Death Through the Mill, by Laura Colburn (1979)

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

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

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

9780890835258-us-300What is this book about?

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

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

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

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

Why is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of the Golden Age?

CluedoToday I was scanning some blogs I enjoy when I came across a brief post on At The Villa Rose in which the author says, in reference to Crime and Detective Stories (an irregular journal that usually contains fascinating non-fiction articles about detective fiction) #67, “I could have done without Mike Ripley dissing traditional mysteries, though.”

Mr. Ripley is then quoted as saying:

“The idea of a novel as an artificial puzzle, a literary parlour game or an extended cryptic crossword did not appeal to me: then or now. I am firmly of the opinion that the so-called Golden Age of that sort of English detective story ended in 1949 when it was replaced by the board game Cluedo. Not, in my opinion, a moment too soon.”

Well, I beg to differ for a number of different reasons, partly because I’ve coincidentally been reading a 1926 article by Willard Huntington Wright — better known to mystery connoisseurs as S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance novels — called The Detective Novel in which he appears to specifically disavow the relationship of the detective story to the cryptic crossword.

Helen Eustis

Helen Eustis

Many years ago, I remember reading The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, published in 1946, and said to myself, “Well, THAT was the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” I remember thinking that it seemed to me the the first time that what then might have been called “abnormal psychology” formed a crucial part of the solution to a mystery, and that it was the first mystery where the solution might not have been understood by one’s maiden aunt (and certainly would have met with violent disapproval). I’m not absolutely sure that that novel remains my choice to signal the end of the Golden Age; I’m starting to think that it was more of a slow, gradual fade-wipe between one style and another. And I’m also not prepared to say authoritatively that The Horizontal Man is the first such novel (I’d want to re-read Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer and do quite a bit more research); that’s just a memory of my moment of awareness that the Golden Age actually did come to an end.

012-01I could be persuaded that the beginning of the end was prefigured by the 1936 publication of “Murder off Miami” by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links — the first “dossier novel”, which seems to me to more accurately represent Ripley’s point about the detective novel being reduced to a kind of abstract game experience. And yet, if that is the case, how are we to feel about Ellery Queen’s “Challenge to the Reader”, wherein the fourth wall is broken and the mystery is revealed to be, after all, an artificial puzzle? 

2132_7f90There’s an article in Wikipedia called “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction” which offers Julian Symons as a reference such that the Golden Age was “the Twenties and the Thirties” and suggests that Philip Van Doren Stern’s article, “The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley”, from 1941, “could serve … as an obituary for the Golden Age.” I was considerably amused by the “talk page” accompanying that article where some pompous little oaf waggles his finger and says that, because a Yahoo discussion group thinks it’s 1910 to 1960, so it must be or else “Wikipedia will have egg all over its face.” And yet the very blogging challenge in which I’m participating, the “Vintage Mystery Bingo” challenge, agrees with 1960 as the cut-off date. Honestly, I think 1960 is just ridiculous. These people are confusing the continued publication of puzzle mysteries with their membership in a literary movement. This is rather like insisting that, because people still continue to ride horses, therefore the horse and buggy are still a viable form of transportation. I suspect that a great deal of the reason that the Yahoo discussion group wants the boundary to extend to 1960 is because they want to discuss books that they enjoy, and some of them fall outside any logical boundary; just because Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie began working in the Golden Age doesn’t mean their entire oeuvre defines the Age ipso facto. I’d prefer a more logical boundary than mere personal preference.

eustis1I’ve been giving these issues some thought lately, mostly because this blog’s most recent post has enjoyed a great deal of discussion in the comments section about the Humdrum School, and the fascinating insights have provoked me to consider the idea that the decline of the Humdrums and the decline of the Golden Age go hand in hand. In fact, I’m in the throes of some kind of insight that has to do with an X/Y axis, where one line moves from realism to fantasy and the other moves from the detective’s POV to that of the criminal. It might be that “the end of the Golden Age” might merely be the point at which the balance tipped from preferring the POV of the detective to preferring the POV of the criminal — and another balance tipped from a preference to realism towards a preference to fantasy. (Today, I think, the marketplace’s domination by the cozy represents a return swing towards the POV of the detective but now presented in a fantasy modality.)

However, I will throw this question out for discussion. Do you think there is a particular event that precisely defines the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction? If it’s a particular book, which one? Perhaps that might be a year, or a range of dates; what might that be? And if you think that 1960 is the correct date, why on earth do you think so?

Postscript, later the same day: And, as if upon cue, another mystery-oriented blog I follow, Beneath the Stains of Time, today had a post wherein the opening sentence is “The year 1920 is generally accepted as a semiofficial starting point for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which witnessed the debut of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the rest, as they say, is history.”  And I’ll accept that very sensible statement backed with sensible evidence.  So the starting point is 1920; thank you TomCat!