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!

Death of His Uncle, by C.H.B. Kitchin (1939)

9794058efda64200cd4824583e86f71fI’ve recently moved into a larger place with more space for bookshelves; concomitantly, I’ve been enjoying the process of unpacking a few hundred boxes of books, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for more than 20 years. In the next little while, you can expect me to be making happy discoveries of books that I’m finding pleasant to re-read, as they come serendipitously to hand.

This volume attracted me because I opened it up and immediately hit upon a quote that was so astonishingly well linked to some issues about which I’ve been pondering that, well, I had to re-read it immediately. (I’ll share it with you near the end of this piece.) Then when I found out a little more about the author and realized what a fascinating book this is, I knew I had another winner to share.

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?

imagesBritish stockbroker Malcolm Warren has solved two mysteries already as an amateur detective, and when an Oxford acquaintance, Dick Findlay, asks him to take a hand in investigating the disappearance of Findlay’s uncle, a middle-aged suburban householder, Warren believes he knows what to do.

Warren, with Findlay in tow, traces the last few days of Dick’s uncle Hamilton, who apparently took a vacation in Falmouth, embarked on an unusual
8037927program of activities, and finished up by removing all his clothes (and wig) upon a deserted beach and committing suicide. After a thorough investigation of the uncle’s last days, an increased knowledge of the vanished gentleman’s heirs and relatives, and everyone’s various romantic interests, Warren writes a long letter to his friend, Detective-Inspector Parris of Scotland Yard, and answers all the loose ends and outstanding questions.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving very much detail because quite a bit of the pleasure of this charming book is following Warren’s investigation of the details of the case; the less I say, the better.

Why is this book worth your time?

There are a number of reasons why this enjoyable book is worth your time; the idea that it’s charming is a major part of it, of course. Although its publication date of 1939 is somewhat later than most of this category, I think this is a “don’s delight”; a Golden Age mystery written by a highly literate person for highly literate people.

For instance, in the opening pages of the book, Malcolm Warren (the first-person narrator) reveals that he has an interesting talent; he can improvise on the piano after the fashion of various classical composers. (“This,” I would say after considerable pressure, “is a Beethoven Air with Variations. This is a César Franck Choral Prelude. This is a Brahms Intermezzo,” etc.) Of course the less-than-donnish reader like myself is flattered to think that such an intelligent person could assume I could tell the difference between a Brahms Intermezzo and Three Blind Mice — although since the music isn’t actually audible, readers like myself tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Similarly the narrator plays bridge, is a connoisseur of sherry, hobnobs with titled people, and is invited to country-house weekends.

1988The story, aside from being written in elegant language, is quite smart. Kitchin takes the time to establish his narrator as a fallible human with likes and dislikes, and the result is that this is someone by whose opinions and experiences you will be amused even when the book takes the occasional sag. Sometimes he even puts those sags in — Warren takes some personal time to have dinner with his sister, to no narrative purpose whatever save that it makes him seem more realistic. Unlike many other amateur detectives, Warren has a job at which he works, and co-workers with whom he interacts. Everything works together to give you a well-rounded portrait of the narrator. And because you see the narrator as human, you understand how and why he makes his occasional errors; they slow down the detection, but it’s more realistic and much more enjoyable. The book meanders every once in a while and is better for it.

15807059142Without spoiling too much for you, the plot is simple and clear. Warren investigates the last days of the vanished uncle, finds out what his plans were (including some which he was keeping from his friends and relations), figures out exactly where he ended up, and brings the guilt home to the appropriate person. Of course there are surprises along the way. One concerns an object which the reader has lost track of through never thinking about it — sorry if this is enigmatic, but I’d prefer to maintain your surprise. Think of this as the equivalent of the object which Peter Wimsey realizes is missing from the opening scenes of Five Red Herrings; except in this case the detective is equally as forgetful as the reader. I didn’t succeed in beating Warren to the solution, and I have to confess I wasn’t trying very hard. I was enjoying the plot and the writing so much that I simply relaxed and let it all happen, and that’s a very pleasant experience.

I promised you a quotation from the book that I found extraordinarily relevant to my recent interest in how societal matters and mores are revealed within the pages of Golden Age detective fiction: it’s rather long, but bear with me, please.

“I have always maintained that when an ordinary member of the public is confronted with a crime or a mystery, he bases his conduct on the detective stories he has read. I have read a good many detective stories and find them a sedative for the nerves. Oddly enough, what I like in them isn’t so much the puzzle of the plot, still less sensational hairbreadth escapes, but precisely the element which you would least expect to find in such stories — the humdrum background, tea at the Vicarage, a morning in an office, a trip to Brighton pier — that microscopic study of ordinary life which is the foil to the extraordinary event which interrupts it. A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specifically to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of our age. Middle-class manners perhaps. But I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy the individualism of the middle class.”

It’s always pleasant when a character in a detective story starts to speculate about the workings of detective stories! I agree completely with Kitchin; I derive a great deal of pleasure from detective stories because of their microscopic study of ordinary life. In this volume, for instance, we learn the precise number of courses of dinner (two) during which one converses with the diner at one’s right hand before turning politely to the diner upon your left. And in a similar degree of granularity, here’s a fine point of social class which I was happy to learn. The narrator is staying in a wealthy country house in a bedroom “nearly the size of his flat”. He finds “[a] notice in a gold filigree frame [which] told me that dinner was at half-past eight — half an hour later than it had been in the Wimbledon house — half an hour higher on the social scale.” That’s the stuff I love to learn from Golden Age novels and there is plenty of it here.

220px-clifford_henry_benn_kitchin_by_lady_ottoline_morrell

C.H.B. Kitchin

The other thing that urged my immediate re-examination of the entirety of Clifford Kitchin’s work is when I did a little investigation of this author to bring to you here. To my surprise, I learned that he was rather like his narrator (both were known for improvising at the piano), with one large difference — Kitchin was what we would today term gay, and lived for many years with a male domestic partner. He was a wealthy barrister who was “out” in the most upper-class of gay men’s society of the time; high-ranking politicians, artists and poets, the wealthy, and some well-known novelists. That was a point of similarity that immediately fascinated me and explained some of the attitude that I found underlying the narrator’s dispassionate observations. Although it’s dangerous and frequently unsupportable to speculate about an author based merely on his fiction, it seemed to me that there’s a faint air of the “outsider” about the narrator and perhaps the author; Warren observes keenly and wryly, but he doesn’t seem to ever be truly a part of the society in which he participates. I believe this is well known as a hallmark of gay fiction. You’ll find some interesting glosses on Kitchen’s biography in Wikipedia here, and from a gay POV here.

Kitchin’s reputation in detective fiction rests primarily upon his first of four Malcolm Warren mysteries, 1929’s Death of My Aunt. I’ve obtained a copy of that and another Warren mystery, Crime at Christmas, and may well be doing more Kitchin analysis in the near future (Crime at Christmas seems very timely!). I wanted to mention that his other non-mystery novels were very highly regarded and “writerly”, and although I’m not reading much these days that isn’t genre fiction, this volume was so well-written and interesting that it may just tempt me to step outside my comfort zone. Praise indeed! I hope you find the time to get a copy of this excellent volume. None of the four mysteries appear to be available in electronic format and the fourth title, The Cornish Fox, appears to be both scarce and expensive. (Also timely is my family’s need to find me appropriate Christmas gifts! I’ll drop a word in Santa’s ear, perhaps.)

The Dartmoor Enigma, by Sir Basil Thomson (1935)

The Dartmoor Enigma, An Inspector Richardson Mystery, by Sir Basil Thomson (2016); originally published in 1935 as Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery. With an introduction by Martin Edwards (who is the current president of the Detection Club and author of last year’s superb history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder).

WARNING: This post 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 identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

the-dartmoor-enigma-an-inspector-richardson-mystery-by-basil-thomson-1911095765Last week, I ran across a note of a 2016 electronic reissue of Basil Thomson’s eight mysteries. I’ve read quite a few rare mysteries in my day, but I’d barely heard of this author and only had a dim memory that he had had some sort of personal scandal associated with his life. Sir Basil had been quite a guy who, in a long and varied career, had become Assistant Commissioner for Crime at Scotland Yard, before he mysteriously lost his job. As best I remembered, Thomson’s mysteries were not of a level of excellence that had recommended them for paperback republication in later years, but were well regarded. They were also so little known that I had never managed to read one. And he is so obscure that that excellently exhaustive resource, Stop, You’re Killing Me, did not for once contain a list of his entire oeuvre. Now THAT is a little-known author.

So in a moment of curiosity/weakness, considering the tottering heap of my “to-be-read” pile, I picked up the inexpensive e-book of the fifth book of eight at random and thought, “I’ll look at the first few pages…” Famous last words, of course, but I have to say (1) I didn’t put it down, and (2) I went back and got the other seven in the series the same day.  So you can assume in advance I enjoyed this.

What is this book about?

As a result of both the Chief Constable of Devonshire and Scotland Yard receiving an anonymous letter suggesting that the writer knows the death of the late Mr. Dearborn was caused by a bash in the head rather than his contemporaneous car accident. Chief Inspector Richardson is assigned to the case. The Dartmoor man who died in a car accident soon proves to have been bludgeoned to death. But the victim soon proves to be a complete enigma. He arrived in Dartmoor with a huge sum of money in cash, bought a house, got married — and apparently never existed before he arrived in Dartmoor.

Within a page or two, “The junior chief inspector made his appearance.” We learn nothing about Richardson other than that he is young, having received promotion quickly, and has many fine personal qualities that endear him to his fellow officers. Richardson takes Sergeant Jago in tow and begins his investigation. The local constabulary rather quickly fastens guilt upon a disgruntled ex-employee of the late Dearborn, but Richardson progresses further in short order.

There is not much point in my retailing the activities of the plot here because, frankly, they are the principal virtue of this novel; if I give much of it away, you will enjoy the book much less. Suffice it to say that the deceased’s affairs are considerably more tangled than it would appear at first glance, and that his history appears to contain a film star improbably named Jane Smith, a Borneo gold-mining company, a defalcating young lawyer, and a blameless wife. Richardson tracks down the different threads of the investigation and determines the true identity of the late Mr. Dearborn and also the identity of his murderer, bringing the case to a satisfying close. And in the best Humdrum traditions, there is a smart twist at the end.

1_bacb819f-7bcc-4515-93bf-64e9452f0a2f_grandeWhy is this book worth your time?

A theme that seems to repeat a lot in my reviewing work is my search for charm within the pages of the books I review. It’s a difficult concept to nail down and not very rigorous in its boundaries. Essentially, when I find a book to have charm, it means that the writing is somehow likeable, the story is pleasant to contemplate, the author’s voice is amusing, there are no horrible errors of authorial judgment that I am forced to ignore — and I can close the book with a sense that I have just had a “nice” experience.

When I say this book has charm, and it absolutely does, it doesn’t necessarily have to emanate from the author himself. To be honest, much of the pleasure of this book came from the introduction by Martin Edwards. He understood the book completely, and most of all was able to place it very accurately within a constellation of other authors with whose work I am more familiar. So if I tell you that this is rather like an Inspector French novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, but minus the “timetable mystery” aspect and with the addition of considerable accurate detail about police procedure, you may well understand what that means. This is, indeed, what I’ve called elsewhere a proto-procedural. That is to say, it’s a “detective novel” that focuses on the activities of Chief Inspector Richardson and shows in detail how he works with his fellow officers, but written before the term “police procedural” was invented.

sir_basil_thomson

Sir Basil Thomson

Martin Edwards’ introduction indeed places Thomson precisely in relation to two other GAD writers. Here’s the sentence that says it all: “Thomson’s mysteries are less convoluted than Crofts’, and less sophisticated than [Henry] Wade’s, but they make pleasant reading.” Yes, indeed. There is enough cleverness in this volume to make me smile at the obligatory twist at the end, but, as Edwards says, “… intricacy of plotting — at least judged by the standards of Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr — was not Thomson’s true speciality.” I agree, but to be honest, that was kind of a pleasant relief. This was an uncomplicated tale, well-written and rather unambiguous. If you are the sort of person who actually tries to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed, you may well, as I did, get all the way to the end first (which in my case makes me puff up my chest with pride for the rest of the day, so there you are). Or you may have the almost as pleasant experience of getting 3/4 of the way to the solution but being fooled by the clever final twist. You will still feel as though you have accomplished something.

500My current interests in social history as woven into detective fiction were also very nicely satisfied by this story. There’s quite a bit of material here about social class. In chapter five, for instance, the disgruntled ex-employee Pengelly, a kind of labour agitator, is visited by the police. “Evidently he had been told by the foreman the quality of his visitors; he was on the defensive.” If you know me, you’ll know that my ears pricked up at the word “quality”. But Scotland Yard is not terribly unkind to Pengelly overall, although it does arrest him for a petty crime — Robertson has a word with the foreman at his new place to save his job. Similarly there is a dotty old peeress who is lavish with money and gives someone a £500 note. Honestly, I hadn’t realized there was such a high denomination of British banknote, it must have been extraordinarily rare. That sum would have paid a maid’s wages for a decade. There’s plenty more of these tiny fascinating details, from a young servant-class woman “dressed in her best walking-suit with its rabbit-skin necklet and her latest hat” to the problems of being a young man with an amazing amount of freckles who gets remembered for them wherever he goes. I enjoyed the activity of stopping reading for a moment while I tried to figure out just what was meant by a tiny detail, like visualizing that rabbit-skin necklet.

basil_thomson

Sir Basil Thomson

I did mention above that I dimly remembered that there had been some kind of scandal in Thomson’s life, and I will leave you with this thought. Having this rare old book to read was a pleasure. But having Martin Edwards’s introduction to it really was worth the money because of the  details that he provides, about that scandal and everything else. I do actually want to encourage you to buy this particular edition because of the excellence of the introduction, replete with biographical and personal detail. So I will merely quote one single sentence and let you judge for yourself if you want to find out more.

“In the same year [1925], [Thomson] was arrested in Hyde Park for ‘committing an act in violation of public decency’ with a young woman who gave her name as Thelma de Lava.”

“There!” as PT Barnum might have said. “If that don’t pack them in, I’m a Dutchman!”

I think you will enjoy this pleasant mystery; it is not of the first quality but it is far from the worst. If you like the police procedural or the detective novel, you will broaden your horizons here in an interesting and worthwhile way. You have the introductory remarks of the insightful and expert Martin Edwards to guide you in placing this writer’s work into its precise context with respect to the boundaries of the Humdrum School. Both Dorothy L. Sayers and Barzun and Taylor commented with great favour upon the author. And, holy moly, there’s a woman who “gave her name as Thelma de Lava.” What more could you want?

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

 

 

Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown

 

Since this is our final Tuesday with Dorothy L. Sayers for a while, I trust my readers will forgive my wandering a bit on this topic. While working on blog posts for this month, I’ve tried a couple of times, unsuccessfully, to try to figure out why I don’t really enjoy the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m getting closer.

fe6692ed9873eb2ee77c0f6da7d3e414A few years back, I rather thought it was because she’s an arrogant writer, and that’s a quality I don’t find interesting. Arrogant, for me, is creating a 30-page letter as a crucial element of Clouds of Witness in stilted and rather prissy French — and then being surprised when her publishers want to provide a translation. Similarly, I think it’s pretty arrogant to have a crucial verbal exchange in Gaudy Night take place in Latin, although there’s nothing in it that affects the detective work.

41q+ZB-iWkL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_And yet everything I’ve heard about this lady suggests that she was not the arrogant type at all. I’m not exceptionally versed in her biography; I’ve read Such A Strange Lady but little else. What Martin Edwards had to say about her in his excellent recent work on the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, (buy one here!) agrees with my impression that she was kind of a galumphing British country lady, swathed in gigantic ill-fitting tweeds and subject to emotional outbursts and sudden enormous bursts of energy. I can’t maintain that “arrogant” is a word you apply to someone who insists upon the complex nonsensical ritual including Eric the Skull that was necessary to become a member of the Detection Club. That sounds more to me like that peculiar turn of phrase, “jolly hockey sticks”, indicating “boisterous enthusiasm”.

QueenVictoriaWedding_2

Queen Victoria started the trend for “white satin and orange blossoms” for a wedding gown.

I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that DLS used the Peter and Harriet storyline as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, where her romantic life finally came out the way she wanted it. (Including her own statement quoted by Barbara Reynolds, via Wikipedia, that she created Lord Peter as a wealthy man to give herself the pleasure of spending his fortune for him.) But was Sayers herself ready to move within the social circles attendant upon marriage to a peer of the realm? I rather doubt it, actually. She was the daughter of a country doctor who worked hard to get a superb education at an excellent school, and in real life she married an unsuccessful Scottish journalist. She might have made a superb wife for a don, or a country doctor; however, I’ve always felt that the woman who insisted that her stand-in, Harriet Vane, would get married in gold lamé, a fabric beloved of drag queens and trailer trash, lacked an essential instinct, or understanding, that would allow her to succeed in the higher realms of society.

I also think that DLS realized it, too. The idea that she would be so thoroughly and repellently patronized for her dress sense by the equivalent of Peter’s sister-in-law is where the idea of Helen came from for her books; in order to make Helen a figure of fun and opprobrium in the novels, she had to have realized that that’s what would have happened to a real-life Harriet Vane who “married above herself”.

But was my instinct correct? I had occasion to go back to the original text of Busman’s Honeymoon recently, and I came across the exact quote about gold lamé; only, to my surprise, there were two references.  The Dean in a letter to Miss Edwards says “she looked like a Renaissance portrait stepped out of its frame. I put it down first of all to the effect of gold lamé,”, and this is the piece I’ve always remembered.  But Helen, Duchess of Denver, later says in a letter to Lady Grummidge that Harriet “had enough sense of propriety not to get herself up in white satin and orange-blossom; but I could not help thinking that a plain costume would have been more suitable than cloth of gold. I can see that I shall have to speak to her presently about her clothes, but I am afraid she will be difficult.”

3af9425bfae0b2d65f2fcc8ecd0fcad3Now, “cloth of gold” may have been a phrase I’d read a couple of times, but it had never quite stuck before.  I had had in my mind that Harriet was wearing a kind of fabric that was newly being manufactured at the time … as Wikipedia defines it, a shiny fabric “woven or knit with thin ribbons of metallic yarns”. The classic gold lamé evening gown is one worn by Marilyn Monroe, and I’ve shown you a picture of it to the left. Thin, glittering, and very expensive fabric that moulds to the body. And I think it’s this level of expensive-looking luxury that I always had in mind, although admittedly I would have assumed that Harriet would have covered her shoulders and neckline. I figured DLS had chosen an expensive and glamorous fabric with about the same lack of knowledge as caused her to make bloomers about Peter’s choices in wine and motorcars.

bb685c566e6e9a49e6812db700067010Cloth of gold, however, is a whole other fabric, in my mind. According to Wikipedia once more, it’s woven with a gold-wrapped or spun weft; the core yarn, though, is usually silk. This material “is mentioned … as a fabric befitting a princess” and it has an association with mediaeval gowns. I’ve shown you one to the left that’s the best reference I could find. As a fabric, I think cloth of gold has more of a formal feel, and it has distinct overtones of the upper classes; under Henry VIII, its use was “reserved to royalty and higher levels of nobility”.

So in other words — far from being the gauche and over-dramatic statement that would have caused Harriet to rightly be patronized by Helen, Harriet — and thus DLS — was on the right track entirely. A woman who had been acquitted of murdering her lover is not suitable for white satin and orange-blossom, since to put it bluntly she’s demonstrably not a virgin. And yet it’s clear later on in Busman’s Honeymoon that Harriet, now Lady Peter, realizes that if she doesn’t take on the trappings of the aristocracy quickly and effectively, Helen will be able to use it against both herself and Lord Peter. I’ve spent 30 or 40 years thinking that the material of Harriet’s wedding dress was a terrible misstep and very revealing of DLS’s lack of understanding of the fine details of social usage at the highest levels. And it turns out that instead Helen and I got it all wrong; DLS knew what was going on and I didn’t.

So, I owe Dorothy L. Sayers a little bit of a re-examination as well as something of an apology. As penance, even though we’re now done with DLS, I’m going to go back and re-read the four novels where Harriet and Peter slowly fall in love. Another 30 years might go by before I publish a full recantation, admitting that Peter and Harriet are lovers for the ages — but I’m getting there slowly!

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Unknown“I finally felt that I was unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails …”

from Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, October, 1944

Despite the fact that I’m starting off with a quote from Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most well-known foe of the traditional detective novel, no, this is not a hatchet job about Dorothy L. Sayers. It is reasonably well known among my acquaintance among GAD aficionados that I’m not a big fan, but recently I had occasion to re-read her work pretty much from scratch.  And in the way of such re-examinations twenty or thirty years later, I got a different idea than I’d had when I was younger.

NaturalExcelsor_xThe main reason I didn’t enjoy reading DLS when I was younger, as I recall, was because of the presence of a great deal of … let’s call it excelsior, for the moment. (Which is defined as “softwood shavings used for packing fragile goods or stuffing furniture”, if you were wondering.) Simply put, DLS stuffs her books with great volumes of extraneous material that apparently has nothing to do with the mystery or its solution. Some of it I think would be called “characterization”, some is “social history”, some is background material.

When I first started thinking about this piece, I thought I’d test my hypothesis. I selected a DLS title at random from my shelves, which contain all her titles; my hand found The Nine Tailors. I opened the book at random and found … well, unfortunately DLS has divided this work into chapters in a way that has more to do with campanology than common sense, and so “The Fourth Part” begins on page 123 of my paperback edition; that’s the best guidance I can give you.

The particular segment begins “Well, now, ma’am,” said Superintendent Blundell. It continues for a grand total of 2527 words (yes, I actually counted) and involves three separate conversations with three witnesses and the mention of about twenty named individuals, most of whom play no further part in the story. Superintendent Blundell interviews the housekeeper of the titled Thorpe family, the disagreeable and snobbish Mrs. Gates, and then gets corroborating evidence from the shrewish Mrs. Coppins and the schoolmistress Miss Snoot, about the precise placement of funeral wreaths on Lady Thorpe’s coffin. Someone has moved them in order to introduce an extra corpse into the gravesite.

The point of this 2527 words is to establish the following, which actually is the last sentence of the segment: “… [T]hat brought the time of the crime down to some hour between 7:30 p.m. on the Saturday and, say, 8:30 on the Sunday morning.” Twenty-four words. The other 2503 words concern the opinions and personalities primarily of Mrs. Gates, who has extensive and unpleasant opinions about the placement of funeral wreaths with respect to the social status of the wreath-giver, the financial circumstances of Mrs. Coppins’s family that brought her to give an expensive wreath of pink hot-house lilies in January, and the fact that the only schoolboy sufficiently mischievous to have moved either Mrs. Gates’s or Mrs. Coppins’s wreaths, one Tommy West, had a broken arm at the time. 24 / 2527 = 1% content, 99% excelsior. In case it’s not clear, I think this is what Edmund Wilson was getting at.  His bent and rusty nails are here the time period during which the second corpse was surreptitiously buried.

Now, it is not for me or indeed anyone to say that fiction must be written economically. Most murder mysteries could be summed up in about a page if that were the case, and that would not be an enjoyable process. But a ratio of 99% excelsior to 1% rusty nails seemed rather excessive to me in my younger days. I’d always held the view that DLS’s works contained a far too small ratio of signal to noise, as it were. And there is almost zero signal here. Mrs. Gates, Mrs. Coppins, Miss Snoot and Tommy West could have been entirely eliminated from the narrative without any damage to the activities of the plot. I am not asserting that I wanted that to happen; the reader has a pleasant moment of dislike for the pompous Mrs. Gates, and has only wasted a quarter of an hour on the 2500 words of … burble.

I have had a lot of experience with good detective stories that contain extraneous material, ranging from fascinating to burble. Perhaps the most famous example was John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, where the action grinds to a halt while the characters break the fourth wall and talk about how locked-room mysteries work. A favourite of mine, Clayton Rawson, regularly veers off within his books for geometry problems and disquisitions on the history of “blue men” and “headless ladies” and all kinds of things. Edmund Crispin introduces humorous disquisitions on unpleasant characters in English literature. One might almost say that extraneous material is a hallmark of the best detective fiction. There is a caveat here, though; most of the extraneous material touches upon and/or illustrates the topic of the mystery. JDC has that chapter about locked-room mysteries because they’re involved in a locked-room mystery. When Clayton Rawson talks about how carnival sideshow acts are created, it’s because the mystery is set within a carnival. The niceties of social class as portrayed in DLS’s placement of funeral wreaths on a coffin do not seem to contribute anything to a story about jewel theft and campanology. (They emphatically contribute to our knowledge of the social history of the 1930s, I must add.)

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

But, dammit, I thought, Sayers was widely read in detective fiction; she was a reviewer and critic and best-seller. I don’t say that a place on the best-seller list provides an automatic assumption of literary quality; Danielle Steele and James Patterson are evidence to quite the contrary. Nevertheless DLS did bring a considerable amount of academic background in the analysis of literature to this process, and I cannot think that she was writing like this by accident. She was capable of identifying the central thread of her story, and theoretically she could eliminate material that didn’t contribute to it. If she didn’t, we have to assume she wanted it there.

So what was she getting at?

In my younger, grumpier years, I thought she was merely in love with the sound of her authorial voice and felt that her readers were as well. There is a considerable body of fannish comment on DLS that suggests that that is precisely the case; DLS fans, and there are a lot of them, just love to embark on a journey into the mechanics of becoming a phony spiritualist with Miss Climpson, or learning the principles that underlie a Playfair cipher, how to pick a lock, etc. Most of these excursions to me seem stuffed to the gunwales with excelsior (the “born-again” activities of the former burglar who teaches Miss Murchison how to pick locks are a repellent example). I felt that for whatever reason, the Wimsey stories were not my style; I set them aside and smiled mechanically when people at my bookstore told me how much they loved them.

I came to this month’s worth of disquisition on DLS, though, with a more open mind than perhaps I had had in the past. It rather seemed that if so many people liked the Wimsey stories, and didn’t find them to be stuffed with excelsior, and this sentiment was shared by some of my fellow bloggers whose opinion I respect, well — there had to be something I was missing.

NPG x2861; E.C. Bentley by Howard Coster

The author who shall not be named here. But he gave his middle name to a style of verse!

Then I had a flash of insight, caused by my having occasion to re-read a 1913 book considered one of the primary texts of detective fiction. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment should they not have read it yet, but I will provide a quote that I found quite meaningful in this context. And those of my readers who are familiar with this text will know exactly what I’m talking about, I trust. The detective is examining the room of a suspect.

“Two bedroom doors faced him on the other side of the passage. He opened that which was immediately opposite, and entered a bedroom by no means austerely tidy. Some sticks and fishing-rods stood confusedly in one corner, a pile of books in another. The housemaid’s hand had failed to give a look of order to the jumble of heterogeneous objects left on the dressing-table and on the mantelshelf—pipes, penknives, pencils, keys, golf-balls, old letters, photographs, small boxes, tins, and bottles. Two fine etchings and some water-colour sketches hung on the walls; leaning against the end of the wardrobe, unhung, were a few framed engravings. A row of shoes and boots was ranged beneath the window. [Detective] crossed the room and studied them intently; then he measured some of them with his tape, whistling very softly. This done, he sat on the side of the bed, and his eyes roamed gloomily about the room.
The photographs on the mantelshelf attracted him presently. He rose and examined one representing [suspect] and [victim] on horseback. Two others were views of famous peaks in the Alps. There was a faded print of three youths—one of them unmistakably [suspect]—clothed in tatterdemalion soldier’s gear of the sixteenth century. Another was a portrait of a majestic old lady, slightly resembling [suspect]. [Detective], mechanically taking a cigarette from an open box on the mantel-shelf, lit it and stared at the photographs. Next he turned his attention to a flat leathern case that lay by the cigarette-box.
     It opened easily. A small and light revolver, of beautiful workmanship, was disclosed, with a score or so of loose cartridges. On the stock were engraved the initials [suspect’s initials].”

My readers who are familiar with this work will already be nodding their heads, because they recognize that somewhere in that morass of tiny details is a single detail that gives the detective a clue which brings him closer to his solution. And then, in a way which I understand is a characteristic of an author who is trying to hide a clue, at the end of the paragraph is a surprising revelation (the revolver). The idea is that the tiny clue vanishes from the reader’s mind because the immediate surprise supplants it. At the end, the reader can go back and say, “Oh, by golly, there WAS a such-and-such in the suspect’s bedroom, I just forgot about it because I was so focused on that revolver.”

In other words, you conceal the clue by burying it in excelsior and then distracting the reader’s attention.

2940With that in mind, my realization is that this is the kind of thing that DLS was trying to do. It’s not merely excelsior for the sake of it, she’s actually burying clues in it. However, there are a couple of differences. I’d say that about 75% of The Nine Tailors qualifies as pure excelsior, which is considerably more than the 1913 work quoted above. And frankly, it is hard to find the very, very few clues to the mystery that are buried within it like rusty nails — because there are so few of them. The Nine Tailors does not actually have many clues; instead it has quite a bit of psychology about who is the type of person to have committed the crimes, and why, and a lot of speculation as to how the murder could actually have been carried out. (A modern novel based on this scenario would have had a terse comment from the autopsy surgeon a few chapters after the body is discovered, and half the puzzle would have been solved in a flash, I think, if indeed the murder scenario would stand up to such scrutiny.) But it seems to me that this is what DLS was doing. She got far too fond of her talent to create excelsior, with funny accents and dimwitted rustics and the antics of the servant classes about which she could be snobby. And Wilson’s “bent and rusty nails” of clues are not much use in coming to the solution of the mystery, to be honest. Lord Peter really works most of it out by being in the wrong room at the right time, and solving a very difficult cryptogram that depends upon a knowledge of change-ringing.

This exercise, though, has taught me something of a lesson. The exercise of trying to place DLS’s writing style in context has been revealing — she is following upon the track of the older author whose name I have not mentioned. I find this contextualization reassuring; it has made me realize that she wasn’t really stepping out and creating an entirely new kind of detective fiction, but merely adapting her personal writing style to the traditions of the genre. And if it takes her 2500 words to say nothing useful at all — well, it’s taken me slightly fewer than 2500 words to say very little about her work, and I can refrain from complaining if you can!