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)

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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.

My favourite puzzle mystery writers (Part 1)

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

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

Christianna Brand

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

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

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

More soon — stay tuned!

Anthony Boucher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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