What I re-read on my summer vacation (and what I didn’t finish)

I am indebted to the insightful critic (and Gladys Mitchell expert) Nick Fuller for the impetus that produced this post. His post of today’s date (found here) wherein he talks briefly and concisely about a number of different books, very few of which found sufficient favour with him to generate a full-on blog post, seems to have unblocked a mental logjam for me, and I thank him.

This summer has been a tumultuous one for me; for a long string of reasons but principally that in a few weeks I will execute my second full house-move of the summer.  For various real estate reasons I’ve had to live out of bags and boxes for eight weeks and it hasn’t been productive of much in the way of considered thinking about any individual novel.  Now, however, the final resting place is imminent; I’ll have enough space to put in enough bookshelves for all my books and a swimming pool around which to sit and read them. Life will be good.  😉

In the meantime, I’m still reading and re-reading dozens of books as they pass through my hands. (I acquire paperbacks like other people acquire beer; dozens at a time, and I leave the empties all over the house.) Not much has stood out as being exceptionally good or bad; very little has made me think, “Oh, that’s a good example of that school,” or “That was his worst book EVER.” Not much has impelled me to settle in for 1,500 words on any particular topic. But Nick Fuller has confirmed for me that, yes, I can just talk about a lot of books very briefly, if only to prove that I haven’t stopped reading the damn things and thinking about them.

So here’s what I’ve been re-reading on my “summer vacation”.

51nZTaUFX6L._SX285_BO1,204,203,200_Emma Lathen‘s first novel, Banking on Death (1961)and a couple of others of hers (one of which is one of the few things I *did* want to talk about at length, so expect a piece about Death Shall Overcome in the near future). I found what I think is a first printing of the first paperback edition of this charming book (not shown) and was happy to see it. A good mystery and a good introduction to John Putnam Thatcher, vice-president of the third-largest bank in the world, and his cast of subordinates.

1775437Nicholas BlakeThe Whisper in the Gloom (1954). Nicholas Blake wrote great puzzle mysteries and lousy spy thrillers; this is a spy thriller and it is to say the least uninspired. It features a group of young boys mixed up in a spy plot; it finishes up with an assassination attempt at a concert at the Albert Hall that is far too reminiscent of the ending of Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much.  A young male adolescent might enjoy this.

Ellery Queenin his earliest years; The
romanhatmystery
Roman Hat Mystery (1929), The French Powder Mystery (1930)I picked up a copy of Greek Coffin (1932) but I read that so intensely for a piece a few years ago I still know it off by heart. Roman Hat and French Powder are just as exquisitely boring as I remembered. The word that keeps coming to my mind is “inexorable”. There may be nothing interesting going on, but by golly we’re getting to the finish, like it or not, and you WILL understand why the answer is the answer, or else.

51nPxlH9HpL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Phoebe Atwood TaylorOut Of Order (1936), Punch With Care (1946), Figure Away (1937), and a bunch of others. At my most media-free point, when everything was off to storage and the television and internet hadn’t been installed yet, my sister brought me a bag of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries, and I was bloody happy to see them. For me these are comfort food. Absolutely first-rate mysteries if you’re not asking for much beyond amusement and diversion; well-plotted, amusing characters, wacky plots, tight solutions, and a fast-moving story line that carries you to the end. What’s not to like?

512hAUmMCML._SL500_SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Leslie FordThree Bright Pebbles (1938), All For the Love of a Lady (1944), Honolulu Murders (1946), The Woman In Black (1947), Ill-Met By Moonlight (1937), and a handful of others I can’t be bothered to dig out, about Washington widow Grace Latham and the soldierly Col. Primrose. There might have been a piece here about how this writer’s two different series (the other is the Mr. Pinkerton novels as by David Frome) are both
Ford-Blackcompletely different and both rather awful, but … ugh. I don’t mind Mrs. Latham’s cook Lilac as much as others seem to — some novels of the period don’t have any characters of different skin colours at all, and while it’s not the best characterization ever, at least it’s friendly and well-meant. However, Leslie Ford writes pretty much the same book over and over, and silly remarks about coloured servants are just one of the cliches; white people don’t come off well either.  Beautiful young girl, handsome young man, someone did something stupid and cannot tell anyone what, romantic entanglements, evil businessman wants to do something wicked, stupid middle-aged women with too much money, Had I But Known, social position, wartime Washington DC, silly Mrs. Latham and strong-jawed nonentity Colonel Primrose and the very unfunny Sergeant Buck, semi-surprising ending.  There, I just saved you a lot of money.

51ZT1WZJ4QL._SX283_BO1,204,203,200_Dorothy Simpson, Wake the Dead (1992). Just … bland. The occasional spark of interesting writing but truly I’d rather watch Midsomer Murders. A boring detective investigating upper-class twits. If you follow the principle that the most morally upright people end up to have done the worst things, you will anticipate the ending easily.

Josephine BellEasy Prey (1959)Such a well-written book, I almost did a piece about it but it’s rather out of the GAD mold.
paul-lehr_easy-preyThis is domestic suspense, not usually my thing but wow, such a tight and smart book. An elderly spinster moves in as the lodger with a nice young couple with a young baby and becomes part of the family, until they find out she’s just out of prison on a charge of murdering a baby. But then absolutely not what you’d expect from there on; the young couple doesn’t believe Miss Trubb could’ve done it and proceeds to investigate, with surprising results. Perhaps the best thing by Bell I’ve ever read; this is a strong mystery plot with strong writing and very strong characterization to make Miss Trubb so believable. Not at all a happy ending but a very right one. This made me think of Patricia Wentworth in that this is the kind of story Wentworth understood; there’s a set of nested fears in this novel about being elderly and female and poor and homeless and powerless that will be most powerful to a female reader, I think.

854395Philip MacDonald, The Polferry Riddle (1931). A terrible book by this excellent writer; his worst ending that I can remember. A waste of Anthony Gethryn. A waste of my time. Always a bad sign when you begin to re-read a mystery and have a sinking feeling … “Oh, this is the one where X, Y, and Z that annoyed me so much the first time.” It still does.

Kenneth Hopkins, Dead Against My Principles (1960). I picked this up, although I hadn’t heard of this author, because it was in the Perennial Library
3610232line and they’ve been a source of good reading in the past. I have to say, this one just stopped me dead. It’s not once in five years that I fail to finish a book, but this one was too ghastly to continue. The author is trying to be funny and apparently our mutual senses of humour are completely incompatible. It’s about three people in their 80s investigating a crime and I cannot think that the author likes elderly people very much. Two old professors and their elderly lady friend dither and dissemble and say enigmatic things and go off on highways and byways and it’s just patronizing and annoying and anti-elderly. Once I stopped focusing on the annoying characterization, the simplistic plot allowed me to skip the middle of the book and proceed to the end, where I confirmed that, yes, I had figured out what was going on. I almost never do that, but I just couldn’t stand another minute of this one.

To my surprise I find I have another stack of books that I’ve gone through this summer that seem to deserve the same terse treatment. I’ll try to bring them to you soon.  In the meantime … this is where I’ll be for most of August.

new pool

 

Death of an Old Girl, by Elizabeth Lemarchand (1967)

51jjX-d5qQL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl is the first of a series of mysteries featuring CDI Tom Pollard of Scotland Yard and his assistant Sergeant Toye. The series ran for 17 volumes between 1967 and 1988 and exhibited many characteristics of Golden Age detective fiction; there’s a certain gentility and good nature that shines through these novels but not at the expense of interesting plots.

This volume came to me unexpectedly as I scoured a used bookstore; I haven’t seen any Lemarchand at my usual haunts for quite some time; although I recall the volumes that were in paperback as having been much more prevalent 20 years ago, they don’t show up often these days. About half her books were never published in paperback and will give you more trouble to find; this one is more common.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of crime 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 don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  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. 

UnknownWhat’s this book about?

The scene is Meldon School for Girls, a venerable institution for teenage girls that has recently undergone some updating. A new headmistress with more modern ideas is making changes, much to the displeasure of a coterie of Meldonian Old Girls. The ranks of the old guard are led by a wealthy spinster, Beatrice Baynes, who has an outsized bee in her bonnet about change in general and in particular the sudden modernization of the Art Department by young Miss Cartmell, its new instructor.

In the course of Old Girls Reunion weekend, passions come to a head. After some tempestuous interactions with staff and relatives, Miss Baynes’s murdered body is found stuffed into a puppet theatre off to one side of the Art Room at Meldon. Pollard and Toye are brought in to make sense of the many motivations for this crime and bring it home to what might be a surprising perpetrator.

Unknown-1Why is this book worth my time?

Generally when I try to bring a book to your attention, it’s because it has some feature that is worth your time. Sometimes I’ve tried in the past to convince you that a less-than-stellar book deserves your time because of its historical significance, or prefiguring of another, better novel; many reasons other than mere quality.  With this volume, I’d merely like to suggest that you will enjoy it — reason enough, I trust.

This book is a debut effort by a novelist who has absorbed the general airs and graces of the Golden Age of Detection of the 1920s and 1930s, taken them to heart, but updated them to the period of the 1960s. What made me think so is that, like the 1920s and 1930s, this book contains no graphic violence, no objectionable language, and very little that would offend anyone. The murder takes place offstage (except that the corpse is found hidden behind a little stage, ha ha) and all other crimes are non-violent and moderately forgivable. Perhaps we could call this the ancestor of the modern cozy, although expressed to the Scotland Yard detective format of a previous age.

51majp2SJZL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl was published at a time when almost no one was writing — or really reading — this kind of book as popular fiction. I think it’s interesting that it had sufficient in the way of readability and sheer pleasure to get published at a time when this sort of nostalgic exercise was not popular.

There is not much here to trouble the attentive reader who wishes to solve a murder. Pollard and Toye are rather bland and Inspector-French-like nonentities with sketched-in family and personal lives. When they arrive, they reconnoiter, investigate obvious suspect #1, move to #2, on to #3 and in that context reveal some underlying realities behind the murder and unmask a slightly surprising murderer. (I think all my readers will find their way to suspecting #3 but some will not make the leap to the identity of the murderer, #4.)

The people whom I can really see enjoying this are readers who hanker for that nostalgic exercise, a kind of applied blandness that has its adherents among people who want to read unchallenging fiction. All the people here are “nice” except for the few who are “not nice”, and those few are pretty much caricatures. The only not nice person is the murderer, who manages to conceal his/her not-niceness under a bland facade.

12869054I thought it was interesting to look at this book as an exercise in construction, because that’s so clearly what it was for this neophyte author. Only four main subjects, considered seriatim, and nothing happens to interrupt this vision. I couldn’t help but think along the way that Lemarchand had deliberately restricted the field by not offering us even the dismissal of further possibilities.  A bunch of women are mentioned early on as being supporters of the late Miss Baynes and her dislike of modern art (aka nude sculpture and drawing LOL).  But these women never show up and don’t provide interviews or names, so it’s clear they’re not involved. Similarly the upper registers of the Meldonian hierarchy are pretty much sacrosanct; it’s clear that the new Headmistress is unimpeachably virtuous.

There was some interest I found in the character of Miss Baynes, who reminded me of the crazed anti-sex spinster in Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death, but she’s killed far too early to give more than a hint of her presence. In a way, Lemarchand has made an error that I have seen writing textbooks teach is a bad idea; she seems reluctant to have her characters experience any conflict (so everyone has to be pretty much pleasant to deal with). If Baynes’s rages against modernity had been more on-stage than off-, or if she had had a lieutenant prepared to take up the cudgels against vulgarity and young girls seeing the naughty bits in art, this might have been a more exciting book with a few more false trails and interesting characters.

But we can only review the book we actually read. And so I’ll say that I suspect my readers who are fans of Freeman Wills Crofts will enjoy this book; aficionados of the gentle Silver Age mystery that hearkens back to the classics, for instance. Fans of Dorothy Simpson, later Patricia Wentworth, and early P.D. James will like this; fans of Mickey Spillane and male private eye novels will likely not. It’s a gentle murder mystery that will be fairly easy to solve. The difference between this and the kind of cosy mystery that sets my teeth on edge is that, while the author doesn’t focus strenuously on the pool of blood or the battered corpse, neither does she spray everything with potpourri in an attempt to disguise the blood. She’s merely writing about nice people for nice people, that’s all.

This is a charming little book and you’ll come up for air after a few hours thinking, “Wow, for an unassuming mystery that sure had a lot to offer.” I hope you can find a copy cheaply, you’ll enjoy it.