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

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

24073PWhat’s this book about?

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

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

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

409f094176c73647da1f66f30edcbbc0Why is this worth reading?

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

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

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

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

6bd2ef9cb824cd475ba920f2a38dff3cMy favourite edition

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

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

 

PVR Overload!

watching-tvIt’s been a little bit more than a year since I got my first PVR, and in my usual way I’ve managed to fill more than half of it up with stuff that I’m absolutely sure I’m going to review “real soon now”. Unfortunately the backlog is such that I think I’m going to merely do one big recommendation, just in case you find some of these items passing by in your television feed and a brief recommendation will tip the balance, or perhaps get you to add a title to your Netflix list (I don’t have Netflix; I have boxes of DVDs LOL).

I should mention that these films have all been on Turner Classic Movies since March 2013. If you don’t get TCM and you like old mysteries, this might be a good investment for you; TCM is not reluctant about re-running movies once every year or so. I liked all these films enough to hold onto them in the hopes of reviewing them someday; I will suggest that any of them will fill an idle hour, although your mileage may vary. I’m one of those people who enjoys bad movies but I understand that that taste is not universally shared.

Ricardo-Cortez-and-June-TravisCHere’s what about 40% of my DVR’s storage capacity looks like:

  • Three Perry Mason movies with Warren William: TCOT Howling Dog (1934), TCOT Lucky Legs (1935), TCOT Velvet Claws (1936).  And with Ricardo Cortez, TCOT Black Cat (1936).
  • Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935); Hildegarde Withers mysteries with Edna May Oliver. Murder on a Bridle Path (1936) with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers. The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), featuring ZaSu Pitts as Miss Withers
  • The Thirteenth Chair (1937); Dame May Whitty plays a spiritualist who solves a murder.
  • Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1944), where Jean Parker plays the titular telephone operator at a hotel who solves mysteries with her boyfriend, Peter Cookson.
  • The Death Kiss (1933): Bela Lugosi is top-billed but only supports this story about an actor who’s killed while on set shooting a movie called “The Death Kiss”. I love backstage movies where the real camera pulls back to reveal a fake camera and crew shooting the movie within the movie!
  • Having Wonderful Crime (1945): Pat O’Brien as J.J. Malone and George Murphy/Carole Landis as Jake and Helene Justus in a story based on a Craig Rice novel. And Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), where James Whitmore plays J. J. Malone and, the script having been changed from Hildegarde Withers, Marjorie Main plays the earthy Mrs. O’Malley. (Her novelty song is worth the price of admission alone.)
  • After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
  • chained-for-life-3Chained For Life (1952): Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton have a vaudeville act, but when one murders the other’s husband, they both end up on trial. Yes, seriously. They sing and dance, not very well. The kind of movie that it sounds like much more fun to watch than it actually is, unfortunately.
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1934), with Warren William as Philo Vance; The Casino Murder Case (1935), with Paul Lukas as Vance; The Garden Murder Case (1936), with Edmund Lowe as Vance; Calling Philo Vance (1940), with James Stephenson as Vance. And The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell as the best Vance of all.
  • The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), with Kay Linaker as the multi-named Sarah Keate (in this case, Sally Keating — from the Sarah Keate novels by Mignon Eberhart). Ricardo Cortez as the love interest.
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore in the famous silent.
  • Miss Pinkerton (1932), with Joan Blondell as a sleuthing nurse from the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
  • Guilty Hands (1931), wherein Lionel Barrymore kills his daughter’s sleazy boyfriend.
  • The Scarlet Clue (1945), with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan investigating a murder at a radio station.
  • before d 1Before Dawn (1933), a good old-fashioned Old Dark House film with Stuart Erwin and Dorothy Wilson as a beautiful young psychic.
  • We’re on the Jury (1937), with Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as jurors on a murder case who comically take the law into their own hands.
  • The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with William Powell and Jean Arthur as a sleuthing couple.
  • Welcome Danger (1929), a comedy with Harold Lloyd investigating murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), with James Garner as a small-town lawman solving a murder with the help of veterinarian Katharine Ross.
  • Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), starring Gene Raymond in another remake of the Earl Derr Biggers thriller.
  • Lady Scarface (1941), with Judith Anderson chewing the scenery as a cruel mob boss.
  • Fast and Loose (1939), with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in one of the “bookseller” trilogy, each of which featured a different pair playing Joel and Garda Sloane.
  • The Verdict (1946), with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre solving a mystery in Victorian London.
  • Secrets of the French Police (1932); Gregory Ratoff is a mad hypnotist who runs a scam with Gwili Andre as the bogus “Tsar’s daughter”.
  • moonlightmurder1Moonlight Murder (1936), with Chester Morris taking time off from being Boston Blackie to investigate a murder case during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), with Bonita Granville as the plucky teenage investigator.

Are any of these cherished films for you — or are any of them over-rated? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

What is a cozy mystery?

Keep-Calm-and-Read-a-Cozy-MysteryRecently I had the pleasure of reading an entry in a great blog by Curtis Evans, an excellent writer who is also, like me, interested in the general area of the Golden Age Mystery. I strongly recommend his books to your attention; I’ve learned a lot from Mr. Evans and he always makes me think!

His recent post was on the topic of the “cozy mystery”, and contained an interesting video clip featuring Jim Parsons and Craig Ferguson talking about what, to them, constitutes a cozy. Curtis’s post and its attendant comments section have piqued my interest enough to provide me with material for a post of my own on “what is a cozy?”, and I have to acknowledge my debt to his work. I’ve actually mentioned cozies in my own reviews lately, suggesting that Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries are “proto-cozies”, as is Craig Rice’s “Home Sweet Homicide”. (“Proto-cozies” meaning books that came before the invention of the term “cozy” but which seem to fall within the boundaries of that term.) But when push came to shove, I couldn’t come up with a definition of the cozy with which I agreed unreservedly — save perhaps “I know it when I see it.” This hearkens back to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which he commented on pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Nevertheless, definitions can be useful tools for deciding whether one is dealing with good art or bad art. For instance, it is not legitimate to criticize hard-core pornography for being sexually arousing, since that is what it sets out to do for an audience which wants it to do that. It is certainly possible to criticize it for being bad art since, to quote another court case, pornography “appeals to the prurient interest” and lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values”. I believe there are many similarities between pornography and cozy mysteries, strangely enough, although they seem superficially to be polar opposites.  If pornography is the display of sex without love, one might say that cozy mysteries display murder without emotional investment … one might suggest that cozies are a pornography of mystery.  I don’t think this is a particularly useful definition of the cozy, just one that appeals to me. I speak of cooking shows as being “food porn” and soap opera as “relationship porn”, so you can take it within that broad context. Most often, I merely know a cozy when I see one and have not given my understanding of the term much thought.

in the process of understanding a literary term, it’s best to find a common definition and examine it critically to see where one agrees or disagrees. I found a definition on the internet that seemed like a good place to start.

“Cozy mysteries are light mysteries, usually without strong language or graphic violence. The main character is an amateur sleuth who lives in a small town with other people you could envision having as neighbours or friends.”

Well, I can agree with this up to the word “sleuth”, in a broad-strokes way. Although the small town form is common, it is not universal; I’m sure there are urban cozies. I think what this definition is trying to get at is that the action of the book takes place in a small, closed community, but I’ll suggest this closure is more about social aspects than mere geography. For instance, a murder that takes place involving all the highly expert knitters in a large city would qualify; an expert knowledge of knitting would be the defining factor. This definition will do for a start, but there’s certainly more to investigate.

The Wikipedia entry for “Cozy mystery” is mostly useless since, unusually for Wikipedia, it relies on idiosyncratic and unprofessional writing in a single blog for most of its definitions.  (cozy-mystery.com is principally marked by enthusiasm for the sub-genre, not any kind of critical analytical skills.) It does, however, point us to a New York Times article, “Murder Least Foul”, by the intelligent if occasionally misguided Marilyn Stasio; here, she raises a number of fascinating ideas.  First she outlines some loose boundaries for the genre (I have paraphrased):

  • No gore. Violence is kept to a minimum and described discreetly.
  • Amateur status is preferred in a sleuth, who is often a woman with an interesting occupation.
  • The crime takes place close to home, or within a confined community in which the victim, suspects, and sleuth are all known to one another.
  • The settings are never sleazy; the atmosphere is designed to give pleasure and comfort.
  • The characters are driven by personal motives.
  • The hero does not get beaten up during the investigation, although romantic entanglements are permissible. Cozy sleuths have a clear mandate to get involved in complicated personal relationships, but authors are even more discreet about sex than they are about violence.

cozyAnd she then competently disposes of the “article of faith” that the cozy is an updated version of the traditional British detective story. Stasio accurately (at least as far as I’m concerned) pinpoints that Golden Age mysteries are about plots and “In the contemporary cozy … deduction takes second place. … By oversimplifying the plot through the elimination of its trickier puzzle elements, cozy authors have also reduced the complexity of the crime-solving process and diminished the detective’s intellectual role in that cognitive process.” I believe this hearkens back to a classic observation by the eminent critic Mrs. Q. E. Leavis, to the effect that the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers presented the appearance of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that activity were they forced to actually undergo it. One might call this “thought porn”, to continue my earlier theme. My experience of modern cozies is that they rarely allow the reader the opportunity to think about the plot and characters in an analytical way; instead, they summarize that thought as having occurred in the mind of the detective and the reader thinks, “Oh, yes, that’s exactly the way I would have worked it out if I had bothered to think about it.” Except it isn’t, because these readers rarely would have bothered to think about it or would have been capable of the logical process had they so bothered.

What Stasio appears to be saying, in my terms, is that cozies de-emphasize the plots and punch up characterization — usually, the personal life, business life, and romantic entanglements of the protagonist — and “story-telling”, by which cozy aficionados apparently mean the purveyance about huge gouts of information about largely irrelevant topics. I agree that very little detection is actually left in the cozy mystery. The detective has an intuition, or the criminal blurts something out that only the guilty party could know, or her cat keeps miaowing whenever it passes the door to the root cellar. And John Dickson Carr spins in his grave again and again.

Modern cozies are usually “about” something. I have in the past distinguished the sub-genre of the “information mystery“, whereupon an author who knows (or has researched) a great deal about, say, glassblowing creates a book where the detective and victim and all the suspects are immersed in the milieu of glassblowing, and only a glassblowing expert will be able to solve the mystery. Superficially, many — perhaps most — cozies are information mysteries, or purport to be information mysteries. The classic such cozy is Carolyn Hart’s creation of her “Death on Demand” series, where the protagonist is the proprietor of a murder mystery bookstore.  (Since I used to do precisely that work, I have to say that Ms. Hart’s version is highly romanticized and relatively uninformed, but what the heck, it’s making her much more money for romanticizing the work than it used to make me for actually doing it and I wish her well with it.) These days, though, cozies appear to be about … well, women’s things. Handicrafts, needlework, cooking, clothing design, interior decoration, household economy, and the supervision of preternaturally intelligent dogs, preternaturally intelligent cats, and pesky children. The problem has become, for me, that the provision of information per se has largely turned to the provision either of elementary tutorials or unsubstantiated opinion. You either get something like basic knitting 101 (accompanied by a smattering of language from the higher levels to give you the idea that there is more to learn and the author knows all about it) or you get the author’s opinion on how best to run a bed-and-breakfast, nursery, or small-town newspaper (with the same smattering of higher-level language). In the same sense that cozies assume the form but not the function of the puzzle mystery, the information cozy assumes the form but not the function of the information mystery.

cozy-fireplace-lSo if it doesn’t have plot, and it doesn’t have information, what does the modern cozy have? It’s only rarely appropriate to make a sweeping generalization about an artistic topic, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the modern cozy’s readers would suggest that “it’s the people. You know, you really get to care about [fill in name of spunky lovable heroine] and her chubby best friend and her Weimaraners, Agatha and Dashiell.” This is what the reader seems to think — at least, that’s what I used to hear again and again when I stood behind the counter at an equivalent to “Death on Demand”.

And in this respect I think there are two things going on here. I think there is a considerable dash of wish fulfilment going on. The typical middle-aged female reader wants to believe that, were it not for the accidents of birth, finances, geography and genetic inheritance, she would be perfectly capable of running a cunningly-decorated yarn store in a quaint rural village, trying to decide romantically between the police chief and the editor of the local newspaper while she solved volume after volume of mysteries that had some implausible relationship to yarn. And, I have to say immediately, there is nothing wrong with reading as a form of wish fulfilment. Any reader who is presently guffawing at the implied insult to middle-aged women should remember that very few middle-aged male aficionados of the private-eye novel are capable of beating someone up, or even walking around the block quickly. And mystery writers have to put food on the table the same as the rest of us. If they have found a fertile vein of ways to separate middle-aged women from $7.99 two or three times a month, who can gainsay them? (Hardcover cozies are 99% for the library market, I think.) So the reader gets to fantasize about what it’s like to run a small business without having the skill or ability or backing to actually do so. She gets to be vicariously sassy and flirty and well-spoken, perfectly dressed and coiffed, to have handsome romantic suitors, obedient intelligent and well-adjusted children, and telepathic and helpful pets. And apparently she enjoys this exercise so much that she repeats it obsessively. Cozy mysteries make up a huge volume of the approximately 11% of the new-book market labeled “Mystery” in publishers’ catalogues — perhaps as much as 50%. That’s because, as my experience tells me, middle-aged women who buy cozy mysteries buy a LOT of them.

Before I get into my second reason, let me segue for a moment. I think I have an original observation with respect to the purchasing of mysteries that is known to publishers but not articulated by readers. If you look at the cover of, say, the latest Carolyn Hart mystery, it always says clearly that this is “A Death on Demand Mystery”. Inside the volume, you will find a chronological listing of all the ‘Death on Demand” novels in the series. You will find many readers of these volumes suggest that they prefer novels in series because of the chance to get to know the characters over time, watch how they grow and change, etc. What I have never seen mentioned is the possibility that this preference is a kind of small-scale symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many, many times I have observed middle-aged book-buying customers who insist that they simply must acquire every single volume in their favourite series, seemingly for the sake of “completing the set”. I have occasionally heard them suggest that they really don’t even LIKE the particular series any more, it’s just that they’re in the habit of buying and reading the latest such-and-such, so they keep hoping they’ll get more interesting … Other publishers directly label the volumes “#6 in the blah-blah series”, or helpfully provide tick-boxes beside each volume in the interior list so that you can be sure you have all 6, or 11, or 28 volumes of the saga. I’ve known men to be like this too. I myself have a strong aspect of not wanting to rest until I’ve tracked down every, say, Perry Mason novel. But with women customers and cozies I recall it as more frequently and more distinctly OCD-like. I can’t prove it, but it’s interesting to think about.

The second thing that the modern cozy has, in a way that delineates the boundaries of the genre, is more difficult to pin down, but I may have identified an underlying factor. Commentators cited above have identified factors like the lack of on-stage violence and the “pleasure and comfort” to be obtained from the physical surroundings. Superficially these might be considered as facets of the wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect I noted above, but I think there’s a little bit more to it than that. Certainly these aspects are ways in which the reader wishes the world would revolve around her, or arrange itself for her pleasure. But I think there’s even something deeper going on.

Years ago, I read a 1975 science-fiction novel by John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider. In it, he casually tosses off in a sentence the idea that a character’s job is superficially to run an educational service, but the underlying sales concept is that the educational materials are meant to reassure middle-aged and elderly people that the world has the same values it did when they were young adults. That idea stuck with me and I think it has a broad range of validity — certainly it explains the existence of TimeNewsweek and Fox News to me.

I think this idea also explains part of the appeal of cozy mysteries; that they are meant to communicate to readers that the moral landscape is still the same as it was when they were younger. Graphic visual representations of violence on the evening news? Not in cozies. Widespread sexual diversity and rejection of traditional family structures? Not in cozies. Women’s achievements devalued, the role of domestic household manager mocked? Not in cozies. Women in traditional roles and family structures unable to predict, manage, or control events in the world around them that have strongly bad effects on themselves and their families? Not in cozies. Everything in cozies is the same way it’s always been; everything is manageable and all mysteries and problems are solved in 192 easy-to-read pages.

In cozies, the female protagonists have an implicit understanding of the rules of their world that is shared by all the “good” characters but not the bad. Most of these implicit understandings have to do with the value of women in society; specifically, the value of unmarried women with careers, the value of women as breadwinners and sole family support, and the value of women as the axis of their (traditional nuclear) families. It’s not an accident that the adventures of Kinsey Millhone are set 15 or 20 years before their publication date. And one common theme in the fairly large sub-genre of Victorian/Edwardian era cozies is a ridiculous grafting of modern feminist principles into antique contexts. “This is the thinking and courage that I would display if I were a Victorian upper-class lady,” we are meant to think, “I would FIGHT to be taken seriously by men and have a profession and treat the servants as equals,” when actually that behaviour would have had the woman in question packed off to a lunatic asylum. But it makes a good wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Marilyn Stasio suggests that (a couple of specific cozy authors) “deserve credit for opening up the domestic mystery to major social issues like child abuse, rape, and mental illness.” Those authors certainly did that, but I think Stasio here has hold of the wrong end of the stick. The authors in question used those themes, certainly, just like “straight novelists” and even earlier mystery writers did before them. It’s not unusual in the slightest to use powerful crimes as the basis of murder mysteries. Murder is a serious business. But it seems to me that cozy writers used those situations in order to tell their audience the way in which to think and, more importantly, feel about these issues — passing on the extension of traditional values to a new generation without making it seem unusual or exotic. We should feel violently angry with people who abuse children, we should feel like taking revenge upon rapists, and we should feel sorry for the victims of mental illness. White middle-class women should feel that middle-class people of colour are their complete equals. Women should feel equal to men, they should feel like competent guides of their children and feel as though they are on a level playing field in business with men. And the way in which these feelings are engendered in the reader is as sub-text. The housewife-detective who runs a yarn store has a best friend, store helper and neighbour who is Korean-American. We’re not told that the protagonist feels her to be equal, that attitude simply permeates their interaction. No one has to explain that it is crucially, vitally important to identify who in the neighbourhood murdered a neighbour — because every reader knows that anything that is potentially dangerous to the family is an absolute priority to eliminate. In the modern cozy, we don’t identify mentally ill people so that we can put them in an asylum, we get them into treatment and courses of pharmaceuticals.

I’ve remarked elsewhere that I dislike the modern cozy because it treats murder as something that happens off-stage, non-violently, and without upsetting the reader. The “light mystery”, as Stasio puts it, to me is repellent because it’s communicating that although the fact that a murder has been committed is felt to be bad and necessary to “solve”, one doesn’t need to ground one’s outrage in the mere fact that someone has been violently killed. It’s sort of understood that murders are regrettable but it’s kind of fun to investigate them. I draw the line between the “light mystery” and the “comedy mystery” — I don’t get worked up about the victims in, say, Craig Rice or Alice Tilton novels, because it’s clear that all that’s intended is humour. But I really want there to be more moral outrage expressed that someone in a modern cozy has stabbed a local gossipeuse, however repellent and morally unsound she may have been. This to me is a major flaw of the modern cozy. The sub-text is saying that it’s okay not to have to look at the dead body of a crime victim, probably because you would find it upsetting and nauseating. But I’m saying that you have to look at the body because it is precisely that act that will fill you with the moral outrage necessary to want to take an active hand in solving the crime. 99% of the time in the modern cozy, the victims are evil, wicked, morally unsound and frequently criminal. And 99% of the time in the real world, those people are punished, if at all, by the legal system. I believe we have to hate the fact that someone takes that law into their own hands, and so I think the cozy is contributing to a world in which the taking of the law into one’s own hands is overlooked or even condoned.

It would be fair to comment here that I seem to be defining the cozy mystery in terms to suit myself because it’s pretty clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. It’s a common practice to set up a straw-man definition and then find reasons why the thing you’ve defined is a bad thing. I admit there’s a certain part of that which must ring true, because it’s clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. I’ll be fair and say that they are not written for me, or even remotely like anything that I am accustomed to read for pleasure. I like lots of plot and little characterization; these are the opposite. But I think it’s also fair to say that cozy mysteries have something that underlies them that, if carried to its logical conclusion, is bad for society. It is bad for us to think that violence must take place off-stage so that we won’t be offended or revolted by it; if violence happens in front of us, we will do more to stop it. It is bad for us to absorb our moral values from the sub-text of commercial fiction without any context that makes it clear that we are doing so. It is bad for us to think that we are thinking when what is actually happening is that we are feeling.

Miniature-Golf-Course-200x300

And quite personally, I think it is bad for society to take the useful and diverting process that is the puzzle mystery — something which trains people to think logically, solve puzzles, look beneath the surface, deduce, and punish crime even at great cost — and suck the life out of it, leaving nothing but meretricious emotional displays, an ability to pretend that reality is much more pretty than it actually is, and a complete lack of thought. So I will not accept, as Stasio also refuses to accept, that the modern cozy is the updated version of the traditional Golden Age mystery. Instead, I am more confirmed in my now-examined belief that the modern cozy is “mystery porn”.

Postscript: It used to be in the 1990s that you could unerringly spot a paperback cozy on the stands because its cover art was some sort of domestic scene that had a skull worked into the picture in some cunning way, as a trompe l’oeil piece of some sort or simply plunked in the corner. If it weren’t for the fact that tastes in artwork have changed, we could have simply pointed to “books with skulls on the cover” and I wouldn’t have had to produce 3,800 words on what is a cozy.  Drat.

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

$_3Author:

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, writing as Alice Tilton. The Alice Tilton pseudonym was reserved for the eight novels featuring amateur detective Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who looked like Shakespeare”; this is the seventh.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “L”, “Read one book with a man in the title.” The titular Ernest is the victim in this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is US, Norton in 1944.  First UK edition is Collins, 1945. Many editions exist; the paperback I used is depicted at the top of this post and is from Foul Play Press, 1992.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Leonidas Witherall is known to one and all in his small New England community as “the man who looks like Shakespeare”. He’s also well-known in civic circles, he’s the owner and headmaster of a prominent boys’ school — and, a fact known to few, he’s also the writer of radio’s Lieutenant Haseltine series. “Haseltine to the res-cue!”  (Indeed, the exploits and habits of Haseltine and the beautiful Lady Alicia are a constant theme in Witherall’s adventures. We never exactly understand any of Haseltine’s story lines, but they sound hokey, simplistic, and repetitive.) As the story begins, Witherall is in his study desperately trying to complete the latest Haseltine adventure and being pestered by his housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, a sturdy middle-aged woman who is constantly expressing her “candied” opinion. She’s trying to tell him a number of important things that later he wishes fervently he’d understood, but he brushes her off and she leaves.

Almost immediately, two drunken deliverymen insist that Leonidas is to receive the delivery of a deep freeze (a household freezer), which they unload into his kitchen. Nearly simultaneously, a gorgeous violet-eyed blonde (named Terpsichore, but known to one and all as Terry) in an evening gown rings Leonidas’s front doorbell and insists that he is the person for whom she has been paid to sing “Happy Birthday” — which she promptly does. Leonidas then discovers that the deep freeze contains the corpse of Mr. Ernest Finger, whom he has just hired as the latest French language instructor at his boys’ school and who is related to his neighbours, the Finger family.

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens for the remainder of the novel; a bald recital of the facts of the movements of the characters would have my readers tugging at my sleeve and saying, “Um, WHY exactly would they all want to attend a policeman’s supper during such urgent and dangerous circumstances? Why exactly do the neighbours keep popping into the kitchen on errands? What combination of circumstances exactly left Mrs. Mullet tied up in Leonidas’s basement and only able to identify her assailant by the stitch that produced his hand-knit socks?” It’s pretty clear that it’s the murderer who is trying to get Leonidas in trouble and accused of the Finger murder, but what does moving the corpse around erratically have to do with it? (Accompanied by many, many jokes about the Finger family name; comments about “the moving Finger” and “I’ve had those Fingers in my hair all day” abound.)

Honestly, if I told you what happened, you wouldn’t be interested in reading the novel because you would, probably rightly, think that it was ridiculous and never bother to pick it up.  It IS ridiculous. Nearly everything that happens is ridiculous, zany, and improbable in the extreme. Essentially what happens is that Leonidas puts together a small crew of associates and they all race around like crazy people, reacting spontaneously to things that happen in the vicinity while they try to solve the murder of Mr. Finger and keep Leonidas from being arrested for it — or anyone else in the crew, many of whom have reason to have done violence to Ernest. Indeed, in all the books, this is the pattern; Leonidas assembles a crew that usually contains a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man, a ditzy but highly competent housewife, a child with no conscience, and a couple of salty-tongued members of the lower classes. This particular novel features lower-class Mrs. Mullet prominently, who here is constantly acting out the actions of the beautiful Lady Alicia as she attempts to aid the gallant lieutenant, and her daughter Gerty, who wishes to be known as Sonia. (Well, wouldn’t you?)

Finally, everyone takes a leaf from Haseltine’s adventures as Leonidas invokes the constant factor in the Haseltine stories; the principle of Cannae. “Cannae,” chant all the good guys simultaneously since they are all Haseltine devotees, “is the historic battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians, fought in Apulia in the year 216 B.C., in which the small, weak army of Hannibal cut the incomparable forces of eighty-five thousand proud Roman legionnaires to pieces.” (The action stops for a moment while they discuss whether the word is “pieces” or “shreds”. They continue …) “By means of an ingenious strategical concentration, it caught the enemy from the flank with calvary and surrounded him. Clausewitz and Schlieffen of the Prussian General Staff elaborated the idea of Cannae into a general theoretical doctrine, and then compressed the doctrine into an exact strategical system: Blitzkrieg.”  This exact speech recurs in every single Witherall novel and signals that Leonidas is about to solve the mystery, ensure the arrest of the criminal, and cause everything to end happily. Which he does and they do. “Bathed in the refulgent glow of the setting sun, Haseltine clasped the Lady Alicia to his manly bosom.” And Leonidas and Mrs. Mullet exchange a set of little jokes about what to call the next Haseltine adventure, which will be based on recent events — not “The Moving Finger” or “Deep Freeze”, but “Dead Ernest”.

6263Why is this book worth your time?

“Screwball comedy” in film pretty much began in 1934 with It Happened One Night, according to Wikipedia, but that reference also suggests that the style ended by 1942. It also says screwball comedies  “… often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret.” That sounds like a murder mystery to me. I’ll tentatively suggest that mystery writers who were looking around for new twists on the traditional mystery noted the success of the screwball comedy in film and decided that it would go well as the foundation of a murder mystery plot. And thus began the transmigration of the filmic screwball comedy into the novelistic comedy mystery.

I can’t say that I understand the entire history of the particular sub-genre of the “comedy mystery”. I’m not certain I know of all early examples; I’m aware of a couple of instances, including works by Marco Page (a pseudonym of Harry Kurnitz) like Fast Company that were filmed at about the same time as this book was published. But historians and analysts seem to be interested in very little in the way of comedy mystery before the work of Craig Rice, whose first novel, Eight Faces at Three (1939), began the genre, it seems. Except that if that’s the case, then Phoebe Atwood Taylor beat her to it; Taylor’s first novel as by Alice Tilton, Beginning With a Bash, was published in 1937 and the third in the series in 1939.

It’s hard to tell the impact of a particular writer at such a great distance. We know that Craig Rice was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time (January 28, 1946), and a number of her works were filmed (including Having Wonderful Crime in 1945, the film for which certainly qualifies as some kind of comedy, screwball or otherwise). Phoebe Atwood Taylor doesn’t appear to have been the subject of any media interest that I can locate, and her cross-platform success was limited to a single year (1944-1945) of a radio program, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, starring well-known actor Walter Hampden. So I’m guessing that Craig Rice was much more impactful than Phoebe Atwood Taylor. I cannot imagine why no one tried to film any of Taylor’s Witherall adventures when lesser writers’ attempts at screwball comedy were being filmed right and left; it just didn’t happen, and now the moment has passed.

This book, and indeed the whole Leonidas Witherall series, are beautifully crafted examples of screwball comedies in novel form. They are not especially interesting as mysteries if that is your only purpose in reading. The plots are so convoluted and baroque, and move at such a careening clip, that it is impossible to suggest that you will solve the mystery in the usual sense. Usually there is one character who stands out as the only potential suspect; either that, or you take a brief moment to wonder who might have done the murder and think, “Oh, THAT person, I guess.” It’s not usually possible, in a strict and formal sense, to “solve” an Alice Tilton mystery. That requires certain kinds of facts that are not really available to the reader.

For instance, in this case, we do not “see” the actions of the murderer in the sense that we would be able to go back and trace that person’s actions throughout the day, to know where they were when and with whom as witness. Instead, and I don’t think I’m going to spoil your enjoyment of this novel by saying so before you read it, the murderer here is someone who had a reason to put Ernest Finger’s body in a deep freeze and have it delivered to Leonidas Witherall’s kitchen. That action sparks the actions of the plot, but there really is only one person who had a (barely) sane and sensible reason to do such a thing. You can imagine that that limited the list of potential murderers to a single name, which it does here. That will have to be sufficient for those of us who like to have a try at actually solving a mystery; the others will have little about which to complain. There is so much going on here, and so much of it is actually hilarious, that you won’t mind a bit that the mystery ingredient is a bit skimpy.

I’ve enjoyed this whole series and read them all a number of years ago, and they stand up well to re-reading; not all books by the writers about whom I was enthusiastic in my youth have done so. This book is funny in a way that is hard to describe; to me, the closest analogy is the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the creator of Bertie Wooster, the quintessential “Silly Ass” in the tradition of Philo Vance, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. I’ve read a quotation from Wodehouse to the effect that he was being blamed for writing about the same characters, just giving them new names in each book; Wodehouse announced he was confounding his critics next time by keeping the same names. And this process is very much what happens in these eight books. They are a series of linked character trophes, like Benny Hill or the Carry On movies. There’s a smart and practical housewife whose presentation is that of a ditz. There’s a beautiful girl who is in trouble through no fault of her own. There’s a handsome young man of good family and education who is misunderstood but anxious to help solve the mystery.  And there are a couple of plucky and stupid members of the lower classes, pronouncedly comedic characters, along to do the heavy lifting and offer silly suggestions about alternatives. The author has a limited deck of characters whom she shuffles and recombines; some overlap and recur in the author’s Asey Mayo mysteries under her own name. An ineffectual middle-aged upper-class male who turns out to have a backbone. A young woman who learned competence by serving in the Armed Forces during WWII. A self-sufficient man of great age, a spoiled young wealthy woman, a preternaturally intelligent child — there are more (not all these trophes are represented in this book, I have to add).

Dead Ernest might be thought of as a kind of proto-cozy (oddly enough, this came out the same year as another possible proto-cozy, Craig Rice’s brilliant Home Sweet Homicide). It has some of the same qualities I associate with the modern cozy: violence is offstage and not indicated in any graphic way, there are strong implicit and sometimes explicit moral values, and the narrator is fallible. And that it is meant to be purchased by a female reader. To my mind, the difference is that the modern cozy lost most of the humour of a classic comedy mystery and replaced it with a kind of communication of “gentle” social values. Perhaps the premise that these two genres are related is fallacious; possibly I’ve omitted important intermediate steps. Maybe it’s just that the modern cozy is so cold-bloodedly commercial that any such relationship is possible, because commercial writing will use any cultural tradition it can to sell another book. Usually this involves the merger of the form of the “light comedy mystery” with the purveyance of a great deal of detailed information about, say, knitting; experts in knitting are easier to find than someone who can actually write comedy, so the focus changed as the cozy became more commercial, produced on assembly-line lines. I think it’s likely Taylor was writing for a female audience, but I also know many men enjoy her books (there are only a few men who can survive a regular diet of cozies). So, I’ll leave this to my readers’ speculation; I have no conclusive answers. I don’t know of any attempt that’s been made to trace this kind of literary relationship, but since there are so many doctoral students who have been forced to look at genre fiction because all the interesting work on Jane Austen has been done, perhaps we can expect such a thesis at some near future point. “Origins of the Cozy Mystery: from Craig Rice to Phoebe Atwood Taylor to Ailsa Craig to Marcia Muller, Joan Hess and beyond.” We can but hope.

Ultimately,  I think this book deserves your time because, like its seven fellows in the series, it is literate and intelligent, well-written, and fast-moving. Taylor’s work presents a detailed portrait of a certain period in American history, focused on the domestic economy of Cape Cod in the period during and immediately after WWII. She is a clever and economical constructor of characters; I suggest that the fact that she reused a group of stock characters is evidence that she understood the inherent comedy situations in class conflict (again, this echoes British bawdy humour based on repetitive trophes) and this kind of writing came naturally to her. And she is a wildly inventive and truly eccentric plotter who has the skill in writing necessary to keep her plots moving at breakneck speed without losing the reader. Best of all, you can re-read them two or three times in your lifetime at long-separated intervals and still enjoy them in the same way, for that timeless quality of inspired silliness that brings out the child in us all.

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Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Norton, 1944) is available today from an American bookseller, Fine in a VG to NF jacket, for $65.  A slightly less crisp copy is $40 from a Canadian bookseller. The UK first is Collins, 1945. A number of editions exist; Norton reissued the Alice Tilton novels in hardcover in the 1970s or thereabouts, Foul Play Press did a uniform paper edition including the copy I have re-read (seen at the top of this post) in 1992, and Popular Library did a 1970s edition with a wacky and reasonably irrelevant cover illustration, which I have shown to the left.

Here, I think the first edition is the most collectible; the cover illustration is charming, a drawing of the two drunken deliverymen who make up part of the wacky crew inhabiting this novel. (Why those two, I have no idea; they’re nowhere near being the most important characters in the book.) There is not much of a market for Alice Tilton these days; she seems to go in and out of favour. Considering the nonsense that got made into movies at about the time of publication, I am at a loss to understand why any of these books were never filmed; perhaps because of the one-year tenure of The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall on Mutual in 1944/1945.

By way of contrast, Home Sweet Homicide mentioned above, that came out in the same year, by Craig Rice, NF in NF jacket, is $1,250 plus shipping. I have to say there is a chance the specific value would be affected by having been named a Haycraft-Queen “cornerstone”, and filmed to boot, but this is still  quite a difference from $65 for an Alice Tilton novel. I’m still not sure why the public loved Rice and was indifferent to Taylor, but this will give you a good idea of their value to posterity.

The handful of surviving episodes of the radio program are readily available on the internet for free, here and elsewhere; if you’re interested, I can’t guarantee that any of them contain Agnes Moorhead in her brief stint as Mrs. Mullet, but they’re worth a listen.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

My favourite strict-form puzzle mystery films (part 1)

I suggested that I’d make this list in a recent post: it seems like a good time to get started.  These are in no particular order. “Strict-form”, to me, means that there is a mystery as a major part of the plot and it can be solved by an intelligent and observant viewer, because all the clues are displayed fairly. And I’ll note here that I say “favourite”; not necessarily the best, but these are the ones I can watch again and again, and recommend to friends.

Green_For_DangerGreen For Danger (1946)

Starring Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill; based on the novel of the same name by Christianna Brand.  This is a story about a WWII hospital and some violence and fatal ill-feeling among a group of doctors and nurses who are staffing it.  Patients keep dying on the operating table for no reason that anyone can find … then a crabby senior nurse is stabbed in a deserted operating theatre.  A tight and intelligent puzzle based on who/what/why/when/where/how as much as personality and sociology, although both are important.  The background is fascinating and well observed, and Alistair Sim is absolutely wonderful as a somewhat nitwitted Scotland Yard inspector who looks around to see if anyone saw him dive for shelter when he hears a flying bomb.

Miracles For Sale (1939)

You can read my entire opinion here. Stars Robert Young and Florence Rice in a rocketship-fast puzzle about spiritual mediums, escape artists, and stage magicians.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

the-last-of-sheila-3With James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Joan Hackett, Ian McShane and Raquel Welch in a great ensemble cast. The most important part is that this was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; Sondheim’s a puzzle fanatic and a linguistic genius (as well as every other kind).   A year after Sheila dies at a Hollywood party, her widower (Coburn) invites a group of six party guests to spend a week on the Mediterranean on his luxury yacht, playing a complicated parlour game that soon turns to murder.  A brilliant script and a subtle and intelligent mystery with devilishly tiny clues, including the photo you see here. The small cast and restricted locations put the focus on the actors, who all rise to the occasion; this is the first time I ever knew that Raquel Welch could actually act. And apparently Dyan Cannon provides a not-very-loving portrait of Hollywood agent Sue Mengers.

I understand that Hollywood is talking about remaking this, as of about 2012; nothing has apparently come to fruition.  I’m not holding my breath; the original is nearly perfect. Perhaps someone needs to see Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds in this, but I don’t think I need to.

333701.1020.ALady of Burlesque (1943)

Based on The G-String Murders as by Gypsy Rose Lee; actually ghosted by the great Craig Rice. [edited August 22, 2014] I have been convinced by the research and writing of Jeffrey Marks, whose comprehensive analysis in his book, Who was that Lady? (2010) that Lee did most or all of the writing herself. I have to say although Mr. Marks has changed my mind, I do think there’s plenty of evidence in the other direction and I don’t mind having been fooled. [end of edited portion] Rice was an experienced ghost writer who took credit for the novel, the writing style and humour are very like her other books, and the second book in the series, Mother Finds A Body, written without Ms. Rice and published a year later, is simply awful.

Since the novel was the best selling mystery since The Thin Man, the movie version garnered Barbara Stanwyck (playing Dixie Daisy, the headliner in a bump-and-grind burlesque show) and a host of supporting players. I have to be honest and say this is not a truly strict-form puzzle mystery — you’ll find it impossible to solve, I expect — but once Barbara Stanwyck gets through singing “Take it off the A String, Play it on the G String” and the bumps and grinds begin, you’ll be hooked anyway. The burlesque background is fascinating, the supporting players are delightful, and the musical score was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s cheerful, funny, bawdy and occasionally acidulous. Best of all, the film is apparently in the public domain and you can get a copy via archive.org, here.

After the Thin Man (1936) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

My full reviews are here and here of these great mysteries starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. I would also add the great original masterpiece, The Thin Man itself; it certainly qualifies as a strict-form puzzle. All I can say is that I tend to cherish, cultivate and curate the lesser-known gems that might escape people’s notice, and The Thin Man will endure for a long, long time without any curation by me.  The two I’ve mentioned here are difficult mysteries but not impossible; Goes Home is particularly devilish because the central clue is negative in nature.  A character does something in front of your eyes, but if he had not already known that another character was dead, he wouldn’t have done it in quite that way. You’ll slap your forehead when you get the answer.

6043069589_af92b2bbcf_zEvil Under the Sun (1982)

This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one Agatha Christie title; I have two for this list, but this is my favourite. After the success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express with its ensemble cast of stars, producers found it easy to finance such productions and festoon them with famous names. 1982 brought a very nearly perfect production of Christie’s novel about Hercule Poirot (here represented by Peter Ustinov) relaxing sur la plage at an isolated quasi-Yugoslavian island resort (actually working on the case of a missing diamond). He finds himself surrounded by a glamourous stage star, Arlena Stewart (Diana Rigg), and her family, and a group of guests who all seem to have some connection to Arlena. These include Roddy McDowall, Maggie Smith, James Mason, Sylvia Miles, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Colin Blakely and Denis Quilley. Almost every single detail of this film has been lovingly assembled: brilliant costumes, detailed sets, polished dialogue — oh, especially the dialogue, which is jam-packed with quotable lines delivered with relish by actors who seem to be enjoying themselves. (Maggie Smith: “Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together, not that I could ever compete. Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us <beat> and wider.”)

My only problem with this film is Peter Ustinov making a fool of himself playing Hercule Poirot. Or, rather, playing “beloved character actor Peter Ustinov playing Hercule Poirot” and doing everything but bite his own arm to get a laugh. There are many reasons to laugh at Hercule Poirot, but none of them should be that he is a buffoon.

At any rate, the plot is extremely complex and recomplicated, with every character having a sensible motive. It requires a considerable parsing of a large amount of evidence to correctly assign guilt, and the traditional “gather them all in a big room and explain the crime” scene at the end goes on and ON; to the great satisfaction of those of us who want every I dotted and every T crossed, but even so … And it all ends happily and beautifully.

This will do for part 1: I need to do a little research and thinking before I proceed with part 2; it will, however, contain the other Agatha Christie piece I mentioned, 1945’s And Then There Were None.

Availability:

To the best of my knowledge, each of the above-noted films is available from the usual sources: Amazon and eBay are where I would start, but there are many inexpensive sources if you know where to look.