Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels

agatha-christieTo commemorate the 125th birthday anniversary of Agatha Christie (September 15, 2015) her estate commissioned a world-wide poll to find out what’s the World’s Favourite Christie. You can find the results here at agathachristie.com, as well as interesting background and links to other interesting stuff. However, I’ll reproduce an ordered list here for your convenience.

  1. And Then There Were None (which has sold more than one hundred million copies)
  2. Murder on the Orient Express
  3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  4. Death on the Nile
  5. The ABC Murders
  6. A Murder is Announced
  7. 4:50 From Paddington
  8. Evil Under the Sun
  9. Five Little Pigs
  10. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

This announcement was followed closely by an article in the Guardian by well-known crime/thriller writer Val McDermid wherein she claimed that The Murder at the Vicarage — which you will note didn’t make the list — is “the best Christie as opposed to the most popular”. You can read it for yourself here. McDermid talks about her childhood experience with this particular book as her introduction to detective fiction, and that she had read it again and again.  This  makes me think that, like my childhood experience with John Dickson Carr‘s The Red Widow Murders that has given me a lifetime’s affection for what is essentially a mediocre thriller, her childhood experience might be colouring her opinion. But TMATV is really a very, very good mystery, unlike Red Widow.

Both pieces caused a small flurry of discussion in my Facebook group devoted to Golden Age detection. There was the usual back-and-forth about the relative positioning of novels on the list, or the presence or absence of a particular title. What it made me think about was what was being championed. McDermid was clear that she wanted to talk about “the best-written Christie” whereas the Christie estate called it “favourite”. Similarly my colleagues and friends in Facebook and the blogosphere had worthwhile things to say about a number of Christie novels and suggestions for what their own top-ten list might contain.

Agatha-Christie-pictured--002I thought it might be useful to take a more consumer-oriented look with a slightly different focus, based on my self-selected role as a “curator” of such things. Sometimes I conceive of my role as a kind of consumer advocate, to be sure; “This book is worth your time/money/effort and this one is not.” But I also think part of my role is to bring to a knowledgeable readership things which will not necessarily make the top ten list, like novels with flaws or problems, but which reveal something interesting about the author, or are an attempt to try something new — even a magnificent failure here and there.

Here, therefore, is my list of “Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels”. I will say emphatically that these are in no particular order; in fact, they’re all about equal. Perhaps if you’ve finished someone else’s choices for the top ten you might move on to these. And of course I’ll provide a reason as to why a particular volume might pique your interest. The top ten are in no danger of being ignored, but these you might have overlooked.

119865642_6books_375265cThe Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

I’ll step right up to the plate and agree with Val McDermid. This is the first Miss Marple novel and it is the one in which her character is the most “pure”; she is described as being “dangerous”. This is not the fluffy and slightly scattered little old lady of later years. This is a woman with a mind like a steel trap and an acute sense of the squalid lives and minor-league wickedness of nearly everyone in her vicinity. And it is, as I’ve remarked elsewhere recently, a novel of manners. Okay, not Jane Austen, but certainly the central focus of the book is a scandalous love affair.

christie_crooked-houseCrooked House (1949)

A non-series standalone mystery with a truly surprising plot twist at the end. Christie herself spoke of it as one of her personal favourites and it’s one of mine also. There’s not much to it, plot-wise; a wealthy patriarch supports a large family of eccentrics and when he is murdered, there’s a long list of suspects.  It has a similar solution to an earlier Ellery Queen novel that I will not closely identify, just to say that it’s clear that Christie didn’t do this first. But she cleverly uses the reader’s assumptions against him/her.

482b49a5680ac8ced684e8847696fa26Death Comes as the End (1945)

This is a historical mystery set in ancient Egypt, and it reads surprisingly well. Christie was at this point married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, so I’m ready to believe that the details are correct. What is surprising and pleasant about this novel is that it is very restrained about those details; it’s not so much about the details of Pharaoh’s court but more like where and how food is kept in a large household of the period. The mystery is not difficult but the book is quite engaging.

UnknownEndless Night (1967)

I’m sure many experienced readers will disagree with this being on anyone’s “best” list. It’s not on mine either. This is, however, a book with a plot twist that is overshadowed by Christie having used it before, but which is still a solid hoodwinking of the reader. It is flawed, partly by Christie having not really understood at this late point in her life what young people were taking for granted and partly by most people having first experienced it through a ghastly filmed version that ruthlessly sucked the intelligence out of the work. But I encourage its naysayers to give it another look; the concept is great, the writing is head and shoulders most books she wrote at this late stage, and it showed she was ready to try something new and different.

Unfinished_Portrait_First_Edition_CoverUnfinished Portrait (1934)

As by Mary Westmacott. Simply put, this is what an Agatha Christie novel reads like when she hasn’t put a murder into it; a story about a shy girl who is in the middle of a divorce who comes to terms with her past. You may think this has something in parallel with Christie’s own life. I think it’s interesting that she wrote this nearly simultaneously with Murder on the Orient Express. I’m not going to claim that Christie was in any sense held back by writing about series characters, but I think much of her non-series work has a more casual tone that suits her writing skills very well.

SpidersWebFinalweb1Spider’s Web (2000)

As novelized by Charles Osborne. I would actually recommend that you seek out a theatrical production of this play on video, if you can find one; it was originally written as a play specifically for Margaret Lockwood and it’s a wonderful starring vehicle for a 30-something actress. It’s also an interesting experience for a Christie aficionado because it recycles ideas and materials from a handful of other Christie short stories and novels, and it’s fun to think, “Oh, THAT’s from that short story about the movie star…”  The mystery is clever and the characterization is excellent. The Charles Osborne version seems to postpone all the tension in the book to a series of revelations at the end of the novel, boom boom boom like a fireworks display, but the play is balanced and fun. I do regret the addition of the character of the adolescent girl — generally, not an appealing aspect to an on-stage production for me — but apparently Margaret Lockwood’s real-life daughter was supposed to play the role.

12-hollowThe Hollow (1946)

This is a Poirot novel in which Christie later mentioned she wished she hadn’t included Poirot. I’m not sure if this would have made it better or worse. I do think this could have been a magnificent novel if she had taken more care in writing it. The character of Henrietta Savernake is beautifully written and wonderfully realistic; so much better-written than the rest of the novel that it’s quite jarring.  In particular the character of Lady Angkatell is … well, to me, just awful. Cardboard with a sign around her neck that says “eccentric peeress”. One great character, one terrible character, all adds up to a sadly flawed novel. But the central premise, the identity of the murderer, takes me back to an Anthony Berkeley novel I read not too long ago in which the author is playful with the idea of the “least likely suspect”. I think people have overlooked just how clever this novel is in that respect. Robert Barnard joins me in esteeming this one.

8849123536_95d37523a0The Big Four (1927)

As I noted above, I do like the occasional magnificent failure. This failure isn’t even really magnificent, but it is of interest to the student of vanished literary sub-genres. This is a novel of “international intrigue and espionage”, with which we certainly do not associate Agatha Christie as an expert. But this is a bizarre and highly melodramatic thrill-ride which I don’t believe anyone is meant to take seriously, and this particular type of novel pretty much vanished at about this time. It’s rather like E. Phillips Oppenheim or Edgar Wallace; vast international criminal conspiracies and the highest political stakes, and poor Hercule Poirot seems rather out of place. This is also cobbled together out of a set of short stories, which doesn’t happen much these days; it produces wild shifts in tone and atmosphere and these things disconcert the reader. The high points are the presence of Vera Rossakoff and the only appearance of Poirot’s twin brother Achille.

UnknownN or M? (1941)

The material in this novel of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford interests me because it’s one of Christie’s few attempts to deal directly with World War II. Poirot and Marple, we know, did not serve their country in any way other than solving mysteries while the constabulary was at war. The Beresfords did their bit as government agents, however, and this novel contains quite a bit of background colour about daily life in wartime, with rationing and black-out curtains and all. Unfortunately Christie chose to focus on the espionage aspect rather than a straightforward mystery and the result is somewhat tepid and inevitable. (If there is a wartime British novel wherein the triumph over German spies is not a 100% certainty, I’d like to see it.)

Ten Little Niggers (1939)

Let me say right off the bat, I don’t like that word any more than you do. But given the fact that it is the original title of the book that the Christie estate has just finished declaring is the favourite Christie novel (now known as And Then There Were None), and it’s sold 100,000,000 copies, I think it should be a point of honour for the true Christie student to track this down and see how this book originated. I have said elsewhere and will repeat here that I don’t think it is a good idea to censor history. It is important to say, when we are forced to use that distasteful word, that it is merely to remind ourselves that people used to use this word and we do not use it today; simply put, we have to know what we hate about this word’s meaning and history in order to combat it more effectively. If we bowdlerize it out of the literature then we run the risk of future generations thinking of this sort of linguistic bullying as something new and fresh, rather than something that has been disparaged by correct-thinking people in the intervening generations.

That being said — once its title was mercifully changed, this is a superb novel. If you have only seen adaptations on television, you’d be well advised to go back and find out how it all got started because, indeed, it was made much more cheery for stage and video productions. In the original, there is no happy ending; there is no love story. And there are more murders committed or disclosed in this one novel than in any other Christie title, or indeed a random half-dozen Christie titles added together. All the characters are unpleasant criminals and there’s a kind of morbid pall, and fear of retribution, that hangs over the novel very effectively.

And so I’ll throw this open to my audience. What Agatha Christie novels do you particularly cherish that have been left off top ten lists? What have we all overlooked in Christie’s work that we ought to have read?

The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

Author: Possibly the most interesting mystery connected with this novel is the identity of A. Fielding, sometimes A. E. Fielding. Many sources give the A. as standing for Archibald, but there is also a body of opinion that suggests that Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Moore, nee Feilding (note the spelling difference), is responsible. This material would seem to suggest that Lady Dorothie cannot be the author — her grandson agrees that it’s not possible (see the comments section of the previous post linked in the first paragraph). Eminent mystery critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggests here, not entirely seriously I think, that since Lady Dorothie and Agatha Christie lived in the same street at the same time, Dame Agatha may have published under this pseudonym. I think it’s possible we’ll never know; your guess is as good as mine. Curtis Evans sums up the available evidence well and his article is worth your time if you’re interested.

imagePublication Data: This novel is in the public domain, at least for this Canadian, and I found a digital facsimile copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library, here.  The cover page, which I have reproduced for your visual interest since so few editions are available to show you, tells me that A. L. Burt published this book by arrangement with H. C. Kinsey & Co., another American publisher. No copies are available for sale that I could find on the Internet, at least of any edition prior to 2014. Below you will find a copy of the cover for a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace under an imprint of “Resurrected Press”.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

As is so often the case, the romantic involvements of a beautiful young woman drive this mystery. Miss Winnie Pratt, who today would be called a debutante, is being introduced to society under the guardianship of her mother, Mrs. Pratt. Winnie is an extraordinary beauty and has attracted the attention of many eligible bachelors. When she expresses a desire to stay “in town” in “a really old house with genuine period furnishings”, one young man finds a way to make that happen. A young solicitor, Moy, has a client who has such a furnished house for rent for a short period. The house is in Chelsea and is spoken of as having housed Angelica Kauffman and with a ceiling possibly painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which would make it approximately from the period 1760 to 1780. Apparently there are enough bedrooms on a single floor to house the party, so that the troupe of servants hired as a group from a vacationing householder will not be unduly stressed.  Moy has plans for himself and four other young men to rent Tall House each for a week and host Mrs. and Miss Pratt as their guests. The five renters include Moy, the very wealthy Mr. Haliburton, the silent and vaguely creepy Mr. Tark, mathematician and scientific writer Charles Ingram (whose half-brother Freddie is involved, but not as a renter), and Charles’s university roommate Gilmour, a civil servant. Charles and Haliburton are the principal suitors for Miss Pratt’s affections and the others are involved out of what might be politeness, or a sense of fun. Ingram is a well-known writer and expert on, among other things, codes and cyphers; Haliburton is enormously wealthy, and either will be a good match for the lovely Winnie.

When the party begins, Mrs. Pratt soon reveals that her preference is for her daughter to marry Haliburton and his money, rather than Ingram and his brains, and she asks Gilmour to stop encouraging Ingram’s pursuit of Winnie. Gilmour tells her that he himself has fallen in with the house rental in order to have a place to bring his own intended bride, Alfreda Longstaff, under the chaperonage of Mrs. Pratt; he hasn’t known Alfreda well or for long, but he tells Mrs. Pratt of his hope to marry her. Mrs. Pratt agrees to chaperone Miss Longstaff and gives Gilmour the impression that she is determined that Winnie’s marriage shall bring Haliburton’s money to Winnie, apparently because it is badly needed. Meanwhile, Ingram is working away furiously but secretively on his latest manuscript, some sort of mathematical or code-related treatise.

largeAs we meet Alfreda Longstaff, she reveals herself to be quite a different character than the beautiful but somewhat dim Winnie. Alfreda feels she is wasting away in her rural surroundings and longs to have a career of some sort. She’s also rather more displeased with the attentions of Gilmour than this gentleman knows. Apparently he came to rural Bispham and attracted her attentions for a month, then vanished without word. When he reappears abruptly some time later and announces his intention to marry her, she appears to agree — anything to escape Bispham! — but her internal monologue tells us that she is galled at having been ignored for so long and doesn’t really love Gilmour. Instead, since she has recently met a London journalist on the golf course, she wants to somehow find a “scoop” and thereby wangle a newspaper job. She tells Gilmour that she’ll stay with him at Tall House but promises nothing except to come to town for a fortnight.

Gilmour tells his fellow members of the rental syndicate about his affection for Alfreda and that he expects to marry her; Gilmour is apparently not picking up on the firm line of Alfreda’s mouth and the subtext that is clear to the reader, and we expect a future disappointment for Gilmour. Ingram’s half-brother Frederick is revealed to be short of money and is coming around to touch Charles for a fiver (and has done so on frequent occasions); Ingram also supports his brother-in-law Appleton, a former actor, in minor ways.

The house party’s mood is not enlivened by Alfreda’s arrival; indeed, the reader learns that Winnie is actually jealous of Gilmour’s obvious affection for the athletic but relatively unlovely Alfreda, and unaccountably means to encourage Gilmour’s attentions (much to the horror of her mother, since Gilmour has only his civil service salary). Alfreda, meanwhile, is engaged in a mysterious errand that involves her masquerading as a Miss Grey at a boarding house in Hammersmith and scraping acquaintance with a large middle-aged lady named Mrs. Findlay by pretending to be interested in Mrs. Findlay’s passion for disarmament. Mrs. Findlay is dubious, thinking that perhaps Alfreda is interested in a sum of money into which Mrs. Findlay has recently come, and asks the landlady to cooperate in helping her to avoid Alfreda.

A week after the arrival of Alfreda, the house party begins to discuss ghosts one night and it is revealed that Tall House, like many such antique homes, is said to be haunted, although by whom and for what reason is not mentioned. Gilmour reveals that if he sees a ghost he is likely to shoot at it since he had an unfortunate childhood experience with someone dressing up as a ghost, and ever since has been infuriated by ghost-related pranks. Of course, as the reader by now expects, a shot rings out in the middle of the night. Gilmour is found with a gun in his hand and dead on the floor nearby, wound in a sheet, is the mathematical Mr. Ingram.

Gilmour immediately reveals that he thought his pistol was loaded with blanks, before the arrival of Inspector Pointer. Alfreda also tells Gilmour that she cannot now marry him, much to his surprise, and she immediately races to a telephone to phone in the scoop to her newspaper friend. Now, at this point, I’ll be much less specific about plot developments; I think it’s likely that you will enjoy reading this book and I don’t want to spoil its surprises for you. I will say, though, that experienced mystery readers will immediately discount Gilmour as having been set up by a clever murderer; the fact that the bullet hole in the sheet around the deceased Ingram is in a very odd orientation will add to your suspicions. Added to which, it seems as though everyone in the house is searching for some mysterious slips of paper that Ingram had produced in his work, and we haven’t been told much about why. Two are found with some mysterious columns of words on them, “VON/OF/DE” and “HELL/LIGHT/CLAIRE”. Another slip appears to be a shred of cheap wallpaper. But the search for more slips of paper continues, even after all the secret compartments sewn into Ingram’s clothing are found empty. The value of various of the slips of paper becomes apparent two-thirds of the way through the book; it’s not exactly a red herring, but it won’t take you to the solution. Only a very, VERY careful reading of what people say to each other, and whether it is attested to or confirmed by others, will do that.

The clues take the clever Inspector Pointer to various London locations and eventually to a casino on the continent, but it is a small out-of-the-way cottage that reveals another corpse and an exciting finish, where Pointer must knock out a disguised murderer before a third life is lost.

41ykquzHhtL._SX200_Why is this book worth your time?

I’ll be honest and say that my expectations of this volume were not high. Although I hadn’t read a Fielding mystery before, I’d been told that they were from the Humdrum school so well represented by its foremost practitioner, Freeman Wills Croft. I rather felt that, had Freeman’s novels been truly superior examples of the kind of thing that Crofts did so well (an investigation by a police officer doggedly tracking down the clues to a surprise ending), they would have survived and been more enthusiastically reprinted. An eminent critic and the world’s expert on Humdrum mysteries, Curtis Evans, reviewed two Fielding mysteries earlier this year and gave them only faint praise (his reviews are here and here and his speculations about Fielding’s identity are linked in the first paragraph of this post), as does another recent review found here of this specific volume.

But as I progressed through the pages, I found myself quite charmed by the writing. I like to read mysteries of this vintage as much for their explication of the social background of their period as for the puzzle, and I found myself interested in both. The puzzle aspects are frequent and enigmatic. When I mentally lined up the slips with the mysterious words, I found that the phrases “Light of” and “Claire de” popped out at me, and this is precisely the sort of deduction that I enjoy making in the course of reading an old mystery. What they meant wasn’t clear to me until much later, but I was looking for connections with the word “moon” furiously for the remainder of the novel. There are similar puzzle aspects, little clues dropped here and there that, at a distance of 75 years, it’s obvious are meant to confuse and mislead. Mysterious slips of paper, secret pockets, Alfreda’s mysterious activities with the perhaps-disguised Mrs. Findlay — these are the puzzle aspects of old mysteries that I find charming and enticing, and there are plenty of them here.

The other part is the social history background, and again there is plenty here. It is difficult for us to realize at this remove that, in 1933, crossword puzzles were such a new phenomenon that newspapers used crossword competitions to boost circulation, and offered prizes of £2,500 at a time when you could live on the proverbial £50 a year that impoverished young women were always seeking to improve in mysteries of the period. This is rather like the potential to win a million dollars by competing on Survivor, and perhaps it’s the re-valuing of the pound that makes it less obvious to today’s reader, but this is very serious business. What would you do to win a competition that yielded 20 or 25 years’ salary? Similarly, the plight of Alfreda, whose parents cannot afford to educate her for a trade and must merely hope that she marries well, is hard to understand but interesting. The quest for financial independence is a theme throughout this book — the victim’s relatives who touch him for a fiver (doesn’t sound like much, but again, look at it in terms of £50 a year), Mrs. Pratt’s desperation for Winnie to marry money, and some of the underlying motives for the murderous actions that I think it’s better that I don’t tell you. Also there’s the underlying situation — five single men who rent an old house and fill it with servants (and give a couple of balls) simply to amuse a beautiful woman whom a couple of them hope to marry? That’s not the way we do things in the 21st century, and I rather doubt it’s the way most people did things in the 1930s. But it’s quirky and intriguing and a good story hook, and I enjoyed the clever mind that thought of it.

Other commentators have remarked that Fielding is a sloppy writer who will sacrifice a lot of believability for the sake of a tricky and surprising ending. I have to say that although I have noticed sloppy writing in a couple of other Fielding novels that I’ve read recently, courtesy of Hathi Trust, this one didn’t especially annoy me at any particular point. Yes, some of the plot twists are unbelievable, but to me the plot twists were no more difficult to accept than, say, the “Ruritanian romance” plots of  E. Phillips Oppenheim or the wild adventures of Edgar Wallace, both from about the same point in time. Fielding wasn’t necessarily trying to be believable, but to amuse, and — I was amused. I was certainly surprised by the ending, and that is not an experience I have often with detective fiction … the identity of the murderer was actually a surprise to me, and I felt instinctively a rather fair one. Perhaps I’m credulous; perhaps I was reading too quickly. Perhaps my ability to suspend my disbelief has grown greater over the years. Perhaps I was fooled by my generally low expectations into thinking that because certain characters were depicted as socially unattractive that the plotting habits of the period would also reveal them to be criminals. But after decades of mystery-reading and thousands and thousands of books, I’m not often fooled, and I was fooled. And I enjoyed it! I’m not saying that this is a puzzle plot with the skill and depth of, say, Anthony Berkeley. Once I realized how I’d been fooled, I went back and looked and found it wasn’t — well, not 100% fair play. You have to be paying very close attention to see how the author works the trick, and it’s a question of a tiny shift of viewpoint that’s very subtle. But I’m someone who has failed to be fooled by everyone from Carolyn Keene to Agatha Christie, and if it takes a little unfair play for me to have the rare and enjoyable experience of being fooled, I’ll concur.

I think you might enjoy this novel if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction; paradoxically, I think you won’t manage to enjoy it as much if you are a newbie, although you’ll definitely be fooled by the ending. It’s not a great mystery, but it has charm and some skill, it’s an interesting period piece and I liked it.

Notes for the Collector:

As I noted above, I cannot locate a copy of this novel available for sale other than a print-on-demand edition from 2014. And, of course, it is available for your reading pleasure on the internet from Hathi Trust. I did a brief search for other Fielding novels from the 1920s and 1930s and found that, as usual, condition and the presence of a jacket will lift these novels from the $15 range to perhaps the $70-$90 range. I must say that the jacketed copies I’ve seen of various Fielding novels seem to me to be aesthetically very pleasant and much above the general range of contemporaneous jackets; really very pretty work with good design and colours that may have faded over time but are still attractive. If you want a reading copy, well, it’s free. If you want a collectible copy, good luck finding one.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “N”, “Read one book with a size in the title.” I am not myself a “Tall” but I’ll claim it as a clothing size almost out of desperation. I have to confess I have been stymied by this category and up until recently was entirely unable to think of a qualifying novel; I am indebted to Linda Bertland, writing at Philly Reader, for having reviewed it before me to fall under the same category in the same challenge. Ordinarily I try to select books for review where I can show you a number of editions, but “Needs must when the devil drives.” My apologies for the lack of visual references.

vintage-golden-card-0011211

 

Toward a definition of the “police procedural”

691455-police-investigationMy most recent post, “The End of the Golden Age?“, attracted more comment and attention than anything I’ve ever displayed here (offhand, I’d say the comments section is four times the size of the article).  Thank you to the pundits who took the trouble to share their facts and opinions.

In the course of that discussion, one smaller point arose; it seems as though there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what constitutes a “police procedural” novel, and when and by whom the first ones were written. Although I don’t think I’m the type to generate controversy merely for its own sake, it does seem like this is something that can be hashed out to the profit of scholarship; I intend to propose a definition and some boundaries based on my experience and personal preferences, and then stand back and (I hope) watch my better-informed peers tell me exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider analyzing works that I don’t have immediately to hand, or know so well that I can talk about their details without a reference copy to check. However, I generally only discuss one work at a time; this piece, of necessity, has to deal with dozens of works and although my collection is large, it’s not perfect. There are works mentioned here that I have only heard discussed, but I’m sufficiently aware of their details that I know they have to be part of this analysis. So this is not meant to be authoritative; this is meant to be what I’d call at the office a “concept draft”. I am already aware that parts of my initial contribution are inadequate, and it’s meant to be filled out in a discussion by others.

Definition

I’ve always found that a good place to start to define a term is by looking at how other people define it and then teasing out the underlying logic. To that end, here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “police procedural”:

“The police procedural is a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on a single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story. While traditional mysteries usually adhere to the convention of having the criminal’s identity concealed until the climax (the so-called whodunit), in police procedurals, the perpetrator’s identity is often known to the audience from the outset (the inverted detective story). Police procedurals depict a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.”

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Well, there’s enough to be sorted through there to occupy me for quite a long post, I think. I will note that Wikipedia, in the same article, suggests that “In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase “police procedural” to describe it.” The paragraph finishes with the “citation needed” tag indicating that the statement is unsubstantiated by a citation; I have found in the past that these tags are signposts to statements that may or may not be accurate when researched thoroughly.  I have no access to Boucher’s New York Times work of 1956 to verify this one way or the other, but it does sound like the kind of neologism he was capable of coining; I’ll provisionally accept it until I see evidence to the contrary. The important point here is that the phrase itself was invented in 1956; anything before that point cannot be retroactively labeled, but, if it fits the definition, must be called a “proto-police procedural”.

Wikipedia’s definition focuses on differentiating the procedural from the “traditional detective novel” and “traditional mystery”; what it’s saying is that the plots of procedurals contain multiple strands (unlike the straight-line plot of many detective novels) and that they are “often” told in the style of the inverted detective story. Let’s see if we can sort out a few strands of logic from this, and I’ll add a few of my own.

  1. Police procedurals depict the activities of a police force as it investigates crimes. Frequently this means that the story is told from the point of view of multiple police officers.
  2. Police procedurals depict a number of techniques that police officers use to do their work (forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation). These techniques are represented accurately and based on research into real-life techniques.
  3. In police procedurals, the (putative) identity of the criminal is sometimes indicated to the reader long before the end of the story — and sometimes not.
  4. Police procedurals are meant to be realistic, or to seem realistic; the characters in the story are human, with both faults and talents, and the events of the story depict failure as well as success.
  5. In police procedurals, police officers are frequently depicted as having personal lives and relationships that may or may not become intertwined with their investigations.
  6. In police procedurals, the work of police officers is depicted such that, as a group, they will be involved with multiple crimes at the same time in various stages of the process.

With these six principles in mind, let’s examine a number of possibilities that have been suggested as being possible members of the category, holding them up to these boundaries and seeing if they pass or fail. Police procedural stories can be told in different media forms (novels, short stories, films) and thus I haven’t eliminated any story because of the medium in which it was presented.

Examples for Consideration

(a) Various “Humdrum” practitioners and early stories generally thought of as detective novels, all published before 1947

As noted above, even if any of these stories meets the six criteria above, they could not be, strictly speaking, “police procedurals” because the term was not yet invented. They might qualify as “proto-procedurals”.

Specific suggestions (from the comments on my recent Golden Age post, Wikipedia, and other Internet-based sources) include:

  • The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920) and others of his novels including The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) and Six Against The Yard (1936)

The Cask

The Cask (and others of the adventures of Inspector French) seems to me to be very close to a proto-procedural, but I think ultimately it fails. I’m going to rely on the authority of Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery and an expert on Crofts’s work, who states in the comments to my Golden Age post below that “Crofts didn’t know beans about police procedure, to be honest”. My sense is that, although many of the criteria of the procedural are met more closely than many other authors’, his books therefore fail criterion #2. In addition, in my opinion, the Inspector French novels are tightly focused on this gentleman and don’t contain enough information (or especially viewpoint observations) about his subordinates’ investigations to meet criterion #1.

I’ve read almost all of Crofts and have generally considered him to have written “detective stories” — which I define as stories about the activities and thoughts of a detective who is detecting a crime — rather than proto-procedurals.  I’ve never read Six Against The Yard; I gather that it is a group effort of the Detection Club wherein a fiction writer creates the story of a crime and then a commentator talks about how the crime’s investigation would be approached by real-life police officers. Crofts’s contribution, I understand, is one of the six fictional stories.

I’ll pause here to suggest that many, many works of the Golden Age mystery can be differentiated by parsing criterion #1. Many such works chronicle the investigations of a detective who is employed by a police force, but the story is closely focused upon that single police officer and thus, to me, are detective stories rather than proto-procedurals.  Consider, for instance, the Inspector Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh; these are stories about Alleyn himself. Inspector Fox never speaks in his own voice and all other police officers in the books are nonentities. This to me is a crucial differentiation.

Crofts’s Inspector French stories also appear to fail criterion #6 in that only one crime is investigated at a time, but I don’t regard this as crucial. In stories of the period, it seems to me that Scotland Yard’s procedure is represented as assigning an officer to a single case and allowing him to pursue it until it is resolved, without asking him to attend to other duties. If this story were set in the United States, and the activities of the police were depicted as they are here, I think it would be more clear that it failed criterion #6.

  • The Duke of York’s Steps as by “Henry Wade” (Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) (1929) and others including Lonely Magdalen (1940)

duke of yorks stepsHere, I’m going to have to let my readers speak. I honestly believe I have read The Duke of York’s Steps, decades ago, but its details are completely lost to me. I had its major elements recalled to me by this review of it, in an interesting blog called At the Scene of the Crime, but since I don’t own a copy of the book and am unable to immediately refresh my memory, this is all I can offer. Similarly I’m relatively unfamiliar with the rest of this author’s stories.

  • McKee of Centre Street by Helen Reilly (1934) and others of her Inspector McKee novels

mckeeAlthough I have read my way through Reilly’s oeuvre, it was many years ago, I’ve forgotten quite a few of the details, and I don’t have copies of most of her books at hand to refresh my memory. (There’s a daunting pile of more than a hundred boxes in my spare room where I have a bunch of her paperbacks, I’m sure, but I’m probably not going to reach them for a decade or so unless by happy accident.) I have to say that a book whose detective is named in the book’s title seems to me to be quite focused upon that individual and not upon the stories of his staff. I do recall, though, that McKee’s subordinates have names, faces, and personalities, which is unusual for works of the period. I’m unable to say whether or not this particular novel meets criterion #1, but that’s where I would be focusing my assessment. Similarly, my memory tells me that the details of investigative technique are glossed over and not presented except as results; “The fingerprints came back” sort of thing.

In a general sense, I never thought of Helen Reilly as being interested in police procedure; to me, she’s part of a group of authors, mostly women, who write what I think of as “brownstone mysteries”. These are set among the upper classes and we are meant to learn as much about their clothes, furniture, personalities, daily lives, and sexual peccadillos as we are about the activities of police officers.

  • The “Fire Marshal Pedley” stories as by “Stewart Sterling” (Prentice Mitchell), including Five Alarm Funeral (1942).

MN-FiveI’ve read a number of these novels and, although I am sympathetic to the idea that they are closely related to the police procedural in form, I have to say that ipso facto a police procedural must be about police officers.  These stories therefore fail criterion #1.

Although it was not mentioned in the context, I’ve found a reference to “a series of nine stories [as by Sterling] in the legendary magazine, Black Mask, which were labeled “Special Squad” stories. The 1939-1942 series highlighted different “special” squads from homicide to the bomb squad. I have yet to read any of the series but the descriptions make them sound like examples of early police procedurals.” I also have not read any of these stories.

  •  Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) by Georges Simenon (1931), the first Inspector Maigret story

3a_Maguire_inspectormaigretI’ve never been sure why this long, long series of stories is not automatically assigned into the police procedural category; possibly their only reason for non-inclusion is that they are focused quite strongly on Inspector Maigret. But I suspect another reason is, simply, that they are not American, and the sub-genre of the police procedural is felt to be an American invention — mostly by American critics and commentators, I may add. This is not a blind spot restricted to the police procedural; another such baffling American appropriation is the noir genre, even though the name itself is borrowed from French.

I haven’t enjoyed much about these novels, to the great dismay of my friends who are aficionados; I don’t know much about them and, after reading a handful, haven’t continued to track them down. (I lived in Paris for a short time; they seem realistic, but to me a bit dull. And they were not improved for me by reading them in French; the level of language, however, is suitable for the intermediate linguist and you will learn some interesting slang if you keep at it.) Nevertheless my recollection is that they strongly represent the individual characters and viewpoints of Maigret’s subordinates. Maigret himself has a personal life that threads strongly through the books; Madame Maigret has her own case, at one point. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of procedure presented. However, psychology and the art of the investigative interview are indeed part of police procedure. There’s a case to be made that these are proto-procedurals, I think, but I’ll defer to people who know more about them than I.

  • Edgar Wallace

Frankly, I’ve never been able to stomach more than a bit of Wallace; I know he’s important to the crime fiction genre, it’s just that each individual book loses my attention about chapter 3 and, try though I might, I cannot resuscitate it. They all seem to be indifferently written and although the individual activities of each plot appear to be potentially exciting, they are telegraphed so obviously that I inevitably find myself skipping to the final chapters and thinking, “Yes, just as I thought.” At any rate, I’ll have to leave the analysis of Wallace’s inclusion in this genre to those more knowledgeable, and strong-willed, than myself. I very much doubt, though, that Wallace researched anything at all beyond the level of reading newspapers and other people’s detective stories, and I’d be assessing these primarily based on criterion #2.

I’m not particularly aware of which works of Wallace might be considered as proto-procedurals; suggestions are welcome.

  •  Inspector West Takes Charge, by John Creasey (1940), the first Roger West novel

4108096Similarly, I’ve never been able to take much of John Creasey; to quote Truman Capote, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I have to say that authors like Freeman Wills Crofts and Henry Wade are far more able to hold my attention than Creasey and Wallace, no matter how much spurious excitement they try to inject into their books; Creasey and Wallace, to me, far more accurately deserve the appellation “humdrum”. If any of my readers have managed to finish this or any other Creasey volume, feel free to comment. (And before you take keyboard to hand to berate me, yes, I gave a bunch of his books a good try, a couple from each of his series, and they leave me cold.)

(b) Specific authors and/or stories that have been identified as being police procedurals, in the period 1947-1960

The first five entries in this list — Dragnet, Lawrence Treat, Hilary Waugh, Ed McBain and Dell Shannon — seem to me to be absolutely essential to an understanding of the modern police procedural, regardless of where you decide for yourself the sub-genre started.

  • Dragnet (radio series, 1949-1957)

DragnetThrough the excellent work of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and through the medium of archive.org, you can experience every available episode of this radio program by accessing this link. The researchers of the OTRRG are meticulous in providing the best available recordings and the accompanying essay is worth your attention, perhaps even more than the Wikipedia article.

I believe the radio version of Dragnet is a significant contribution — if not the first example — of what we’re trying to define here as the police procedural. To the best of my knowledge, it meets every one of the criteria I’ve outlined; although nos. 5 and 6 may be less thoroughly met, the de-emphasis of the personal lives of the detectives might be an attempt to differentiate the program from its more high-strung competitors, and the listener may feel that experiencing these brief stories on a weekly basis may be a way of indicating that the team of detectives works on all kinds of crimes but merely tells one story at a time.

Note that, above, Anthony Boucher is quoted as saying that his invention of the term “police procedural” is partly based on the success of Dragnet. I’m ready to accept that Dragnet is the seminal work of the police procedural and its popularity influenced Waugh, McBain and Shannon to create works in this vein to meet the public’s desire for more stories of this nature.

  • V as in Victim by Lawrence Treat (1945) et seq.

1149863330I don’t have a copy of this at hand and cannot comment, since my memory of it and his other books with similar titles is some 20 years in the past. I will say that I haven’t gone back to re-read these books because my recollection tells me that I didn’t enjoy them very much the first time around. It must be said, though, that I didn’t realize at the time that they were important to the sub-genre of the police procedural and, the next time a volume comes to hand in his “[Letter of the alphabet] as in [Alliterative noun]” series, I’ll give it a good shot.

  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, (1952)

MissingCoEdWaugh1952I’ve re-read this novel within the last couple of years when a copy crossed my path but have no copy immediately at hand. I admit that I had this book stored in my head as the answer to the trivia question, “What book started the police procedural?” but, like so many of these ideas, I stored up the datum years ago and never bothered to examine it in the way I’m here getting rolling. I believe I grasped the idea by reading Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, which refers to it favourably.

This book chronicles the investigation of the disappearance of a young woman student from her small college campus. I think the reason why this novel was considered so important at its time was that it attempted to approach the crime novel differently; it is a real-time chronicle of an investigation where you are aware of everything that the police are thinking at the time that they are thinking it. All evidence is available to you, as are all inferences drawn from it, and the police go down false trails, are occasionally stymied, and misinterpret evidence that they later re-examine with a different idea in mind. The identity of the criminal is obvious at about the three-quarters point and this person is a minor character in the novel; the police do not interview or approach the criminal until they have accumulated enough evidence to make an arrest.

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is that it offers the reader the same kind of experience as the classic detective story; we are given excerpts from a diary kept by the victim early in the book, and after accumulating evidence that points in various directions, a re-examination of the diary proves significant. The reader is misled just as thoroughly as are the police and there is a nice “aha!” moment available when you realize the perspective from which you have to read the diary’s language. I’m being coy here to protect your enjoyment if you haven’t read this book; you should read it, and I think you will enjoy it. Another reason I thought this book was different than its contemporary detective novels is that the activities of the police are presented in painstaking and very nearly boring detail, something like the efforts of the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; more is made, though, of false trails and false leads, and the police are portrayed as being somewhat less competent and intelligent than in the works of Crofts.

Police officers have told me that if the public actually knew how boring police work truly is, there wouldn’t be a cop show left on television. Waugh manages to make boring details interesting. Regardless of whether it’s the first police procedural or not, it is an important novel in this genre and deserves your attention.

  • Cop Hater, by “Ed McBain” (Evan Hunter), (1956), the first novel in the 87th Precinct series

cop-hater-by-ed-mcbainIt may well be that the fifty-four 87th Precinct volumes of Ed McBain are the first thing that readers (and viewers) think of when they think of police procedurals.  The franchise has survived the death of its creator; I am informed that there may well be another television reboot of this series in the near future (as of 2014) and they have generated more material as a media platform than even the Dragnet series, I believe. Certainly most critics would agree that they are the highest-quality materials available in this genre. They are sensitive, intelligent, beautifully written, realistic, unexpected, quirky, technically accurate, and ground-breaking in the extreme.

This specific volume introduces the principal characters of Detective Steve Carella and his “deaf-mute” wife Teddy (whom he marries at the end of this first volume).  Three detectives at the 87th Precinct of fictional city “Isola” are murdered in a very short period of time, and Carella investigates; the personal lives of the detectives are just as important as the details of investigation, forensics, etc. The central premise of the novel is a clever one that, like so much else in detective fiction, was first invented by Agatha Christie but is used here in an inventive way. The book was filmed in 1958. The reading public supported this franchise through 54 volumes until the author’s death in 2005 and many readers still cherish the central characters as — well, as close to friends as a fictional character can be.

  • Case Pending, as by “Dell Shannon” (Elizabeth Linington), (1960), the first novel in the Lt. Luis Mendoza/LAPD series

336416Although it’s clear that critics, commentators, and the everyday reader would unquestioningly assign the title of “police procedural” to this series, my instinct is to disagree. However, I cannot differ sufficiently to be determined to exclude them from the definition, although they certainly fail my criterion #2. Linington did no more research than would be involved in uncritically reading the work of other novelists or listening to retired police officers shoot the shit in a bar. Nevertheless it is clear that they were conceived by the author and accepted by her readers as police procedurals, and in that sense I will agree with their inclusion in the definition. They’re police procedurals, it’s just that they’re very, very poor ones. They’re similar to the 87th Precinct series as long as you don’t require common sense, writing skill, technical accuracy, correct syntax, or originality, and you are prepared to put up with an unbelievable amount of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, jingoism, religious bigotry, and generalized disdain for almost everyone who isn’t a white, Christian, American, heterosexual upper-class male Republican with far-right political views. I’ve given an early book in this series a thorough analysis, found here, and it goes into greater detail about precisely why and how these books are offensive.

  • Fabian of the Yard (1954-1955), possibly the first British TV police drama.
  • Gideon’s Day, as by “J.J. Marric” (John Creasey), (1955), the first George Gideon novel
  • The “Chief Inspector Harry Martineau of Scotland Yard” series by Maurice Procter, beginning with Hell is a City (1954) and ending in 1968

I’ve never viewed any episodes of “Fabian of the Yard” or read the stories of Maurice Procter, to my recollection; I’m told they would probably qualify in this category. I’ve read a couple of the George Gideon novels and viewed a couple of episodes of the ’60s television productions and the 1958 film within the franchise; as I said above about the rest of Creasy’s work, I didn’t find these stories all that worthwhile. However, it’s possible that they are important works in the history of the British police procedural.

(c) Post-1960, further novels in existing police procedural series and/or new works

969290-gfWhatever the merits or criteria for inclusion within the definition of “police procedural”, all of these works post-date Boucher’s definition of the genre and are generally considered to fall within its boundaries.  I include them here for the information of anyone who is coming late to this genre and wishes to experience works that are generally considered to be good examples of this form. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone deliberately read their way through the work of Elizabeth Linington, but chacun à son goût. (I read most or all of them at a very young age when book club editions of her work were omnipresent and I was living in an environment not oversupplied with English-language libraries.) I highly recommend the 87th Precinct novels, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and whatever works of Baantjer you can find in English. Some of the television series listed below may not qualify because the police officers only investigate one case at a time; you may or may not find this significant. I have tried to list television series which are generally considered to be of superior quality and you can make your own decisions.

  • Dragnet (television series, 1951-1959; 1967-1970; 1989-1990; 2003)
  • The “Sgt. Ivor Maddox” series by Elizabeth Linington, beginning with Greenmask (1964).
  • The “Vic Varallo” series by “Lesley Egan” (Elizabeth Linington), beginning with The Borrowed Alibi (1962).
  • A long list of 87th Precinct novels as by “Ed McBain”, 1956-2005, as well as made-f0r-TV movies, a television series, comic books, etc., connected with this franchise (see Wikipedia for a complete article).
  • The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh (1970) and other novels.
  • Hill Street Blues, an American television series that ran from 1981-1987.
  • NYPD Blue, an American television series that ran from 1993-2005.
  • Police Story, an American television series that ran from 1973-1978.
  • The Wire, an American television series that ran from 2002-2008.
  • Prime Suspect, a British television series that ran from 1991-2006.
  • A number of Australian series including Blue Heelers (1994-2006) and Water Rats (1996-2001).
  • The Dutch-language novels of A. C. Baantjer (and a well-received television series) about a police team led by officer De Cock (in English, “cook”), 1963-2008.
  • The “Martin Beck” novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, from Roseanna (1965) to The Terrorists (1975).

If I were to dig more deeply into this topic than I already have, I would be investigating modern television and film productions more thoroughly. There are a number of different television series that may or may not qualify; many of them would fail for me on criterion #6, in that programmes like Castle (2009-at least 2014) focus on a single case at a time. The three series beginning with CSI seem to me too focused upon the forensic-science aspect of police work, but that might be coloured by the fact that I’m unable to watch David Caruso for more than 30 seconds without reaching for my remote control. Others that come to mind include the huge Law and Order franchise with its various spin-offs and the Indian television series C.I.D. (1998 to at least 2014). And, indeed, almost any of the huge number of television series based around the activities of police officers may or may not qualify, and would require closer attention.  Wikipedia lists a huge page of “police television dramas“, and I’m not familiar with many of them.

 Preliminary conclusions

It seems likely to me at this point in my analysis that the premiere episode of the radio program Dragnet, on June 3, 1949, is likely to be the first thing that fits the complete six-point definition of “police procedural” found above — even though, as I said, the term wasn’t invented until 1956. There are many stories before that point in time that very nearly qualify.  As is common in these situations, it may not actually be very useful to pinpoint this or that work as being the crucial work; possibly the most important thing that happened in this context was Anthony Boucher’s coining of the phrase itself, which solidified the concept as a sub-genre of detective fiction. The rest may merely be material for a timeline.

I’m not sure whether I will get any comments on this at all; my readers can be a quirky bunch and only comment when it suits them. But this is the first time I’ve presented material with which I’m not absolutely familiar and asked for comment from those better-informed than I am, so feel free to have your say, ladies and gentlemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Double or Quits, by “A. A. Fair” (Erle Stanley Gardner) (1941)

Double or Quits, by “A. A. Fair” (Erle Stanley Gardner) (1941)

Double or QuitsAuthor:

Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for his Perry Mason series, of course, but this was his best-known pseudonym. His Wikipedia entry is found here. As A. A. Fair, he wrote 29 novels about the private investigation team of Cool and Lam: Bertha Cool, a tough middle-aged professional detective, and Donald Lam, a scrawny gumshoe and disbarred lawyer who is the protagonist of the stories.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1941 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “E”, “Read a book with a detective ‘team’.” Cool and Lam are a corporate team of private investigators. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The edition I re-read for this post is at the top of this post; Dell D361, with cover art by Robert McGinnis, a 1960 reissue of the original Dell mapback #160 (later reprinted as #718).

The first edition was Morrow, 1941. Many, many paperback editions exist, including some interesting ones from England. There was a 1942 edition as part of a three-in-volume from Detective Book Club in 1942 (with Christie’s The Body in the Library and an F. Van Wyck Mason title), and a 1946 Triangle Books edition that apparently used the same cover art on the dust jacket as the first edition, which has doubtless led to some difficulties over the years.

dell0160About this book:

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

After a lengthy illness, Bertha Cool has slimmed down from her former 220 pounds to a mere 160 pounds “of solid muscle”. As part of her recovery process, she’s taken up fishing. Donald Lam accompanies her to the pier one day, and the two meet a prospective client, wealthy Dr. Devarest. His wife’s jewelry has been stolen and he wants it recovered but, before Donald can get to work, Dr. Devarest is found dead in his garage, poisoned by carbon monoxide. 

dell0160backAt this point in the book, an important event happens that is pivotal to the remainder of the series (this is volume 5 of 29).  Up to this point, Donald has been Bertha’s employee, but he faces up to her here and demands a partnership stake in the agency. Bertha refuses and Donald resigns and announces that he is moving to San Francisco. After his three-day vacation in San Francisco, Bertha arrives and capitulates; henceforth it will be Cool & Lam on the office door, and they will jointly supervise faithful secretary Elsie. Bertha realizes that, although she is highly competent at the ordinary detective business, Donald has the brilliant mind and detective instincts that are necessary to bring in the big money. She hates the idea, and they continue to bicker like cat and dog for the remainder of the series, but Bertha’s first love is money and she does what she has to do to bring it in her direction.

dell0718After this brief segue, Donald knuckles down to work. An important point in the book is whether Dr. Devarest died by accident — specifically, was it by “accidental means” or “accidental death”. If it was by accidental means, the insurance company must pay double. However, Donald and the insurance company are aware of the precise difference, and Mrs. Devarest hires Donald to make the insurance company pay $80,000 instead of $40,000. As happens in every book, Donald meets and romances a couple of attractive young women to get information and leads (and continues his long-standing flirtation with the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand). However, one unique thing happens in this book. Donald is about 5’6″ and weighs 130 pounds and never carries a gun; in nearly every book he is beaten up by someone. In this novel, though, is the only recorded instance of Donald winning a fight (against an insurance adjuster). In two previous books he’s taken boxing and jujitsu lessons and this is the only time that they pay off.

Donald works away at the twin questions of death by accidental means and Mrs. Devarest’s missing jewelry.  He performs an interesting piece of extended deduction with a counterweight which may or may not have been attached to the garage door which trapped the doctor in the exhaust-filled garage. Lam learns there’s an ex-con working as Mrs. Devarest’s chauffeur, and the late doctor may or may not have been having an affair with his nurse. Meanwhile, the querulous, hypochondriacal and self-absorbed Mrs. Devarest might be carrying on an affair with her own physician, Dr. Gelderfield, who seems to be dancing regular attendance on a patient who has largely imaginary problems. Pretty young Nollie Starr, the nurse, has apparently absconded with the jewelry but is nowhere to be found — except that Donald figures out where she is in a single morning with a clever ruse — she rides her bike to play tennis early in the morning, so he searches all the tennis courts at the crack of dawn until he finds someone who meets her description. Donald then tells Elsie to come down and smash Nollie’s bicycle with her car and tell her to report it to the Auto Club; when the compensation claim is made, Donald gets Nollie’s true address and not the fake one she’d provided. Nollie is soon found strangled (with a pink corset string that’s been wound tightly around her neck by twisting it with a potato masher, which is a pretty bizarre murder method) and Donald has another crime on his hands. And the jewelry is still missing, although it is starting to look possible that someone with access to the late doctor’s safe had a hand in the jewelry’s disappearance.

As is common in the Cool & Lam novels, Donald ends up on the run from the police, who want to arrest him; Donald has to stay one step ahead of the police and the murderer. There’s a great scene near the end where Donald is hiding out at Elsie’s apartment, and she’s making him a great big steak dinner. Bertha and a police lieutenant show up unexpectedly and Elsie is bullied into serving them Donald’s steak dinner while he hides a few feet away. Donald finally realizes the murderer’s identity a few minutes after the murderer has inveigled him into taking a long drink from a bottle of whisky that’s been heavily adulterated with morphia. Donald phones the police and confesses to everything he can think of, just to get the police and an ambulance to his location in time to save himself. In a charming and clever finish, Donald is in the hospital and has been given a huge dose of caffeine to counteract the morphia; the caffeine produces a talking jag and the final chapter consists of him explaining all the inter-related crimes to a fascinated Bertha and the police lieutenant, talking like a machine gun. 

5020631953_d222b88486_zWhy is this book worth your time?

It’s hard to say just how much influence Erle Stanley Gardner had upon the course of detective fiction; in one sense, he was a very successful writer of pulp-style stories with complicated, fast-moving plots and very little characterization who wrote pretty much the same thing over and over again. But then again, he sold three hundred million copies of his books. He captured in a massive and authentic way the attention of a huge number of Americans, and more fans around the world in 23 languages.

In the 1950s in North America, when you talked about Perry Mason or Erle Stanley Gardner, people knew exactly who you meant. Perry Mason was at the top of the television rating charts and the books were selling at the rate of 20,000 units a day. I can remember as a child seeing a spinning rack of paperbacks in a drugstore; of the four sides of the rack, two were devoted to Perry Mason novels. Gardner influenced an entire generation of people about what a detective looked like and how he acted, and I have to think that every mystery writer who is currently over about 40 years old owes him some kind of debt.

The thing is, though, that as I mentioned above, all the Perry Mason novels are sort of the same — all 82-some-odd of them. There’s a very clear pattern that repeats pretty consistently, although it did change in one crucial respect as the series progressed.  In the earliest novels, Perry will hit people, commit petty crimes (like break into a witness’s home or disable his car), and just generally raise hell in order to protect his client.  In the first series novel, TCOT Velvet Claws, Perry’s client thinks it’s possible that Perry committed the murder to protect her. As time progressed, Perry became more and more aware of his responsibilities as an officer of the court, and once or twice delivered a sharp lecture about how there was a big difference between his own sharp but ethical practice — juggling guns around so that no one knew which was which was a favourite pastime — and, you know, illegal stuff. Especially after the influence of the television series and its artificial morality had a strong influence, Perry developed a huge stick up his ass and became more of an armchair detective, leaving PI Paul Drake to do all the work.

And I suspect that’s where Donald Lam came from, and with him Bertha Cool as a foil; Gardner wanted to have more fun with the writing. Gardner wrote a dozen Perry Mason mysteries before 1939, when he published the first Cool & Lam novel, and I suspect he was just bored with Perry’s necessity to stay on the side of the angels. Donald Lam is everything that Perry Mason cannot be. Mason is ethical and uptight and a cypher — in the entire course of the 82-or-so books, we never see his apartment, we never learn anything about him, we never know his history or his politics or, indeed, anything about him personally except his taste in food. His constant desire for steak dinners and cocktails and baked potatoes is like a trophe in the series, and there are many, many scenes set in a restaurant where Perry has a conference over dinner, or is interrupted by a client, or a witness, or a telephone call as his steak is being delivered. Poor Paul Drake is constantly surviving on soggy hamburger sandwiches and coffee.  If it weren’t for food, they’d be invisible in their own books.

Donald Lam, on the other hand, chases girls and frequently catches them. He is saucy, witty, vulgar, brash, arrogant, and really sneaky and underhanded. He is the PI who cuts corners, taints witness testimony with bribes, commits petty crimes in the furtherance of his investigation, and is constantly lying to women about the degree of his attraction to them. But they certainly have an attraction to him, possibly because he’s just a scrawny little guy and he worms his way into their affections because he constantly knows things, or can do things, that will help them. Especially when it helps them avoid the police, jail, and/or the attentions of the killer.

Donald Lam is just a hell of a lot more fun than Perry Mason or even Paul Drake, because Donald Lam is always having a lot more fun. There’s more to it than that, though. Lam is also a much more interesting detective, per se, than Perry Mason because he’s hands-on. Paul Drake gets results and brings them back to Mason for consideration, but we don’t often learn exactly how he got those results. With Donald Lam, we see what it’s like to be a detective. We see him read people and get it right. (For instance, in the opening sequence, he assesses Dr. Devarest’s relationship with his wife sufficiently accurately that he grasps the point of why the doctor has set up his study in a certain way, where Bertha misses the point completely.) We see the little tricks he uses to get information. (Like having Elsie smash Nollie’s bicycle deliberately, in order to get her address when she claims compensation from the auto club.) We see his knowledge of the law, above and beyond that of most people’s — he knows the precise difference between “death by accidental means” and “accidental death” and how it will affect the widow’s compensation. More to the point, Donald knows that a widow who feels she’s been cheated out of $40,000 will want to hire a detective agency to prove that that $40,000 is rightfully hers. He’s good with physical evidence — there’s an extended sequence where he demonstrates that he understands how a counterweight on a swinging garage door works better than anyone, perhaps even better than the murderer. He’s imaginative; we know this, because he’s capable of coming up with theories about why people would commit certain criminal acts and then correlate those theories with the actual evidence, which leads him to more investigative paths to prove his theories.

And as a human being, he’s also much more interesting than Perry Mason. Mason has Della Street and Lam has Elsie Brand, but Donald and Elsie have a much more natural and realistic relationship; and it’s fairly clear that they have actually had sex, although Gardner cannot say so due to the mores of the times. (In the final two paragraphs of this particular book, a nurse warns Elsie that Donald might be ” abnormally stimulated” by the caffeine and the implication is that he’ll attack her sexually. “Elsie Brand laughed in her face.”) Throughout the series, Donald is much, much more attractive to women than Mason — or even Paul Drake. Over and over again, Donald encounters beautiful young women who don’t take him seriously, but who later find themselves falling for him without knowing why. He’s charming and witty, but he’s not sexless like Mason. Gardner was never known for characterization, but I’ll suggest that Donald Lam is perhaps his most well-written character. He’s absolutely his most human protagonist.

Ultimately, the Cool & Lam novels are less formulaic, less predictable, and more quirky. I’m not sure why they never gained the public’s attention as much as the Perry Mason series; possibly that had something to do with CBS’s advertising process for the TV series. If you want to read a book that shows why Erle Stanley Gardner was a good plotter, but without aching to remove the stick from Perry Mason’s ass, you should definitely give Cool and Lam a shot. The earliest books are the most interesting and fresh; by the end of the series (and the Perry Mason series also), Gardner was played out of new ideas and was reduced to inventing unusual hooks and then writing tepid books around them.

It’s interesting to note that in 1958, CBS produced a pilot for a proposed Cool & Lam series, directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, starring Billy Pearson as Donald Lam and Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool. It never went anywhere, sadly; I’m not sure why. It would have been very unusual to see an overweight, hard-edged woman on TV in the late 50s, and Benay Venuta was more statuesquely beautiful and icy than “160 pounds of barbed wire”. Billy Pearson actually played a jockey in “TCOT Jilted Jockey” on the Perry Mason series, so he was the right size and weight for the role, but he and Venuta just didn’t seem to have any chemistry. And possibly CBS didn’t care to have so much power in the hands of Paisano Productions, since negotiations about the Perry Mason series were apparently already difficult. You can see the first 30 seconds of the credits on Youtube here.

1024038465Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, some deluded person in California wants $950 for a first edition, VG in jacket. The more reasonable prices are clustered around the vicinity of $100 to $200; not many copies are offered but my general sense is that not many are wanted either. A. A. Fair doesn’t seem that collectible. It seems odd to me that the Detective Book Club edition commands prices in the $50 range but it may well be that this is because the three-in-one volume contains The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, which makes this far more attractive to Christie fans than Gardner completists.  Experienced collectors will be aware that Triangle Books editions are pretty much rubbish, but I still see them listed with extraordinary prices. They were very, very cheaply made, and I have to admit that if you can find one that has survived in decent condition, you have a rarity. Their paper stock was especially awful; I’ve occasionally had the experience of having a page crack in half as I was turning it. I’ve never met a Triangle collector; I can’t think of what would motivate someone to collect ugly reprint editions of good books, but it takes all kinds. I’ve seen at least one copy of the first edition wrapped in a facsimile of the Triangle jacket (as noted above, they used the same cover art).

I think that the most collectible editions are paperbacks; pride of place goes to the Dell mapback #160, because there are so many mapback collectors. Dell #718 has a cover by Fred Scotwood, not well known and not much collected; however, there is a dreamlike quality to the illustration that is quite attractive. Dell D361 has the McGinnis cover shown at the top of this post, and he’s widely collected. There are a couple of interesting UK paper editions, one from Corgi and one from Guild Books; I have no idea how collectible these are in the UK but I suspect there are plenty of Corgi collectors.

Vintage Golden Card 001