Some thoughts on Herbert Resnicow’s mysteries

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Herbert Resnicow. In no instance here do I reveal the identity of a murderer, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read Resnicow’s works, 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 his books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. (The second-last paragraph mentions the two volumes by name that I think you will enjoy the most.)

Herbert_ResnicowThe works of Herbert Resnicow have recently become available to me — okay, I opened a dusty box in “Noah’s Archives” and there they were, held firmly in place beneath the weighty output of Ruth Rendell. As is my habit, I picked one up to flip through in order to remind myself of his work, and eight books later, I thought I’d make some notes. 😉

I mention my personal process only to indicate why I’ve chosen to go against my habit. Generally when I look at an

9780380692781-usauthor, I choose a single book and examine it in depth as a way of talking about a broader view; the author’s themes or preoccupations as exemplified within the pages of one of his/her works. In the case of Resnicow, I found not that much that can be examined in depth and so I thought I’d look at everything at once to see if there was anything of interest that could be teased out with a wider viewpoint.

Resnicow’s oeuvre

Herbert Resnicow’s publication history began in 1983 with The
9780380699230-usGold Solution
, which was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel. There were four more novels in five years in the Gold series, about the adventures of a middle-aged Jewish married couple who trade barbed insults and solve crimes, rather after the model of Mr. and Mrs. North, Nick and Nora Charles, and a host of other married sleuths.

In 1985, he began a second series about a male attorney and his romantic partner, a female university dean, against a background of crossword puzzles and having crossword blanks as part of the story, to be filled in by the reader so as to provide clues to the mystery for the perspicacious.  There were five of these in two years, with the collaboration of well-known crossword compiler Henry Hook (who here has exceeded even his usual brilliance in many instances by constructing puzzles that meet the needs of the plot).

UnknownIn 1987 and 1990, Resnicow published two novels about Ed Baer and his son Warren, a financier and a philosopher respectively. The first of these was The Dead Room and I’ll suggest it’s one of his best known books: it’s the one that appears on lists of locked-room mysteries including the relevant Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of his brief career, he published five novels with famous co-authors: two with Edward Koch, and one each with Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, and Pelé. I must confess I haven’t seen these in a long time and would have been unlikely to re-read them; the celebrity names are uppermost in large type and Resnicow’s name is presented as “with”. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this “ghost-writing” if your name is actually on the book; a writer friend of mine once referred to this as “withing” and that word suits me just fine. Resnicow was a “wither” for celebrity mysteries and there are five of them.

Gold-CurseWhat you’ll find in his work

As I said, I flipped through a bunch of these in a short time, although I’ve certainly read all these volumes and more previously. I re-read all five crossword mysteries and the first two Gold volumes, and The Dead Room. My archives appear not to contain a copy of the second Baer novel, The Hot Place, and I think I shall have to remedy that; I remember it as being quite readable.

The Gold novels set the tone for much of Resnicow’s remaining work. Alexander Gold and his wife Norma are introduced to a mystery that involves some sort of impossible situation. There is a motivation supplied for the Golds to solve the mystery, either financial or in order to save someone from being unjustly convicted of the crime. And the circumstances of the crime are … well, “impossible” is perhaps more precise than I can be in these circumstances. Let’s say it usually seems as though no one could have reasonably committed the crime and then the experienced Golden Age reader will know what’s coming.

md1077001541I don’t think the “impossible crime” puzzles at the centre of these novels are as clever as others do. I have to say, though, that the critical faculties which my fellow bloggers bring to the defence of Resnicow’s abilities are sufficiently significant that I can’t ignore them, and honestly I feel a little guilty for not liking these as much as my peers. Smart and insightful people think these puzzles are clever, and all I can respond is, “didn’t seem that way to me”. I suspect my faculties have been dulled over the years by overexposure to the particular brand of cleverness that produced these plots … or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what others see. For a really detailed look at Resnicow’s career from someone who esteems him more highly than I do, I recommend my blogfriend TomCat’s 2011 opinion at Beneath the Stains of Time.

9780345322821-usIn the background of each Gold novel is some consideration having to do with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gold. Mr. and Mrs. Gold are nice. Indeed, they are what one would call “good people”; they care about each other and trade barbs and witticisms with the ease of a long relationship with strong bonds of affection (but it’s clear that either would die for the other). They take care of each other, help their friends, and are valuable and productive members of society.

And that’s kind of a problem for me. In modern genre studies there’s a concept that has arisen from the bottom up (rather than as the product of, say, academic thought that gets translated down-market to mere fans ;-)); the Mary Sue. This is seen as a common cliché of wish-fulfillment in fan fiction; an “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ensign Mary Sue, age 16, single-handedly saves the Enterprise with a bobby pin and starts dating Captain Kirk, etc. And it’s linked to the slightly more academic concept of self-insertion, whereby “a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.” The author writes him/herself in as the star of their own story; in academic terms, the character is the raisonneur. Here it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Gold is based on Resnicow himself, as is the male protagonist of the crossword novels. If you read the biographical details in TomCat’s piece linked above, I think you will be even more convinced that this is probable.

9780345327321-usI’m not saying that Resnicow does this in any way objectionably; in fact, it’s quite cute and naive. However, I think it is commonly understood that novels based on a Mary Sue protagonist are usually quite boring, and that’s certainly something to consider here. If the impossible crime is the A plot, then the B plot is — well, it’s not much of a plot of all, it’s mostly characterization. The Golds and their best friends are charming and delightful, but nothing really bad ever happens to them, and not much happens to change them or their personalities. They don’t grow, and this is a characteristic of Mary Sues. Now, fans of Nero Wolfe like myself can stand the idea of a B plot about personalities who don’t change much. But unless you are a writer of the quality of Rex Stout, the B plot tends to fade away, and that’s what I find happens here. I remember the A plots quite clearly after 20+ years, but all but the simplest recollection of the Golds’ personalities had gone.

the-dead-room1The two novels about a father-and-son amateur detective team where the father is a businessman and the son a philosopher seem to me to be Resnicow’s best work; at least, The Dead Room has considerable critical acclaim. I certainly liked it, partly because there is some tension between the protagonists. The story is very strong and is an impossible crime mystery, although with a modern twist; it takes place in an anechoic chamber at the headquarters of a stereo manufacturer. I have to say, though, that I solved this one without thinking very hard about it, which frankly surprised me. I’m not very good at solving these plots, even though I’m very interested in how they’re constructed; when I get one first crack out of the box, it’s a signal to me that either I have a bent for this kind of story or it’s not well done.

md1077051789I actually liked the solution of The Gold Deadline the best of all, and here TomCat and I are in agreement, it seems. The book itself has tinges of homophobia (although to be clear it’s actually biphobia about the unpleasant victim), but the central premise is an ass-kicker. The victim is alone in a theatre box during a performance, under observation and someone is guarding the only door to the box. How the crime is committed will doubtless surprise you but it’s really clever, a contrivance at the level of a Death of Jezebel or The Chinese Orange Mystery. 

The five Gold novels and the two about the father-and-son team, the Baers, are the best of the lot; the other nine are distinctly minor.

3185460The five crossword novels feature a couple similar to the Golds, except that one is the world’s most esteemed crossword composer unknown to anyone. They have a number of good things about them, principal among which is four or five original puzzles per book created by the late great Henry Hook. I’ve read plenty of other crossword mysteries and I have to say these might just be the best crosswords ever found in a mystery. They are integral to the plot — you really should solve them as you move through the book in order to understand what’s going on. They are difficult but not impossible to solve, at the level of a New York Times Sunday puzzle. And in at least one instance Hook created a new kind of puzzle which he gives many names; I’ll call them Crossonics, because the sounds of the words are important to the context of the novel.

Unknown-1The most successful of the five to me is the entry about a group of cruciverbalists who are the stars of a New York crossword club, Murder Across and Down. This is the only one where the addition of crosswords actually makes sense to the plot and the crosswords’ solutions have a bearing on the solution. Other than that, there are various specious excuses under which Resnicow assembles precisely six suspects (why six, I wonder? Ellery Queen got by with three) and has them solve and/or create puzzles. Other plots range from far-fetched (six heirs to a cruciverbalist’s will, six candidates for a plum job) to the absolutely ridiculous (a nonsensical Russian spy plot that involves coded messages in the daily crossword puzzle of a newspaper). This last one reminds me of an equally preposterous bridge spy/mystery novel by Don Von Elsner in which codes are transmitted via the bridge column … just not a very good idea.

Murder_City_HallThe worst thing about these is that really they are not mysteries that are solved, per se. I believe all five share the common thread that the murderer is induced to reveal his/her guilt by the process of solving or setting a crossword. Sure, there are clues to guilt that are noted after the fact, but … what it all boils down to is the old “set a trap and the murderer falls into it”. Not plotting for the connoisseur. I have to say that the characterization is well-done throughout these novels; Resnicow does an excellent job of helping us keep the six suspects distinct each from the other.  The Crossword Hunt is particularly good, where Resnicow lets us see six job candidates and then at the end reveals why five of them shouldn’t have gotten the job — for reasons we’ve seen, but may not have thought about. The author shows an excellent grasp of psychology here. But ultimately these five suffer from the same problem as all “crossword mysteries”; it’s nearly impossible to make crosswords a necessary part of the plot of a mystery without structuring the book with impossibilities.

9780688067168-usAnd as for the five withed novels, the less said about those the better.  I did read these on their first publication and they are … competent examples of commercial writing. It’s hard to say if his collaborators contributed anything at all to the novels except their names and a couple of “shooting the shit” sessions to provide background; I rather think not. It’s just that, as Phoebe Atwood Taylor found with Murder at the New York World’s Fair, when half the book has to be there for reasons which have nothing to do with the mystery, and you really need the money for the book, the mystery suffers. The two books with Ed Koch I recall to be particularly egregious; they are determined to present Koch in the best possible light regardless of how much it strains credulity. If the authors had dared to tell the truth about Koch’s everyday life and political manoeuvrings, they would have been much more interesting and less “safe”, and a lot more readable. As they are, they’re what booksellers think of as instant remainders. (Apparently Resnicow died before he did much with the second Koch title beyond an outline, but he gets credit.)

PeleIf you do decide to try Resnicow’s work, I suggest the Gold novels and the two Baer novels, of course, but probably The Dead Room and The Gold Deadline will be sufficient to give you the highlights.

To the best of my knowledge, most of these books are unavailable in electronic editions. You can see that the crosswords would be tough to make available; all five of the Gold novels are available from Kindle Unlimited but I don’t see any evidence of the Baer novels or the “with” novels having made the E-transition. The Dead Room I used to see everywhere as a used paperback, but here in Canada it was issued by Worldwide Library, a prolific subsidiary of Harlequin. Amazon or ABE should get you any of the others you need, though.

Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

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

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Ellery Queen. In at least one case the identity of the murderer will be obvious. If you haven’t already read these titles, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read any book whose title is unfamiliar to you (I’ve put them in bold italics) before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

Most overrated novel

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

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

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

Most underrated novel

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

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

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

The novel containing the best hook

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

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

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

The novel containing the best murder method

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

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

The novel containing the best motive

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

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

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

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

The novel you should avoid 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Lists are boring!

carr-vs-christieMy friends Brad of ahsweetmysteryblog and JJ of The Invisible Event are two mystery experts in the blogosphere. Both are well-read gentlemen who make very insightful contributions to the ongoing GAD dialogue and are fun to read too. Recently they’ve been having fun with the 2017 Christie vs. Carr Smackdown — essentially a series of fun exercises in which they compare and contrast Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. I’ll link to a couple of useful entries here and here that will let you follow these guys on their own, which they deserve.

The Smackdown process has transmogrified into an interesting format they call Scattergories that has allowed Brad and JJ to work into something that’s quite different than the usual Top Ten list. I’ve done Top Ten lists myself at various times and it can be kind of fun to come up with a schema for how to rank your favourites and least favourites. But I’ve found the Top Ten format stale and unprofitable, mostly because it’s quite peculiarly personal. As my two blogfriends put it, “Top Ten Lists are boring!” It’s like trying to convince people that your favourite flavour of ice cream should be theirs.

Here’s their basis that underlies their Scattergories process:

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The most Carr-like Christie (or the most Christie-like Carr)
  8. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer . . . )
  9. The Christie that Carr would have made better if he had written it (and vice versa)
  10. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one Christie/Carr

As you might imagine, when I read this, I was fired up to get busy on my own and happily disagreeing with their choices. (You kind of have to be a book blogger to understand how disagreeing with someone you like can be fun. 😉 ) As I started to dig into the topics, I noticed they divided into two types of observations: one set about an author’s work ranked internally (“most underrated”) and a smaller set about how an author’s work compares to that of another author. Let me split these out and make a few alterations …

Observations about individual books in an author’s oeuvre

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer …)
  8. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

And then

Observations about how one author’s work compares to another

  1. The novel by one author that brings to mind the style or focus of another author
  2. The novel by one author that would have been improved if it had been written by another author
  3. Of two authors’ best books, which is the best?
  4. Of two authors’ worst books, which is the worst?
  5. Of two authors’ entire body of work, which is better?

Those last questions I’ve added were intended to suggest, say, that one decides what Ngaio Marsh title is her best, and then what Christianna Brand title is her best, and then which is the better of the two.  And vice-versa for their worst efforts. And then — considering all the Nicholas Blake (for instance) novels against all the Michael Gilbert novels, who has the body of work which best repays study?

I like this way of looking at books and oeuvres and authors in this way; it seems fresh to me and is a kind of structure against which I can improvise, rather like jazz. And honestly the possibilities are endless. If I want to compare Anthony Berkeley to an endless succession of other authors, I can try … or I can blether on about someone obscure like Pat McGerr. And the process works quite well, heaven help us, for non-mystery authors as well. With apologies to Brad and JJ’s idea of Scattergories, I think I’m going to call this “Not the Top Ten”, or NTTT. In fact NTTT Personal and NTTT Comparisons.

elleryqueenAnd because I was provoked (a delightful process, I assure you) by the comments section into considering other authors by the addition of comparisons involving Ellery Queen works, my first NTTT Personal attempt will be a separate post on EQ, using the eight questions above.  See what you think!

Death Through the Mill, by Laura Colburn (1979)

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of mysteries go through my hands. My fondness for collectible paperbacks has taught me that if it’s unusual and weird, or even inexplicable, then it goes into my collection. The ugly, the silly, the ridiculous, and the meretricious — all these things have found a home in Noah’s Archives.

I’ll have to confess here, though, that occasionally I guess wrong about the future demand for certain books. Today’s book is an example of just how wrong I have occasionally been.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

9780890835258-us-300What is this book about?

The interest in this book lies not so much in what it is “about” but how it was packaged and produced. But to keep to my format, I’ll give you a plot summary first and discuss the production later.

Carol Gates is a freelance artist who has been selected to illustrate a volume of true-crime stories written by well-known writer Henry Marston, who lives in Millerton, a charming small town in Vermont. Henry is engaged in renovating a quaint old mill with a long history into a living and working space, as well as writing his new book. After she’s spent a few days getting to know the author, and the inhabitants and history of Millerton, she discovers Henry’s body — after it’s been mangled by a trip through the mill wheel.

Carol has solved a mystery before (Death in a Small World, #23 in this series) and thus finds it perfectly natural to investigate what she believes to be a murder, even though she knows no one in town — her father is the sheriff of a nearby town and an old friend of Millerton’s sheriff, and this gives her just enough purchase to manage an investigation. Is the motive concerned with the bad blood surrounding a collapsed real-estate deal to locate a ski hill near Millerton? Or perhaps one of the instances of historical feuding among members of the older families in Millerton? Is it concerned with a string of local burglaries? Or is it something that no one’s thought of except in passing, to do with antique furniture or the history of the mill itself?

After realizing the truth and arranging to confront the killer and prove her theory, Carol finds herself “trapped in total darkness with an enraged, desperate killer”. Luckily she thought to arrange backup and thus has the chance to explain all the mysterious goings-on after the killer is arrested.

Why is this book worth your time?

As a mystery, it’s not worth a minute of your time. The writing is … ghastly. It’s as though the author worked with a copy of some entry-level textbook on “how to write a mystery” and ticked off the points one by one as they were achieved, but taking great pleasure in seeing how many cliches it would be possible to work into the text. Here’s a horrible portent of things to come from page one, sentence two, where the author takes a moment to acquaint the reader with a physical description of the detective:

As she passed the coat closet, she stopped, opened the door, and scanned her reflection in the full-length mirror. She noted with approval the calm, unfurrowed brow, the wide gray eyes, the long aristocratic nose, the noncommital set of the lips. She ignored the paint-stained khaki shirt, several sizes too large, and the torn jeans rolled up almost to the knee. She nodded with almost royal condescension to the image in the mirror, then let her lips curve into a grin and shouted, ‘Whee!’

Is that not what everyone does in the morning, stand in front of the mirror and do a quick up-and-down with approval? Stopping to notice that our brows are unfurrowed and that our lips are set in a non-committal way — whatever that means — but skipping entirely over anything below the neck except to note that it’s thoroughly covered. Yes, every single bit of prose in this book is dumbed down to that horrible level of G-rated pap. And to quote a cheeseball text that purports to teach novice writers the mistakes they shouldn’t make, this is a “description dump” on page one. Just the first of many dumps to come, believe me.

The experienced reader will begin to take pleasure in just how horrible this novel is … when the protagonist arrives in Millerton, for instance, and meets her landlady, who greets her with a home-cooked meal and an indigestible chapter of backstory — sorry, local history. The landlady’s name is not Mrs. Exposition, but it should be.

Everything in this book makes an episode of Murder, She Wrote look daring and avant-garde. It’s a massive wad of half-understood writing cliches, presented in a prose style that is apparently aimed at ESL students, and culminating in a denouement that is so massively predictable, it’s very nearly boring. You’ll be flipping through the part where the murderer is threatening the detective in what the author no doubt thought of as the “gripping climax”, because it’s patently obvious that she’ll survive. Although, like me, you may be wishing otherwise.

Here’s something that brought a smile to my non-commital lips 😉 when I realized the full value of just how horrible this writing was. Carol’s been given the job of illustrating this true crime book, and drives up to Vermont to meet with the author — and they never spend a moment talking about the job for the first week she’s there. They even mention this oversight every once in a while in the first half of the book, in the manner of, “Gee, we really should talk about this, but I’m too busy right now laying a trail of red herrings with a subsidiary character — why don’t you come up to my place tomorrow and discover my body, so we’ll never have to think about this again?” It begs the question of why anyone would bother to illustrate a true crime book with Carol’s cute drawings anyway, but that is not the only mysterious gap in logic in this horrible book. They come at you so thick and fast, you’ll hardly notice one over another.

There is, in fact, a reason why I purchased this book, other than its general level of illiterate awfulness. As you’ll note from the cover above, it’s #34 in the series of Zebra Mystery Puzzlers. And I think the blurb on the cover will explain the idea better than I can:

Can you solve the crime by finding the clues in the story, on the cover, and in the illustrations — before you cut open the final sealed chapter? / The novel that lets YOU be the detective!

Yes, Gentle Reader, that’s the point of this. YOU are the detective, because you have the opportunity to examine a series of terrible drawings that are scattered through the text, to read the descriptive passages that explain what you are seeing, and solve the crime.

The shoe and crank.pngHere’s an example of what the terrible drawings look like — and please pardon my limited photographic capacity. If you weren’t told on the facing page that “The rusty crank rested on the desk, next to a plastic bag that contained the fatal shoe,” would you have known? The clue, such as it is, is the series of parallel scratches on the sole of the shoe. Oh, sorry, the fatal shoe. Why it’s the fatal shoe, I have no idea, other than the fact that the victim was wearing it. Since it’s clear that the artist has no idea what a mill-wheel crank looks like, neither shall we, so it’s conveniently slithered off to the side of the desk. That tells you that it’s not a clue. Immediately after this is revealed, “Carol stirred herself,” so in the burst of laughter that the experienced reader will emit at the thought of Carol as a self-mixing cup of coffee, you’ll forget all about the crank anyway.

And then, of course, the “final sealed chapter”. Indeed, the last signature (eight double-sided pages) has been bound into the book without being cut, so that — if you have suffered a traumatic brain injury or have an IQ hovering around room temperature in Fahrenheit and thereby failed to solve the mystery — you will not be in any danger of discovering the identity of the murderer without the deliberate act of cutting the pages. Here is what most of us know from the pages of Ellery Queen and Rupert Penny as the “Challenge to the Reader”:

It's your turn.pngAnd be sure to Write your Answers Here!, because otherwise how would the next reader have her enjoyment spoiled? The author does not, after the manner of C. Daly King, provide a “clue finder” to tell you exactly which clues were where. That’s because there’s so much denouement crammed into the final eight pages that they actually have to be printed in a type size about two points smaller than the rest of the text, so there isn’t room to explain anything like that.

8af78c9a-9b65-11e5-966a-5ac58b93acfbSo my faithful readers will now be well down the path of just why I have half a box of these damn Zebra Mystery Puzzlers in my basement, and as many as possible with an uncut final chapter. I’m too young to have been able to buy “dossier novels” when they first came out, but I know that these exercises in detection now command a fancy price in the marketplace. A 1936 original of Murder Off Miami is today selling for more than $100US, and even the 1979 reprint is commanding a hefty price. I can’t describe these better than has a bookseller on ABEBooks, so I’ll quote him:

The four crime dossiers devised by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links in the 1930s were a completely original novelty and, at least initially, immensely popular both in Britain and around the world. Although there had been ‘solve it yourself’ crime books in the past, such as the ‘Baffle Books’ created by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay, Wheatley and Links were to take the format one or more steps further. What makes the crime dossiers so unique was that they presented the reader with all the evidence that an investigating team of detectives might gather and then ask him to solve the crime. To this end, a variety of physical clues and reports were housed together in a cardboard folder, which if worked through methodically as any detective might, would yield the correct solution to the problem. Having used deduction to arrive at a prime suspect, the reader could then check his findings with the actual solution to the mystery that was concealed within a sealed section towards the rear of the folder.

Yes, you guessed it. I rather thought back in the day that Zebra Mystery Puzzlers were to the 1970s as crime dossiers were to the 1930s, and that today my forethought in laying down uncut copies of as many ZMPs as possible would pay off in the future. But alas, they have not. Zebra even commissioned a couple of these from a fairly well-known author, Ron Goulart (they’re the ones as by Josephine Kains, if you’re curious), and those two sell for a slightly higher price — perhaps $8 for an uncut copy. My own (cut) copy of Death Through the Mill cost me $4, and I think I probably paid three times what it’s worth today. I note today on eBay that you can get a package of eight uncut ZMPs, including one of the Goulart titles, for $20.

Well, I hope my foolish investment has given you a moment of amusement … Now you know that experienced paperback collectors have to lay down a lot of bottles of plonk in the cellars to come up with the occasional desirable vintage. I hope your own collecting instincts are better than mine!

The Case of the Smoking Chimney, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1943)

erle-stanley-gardner-the-case-of-the-smoking-chimneyPerhaps it’s a bit too much, considering how much I enjoyed the brand-new Cool & Lam novel a little while ago, but not many other people are talking about Erle Stanley Gardner these days. So I hope you don’t mind me going back to the well. Right on top of a box of books I was unpacking was my copy of this scarce Gardner title and I enjoyed going through it after such a long absence, so I thought I’d share my pleasure with you.

28201395512_3e853d4936_zThis is the second of two novels featuring Gramps Wiggins as an amateur detective, solving crimes and assisting his grandson-in-law Frank Duryea, who is District Attorney of the semi-rural (and imaginary) County of Santa Delbarra in California. Frank and his wife Mildred, Gramps’s granddaughter, suffer through occasional visits from Gramps. Gramps is a defiantly long-haired senior citizen who tootles around the country in a house trailer, living with little reference to ration booklets and social convention. The last time he parked his trailer in Frank and Mildred’s driveway, he solved The Case of the Turning Tide (1941); this time he disposes of another complex case in no time flat in his final outing.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

124392In the first eleven chapters of this book, we meet all the suspects to a crime that hasn’t happened yet. However, the experienced mystery reader will certainly be expecting a murder soon … Ralph G. Pressman has pulled a fast one on a lot of ranchers and small-holders near the town of Petrie in Santa Delbarra county. Pressman realized that some boiler-plate clauses about oil that a lot of landowners thought were worthless encumbrances to their deeds actually had teeth; he bought them from the heirs of the original owners and began drilling for oil. And because of the way they’d been worded, Pressman could install equipment anywhere on any of the land, regardless of improvements.

Half of the landowners in Petrie are up in arms, particularly the large-scale farmers who don’t want to see derricks in the middle of their vegetable fields. The editor of the local paper, Everett True, has just learned that Pressman has the courts on his side, and the local farmers are putting together an association for what will likely be a fruitless legal attempt to stop him. George Karper, a land developer, is the leader of this association and has a reputation for being brutal and ruthless; the largest local farmer, Hugh Sonders, is happy to see Karper take the lead in the fight.

51sadvg9-cl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Meanwhile, Ralph Pressman’s wife Sophie has been taking advantage of Ralph’s frequent extended absences from the matrimonial home to step out on the town with a succession of other men; she has, as she puts it to herself, more than one beau to her string. She’s suspicious that her husband is having her shadowed, though; not long ago, Pressman’s secretary Jane received an envelope full of incriminating photographs of Mrs. Pressman from a detective agency addressed to her boss.

Another source of potential problems in Pressman’s office is the handsome but thieving bookkeeper Harvey Stanwood, who has embezzled nearly $20,000 to feed his gambling habit and impress his girlfriend, beautiful and hard-edged Eva Raymond. (She’s described as “a gifted amateur with commercial tendencies”.) Pressman is about to be discovered and faces prison; George Karper, though, has found out his problems and is bribing him for the low-down on Pressman’s machinations.

bookcaseofthesmokingchimneyStanwood reveals an important piece of information to Karper that he’s already told his girlfriend Eva (he also revealed he’s one step away from prison). The reason Pressman has been away from home so much lately is because he’s established a secret identity as a landowner in Petrie. In his pose as “Jack Reedley”, living in a little cabin on a small plot of land that’s potentially involved in the oil drilling, Pressman can join the farmers’ organization and stay ahead of his opponents by knowing all their plans.

So Pressman is leading a double life; he has a cheating wife and a thieving bookkeeper and a host of enemies, and everyone has just learned where the little cabin belonging to Jack Reedley is located.

At this point, Gramps Wiggins pulls his disreputable trailer into the driveway of the DA and wife for a surprise visit. Gramps proceeds to pour them a high-powered hot toddy and is making them hotcakes the next morning when the local Sheriff shows up to tell the DA that there’s a murdered body in a shabby old cabin — well, you guessed that already, didn’t you?

81-903946-9-xThe officials investigate, and Gramps Wiggins investigates unofficially. As is common in this vintage of detective fiction, nearly all the above-mentioned characters had occasion to visit the isolated cabin the evening before. Sonders and True have a harrowing story to tell about the inhabitant of the cabin locking himself in, when they come to remonstrate with him, and refusing to utter a word until they’re gone. There’s a woman’s compact with the initials “ER” lying on the front porch. There’s a “suicide note” made from the headlines of the local newspaper. And Gramps Wiggins, with his wide experience of camping and living rough, is very interested in the state of the chimney on an oil lamp that is the only potential source of light in the cabin.

The suicide theory is soon discounted as the officials investigate, thanks to a tip about the gun’s location from Gramps. Various of the parties immediately combine to start throwing suspicion on each other as fast as they can, and fooling around with pieces of evidence to see if they can mislead the police. Gramps and his grandson-in-law are at loggerheads about how to investigate the case — the DA prefers the official method and refuses to allow Gramps to take a hand. But when Gramps realizes what’s been going on, and that the DA’s political future could depend on the outcome, he solves the case in such a way that the DA gets all the credit.

Why is this book worth your time?

md10251406704I’ll be frank and say that you may not think that it is worth your time, although I hope to suggest that there’s many things in it you will enjoy and I personally would recommend it. Without putting too fine a point on it, this is a minor novel by a great writer who is better known (and justifiably so) for his other creations. Gramps Wiggins is not so much characterized as sketched. His fondness for homespun cooking and very strong cocktails is heavily emphasized again and again, but other than the label of “unconventional old coot” there’s really not a lot we know about him. Except that he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and for solving the mystery.

There’s also a small structural problem that’s eventuated by this being a little-known detective character for ESG. Essentially the first half of the book is spent laying down tracks for all the characters, so that you can understand that something is going to happen on the night of the murder, although not quite why and by whom. This is a lot more exposition than we usually get from Gardner, who generally starts Perry Mason novels with a bang and an exciting and enigmatic story hook. This novel is more subtly plotted, but it takes a long time to get off the ground.

And make no mistake, this book is pretty much only about the plot. None of the characters are all that believable; they do the things that they need to do to preserve the mystery. I still don’t know quite why Eva Raymond does what she does; she has to in order to keep the plot moving, but what little we know about her tells us that she wouldn’t have done it. She’s a minor character who rings quite false (and who could easily have been combined with Jane the secretary). Not Gardner’s best characterization by a long shot.

But if you can get past the idea that everyone in the book is more or less a cardboard cutout who is meant to be moved around the game board while Gardner tries to fool you with the complicated plot — I think you may actually enjoy this book. For one thing, the mystery at the centre of it is really well thought-out. Gramps Wiggins’s deductions from the state of the chimney of the oil lamp are clever and insightful, and lead the police to the solution, but there’s an easier path to the answer available if you merely pause to think about what you’ve been told about what characters heard and saw. This isn’t a puzzle on the level of John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen, but its details would not have disgraced either of those writers and you will probably have a forehead-slapping moment of chagrin when you realize just how you’ve been fooled. Yes, it’s the old, old ESG story, where the suspects troop to and from the murder scene at half-hour intervals and at least one suspect has the opportunity to say, “But he was already dead when I got there!” But just because it’s the mixture as before doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to see how it plays out.

md14280574877And there is a lot here that will remind you of other characters in other books. Gramps himself — who is mentioned in the foreword as being to some extent “inspired” by a New Orleans photographer whom Gardner had met in his travels — has a lot in common with the salty desert philosophers of The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (a Perry Mason novel, also 1943). There’s a supercilious cheating wife a la Eva Belter in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933); an endlessly loyal secretary a la Della Street, and a District Attorney who is very closely allied to Doug Selby, the protagonist of the nine D.A. novels from around the same wartime period.

In fact it’s interesting to speculate why exactly Gardner didn’t make this a Doug Selby novel. Did he think that Gramps Wiggins might catch on with the public (or his publishers)? There’s nothing about the plot per se that would disqualify it from being a Selby novel. Perhaps the answer is, as the foreword suggests, that Gramps Wiggins popped into Gardner’s head and “demanded to be set down on paper”. He neither spoils the book nor adds much to it; once you get past the disreputable surface, there’s nothing much below.

But I do think this book will occupy your mind enjoyably for a period of time; the plot moves ahead at a breakneck clip, for the most part. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s occasionally funny, and there’s nothing actively silly about it. Sometimes that’s all I ask from a murder mystery.

My favourite edition

13647032-_uy200_I have a great fondness for the early Pocket Books editions of Gardner, even those that are, like my own copy featured at the head of this essay, muddy-looking and unexciting. (It’s Pocket #667, the first printing of the first paperback edition from December, 1949.) I also like Pocket #6014, with the woman in the slinky green evening gown and the incongruous polka-dot gloves.  There aren’t many great looking editions of this book, including the dismally smeary first edition.

There’s also an edition from the Detective Book Club who published it in a three-up in a volume containing the excellent She Died A Lady as by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr). Two good books for the price of one, even if they are abridged.

But I do like the audacity of the publisher who just decided to say “the hell with it” and market it as a Perry Mason mystery, including a painting that looks awfully like Raymond Burr. That takes either great fortitude or a large amount of sheer stupidity, and I can’t say which one it is. (I also can’t identify the edition, because I scooped the illustration from the internet.) I have a couple of nice Pocket editions of this, but now I’m looking for the out-and-out lying one!

This title is easy to get in the used market, notably from ABE Books, and I understand there is an e-version available from Stratus Books in the UK (it’s the ugly cover with a Rosie the Riveter headscarf shown above) that should be very inexpensive if you decide you might like to read this.  Hope you enjoy it!

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Rex Stout, Week 1

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Here they are, alphabetically:

Kate Jackson, crossexaminingcrimeNero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin: A Blending of Genres

Tracy K., Bitter Tea and MysteryToo Many Cooks: Rex Stout

Jeffrey Marks, The Corpse Steps OutI Can’t Read 55

Moira Redmond, Clothes in Books: Rex Stout and Christmas

Noah Stewart, Noah’s ArchivesBook scouting Rex Stout

Helen Szamuely, Your Freedom and Ours: Was Rex Stout Right About Watson?

And we’re off, with a wide range of interests and backgrounds represented!  Again, I’ll repeat my suggestion that if you have a blog and wish to join us, just get in touch.  And if you DON’T have a blog and wish to participate, let me know and I’ll find you a blog to which you can post as a guest.  Anything on the topic of Rex Stout this month will be welcome!

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Ellery Queen, Week 4

The Tuesday Club QueenA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in November have been devoted to Ellery Queen and Tuesdays in December will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh.

Here they are, alphabetically:

Brad Friedman, ahsweetmysteryblogChallenge to the Listener: Ellery Queen on the Radio

Bev Hankins, My Reader’s Block: Queenly Collections

Kate Jackson, crossexaminingcrime: Typing Ellery Queen

Jeffrey Marks, The Corpse Steps Out: Favorite Five EQ Novels

Moira Redmond, Clothes in BooksEllery Queen & a late entry

Noah Stewart, Noah’s ArchivesMy five most/least favourite Ellery Queen novels

If I’ve missed any posts, or if I become aware of later entries, I’ll add them to this post.

It’s American Thanksgiving and some of our contributors have celebrations to undertake; I’m sure they’ll return.  Hope you have enjoyed this month’s worth of essays; Moira Redmond will be making next month’s announcements.