The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Halfway House, by Ellery Queen (1936)

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’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every three weeks; the first three Tuesdays of November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

A note: henceforth when I refer to “Ellery Queen” I mean the literary character. Any reference to “EQ” will refer to the two real-life cousins who wrote together and signed their work as Ellery Queen.

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

Halfway House, by Ellery Queen (1936)

51cUW5ymfFL._SY445_What’s this book about?

After what would prove to be the final appearance of introductory material by “J. J. McC.”, we meet Ellery traveling through Trenton, New Jersey on his way back to Manhattan. He runs into old college buddy Bill Angell, now a local prosecutor, who mentions that his sister Lucy is married to “a traveling man — Joe Wilson”. Wilson sells cheap jewelry and trinkets pretty much door to door; not much of a profession to confer social prominence, but Bill has to admit that Lucy and Joe are mad about each other, even though he’s away four or five days a week. Bill and Ellery make a spontaneous arrangement to give Bill a ride to the city in Ellery’s ancient Duesenberg roadster, but first Bill has an appointment to meet his brother-in-law.

Bill drives down a deserted road down by the Delaware River and finds more vehicles than he’s expecting; one huge Cadillac and his brother-in-law’s old Packard, standing outside a tiny old shack. As he sits there for a moment, a beautiful (and unveiled) woman’s scream pierces the night — she exits the building, hops into the Cadillac and flees in panic. Inside the shack, Bill finds his brother-in-law Joe, dying on the floor. Joe has just enough time to gasp out, “Woman. Veil. Heavy veil — face. Couldn’t see. Knifed me … Bill, Bill,” and a few more enigmatic words, then expires.

Bill has the sense to involve Ellery immediately, and they re-inspect the scene before the police arrive. Chief De Jong is an old friend of Ellery’s father and entirely amenable to Ellery’s involvement, but brash newspaper reporter Ella Amity is less easy to handle. Ellery looks over the shack and finds strange dichotomies; expensive clothing hanging up, but cheap clothing on the corpse. Almost nothing in the way of furnishings or fixtures, but an expensive carpet on the plywood floor. This is much the same difference as the luxurious Cadillac parked beside the ancient Packard; wealth contrasting with poverty. Why, it’s like the old shack is halfway between two worlds…

11h_HalfwayIt soon proves to be the case that Joe Wilson of Trenton, with his pretty wife Lucy, is also the wealthy Joseph Kent Gimball of Park Avenue, with his snooty wife Jessica and stepdaughter Andrea. That bigamy forms the basis for the remainder of the murder case, and the problem becomes an unusual one — who was murdered, Joe Wilson or Joseph Kent Gimball? Despite the obvious problems inherent in two separate lives and families, it’s not precisely clear exactly why he was killed, although the million-dollar life insurance policy whose beneficiary was recently switched to Lucy’s name might be a good motive.

The press, personified by Ella Amity, are in full hue and cry as Lucy goes on trial for the murder. The trial takes place over a large portion of the book, and brings forward all the evidence and relevant testimony. Lucy is convicted, but Ellery knows that one character has information that is not being revealed. When he pressures this witness, all of a sudden a set of new information comes out about what happened at the shack between the murder and Bill’s arrival. One tiny set of apparently inconsequential facts gives Ellery the solution to the case. After the traditional Queenian “Challenge to the reader” (its final appearance) in which the reader is informed that all the information required to solve the case is available, Ellery crowds all the suspects and investigators into the little Trenton shack on the river. Ellery begins a chronological reconstruction of events and announces that the surprise witness still has an important revelation to make. At that point — well, let’s just say that Ellery has sprung a trap and the killer is shot down while trying to escape, remaining still unidentified to the reader.

In the final chapter, Ellery explains his reasoning and defines a list of criteria that define the person and actions of “Woman. Veil. Heavy veil — face” and one by one the suspects are held against it. All of a sudden, a bunch of tiny clues and references make sense as Ellery exposes the surprising murderer in a dramatic finish..

What’s interesting about this book?

6a00d8341d6d8d53ef0168e901e152970cI’ve always been fascinated by this volume because to me it seems to mark a dividing line in the writing career of the EQ cousins. The nine previous novel-length adventures of Ellery Queen from 1929 to 1935 comprised the “nationalities” series; each volume contained a word denoting nationality and had other similar features like the “Challenge to the Reader”. I think of this as Period One in the EQ oeuvre. (And I owe that nomenclature to Francis M. Nevins, Jr., from his book on EQ, Royal Bloodline, although I haven’t adopted his schema dogmatically.) Then came Halfway House and then, after four further volumes (I’ll explain these later) came what I consider to be the first of three linked EQ masterpieces, 1942’s Calamity Town, the first Wrightsville novel. And I see that there’s a direct relationship between Halfway House and Calamity Town … so to me, this is the book which begins Period Two of EQ’s work, which contains the cousins’ finest achievements.

The cousins’ path from Period One to Period Two was not smooth, but clear. The nationalities series, Period One, contained puzzle mysteries that were technically brilliant, highly complicated, and for the most part not containing any realistic emotions. They usually took place in a bubble outside of the world, regardless of whether the setting was a Manhattan department store or the top of a mountain menaced by a forest fire; the characters were only as realistic as they needed to be in order to render their necessary actions believable as they furthered the plot. I will resist using the word “cardboard” here, because generally EQ were better writers than that, but for the most part the Period One books are more about the puzzle than the people. If you don’t believe me, reflect that in The Chinese Orange Mystery we don’t really know or care what the name of the victim is (and why).

3357132And then — something happened. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the personal lives of the cousins to know what happened … perhaps nothing “happened” in any concrete sense. Certainly the books of Period One had been operating in the same marketplace as S. S. Van Dine, and the star of the mystery universe that had been Philo Vance was starting to wane; the EQ cousins were sufficiently canny to understand the market forces and move to meet them. I think they made a conscious decision to try to achieve a more lucrative commercial return on their labours by selling Ellery Queen to Hollywood as a series character, and in order to do that — I’m on shakier ground here — they felt they had to free him up from the ratiocinative pattern in which he was embedded. So instead of calling this work The Swedish Match Mystery, which possibility is specifically mentioned in the “J. J. McC.” introduction, EQ broke the nationalities pattern and started to change Ellery Queen’s style to respond to the market. My contention is that they did so by starting to introduce emotional content into the novels’ construction and trying to make these novels work as both pure puzzles and novels about real people, partly in line with what Dorothy L. Sayers wanted; a “literature with guts”. And so after a few false starts and experiments, they arrived at their nearly perfect mingling of puzzle mystery and novel of emotion — the first three Wrightsville novels (Calamity Town, 1942; The Murderer is a Fox, 1945; and Ten Days’ Wonder, 1948).

halfwayNow, the path between the nationalities novels and the magnificent Wrightsville trilogy has a few bumps, as I suggested above. There’s a couple of novels in there that I think of as the Hollywood false starts, in which EQ wrote a few novels that were possibly intended first as screenplay scenarios, perhaps for the many Ellery Queen films in process or perhaps merely as the basis for filmed mysteries. Again, I can’t prove this by reference to any biographic material compiled by better-read researchers than I; this is merely, to me, what the books “feel” like. The skimpy characterization, emotional flatness, and focus on surprising and fantastic elements makes it probable, for me, that The Devil to Pay (1938), The Four of Hearts (1938),  The Dragon’s Teeth (1939), and There Was an Old Woman (1943) were fast-and-dirty attempts to turn unsold screenplays into income. I have to say I’m not sure what to make of The Door Between (1937); to me it’s just not a very good novel. Certainly EQ are trying to inject some emotional reality into it, but the fantastic elements of the crime and its solution are just way over the top for me. This novel for me ends up being either a novelization of a screenplay, written at a time when EQ didn’t understand screenplays very well, or else the beginnings of what would become the Wrightsville novels, when EQ didn’t understand the kinds of emotion that work within the murder mystery context. All these Hollywood novels, to me, have an unreality about them that makes them artistically unsuccessful; Halfway House is not very realistic, but it tries to stay grounded in the real world.

HalfwayHouseElleryQueenIn my view the relationship between Halfway House and Calamity Town is quite clear; almost as though EQ revisited the material they’d covered six years later and wrote with a surer, clearer vision to produce the masterful Calamity TownHalfway House attempts to introduce the effects of the press into the situation, to show the reader what happens when a “fine old family” like the Gimballs becomes the focus of the gutter press. This repeats itself in Calamity Town but with much more personal and telling effect. It’s what happens in the real world, and it’s important to note that it represents an external force that acts upon the situation that cannot be controlled by Ellery and/or the police; whatever the opposite of a “closed circle” mystery is. This is EQ opening up the form to take a wider reality into account.

The extended courtroom sequence of both novels is something different for Ellery Queen — perhaps it’s a useful way to get evidence before the reader when the continuing character of Sergeant Velie isn’t appropriate. (EQ has a habit common to many mystery writers of shoehorning in physical evidence by letting police officers tell it to Ellery. “No fingerprints on the gun, Maestro,” said Sergeant Velie.) It might even be that EQ realized that Erle Stanley Gardner was becoming more popular just as the Van Dine star was waning, and decided to move in the direction of courtroom drama.

Even the puzzle structure of both books is similar, although I’m going to be deliberately vague here; there’s one central character who is concealing vital evidence required to produce the solution, and that person is doing so for similar reasons in each case. Ellery has to break that person down in order to solve the case. Where Calamity Town rises above Halfway House is in EQ’s brilliant casting of the town of Wrightsville itself as a character, and the intelligent way in which EQ used Wrightsville to anchor and sustain the books served as a model for such future efforts as The Glass Village and The King is Dead.

11j_HalfwaySo to sum up, without giving a complete history of every Ellery Queen novel and its place in the various Periods of the canon; Halfway House is different from its predecessors and marks, for me, the bifurcation between Period One (nationalities) and Period Two (Wrightsville). This novel has emotional content where the Nationalities do not, and attempts to bring in the real-world context in which murders are done and solved. It gives the cousins a chance to continue appealing to their fan base that enjoys the complex and emotionless puzzles of Period One, while at the same time giving themselves a familiar structure within which to experiment with depicting emotional realities. And yet it is a strong puzzle with some very surprising elements, and a large amount of logic that underlies the solution. It’s not a great novel, but it contains the bones of greatness within it; if you read this and then read, or re-read, Calamity Town, you’ll understand from where that masterpiece arose and the elements that went into making it.  And yet if you’re simply looking for a darn good puzzle mystery, just think for a moment that you’re in an alternate universe where the cousins wrote The Swedish Match Mystery — and you’ll enjoy this final novel in the nationalities series.

In the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ brief time spent looking at Ellery Queen, I also intend to have a look at another novel that I think is pivotal in the EQ oeuvre; the transition novel between Period Three (EQ’s “imposed patterns” period) and Four (EQ’s writer’s block), 1958’s The Finishing Stroke; I also intend to have a look at some Ellery Queen rarities and oddities from the lesser-known byways of the printing universe.  Stay tuned!

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Where do we go from here?

The Tuesday Night Bloggers

A clever logo produced by group member Bev Hankins.

About a month ago, The Tuesday Night Bloggers (TNB) began as a kind of impromptu celebration of all things Agatha Christie to celebrate her 125th birthday. (I’m including this explanation for people who aren’t members of our mutual Facebook group, Golden Age Detection. If you have a sincere interest in Golden Age mysteries, you’re welcome to join us here. Well-informed and friendly people, a good time is had by all, and remarkably close to zero fistfights.) Essentially seven members of this Facebook group decided that they were going to post something in their own blogs about Agatha Christie every Tuesday for what turned out to be a little more than the month of October, 2015. Yes, we’re still doing it. I’ve personally had fun working to a tighter deadline than “whenever”, and it encouraged me to find interesting things to present that could be explained in 500 words or so. Which, as you know, for me is barely a clearing of the throat ;-)

dc9f2677eTuesday Night Bloggers (alphabetically by last name;the blog’s name links to the blog)

In conversation with a couple of my fellow TNB bloggers, I’ve learned that they are attracting a new and improved readership as a result of these Christie posts, as have I. Apparently people come for the Christie and look around for the Golden Age mystery, I guess, and welcome aboard! So I was wondering what would happen if we kept up the frequency but changed the topic a little bit … and we’re about to find out.

roundtableThe seven bloggers in Tuesday Night Bloggers have come to an agreement that, provisionally at least, we’re going to keep posting on Tuesdays but we’re going to change the topic once a month. We’re going to talk about a different Golden Age writer for a month of Tuesdays, and hope that our new readers are as interested in the other major names as they have been in Agatha Christie.

Personally I think this is going to work best if we focus on the major writers — as I put it, writers with a large number of novels that have been printed in a large number of editions. My TNB friends are all all aware of mystery writers whose work is rare and expensive, and when we find rare and expensive novels that we enjoyed or understood, I believe we’ll continue to bring you our opinions. (E.C.R. Lorac and Miles Burton are the literary equivalent of $500/bottle Scotch!)  In the meantime there are a bunch of Golden Age writers whose names many people will recognize and whose books are abundantly available at libraries and bookstores, and I think our breadth of information can shed light on these writers in a way that will interest people who may only be glancingly familiar with their work, or even people very familiar with their output. If you’ve read two Ngaio Marsh novels, well, we’ve frequently read all 29, and we have reasons why we like our favourites that we’ll share with you. I’m hoping this will encourage more people to share our pleasure in Golden Age mysteries.

sdc13504So here’s the list of suggested topics for a year.

  • October: Agatha Christie
  • November: Ellery Queen
  • December: Ngaio Marsh
  • January: Rex Stout
  • February: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • March: John Dickson Carr
  • April: Phoebe Atwood Taylor
  • May: Erle Stanley Gardner
  • June: Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • July: Arthur Upfield
  • August: Patricia Wentworth
  • September: S. S. Van Dine

Believe me, I’m open to changing this list, any part of it or any name on it. (I alternated males and females.) And I know that the TNB would join me in welcoming any blogger with an interest in Golden Age mysteries to add his/her blog to this list, even if — especially if — they’re not members of our Facebook group. There is no need to post every single Tuesday, for existing members or new ones; I’m sure we’d even welcome guests who merely wanted to contribute a single post from their own blog.

Your comments below are welcome and earnestly solicited. I have shamelessly swiped the logo that Bev Hankins designed for the group since I like it better than mine (and I will now retire my variant terminology for this effort of Tuesday Club Murders); thank you Bev!

 

 

The D.A. Takes A Chance, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1948)

D.A.TakesaChanceThe8047WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel.  This is a work of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solution is not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of this classic work so that you will enjoy it without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

G135What’s this book about?

Beautiful Doris Kane drives into “Madison City”, California (based on Ventura) to visit her newlywed daughter Paula and her husband Jim Melvin. When she arrives at the house, there’s nobody home and nobody’s been there for a while; there’s a letter in the mailbox from well-known shyster lawyer Alphonse Baker Carr (“old ABC”). A snoopy neighbour mentions the Melvins had a wild party where there might have been a pistol shot. And when Doris investigates the spare bedroom, the bed is drenched with blood. Doris runs for the law. But when she leads slow-moving, hard-punching Sheriff Brandon and handsome war hero District Attorney Doug Selby back into the house, the letter is gone and the house is spotless.

Selby and Brandon continue to investigate. ABC shows up, as does Jim Melvin. He tells Doris the story of some Hollywood type who got drunk and shot himself in the arm. Jim is working to sell a lucrative project to Madison City (newfangled parking meters that reset to zero when the car leaves, thus doubling the take) and tells Doris he and Paula have moved temporarily to a secluded house for reasons connected with the considerable political machinations necessary to get the project across. Jim takes Doris back to the other residence and puts her to bed, the couple mentioning that they have a female house guest who hasn’t been sleeping too well. In the middle of the night, party girl Eve Dawson makes her way into Doris’s bedroom, looking for company and conversation; she’s accustomed to music, dancing, liquor, and company, and she’s been secluded and isolated while she recovers from — a recent bullet wound. The two house guests chatter for a few minutes, then Doris falls asleep. But in the morning, Paula Melvin discovers that Eve Dawson has been stabbed to death with a big carving knife.

7109075167_e1345267d5_bThis kicks up Selby and Brandon’s investigation into high gear, but everyone’s clamming up quickly. When they go to the little town of Highdale to interview Eve Dawson’s mother, they learn — from, among others, a garrulous cab driver who is under the mistaken impression that people don’t recognize him as a blabbermouth — that beautiful Eve had left town to seek her fortune and was apparently on the verge of Hollywood stardom (at least according to Eve).  They also find the source of the carving knife, a local hardware store, which recently sold its last such knife in stock to, of all people, old ABC. The trail of evidence leads to Eve’s roommate, a hard-edged beauty named Eleanor “Babe” Harlin who never met a nickel, or a wealthy man, she didn’t like. Her diamond-hard demeanour enables her to rebuff the lawmen in classic style. Meanwhile ABC has been busy in the background, muddling the trail on behalf of all the politicians and money-men profiting from the civic affairs of both Highdale and Madison City. Every time Selby and Brandon learn something, ABC and the politicians muddy the waters and fiddle with the meaning of the clues, constantly keeping the detectives on the defensive as everyone starts moving around at top speed. Meanwhile, Selby’s ally and sometime romantic interest Sylvia Martin, a reporter for the Madison City Clarion, mobilizes her story to counteract Selby’s political antagonists who control the other city newspaper, the Blade.

As things start to come to a head, someone slips a non-fatal dose of barbiturates to Babe Harlin; then two more characters eat some chocolate creams that appear out of nowhere and find themselves drugged. Intrepid Doug Selby works out what must have happened, then makes an arrest. And in a dramatic showdown finish, Selby realizes that he has enough evidence on old ABC to convict him of criminal conspiracy and put an end to his nefarious career. But the slippery ABC wriggles out of the worst of the charges by embarking on a dramatic and very surprising path with a key witness.  The reader is left anxiously awaiting the developments in the next novel that will grow out of this wild twist at the end of the novel. If I’d read this book when it first came out, I would have immediately placed an order for the next volume and anxiously awaited it for a year!

4701450662_2209e406ab_bWhy is this worth reading?

This is the eighth novel in a series of nine about Doug Selby, published between 1937 and 1949.  From the jacket flap of the first edition: “Too much candy, too many knives, too many politicians, and a great deal too much of suave unscrupulous A. B. Carr make this one of Selby’s toughest and most brilliant cases.” I have to agree.

It’s not clear to me why Erle Stanley Gardner (ESG) gave up writing this series in 1949. As near as I can tell, it was easy money — take the same type of plot that would underpin a Perry Mason novel, turn it inside out so the lawyer is the villain and the district attorney is the hero, and … the mixture as before. ESG had a great hand with a story hook, and this novel starts with a bed full of blood that gets the reader’s attention immediately and never lets it go. The plotting is complicated but the reader can always grasp it. Also, unlike some of the later Perry Mason novels, everyone’s motivations throughout the action make complete sense, even though those motivations aren’t easy to see. The writing is smooth and clear, with just enough description to give you a picture of where you are and what you’re seeing, but it’s the characterizations that carry the plot, and at this point ESG was at the height of his powers.

9351944._UY200_And there are some great characters in this book too. Alphonse Baker Carr is just wonderful; you really get a full picture of this glad-handing, smooth-tongued lawyer who is so sneaky, he could follow you into a revolving door and come out ahead of you on the other side. He’s the equivalent of Perry Mason, but minus the moral code and responsibility — and whenever he’s on the scene, he heats up the room and intensifies the action. Another wonderful character is the minor one of the talkative cab driver. ESG doesn’t make the novice mistake of telling us what this guy is really like. Instead, everything that everyone says, including the driver himself, is written as though everyone believes what this doofus is saying about how he’s a model of closed-mouthedness is 100% true. But the reader grasps the picture, through subtle and clever writing, and sees that Doug Selby is counting on the cab driver to spill the beans everywhere he goes, which will suit Selby’s purposes just fine. Babe Harlin is another perfectly-written character; you can see her the hard shell of beauty and grasp the rough-and-tumble life that’s brought her to this point, hooked in with these sleazy politicians. Even Doris Kane, who is not much more than a minor character, in the few glimpses we see of her is a fully-formed character who leads us into the action in the first chapter by seeing Madison City with the eyes of a stranger.

8362746625_6d9bef7c6a_bI can’t say there is much to support my idea, but I’ll hesitantly suggest that the reason that ESG stopped this series was — the characters were too human. Over the nine volumes, Doug Selby has relationships with both reporter Sylvia Martin and someone who’s not in this volume, Inez Stapleton. Given that many of the characters in this series are the exact opposite of their professional counterparts in the Perry Mason series, Inez is a kind of Della Street gone wrong; the daughter of a wealthy family who is sweet on Selby before he runs for political office but, when Selby convicts her brother of a crime, the family loses its social pre-eminence. This is something like what we learn about Della Street in the earliest volume of the Perry Mason series. But where Della became a secretary, Inez went to law school and now is a frequent courtroom antagonist of the district attorney. Sylvia is a staunch ally of the DA and maintains that position here, but it’s pretty clear she’d like to be Mrs. Selby some day. I can’t tell you precisely what ABC gets up to here, for spoiler reasons, but it’s a significant development in his character’s life and lifestyle and represents a real advancement and change. And I think that’s the problem. ESG wasn’t really comfortable with characters who changed as they grew and progressed; it wasn’t really his comfort zone. Every Perry Mason novel is pretty much the same, and similarly with his Cool & Lam series. Even Selby himself changes throughout the series; at the beginning he’s idealistic, later he goes off to war and comes home a hero — but a slightly more cynical hero, more willing to believe the worst of others on short notice, and automatically assuming that he has political antagonists and they’re working against him.

Again, I have to say I don’t know of any evidence to support this suggestion. Gardner was an excellent, prolific and diversified writer, with large numbers of series characters available to him. He could have simply decided to focus on Perry Mason because that’s something he was guaranteed the public would want to buy. If he ever mentioned in writing why he stopped writing this series, I’m not aware of it; I just have a sense of what was going on, that’s all. But what this means, of course, is that this may well be the most well-characterized series he ever wrote. You can trace the development of the characters through these nine delightful novels, and I think you will enjoy them if you do.  But this also means that it’s important to start with the first volume and not this one, the eighth. If you’ve read the previous seven, you’ll enjoy this one a LOT more, and you will be anxiously awaiting your chance to get your hands on the ultimate volume.

My favourite edition

It’s pretty clear that when you have a mystery that involves a beautiful and, shall we say, slutty girl who’s found dead in bed in nightclothes, the cover art is, five times out of the six variations above, based on that Good Girl Art (GGA) selling point. It’s just a natural. When you think of how many covers of this period were GGA when there wasn’t any reason for it, well, you have to expect this cover to be GGA.  That being said, I actually like the edition at the very top of this piece (which, as is my habit, shows the copy at hand from my collection), Pocket #1010 — mine is the third printing. Silver Studios, who produced the cover, cleverly managed to get TWO beautiful women in nightclothes onto the cover in a nice graphic way. Ordinarily as a collector and sometime dealer, my attention is frequently drawn to valuable editions or the true first — in this case, the Morrow edition is, yes, GGA, but the illustration seems muddy; the colours are muted and not really attractive.

Quick Look: Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain

Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain (1989; authorized by the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #008

41eZbYCS4NL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

Well-known businessman Gil Adrian shoots and kills his dinner companion in full view of a restaurant full of witnesses, then escapes. A short time later Adrian is found murdered in his Hollywood Hills home. His ex-wife is the immediate suspect, and she turns to well-known courtroom wizard Perry Mason. Perry investigates the late Mr. Adrian’s business and romantic entanglements and his very, very busy life, and although his client seems determined to dig her own courtroom grave, he manages to work out what really happened and how, and brings the crimes home to a murderer who has been heretofore not considered by officials as a suspect.

Why is this worth reading?

I could answer this easily by actually answering the question above in a snide way. The first thing that came to my mind when I looked at my standard “What is this book about?” was “About 256 pages too long.” But the real answer to “Why is this worth reading?” is, “It just isn’t.”

Nevertheless, I’ll try be a bit more detailed. When considering whether to — or, these days, when to — issue “continuation” volumes using the characters and oeuvre of a deceased best-selling author, it seems as though the heirs have a couple of things they think are important, but only one at a time. Some estates go for sales, and some for safety. The ones who want sales, like the James Bond franchise, license the character to a lot of interesting writers, some of whom are relatively disastrous and one or two of whom knock it out of the park; once in a while they have a best-seller, and the rest of the time they have some steady sales. The ones who want safety are somehow timid; “We don’t want to actually CHANGE anything about Grandpa’s beloved character, we just want a couple of original stories that don’t contradict anything and don’t offend anybody, because the fans would buy Grandpa’s laundry lists if we bound them.”

I can’t say anything about Erle Stanley Gardner’s laundry lists, but the rest seems to be just about what happened here. This book is, in fact, arrogant; it is arrogant because it assumes that the reader is stupid and hasn’t been paying attention.  I think I can explain this without spoiling any enjoyment you might have in reading this if you were recovering from brain surgery and needed something simple for distraction. The whole book is built around a trick; something like John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, except that this trick is horribly terribly obvious from the first chapter. I think even if you had never read a murder mystery before, but only seen them on television, you would grasp what was being dangled tantalizingly before you as being, to quote the back cover, “a fiendishly twisted puzzle” — “the most baffling case of [Perry Mason’s] career.” No, it’s not. The police miss the idea, the detectives and suspects miss the idea, but to this reader at least it was absolutely obvious, and everyone was off on the wrong track.

After setting the path towards the big reveal, Chastain proceeds to muddy the waters with a few trails of red herrings about the victim’s generally evil tendencies and people whom he’d recently wronged. But all the time, dropping little references to a concept that is the base of the trick. I think you have to have read the book twice (heaven help me, I did) to grasp all the little hinties and word choices. But then about two-thirds of the way through the book, it’s as though Chastain realizes that evidence that satisfyingly demonstrates a criminal’s guilt in a way that is connected to the trick is not going to be possible, but the reader still has to be almost able to solve the crime even though the hints are gossamer-thin, and he has no physical clues to offer. So he starts dropping bigger and bigger hints about the underlying concept, and finally a huge one that ends in Perry Mason saying, “(face palm) By golly, that’s the ticket! I should have realized that 180 pages ago!” Which was when you and I and everyone else over 14 realized it.

41S8VZZ62XL._BO1,204,203,200_But the real problem with this book is that the writer, Thomas Chastain, has what I have to call a tin ear for dialogue and description. It’s not often that this happens to me, but I hit a single word in this novel that struck me as being so off, so impossibly wrong and leaden and regrettable, that it stopped me dead in my tracks and I put the book down for a minute. Paul Drake, Jr. — the book follows the characters of the made-for-TV movies — is, as most of you will remember, a handsome curly-headed cheerful guy who’s a fairly tough PI but scores with the ladies. On page 207 of the paperback, Perry asks him, “Do you think your buddy, Dumas, will notice that you’ve gone?” “I already bade him good night. He won’t miss me as long as his bottle holds out.” My word was “bade”. As far as I’m concerned, Paul Drake, Jr. never “bade” anyone anything EVER. The book is full of big clanging wrongnesses in dialogue like, for instance, Perry using carefree contractions and talking imprecisely. And for the rest of it, the writing is … mushy. The prose is bland, the descriptions are insubstantial and careless, and the characterization is non-existent. Okay, I recognize that Gardner was not known for characterization, but honestly, we don’t know much about most of the characters at all, except from context. It’s like they have one-word character descriptions hanging around their necks and that’s all you get.

So finally I’m into the home stretch and thinking, “Well, he has to do something to make this book come alive, or even gasp for breath. I suppose he’ll work some kind of clever reversal on the ending I foresaw on page 12.” And I came up with a couple of ways that that could be done, and I was actually taking a little interest, when — bang, yeah, it was the ending I foresaw on page 12. I don’t actually throw books across the room, because I usually hope to sell them some day, but holy moly it was tempting. This book is start to finish irredeemably awful.

Thomas Chastain was involved in the Who Killed the Robins Family? game/book/publicity stunt thingie from the early 80s; he co-wrote novels with, of all people, Helen Hayes and Peter Graves. (What we call an “open ghost”.) He wrote a Nick Carter novel, for crying out loud, and one that a critic called “undistinguished”. Wow, you have to work hard to not quite manage to pull off a Nick Carter novel. In fact, Chastain can’t write a lick, and he dragged this project and this franchise down with him. I know that Parnell Hall, an excellent writer, wanted to take over the franchise — if you’re interested, look at the first couple of Steve Winslow novels as by J. P. Hailey, because he told me that’s how he repurposed the novels they didn’t buy. They read very oddly but very satisfyingly once you know the secret, and I bet you will join me in wishing that he would have taken over the franchise instead of Chastain. As it is, Chastain wrote one more of these (TCOT Burning Bequest) and the print franchise died an unhappy death. I would suspect that his performance here was under the strict and stern guidance of the estate — it just seems like that to me, because it’s all so damn bland — so I bet he tried his best. But what an ignominious end this was to such a great franchise!

My favourite edition

Very few editions exist, thank goodness; to the best of my knowledge, one hardcover (Yes! For the library trade) and one paperback.  Both are shown here and both are undistinguished. The hardcover edition reminds me of the colours and layout of the Chastain-written Robins family book that was everywhere one summer in the 80s. I actually hope no further editions are published. It’s difficult to find a mint copy of the hardcover with the original sticker on the front saying “Perry Mason returns!” so that might be my favourite; I think I have one in a box somewhere and some collector will want it someday to complete her Perry Mason collection. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Quick Look: The Case of the Fenced-In Woman, by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Fenced-In Woman, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1972)

30228What’s this book about?

Well-known criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason takes the case of a man who finds, due to a series of improbable circumstances, that he is sharing title to his new house with a beautiful woman who has run a five-strand barbed-wire fence down the middle of the house and is living in her half, doing various annoying things to try to drive him out and get back at her hateful ex-husband. Although the fence splits the swimming pool in half, it’s not clear which side of the house is involved when a dead body is found sprawled on the surrounding concrete. Perry (and his team of secretary Della Street and private eye Paul Drake) must defend both the homeowners in court; when he finds himself with a briefcase with his name printed on it in gold, filled with stolen bonds, he’s in almost as much trouble as his clients. It takes Perry a while to realize all of the ramifications of this briefcase but, when he does, he brings the crime home to a surprising murderer and a very surprising accomplice.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

I have to admit, I’ve laughed about this book for a long time. It was the last Perry Mason novel to be published during the author’s 80-year lifetime (one further novel by Gardner was published posthumously) and Gardner to me had seemed to echo a number of other elderly Golden Age writers whose last few books were of disappointing quality (Christie, Marsh, etc.). And I also must admit I had half composed my review before I sat down, as is my habit, to skim the book in one final burst before sketching out my comments.

Part of this writes itself.  Gardner has a consistent pattern in the Perry Mason books. Something unusual — the story hook — happens to an innocent person and he or she consults Mason for help. The story hook is something that is meant to pique the interest of the reader and present a problem that putatively will be solved by the end of the book. Why is someone paying a pretty girl to gain weight? Why did someone steal a man’s “bloodshot” glass eye?  Why is the dog in the house next door howling all night?  Well, this story hook, with the house divided by barbed wire, is just … ridiculous. Gardner tries to explain it by dragging in a divorce court judge with a sense of humour, but essentially, you just have to hold your nose and buy into it, or else put the book down.

So I was chuckling to myself as I went through the first third of the book, because the story hook really IS silly. It’s also a bit meretricious, because the beautiful woman part-owner of half the house makes a point of parading around in skimpy lingerie and swimsuits (to try to entice the man into making a pass, at which point she sues him for the other half of the house, I think) — and you can almost see the cover of the paperback, can’t you? The second third of the book caught me up a bit, though. In Perry Mason novels, Act II is reserved for the client(s) doing something stupid and self-incriminating that drags Perry into ethical minefields, and Perry frequently starts fooling around with the evidence so that no one really knows what happened anyway. Act III, of course, is always courtroom drama.

Well, I think I’d forgotten just what went on in Act II of this novel, which involves Perry making a flying trip to the casinos of Las Vegas, chasing a witness. There’s a chapter that details exactly how the profession of shill works (a beautiful young woman employed by the casino is friendly and enticing to gamblers while they’re gambling, then vanish when they put away their wallets, and another beautiful girl steers them out the door). Perry actually goes through the hands of two shills while he’s keeping an eye on his witness. Then Perry is caught with the briefcase filled with stolen bonds — and someone has monogrammed his name on it in gold. The police take everyone back to LA for Act III, Perry figures out what actually happened, and his clients are found not guilty.

c16399But as I skimmed, I started to realize that there are things in this book that are quite cleverly handled. Certainly the characterization is at the same low level of most other novels in the series; Gardner had apparently absorbed the dictum that if you create any realistic characters in a murder mystery, they stand out and distract the reader. But the plot is fast-moving, even if it doesn’t quite make sense all the time (Perry races off to Vegas for no really good reason, when detectives are available). The clever things are very mystery oriented and they start with a nice little piece of deduction about how a man would put his arm into a swimming pool to get something. Then there is the chapter on casino shills, which is interesting information and offers some fun moments with Perry interacting with the two women.

At the end of the book, Perry gets his clients acquitted by throwing suspicion on a third party, but no one is sure really whodunit. Perry sits back with his clients and Lieutenant Tragg and performs a clever piece of extended analysis on the planted briefcase that reveals a very surprising character’s involvement in the crime.  And honestly, I have to confess, it went right over my head the first time I read this book, I recall.

So instead of inviting you to laugh at this poor effort by an octogenarian writer, I decided it would be more honest to tell you that the old maestro really did have some skills. Yes, the hook is ridiculous. But once you suspend your disbelief, and stop looking for characterization, you will find an interesting plot with some well-hidden clues and a surprise at the end. Much more okay, overall, than I’d remembered.

cce4c1e6d73b74c237f13fb155c3f290My favourite edition

Very few books published in 1972 have a cover that I would call attractive; it was not a great period for book design. My favourite edition is really the cheerfully vulgar Pocket Canada edition shown to the left. Pocket Canada did an edition of the final few Mason novels that was executed with their usual lack of production values — two models, wearing as little as possible, sprawled on a seamless with something resembling the weapon, with the type sprayed over the top without a care as to how people actually look at books in stores. Those were the days, weren’t they? This is actually one of the Mason novels that can take some time to acquire, if you don’t use eBay or Abe — many people find a reading copy via a book club imprint is the only copy they can find.

 

Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

cropped-author-photoMiss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. ;-)  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.

october-8-challenge-chart1

10 crime fiction cliches I can live without

I read a lot of crime fiction — and in the past I have read more crime fiction than any dozen people of your acquaintance, unless your acquaintance includes people who read incredibly fast, are moderately obsessive about doing so, and have arranged their lives so as to yield a constant inflow of books. Noah’s Archives is what most people would call “the guest bedroom”, for instance; guests for me would be impossible, since it’s stacked pretty much floor-to-ceiling with boxes of books.

In my youth, it used to be that I could plough through just about anything for the sake of being able to say that I’d read it, and there were only a very, very few books that annoyed me sufficiently to make me shut them down and move on to the next volume in my teetering chest-high stack of “to be read”.  But I am older now, there are more calls on my time, and my disposition has transited from generally sunny to generally surly ;-)  And in the intervening years, I’ve developed mechanisms for avoiding books that I have learned from experience will neither amuse nor instruct me.

This started by my realizing that there was no point in my even starting a book that had a swastika on the cover; neither World War II stories nor thrillers where some Nazi plot rooted in WWII is coming to fruition in the present day is likely to hold my attention, since I just don’t find those stories very interesting.  I expanded this to include any story which had the word “Templar” in the title, or on the cover. “Intrepid archaeologist fights against an organization of Knights Templar determined to keep their secrets while they strive towards world domination” is a story that might have interested me the first time, but the 50th or 100th time left me cold.

Over the years, I’ve found that there are certain story elements — let’s call them cliches — that authors are fond of including in their stories that annoy me, for various reasons, but which are not helpfully signalled by a swastika on the cover. I don’t expect writers to stop using most of these any time soon, but there’s a small chance that I might prevent one or two from moving forward down the path of least resistance.  In the meantime, I may be able to help you identify these cliches in books that you might consider reading, and perhaps I’ll save you the time and trouble of ploughing through them … you may even realize that you actually like this sort of story and gravitate towards it.  (Apparently there are myriads of middle-aged men who like nothing more than a 900-page paperback with a swastika on the cover, written by someone pretending to be Robert Ludlum.  All I’m saying is, I’m not one of those guys.)

1. The detective’s close friend is sociopathic and violent

I first noticed this in the Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker; it seemed obvious that Hawk was in the stories to do things that were violent and intimidating, which allowed Spenser to keep his hands clean. Spenser could stand by while Hawk broke someone’s bones in pursuit of information, then take that information and use it to solve his case. You’ll notice that Hawk doesn’t seem to actually solve any problems or answer any questions; he’s the heavy. There’s also a character like this in some Harlan Coben novels; a wealthy sociopath who enjoys it when the detective asks him to do something violent. (I got so bored with Harlan Coben’s stories that I got rid of all my copies of his novels, so I can’t check the name or details.) This is kind of like having Dexter on speed-dial. I really think this is cheating the reader. The author needs things to happen to move the the plot forward; has figured out that those things won’t logically happen without violence being done; but can’t bring himself to make his precious detective do those violent and inappropriate things because he thinks, probably correctly, that the reader will think the worse of the detective. So he invents a character who is there to do the violence that the protagonist cannot. That’s cheap.

2. “My BFF Velma” syndrome.

The detective has a best friend who is unattractive, or somehow challenged, or bitchy and gay, who is willing to endlessly listen to the theories of the detective, ask stupid questions, run errands, and make phone calls at pre-arranged times, but who never actually contributes anything original to the plot. The BFF is pretty much there to keep the detective from having to do chapters in internal monologue. That’s not a friend, that’s a spear-carrier. When the author couples this with a BFF who is from a background such that the detective gets to demonstrate tolerance and acceptance of different racial origins, or sexual preferences, or ability levels — that’s just tacky, tacky, tacky.

3. The amateur detective as wish-fulfilment fantasy

When I read about an amateur detective who has a lovely house, three well-behaved kids, a husband who cares about her feelings and initiates sex three times a week; a career that doesn’t seem to require her to actually do anything to maintain it (she can stay away from the office for weeks at a time); a slender figure and a large clothing budget; the ability to invite 6 people over for dinner at a moment’s notice and produce a gourmet meal; attracts admiring male glances whenever she goes anywhere; has great landscaping, pets, vehicles, handyperson skills, credit, exercise habits, etc., etc. — I don’t see a detective.  What I see is an author who is trying to live out a fantasy life. This has a long history; Dorothy L. Sayers is quoted as saying something like, “Whenever I am short of cash, Lord Peter gets a new piano.” It’s an indication to me that the books are worthless, because if the detective is required to demonstrate some skill, ability, or knowledge, she automatically has it instead of having to go to the effort of acquiring it. And most of the events of the books are more for the author’s pleasure than the reader’s.

4. Characters in historic times exhibit societal attitudes and mores that reflect more modern values.

99% of women in Victorian England did not treat their female servants as equals, agitate for the right to vote, argue with their husbands, have extra-marital affairs at the drop of a hat, pursue careers reserved to men, and prove themselves capable of unarmed combat or marksmanship. Similarly, ancient Romans did not consult their slaves’ opinions nor refrain from whipping them for reasons connected with conscience, people of colour in 1930s southern US states did not converse as equals with white people, and mediaeval monks did not regard non-Christian religions as potentially equivalent. Most of these are laudable and even highly desirable social tropes, and we are lucky to have achieved a higher degree of enlightenment and equality than our historic predecessors. But putting modern values into the mouths and lives of people in historic times does not, as some authors fondly think, mean that we’re all the same and always have been. What it means is that you have failed to understand historical context and are lying to your readers. I accept that, say, Florence Nightingale was at the cutting edge of social change. What I do not accept is that there were hundreds of Victorian Englishwomen who felt the same way and who solved mysteries while maintaining a lifestyle so onerous that they had to make their own soap.

5. The detective relies upon extra-sensory perception, witchcraft, telepathy, pseudo-science, and, to quote the oath of the Detection Club, “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”.  

Or, rather, they may do so in books that do not qualify as mysteries. But if you have a detective who tries to solve mysteries by having seances, using tarot cards, sucking blood from the veins of potential witnesses, discovering poisons hitherto unknown to science, practising naturopathy, palmistry or Lombrosian face-reading, or by having an unaccountable FEELING about someone’s guilt, not only do you not have a mystery, you do not have me as a reader. If we actually could solve mysteries with telepathy or Scientology, there would be no point in having a police force.

6. Detectives with an unusually specialized area of knowledge who constantly run across crimes that involve that area of knowledge.

For instance, the proprietor of the only “rare yarn” store in the world, headquartered in a small town, is constantly encountering book-length situations where someone nearby is strangled with yarn, or a piece of rare yarn is lying beside the body, or a yarn collector is killed, or the proprietor of a yarn museum comes to town and is killed just before making an important announcement to the national press. One such novel is fine. Two are barely possible. Four is entirely beyond the bounds of probability, and twelve is just asinine.

7. The female detective who is torn between the romantic attentions of two gorgeous men, one of whom is a police officer and the other a constant source of useful information; the male detective who is torn between the romantic attentions of two gorgeous women, one of whom is his ex-wife and the other a constant source of sexual interludes.

These ideas demonstrate both an inability to create realistic characters and an inability to plot sensibly. The reason the female detective has two gorgeous men at her beck and call is that her police officer friend gets her places that she can’t legitimately go, and her other friend does things like look up credit history that the detective cannot legitimately acquire, and the female detective gets laid a lot. Meanwhile, neither of the men does the realistic thing and finds another girlfriend, or beat up the other guy and send him packing, or occasionally run away with the other guy. This is wish-fulfillment fantasy coupled with cheating the plot into place. Usually male detectives with two girlfriends follow the same pattern; both provide useful plot material like arrest records and credit information, and sexual interludes that the author fondly thinks are interesting to the reader. One of the women is usually an ex-wife because the author wants to demonstrate that the man has qualities sufficient to attract a quality woman, but is single because he gets laid more that way, and gets to have twinges of regret for his sexy ex that make him more human for half a chapter. What usually happens in real life in these situations is that both women come to the realization that the man in question is a two-timing asshole and both leave, occasionally with each other.

8. An interesting plot hook in chapter 1 that is promptly forgotten as the book moves forward.

Erle Stanley Gardner was good at creating interesting plot hooks — for instance, a pretty young woman is being well paid to gain weight and comes to Perry Mason for advice. In Gardner’s books, the weight gain is the tip of the iceberg and leads inevitably to a complicated and illegal plot and a murder that, crucially, remain connected with the pretty young woman and her weight gain. In the work of lesser authors, the young woman is merely a pawn in a larger scheme and disappears offstage after about chapter four. I rarely find out what is really happening because I so object to being treated like a forgetful nitwit that I usually don’t get beyond chapter six or so.

9. Cats who solve mysteries and display human-like qualities in the process.

Also probably dogs, gerbils, chimpanzees and any other animal you can think of, but for some reason writers mostly seem to like to suggest that cats have innate detecting skills. These emphatically are not mysteries; they are fantasy novels with mystery elements, because cats in real life do not solve mysteries, are not telepathic, and have a brain the size of a walnut that is focused 99% on food and sleep. And I personally am not fond of reading books about cats unless they act like real cats. If you are the kind of person who likes to fantasize that cats are not amoral and vicious, but instead interested in cooperating with humans in the solving of crimes, then I’m in touch with the heirs of a deposed Nigerian prince and only need a few thousand to get his millions out of Africa.

10. People who act against their own best interests or simple common sense, just to make the plot move forward.

The second victim who refuses to bother the police with the unusual piece of evidence she discovered right after the first murder. In fact, second victims who do all kinds of crazy and stupid things against their best interests or any sane person’s better judgment; I usually visualize these characters as having “Next to Die” written on their foreheads in red Sharpie.  “I won’t tell anyone about the rare postage stamp I found beside the body until I have a chance to talk in a lonely location at midnight with my friend the philatelist” is really not something people do outside of books, and it’s unfair to suggest that anyone is such a complete suicidal nitwit merely to keep the plot moving. To quote Ogden Nash on the topic of the Had I But Known novel, “And when the killer is finally trapped into a confession by some elaborate device of the Had I But Known-er some hundred pages later than if they hadn’t held their knowledge aloof,/Why, they say, why Inspector I knew all along it was he but I couldn’t tell you, you would have laughed at me unless I had absolute proof.” Trust me, the inspector rarely laughs at anyone who is offering him information. And I object to those hundred pages of padding merely because you think I’m willing to accept that people who pick up rare postage stamps beside corpses are stupid enough not to mention it to the police, let alone wave it triumphantly on camera on CNN.

Well, that’s ten — or, rather, that’s the FIRST ten I can think of.  What are yours?