Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy (2018)

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, Money in the MorgueProbably my regular readers are already familiar with the reason this book exists. Ngaio Marsh died in 1982, after publishing 32 novels about Roderick Alleyn, second son of a baronet and a police inspector with Scotland Yard. She left behind three short chapters comprising the introduction to the present volume, as well as “a page of rough notes”; the notes did not apparently solve the murder or provide a motive and stipulated that all the action of the book takes place over the course of one night.

The daunting task of fashioning a book out of this sparse beginning was given to Stella Duffy, who shares a number of personal characteristics with the late Dame Ngaio. Duffy is originally from New Zealand, moved to London, works in theatre, writes detective fiction, and was awarded an OBE. As Duffy elsewhere remarked, “I would have been a bit miffed if they had asked someone else.” I agree it seems like a natural match.

I must here note that the “call to adventure” came from David Brawn, who is “estates manager” at Harper Collins. Brawn was responsible for the continuance of Hercule Poirot as by Sophie Hannah in 2014, in The Monogram Murders (about which I commented here).  Brawn and what are now two Poirot novels by Sophie Hannah have received my criticism in the past — I’m still quite creeped out by the existence of an estates manager at a major publishing house and have been quite disparaging about the whole idea here. In that article I damned with faint praise the work of Stella Duffy, who has continued to entertain me with her writing, and expressed my displeasure with the idea that Ngaio Marsh needed in any sense to be continued.

Stella Duffy

Stella Duffy

Ladies and gentlemen, I have changed my mind, and I apologize to all concerned. If David Brawn can bring books like this to the public, he himself deserves an OBE, and Stella Duffy deserves the Gold Dagger. This is the best continuation novel I’ve ever read. Duffy has combined a real grasp of Marsh’s traditional themes, preoccupations, and even language with the ability to write like Marsh and, may I add, Marsh at her best. Ngaio Marsh at her best means somewhere around 1940 to 1945, and that’s when Marsh set this book (and Duffy continued and finished it). If you are that kind of Ngaio Marsh fan and you haven’t got time to read the rest of this, here’s the conclusion I want you to reach: buy this book immediately because you will enjoy it very much.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although I do not lay out the answers.  If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Ngaio Marsh and Shakespeare

Ngaio Marsh and friend

What is this book about?

Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand, at a point in World War 2 when its invasion by Japan is forecast as a strong possibility.  The recovering soldiers and local patients at Mount Seager Hospital include Alleyn, who is doing a quiet little job of investigation involving some coded radio transmissions and pretending to be an invalid as cover; he has been in the hospital but not really part of it. The pulse of the experienced reader will quicken faintly as the opening pages reveal a rough map of the grounds of the hospital grounds and buildings.

nz20The everyday activities of the hospital involve a number of staff members: handsome young Dr. Hughes and crabby old Sister Comfort, Father O’Sullivan the unctuous vicar and various nurses and workers, and most especially the convalescing patients, all take their orders from the serene and authoritative Matron. A number of things happen roughly simultaneously at the outset of this night. The death of young Sydney Brown’s grandfather has caused him great distress, and his bereavement is being mitigated. A fat and pompous government payroll clerk, Mr. Glossop, has to spend the night at the hospital due to bad weather and needs to lock his cash in the Matron’s safe. One young and pretty nurse, the less than chaste Rosamund Farquharson, has won the enormous sum of one hundred pounds betting on an outsider at the races, and has also been relieved of it by Matron to put it in the safe for safekeeping. And there is a welter of personal relationships and romantic frustrations and sins small and large that are hinted at in the opening chapters.

Since the title of this book is Money in the Morgue, the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that both the money and the Matron disappear quite soon into the book, although her body shows up in short order. Alleyn reveals his police credentials and, with the assistance of Sergeant Bix of the New Zealand Army substituting for his usual assistant Inspector Fox, takes charge of the case.

The plot’s the thing here, and since the action of the book takes place over such a short period of time, just about anything I say will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely note that Alleyn, in his usual display of gentlemanly uber-competence, solves every crime in sight before the break of dawn, some of which will not have made themselves plain to the less perceptive reader, and rights every wrong that needs righting. There is a very surprising climax followed by a series of short scenes in which all the loose ends are tied off.

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Ngaio Marsh, 1940s

Why is this book worth your time?

Ngaio Marsh was one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age, we are often told, although I consider her fourth among that quadrumvirate after Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. I had a try at talking about my five most/least favourite of her novels here; I’ve written about her paperback editions in general, from a collector’s standpoint, here, here, and here. And I went into great detail about Hand in Glove (1962) here and Last Ditch here (as part of my 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read series, which may give you all the idea you need of my opinion LOL).

I mention all this to drive traffic to my blog (smiling) but also to bolster the idea that, yes, I’ve read everything Ngaio Marsh ever wrote, multiple times, and given her work a lot of thought over the years. Some of her books are great; some of her books are awful. From my point of view, the ones that are great are generally speaking (a) written in her best period, roughly 1937’s Vintage Murder to 1947’s Final Curtain, (b) set in her native New Zealand, of which there are only four (and one is awful).

Marsh’s best writing is marked by a few general qualities. Since she was deeply engaged in the theatre — I won’t say that her best books are set against the theatrical background, because that is to my mind regrettably not true, but when Marsh grasps the three-act structure of a good play and applies it to her work, it escapes the dreaded Marshian second-act sag as Alleyn interviews all the witnesses one by one. (My friend Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog calls this “wallowing in the Marshes”.) She understood how this structure works and, when she got it right, she got it right. My experience is that she didn’t often get it right but when she did, it’s almost always in a book she wrote between 1937 and 1947 or so. Stella Duffy gets it right here. The sag is cleverly leavened by action that arises organically out of the situation … the interviews still happen but they’re not a deadly slog, as Marsh could sometimes manage.

The other quality that Marsh occasionally got right, and thereby lifted her work from average to extremely good, is more difficult to describe. It is a property of most well-written books, but it’s extremely important in detective fiction, which is highly plot driven. In long-winded terms; first Marsh creates believable characters who do things for believable reasons. Then she makes the things they do further the plot — and since those things are done for believable reasons, the reader can accept that they happened. Little or no suspension of belief is required. If you believe in the people, you believe in the plot, even though the plot is paramount. And then it becomes a very satisfying experience to be surprised at the REAL meaning of some of those actions — because they have become believable for a different, yet believable, reason. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a well-hidden criminal, as you do in this book. Mr. X does action Y, and it seems as though he did Y because we see that he is the kind of person who would do that. It later turns out that he did Y for different reasons, ones that further the criminal plot; and thus there are new reasons to believe that he did Y. To me it’s one of the most satisfying ways of approaching a detective novel. You see the setting and the characters and the actions, and you think you know what you’ve seen. Then the author shakes the snow globe and, holy moly, all your assumptions were wrong and everything means something else that is also wholly believable. I think in the present volume this is all down to Stella Duffy’s plotting skills, and they are superb.

At her best, between about 1937 and 1947, Marsh’s ear for her own writing was very keen. Perhaps it was merely that she had an editor who held down the worst of her later excesses; perhaps this editor also encouraged her to occasionally step out. Marsh had moments of writing, quite often about the beauties of New Zealand, that were downright lyrical; Colour Scheme (1943), for instance, is filled with descriptions of the countryside and the vegetation and the weather (and the hideously powerful fumaroles) that beautifully set the scene and add delightfully to the atmosphere. Wikipedia appears to assert that the Marshian fragment completed by Stella Duffy was written in 1946 and I can see many reasons why this would be so. Her previous two novels had been set in wartime New Zealand (Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool) and this seems to follow right along; the same location, the same premise, the same framing story of Alleyn writing letters to Fox and Troy. Anyway, I think her writing style at this point was at its most effective height. She was writing elegant prose for intelligent people, with a good ear for dialogue and strong powers of characterization and description.

WWII nurses

These nurses reminded me of what the nurses and matron of this story might have had to dress like as they did a tough and messy job — crisp outfits and starched caps.

When I read this volume, I felt immediately that the writing style was actually from that period; Duffy has picked up on that perfectly and really carried it through with great restraint. I gather from an interview that she found words and phrases in Marsh’s oeuvre that had been repeated and tried to use them. Just a great idea. Ordinarily I don’t mind if a continuation writer doesn’t sound so much like the original writer as long as she thinks like the original writer. Here, Duffy has really matched and occasionally exceeded Marsh’s prose at her most intelligent, and yet restrained herself from adding her own voice, for the most part. My attention was caught by a tiny snippet about Miss Farquharson being mocked for a non-NZ accent when ordering a drink — that sounded like Duffy herself. I mention that because it’s the only time I had the thought of Duffy and not Marsh herself writing this.

And now I have come to the part for which Stella Duffy deserves all the praise and then some. If all she got was the first three chapters of this and a page of notes then all I can say is, she’s got a hell of a career ahead of her as a Golden Age continuation writer if nothing else. There is a central twist in this book that is killingly clever as it reverses your expectations; it’s thoroughly foreshadowed and almost obvious once you go back and look to see where you’ve been led astray. Frankly, fooled I was and fooled I was happy to be. I enjoy books like this and they have that true Golden Age quality of story-telling, a delightful reversal that’s a twist in the tale. This is something that Marsh only occasionally reached and there are not many of her novels that are this clever and thus this enjoyable in terms of the criminal plot.

All the characters are believable, and I am happy to say that they are believable in the sense of it being 1946. Duffy doesn’t make the error of ascribing modern-day points of view to characters for whom they are anachronisms. In fact as I read through the book, I kept being reminded of characters from other Marsh novels. Bix and Fox are pretty obvious cognates, rather a “tip of the hat” kind of thing. There are Matrons and nurses and handsome young doctors in The Nursing Home Murder, she knew that background. Pompous Mr. Glossop reminded me of a couple of other characters in other novels (perhaps Death at the Bar), angry little men whose job, plot wise, is to keep people on edge and confrontational. There are other Maori characters in Vintage Murder (this book name checks a Maori doctor we first met in Vintage Murder) and Colour Scheme, a mixture of good and bad like all populations. Evasive Father O’Callaghan made me think of a minor character in Overture to Death; the unpleasant Sister Comfort made me think of a major one. The added fillip in the present volume is that there is just the faintest, most delicate tinge of lesbianism in a comment in Chapter 35 that doubles the meaning of a central relationship in the book … which to my mind is an elegant echo of the faint and delicate tinge of lesbianism in Ngaio Marsh’s own life. (I hasten to add, to my mind it’s just a rumour and probably not true. Not that that’s a bad thing, just that it wasn’t her thing.) Certainly it is in Duffy’s own life; she is married to a woman. So I’m willing to believe she knows what she’s laying down here and, for me, it was precisely the right amount. Another “tip of the hat”.

So many nice things in this book; I could go on and on. The grand revelation of the book is pulled back just the tiniest bit from being truly explosive, but you know, Marsh herself wasn’t very good at coming up with a explosive finish. There’s some great work with the tiniest details of life during food and rubber rationing; just enough to remind the reader when they are. Similarly the niceties of linguistic New Zealand are handled just as cleverly here as Marsh did herself; “I reckon you’d better rattle those dags if you’re going to get a shoofti at it … ” to me is the equivalent of Dead Water‘s “‘Oh, Patrick!’ ‘Don’t say ”’Ow, Pettruck!”'” in its conveyance of accurate everyday NZ usage.

So many things to like, indeed, that I’m astonished to think that, you know, I want more of this. And that truly is a surprise. With Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Poirot, I merely want that to stop, or for Hannah to work on a project more suited to her considerable talents. This one is done so well that I want Stella Duffy to write a whole new series of Alleyn adventures, based on no Marshian notes at all. I can’t believe I just typed that, but, yeah; I think I would enjoy the hell out of that. In the meantime I’m going to get my hands on a lot of other Stella Duffy mysteries.

A note on editions

Of course there is only one edition of this book at the moment; I got this in electronic format the day it came out, which was yesterday. Yes, I’m a fast reader LOL. So if you want to read this you have the choice of a hugely overpriced electronic version or a reasonably priced first-edition hardcover that still costs twice what the electronic version does. Honestly, this is such a good book, I’m going to go out and get one or even two copies of the first edition and lay them down for the future; I think this book will appreciate.

 

 

 

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, by S.S. Van Dine (1928): Some thoughts

In the last couple of days I’ve been following a discussion in my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection (you can find it here, although you may have to join the group to see anything). As you’ve probably already guessed, group members were discussing Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, an article from the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.  

Although I’ll quote extensively from this article, you can find a copy of it here and I recommend the full article to your attention.  The rest of this piece will assume that you have indeed gone and read it.

why-men-drinkIn the process of considering the various arguments, I realized that although I’d certainly read Van Dine’s 20 Rules, it had been so many years that I’d forgotten the article entirely. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at it and share the results here.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, in an introductory paragraph before he approaches the rules themselves, Van Dine outlines what he’s trying to do. And there are two things that are fairly crucial here. One is that he’s talking specifically about the “detective story” and the other is, as he says in the opening sentence, that “The detective story is a game.” In fact, he compares it to my favourite game, bridge.

Gaudy_nightNow, I’ll just ask you to agree with me that “detective story” has a very particular meaning, and it’s differentiated from other similar concepts like “crime story”, “spy story”, etc. First, a detective story must, ipso facto, contain a detective. I think you’ll agree that there must be a crime within the story that is investigated (“detected”) by that detective, and by and large that crime is murder. For the most part that crime is solved in the course of the story by the detective, and the criminal is brought to justice. This all seems very simple and straightforward, but I’ve learned in the past that when you’re dealing with slippery ideas it’s best to define your terms. Certainly there are detective stories not concerned with murder (Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) and occasionally a criminal gets away or “cheats the hangman” by committing suicide, etc. But for most detective stories, there’s a detective and a murder and a solution and a criminal.

e837293de9a79e7c468db088cea80a1a--cluedo-table-plansWhether or not detective stories are a “game” is something that I’ve seen discussed, and participated in discussing, practically to the point of screaming when the topic arises. So I will merely say that many, many people consider detective stories to have the nature of a game, a kind of battle of wits; but I don’t believe the definition of “detective story” should be restricted in this way, so as to entirely outlaw non-ludic approaches.

What follows purports to be “laws” governing the creation of a detective story. When I started looking at these 20 rules of Van Dine’s, I thought “Hmm, some of these aren’t rules.” And indeed, some of them aren’t. Quite a bit of the content of Van Dine’s article is two other things: (1) material that will enable you to discern if something is a detective story or not, and (2) material that lets you know which elements of detective stories Van Dine doesn’t like, or thinks are overdone.

Here’s a transcription of my notes as I read through the 20 Rules. You might want to open a copy of Van Dine’s original article in another window and follow along.

  1. Mostly correct, although it assumes that detective stories contain detectives, mysteries, and clues. I’d suggest the reader must have AN opportunity to solve the mystery before the detective announces the solution and should be in possession of all necessary information; deductions are another matter entirely.
  2. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect it has to do with mysteries that feature an unreliable narrator, like at least one Agatha Christie novel that I bet all my readers are muttering the name of at this point. Whatever Van Dine means, I’m not sure I care to bar anything from the detective story, and I like stories with an unreliable narrator.
  3. 51Cil1Cm-yLJust plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. If the A plot is a murder mystery, the B plot can be anything the author desires, and I think Patricia Wentworth demonstrates that romance works quite well.
  4. Ditto, although Rule 1 applies.
  5. Mostly correct, although Trent’s Last Case is an example of where this premise can fail. There’s an entire school of humorous detective story writers that would disagree also.
  6. Agreed, at least with the first sentence. The rest is either obvious or a statement of the kind of book Van Dine likes to read.
  7. I agree there usually should be a murder, although I offer Gaudy Night again. I am pleased to see Van Dine note that Americans (remember, this was published in The American Magazine) wish to bring the perpetrator to justice. The quote is from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet and might be rephrased as “Murder is always horrible.” I think personally a lot of mystery writers and detective story writers tend to forget that murder is horrible, and I’d like us all to remember that; we’re a bit desensitized these days by television programmes that are thinly disguised torture porn.
  8. HangmanI completely agree, although I have no issue with stories that raise the spectre of supernatural activities as long as they are debunked completely by the end. Vide John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot.
  9. Just plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. He assumes that his way of telling the story is the only way. I believe, however, that it’s a tenet of good fiction writing in a general sense that there should be a single protagonist, or a single individual with whom the reader identifies. So this is a generalized quality of good writing and not merely of good detective stories. For the rest of it — I give you The Moonstone, with its multiple narrators.
  10. Absolutely correct, although “in whom he takes an interest” might be overstating the case.  John Dickson Carr, in The Grandest Game in the World, put it as “any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.” I also disagree with that stricture; I wrote about it three years ago in a review of New Graves at Great Norne by Henry Wade. See also Rule 11.
  11. 1682156-inline-inline-2-a-real-life-butler-weighs-in-on-downton-abbeyWrong, wrong, wrong; merely Van Dine’s personal dislike, and snobby and elitist to boot. If Rule 10 is correct, Van Dine is saying here that servants cannot play a prominent part in the story; the way this reads, Van Dine thinks servants or menials are not “worthwhile” and capable of offering a spirited chase to the detective (or, perhaps, that they don’t have thoughts worth sharing). That’s a statement of his ideas about social class, but it should have nothing to do with detective stories.
  12. 95dec7a7d8f170fa5f4024758664a26fPossibly correct, in terms of guiding the “indignation of the reader,” but why bother making this rule? Half of the output of Freeman Wills Crofts disproves it, to name but one author.
  13. Correct; what Van Dine is saying here is that detective fiction is neither adventure fiction nor secret-service romance. It’s just a definitional issue. I gather he doesn’t care for those sub-genres.
  14. Correct, with the same stricture as I applied to Rule 8.
  15. I agree with at least the first sentence, although I think that the number of people who actually solve Golden Age mysteries before reading the final chapter is much, much smaller than Van Dine seems to think. The last sentence of this goes way beyond the evidence he’s offering and although it seems reasonable, I’d like to sit down and argue this out with a couple of well-read friends. Yes, there are readers who spurn the “popular” novel but read detective stories. But to assert that this is because of the possibility that the reader can possibly solve the mystery before the fictional detective is far, far too all-encompassing a statement to suit me. Frankly, I think it’s far more likely that they — we — read Golden Age detective stories because they eschew emotional content and we prefer that kind of emotion-free story. It may be a bug and not a feature.
  16. UnknownIt’s certainly true that Van Dine wrote his own books as if he agreed with this extraordinary statement; they mostly lack atmosphere and description (although Benson turns on subtly worked-out character analysis and Bishop and Dragon rely on creepy atmosphere for part of their charms). It rather makes me sad to think that he thought so little of the intelligence of readers and/or the writing abilities of his fellow writers that he thought it impossible to write a book with descriptive passages, character analyses, and atmosphere that would still perform all the functions of a detective story. Instead he prefers to pigeonhole detective stories and make them equivalent to a “ball game or … a cross-word puzzle”. I really dislike this idea; I want more. In fact I want as much atmosphere and description and characterization as I can get, along with the mystery, and I feel that many writers who wrote after Van Dine give it to me.
    My understanding is that many Golden Age detective story writers felt that in-depth characterization was inappropriate because it gave the reader a way of bypassing the correct “game” structure and instead allowed them to pick the murderer by his/her psychological profile — or, simply put, that the murderer was the person whose character the author most wanted you to understand. Well, as Van Dine himself notes, there are people who get their “answer out of the back of the arithmetic” and whether or not detective stories are a game, they’re not playing properly.  Too bad, but let’s not cater to that lowest common denominator.
  17. Just plain wrong (had he not read the Father Brown stories featuring Flambeau?) and I suppose a personal prejudice. There’s at least one novel by Anthony Berkeley that turns this on its head.
  18. 37dec98c957979fa20eadf6394380fc2Although I agree for the most part, I can think of at least one Sherlock Holmes story that disproves this idea conclusively and, frankly, there’s no reason for it to be a “rule”. If Van Dine is playing a game, and if the logical chain of events leads to accident or suicide and is fairly before the reader, how can this be wrong?
  19. Again, this is Van Dine distinguishing between detective stories and secret-service tales and war stories. The part that interests me is the two final sentences here; I think the emphasis on gemütlichkeit is misplaced, given Rule 7’s emphasis on the horror of murder. The last sentence is quite astonishing and I’m not sure I quite understand what Van Dine was getting at. If there are readers who have everyday experience with puzzle mysteries, I think I’m happy not to be one of them. And as an outlet for “repressed desires and emotions”? I think anyone who uses detective stories as that kind of outlet needs psychiatric help. Is he suggesting that people read detective stories because they want to commit crimes in their everyday life — or even solve them? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood; no doubt my readers will lead me to the light in their comments.
  20. imagesI must note right off the bat that Van Dine threw this in to make the numbers up to 20 Rules; he says so. That being said, this is nothing more than a list of ten things that Van Dine thinks are out of style. and in no sense a “rule”. It amused me to consider that (a) is so different in 2018 that, if you did manage to find a cigarette butt on the scene of a crime, not even considering DNA evidence from saliva, there are so few people who actually smoke these days that your criminal would stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure what (g) is referring to. For the remainder of these I can actually think of at least one specific story to which Van Dine would object; one is Poe’s Thou Art The Man. I’ll leave that exercise for the reader, for fear of spoilers.

I’m not sure if this next suggestion will strike fear into the hearts of my readers, or perhaps make them guffaw at how far out of my depth I am, or perhaps merely raise a dubious eyebrow, but I’m now working on my own set of rules, as yet undetermined as to number. I hope to bring that to you in the very near future.  Your suggestions are welcome.

 

 

She Had To Have Gas, by Rupert Penny (1939)

SheHadToHaveGas315As I mentioned in my last post, after struggling hard with Gladys Mitchell, I felt I needed something a bit more … structured to read. A few weeks ago a copy of this Rupert Penny novel was on top of a box of books I was moving… and I spent an hour flipping through it refreshing my memory as to its contents.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

More than five years ago I first looked at a Rupert Penny novel here and another one here last year; I’ll just hit the high spots. Rupert Penny used to be one of the most difficult tastes in mystery reading to satisfy. His books were nearly impossible to get and commanded astronomical prices (in the range of US$500 for ANY hardcover). He was only published in flimsy wartime editions, many of which did not last, and his occasional paperback publications similarly came on the market in small editions and then vanished.

As of today, ABE Books has none of the first editions available, and the very rare paperback copies from the 1940s are US$75 to $100. I had a scarce Collins White Circle paperback edition of Sealed Room Murder that I recall brought me $75 some years ago. But then the excellent Ramble House brought all nine of his books back as print-on-demand trade-format paperbacks and the GAD world could finally read its way through Penny’s oeuvre. To the best of my knowledge, She Had To Have Gas was published once in 1939 by Collins Crime Club, and that was it until Ramble House reprinted it. My copy has a curious error; the back cover is a blurb for a different Rupert Penny novel, Cut And Run. But in the way of POD, possibly mine is one of a very few such misprints.

For those of you who have never encountered Rupert Penny’s work — well, his focus is definitely on the “impossible crime” story in the manner of the Humdrum school. In Penny, the puzzle is all, and characterization is not much in evidence. The novels are structured around really difficult puzzles that theoretically are “fair play” , in that Penny asserts that the reader is given all necessary information to make a solution possible.  To that end, I believe all his novels contain the Queenian conceit of the “Challenge to the Reader”; the novel comes to a halt while the author breaks the fourth wall and poses some questions that the reader should be able to answer (but, frankly, is unlikely to be able to).

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

It is October, 1938 in the small town of Craybourne and we are introduced to Mrs. Agatha Topley, a somewhat meek widow and first-time landlady who is having a problem with her only lodger, a slatternly Londoner named Alice Carter. Miss Carter is behind on her rent and Mrs. Topley needs the money. Alice has introduced her frequent male visitor as her cousin, Mr. Ellis, and Mrs. Topley has written him a note to urge him to mention the matter to Miss Carter. Since she hates to cause a fuss, she hopes this will be sufficient.

When Mrs. Topley returns from a shopping excursion, she immediately loses her temper. Her lodger has apparently taken charge of Mrs. Topley’s cherished radio and moved it into her room, since it’s playing at full blast. Miss Carter’s door is locked and she’s not answering. When Mrs. Topley smells gas, her anger turns to panic. She pushes a chair in front of the door and peeps through the transom window, only to see Miss Carter’s body shrouded in the bedclothes, with a rubber tube disappearing beneath them.

Mrs. Topley immediately runs to get the local policeman and a few minutes later they return to find — the bed is empty and all Miss Carter’s possessions have vanished.

Meanwhile, mystery writer Charles Harrington is puzzled about the seeming disappearance of his niece Philippa and discusses the problem with his friend, the Chief Constable. Philippa has requested a huge sum of money (£5000, which in 2017 terms would equal the purchasing power of roughly US$320,000) and refuses to say why. The Chief Constable enlists the assistance of policemen Tukes and Best (whose girlfriend is Philippa’s maid) and both cases are investigated. Apparently Philippa got romantically entangled with a sleazy actor who has been blackmailing her …

The police quickly follow some clues and make a grisly discovery at the actor’s studio — the body of a young woman missing her head, hands and feet. The body is clad only in undergarments and the wrists and neck are concealed by tennis racquet covers. It’s not clear whether the corpse is that of Philippa or Alice Carter but everyone fears the worst for both girls.

At this point Penny’s series detective Inspector Beale, accompanied by journalist Tony Purdon, becomes involved. Assisted by Tukes and Best, they investigate. You should experience the details of the investigation for yourself, but as noted above, the action stops at page 200 and the author poses three questions. If you can answer them, you’ve solved the case. If not — Inspector Beale explains everything in the final chapter and unmasks the criminal, whose identity should prove to be very surprising to the average reader.

14675Why is this book worth your time?

If you’re an aficionado of the classic puzzle mystery, Rupert Penny is for you; particularly if you prefer your difficult logic problems unencumbered by excessive realism in the characterization department. The plot is not especially original, but Penny learned from the best. This particular volume has elements that reminded me of Freeman Wills Crofts (the minute-by-minute timetable involved in Alice Carter’s disappearance), Ellery Queen (I’ll merely mention the decapitations in The Egyptian Cross Mystery), John Dickson Carr (a certain sexual liberation of one of the female characters that may remind you of The Judas Window) and even, dare I say it, Agatha Christie (an aspect of the solution that I expect will surprise most readers, but I cannot identify which of her titles because I’d give the whole thing away).

Although I’ve suggested that Penny in general prefers to avoid in-depth characterization, this volume has some nice touches. The landlady Mrs. Topley, although offstage for most of the book, is a crucial witness to the events of the first chapter and if you hope to solve this mystery, you’ll have to understand both what she did and why she did it. And for once this is not unfair; her actions and reactions arise organically out of the text and she’s presented in sufficient detail that you won’t feel cheated when you learn what you overlooked.  You may even feel sorry for the widow who can’t bring herself to ask her lodger for the back rent due to an excess of gentility. Inspector Beale and his friend Tony are rather “jolly chums”, chaffing and teasing each other in the manner of public-school boys; you might find them a bit too carefree about the facts of brutal murders, but honestly I found this more believable than if they wrapped themselves in a shroud of gloom.

And there are some amusing asides from the character who is a mystery writer. I always enjoy seeing mystery writers put mystery writers into their books as characters, and here Charles Harrington has a bit to tell us about the business:

“Charles Harrington … had contrived twenty-three such works, and the plot for the twenty-fourth was in course of construction. His sales averaged thirty thousand copies per book, including the United States and editions down to half a crown, and as well there were at least five magazines of repute which would take a short story whenever he cared to offer one, and send him by return a cheque for round about forty guineas. … He had a good car, and servants, and every year he invariably passed one month in Scotland and one on the Continent; and all these things cost money.”

Harrington also supports his niece Philippa to the tune of £20 a month at a time when a young woman could survive on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. He also has what seem to be genuine feelings about his missing niece. I have a feeling that Penny himself was not finding detective fiction so lucrative as his invented character, since he published no short stories and no cheap editions to my knowledge; perhaps this is the same instinct that made Dorothy L. Sayers live vicariously by allowing Lord Peter Wimsey to buy first editions and fancy motorcars with a lavish hand. It’s also mentioned that the sleazy actor twice tried his hand at detective fiction, which invariably piques the interest of the alert reader, but no further details of his efforts are given.

The puzzle at the core of this volume is a very difficult one. One essential element — and I’ll try and describe this without spoiling your potential enjoyment — requires the reader to connect two different viewings of the same physical object and identify a crucial difference. Again hoping not to spoil a different book, this certainly reminded me of John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murder because you need to form a picture in your mind of what you’re seeing and not just accept the description. You’ll probably find yourself at the denouement flipping back to an earlier page and thinking, “Oh, yes, he DID say that about that object, didn’t he? Damn, I missed that.” There’s another crucial aspect that requires one of the detectives to jump to a conclusion and for the murderer to gratefully agree and bolster the erroneous conclusion with some hasty lying, which is tough to spot. I didn’t solve this one, although frankly I rarely do, and if the pleasure of a difficult puzzle like this is of primary importance to you, you’ll enjoy reading this book slowly and carefully.

There are a number of interesting sidelights on social issues that are small but, to me at least, satisfying. Mrs. Topley, for instance, considers the various ways in which “three and six” could make a difference to her everyday life, including funding her contributions to the Christmas Club and getting in a quarter ton of coal before the price goes up. There are details of the grubby undergarments worn by the dismembered corpse that will interest my friend Moira of the excellent blog Clothes in Books (but very little else that will pique her interest, frankly), and quite a bit of background on the ways and means of gas in terms of household heating as well as suicide/murder. (How many minutes does it take to smell gas? You’ll find out.) There’s also an interesting moment or two about the state of the scientific art with respect to blood analysis in 1939.

But make no mistake, this is not a classic for the ages. By virtue of the difficulty of the underlying puzzle, it’s definitely a cut above a time-passer, but there’s a pervasive air of cardboard throughout that allows the characterization to be sufficient to conceal the murderer, if you follow me. The characters do what they’re said to do because the author says so, and not because Penny has troubled to construct them so that they will logically do those things.  Let me merely say that this is a first-rate second-rate mystery.

However, if you’re looking for a really difficult puzzle and don’t require much realism in its presentation — this is definitely a book for you.  Enjoy!

 

 

Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell

Part 1: The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

51hkUNzfaVL._SY346_When you accumulate a really significant number of books — let’s say five digits’ worth — you do things that seem incomprehensible to people whose accumulated books consist of a shelf of dusty college textbooks, three Stephen King paperbacks with beach sand between their pages, and a coffee table book about Lady Di. This story starts a few weeks ago when I was in my local thrift shop and picked up a 1986 Canadian paperback edition of one of the final few Gladys Mitchell mysteries for $2.

“That looks interesting,” said my companion, “Is she any good?” Dangerous words to a book reviewer. I imagine that many of my readers have faced a similar problem. It is certainly quite all right to admire the work of … let’s say any Golden Age of Detection author who is not one of the Big Four. The problem comes when you try to answer the question of “good”. All these books have relative merits and accompanying drawbacks and it’s likely that your inquisitor has never heard of any other GAD author to whose work you might draw a comparison. Finally I decided that utility was the best guide for my response.  My companion would not be likely to invest the time to finish the novel I was holding (Uncoffin’d Clay from 1980) and was unlikely to pursue the issue at a library. “She wrote this one when she was quite elderly,” I said, “You probably wouldn’t find it amusing. She wrote a shitload of mysteries over a long career, but I’ve never personally been enthusiastic about most of them. She has a kind of … incoherent quality that is not easy to get over.”

9780770104023-us-300“Oh,” said my companion, “Okay, guess I won’t borrow that one.” And the talk turned to other things. But over the next few days, my mind kept returning to Gladys Mitchell. She’s on my list of authors whose books I will always buy, even if I’m not planning on reading them immediately, because (a) she’s always been scarce and hard to get, and (b) I know that people will always want them. A great part of Mitchell’s output, probably two-thirds of it, has never been published in paperback in North America; in my long experience constantly dealing in such things, I’ve never had more than half her books go through my hands in any affordable format. A Canadian publisher named PaperJacks did a handful of Mitchell’s last few books in small-format paperback (with a linking photo illustration of someone who reminds me more of Jessica Fletcher than Mrs. Bradley). I expect they were inexpensive to license, and no one else seems to have wanted to publish them in paperback, so they’ve become more valuable than their appearance promises. My $2 investment may pay off with $5 or even $10 in the future. So I’ll buy them, but as I now recalled, I very rarely bother to read one.

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Gladys Mitchell

It occurred to me that if I were to actually form a taste for Gladys Mitchell, I would have some 50 or 60 titles to read. I’m always crabbing about having too many books on my To Be Read pile, but truthfully much of my reading these days is more dutiful than pleasurable. If I can find an author who’s got a big backlist whose work I enjoy, so much the better. So I looked on-line. My readers will, I’m sure, have already anticipated what I found; a clever publisher (Thomas & Mercer of Seattle, WA) has made the Gladys Mitchell mysteries available through Amazon Publishing. All of them. And if you have Kindle Unlimited, they’re free.

So I got them all.

There’s really no justification. All I can say is, for years and years I was vaguely aware that Gladys Mitchell had written a hell of a lot of novels that I’d never seen, and I guess I panicked.  I’ll have to go back and check to make certain that, like Pokemon, I have them all, but presently my e-reader is stuffed to the gun’l’s with obscure Gladys Mitchell novels.

My readers can probably expect that, over the next while, like a python digesting a pig, I’ll have more to say about Gladys Mitchell en masse; I’ll certainly be trying to tease out linking themes and threads from her work on a larger scale. But when an unabashed bibliophile comes home with a large haul, the temptation is to savour a few choice bonbons off the top, as it were. So I’ll first give you a few initial reactions, since I’ve read a handful of these over the past week. You will be amused to know that I dipped into these based entirely upon their titles; what sounded interesting? Here’s the first of my finds.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

The Worsted Viper by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

This made me think of a couple of other books; it’s 50% Witch Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic, and 50% E. Phillips Oppenheim (or some other early practitioner of the desultory thriller). Essentially Mrs. Bradley confronts a witchcraft cult that is killing “women of the streets” and leaving a linking device on the bodies; a worsted viper. Mrs. Bradley musters the aid of the police and a small group of personal friends and solves the crime in a book that has many of the features of the 1910s/1920s thriller; at one point she’s shot at with a poisoned dart. If it had been “sinister Orientals” instead of “sinister witchcraft practitioners”, it would have been perfectly 50% Carvic and 50% Sax Rohmer.

FA-A36015-2I got off onto a long track of delightfully useless internet research about what precisely Mitchell meant by “worsted viper”. I had rather thought it was like a handmade stuffie that blocks draughts at the bottom of a door, made to look like a metre-long snake but along the lines of a sock monkey. (There’s a P.D. James mystery in which such an object plays a part; “Hissing Sid”.) But Chapter 5 tells us this:

“… was a toy snake made or worsted in the way that children make woollen reins on a cotton reel with four tin-tacks, so that its body was solid and circular. Some beads had been sewn on here and there, and its head, which was made of two pieces of soft leather stuck together with thin glue, was horribly and cleverly an imitation of the flat broad head of the English viper, which is without the head-shield common to most specimens of poisonous snakes.”

I’m still not sure what’s meant precisely about how this is made — some kind of small-scale macrame with fine wool? I believe “or” in the first sentence to be a typo; “worsted” is “a fine smooth yarn” so this snake was made OF worsted. At first I considered that there might be a process akin to tatting called “worsting” but I think it’s just a typo. And that is how one wastes 90 minutes on the internet, by the way. 😉

Anyway — quite a bit of the book is told through the POV of three young women, one of whom is Laura Menzies. Laura, as I recall, appears quite a bit throughout Mrs. Bradley’s oeuvre as being a “jolly hockey sticks” young athlete who manages the strenuous bits that Mrs. Bradley could not reasonably be expected to undertake. Here, she and her faithful chums Kitty and Alice are expert boat-women on holiday who touch on the periphery of the murders, and most of the action of the book takes place on or near the water. Mrs. Bradley’s niece-in-law Deborah performs a very similar “hearty young athlete” role in other books (I’ll have to confirm this) and does so here as well.

There is a lot about this book that didn’t live up to reasonable expectations. For some reason I kept expecting the witchcraft plot to be a fraud, rather like a Scooby-Doo outing where there’s really a smuggling plot going on in the background. But no, it’s witchcraft all the way. I was rather disappointed that one central issue of the book was clued with something that I recognized instantly, but which apparently was meant to be a major reveal at the climax; it was so obvious to me (I speak a particular foreign language) that I thought it must be a red herring. But no, it’s flat-out what it looks like. There are long passages told by characters who discover various deceased prostitutes; these people never appear again and there’s no real reason for them to be in the book.

There are also a couple of very odd things about this book and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them. One is that there is a really interesting focus upon female sexuality, to such an extent that I thought, “Whoa, there’s more sex here than in half the Golden Age.” There are some perfectly reasonable observations about sexuality in the book, at least for the context of the 1940s when this book was published. There’s some quite frank talk about what the body of a prostitute reveals about her occupation, and the above-noted niece-in-law Deborah has sex with her husband twice in Chapter 10 when they’re alone on a boat. This is certainly referred to in oblique and obfuscatory terms, but they’re definitely Doing It; the only thing missing is a row of asterisks.

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Diana Rigg as Mrs. Bradley, from the only television productions of Mitchell mysteries; this beautiful lady is entirely inappropriate to play a woman of such legendary ugliness that she is referred to as “Mrs. Croc”.

As to why this is so odd — well, it’s a kind of trick. We wouldn’t blanch at finding a passage in a 1940s private eye novel that indicates that married couples or prostitutes actually have sex. Here it seems shocking because so much of the language and style of this book are based in the 1920s; we are led to expect the prudery of, say, Dorothy L. Sayers trying to shock her readers with Lord Peter saying “Hell!” and we get a much less unbridled sexuality. The other odd part is that as I understand it Miss Mitchell remained an unmarried teacher for all her long life and yet seems to have quite an understanding of, specifically from Chapter 10, the languorous afterglow after vigorous sexual activity. She does not, however, have an accurate view of — and I’m kind of guessing here as to what precisely she’s talking about — the idea that you can identify a sex worker’s trade by examining her body.  Check this out, and remember that Mrs. Bradley is not only a psychiatrist but of necessity a medical doctor:

“Mrs. Bradley looked at the cheap and tawdry clothing, the worthless jewellery, the almost complete absence of underclothing, the high-heeled shoes and cobweb stockings, and then turned to look at the body from which these poor lendings had come. … [Mrs. Bradley says:] “Not much doubt how she made her living, either, Inspector. There are various indications ….”

Indeed. I’ll leave the physiological determination to the reader, but I suggest that Miss Mitchell is talking through her cloche. “Various indications” — pfui.

mitchell_worsted_viper_newWhat interested me is that sexuality is actually a kind of focus of the book, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the mystery’s solution. I noticed that every time one of the female characters gets dressed or undressed, particularly when swimming around boats (which happens a lot) there’s a little moment where she’s described as changing.  “She explained, pulling on, as she did so, slacks and a sweater over her vest and knickers.” “She slipped off her pyjamas, put on her bathing costume, and went out to test the temperature.” Once I noticed it, I saw it everywhere in the book; women change clothes in front of the reader. We don’t see male characters treated similarly, although to be fair there are very few instances where male characters in the book go swimming. I don’t have enough of Mitchell’s oeuvre in my recent memory yet to be able to say whether this is common or unusual, but I’m going to keep my eyes open as I go through my recent haul.

The other unusual thing I noticed that piqued my interest is that, quite late in the book, an unusual character is introduced. As I noted above, the bodies of prostitutes are being scattered about by the witchcraft cult, and for the most part they are left in yachts and houseboats. The innocent owners of these craft are introduced, discover the body, and then pretty much vanish, but they get a goodly chapter of characterizational writing before they do.

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The jacket of the first edition. The playing cards are nothing more than a mention in an idle paragraph of the book; completely misleading.

Chapter 19 tells the story of Edgar Copley and his sister Romance, who are on holiday so that “Edgar could sail a boat and Romance find peace and quiet”. The unusual thing is that — well, in modern terms, the young woman has a genetic disorder we call Down syndrome. In 1943, “Romance was what the neighbours called ‘not quite normal’ …” and the way she’s described is frankly shocking to the modern sensibility. “For the first five years after the death of his father … Edgar had hoped that Romance might die; but she did not.  She lived on, pallid, large-faced, fleshy, resentful, and childish, until sometimes he wished that he himself could die, if only to be rid of her.” Mitchell refers to her as “the puffy-faced defective”. By the end of the chapter, she has been violently murdered and left aboard their rented yacht.

Now, I keep trying to remind myself that it is unfair to expect that characters created in 1943 should partake of modern attitudes and knowledge; better that they don’t, indeed, so that we don’t forget how short-sighted and prejudiced we used to be.  Well and good. What really bothered me about this is that, in narrative terms, the whole chapter serves no real purpose. The characters are not involved further in the narrative — although there is a distinct suggestion that All Is Not What It Seems with regard to Edgar’s innocence, it essentially goes nowhere. Mrs. Bradley says immediately, “To me, the whole thing is too elaborate a framework within which to plan the murder of one poor mental defective.” This in fact is quite clear to the reader because the entire witchcraft plot would then either be unnecessary or partaking of the central premise of Christie’s The ABC Murders, and at this point in the novel those things are impossible to assert; it’s just too late.

So the whole chapter seems to be just Gladys Mitchell writing a lot of unpleasant description about someone with Down syndrome and then having her killed, in a violent and vicious way. I agree that it’s reasonable that this unenlightened point of view would largely go unremarked in 1943; it’s just really unpleasant to see it trotted out for no real reason except to add a bit of background colour. I can only hope that readers of 1943 found this as unkind and unfortunate as I did in 2017.

Summing up overall, I can’t recommend this as a place for someone to start with the Mrs. Bradley novels; there’s a good deal about this novel that is antique, including the plot structure and the central premise, and at least one authorial attitude that is actively unpleasant. Nevertheless I am determined to either find a better one or write them all off; I’ll continue to report back.

Unknown-1In closing, I wanted to mention that, although this novel was published in 1943, you’d hardly know there was a war on; just not part of the narrative. My next random selection from the works of Gladys Mitchell was quite the opposite. Although I chose Sunset Over Soho entirely by its title, it turns out to also be from 1943 and to contain, astoundingly enough, one major character taking some time out of the plot to go and assist with the evacuation of Dunkirk.  It begins with a corpse being discovered during an air raid, but this one is in a coffin already. I’ll let you know more as my next entry, perhaps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The case of the cynical synthesis

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E.R. Punshon (note the ears!)

It’s always interesting to me when an author breaks the fourth wall and speaks, within the confines of a work of fiction, about how or why one writes. Many mystery writers seem to do it, and I’m not sure why, but there’s generally an authentic tinge of “behind the scenes” that fascinates me.

Four Strange WomenThis is from Four Strange Women by E.R. Punshon (1940). Punshon is certainly a minor figure in the history of detective fiction; what I like to call a first-rate second-rate author, who was popular in his day but whose books have, until recently, passed out of print and remained there. The speaker, Mr. Eyton, is a professional journalist who has reported on the murder that takes place in the opening chapters. But he has a bit of a hobby; he’s writing something along the lines of some recent (imaginary) best-sellers, Musings in British Gardens and Dreaming ‘Midst the Flowers; apparently prosodical thoughts on the topic of being outdoors. Eyton’s is Twilight Thoughts Beneath the Trees.

“I am writing a book. … I’ve been working on it for some time,” Mr. Eyton explained. “Whenever I can, I take my bicycle and go to the forest. I describe what I see; above all, what I feel. That’s the secret,” he said, wagging his finger at Bobby. “Any one can see. Few can feel; at least, I mean, few know what they feel until the author tells them. Explain to the average man exactly what he thought when he saw the sunset, the rabbits at play, head the wind rustling through the trees, that’s the secret of success.”

“But suppose,” Bobby objected, “he didn’t feel a blessed thing — except wondering if he could get there before closing time?”

“Ah, the homely touch.” Mr. Eyton beamed approval. “My dear sir, it is, in fact, the public who never felt anything, who couldn’t feel anything, at whom an author aims — that is, if he wishes for a large circulation. You see, it pleases people to know what they would have felt if, in fact, they had felt it. You follow me? … Of course, you mustn’t startle your reader by anything he couldn’t recognize as his own ideas if he ever had any. All is there.”

3620803._UY400_SS400_I think this relates to a favourite quote of mine about detective fiction, which I am chagrined to say I have more than once misquoted over the years, apparently changing it to suit my unconscious needs. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight and apologize. This is the accurate quotation from page 303 of Q.D. Leavis:  Collected Essays by Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis (her seminal work, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) is available freely here) on the topic of the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers.

“And in the matter of ideas, subject, theme, problems raised, she [Sayers] similarly performs the best-seller’s function of giving the impression of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that kind of exercise if it were actually presented to them; but of course it is all shadow-boxing. With what an air of unconventionality and play of analysis Miss Sayers handles her topics, but what relief her readers must feel — it is part no doubt of her success — that they are let off with a reassurance that everything is really all right and appearances are what really matter.”

Does this sound like a cynical synthesis? Punshon (in a mystery) is saying that best-sellers fake emotion for people who aren’t equipped to have emotions, and Leavis is saying that mysteries fake intellect for people who aren’t equipped to have intellect. So the synthesis would be that popular fiction in general is faking something or other for the benefit of deficient readers, and therefore the more assiduous your reading, the larger must be your lack of some essential personality component. Yikes. I read more than anyone in my everyday life, and apparently it’s because I’m more stupid and insensitive than anyone I know. But at least I learned about my shortcomings from a novel 😉

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Queenie Leavis

My first reaction was that the whole thing seemed very sneering and supercilious, and to be completely honest I’ve valued Mrs. Leavis’s observation for years precisely because it was so tart and acid. (Queenie Leavis is rather like what Dorothy Parker would have been like if she’d been very thoroughly educated in literary theory.) Perhaps it’s a function of advancing decrepitude, or perhaps it’s having recently pinpointed that one desirable function of detective fiction is indoctrination, or the introduction of the reader to information about how society works, but I find these days I am more willing to accept that works of fiction should shoulder the load of educating today’s population about how to manage their emotions and to function within society. Heaven knows nothing else seems to be able to.

As a gloss upon my recent discussion of indoctrination, let me offer Mrs. Leavis’s comment, from Fiction and the Reading Public:

“The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the ‘knowledge’ (i.e., acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man’s mind.”

And note that this volume was published in 1932, pretty much the middle of the Golden Age of Detection. Mrs. Leavis seems to be unhappy that popular fiction transmitted “more or less unrelated facts” at the time they were being communicated, but to today’s reader they are not unrelated; they are all part and parcel of a long-ago age with butlers and pukka sahibs and bodies in the library, with very little in the way of social overlap to today’s context.

It is perhaps distressing and inappropriate that today’s adolescent absorbs social mores as part of the subtext of a poorly-written book about a girl who falls in love with a sparkly vampire, but at least it’s via a book and not a music video or a MMO. Perhaps I’m prejudiced in favour of books, being so heavily invested in them, but it does seem that they are produced by people who are trying to observe human nature and society in general and reproduce the more interesting or useful bits while telling a story — AND they use the written word to do so, which has the effect of expanding one’s ability to communicate with others more precisely. It’s more useful to tell someone their actions are pathetic if both of you know what the word “pathos” means.

So what if mysteries are designed to present me with examples of logical thought structures that I cannot hope to achieve in real life? Very few people’s real-life situations are populated by people who would, for instance, use an audio recording to fake an alibi while they’re off murdering someone. Far more realistic is the common news story that someone has been murdered by a stranger to obtain a ridiculously small amount of money, using a gun or a knife or a blunt instrument, and generally speaking it’s not very interesting or informative (unless you are Truman Capote), merely sad. Detective fiction, in fact, preserves the important social meme that some people do actually try to commit subtle and serious crimes that are meant to remain undetected, and we’d better be on the lookout for them; not everyone can be a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple, but we can continue to acknowledge the need for such persons to detect these subtle crimes. And we can take pleasure in experiencing stories of their adventures.

And if, as Mrs. Leavis remarks, we are let off the trouble of truly deep thought by a reassurance that everything is really all right — perhaps it’s the continuing repetition of the meme that some problems (mysteries) exist that require the application of intense thought in order to “solve” them that we are gaining, and that this is a valuable frame of mind to maintain as a common understanding. I might not be able to figure out who killed Roger Ackroyd, but that story helps me to understand that there are thought patterns out there that can be learned, attained, and mastered that would have let me equal Poirot’s achievement in doing so. In the meantime, it’s not a terrible thing that I should be reassured about the essential rightness of the world in the background.

I’ll close off these musings with a final thought. What I seem to be describing is a system where mystery writers are cynical in order to reassure readers that the world itself is not a terrible place. Is this a good thing? Would we be better off with finding a mode of intellectual activity that required us to actually develop intellectual skills that identify crimes rather than continuing to experience those skills by observing a fictional detective and pretending we followed right along? Or are the exigencies of modern life such that we’ll develop those skills if and when we need them, and meanwhile it is appropriate merely to remind ourselves that those skills exist in an enjoyable way?  I suspect I know where my readers’ loyalties lie, but I’m prepared to be surprised if my readers care to do so in the comments.

My apologies also to Erle Stanley Gardner, who inspired the title.

 

 

 

 

Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

As promised in my most recent post, I thought I’d apply my Not The Top Ten (Personal) approach to Ellery Queen.

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 Ellery Queen. In at least one case the identity of the murderer will be obvious. If you haven’t already read these titles, 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 any book whose title is unfamiliar to you (I’ve put them in bold italics) before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

Most overrated novel

472113f2176c6dff7e5e4c30bb818db3This is a tough call, but for me — and I emphasize this is based on personal factors — the most overrated EQ novel is And on the Eighth Day by a hair over The Fourth Side of the Triangle. Both, strangely enough, were written by science-fiction writer Avram Davidson under the direction of Messrs. Dannay and Lee; I’ve read his science fiction and it’s fairly … tepid. And yes, I am aware that And On the Eighth Day received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Each to his own, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.

To me, this book is gallingly annoying. It is clearly the product of a storyteller who is self-consciously constructing a parable; it pauses on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, like the “Locked Room lecture” chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, about the moral imperatives that underlie the agonizingly predictable activities of the book. “Look at me! I’m writing in metaphors! and look how abstract I can be!” Okay, not quite that far. But the authorial presence is clumsy and overbearing, at the “nudge nudge wink wink” level. Please, leave me alone and let me read the damn book.

I don’t like the intertwining of Naziism with religious parables; I don’t like the intertwining of the detective story with religious parables. (Let religions do their own work in their own way, say I, without coopting the forms of genre fiction. One of the conventions of detective fiction is that even the most basic assumptions must be verified and nothing is taken on faith.) And I don’t like an authorial presence that muscles its way into the moral high ground without allowing you to decide if it’s merited. So I’m the critic who likes this book the least, but there are a lot of smart people who esteem it highly, and you will have to make up your own mind what you think.

Most underrated novel

4e882a3ea7e348579188dc3e10dbaf48For me, the most underrated Ellery Queen novel would have to be The Murderer is a Fox (1945). I like the Wrightsville period of EQ because it represents the finest example of the Dannay and Lee trying to push the boundaries of the puzzle mystery. And I think The Murderer is a Fox is a better Wrightsville novel than Calamity Town. In Calamity Town the cousins had already established the focus on small-town America and its foibles; here in The Murderer is a Fox, I think they captured atmosphere better than in any other novel. You can see the dust motes dancing in the thick atmosphere of the attic, feel the weight of the heavy blue glass tumbler … and we can sympathize with the hero afflicted with “shell shock” who has to endure clacking tongues and being misunderstood, and with his adolescent self coping with a murdered parent. The solution is truly surprising and effective; it prompts the reader to real emotions and to sympathize with a character in an impossible situation. Just because it’s a book on a small scale doesn’t mean it can’t work on larger themes.

51cuw5ymffl-_sy445_A close runner-up would be Halfway House. I think if it had been called The Swedish Match Mystery as originally planned, we’d right now be acclaiming it as among the best of the Nationalities period.  As it is, it’s not quite Wrightsville and not quite bloodless logic, but in many ways it has the best features of both periods.

If the cousins had actually written A Room To Die In, instead of Jack Vance, I would have considered it in this category; it’s a smart little locked-room mystery that should be more widely read. As it is, it’s definitely the book that would have been better written by John Dickson Carr if I ever do that comparison.

The novel containing the best hook

siamese_twin1This one has to be The Siamese Twin Mystery, which starts with the realization that Ellery and his father are going to have to confront a forest fire in the course of the novel. It’s got everything, as the saying goes, “excepting Eliza running across the ice floes with the bloodhounds snapping at her ass”. I can’t think there’s a single reader who could stop reading once the Queens in the big old Duesenberg take that first fateful turn up to the top of the mountain hoping to escape the blaze… I was hooked like a trout and I think every other reader was too. A skilled authorial presence is saying, “Have I got a story for YOU.”

It’s also really difficult to start your novel with a bang, and then keep it rising steadily until the end; lesser talents can’t avoid a sag in the middle. Siamese Twin makes that work, and the finale is beautifully handled and truly exciting. It pays off every promise of the story hook and then some.

d4fb6aa891c234f7961d426e6e6f2090I suspect many people would suggest that The Chinese Orange Mystery was the best hook — except that it takes so long to get to, for me the little corpse with the spears stuck into his reversed clothes doesn’t really qualify as a story hook but more like the midpoint of Act One. A story hook starts bang! in Chapter One, and you’re either hooked or you’re not. It doesn’t count as a story hook if you expect it in Chapter Five because you read about it on the jacket flap’s précis. There’s a similar problem with The Lamp of God — yes, the vanishing house is a gripping plot development, but it doesn’t happen until too late in the story to qualify as a hook.

The novel containing the best murder method

Queen-Avon425This is a difficult topic that requires a little logic-chopping. The word “method” means, to me, “cause of death”. This lets out novels like The Chinese Orange Mystery, where the scene of the crime is truly outre — but the corpse was prosaically biffed on the head with a poker. The King is Dead certainly has a complex method, but is it “best”? No, it’s just overwrought.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery with the multiple decapitations is certainly a strong contender. I also like the methods in The Door Between, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery; they’re inventive and logical.  But for me the winner is The Tragedy of X, with the ball of needles coated with nicotine stuffed into the coat pocket of the victim. That method was produced by a creepy and inventive turn of thought. And best of all, it has a specific contribution to the book that helps identify the murderer (you’ll understand this if you remember the ending).

The novel containing the best motive

br02b_tragedy_of_yI struggled with this one because I wanted to be sure I understood what “best motive” meant. After much thought, I think “best” means the motive that you would never guess, but that arises organically out of the material.  So that means I’ve dismissed novels where the motive is to get a lot of money, or escape from a terrible relationship; those motives are commonplace. EQ occasionally has a plot structure where someone commits a bunch of actions or murders in order to conceal the only murder they wanted to commit — what you might call the ABC motive. This is a little bit fresher but honestly, in EQ’s hands most often it just means that the actions of the book are strained out of proportion in order to include whatever improbable linking structure the authors thought appropriate. (Ten Days’ Wonder and The Finishing Stroke come to mind.) So I’ve eliminated those, and I’ve also eliminated novels where the murderer is simply insane.

01d_RomanThat leaves me with kind of a tie, for different reasons. The Tragedy of Y is my winner by a hair — the murderer is following the written instructions of a dead man without understanding why. No one could intuitively grasp that, but it actually does arise organically from the characters and setting. A very close second is The Roman Hat Mystery, but the reason that no one would guess that motive is quite different. The book was published in 1929, and back then, it was actually a feasible motive that a person would commit murder because they had “just a drop of coloured blood” and wanted to keep that a secret. Wow — just, wow.  And thank goodness we’re beyond that now.

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

ac6b6a80250c6057f2ff0499a38e931bThe French Powder Mystery is well-known for having its final words reveal the name of the murderer for the first time. That was kind of a stunt, but for me it was a very surprising ending and a very surprising way of revealing that information. The other novel that truly surprised me was Drury Lane’s Last Case. EQ managed to build that ending organically until the reader is at a pitch of excitement before the reveal of what should be a very surprising murderer … the only trouble is, I didn’t really believe it was psychologically reasonable.

The novel you should avoid 

9780451045805-us-300I’ve had my say about the awfulness of A Fine and Private Place elsewhere, but I think I have to give pride of place to The Last Woman in His Life. This book is significantly ugly and ill-informed on the topic of homosexuality. It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that, you know, I don’t blame Dannay and Lee all that much (actually Lee probably didn’t have much to do with this one, since he was nearing the end of his life) — I think their hearts were in the right place even if the outcome was atrocious. They were trying to be forward-thinking and liberal, and they got it wrong, wrong, wrong.

This novel was written in 1970, two years before I came out, and even then I already knew that the stereotypical gay man they present either didn’t exist or had ceased to exist before I was born. Is it that the cousins never bothered to actually, you know, talk to anyone gay? Or that someone had filled their heads with these weird stories of guys built like football players who liked to wear evening gowns, and they accepted second-hand information rather credulously? Perhaps they were told about a bunch of different sub-groups of gay society and somehow conflated them all into one ghastly stereotypical gay equivalent of Little Black Sambo. We’ll never know.

The other problem with this book is that it is really a very poor mystery per se. EQ here offers a puzzle that is very Queenian, as it were: there are three obvious suspects, ex-wives A, B, and C, with little to differentiate them. The plot doesn’t go very far to make us think that any of them is guilty either. Speaking as someone who’s seen this EQ pattern many times before, it was crystal clear that the killer had to be none of the above. And since there are virtually no other people in the book who fit a few other crucial criteria, such as being present during the murder, it’s quite obvious whodunit. The rest is just foofaraw. And it’s foofaraw that EQ went to preposterous lengths to set in Wrightsville, which merely drags down our understanding of Wrightsville instead of adding anything.

This book is irredeemable. It is not merely poor, it is poor and offensive. It’s an ugly stain on a great body of work by two masters of the genre, and I hope no one ever reads it again.

The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

UnknownThe Greek Coffin Mystery is definitely a superb puzzle mystery; I think it’s the finest of EQ’s “Nationalities” series. It’s beautifully plotted, subtly clued, it has one of the least-likely murderers ever, and the book’s structure is one of the finest examples of leading the reader down the garden path in English literature.  (Yes, seriously. THAT good.) I’ve praised it even more extensively here. And yet — this is not the one I think you should read in your lifetime, even if you only read one Ellery Queen book. That honour belongs to Calamity Town.

Since I’ve said above that it’s not even the best Wrightsville novel, let alone the best EQ novel, you may be puzzled at this point. But I do have a reason. EQ mysteries like Greek Coffin and Chinese Orange are brilliant examples of the Golden Age’s finest achievement, the strict-form puzzle mystery. But they did not change the genre, they were merely among its best examples.

Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, tried something that only Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers had achieved thus far; they pushed the boundaries of the genre and changed detective fiction, not merely exemplified it. Christie did it by “breaking the rules” in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. EQ did it by boldly trying to add emotions to detective fiction in the United States, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers created her “literature with bowels” in England with novels like Gaudy Night.

Calamity Town is the book where the creativity really happens. (I think of Halfway House as a kind of false start; the two books have many similarities.) It might not seem like much to readers who have grown up with every detective revealing his or her inner humanity, but merely trying to write about people realistically was a great step forward. At the same time, they tried to use the town of Wrightsville as a kind of character in the book, giving us the massive ebb and flow of a small town on a large scale, from Emmeline DuPre to the depths of Low Town. It’s a huge step forward in the idea of putting characterization and reality into detective fiction, because the technique tries to mirror reality.

Inventively, EQ use intense recomplication in this book as a story-telling method — the sections where we get a whirlwind of comments and reactions from a wide variety of minor characters, and even newspapers and radio broadcasts. Not an absolutely original method of telling the story, since E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case did it in 1913 and Philip MacDonald did it in 1930 with Rynox and 1931’s Murder Gone Mad. EQ, however, have a really nice take on the technique by stretching it out into a longer, less frenetic process, and using it to build the rising tide of the action as part of the plot.

All things considered, Calamity Town is not a magnificent book. But it is an original and ground-breaking book and it took the American detective novel a great step forward in 1942, breaking the grip of the Golden Age forever. So it’s an important book, and if you only read one Ellery Queen title, it should be this one.

Close Quarters, by Michael Gilbert (1947)

close-quartersThis volume has come to mind a couple of times recently, mostly because I did a post on a clerical mystery and it came up in the comments. Then I found my 1952 Hodder & Stoughton 2′ edition (paper-bound, about the size of a digest magazine like EQMM, with an illustration by Jarvis of a shocked clergyman. I’ve shown it here) and thought I’d show off my nice copy and reaffirm my approval of this excellent debut novel by Michael Gilbert. Please pardon my terrible photography but I wanted to show you this funky old edition and couldn’t find an instance on the internet I could scoop to show you.

This was first published in 1947 but has the flavour of an earlier time, to be sure. This is an old-fashioned mystery indeed, what with its numerous plans of the geography of a clerical Close — like a gated community surrounding a cathedral that houses all the attendant clerics and hangers-on. And there is an actual cryptic crossword contained within the pages, that must be solved to reveal a clue. This might be one of the last works of detective fiction to contain a geographic plan without any hint of irony whatever; a delightful hearkening back to the Golden Age.

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. 

What is this book about?

51r3ucwctol-_ac_us160_In the first chapter, the Dean of Melchester Cathedral is lying awake worrying. His sleepless night allows him to painlessly introduce us to both the Close itself and its cast of inhabitants, and a few of their ongoing problems. Someone is persecuting Appledown, the head verger, with some vicious anonymous letters. And the other morning someone put an overlay on the flag raised in the morning saying “Boozey old Appledown”, to the great amusement of the choirboys charged with flag duty. And then there’s the recent accidental death of Canon Whyte, who fell more than a hundred feet from a high tower. The Dean has to balance everyone’s schedules to cover absences and holidays, and is having a troublesome time doing so. The widow of the late Canon Judd refuses to leave the home to which she is no longer entitled. The Dean’s sleepless night is fully occupied with troubles.

It’s when someone paints a rude message in letters two feet high slandering Appledown once again that the Dean feels he must take a hand. He pulls a few discreet strings at the higher levels of Scotland Yard and has his own nephew, Sergeant Pollock, a budding young C.I.D. officer, come for a visit whose unofficial and hush-hush purpose is to investigate the anonymous letters.

51h1sobzqel-_ac_ul320_sr240320_Pollock, a thoroughly nice and respectful young man, soon identifies that the Cathedral’s Close is what we would know as a “closed circle”; because of the geography, it’s possible to  say with certainty that the blackening of Appledown’s name has been undertaken by someone who lives within the Close. Very shortly thereafter, a body is found, and Pollock’s investigation steps up its intensity with the addition of his superior from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who leads the remainder of the investigation.

Among helps and hindrances, the unspeakable Mrs. Judd sees fit to keep track of the daily lives of her neighbours with the aid of a telescope, and while her eyesight is not what it could be, she still provides valuable information. The lives of all the Close’s inhabitants are gone into, in detail, and reveal various surprises; some unsavoury, some amusing. A mysterious crossword puzzle discovered among the effects of the late Canon Whyte provides a clue to the location of some vital documents. There is another death, and this one is a little more brutal and unpleasant than most of the Golden Age; the stakes become much higher. Various more facts come quickly to light, and finally Inspector Hazlerigg makes an arrest and explains everything to the fascinated Dean in the final chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

1807452It occurred to me as I was thinking about this book that the best way of describing its position in the broader sweep is as the perfect homage — and farewell — to the Golden Age. Although this book was published in 1947, we do not find out until the last three lines of the book that its date was the “summer of 1937”. To wit:

“Pollock tiptoed out. He felt an overmastering desire for a steak — done red — and a pint of milk stout. Since it was the summer of 1937 he got both without difficulty.”

Parenthetically, that says a lot, doesn’t it? My sense is that in 1947 one could get neither because food rationing was still firmly in place.

I have no idea what Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) was actually thinking when he wrote this, his first novel in a long writing career; to me, he was writing a commercial product that he felt would sell, but one which revealed a great knowledge of the highways and byways of Golden Age mystery plotting and a great affection for the genre. What he accomplished was to create a series character in Inspector Hazlerigg who lasted at least six novels, until 1953, and who was the lead detective in the well-known classic Smallbone Deceased (#4, in 1950).

6426This is a love song to Golden Age mysteries gone by, what with the lovingly detailed maps, an actual crossword puzzle, and the determination early on that the Close is, well, closed. Gilbert was signaling here that, yes, he loved this old form and would proceed to write a bunch more Golden Age mysteries (including a brilliantly clever book about a murder in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, 1952’s Death in Captivity). So it was a vain effort, in a way, since the true Golden Age mystery was on its deathbed in the 1950s. But we got six excellent mysteries out of his homage.

105297717_amazoncom-close-quarters-9780600200819-michael-gilbertGilbert’s career changed direction in 1959 with the publication of Blood and Judgment, (a novel; see the comments below) about Inspector Petrella of Scotland Yard. I briefly discussed another volume in this series here. This series were still puzzle stories, after a fashion, but at this point Gilbert had successfully embraced the best intentions of the kitchen-sink school and/or a kind of social realism. Petrella’s streets were dirtier and grittier than Hazlerigg’s by a long shot. Later Gilbert moved into the area of the spy novel (or rather the intelligence agent novel) with the creation of the elderly Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, among other characters; he wrote a lot of non-series novels and short stories.

One tiny little genre that he returned to again and again was the small field of the “men’s adventure novel” — think Nick Carter, Killmaster, and a kind of muscular and aggressive novel where things blow up and the strong-jawed hero gets the girl. Yes, Gilbert wrote those novels, but he wrote them omitting most of the explosions and with a healthy dose of reality governing the action; intelligent observation and a sensible approach to human nature are his hallmarks. There are a number of novels of his that can be described as “one lone wolf takes on a corrupt organization”, and I’ve always found him a dependable provider of that particular plotline, much like Dick Francis. 1966’s The Crack in the Teacup is an excellent example.

michael-gilbert-books-and-stories-and-written-works-u4

Michael Gilbert

He even wrote a companion piece to the current volume; 1984’s The Black Seraphim takes place against a similar location and background but has a considerably more modern feeling about it. At this point in his career Gilbert was in full command of his style and could vary it to meet the needs of his chosen subject matter; now he is far beyond the repressed virtues of the Golden Age mystery. The Night of the Twelfth (1976) is a really well done and occasionally horrific novel about a serial killer of young boys; 1980’s Death of a Favourite Girl has a very surprising and sexually frank ending. Gilbert was one of a few authors who maintained his full command of his art up until he retired.

The point of this particular novel, though, is that it’s an absolutely classic Golden Age mystery as the first novel of a writer who went on to write some top-notch novels in a more modern idiom. It’s really, really well done. There is some excellent character work — for instance the horrible Mrs. Judd, who is drawn with a broad brush, but whose unpleasant presence is necessary to the plot. You will truly believe that she spies upon her neighbours with a telescope. The book is full of moments of gentle humour mostly based on observation and character, and about tiny moments in the everyday lives of real people. Oh, and Gilbert wipes the eye of Dorothy L. Sayers in at least one respect. Sayers’s representation of how people solve cryptograms and such puzzles (in The Nine Tailors,  Have His Carcase, and a boring short story), is painful and mawkish; it’s like a solution guide being mouthed by cardboard puppets. Michael Gilbert, on the other hand, can have you overhearing two people who are working together to solve a cryptic crossword and having fun doing it, and at the same time, for American readers and non-cruciverbalists in general, explaining the principles gently and easily without making a big deal of it.

The solution to the mystery is difficult but not absolutely impossible for the reader; always a pleasant experience to be fooled on some but not all of the answer. You will be diverted by the high quality of the writing and amused by the economical but effective characterization. You will also have the pleasure of having a first-hand description of some recondite practices and habits of the clerical inhabitants of a tiny closed community, from the point of view of a keen-eyed observer with a great sense of humour. I recommend you start here and read your way through the entirety of Mr. Gilbert’s work; through re-encountering this great novel, I think I’ll have another read through his oeuvre myself!