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

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

imagesThe other day, I published the first half of this essay. It was based upon the experience of picking up four mysteries at random from a box of recent acquisitions and finding that they all, to my surprise, contained children — unlikeable, unpleasant, and vaguely sticky children — as principal characters. This will be slightly less of a hatchet job than Part 1, since I actually liked one of today’s books … but I was in a mood to be less than pleased by children in mysteries.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) The Widow’s Cruise, by Nicholas Blake; (2) Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth; and some others, including one by Christianna Brand to which I refer obliquely but specifically below, and Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery. 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 these novels, reading this essay means 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 these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_The third in my unbroken sequence of children in mysteries occurred when I picked up a copy of The Widow’s Cruise, a 1959 novel by the great Nicholas Blake. I provided a very brief biography of this writer some years back here; under his own name of Cecil Day-Lewis, he was indeed Poet Laureate of England (and his son is indeed the famous actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

As his career wound down, he published fewer novels in the series about amateur detective Nigel Strangeways and this is almost the last really satisfying one, I’ll suggest.  (That would be 1961’s The Worm of Death, which has small problems but large brilliancies.) In this outing, Nigel and his life partner Clare Massinger, a sculptor, board the Menelaos to cruise around the Greek Islands in the company of an assorted group of fellow passengers. The two of most interest are a pair of middle-aged sisters, one of whom is Melissa, a wealthy and glamorous widow, and the other a frustrated academic (Ianthe) recovering from a nervous breakdown.

447a5923b4b047fca5a624e0f32b639fOne of the other passengers is a teenage girl who attended the girls’ school where the bitter academic had taught until her breakdown; Faith and her brother are eager to snap at the heels of the former schoolteacher, who is withdrawn and unpleasant. Also in conflict with Ianthe is the scholar Jeremy Street, who is leading the “Greek history” part of the tour aboard the Menelaos; Ianthe’s last rational act before her breakdown appears to have been to publish a scathing review of Street’s scholarship.

UnknownBut it’s not teenage Faith who aroused my dislike; it’s another fellow passenger who is very little seen in the book but leaves an indelible impression. Little Primrose Chalmers, aged about nine, is the child of two psychoanalysts and her hobby appears to be spying on her fellow passengers and writing things down in a notebook. This unpleasant child contradicts her elders, doesn’t appear to realize when people don’t want her around, and appears to regard her fellow passengers as analytic subjects rather than adults to whom one should be respectful. Things build rapidly to a head and one afternoon, after a shore excursion during which Ianthe disappears, missing and presumed dead, Primrose is found face-down in the swimming pool and her notebook is missing. Apparently she saw or heard the wrong thing at the wrong time.

tumblr_lhm2a4iPD31qd7ygho1_1280Just imagining what it must be like to be trapped on a cruise ship with a child spying on you — let alone under circumstances productive of sexual dalliance, over-indulgence in food and drink, bitter arguments with persons on board from one’s past, and scholarly infighting — it all sounds very unpleasant to me. I’m not suggesting that Primrose deserved to be killed, that’s not fair to say at all about a child, but … how shall I put this? … the experienced mystery reader is not truly surprised.

517AXFNBzAL.SX316.SY316For the most part, this is really more a character study than anything else. Blake does a wonderful job of making us see bitter Ianthe and her less than virtuous sister Melissa, the pouty teenage Faith, the pompous but wounded Jeremy Street, and even the minor characters like a Bishop and his wife whom Nigel befriends, and the Greek cruise director, the greasy and highly-sexed Nikolaides. As you reach the conclusion of the book you will realize that you have actually been fooled by a complex and very deliberate plot, and that you have been given a large number of clues as to what actually happened — and you’ve overlooked or misinterpreted most of them.

My blogfriend, the percipient Kate Jackson, looked at this book last year with her usual acuity, and I do think her opinions and mine coincide for the most part. She made a good comparison of the central plot device here to certain of the works of Agatha Christie, and I agree. However, I think there’s even a stronger parallel in a novel of Christianna Brand’s from 1955 (don’t look up this piece by blogfriend Dan at The Reader Is Warned unless you are prepared to have some enjoyment spoiled of both this book and the Brand one).

51Mbiq780FL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_What I enjoyed most about The Widow’s Cruise was the quality of the writing, which is head and shoulders above Blake’s contemporaries. The prose is elegant and intelligent, the plot is tidy and masterful, and the characterization, as I said, is the strongest point. Just a pleasure to read something this well-written, where intelligence leaks through the pores, as it were. I’m prepared to sacrifice a couple of Primroses for a book this smart and engaging.

4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7cAnd so I turn from a child who was a victim to a child who ought to have been a victim, as I mentioned yesterday. Grey Mask, a 1929 novel by Patricia Wentworth, is the earliest of my four encounters with the under-21 set and the very first in the long series of novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a private investigator.

I’ve had quite a bit to say over the last few years about the work of Patricia Wentworth; The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944); The Dower House Mystery (1925) (a non-Miss Silver mystery); Poison in the Pen (1954); and a long piece about Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949) that contains quite a bit of general observation about her entire oeuvre. I’m thinking of another more major piece in the future (in that regard, does anyone know why you would want to poison an innocent caterpillar?) but in the meantime it’s been pleasant to dip into the many mysteries she currently has available thanks to e-books. I’ll let those other pieces speak for themselves, if I may.

6a00d834515bbc69e2019101ea6a4f970c-600wiHowever, this is Miss Silver’s first outing, and honestly I suspect it was nearly her last. It took nearly ten years for the author to create a second Miss Silver novel and there were well more than a dozen non-series novels in the interval. I think it’s clear that Miss Silver got re-worked a little bit in the interval. She’s more aggressive here, less self-effacing, and, if you’ll pardon a more modern metaphor for this antique character, she’s more in your face. It’s the only book in the entire series where Miss Silver is heard to speak using contractions.

51B6LNvU-FLGrey Mask comes from a more antique tradition, and one that will not be well known nearly a century later. Essentially this comes from a style of novel that asks the reader to believe that (a) there is a secret society devoted to a large-scale cause, usually political, personal, or financial gain; (b) the people involved in this secret society wear masks at their meetings so that they won’t recognize each other if they meet mask-less; and (c) innocent and brave young people, frequently with troubled romantic lives, are constantly getting mixed up with these societies and bringing them to an unpleasant end. Indeed, you may have already read one of these (Agatha Christie’s 1929 novel, The Seven Dials Mystery) or seen this repetitive element used in film or television (for instance, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut and a vast array of direct-to-video gialli about witchcraft and female frontal nudity).

9781453223628-book-coverSo in 1929, when this was written, I suspect it may have been about the final point in time in which the reader was meant to take this seriously. This book, like all such books, chronicles the involvement of an innocent young person with the masked secret society; the innocent person decides that s/he is going to find out just what’s going on and do the job that the police cannot. Here it is Charles Moray, who four years ago had his engagement broken by the beautiful Margaret Langton. He travels the world, trying to forget (yes, the book is pretty much at this level of cliche) and upon his return he finds out that Margaret is a member of a masked secret society that is … blackmailing people? It’s not absolutely clear. But any clandestine meeting of people where everyone gets a mask and a number has got to be more than vaguely criminal. So Charles decides to take on Grey Mask, the leader of the group, and win back Margaret.

Wentworth_Patricia_Grey_Mask2Meanwhile, and this is what brought this so unfavourably to my attention, a new character arrives. Margot Standing is approximately 18 years old, fresh from a European finishing school, and the beautiful blonde daughter and heir of a wealthy shipping magnate who was recently lost at sea.  There’s a lot of money at stake and Grey Mask has his/her eyes on controlling Margot’s inheritance, so plans begin to take shape.

But Margot — oh, my, Margot. Oh, my. Apparently she’s been living in an extremely limited environment for the past decade or so, possibly one for the mentally challenged. She acts like an unsophisticated girl of about 12; she is credulous, pleasure-seeking, slightly rebellious, lazy, and oh, so stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Walking-into-traffic stupid. One of the first things she does is reply to a want-ad that is clearly designed to lure girls into the white slave traffic . She has no sense of self-preservation and apparently no sense that anyone would want to injure or inconvenience her. Why? Well, mostly because …

“A glance in the mirror never failed to have a cheering effect. It is very difficult to go on being unhappy when you can see that you have a skin of milk and roses, golden brown hair with a natural wave, and eyes that are much larger and bluer than those of any other girl you know. Margot Standing’s eyes really were rather remarkable. They were of a very pale blue, and if they had not been surrounded by ridiculously long black lashes, they might have spoilt her looks; as it was the contrast of dark lashes and pale bright eyes gave her prettiness a touch of exotic beauty. She was of middle height, with a pretty, rather plump figure, and a trick of falling from one graceful pose into another.”

What happens is that every single eligible male and a few who aren’t fall immediately in love with her, and wealthy aristocrats are competing for the right to buy her dinner and listen to her burble about whatever is on what passes for her mind.

9780446301350So that’s half the plot right there; Margot charms everyone. The remainder consists of Margot doing things that are unimaginably stupid and to the immediate benefit of Grey Mask and the group of conspirators, and then Margaret and Charles quite obviously falling in love all over again (but first, of course, he has to find out why she jilted him). And there’s a small percentage about Miss Silver acting rather in the role of private investigator Paul Drake from the Perry Mason series, whose job it is to pop up every now and then and provide information about who lives where and what they did last night. Miss Silver actually does save the day at the end, after some moderately surprising plot developments, and rescues Margaret and Charles from their imprisonment in a soundproof cellar. You will not be surprised to know that Grey Mask is someone who has not previously given any signs of the ability to be the mastermind of a powerful criminal organization — and has been fooling everyone for years.

51XlQmHKasL.SX160.SY160I suppose for me Margot was the sticking point. Frankly, if you have a plot that allows you the freedom to have just about anyone — passers-by, delivery boys, taxi drivers, waiters — be in the pay of your secret society, you don’t need the active cooperation of your victim in walking directly into every trap in sight. Similarly if you’re trying to keep Margot disguised and out of the hands of the secret society, it doesn’t help that she lets her secret slip to every man who talks to her politely for five minutes. She is a fifth wheel in the budding re-romance of Margaret and Charles, she eats all Margaret’s food and can’t afford to replace it, and is constantly gushing about how fabulous all the men in sight are and whether they are romantically interested in her. In later decades and milieux she might have found herself a preppy, bon chic bon genre, or a Sloane Ranger. But in this volume she’s a pompous little Valley Girl before her time. It’s unpleasant to consider that a wealthy man would have left his daughter so completely unequipped to meet the exigencies of modern life; her idea of work is apparently asking her father’s lawyer to give her money.  And I rather think this is the kind of person the Communists wanted to stand up against a wall and shoot; I’m somewhat more sympathetic now.

29010So Margot is carrying the weight of the plot and just cannot stand up to it. If you find yourself unable to countenance Margot, as I was unable, then you will not enjoy this book very much since it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen from the outset. The day will indeed be saved, the lovers will reunite, and the villain will be killed while trying to escape. I did have a moment’s pleasure thinking of what Miss Silver might have made of this lazy nitwit as a governess but I think Miss Silver would have more sense than to waste her effort. There is not much here but the bare bones of what Miss Silver would become in the future; she’s the only person in the book I wanted more from.

EUni12TPatricia Wentworth made the error of introducing repellent children at least once more; Vanishing Point, from 1953, features a young girl who is simultaneously an invalid and a plucky young thing with dreams of becoming an author. The result may leave the reader needing insulin because of a sugar overdose. But I haven’t heard anything from most of my regular commenters about other awful children in detective fiction. Does no one remember the xiphopagous twins from Ellery Queen‘s The Siamese Twin Mystery? The impossibly perfect offspring of Lieutenant Mendoza in the works of Dell Shannon? Horrible little Billy and Jackie from Queen’s The Tragedy of Y? Agatha Christie is full of them: the Girl-Guide-aged taxi dancer in Christie’s The Body in the Library, or Hallowe’en Party, with two repellent little girls (one sweet, one sour); the little ballerina in Crooked House, or the pudgy and unpleasant victim in Dead Man’s Folly; Pippa Hailsham-Brown from Spider’s Web or Linda Marshall from Evil Under The Sun. That creepy little group in Margery Allingham‘s The Mind Readers; brats in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s TCOT Empty Tin, Deadly Toy and Spurious Spinster — and that’s just with thinking about it for ten minutes.  There’s possibly a long series here!!

 

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 4)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Ellery Queen

Introduction

As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China. Part 3 was devoted to the Typhoid Mary of Cabot Cove, Jessica Fletcher.

Today’s effort is devoted to Ellery Queen, a detective about whom I’ve had a lot to say in the past. So much so that in fact The Tuesday Night Bloggers spent November, 2015 talking about him, and I had a lot to say. If you’re interested in what I had to say about some interesting editions, Ellery Queen and broad brand and continuation works, my five  most/least favourite novels, some novels that I distinguish for reasons that are not the usual ones, or a bunch (1), (2), (3), (4) of individual novels, follow the links in this sentence. If you want the general background, there’s an excellent and very detailed Wikipedia article at this link. And here, as previously, I will refer to the fictional character as Ellery Queen and to the two cousins who created the character as EQ.

img_42-04-09-ellery-queen-spot-adMy topic today is Ellery Queen, the Great Detective. I’m pretty sure this is the only topic I selected for this month’s posts with the Tuesday Night Bloggers that may actually be in the book of Great Detectives that inspired us … According to Anthony Boucher, “Ellery Queen IS the American detective story.” You will find a very complete explanation of everything that anyone would ever want to know about any aspect of EQ and Ellery Queen, at Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, an example of web-based writing excellence. (Devote a few hours some day to reading it through; it’s an immense treasure trove of information.) Here’s my take why Ellery Queen is a great detective.

51sHSxFJv2L.SX316.SY316Ellery Queen was created in 1929 for EQ’s entry into a literary contest and attained publication in 1929. That means, in literary terms, that The Roman Hat Mystery was coming into existence at the same time that S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries were massively dominating the North American literary market. The Benson Murder Case is from 1926, The ‘Canary’ Murder Case from 1927, The Greene Murder Case from 1928 and The Bishop Murder Case from 1929. It’s also perhaps important to remember that the first two films based on the Van Dine novels came to the screen in 1929 with William Powell as Philo Vance; The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case. And they were a big hit — by all reports I can find, the first three Philo Vance novels outsold any other detective fiction by a huge margin in 1926-1928.  It’s hard to assess at this great distance exactly how big a hit, and how environment-forming they would have been for the EQ cousins, but it seems clear that Ellery Queen was pretty much based on Philo Vance.

MV5BNjczNzQ0Njc1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I think that makes sense in the context. It’s easy to understand how the marketplace responds to a huge cultural game-changer. At that point in the history of detective fiction in the U.S., there hadn’t really been a male writer who had such a disproportionate effect on the marketplace. Van Dine became a kind of literary superstar who was guaranteed to sell; if you wanted your detective creation to sell, you might do worse than model him on the latest superstar.

The Egyptian Cross MysteryAnd so Ellery Queen was the protagonist of his first nine mysteries between 1929 and 1935. Each book starred Ellery Queen and was published as by Ellery Queen. Each title fit a specific format: The X Y Mystery, where X is a nationality (Egyptian, Siamese, Spanish) and Y is a concrete noun (Hat, Coffin, Orange). I won’t go into this in great depth, because I’ve had a lot to say about it in reviews of specific books, but these nine books were a huge game-changer in detective fiction. They presented difficult plots whose hallmarks were strongly logical problems set against a backdrop of a baffling murder. And they showcased Ellery Queen as the brilliant amateur who solved them. The EQ cousins immediately took a huge presence in the marketplace, buoyed by their talent for self-promotion, and all of a sudden there were two different sources of Golden Age detection; the UK and the US.

Ellery’s personality here is, as I noted, pretty much based on Philo Vance. That means, to quote Van Dine himself from Benson:

He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob.

But there is a humanity in the young Ellery that is entirely missing from the pompous dandy of the early Philo Vance. In Greek Coffin, he is brash and overconfident, and has a dramatic public failure; it’s as a result of this that he swears never to reveal his thinking during a case until he is completely certain he’s solved it.  Now, I have to admit, from the point of view of the construction of a detective fiction plot, that’s really very convenient.  If the writers can keep the tension mounting until it’s time for Ellery to Reveal Everything, then it makes for a much more readable book. The sensible part of me wants detectives to share their thought processes as they move along, partly because, you know, what if they get hit by the proverbial bus, and partly because it makes it easier to solve for lazy me ;-). But from EQ’s perspective it’s a good choice.

29b_DoubleI think this earliest Ellery is the one that forms the basis for much of what we see as time moves forward in the EQ oeuvre. Later on in the Wrightsville era, Ellery has emotions and he takes considerably more interest in the emotional situation of his suspects; he occasionally begins to fall in love with them (Double, Double, Paula Paris, Calamity Town, and the character in an [unspoilered] early novel who ridiculously becomes radio-based love interest Nikki Porter in the closing paragraphs).  Sometimes he dislikes them (The Origin of Evil, for instance). Sometimes they pretty much bore him except for the logical problems with which they present him (The Finishing Stroke).

31e_kingIn what I think of as the “Hollywood period”, when EQ were trying to sell scripts to the movies, Ellery’s personality becomes plastic and malleable — anything he’s needed to be or do, he’ll be or do, because the cousins’ primary focus is hitting it big as scriptwriters. But then there’s a long period in which Ellery has just almost no personality at all. The astonishing events at the end of The King Is Dead, for instance, just seem to roll off his back without much comment or interest. In the last few books, after a long period of his having been ghosted by other authors, it’s hard to say if Ellery is even interested in what’s going on around him on any level at all. The events of A Fine and Private Place are apparently so uninteresting that he can’t be bothered to do anything about solving the mystery, like search for evidence which is there to be found.

Moran_EQMM-Cover-Fall-1941I suspect that in the post-Wrightsville period, the EQ cousins could legitimately assume that everyone who wanted to read about Ellery’s adventures already knew as much about him as they needed to know. The radio show, nine or ten films, the Ellery Queen name on the masthead of EQMM, even the later television series saw to that. He’s a detective, he’s brainy, his father is a police officer and he solves crimes.  He didn’t really need to have emotions — at one point in the Wrightsville/Hollywood period, he actually is so upset that he wants to quit being a detective, and heaven knows that would have been disastrous to the series. So after a certain point he simply stopped having them.

But what kind of Great Detective is Ellery Queen?  In my view, there are a few basic kinds of cases that seem to suit him best (or, of course, actually suit the cousins who constructed the character and the stories).

  1. face-to-face-paperbackEllery is possibly best known for solving “dying clue” mysteries; at least, it’s a regular feature of many EQ short stories and at least two good novels (The Scarlet Letters and Face to Face). In the “dying clue” format, a murder victim has just enough time and consciousness left to leave some sort of cryptic reference to his/her killer. When Ellery realizes the real meaning behind the clue, and that it can only refer to one person (because dying people are apparently preternaturally intelligent about that sort of thing, considering and rejecting all kinds of possible dying clues — cf. The Last Woman In His Life) the story is over. So if the reader gets to the clue’s meaning before Ellery does, the story is solved.
  2. There’s a format that appears to be restricted to the short story form that is similar to the dying clue style, in which Ellery is confronted with a situation in which either A, B, or C commits the murder. Ellery must identify the one-and-only-one killer by observing or deducing that only one of the three individuals is not ruled out and thus is the only possible candidate.  (Only suspect A is tall enough to have seen something from the window and thus is the killer.)
  3. Dutch Shoe Mystery1There was a style in Ellery’s earliest days that seemed to vanish later in his career, possibly because they were very difficult plots to construct.  That’s what I think of as the “long, long logical chain” story, like Greek Coffin or Dutch Shoe or Halfway House, in which Ellery (for instance) makes a series of interdependent deductions about the murderer based upon one or two tiny clues.  So from the evidence of a broken shoelace and a few dents in some linoleum, Ellery deduces a hidden relationship between two people and solves the entire murder. These are very satisfying structures for those of us who enjoy this sort of mental exercise, but I bet they didn’t find much favour with the less logical reader.
  4. EQ-OriginPB2There’s a well-known Ellery Queen style of case that I’ll call the ABC format — perhaps best exemplified by The Finishing Stroke and Cat of Many Tails, and not as pleasantly in books like The Origin of Evil and Ten Days’ Wonder. We know that the crimes are linked because something is found upon the murder scene that links them (in The Finishing Stroke, a series of little index cards with weird notations), or there is a device that appears to indicate that the victims are selected merely because of, say, their occupation (Double, Double). Is it a demented serial killer or is someone merely trying to mislead the police and conceal a single crime with a group of others? Ellery figures out the meaning of the way in which the victims are linked and solves the case.
  5. the-greek-coffin-mystery-1960-illus-james-meese-1In closing, perhaps the best-known story format with which Ellery Queen is linked is “the false solution, then the true”. Ellery’s skills seem uniquely suited to cases in which a lesser mind might find a chain of logic that leads to the incorrect killer, but there’s just that one little niggling bit of evidence that doesn’t fit … So first Ellery solves the crime, sometimes in a way to which the reader has been led down a tempting garden path, and then he solves it again correctly the second time and we have a dramatic finish. I think the best example of this is Greek Coffin but really this pattern repeats throughout Ellery’s long career.  Sometimes Ellery merely pretends to solve the case in order to lure the real murderer into making an error (Greek Coffin); sometimes it’s that the wrong solution is easier to pin on an unpleasant person and the correct solution would place the guilt on the shoulders of someone “nice” (at least two novels I can think of, but they’d be spoiled for you so I won’t name them). One of my favourite cases of Ellery’s involves a situation where the false solution, then the true, both point to the same person for different reasons; another is where Ellery persuades everyone to accept the false solution because the truth would ruin someone’s life (and the crime was actually an accident).

hutton-wayneTo sum up — I think if you stood on a street corner and asked passers-by to name a famous male detective, of course you’d get a huge response for Sherlock Holmes. But I think primus inter pares for the remainder of male literary detectives would be Ellery Queen.  The character’s enormous and vastly widespread penetration into every area of the fictional sphere — movies, TV, books, games, radio programmes, jigsaw puzzles, computer games, postage stamps, comic books — has lasted since 1929. It’s a little sad that the EQ estate hasn’t licensed any continuation activities (especially since the cousins were so keen to rent out the Ellery Queen name during their lifetime — the list of ghosted books is a long one) but I think there’s just enough life left in this Great Detective to take him into the 21st century and beyond.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 3)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesThe Great Detectives: Jessica Fletcher

Introduction

As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China.

angela-lansbury-murder-she-wroteToday’s contribution is a character whom some of my regular readers may disparage as being artificial, or cardboard, or merely entirely implausible — Jessica Fletcher, a widowed mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine, portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who starred in 264 episodes of a television programme called Murder, She Wrote between 1984 and 1996.  Between 1997 and 2003 there were four made-for-TV movies; between 1989 and 2018, there have been approximately 48 spin-off novels as by, for the most part, “Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain”. (The “approximately” is because Gin and Daggers was released twice, in two editions, in 1989 and 2000; the second edition corrected errors in continuity with the TV series, such as Jessica being unable to drive a car.)

Murder, She Wrote, Prescription for MurderNow, say what you will about her believability as a character, or the astonishingly high murder rate of Cabot Cove — 264 hours of network TV plus 8 hours of movies plus 48 novels, all of which were published after the TV series went off the air and continued for thirty years afterwards, adds up to a durable character who has a great big fan following. The TV series has never been out of syndication since it went off the air, to my knowledge, and has been released on home video in its entirety. Think about it for a minute. It’s extremely unusual to have 48 spin-off novels published after a TV show goes off the air, let alone have them published in hardcover first editions; very few other television programmes have ever managed to sustain the public’s interest for nearly 30 years after going off the air. Only Star Trek and Doctor Who even come close to surpassing Murder, She Wrote’s scale of market penetration.

Why is Jessica Fletcher such a great detective?

1395591810-0To be honest, as she’s presented in the TV programme, Jessica is not such a great Great Detective. She has the knack of being at the right place at the right time, and she certainly is a person who notices small things in her environment and remembers them at the right time to put two and two together. By and large, though, quite a few of her cases are not solved by methods that would be approved by, say, Ellery Queen.

Elman_Jessica-Fletcher-Still-with-FlashlightFor instance, a favourite method of bringing Jessica to the mystery’s solution was to have her realize that the murderer had mentioned something that meant that s/he had to be at the scene of the crime, or in some way had told a lie about his/her whereabouts at the time of the murder.  Yes, that takes a little deductive reasoning, but really it just means Jessica was up against a stupid murderer.  Another method that found frequent approval with the screenwriters was Jessica collaborating with the police to set a trap for the murderer because they didn’t have enough evidence to convict the killer and needed a lot of self-incrimination. Sometimes the trap is based on fake evidence. That’s not the standard of detection that made Ellery famous.

linklev_6351

Richard Levinson (left) and William Link

But for every one of those half-hearted endings, there was another episode that would possibly surprise an experienced mystery reader with its cleverness.  The series was, after all, created by Richard Levinson and William Link (and Peter Fischer) — Levinson and Link created the mystery series Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, and Blacke’s Magic. The writing partnership received the Ellery Queen Award (for outstanding mystery-writing teams) in 1989.  And one of their scripts for a stand-alone made-for-TV movie, the great Rehearsal for Murder, won the Edgar Award in 1983.

Jessica.Fletcher.phoneSo you might not be surprised to know that there’s a clever locked-room mystery as the basis of a Season 1 episode (We’re Off To Kill the Wizard), or that M,SW viewers regularly pronounced themselves baffled until Jessica told them whodunit at about minute 54 of every episode. By and large, the scripts have intelligence and contain interesting puzzles. Levinson & Link’s involvement with the series dwindled as time went on and the puzzles got less difficult, but in the early years even John Dickson Carr aficionados may find themselves challenged by a few of the scripts.

UnknownWhere they generally fall down is plausibility. We’ve all chuckled at the huge murder rate in tiny Cabot Cove, where accepting a dinner invitation from Jessica was tantamount to either suicide or a life sentence for murder. Certainly mystery writers have to go around the world to promote their books, especially for someone like Jessica Fletcher whose books are regularly made into movies (see season 1’s Hooray for Homicide, where Jessica is suspected of killing a producer who turned her first mystery into a B-grade horror movie). But everywhere she goes, from Saskatchewan (Showdown in Saskatchewan, season 4) to Moscow (From Russia With Blood, season 5) to cyberspace (A Virtual Murder, season 10) Jessica’s presence is like the kiss of death for someone. At least 264 someones, making Jessica Fletcher the Angel of Death around the world.

murder-she-wrote-season-1-16-tough-guys-dont-die-harry-mcgraw-jessica-fletcher-jerry-orbach-angela-lansbury-review-episode-guide-list

Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach)

Frankly, the producers of M,SW experimented with the format of the programme in a way that would likely have killed any other series.  Beginning in season 6, Lansbury needed a respite from the onerous production schedule of 22 episodes a year, and the scripts began featuring guest stars leading stories without Jessica involved, except in introductory and closing “bumpers”. (For instance, The Grand Old Lady from season 6 repurposed an unused script from Ellery Queen and featured the detecting skills of a young American reporter who looked and acted a lot like Ellery Queen.) A few of these guest detectives were popular with the viewers; Keith Michell as roguish insurance investigator Dennis Stanton was nearly spun off into his own series, and Jerry Orbach as seedy private eye Harry McGraw actually made 16 episodes of the short-lived spin-off The Law and Harry McGraw in 1987-1988. Jessica did a crossover episode with Magnum P.I. and occasionally did a two-part episode, but for the most part the series stayed comfortably and safely within the 60-minute format, and you could just about set your watch by the discovery of the body and the revelation of the murder in each episode.

hqdefaultPossibly in order to bring some freshness to the work for Angela Lansbury, within the boundaries of the series she played a hard-drinking cousin of Jessica’s with an English accent a couple of times; occasionally the mystery plots were more focused on espionage and international plots, and travel to exotic locations like Hong Kong and Italy was a feature of the last few seasons.

Moran_MSW-CastThe producers later stopped the guest star policy but it seemed evident (to me at least) that Lansbury’s heart wasn’t in the work any more and the final few seasons were desultory. The last years’ scripts had many examples where Jessica was certainly there, but not really necessary to solve the mystery; either that or the reason for her being on the scene was so specious as to be entirely beyond belief.  She actually solved one mystery over the phone. Jessica’s friends relatives (especially the repeating character of her nephew Grady) occasionally took up the slack of detection and let Jessica mostly relax and be an armchair detective.

What was responsible for her popularity?

Jessica_FletcherIt’s safe to say that one of the reasons why Jessica Fletcher attained such great durability is that the series was originally designed to appeal to middle-aged TV viewers. That age group was not well-served by appropriate entertainment in the 1980s and have become even less interesting to television producers in the intervening years. But with Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged lady who wasn’t afraid to get her hands bloody investigating a murder, the older viewer found a comfortable home.  Jessica radiated confidence and was always at home in a variety of situations; when she found herself dealing with something new, like virtual reality headsets or switching from a typewriter to computer to write her books, she waded in and got the job done.

23567323929_3b00f166c6_b

Adrienne Barbeau (left) played Maude’s daughter Carol on the sitcom Maude (1972-1978)

Another often cited-reason for Jessica’s popularity is that, especially in the early years, the producers very wisely filled the episodes with guest stars who were familiar to the viewer from other TV and movie appearances, but not huge stars — what one reviewer called the “Love Boat” gambit.  In my house when M,SW was on, the TV room was a hubbub as my family tried to identify exactly where they’d seen the actors before.  “That’s the guy from …” or, “Didn’t she play the X on such-and-such?” There’s a huge list on Wikipedia of M,SW guest stars found here, which included 13 Oscar winners. But many of the guest stars were actors whose careers were declining and who were used more for their nostalgic references than their acting abilities.

0*mDh9v8IaEmifBNdqThe first-rate second-rate guest stars provided a kind of mental anchoring for the audience; a kind of familiarity that let people know that, yes, it might be a story about murder but you know that it’s just light-hearted fun, because gee, that guy was one of the Brady Bunch, wasn’t he? As a general rule, the more famous the actor the less likely it was that their appearance would see them revealed as a victim or a murderer; they would generally manage to keep their reputations unsullied. Some actors appeared more than once in different roles, and some apparently relished the chance to play the killer. Here’s your trivia question — which actor/actress who was the title character in a different detective series appeared three times on Murder, She Wrote and played the killer twice? (Feel free to answer in the comments.)

ddf757ad0e42f70deb47fa8cefce6c4c--angela-lansbury-season-

Nearly every episode ended with Jessica’s laughter.

Ultimately, though, it was all about Angela Lansbury. She seems to have struck a chord with the audience, male and female, who apparently found her overwhelmingly upright morality attractive. Lansbury, of course, can really act — by the end of the series, she probably could have done scenes in her sleep, but she managed to bring talent if not huge energy to even the most desultory of scripts. When she stopped doing the character, it never recovered.

af18bb24a431a4c418ff6f0a4365a690Whatever the reason for her continued popularity, it’s quite an achievement that Jessica Fletcher’s brand has extended to the present day. I don’t think there’s an enormous presence to Jessica Fletcher, but in this day of reboots and remakes, I think it’s interesting that no one has floated the idea of bringing back Jessica as, say, a much younger woman, or a woman of colour, or even just another middle-aged actress whose career is fading and who could use a comfortable niche on the TV schedule. The books are still going strong, mostly due to library sales, and I think they will continue to do so … whether we ever see Jessica Fletcher on screen again is another matter. I’d certainly watch a reboot.

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 2)

The Great Detectives: Two court officials

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby and Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-djieh

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesIntroduction

I’ve summarized the reason for my series of posts in part 1, found here: a group of GAD bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detective and I’ve taken on a full slate of ten detectives.  Well, when you read a lot, you have a lot of favourites; it was hellish to keep it to ten, and in the process of negotiating who got to write about whom, I had to relinquish the opportunity to blether on about, for instance, Miss Maud Silver.  (But I know my friend Moira will do a great job.)  The latest roundup of links to other bloggers’ work is found here — I will update this as I get more information.

My own Part 1 was about Perry Mason and the detective firm of Cool & Lam, both the product of the hardworking and enormously productive Erle Stanley Gardner (known here as ESG). In fact Gardner wrote about many, many series detectives and I number more than three among my favourites: for instance I talked here about Gramps Wiggins, whom I’m sorry to say was seen in only two novels. If I’m going to get ten detectives into four Tuesdays, though, I’m going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone; and so today, courtesy of the recent four-day weekend and some extra writing time, is my second look at two Great Detectives. My third favourite is District Attorney Doug Selby, about whom I get to write today, and I’ll also add a little appreciation of Dee Jen-djieh, a detective of 7th century China, whose detective stories were written by expert Sinologist Robert van Gulik.

Believe me, I feel kind of silly in linking ESG’s Doug Selby, who worked in 1940s California, with Judge Dee, who worked in the mid- to late 600s in China. Their participation in their own court systems is what links them tenuously together, but truly they have virtually nothing in common — except that the books in which they feature are very good and worth your time.

District Attorney Doug Selby

9781671002630-ukRecently I wrote about two of ESG’s series detectives; Perry Mason, the defence lawyer, and Cool & Lam, the private investigators. The third face of the triangle of judicial attention to murder cases is the state prosecutor, and that role is best filled by Doug Selby. It’s interesting to note that Perry Mason has PIs (Paul Drake) and prosecutors (Hamilton Burger) with whom to contend, and Cool & Lam are pestered by prosecutors and lawyers — each series tells a murder story from a different point of view.

51AK97dcFUL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_But where we know virtually nothing about Perry Mason as a person, Doug Selby is a fully realized person and his personal life is centre stage in the nine volumes about him. As the series begins, with 1937’s The D.A. Calls It Murder, Selby and his associate Rex Brandon have just won election as District Attorney and Sheriff respectively in “Madison City”, California — based on the actual city of Ventura, but in those days a more rural location — on a “reform” ticket, defeating a corrupt administration. The crooked politicians are constantly maneuvering against Selby and frequently do so through their newspaper, the Blade; Selby was supported by the Clarion and works with Sylvia Martin, the local reporter, to get his story told against the Blade‘s propaganda efforts. Selby is somewhat linked to Martin romantically, but also there’s a doomed love story when, in the second volume, Selby convicts a young hell raiser in the Stapleton family and ruins them socially. Beautiful Inez, the criminal’s sister, goes off and becomes a lawyer herself in order to make Selby respect her, and this highly-charged love triangle has echoes throughout all the volumes.

25236894Another fascinating character in the series is Alphonse Baker Carr, sleazy criminal lawyer. “A.B.C.” is Selby’s arch-enemy and rather like the anti-Perry Mason, and there’s a long storyline with A.B.C. that echoes through the final seven books of the nine. Essentially the Blade is out to get Selby and force him to resign, so that the corrupt politicians can take power again. They dog his footsteps and expose what they perceive to be his weaknesses; meanwhile, A.B.C., on the side of his criminal clients, throws up obstacles on the other side of his cases.

d-a-goes-to-trial-pb-407-erle-stanley-gardner-6th-prt-1949-646197f534cefca83504e68a746713ccIn the meantime, Selby and Rex Brandon, straightforward and good-natured sheriff, fight their way through unusual cases and apply old-fashioned police methods to new-fangled cases. Selby is a great character, perhaps one of ESG’s greatest successes. He’s fallible but excellent; as a mystery writer of my acquaintance once observed, the kind of person whom I’d like to have investigate my own murder. He seems very moral and upright but also very human, and finds the constant onslaught of abuse from the Blade hard to take. But his observational skills as a detective are excellent; he rather combines the functions of Paul Drake, who digs up the clues, and Perry Mason, who interprets them and forces the legal system to accept his view of them. I looked at volume #8, 1948’s The D.A. Takes A Chance, here — I recommend you read all nine in order, because the story builds to an elegant and dramatic conclusion in volume #9.

v1.bTsxMTU5NjUxNDtqOzE3NzI5OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQThere was a single made-for-TV movie in 1970, They Call It Murder, based on book #3, The D.A. Draws a Circle. It starred Jim Hutton as Doug Selby; Hutton later went on to play Ellery Queen in the eponymous TV series. They Call It Murder is … okay, but uninspired. But the books are great work.

Dee Jen-djieh

Judge Di (c. 630 - c. 700) of the T'ang court

Judge Di (c. 630 – c. 700) of the T’ang court

First of all — let’s get the spelling right. Robert van Gulik wrote before the introduction of a standardized orthography for representing Chinese in English, and his Dee (family name) Jen-djieh (personal name) would today be spelled as Ti Jen-chieh by users of the Wade-Giles script and Dí Rénjié in the most widely used system of today, Pinyin. This is important because, as some of my readers will be surprised to learn, the eminent Judge Di was a real historical person. So if you go looking for information about “Judge Dee” you’ll only be referred back to van Gulik; “Di Renjie” will get you a lot more information. (You might also look for Ti Jen-chieh and Di Renjiay.) I will call van Gulik’s character Dee and the historical personage Di.

810CKYghySLThe historical Di practiced as a district magistrate from 663 to 678, first under the direct rulership of members of the Tang Dynasty and later under the “monstrous” concubine, Lady Wu, who ruled “de facto or de jure” from 665 to 705. Lin Yutang remarked (in his biography of Lady Wu):

“Among the people he [Di] is more popularly known as the judge who invariably tracked down the criminal. As a judge who often went about in plain clothes to detect crime, he made the astounding record of always solving crime mysteries which had puzzled and frustrated other judges and magistrates.”

5418And so the Dutch historian van Gulik found references to Judge Di and translated a volume known loosely as Dee Goong An. This was published in English in 1949 as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and was the beginning of van Gulik’s many novels and short stories about Judge Dee, which he wrote from 1951 until 1968. van Gulik also translated and published a 13th century casebook for district magistrates, called T’ang-yin-pi-shih (Parallel Cases From Under The Pear Tree), from which he harvested many of the key elements of his Judge Dee plots.

x500So other than being a historical personage known for his detective skills, why is Judge Dee a great detective? There are a number of reasons why I enjoy his adventures very much. One is simply strangeness. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I enjoy finding out the minutiae of everyday life in 1930s England from reading Golden Age Detection novels; in the Judge Dee stories, everyday life in the second half of the 7th century in China is astonishingly different than my everyday life, and it’s fascinating to see the differences and the similarities.

ec7c898106057d3daf6082444ef5b372--deeOne thing that van Gulik found difficult was the transition between the Chinese literary tradition and the Golden Age model. In the Chinese originals, for instance, the identity, history, and motive of the criminal is stated right up front — making them all inverted detective stories instead of whodunits. The Chinese originals frequently feature supernatural elements; ghosts, visits to the Netherworld, etc., and bizarre elements like the testimony of animals and household objects. The original stories were part of a literary tradition that embraced … well, call it a “passionate interest for detail”…  and so there are many digressions, including poetry, Confucianist instruction, philosophy and religious discussions, etc. The Chinese loved novels with huge casts of related characters, and complex familial relationships; as well, they were accustomed to reading about exactly how the criminal was executed in great and gruesome detail.

x500So van Gulik had a great deal of work to do in order to re-cast his stories into a modality that would be acceptable to the Western audience. The testimony of animals and kitchen utensils is gone, as are most of the elements that we would see as digressions from the story line. Yes, there are supernatural elements in van Gulik — just as there are supernatural elements in John Dickson Carr. Judge Dee appears to believe in ghosts, but doesn’t rely on their testimony or allow them to do anything much more than guide him to places where actual evidence is found. Much of what Judge Dee does in his stories is detective work of a kind that would not be too bizarre to a modern audience. For instance, in The Chinese Bell Murders, he deduces that a student could not have strangled his mistress because his long fingernails “of the sort affected by the literary class” would have left marks on her throat that were not seen upon examination.

van Gulik artwork

A courtroom scene, illustrated by van Gulik himself. Note the flail and rod in the hands of the attendants; not just for show.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Judge Dee stories are the courtroom scenes; 7th century China had a legal system that was far, far different than our own. Judge Dee had very nearly absolute authority within his courtroom and acts as judge, jury, defence lawyer, prosecution lawyer, and weigher of evidence all at the same time. Dee was entitled to use torture in the courtroom to elicit confessions (such as in The Chinese Nail Murders) and is sometimes required to (Chinese court procedure forbade conviction without confession) but generally, in the best Perry Mason tradition, Dee relies on careful questioning and close observation of behaviour. He’s frequently solved the case himself before it comes to court, and he runs his courtroom in order to demonstrate to the populace the guilt of the villains.
And where Perry Mason has his private eye Paul Drake, Judge Dee has a small group of investigators around him who serve as his eyes and ears in levels of society where he cannot penetrate, even while disguised. Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai, and Tao Gan are all individuals with human qualities and failings, who have sexual and familial relationships, enjoy good food, and are constantly seeking adventure and excitement. Dee himself frequently disguises himself as a member of a lower class of society and goes out to investigate his cases; he’s occasionally required to demonstrate his mastery of sword-fighting and boxing.

9780226848754_p0_v1_s550x406As a person, Dee has many personal qualities that will be attractive to the modern audience. As a strict Confucian, he respects his ancestors; Dee regulates his household sternly but with both mercy and generosity. Dee has three wives, about whom we don’t learn much, although he acquires Third Wife in the course of one of the novels. We only know that he has three sons and a daughter from a casual mention in a short story. Dee’s relationships with his subordinates are correct but friendly; Dee is interested in the people around him and their lives, and interacts socially with many levels of society. And he’s what we might think of as a “good” judge; he cares strongly about finding the right answer and punishing the guilty. It’s frequently hard to figure out what’s going on in his mind, but it would be a pleasure and a privilege to sit down with him and discuss his cases.

I recommend that you experience van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories not in the order in which they were written, but such that you follow the chronology of Dee’s life as he moves upwards through the judicial ranks. You will find this chronology in Judge Dee at Work (1967) as a postscript.

image-w1280

Khigh Dheigh (left) as Judge Dee in the 1978 made-for-TV movie.

edbda5af07a0dfe4286274317c356ae7Other authors have written stories about Judge Di; Frédéric Lenormand has written at least 18 French-language stories that have yet to be translated into English, and other novelists both Chinese and non-Chinese have speculated about the character. There are (terrible) television series, and films — notably a weird 1974 made-for-TV movie called Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a sought-after collectible, but also three excellent recent Chinese-language productions produced and directed by Tsui Hark (2010, 2013 and 2018).

61HCF1BKN5L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_There are also other books about van Gulik, who was a fascinating polymath with many interests — his expertise in Chinese erotic drawings means that all the Judge Dee volumes have his drawings as part of the publication, and there’s always a nude woman depicted. I’m greatly indebted for a lot of this brief piece to a large and excellent volume by J. K. Van DoverThe Judge Dee Novels of R.H. van Gulik, where he traces the connection to
51R7JAQizoL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_various modern-day detectives in a fascinating and erudite way. It truly is everything you need to know and quite a bit more to think about, and I recommend it to your attention if you can find a copy. Any unreferenced quotes in this piece are to this book, and I’m grateful to Van Dover for organizing my thoughts quickly and easily. I’ve read other material about van Gulik, including what that brilliant Dutch mystery writer Janwillem van de Wetering had to say (Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work (1987); van de Wetering also published a volume in 1997 called Judge Dee Plays His Lute, which I have yet to read)Van Dover has everything you’ll ever want, both top-level fact and deep background, and says it all best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery movie: Alibi For Murder (1936)

Alibi For Murder

Alibi For Murder, 1936

Alibi For Murder (1936), produced by Columbia Pictures, directed by D. Ross Lederman, starring William Gargan and Marguerite Churchill, with Gene Morgan, Wade Boteler, Dwight Frye, and John Gallaudet. Written by Tom Van Dycke. Approximately 61 minutes (depending upon the print you see). Originally released September 23, 1936. Note that its working title was apparently Two Minute Alibi but I don’t believe the movie was ever released under that title.

Briefly: This film is not all that interesting, but it does have one feature that may be of interest to my readers; it attempts to bring an “impossible crime” to the screen.

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

What’s this movie about?

Alibi for Murder, 1936

Alibi For Murder, 1936 (title card)

William Gargan plays an intrepid radio reporter, Perry Travis, who is trying to get an interview with a reclusive Nobel Prize-winning scientist, John J. Foster, as he disembarks from the Hindenburg in New Jersey. Perry’s comedy-relief assistant Brainy Barker (Gene Morgan) assists him in his quest. The scientist’s beautiful secretary Lois (Marguerite Churchill) misdirects him as to Foster’s whereabouts, but Perry reads a luggage label and learns that the scientist has gone to his Long Island home. He speeds out there and bluffs his way into the front hall, but as he’s trying to get past the household to interview the scientist, a shot rings out and Dr. Foster is found dead in his library. The library door is under observation and yet no one is in the room.

Alibi for Murder, 1936

Scene in the “murder room” from Alibi for Murder, 1936

Perry reveals the murder as a scoop on the air, and he reveals (for no very good reasons) that he thinks it’s murder. There are plenty of suspects, including Foster’s wife Norma (Drue Leyton), his business manager E. J. Easton (Romaine Callender), and Mr. McBride (Dwight Frye). McBride is Foster’s assistant but his function is to be overwrought, to cast aspersions on the rest of the household and Foster’s business associates, and to reveal that the victim was not the selfless scientist everyone thought. He’s also seen very, very briefly in the victim’s office just before the household breaks in (and gets to say the classic line, “But he was dead when I got here!”).

There’s also a large subplot concerning Foster’s discoveries as they apply to munitions. All sorts of people are after Foster’s latest discovery, which has some important but unstated use in war-related chemicals. Sir Conrad Stava (Egon Brecher) (whom Lois has seen going through Foster’s desk) comes to visit Perry and Brainy and then some shots are fired through Perry’s office window. Perry finds a listening device in his office; everyone’s trying to find out how close he is to learning Foster’s final secret.

Skippy the wire-haired terrier

Skippy (aka Asta) the wire-haired terrier

When Perry heads out to Long Island, he’s just in time to rescue the butler, Lois, and Easton from a garage that is rapidly filling with deadly gas. (He’s assisted in this rescue by an uncredited dog I believe to be Skippy, the wire-haired terrier who played Asta in the first four Thin Man movies.) Later that night the detectives figure out that because of a ventilator in the garage roof, the gas victims were never in any real danger … A couple of thugs (Norman Willis and Edward McWade) promise violence to Perry and Brainy, but Perry manages to get them taken into custody by enlisting a traffic cop.

Perry convinces Lois to gather all the suspects in the victim’s library and demonstrates how the victim was killed. (Foster was killed with a silenced gun and the murderer planted a bullet cartridge in the fireplace that exploded when the room was empty.) Then Perry reveals that the killer was about to run away with Foster’s wife … the murderer then tries to escape, shoots it out with police, and dies in the process.  Perry broadcasts his latest scoop and, in the traditional romantic ending, announces that he plans to marry Lois.

Is this a good mystery movie?

You know, it’s not too bad. There are a couple of sophisticated mystery elements in this movie that are a bit above the regular run of B-movies … principally the idea that some of the suspects may have looked like they were in danger in the gas-filled garage but the detectives realize they never really were. And, of course, that the murderer plants a cartridge in the fireplace that goes off after he’s left the room. In B-movie terms, that’s quite an intellectual stretch for this film; it’s carried through properly by having Perry be seen to pick up a cartridge case by the fireplace, early in the film, and justify its presence in the blow-off finale.

Of course, there are the usual plot holes — it’s hard to tell a fast-moving story like this in a mere 61 minutes without them. But there are actually some moments of genuine deduction; for instance, around the use of a silencer. And the detective tests a hypothesis by investigating the gas-filled garage.

Who’s in this movie and in what other mysteries have I seen them?

Links to the names of individuals are to their IMDb listings.

It is somewhat distressing that most people who see this review and the movie will really only recognize Skippy the wire-haired terrier, who appears for about sixty seconds over two shots.

Dwight Frye, Alibi For Murder, 1936

Dwight Frye

A possible second-most-recognizable would be character actor Dwight Frye, who plays a small but pivotal role here — he played Renfield in Dracula (1931) and Wilmer, the gunsel, in The Maltese Falcon (1931). In terms of other period mysteries, he’s also in The Circus Queen Murder and Who Killed Gail Preston?, both of which are worth your time, and played small, often uncredited roles in a host of other A and B movies.

William Gargan, Alibi for Murder, 1936

William Gargan (not from this film)

William Gargan should be more familiar to mystery movie fans than he actually is — he did a good job playing Ellery Queen in three B movies in 1942, and the title character in television’s 1949-1951 TV series Martin Kane, Private Eye and the sequel 1957 series, The New Adventures of Martin Kane. He’s also in 1946’s Murder in the Music Hall, 1945’s Midnight Manhunt and 1942’s Who Done It? All these films would qualify for inclusion in my analysis of mystery movies and you may see me talk about them here some day.

Marguerite Churchill

Marguerite Churchill

Marguerite Churchill‘s film career seemed to sputter to a halt in 1936, three years after her marriage to actor George O’Brien — I’m not sure why. She has striking features and a great figure, and given the material, she’s quite a competent actor. Before this film, she has some excellent mystery movie credentials — she plays Sally Keating in 1936’s Murder by an Aristocrat and appears in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). I’ve talked about the “Sally Keating” character in my discussion of another early mystery movie from 1935, While The Patient Slept. Churchill is also in 1936’s The Walking Dead (a Karloff horror movie) and Dracula’s Daughter the same year, where she is seduced into vampirism by Gloria Holden.

Gene Morgan

Gene Morgan (not from this film)

Gene Morgan has a lot of uncredited roles as second banana, or worse, dating back to the silent days.  He too was in Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938), Murder in Greenwich Village (1937), and 1936’s Meet Nero Wolfe (as officer O’Grady). He’s also the lead in a piece de merde from 1932 called Tangled Destinies which is a mystery I hope to look at for you some day.

Wade Boteler

Wade Boteler

Wade Boteler doesn’t have much of a role here but you can see him in an Old Dark House classic I discussed some time agoThe Hidden Hand (1942), and lots of other uncredited appearances in mysteries like 1942’s Blue, White and Perfect and 1941’s Footsteps in the Dark. He’s definitely from the B-movie end of the spectrum but he did play Inspector Queen in 1936’s The Mandarin Mystery and Lt. Macy in Charlie Chan At The Circus (1936), and a sheriff in 1936’s The President’s Mystery. Once you get a good look at his face, you’ll recognize him in a lot of old movies, usually as a gruff cop.

Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

The director, D. Ross Lederman, was primarily a B-movie director of westerns and action movies, but he has a good few mysteries in his resume; 1936’s The Final Hour and Panic on the Air, for instance, and 1934’s The Crime of Helen Stanley. My fellow members of the excellent Facebook group Golden Age Detection will remember a reference within the last few days to my fellow GAD blogger Jamie Bernthal-Hooker’s analysis of Murder on the Second Floor by Frank Vosper; Lederman directed one of the two filmed versions of this novel, 1941’s Shadows on the Stairs.

Not With My Neck, Tom Van Dycke & Ben Kerner

Not With My Neck, Tom Van Dycke & Ben Kerner (Handi-Books #80, 1948)

And finally, the screenwriter, Tom Van Dycke, appears to have had not very much of a career in mystery novels or films.  His novel, Murder at Monte Carlo, was made into a movie of the same name from 1935, starring Errol Flynn — no, not Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, that was quite a different story and 1937 to boot. ABE doesn’t offer a copy of this book but there are a number of copies of another mystery by him — Not With My Neck (1947), which was a fairly lurid paperback from Handi-Book in 1948.

How can I see this movie myself?

I’ve been told this movie is in the public domain — I’m never sure about these things, so confirm for yourself. I bought a copy over the internet years ago for $5. These days if you want to get a copy you can do so via Amazon. Experienced film buyers will know that the usual range of crazy prices (here from about $20 to over $100) is meant for the unwary and you can probably find a copy at a much lower price if you look around.

I don’t remember ever seeing this film on television; I would start by looking at TCM and similar old-movie services to see if they offer it.

 

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr (1966)

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr

Panic in Box C, by John Dickson Carr: X1587, Berkeley Medallion (1968): First paperback edition


Panic in Box C
 (1966) is the twenty-third in a series of 24 mystery novels about Dr. Gideon Fell, by John Dickson Carr (JDC). The adventures of Dr. Fell frequently centre around locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes; this book would probably be considered an impossible crime story. It is certainly a difficult puzzle mystery and contains many elements that will be familiar to JDC’s many fans (of which group I have been a member for decades).

Previously I have discussed specific JDC books here and here and JDC in general here and here  and here.  If you do a search on my blog for John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson, his major pseudonym, you’ll also find links to other bloggers’ work about JDC and I think you’ll find them of interest.

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

What is this novel about?

The story begins on board R.M.S. Illyria heading towards New York. Philip Knox, a historian, and Dr. Gideon Fell are both embarking on separate lecture tours of the United States. They spend the first chapter introducing the reader to themselves and the next few introducing the reader to famous actress Margery Vane (who’s also entitled to be known as Lady Tiverton) and her entourage, including her handsome young boyfriend Lawrence Porter and her faithful secretary Bess Harkness. A shot rings out and misses everyone by a mile, but it amplifies the sense of imminent disaster that Carr so skilfully builds.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson Carr

A later Carroll & Graf paper edition.

Everyone ends up at a Connecticut theatre where the wealthy Vane is both establishing a theatre and endowing a company of players, at the theatre where she long ago played her first roles. Philip Knox meets his estranged wife Judy, and the two seem to have rekindled their romantic interest. Meanwhile Margery’s personal life and the personal lives of the Margery Vane players, including the hot-tempered lead, Barry Plunkett and his beautiful lead actress girlfriend, Anne Winfield, are intersecting and heating up. And people are exchanging stories about a tragedy that happened at the theatre twenty years ago.

During the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, Margery Vane is locked in Box C of the theatre alone, saying that she wants to experience the play by herself. During the performance there is the twang of a crossbow and, as will be no surprise to the experienced reader, Miss Vane is found in the locked Box C, pierced by a crossbow bolt. Below the box on the ground floor are found some valuable pieces of Vane’s jewelry wrapped up with a newspaper cutting about the recent suicide of someone who acted at the theatre back in her heyday. And across the theatre, under Box A, is a crossbow that had gone missing from the lobby.

As is also unsurprising in the genre, nearly everyone around Vane had a motive to kill her, whether financial or emotional. This includes Judy Knox, who apparently had a run-in with Margery Vane some twenty years ago and is still the object of Vane’s dislike, although no one knows (or perhaps will say) exactly why. Many of the company were on stage, or immediately off stage, at the time of the murder; seven people were in the theatre itself watching the rehearsal, and some can alibi each other, but nothing is certain.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrLawrence Porter is the obvious suspect, because just before her death Margery Vane had wanted to have him arrested for stealing her jewelry, but we soon learn that he has a cast-iron alibi — during the time when he wasn’t onstage, he was shooting craps in a back room with a couple of other actors. This leaves the detectives with no clear-cut suspect and things become more complicated when an elderly alcoholic from the earliest days of the theatre announces that he saw a masked man dressed all in black who fired the crossbow from the stage and then vanished through a concealed trap door.

Dr. Fell rumbles around asking apparently inconsequential questions, and muttering about Honus Wagner (an old-time baseball player) until, after various interviews and searches for evidence, he figures out the identity of the criminal. There is an exciting scene at the end where the murderer is killed just before a second murder can take place, in the Crazy House at the local amusement park, and then a final wrap-up scene where Dr. Fell and local policeman Lt. Spinelli explain all the loose ends.

Why is this book worth your time?

My regular readers will already know most of my answer to this question. As I’ve said about quite a few mystery writers, their work is significantly important to the mystery genre and if you wish to know how mysteries work, or what good ones look like, every single thing that authors like John Dickson Carr wrote is worth your time. You can learn more about writing from Carr’s lesser works than you can from the best offerings of lesser writers.

That being said — this one is pretty bad.

I’ve said before that many famous Golden Age writers perhaps should have stopped writing a few books before they actually did. Christie and Marsh and Queen didn’t need to burden us with their final few efforts, by and large; they’re embarrassingly poor and most GAD critics are tired of apologizing for them. (“Yes, Agatha Christie was a great, great writer and Passenger to Frankfurt is a gigantic turd. Those can both be true at the same time.”)

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrJDC’s point of no return seems to be pretty much the book immediately before this one, 1965’s The House at Satan’s Elbow. I wouldn’t now call his decline a steep one (although I have done so before, I’d like to step it back); there’s nothing so incoherent as Passenger to Frankfurt or Photo Finish or The Last Woman In His Lifefor instance. There is much that is boring but not much that is that silly.

Some time ago, I outlined the three things that a JDC novel needs to contain to be among his best work:

  1. A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario.
  2. A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions.
  3. Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom.

I think it’s accurate to say that nothing JDC wrote after 1965 manages to contain all these three things done to the best of his ability — and the present volume has almost nothing that qualifies.

#3 is almost entirely absent; in fact Carr goes out of his way to flatten or suppress elements that could give rise to that. The suicide’s face mask of his younger self? That could have been superbly creepy, but it’s entirely offstage and we are only told about it. #2 is sadly out of alignment; many of the characters are pure cardboard and many of the interesting things that they are doing, or see done, have absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the book. For instance, there’s an entire chapter that consists of almost nothing except a bunch of people bellowing the lyrics to the football-related “fight songs” of various American universities and being very rude to each other. I’ll go into this in a little detail further on.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrAs far as #1 goes, I will say that the actual puzzle structure holds together quite well; I understand how the crime was committed and I’m pretty sure it slipped right by me on my first reading of this, decades ago. There are a couple of problems with it, though, that wouldn’t be found in JDC’s work of 20 years earlier. The book would have been essentially over if Lt. Spinelli had done his damn job properly and thoroughly questioned every single person in the theatre about what they were doing, and with whom, when the crossbow twanged. Surely, SURELY the person upon whom the murderer’s alibi depends would have spoken up; I understand the reason that we’re given for that not having happened, but I don’t buy it. The pressure is just not there. When that person is nearly killed at the end of the book, they still have no idea of what it is to which they could have testified and no real pressure to say otherwise has been applied.

Another problem for me is that I’m not so intimately familiar with the words used to describe the parts of a theatre as I might be, and thus I was labouring under a misapprehension about where people were. Once you grasp where exactly everyone was, and upon what floor of the building, it’s all clearer — and it should have been much clearer to the police. At the end, when everything is being explained, much is made of the fact that a policeman executes the actions of the murderer in a mere 29 seconds.  “Aha!” I thought. “That’s a healthy active policeman, not [for instance] a middle-aged person who is constantly described as a heavy smoker.” But then I realized that although that was true, it simply didn’t matter if the actions had been performed in 29 seconds or 300; the murderer’s alibi would have been essentially unchanged.

The thought that kept occurring to me as I refreshed my memory of this book was that there were a number of things here that hearkened back to earlier JDC novels — it’s as though the writer was dragging things out of his attic to furnish a room, but nothing quite fits or is as well-made as he once thought. For instance, there’s a couple of times during the book when everything quite ridiculously grinds to a halt while JDC adds in a great bolus of historical … stuff.  When Philip Knox meets his estranged wife and seems to fall in love all over again, he expresses his sentiments by — blethering on and on about Stonewall Jackson.  In verse. It is true that Carr knew a LOT about history and his historical novels are highly regarded.  But right about now in his books, he starts packing in great wads of irrelevant historical background that do nothing for the plot except cushion it, like excelsior.

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrSimilarly there is a scene at the end set in  the Crazy House that is nowhere near as creepy as a couple of other excursions to such places in earlier Carr novels. It’s clear that he likes writing about fun fairs and amusement parks; they show up a lot in his books.  Here, it’s almost dragged in without rhyme or reason. The murderer is said to be arranging things so that lots of people are in the vicinity but that is soon demonstrated to be ridiculously impossible; the ticket-takers remember exactly who went where.  The scene has nothing connected with the Crazy House and would have been better set at the theatre, but … those settings are in another couple of JDC novels and it worked there. It just doesn’t work here.

I think the biggest problem in the book is everything that has to do with Philip Knox’s estranged wife Judy.  I’m about to give away what might be a crucial plot point here, so be warned. After Philip and Judy split up, she moved to the US and, unbeknownst to him, became a call girl to support herself for some months, then got a job and rose to the top of the magazine industry.  Both Margery Vane and Bess Harkness are aware of her past and Bess at one point starts to call her by her “working name,” Dorothy.  This is what they fought about and this is what Judy and Vane were arguing about immediately before the murder.

Now, you know, nearly everything in this plot line is just complete nonsense. Apparently Judy is worried in the present day that Philip will find out about her past — Philip doesn’t even bat an eye when he finds out. Everyone goes out of their way, officials and bystanders alike, to assure Judy that they don’t care in the slightest and that nobody will be prosecuting Judy for her crime.  (Which, frankly, is absolutely ridiculous. I’d like to see anyone brought into court on a 20-YEAR-OLD prostitution charge, even in 1965; you’d be laughed out of court.)

There’s a little bit at the end that’s very telling in this context. Judy is Telling All to Philip, and here’s what she says about how Margery Vane found out that Judy was a hooker:

“… she saw me with one of her men-friends … I don’t mean boy-friends, just another man of her acquaintance … coming out of my apartment in a place where I couldn’t have been anything except what I was. She didn’t say anything. But she made inquiries, and remembered.”

Panic in Box C, John Dickson CarrExcept — what the hell is she talking about? If there is such a “place”, it would be a bordello, and those don’t have “apartments”. Judy is apparently trying to convince us that she lived in an apartment building that was so well known for housing prostitutes that merely having an apartment in that building meant you were for hire. But in that case, what is Margery Vane doing there and why isn’t she tarred with the same brush?

No, this is just all so much nonsense, and frankly it’s mean-spirited nonsense too. No one in this case investigates Judy in the way she ought to be investigated, and it seems as though there is an unspoken consensus among Fell and the police that Judy is not the murderer and there’s no need to ask her unpleasant questions to remind her of her sordid past. In addition, much is made of the fact that Judy had quarrelled with Margery Vane on an ocean crossing 20 years ago, immediately after Judy had left Philip. And that very interesting development is dismissed in the final lines of the book: they quarrelled about “nothing at all.”

The mean-spirited part is that Carr is saying a number of things here about sex work, and none of them are very attractive. Apparently it completely ruins your life (except where it doesn’t). It is such a horrible secret that it can cause you to cover up things connected with a murder. Now, I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Carr’s forthrightness about human sexuality in books like The Judas Window, where a young woman stands up in court and says, “Yes, I let my boyfriend take nude photos of me, what’s it to you?” (Paraphrased LOL) He talked about sex in mysteries at a time when no one other than Gladys Mitchell was doing so. Here, though, there’s a certain … sniggering quality about the whole thing that is really unattractive. Perhaps it’s Carr trying to be part of the swinging 60s — perhaps it’s Carr indulging his own fantasy life. But because it’s all just nonsense, it’s clear that he put it in for reasons that weren’t connected with the mystery per se — it just doesn’t stand up. Much like he wanted to talk about the Crazy House and Stonewall Jackson, he wanted to talk about hookers, and none of it contributes anything to the novel.

The bit about Honus Wagner? That goes nowhere near that baseball player. And it’s annoying, because where it actually goes is to a person who does not actually appear in the book and who should be front and centre giving testimony.

So it’s all very sloppy work. The sloppy nature of it is exemplified by something that Carr actually seems to have forgotten until the end of the book. Dr. Fell is chaffed by someone for not having mentioned a rip in some fabric — and believe me, he should have done, it might have been an important clue. There’s another forgotten item too. Much is made of a reference to an old stage play called Sherlock Holmes, in which a specific visual device is used to make the audience think that an actor is in one place when he’s really in another. Well and good. But there’s absolutely no point in including something like that unless, in the current plot, you have someone trying to execute the same thing. Or, rather, they are — it’s just that JDC forgets to tell us that anyone was looking at the time. So that clever little reference is completely wasted and any deductions based on it become unavailable.

Oh, there’s certainly more evidence that JDC was starting to decline — honestly, it’s been depressing to even give the plot this much attention, because I keep finding holes and issues. All I can say is, it’s John Dickson Carr so it’s worth reading … just read it quickly and without too much attention to what’s going on.  Let yourself be carried away by characters and scenes that remind you of other spooky Carr excursions; “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” and you’ll be pleasantly amused.

A note on editions

Like many books dating back to the 1960s, this title was not well-served when it came to nice-looking editions. I rather like the aqua curtains and the alabaster hand wrapped with jewelry in the first US paper edition I used to prepare these comments, shown at the very top of the column.  A copy of the first US or first UK editions seems to be about US$50 as of this writing, which seems about right.  I’ve remarked before that a poor book by a good author is sometimes more difficult to obtain than a well-known title and this would be no exception. A small investment in the first US paper edition in perfect condition may pay off very well in the future for the speculative collector.

Other opinions

(Added some hours later) I carelessly forgot to include some links to material which may also interest my readers.

  • My fellow GAD blogger (and blog friend) at The Green Capsule looked at this book (here) earlier this year: the Green Capsule has set out to read his way through JDC and is doing so in a consistently interesting way.
  • My friend Patrick, in At the Scene of the Crime back in 2011, (here) says “It’s readable, but far from Carr’s best.”
  • The esteemed Marvin Lachman in Mystery*File (here), writing in 1987, is terse but highly complimentary; he thinks there is “effective use of the theatre, both its physical settings, and its lore, to add to an unusually good detective story.”
  • Esteemed mystery blogger and my friend Bev Hankins, in My Reader’s Block, looked at this book in 2011 (here), saying “The mystery is a bit of a disappointment.”