assure it is not to upset the apple cart, nor is it to spoil the fun. And it is certainly not for the purpose of criticizing or belittling the genre. On the contrary my purpose is rather to glorify the genre… I come not to bury GA Detective Fiction, but to praise it. However, to call the detective story a game merely because some readers think of it as such is actually to do it a disservice. For, while one may admittedly use a shoe to drive a nail into a wall (indeed, I have), to then call a shoe a “hammer”–merely because it can be employed as such– is to call attention to all the ways in which it is inferior to those objects (real hammers) that were designed expressly for that purpose. Similarly, to call the detective story a game both highlights the many ways that detective stories fall short as games, yet overlooks the wonderful pleasures they offer that games cannot.

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.