The Eight of Swords, by John Dickson Carr (1934)

13022855Recently I had occasion to mention this book in the context that it is one of John Dickson Carr’s novels that is frequently overlooked; I recommended it in a comment to a novice Carr reader who has shouldered the huge task of reading all of Carr and assessing it in a blog devoted entirely to the topic, The Green Capsule. When I happened upon my copy of The Eight of Swords, I decided to re-read it — after what I have to confess is many, many years having passed between my last reading and this one — and bring you my report.

There are things about this book that have stuck in my memory clearly over the interval of some 30 years, but I’ll be honest, this is not quite as good a book as I remembered. It is certainly an interesting story that has an interesting premise but suffers from a large flaw of construction. Although you may not enjoy it one hundred percent, if you are a student of Carr you will definitely find it interesting.

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. You may learn more than you care to about a number of John Dickson Carr novels, but I don’t intend to reveal any significant plot points. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

f07a03263b6476d4f7458e895d84cc3cWhat is this book about?

Chief-Inspector Hadley of Scotland Yard takes a personal interest in a bizarre story about the Bishop of Mappleham, a well-known amateur criminologist, and the Bishop’s recent encounter with a poltergeist — mostly because the Bishop has been staying at the home of one Colonel Standish, the Chief Constable in Gloucestershire. Standish is a partner in the firm that is about to publish Hadley’s memoirs (this is the month before his retirement, although this fact is apparently forgotten later in the series), so when he asks the Assistant Commissioner for assistance, Hadley somewhat reluctantly takes a hand. The poltergeist has thrown red ink all over a local Vicar in a room in the Colonel’s home, and the Bishop was on the spot. The Bishop has also been understood to slide down a banister in the main hall and has assaulted a blameless housemaid, accusing her of being a crook known as Piccadilly Jane.

930182Dr. Gideon Fell (Carr’s series detective) has recently returned from America, via the ocean voyage described in 1934’s (the same year) The Blind Barber. He shows up in Hadley’s office disguised, for his own amusement, as a comedic faux-Viennese psychoanalyst. Colonel Standish is also Fell’s publisher, but this is not the only coincidence. Fell’s homeward voyage also included the Bishop’s son, Hugh Donovan, a charming young man who has ostensibly been studying criminology in New York but who has never cracked a book, and spent his time drinking and chasing women. The Bishop and his son are about to meet, in the presence of Fell, Hadley, and Colonel Standish, when the Colonel receives a telephone call from his estate. Mr. Septimus Depping, who lives in the Guest House on the Colonel’s property, was murdered the previous evening. And a copy of what is later found to be a tarot card, the eight of Swords, is lying by the body.

It seems as though Mr. Depping, although passing as a gentleman in the neighbourhood, has recently retired from a life of crime in New York. In the vicinity is one Louis Spinelli, a former criminal associate of the deceased. Also in nearby Hangover House is well-known mystery writer Henry Morgan and his wife Madeleine. And in the Colonel’s home is his wife, a staid lady known as “Maw” known for her rectitude, and his son Morley, who is engaged to Depping’s daughter Betty, who has been wired to return from Paris upon the discovery of her father’s body.

unknownIn order not to spoil your enjoyment, there is not much I should tell you about the activities of the evening of the murder — or, rather, the first murder. Those of you who are familiar with Carr know that there will be plenty of clues which appear to point one way and actually mean quite the opposite; these include a buttonhook, the aforementioned tarot card, a clumsy disguise, a secret passage, and a dinner that was mysteriously eaten, but not by its intended recipient.

Midway through the narrative, Hugh Donovan falls in love with the Colonel’s daughter Patricia, who is described as a “luscious little ginch”. It is clear by the manner of her introduction that she is innocent of all wrongdoing and there only to be a romantic interest for the Bishop’s son; the narrator out-and-out says so. (And, for those of you who know Carr well, I will add that this is true. She is innocent.) Mr. and Mrs. Morgan and the newly-formed couple investigate the crimes together, although they are not entirely privy to the thoughts of Dr. Fell or the Bishop. There are two more murders and an exciting evening of murderous pursuits in the moonlit countryside before Dr. Fell brings home the crime to a rather surprising perpetrator, and then a number of innocent people and the police join together to explain it all in the last chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

John Dickson Carr (here, JDC) is one of the foremost figures in the Golden Age of Detection; frankly, I recommend you read his work from start to finish of his career, although some will interest you more than others. This book is automatically worth your time because it was written by Carr. Some of his books are principally interesting as failures (I’m thinking here of the final handful of his novels) and some, like this, are qualified successes. But they are still worth your time; a mediocre JDC novel is better than the finest efforts of a lot of other Golden Age writers.

This is the fourth novel JDC wrote about Dr. Gideon Fell, a character based apparently upon the public person of G. K. Chesterton, in the space of two years (1933/34). And in this context it’s interesting to look at the general flavour or approach of each of these novels.

Carr had already written four novels about Henri Bencolin, all of which had a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. Also in the same year as The Eight of Swords he published the first two novels about Sir Henry Merrivale (as by Carter Dickson), both of which have a strong air of spooky violence unleavened by much comedy. In fact, yes, he published five novels in 1934 (the fifth is Devil Kinsmere, a historical adventure, as by Roger Fairbairn, which sank with very little notice); possibly the most productive year in JDC’s career.

ee79ab5084ca775a98de63b5f88a6d49The first four Fell novels from 1933/34 do show a kind of progression, though. 1933’s Hag’s Nook has the same emphasis on menace and spooky goings-on in the dead of night, with a huge emphasis on atmosphere, as much of his other work to this time. 1933’s The Mad Hatter Mystery, though, is the first sign of something a little different. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that while Mad Hatter is a great success as a mystery, there is a peculiar air hanging over the novel of tragicomedy. I’ll use that word because “bathos” is not quite right; this is not an unintentional lapse from one modality to another, it’s merely that JDC appears to be trying to introduce a comic element to a novel but making it similarly creepy to the rest of his work. See the illustration on Dell #706 set into this paragraph? The corpse’s hat is too big for him, and this is directly from the book. It looks … tragicomic, and there are a number of other instances of that unusual genre form in this book (including the ending, where the murderer insists on confessing even though Dr. Fell has indicated he would prefer not to solve the mystery).

The third Fell novel, from 1934, The Blind Barber, I think everyone would agree is one of JDC’s most significant excursions into the very small sub-genre of mystery farce. Wikipedia says it is “generally felt to be the most humorous of Dr. Fell’s adventures,” and I agree, although it does not approach the low-comedy excesses of, say, The Cavalier’s Cup and other later adventures of Sir Henry Merrivale. I have to add that my limited research facilities were not able to precisely determine which book came out first in 1934, but it is certain that they would have been written within months of each other.

6573986169_ae8008afea_mBlind Barber moves at breakneck speed, with many ridiculous adventures made more difficult by the frequent drunkenness of most of the characters. And it is all very fast and very funny, much like the screwball comedies of the 1930s; that was a popular style at the time. 1934 is the same year that produced It Happened One Night. One of the things I find very jarring about Blind Barber (I have elsewhere identified it as my least favourite book published as by Carr) is that this insane level of farce is balanced off by an innocent woman being brutally beaten to death with a blunt instrument, and apparently everyone’s having much too good a time to care. It’s as though Carr remembers every once in a while that, “Oh yeah, this is a murder mystery” and makes the murder bits a little more gruesome and a little more bloody, then returns to people being drunk and running around. There is a difficult logic problem concealed within the book, and it is highly satisfactory in that respect, but the trappings of it are to me very distasteful. I should add that many, many people think that this is a great book and your opinion is likely to be the opposite of mine, because they think it’s hilarious. Your mileage may vary. Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that this book is about 9/10ths comedy and 1/10th horrific mystery and leave value judgements aside.

As I said, there’s a progression here. Hag’s Nook is 10 parts horror/mystery, 0 parts comedy. Mad Hatter is 8 parts horror, 2 parts comedy; Blind Barber is 9 parts comedy, 1 part horror. You will not be surprised to know that Eight of Swords is 5 parts comedy, 5 parts horror.

eightswordsUnfortunately, and this is the major problem with the book, the first half of the book is entirely comedy and the last half is entirely a horrific mystery. The transition is jarring and doesn’t work, and the two halves of the novel seem disjointed from each other. Eight of Swords starts out with every promise of being a Wodehousian comic novel. The Bishop is a broadly-drawn comic figure who hilariously thinks that international crime is everywhere. And yet, those are precisely the people who kick off a screwball comedy plot by,for once in their lives, being right, as happens here. The bishop’s son has to justify an expensive education in investigative criminology when he spent all his time drinking and chasing women. There is a young woman who, it’s pretty much said by the author, is there to be the sexy piece attached to the narrator. There’s lots of drinking, the mystery writer character is making hilarious observations about the nature of murder mysteries, and proposing straw-man solutions to the mystery. Everything you know about Carr’s recent work suggests that Eight of Swords is going to continue to be as farcical as Blind Barber right through to the second half, but boom! all of a sudden the entire tone of the book changes. Dr. Fell essentially stops paying attention to the farcical bits of the plot, and those characters, and walks around looking broody because he already knows whodunit. There’s a fairly artificial build-up to a set of interlocking meetings in the dead of night, a guy gets shot through the head at the precise moment when he’s heaving up his dinner, and the rest of the book is about a squalid lot of gangsters and low-lifes who all get killed in violent and unpleasant ways.

s-l300-1There are a bunch of holes in the plot, frankly. No one ever mentions exactly how it is that the lowlife gangster who is the victim has managed to rent a house from the Chief Constable of the county within the boundaries of his estate. There are certain issues with respect to passports that I find hard to swallow, and also that Scotland Yard was so entirely ignorant with respect to the whereabouts and identity of prominent American criminals. JDC does not, to my mind, understand the motivations of American gangsters very well, and there are some very implausible assertions about the nature of one character’s romantic attractiveness that are impossible to verify.

But once JDC gets into the world of actual murder, he is his usual self. I’m fairly sure you will find the solution to the mystery is really unexpected. Whether you think it’s entirely fair is another thing entirely. I think it is barely fair … but it depends upon you drawing inferences from a set of facts that are wildly at variance to the way they are being represented, and it’s very difficult. Most crucially to the fairness aspect, the essential deductions are not about physical objects, but people’s motivations for doing various activities. The most crucial such motivation would have been much easier to discern if we had had an autopsy report that explained a definitive situation about the corpse; I won’t say what it is but it was absolutely within the forensic capacities of 1934. So this is rather cheated into place, which is not terrible but it’s not what we expect from JDC, who when he pays attention to these things is downright diabolical in his attention to detail.

28116978-_uy200_There is an amusing footnote about the use of language here. JDC describes a young woman as a “ginch” and proceeds to define this term for the reader over the course of a couple of pages; she is sexy and forward and unaffected, apparently. I was curious about this word and went looking for its origin; to my surprise and amusement, it was apparently defined by Carr himself (see the Oxford Dictionary here). In Canada, the term has become associated with the specific style of men’s underwear known as “tighty whities”, but this is far from global usage.

basic_8swordsI also took the trouble to look up the divinatory meaning of the tarot card, the eight of swords; it is nothing like the meaning Carr ascribes to it, and it doesn’t seem to look like he describes it either. The most common style is depicted within this paragraph. JDC must be quoting from something, though, Dr. Fell describes the card quite precisely. So there’s probably a source unavailable to me, and it must have been quite esoteric.


John Dickson Carr

There’s one very amusing piece in this book which deserves to be more widely thought about. Carr frequently breaks the fourth wall in this book — everyone in the final chapter admits that they are in the final chapter, and one character notes that “[t]he public will only glance at this chapter, to make sure it hasn’t been cheated by having evidence withheld.” That actually did amuse me. The other little cute piece is where the mystery writer character Morgan talks about his own novels, and of course the temptation here to hear the voice of Carr in his character is irresistible.

Here, Morgan talks about his series of novels, and honestly they sounded rather like elegant cozies of today. You see, his series character has spent at least six mystery novels in pursuit of killers within the highest reaches of the British government (“the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in The Inland Revenue Murders. I was only letting off a little steam in that one.”). The Bishop’s son remarks that he likes Morgan’s novels better than:

“… the ones that are so popular by that other fellow — what’s his name? William Block Tournedos. I mean the ones that are supposed to be very probable and real, where all they do is run around showing photographs to people.”

Morgan looked embarrassed.

“Well,” he said, “you see, to tell you the truth, I’m William Block Tournedos too. And I thoroughly agree with you. That’s my graft.”


“Yes. They’re written for the critics’ benefit. You see, the critics, as differentiated from the reading public, are required to like any story that is probable. I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever—that’s very important—(3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction. Digressions are the curse of probability . . . which is a funny way of looking at life in general; and the detective may uncover all he can, so long as he never deduces anything. Observe those rules, my children; then you may outrage real probability as much as you like, and the critics will call it ingenious.”

Well, in the roman a clef sense, I think you will agree that a three-named mystery writer in whose novels no deduction ever takes place has to be Freeman Wills Crofts, King of the Humdrums. (As opposed, as I understand it, to G.D.H. Cole, Queen of the Humdrums. 😉 But I digress.) This is an absolutely killing troll on Crofts, in those pre-Twitter days, and I think it is very revealing. It shows that Carr sees his work clearly, unsentimentally; he knows he’s good at writing those creepy exciting mysterious novels, and people like them, but the critics don’t take them seriously, and they take Crofts seriously. I expect the two men were friendly enough at the dinners of the Detection Club, but their styles are quite opposite and it must have galled Carr to have to work much harder for the same sales.

8309345-_uy200_To sum up, I have to say that other people are well known to like Carr’s sense of humour more than I do. He’s rather in the vein of British seaside postcard humour, which I’m not too pompous to appreciate, but my issue is always that he mixes it with a really ghastly level of violence. But even if you do like his humour more than I do, you will come up short halfway through this book as it goes away and is replaced by the mood of a 1934 British episode of The Sopranos. The book needed to contain humour and action in about this 50:50 ratio, but to have them mixed evenly throughout the process so that each leavened the other. The puzzle is clever, the answer is surprising, and there are JDC’s usual writing skills in plotting and action to entertain the reader. Not one of his best, but not really one of his worst either.

14781997929My favourite edition

I prepared this piece while using the edition from Collier, AS466V, shown at the head of this text. My copy proved to be a little too fragile to want to use in this way and I switched to the undistinguished Zebra paperback from 1986.

If I were looking for a funky edition, I’d be looking for the 1943 trade-size edition from Detective Novel Classic / Novel Selections, shown nearby, which appears to be around US$20 as of today in a Good state. The cover is interesting, the typography is elegant, and the illustration actually depicts the card as it’s described in the book. Other than that, the lady in the orange shift being menaced by an epee is fun, and the Robert Maguire illustration is very collectible. This is Berkley G-48 from 1957, near the top. Pity there’s nothing in the book about a lady menaced by anything at all.


The Dartmoor Enigma, by Sir Basil Thomson (1935)

The Dartmoor Enigma, An Inspector Richardson Mystery, by Sir Basil Thomson (2016); originally published in 1935 as Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery. With an introduction by Martin Edwards (who is the current president of the Detection Club and author of last year’s superb history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder).

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

the-dartmoor-enigma-an-inspector-richardson-mystery-by-basil-thomson-1911095765Last week, I ran across a note of a 2016 electronic reissue of Basil Thomson’s eight mysteries. I’ve read quite a few rare mysteries in my day, but I’d barely heard of this author and only had a dim memory that he had had some sort of personal scandal associated with his life. Sir Basil had been quite a guy who, in a long and varied career, had become Assistant Commissioner for Crime at Scotland Yard, before he mysteriously lost his job. As best I remembered, Thomson’s mysteries were not of a level of excellence that had recommended them for paperback republication in later years, but were well regarded. They were also so little known that I had never managed to read one. And he is so obscure that that excellently exhaustive resource, Stop, You’re Killing Me, did not for once contain a list of his entire oeuvre. Now THAT is a little-known author.

So in a moment of curiosity/weakness, considering the tottering heap of my “to-be-read” pile, I picked up the inexpensive e-book of the fifth book of eight at random and thought, “I’ll look at the first few pages…” Famous last words, of course, but I have to say (1) I didn’t put it down, and (2) I went back and got the other seven in the series the same day.  So you can assume in advance I enjoyed this.

What is this book about?

As a result of both the Chief Constable of Devonshire and Scotland Yard receiving an anonymous letter suggesting that the writer knows the death of the late Mr. Dearborn was caused by a bash in the head rather than his contemporaneous car accident. Chief Inspector Richardson is assigned to the case. The Dartmoor man who died in a car accident soon proves to have been bludgeoned to death. But the victim soon proves to be a complete enigma. He arrived in Dartmoor with a huge sum of money in cash, bought a house, got married — and apparently never existed before he arrived in Dartmoor.

Within a page or two, “The junior chief inspector made his appearance.” We learn nothing about Richardson other than that he is young, having received promotion quickly, and has many fine personal qualities that endear him to his fellow officers. Richardson takes Sergeant Jago in tow and begins his investigation. The local constabulary rather quickly fastens guilt upon a disgruntled ex-employee of the late Dearborn, but Richardson progresses further in short order.

There is not much point in my retailing the activities of the plot here because, frankly, they are the principal virtue of this novel; if I give much of it away, you will enjoy the book much less. Suffice it to say that the deceased’s affairs are considerably more tangled than it would appear at first glance, and that his history appears to contain a film star improbably named Jane Smith, a Borneo gold-mining company, a defalcating young lawyer, and a blameless wife. Richardson tracks down the different threads of the investigation and determines the true identity of the late Mr. Dearborn and also the identity of his murderer, bringing the case to a satisfying close. And in the best Humdrum traditions, there is a smart twist at the end.

1_bacb819f-7bcc-4515-93bf-64e9452f0a2f_grandeWhy is this book worth your time?

A theme that seems to repeat a lot in my reviewing work is my search for charm within the pages of the books I review. It’s a difficult concept to nail down and not very rigorous in its boundaries. Essentially, when I find a book to have charm, it means that the writing is somehow likeable, the story is pleasant to contemplate, the author’s voice is amusing, there are no horrible errors of authorial judgment that I am forced to ignore — and I can close the book with a sense that I have just had a “nice” experience.

When I say this book has charm, and it absolutely does, it doesn’t necessarily have to emanate from the author himself. To be honest, much of the pleasure of this book came from the introduction by Martin Edwards. He understood the book completely, and most of all was able to place it very accurately within a constellation of other authors with whose work I am more familiar. So if I tell you that this is rather like an Inspector French novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, but minus the “timetable mystery” aspect and with the addition of considerable accurate detail about police procedure, you may well understand what that means. This is, indeed, what I’ve called elsewhere a proto-procedural. That is to say, it’s a “detective novel” that focuses on the activities of Chief Inspector Richardson and shows in detail how he works with his fellow officers, but written before the term “police procedural” was invented.


Sir Basil Thomson

Martin Edwards’ introduction indeed places Thomson precisely in relation to two other GAD writers. Here’s the sentence that says it all: “Thomson’s mysteries are less convoluted than Crofts’, and less sophisticated than [Henry] Wade’s, but they make pleasant reading.” Yes, indeed. There is enough cleverness in this volume to make me smile at the obligatory twist at the end, but, as Edwards says, “… intricacy of plotting — at least judged by the standards of Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr — was not Thomson’s true speciality.” I agree, but to be honest, that was kind of a pleasant relief. This was an uncomplicated tale, well-written and rather unambiguous. If you are the sort of person who actually tries to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed, you may well, as I did, get all the way to the end first (which in my case makes me puff up my chest with pride for the rest of the day, so there you are). Or you may have the almost as pleasant experience of getting 3/4 of the way to the solution but being fooled by the clever final twist. You will still feel as though you have accomplished something.

500My current interests in social history as woven into detective fiction were also very nicely satisfied by this story. There’s quite a bit of material here about social class. In chapter five, for instance, the disgruntled ex-employee Pengelly, a kind of labour agitator, is visited by the police. “Evidently he had been told by the foreman the quality of his visitors; he was on the defensive.” If you know me, you’ll know that my ears pricked up at the word “quality”. But Scotland Yard is not terribly unkind to Pengelly overall, although it does arrest him for a petty crime — Robertson has a word with the foreman at his new place to save his job. Similarly there is a dotty old peeress who is lavish with money and gives someone a £500 note. Honestly, I hadn’t realized there was such a high denomination of British banknote, it must have been extraordinarily rare. That sum would have paid a maid’s wages for a decade. There’s plenty more of these tiny fascinating details, from a young servant-class woman “dressed in her best walking-suit with its rabbit-skin necklet and her latest hat” to the problems of being a young man with an amazing amount of freckles who gets remembered for them wherever he goes. I enjoyed the activity of stopping reading for a moment while I tried to figure out just what was meant by a tiny detail, like visualizing that rabbit-skin necklet.


Sir Basil Thomson

I did mention above that I dimly remembered that there had been some kind of scandal in Thomson’s life, and I will leave you with this thought. Having this rare old book to read was a pleasure. But having Martin Edwards’s introduction to it really was worth the money because of the  details that he provides, about that scandal and everything else. I do actually want to encourage you to buy this particular edition because of the excellence of the introduction, replete with biographical and personal detail. So I will merely quote one single sentence and let you judge for yourself if you want to find out more.

“In the same year [1925], [Thomson] was arrested in Hyde Park for ‘committing an act in violation of public decency’ with a young woman who gave her name as Thelma de Lava.”

“There!” as PT Barnum might have said. “If that don’t pack them in, I’m a Dutchman!”

I think you will enjoy this pleasant mystery; it is not of the first quality but it is far from the worst. If you like the police procedural or the detective novel, you will broaden your horizons here in an interesting and worthwhile way. You have the introductory remarks of the insightful and expert Martin Edwards to guide you in placing this writer’s work into its precise context with respect to the boundaries of the Humdrum School. Both Dorothy L. Sayers and Barzun and Taylor commented with great favour upon the author. And, holy moly, there’s a woman who “gave her name as Thelma de Lava.” What more could you want?



The Murder that had Everything!, by Hulbert Footner (1939)

12540270_10208104766567176_726760561_nWARNING: 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. 

What’s this book about?

Mystery writer and well-known New York amateur detective Amos Lee Mappin is called in by pretty socialite Peggy Brocklin, whose $40 million have been abandoned before the altar by a disappearing fiance, Rene Doria.  Rene is not from the highest drawer; in fact, he’s a coarsely handsome nobody who’s spent the last four years in Hollywood trying to get into the movies, and he captivated Peggy with his sexual magnetism. A man like that always has more than one woman on the string to provide the large sums of money that fuel his activities, and we soon meet the wealthy and middle-aged Mrs. Vosper, who loaned Doria a valuable piece of  jewelry when he said he was in a jam. Mappin quickly locates Doria, or at least his lifeless body, and nearby in his apartment are three clues. One is a flower — prepared to be worn in a man’s lapel. The second is a strange doodle on a desk blotter, with four dots in the centre of a circle. (Much as you see on the cover of the latest edition, depicted at the top of this review.) And the third is a tiny piece of broken glass that has a strange shape; maddeningly familiar but unidentifiable.

As Mappin continues to investigate, he has occasion to take advice from a couple of well-connected reporters on the society circuit, including Beau Gramercy, whose column can make or break anyone in modern cafe society. Using his extensive contacts in the upper social echelons, Mappin starts to uncover the outlines of something larger than this isolated incident, where a number of handsome impoverished men have been systematically fleecing wealthy women. The detective identifies the mastermind behind these schemes and solves the case.

1363Why is this worth reading?

If you aren’t familiar with the life story of Hulbert Footner, I recommend you to his Wikipedia article found here. I’m a Canadian, and he was too — but I wouldn’t recommend you to his work merely for that, or that he explored the rather remote area of the Canadian Rockies in which I live in 1911 and gave his name to Lake Footner in northwestern Alberta. He was at various time an actor and a dramatist, but eventually settled into writing detective fiction until his death in 1944. This is one of the writers who used to have the most interesting biographic paragraphs on the inside back jacket flap … not much seen these days. That alone might interest you in his work, though.

He wrote two different detective series. His first was from a series of short stories in a “slick” magazine about Madame Rosika Storey that were accumulated into books, and these are perhaps his best-known works. But later in his career he switched over to writing about mystery novelist Amos Lee Mappin, protagonist of this novel, who moved in New York’s cafe society. Both detectives have young women who assist them in something of the Watson role; this is an unusual thing in GAD and gives both series a bit of proto-feminist interest. Really, though, it seems to me as though he was merely writing for a female audience.

dell0074And in terms of a female audience, I thought this book was very interesting. Without revealing too much about the book and potentially spoiling your enjoyment, I can say that the criminality that underlies the book is the getting of money from wealthy women who become emotionally involved with the wrong man. Some of it seems like blackmail, some of it seems like merely … social pressure. It can’t be easy to be young, pretty, and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the world, if you happen to meet a devilishly handsome “bad boy” who sweeps you off your feet.

dell0074backSo the crime here is one in which men prey on women, and Amos Lee Mappin and the young woman who assists him together find out who is guilty and stop the blackmail. An interesting story and an interesting premise for a story at a time when, even though women were reading detective fiction in large numbers, they weren’t finding themselves often represented as either the partners of male investigators or the targets of large-scale criminal operations.

At least, that’s the point I was going to make when I first started to write this review. Because up until then, the picture in my mind was of a charming piece of GAD written in the 1920s. Nothing disturbed my picture of a detective of the early 1920s; everything that was described seemed to be contributing to this picture, whether it was clothes, patterns of speech, and a specific detail that I cannot explain for the sake of your potential enjoyment, but which explains two of the three main clues noted above. Then I realized that this had been published in 1939! It really did surprise me, and I went looking for evidence that this had been written and kept in a drawer for 15 years, or perhaps was a re-writing of an earlier book or story … but no. This book was written in 1939 but if you start the book with the presumption that you are in 1924, you won’t be any worse off.

This, to me, is strange stuff, and I can’t explain it. I mean, more famous authors like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, as they advanced in age and were nearing the end of their careers, wrote books that took place in the year of publication and yet contained the attitudes, vocabulary, and social mores of a time 20 or 30 years earlier. I suspect that the context is long gone that will let me understand how this book achieved publication when it, to me, seems to be completely out of step with its context. I mean, 1939 — the year of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Rawson’s Footprints on the Ceiling, and Stout’s Some Buried Caesar. Okay, this book is not quite antimacassars and voh-de-oh-doh, but neither is it seemingly set in the same social context as any of those novels, all with wealthy women who do pretty much what they choose.

Anyway — unless you are over 90 and read this when it first came out, and have a social context in which you can place it, you’re probably going to enjoy this novel; just ignore the copyright date and revel in a time when “cafe society” meant something different than hanging with your crew at Starbucks.

My favourite edition

Full disclosure: Although I’ve had the Dell mapback edition shown above for years, and even read it way back when, I’d quite forgotten about this minor work until Coachwhip was kind enough to send me a review copy of the edition shown at the head of this review. I’m sorry to say that my first love will always be for the mapback, but I have to say this is an attractive modern edition. The typography is attractive and the book has a nice hand-feel to it, in weight and cover finish; I am happy to see that Coachwhip avoids the bad habits of other small presses and sticks to simple cover designs like the one here.  I venture to guess that their edition will be about the same price as a Very Good to Near-Fine copy of Dell #74, the first paperback edition, and will look considerably less lurid on your shelves. So call this one my second favourite, but if there weren’t a mapback, it might be my first.



The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite Ellery Queen novels

The Tuesday Club Queen

A 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 month; Tuesdays in 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.

My five most and least favourite Ellery Queen novels

It’s always difficult to pick just a few titles from a lifetime of writing, but rather than simply present you with my “five best/five worst” list, I thought it would be worthwhile to give you an example of the factors that bounded my decision. I trust that will make it easier for you to decide if you agree for yourself or not, because it’s usually the case that there are as many opinions about such things as there are devoted readers of any author. What I think is most important is not whether you agree with me, but if you get to spend an enjoyable moment thinking, “Why, that nitwit, it’s perfectly clear that the best/worst one is X because what *I* like most about the work is …”. So have fun deciding exactly where I went wrong!

It seems to me as though for many mystery writers there is something that they’re trying to say, or a theme they’re trying to express, that you can find repeating throughout their work. One underlying theme is “Police work is demanding and difficult, but somehow rewarding.” Another is, “I wrote this so that you could have fun figuring it out, but I’m not really serious.” (Freeman Wills Crofts and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, respectively.) Sometimes an author will have two modalities: Robert Barnard, for instance, was as wacky as Taylor half the time and  wrote dark and complex literary mysteries the rest of the time.

Ellery Queen, though, showed us FOUR different themes during different time periods. Period 1 is generally acknowledged to be the “nationalities” mysteries, where the focus is on pure logic. Let’s call the short Period 2 “trying to get Hollywood’s attention”; plot-heavy, snappy dialogue, simple caricatured characters. Then Period 3, “Wrightsville”, where EQ mixed crimes and small-town American values. Period 4 was “solve the imposed pattern” mysteries, where Ellery met a situation where there was some sort of structured pattern of events that didn’t make sense unless you knew the hidden theme. Next, Period 5 was when Ellery Queen became a house name, and the theme was “here’s an exciting, shallow, and straightforward story about a crime”. I think instead of defining a Period 6 it’s easier to say that Period 4 resumed after Period 5 had run its course; the quality declined at the end of this long oeuvre but the theme of the imposed pattern remained the same.

I differentiate here between my idea of a theme, and something that many people have noticed about Ellery Queen stories — they’re frequently structured like “first the false solution, then the true one”. Yes, I agree, this is frequently the case — but it’s not thematic, it’s a way of telling that thematic story. That’s why it cuts across all the EQ periods in the same way as their standby short story structure (which is, “X is dead, A, B, C are the suspects; they all look equally guilty but two are disqualified because of Z”).

I’ve gone into this in a little detail because I think it’s important for you to know that I enjoy Periods 1 and 3 the most, and that’s likely to colour my ideas of which novels are my most and least favourite, and why. I don’t really think Period 4 is the equivalent of Period 1 … your mileage may vary simply because you prefer one theme to the other. In the same vein, I’ve deliberately called these my “most and least” favourites — not “best” and “worst”; and I’ve excluded volumes of short stories.

My five most favourite Ellery Queen novels

And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite EQ novel is at the end of this list.

5. The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)

siamese-twin-cover-pocketbookThere’s not much to the puzzle issues in this book; the clues are slight and well-hidden. There’s a tiny bit more coincidence in a few of the plot twists here than I ordinarily prefer (the initials of one character, for instance, are a stretch). But the situation that underlies this book is perhaps the most exciting thing EQ ever wrote; all the characters are stranded at the top of a mountain and, chapter by chapter, the fire is creeping up the mountain towards them. As Thelma Ritter observes in All About Eve, “Everything except the bloodhounds snapping at her behind.” This book is beautifully put together to increase the tension in a long slow slope. By the time the fire reaches the mountaintop your nerves are pitched at the point where you want to scream and hide your head, but you absolutely must know what happens next. It’s a wonderful experience and masterfully written.

4. Calamity Town (1942)

d90baa33c135fd52b915c8f508884828This book is so excellent in so many ways … It’s from Period 3 and is really the volume where Wrightsville comes into full flower. Halfway House seems to have given the EQ cousins their first taste of making small-town America a character in their book, or an ongoing landscape against which morality plays were displayed. In Calamity Town they have a sure-handed mix of the detective plot and the small-town America setting, and a story that links them both together. This is one of the two novels in which EQ demonstrated their understanding of how a media frenzy works; the other one is my next entry, Cat of Many Tails. I really think this is what Dorothy L. Sayers was talking about when she wanted detective fiction to become “a literature with bowels”; this is a strong family drama about horrible things happening to nice people. Ellery, as the outsider, is the perfect narrator and begins his process of worming his way into the heart of Wrightsville.

3. Cat of Many Tails (1949)

cat-of-many-tails-2An absolutely crucial step in the development of the serial killer novel, this beautifully written book is a look at the investigation of a Manhattan-based serial killer who is strangling victims with pink and blue cords: pink for girls, blue for boys. It’s told in a recomplicated style that introduces dozens of characters and follows them for varying lengths of time; a few close relatives of the first victims form a small group of amateur investigators helping Ellery solve the case. The tension builds and builds and this novel is a classic in EQ’s best story-telling modality; the false solution, then the true. Brilliantly written in a whirlpool of action and tension.

2. The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

the-greek-coffin-mystery-1960-illus-james-meese-1I’ve written extensively about this novel before and how and why I like it so much.  (The previous piece is here.) Simply put, I think it’s the best pure puzzle mystery from Period 1 and one of the best puzzle mysteries EVER. It’s a long and complicated puzzle with lots of clues and some interesting characters. The narrative leads you in many directions but if you understand the tiny clues correctly, you can only come up with one very, very surprising killer. This is also the novel that contains the reason why Ellery never talks about his inferences and possible solutions until the end of each case, because he gets so badly burned here by speaking in advance. I can remember distinctly thinking I’d finally solved this one, in my teenage years, only to realize I’d been beautifully led down the garden path by a typewriter key.

1. The Murderer is a Fox (1945)

25b_FoxThis is my favourite Queen, and I suspect I may well be alone in this. It’s a Wrightsville novel from Period Three and most people automatically accept the consensus that Calamity Town is the best Wrightsville novel of all. That novel is certainly fine. But this novel has all the good points of Calamity Town, plus it has a wonderful familial intimacy that the other novel only hints at. These are real people who are suffering greatly, and trying to reconstruct the actions of a fateful day years ago. And the writing is just so beautiful … you can
tragedyofy-avonsee tiny dust motes dancing in the air of the attic, you can see the lines on Davy Fox’s face that shouldn’t be there but for the war. There is not a lot of evil intent here, but there is great and powerful sadness. It’s also one of the few endings where Ellery cheats justice in a good cause; ultimately this novel is about how we should treat war veterans and rarely do.

And two explanatory notes. I have deliberately drawn my terms to exclude the four Barnaby Ross novels but if I hadn’t, I would have had to find
ARoomToDieIna way to wedge The Tragedy of Y (1932) into this list. And if you want to know what my favourite ghost-written Ellery Queen novel is, it’s A Room to Die In (1965), written by science-fiction writer Jack Vance.

My five least favourite Ellery Queen novels

Again, in reverse numerical order.

5. The Glass Village (1954)

ggpb0776I don’t care for this novel for a number of reasons. One is that it pretty shamelessly takes off the real-life Grandma Moses, which is a bit lazy. What really bothers me, though, is that this novel is like a Wrightsville novel, if Wrightsville had been populated by inbred cretinous bigots. Wrightsville has the advantage of being balanced and realistic in other novels; this is the Dark Side, and it’s very unpleasant. The book as much as admits to the reader at one point that the plot depends on nobody having access to a long-distance telephone, which is unlikely, and to me the central plot point that identifies the murderer was clear and obvious. Yes, I get that this is about McCarthyism and the mob mentality. But it’s just unpleasant and unhappy and discouraging.

4. The American Gun Mystery (1933)

dell0004This one is on my list as one of two Queenian adventures here where I just flat-out cannot believe the solution. In this case, without getting into details, I cannot accept where the gun was said to be hidden; it’s not built up enough to be remotely possible. All the foofaraw with closing the circle and searching 80,000 people in the audience was just so much fluff. The suspects all seem phoney and there is one character whom we never get to meet for long enough to see something that would have been nice to have a chance of assessing; a bit of a cheat. And the way in which Ellery attains the solution is, when all else fails, pull something ridiculous out of your ass because it’s the only thing left. Rex Stout did it much more elegantly and much more tersely in a 1960 novella, The Rodeo Murder (found in Three at Wolfe’s Door). 

3.The Origin of Evil (1951)

UnknownUnpleasant people doing unpleasant things against a backdrop of Atomic-Age paranoia makes for a very unpleasant book. And in this one, just as the outset of And on the Eighth Day, EQ makes fun of Period 2 — they mock the reader for ever thinking that Ellery could have been a screenwriter. The common theme that underlies this Period 4 novel is so far-fetched that it’s impossible to figure out even if you had more useful clues than being required to know that worthless stocks are called “cats and dogs”. And there’s something in this book that is so unpleasant to read … the misogyny and sheer hatred that EQ express for the “poisonous orchid” woman at the heart of this mystery through the lips of Ellery himself. It’s almost as though there was someone in the lives of one or both of the authors against whom they were taking revenge with this vicious portrait of a woman who is married to an impotent cripple and still has the nerve to want to be sexual.

2.The Four of Hearts (1938)

1543-1This is the most commercial novel the EQ partnership ever wrote, to my mind, and it’s meretriciously setting itself out to be a screenplay without caring that there’s nothing of any substance here. The movie-star characters seem as though they were created with specific actors in mind — fine, but if you expect them to be suspects in a murder mystery, don’t make them so darn perfect, because then the reader cannot help but solve the mystery by elimination. The plot line is flat and shallow and things happen for no really good reason, except that a change of location is needed to move the story along. The ending is both hard to understand and just plain silly. And perhaps it’s a very small thing, but I really prefer it it an author doesn’t treat me as sufficiently credulous to believe a “fact” that he just out-and-out makes up. Why anyone would accept that “in fortune telling, cards that are torn in half reverse their meaning” is beyond me; how many times have you accidentally torn a card in half? What they were getting at, of course, is that in a Tarot deck the meaning is reversed if the card is upside down. But apparently I cannot cope with the exotic knowledge that Tarot cards are one-side-up. Bah.

1. And on the Eighth Day (1964)

930-1I know I’m going to take a lot of flack for this — many people regard this as one of their favourite Ellery Queen novels. For me, this is a philosophical religious parable and not a detective story. You can tell that because the characters aren’t referred to as people, but as functions: Storekeeper and Teacher. And I find that kind of story intensely annoying, because to me it seems lazy. If you really wanted me to reach a philosophical and/or religious point, don’t take me by the nose and lead me through cardboard sets and silhouettes to illustrate that point — hide it from me and tease me with clues as to what it might be. (Some people say this book does that for them, I admit.) Put real people and realistic events into it and leave me a little ambiguity as to whether I’ve figured it out, but let me try to figure it out. The other part of why it annoys me is that it’s just so damn pompous. It’s as though the writer wants to tell you a story complete with a musical score filled with shrieking organs to let you know that this is a Really Important Story. It’s histrionic and overwrought and overwritten, and does everything except part the Red Sea to make the point. Oh, how I wish Manny Lee could have done the first draft of this instead of Avram Davidson; he would have been able to rein in Dannay’s plotting and make a real story out of this. And by the way, this book won the Grand Prix de Litérature Policière — it’s entirely probable that they know better than I do.

41sbh8qx8qL._SL500_I’ll note here that I’ve left out the final two Ellery Queen novels, The Last Woman in His Life (1970) and A Fine and Private Place (1971). Yes, folks, I believe these are pretty awful, and have said so here about A Fine and Private Place since it is #1 on my list of “mysteries you should die before you read”. But I’m willing to cut some slack to EQ on these two since they were written by elderly men who were at the end of a long and distinguished career. Both books are poorly executed, but they are at least trying to entertain; there is no point in reading them,
9780451071231but they have not gotten off on the wrong foot entirely like a couple of novels in this category.  Last Woman is impossible to discuss in any detail without giving it away in its entirety. But I think it would be fair to say that it couples an advanced and liberal view of a social issue with the most profound ignorance about its actuality; again, I can cut some slack here for elderly men who are trying to be progressive, but this book casually makes statements that are the equivalent to the modern ear of Agatha Christie using the n-word in the title of a book. For 1970, perhaps that might have been an advanced viewpoint; it’s pretty ugly today.

Let me pause at the end of this month of Tuesdays to tip my hat to Messrs. Dannay and Lee, who had a long and distinguished career in which they entered upon a path of untrodden snow and over the decades left the trail cleared and marked for everyone else to follow. They are one of the most important names in detective fiction and any criticism I have to offer is a small thing against their larger achievements.

Next month’s Tuesdays will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh. I hope you’re enjoying this guided tour and will continue to follow along! Your comments, as always, are welcome.

The Hog’s Back Mystery, by Freeman Wills Crofts (1933)

$_57WARNING: 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. 

Note: This book was also published in the US under the title The Strange Case of Dr. Earle, although that title is considerably more uncommon.

9781842323960What’s this book about?

In the opening chapters, we are introduced to a small-scale domestic situation near Hog’s Back, which is a geographic feature of Britain’s North Downs (and close to where the author lived). Dr. and Mrs. Earle, and the doctor’s assistant physician Dr. Campion, are entertaining some house guests, Julia Earle’s sister Marjorie Lawes, and their mutual friend Ursula Stone. Everything is bucolic on the surface, but Ursula soon learns that her hostess appears to be conducting at least a flirtation with rabbit-faced young Reggie Slade from the next-door manor. (Everyone else is close to middle age or beyond.) When Ursula visits Dr. Campion’s sister Alice, who lives close by, she confirms that the Earles are not the happy couple they seem on the surface; Julia has a roving eye and likes to spend money, and the spouses quarrel frequently. Then, quite by accident, Ursula sees Dr. Earle giving a lift to a striking woman whom she doesn’t recognize — and the doctor later lies about where he was at the time.

The evening before she leaves, Julia spends the evening with Dr. Campion, Alice, and another sister Flo, talking about old times and admiring Dr. Campion’s woodworking shop. The party drives Ursula back to the Earles’ home only to learn that, in the last few hours, Dr. Earle has mysteriously vanished from the house, hatless and wearing house slippers.

The household raises the alarm and begins to search the grounds and vicinity, but Dr. Earle, alive or dead, is nowhere to be found. The local constabulary is also unable to locate any trace and so Inspector French of Scotland Yard is called in.

mlhd0mHMQFTtqcpu0kN_GbwFrom this point, the remainder of the novel is told from French’s view. He repeats his thorough search and then begins to widen the net, trying to consider whether Earle has disappeared of his own accord or by the acts of an enemy. There are a couple of tiny clues that are more loose ends than anything concrete, but French investigates Ursula Stone’s sighting of the striking woman in more depth. Similarly he takes in the information about the possible extra-marital activities of both the Earles into account.

I think you’ll enjoy this book more if I say very little about the plot beyond this point. I’ll merely say that two more people connected with the strange case of Dr. Earle also vanish mysteriously, and Inspector French’s dogged and painstaking investigation of the underlying crimes and motives occupies the entire remainder of the novel. He learns many things about many people, finds some tiny physical clues from which he gleans a surprisingly large amount of information, traces everyone’s movements in the smallest detail, and all in all exhibits magnificent police skills that allow him to solve the crime and enable the guilty to be punished. The ending is quite surprising, especially in some details of what really happened and the degree to which the crime was planned in advance.

6546Why is this worth reading?

In this blog post from last year, I talked about the difference between the police procedural and what I call the “detective novel”. This, to me, is a detective novel, because it follows the actions and thinking of a single detective as he solves a single crime. I agree that there are other levels of the Scotland Yard/constabulary organization in play here, especially the wonderfully-named Sergeant Sheepshanks; they do things like follow people around and confirm French’s suspicions about various elements of the case. Importantly to the distinction, though, we don’t really partake of their investigatory thoughts. Indeed the constabulary function is pretty much to leap to the wrong investigatory conclusion so that Inspector French looks smarter.

This is, in fact, a timetable novel. And what is a timetable novel? Rather a specialty of Crofts, who may not have invented it but certainly perfected it. Essentially Inspector French starts investigating the alibis of every person in his case, in order to find who might have been at a certain place at a certain time. One character’s perfect alibi cannot be confirmed in some detail, or seems a little off.  French digs and digs and worries at every tiny portion of the alibi until a thread comes loose, and he is finally able to demonstrate that the perfect alibi has been hocussed by the murderer in some complicated and difficult way. The reason this is known as a timetable novel is — well, let me give you a quote that shows the issue for Inspector French. (I’ve omitted full names so as not to give too much away.)

“But this matter of the alibi was fundamental to his progress. … Item by item he went over the thing again in his mind, with the sole result of becoming more puzzled than ever. X and his car were definitely at Petersfield at 4.0 p.m. Of that there could be no doubt; it was checked by the people he had visited. From St. Kilda to Petersfield was something like 21 miles, part of it over narrow and twisting roads. It would be impossible to run the distance in half an hour. But at 3.30 W was alive. The servant, L, had seen her just before going out. And L had unquestionably caught the bus which passed the house at 3.35. There was her own evidence, and that of the friends to whom she was going, as also of the bus company as to their service, all of which points French had checked. It was certain, therefore, that X could not have committed the murder before reaching Petersfield.”

970Note the phrase, “all of which points French had checked.” We have indeed met “the servant, L,” and had her evidence, and we have seen that French is delighted to telephone or visit bus companies — or any other corporation — to find out that the 3.35 bus had run on time that day, and if not why not. French, indeed, is like Robert Heinlein’s character of Anne, the Fair Witness — who, when asked what colour a distant horse is, says, “It’s white on this side.” Inspector French checks everything right down to the smallest detail and we get to see him do it.

To me, this is delightful stuff. Some critics of Crofts will suggest that his work is lacking in characterization and I entirely agree. The servant, L, for example, is barely even there. There’s not a word of description of what she looks like, merely a recitation of her evidence. One lady “replied frigidly, but with evident irritation” to one of French’s questions, and this is pretty much the only description of her emotional state that we are given (although she is quite condescending to him in a way that you can only get by reading the entire exchange). These aren’t really characters as we know them in modern novels. They are little plastic figures that French is moving around a board, trying to figure out what happened. I expect Crofts would have said that he deliberately kept characterization out of it, so that the grander game of the solution to the puzzle could get on without causing false trails due to one or another character being more vivid or dramatic than others. Part of it for me is that, although French is faultlessly polite, he doesn’t really care or need to care about the emotions of the people with whom he interacts, except as those emotions provide a possible motive for criminal actions; at least, that seems to allow me to suspend my disbelief that a man who can spot a fragment of paper with a few letters on it can fail to notice that a woman is furious at his questions.

But without characterization, what we have is a large scale logic problem that we see solved before us by Inspector French. It’s not quite as cold and artificial as “The lady in blue who lives next door to the man who owns the sheepdog is not named Barker.” People are variously unhappy; they are sad when they lose their loved ones, and they are angry at being involved on the periphery of a murder investigation even though they have nothing to do with it. But to be honest, this whole book is about the experience of watching Inspector French solving this puzzle, and feeling on-side with him as he does it.

This is cleverly built in two ways. One is that Crofts has written this particular volume to lead you down a certain garden path; French doesn’t jump to conclusions, but it seems as though he gets to the gist of a clue a millisecond before the reader does. He has his little “aha!” moment, and then you do … because Crofts has phrased it in such a way that the reader allows himself the tiny logical leap that isn’t perhaps justified, but is very satisfying. “By golly, I’ll bet *I* could have been a Scotland Yard inspector, I figured that out!” Yes, because Crofts carefully led you to the threshold and let French carry you over. The second cleverness is that we find it easy to identify with French because he’s so damn … nice. He’s four-square and plays the game and is pukka sahib and stiff upper lip and any number of other cliches that purport to describe the essential goodness of the British character. He is straight up with his suspects; in fact it’s charming to see him getting pouty when they accuse him of trying to trick them. He is thoroughly married, it seems, and never has an impure thought about any female. But he does disapprove of inappropriate behaviour among any of the classes, disreputable servants and rakish aristos coming in for a larger share of his internal tsk-tsking.

In this volume, I came across a tiny paragraph that just sums up Inspector French to me.

“Tired but not discouraged, French went out after dinner to try what Farnham could do in the way of amusement. He saw a first-rate film about a trainload of persons who were held up by bandits in the disturbed East, but who after surprising adventures safely reached their journey’s end, and much refreshed in mind, he went up to bed.”

And that’s the guy I want to investigate my murder. As near as I can tell, Crofts is indicating by French’s choice of cinematic entertainment that he is either of the upper reaches of the lower classes, or, more probably, in the middle or artisan class. This is not the film that an upper-class person would have chosen; it seems wholesome, unromantic, and un-bawdy and thus would not attract servants. I like Inspector French; I would like to entertain this shy little man to dinner and hear the stories of his adventures after a brandy or two. And Crofts has given him just enough personality to make that the case, possibly because it stretches the limits of his skill at characterization to do so. Not too little — not too much, so that he anticipates modern ScandiNoir. Just right.

When considering any Golden Age mystery, I try to always find things in the book that educate me about the social context at the time. Here there is frankly very little of interest … nothing of the minutiae of everyday life that I find so fascinating. There were a few points that interested me, though. My understanding is that Crofts was what one might think of as a “moral” writer — PG-13, in modern parlance — and I was surprised at the general attitude in this book towards the possibility of both Dr. Earle and his wife having an extra-marital affair. To be honest, there is not really a suggestion that either party is slipping off for a cinq-à-sept with anyone; the idea is that one spouse would have occasion to complain about the potentially inappropriate friendships of the other. Certainly there is disapproval and a sense that the spouses are making a mistake. But there’s nothing that indicates they’re going to lose their social status as a result, and that interested me.  However, it’s difficult to analyze what the absence of a reaction in a novel means.

There are certainly things in this book about which I want to learn more. Apparently, for instance, DIY types in 1933 were being offered the chance to construct a doll’s house from pre-made pieces, and this was an unexceptional idea. And there is quite a bit of observational material that depends upon the social status of a hospital nurse in society that is tantalizingly enigmatic. Crofts is not precise about whether he thinks a member of the upper classes is having it off with a nurse; it’s as though the characters are all agreed that either “Yes, that’s the sort of thing nurses do,” or “No, nurses would never do THAT” — but they don’t tell you what their assumption is. The unspoken assumptions are much more clear to the author, the characters, and the putative readers than they are to me. She’s not quite a servant and not quite a member of the middle class. I remember a reference in another mystery to a servant who was addressed as Cook, and who was voluble about one’s employer having to pay for the privilege of “calling you out of your name”. Parlourmaids were merely Judkins or Smoot, but one had to be earning a larger salary to be called Cook — or Nurse, as this lady was. And yet not a member of the professional or artisan classes — almost like French himself. I’m sure Miss Silver or Miss Marple could lay it out for me in detail, but the social context is just a little elusive in this novel.

There’s an elegant conceit at the end of this novel that I feel compelled to mention. In the “blow-off” in the final pages, where Inspector French Explains It All To You, there is the very scarce device of the “clue finder”. That is to say, when Inspector French says that he noticed such-and-such a clue, you are referred to the page upon which the revelation took place, so in the e-version the last chapter is a forest of hyperlinks. This is actually very good for the novice mystery-solver, who can bounce around in the book and know just where they’ve gone wrong. There aren’t many mystery writers who expended the time to put in these clue-finders; Crofts, Ronald Knox,  John Dickson Carr, and C. Daly King are among the few. It signals that, whatever caveats you may wish to put upon the definition, the author of a book containing a clue-finder is trying to “play fair” with the reader, and I like that.

Summing up: reading this novel is rather like sitting behind the shoulder of Inspector French as he solves the case, but it’s less like an exciting narrative and more like someone who has enlisted your help to solve a difficult crossword. French seems to get there just a moment before the reader does, and to this reader at least, that’s a very enjoyable experience. There’s no real way that the reader could determine why the criminal plot works the way it does, so all that you can do is observe the clues as French sees them and hope to put them together before he does. The plot is tricky, and the solution to the puzzle is difficult but based on clues that you can look back and see. French is a charming detective with whom to share the experience.

My experience is that Crofts novels appeal to a wide spectrum of readers, which I think is unusual. Admittedly there is none of the depth of characterization that seems to attract many readers to the modern mystery, but Inspector French has a quality that I term “charm” that carries this novel (and many other adventures of Inspector French) very successfully to a satisfying conclusion. If you like the idea of a timetable mystery, you’ll really like this one.

I realize that I have been known to focus on rare mysteries that cost a lost of money if you are lucky enough to find one to purchase. It’s therefore delightful to say that for once you can have this novel inexpensively with the click of a mouse; it’s in print in both paper and e-book and available on Amazon at prices ranging from $7.27 to $150-plus.  My thanks to British Library Crime Classics for bringing this great mystery back into print.

Crofts-HogPBMy favourite edition

Although the first editions, both US and UK, are very attractive indeed, and worth the pretty prices that I see on online bookselling sites — I like the look of the Pan paperback you see at the left very much indeed. The colours are beautiful, the antique wood-cut look is very attractive and the artwork is dramatic and striking. Even the typography and general design evoke a period of Pan when they were at their height in selecting good mysteries for their line. I’d love to have a copy of this one.

However, my current favourite edition is the British Library Crime Classic reissue in shades of sage green seen at the head of this article. Not only is the faux-30s illustration done very well indeed, but it has the added benefit of a good introduction by mystery expert and fiction writer Martin Edwards, who produced an engrossing history of the Detection Club last year. Martin Edwards gives you enough background information about Crofts himself to make the book’s context more interesting, and the little introductory essay is a pleasant appetizer before the meat of the novel.


Quick Look: The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)

The Judge Sums Up, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1942)


Collins White Circle (Canada) #87, first paper, 1944

What’s this book about?

Mr. Justice Unwin is summing up a great deal of evidence at the trial of Peter Gaskell for the murder of Walter Drage. In an extended flashback, he sums up the evidence by, for, and against the prisoner. Gaskell and Drage were staying in a rural hotel, Gaskell recovering from a breakdown from overwork. They both became involved with the same pretty young girl, and at the end of a week the evidence ends in a great mass of detail about the last hours leading up to Drage’s body being found at the bottom of a seaside cliff. We meet and hear from chambermaids, a hotel manager, various other guests at the hotel. We become very familiar with the ways in which barristers at trial are guided and corrected by the judge as to the admissibility of various kinds of evidence. We peek into the thoughts and preoccupations of the jurors, learned counsel, and even the judge himself, who apparently solves crossword clues in one part of his mind while summing up with another.

As Mr. Justice Unwin approaches the last phase of his summing-up, having left the reader with the impression that Mr. Gaskell is going to be found immediately guilty by the acquiescent jury, he has a mild heart attack and the trial goes into abeyance until he recovers.

The second half of the book depicts the activities of investigator Morley Aston, who travels to the hotel with the intention of overturning the case against Gaskell. As we meet people whom we’ve previously seen testify, and hear them tell their stories in a different context and manner, a completely different picture of the events of that fateful day begins to form in the reader’s mind. As Aston investigates, he collects sufficient evidence to bolster a surprising new theory about the murder case; this is explained to the reader in a long chapter, and the final moments are devoted to an unusual ending to the trial, once the Justice returns to the bench.

Why is this worth reading?

J. Jefferson Farjeon has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest, thanks to the republication of his Mystery in White by British Library Crime Classics to delighted critical and public reception. And rightly so, judging by this volume. It is a very intelligently written work of classic detective fiction and I highly recommend it. I haven’t gone into too much detail about the events of the book; I think it’s very unlikely that most of my audience will have already read it, which is not the case with many of the books about which I’ve written. This is such a clever little mystery that I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment once you do manage to find a copy (there’s every chance this will soon be reprinted).

You will note on the cover illustration of the first paperback edition (and pretty much the only paperback edition, as far as I know) that the judge has noticed a single word that “has given him a new approach the problem of guilt or innocence”. This is in fact true; unfortunately I worked out the word to which the cover refers and it helped me work out the approximate solution before the end of the novel. It spoiled my enjoyment just a little, because it was truly an elegant and detailed solution that had been painstakingly created to take the trial evidence and turn it on its head. I think of this kind of novel as a “snowglobe mystery” — halfway or two-thirds through the book, the author gives the plot a shake and all the familiar features and inferences of previous events are transformed into something with a different, nearly opposite meaning. Perhaps it’s that I have a fondness for this kind of plot, which is difficult to manage. But if you enjoy Golden Age Detection classics I think you will enjoy, and be surprised by, this book. So pardon me for not telling you much about it; just this once, trust me. If you like Anthony Berkeley and Christianna Brand and Freeman Wills Crofts, you’ll like this book too.

And if you haven’t managed to work out the crucial word, the judge’s thoughts explain its importance in the final sentence.

My favourite edition

I’ve only ever seen the edition at the top of this post; I have a rather more bedraggled copy than shown here. Collins White Circle paperbacks were not well made, for the most part, and many have disintegrated over the years. I’m aware of about three other editions including the first, which has an undistinguished type-only cover, and a strange publication as an insert into a Philadelphia newspaper in bedsheet format. There don’t seem to be any beautiful editions; the Collins White Circle has at least the charm of being ugly in a naive retro way.

200 authors I would recommend (Part 4)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 3, is here; I’ll link here to Part 5 as soon as it’s written.

adonis31. Caudwell, Sarah

The late Sarah Caudwell only wrote four novels about a professor of mediaeval law, Hilary Tamar, who is both the narrator and the principal detective, and a group of young lawyers who all investigate crimes together. All four novels have a taste like fine old Scotch whisky. The degree of literacy needed to understand all the offhand references is phenomenal; this style of writing is what was meant by the “don’s delight” mystery, very little practised today. The language is elegant and difficult — so are the plots. The mysteries are frequently based on obscure points of tax law or inheritance law; not especially realistic characters, but quite modern despite the antique flavour of the language. And there’s one tiny but delightful point that it takes a while to grasp — it’s never mentioned what sex Professor Tamar is. 1981’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered is a good place to start, since it’s the first novel of the four.

Cecil-ATTE Pan32. Cecil, Henry

Two legal eagles in a row — Henry Cecil was a British County Court Judge who wrote mysteries and novels in his off-hours. It’s hard to call some of his books “mysteries”, in the strict sense, although they frequently have to do with criminals and legal processes, but his fiction is worth reading whatever you call it. I think I’d have liked to have been in his courtroom; he has a wicked sense of humour and, of course, a huge knowledge of the back roads and byways of the law. Many of his plots have to do with people who go to great lengths to exploit a legal loophole. He was also great at writing mystery short stories that turn on a single point, something like Ellery Queen, and the collections are certainly worth looking into. Even the most serious pieces have a lovely sense of sly fun in them, especially in the language, and there’s a recurring character named Colonel Brain, the world’s most unreliable witness, who is good value whenever he appears. No Bail for the Judge is a story about a judge who finds himself on trial for the murder of a prostitute and can’t remember anything that happened on the night in question; Alfred Hitchcock was going to make a film of it before his death.

1292147456533. Charles, Kate

Kate Charles writes quite traditional British mysteries, most of which are based around, or have something to do with, the Church of England, its background, rituals, and people. She started in the 90s, kicking off her first series about an artist with a solicitor boyfriend. I found the first book quite gripping, A Drink of Deadly Wine; it was based around the then-current topic of “outing”. Her second series deals with a woman who is a newly-ordained cleric (with a boyfriend who’s a police officer) and the issues she faces, of course complicated by murders. These books have a uniformly high quality, excellent writing, and are by a writer who has really dug deeply into many issues that crop up when religion intersects with crime.

b03a1f091b363aa2776bcca7930ba53334. Chesterton, G. K.

Two religious mystery writers in a row! As my readers are almost certainly aware, Chesterton was responsible for creating that well-known figure of detective fiction, Father Brown, a Catholic priest who investigates crimes and saves souls in the process, over a long series of short stories. I was surprised to note that the stories started as long ago as 1911, since the fifth volume came out in 1935; Chesterton wasn’t prolific but the stories are clever and fascinating. Of course these famous stories have formed the basis for films and television series, and there’s currently one in process, but you’ll have to go back more than 100 years to read about the origins of this meek little cleric. I recommend you do just that; each generation that reinvents Father Brown does so in a way that the original stories usually don’t support.

df8618da651bc3bf05aba53fe9c6961135. Christie, Agatha

There are many well-known names in the mystery field whom you will NOT find me recommending here, but Agatha Christie has sold more fiction than anyone else in the history of the world, and there’s a reason for that. She’s simply a great, great mystery writer. I can’t imagine anyone reading my blog who hasn’t at least dipped a toe into the large body of Christie’s work, so I won’t go on about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, since you pretty much have to know who they are already. I’ll merely say that if you’re looking for a place to start that is not with the most famous works (Ten Little Indians, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Body in the Library) that have been made into films, some of my favourites are Five Little Pigs, Crooked House, Sad Cypress, and The Moving Finger. And I think Spider’s Web is an excellent play, if you have a chance to see it!

34319336. Clark, Douglas

Douglas Clark’s series of mysteries about Scotland Yard’s Chief Superintendent Masters and DCI Green is well overdue for a revival or at the very least a complete reprinting, start to finish. These are charming, low-key mysteries of the police procedural variety, almost an 80s take on the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts. Masters and Green are friends as well as colleagues, and their respective families are also part of the background; the books have the gentle, nearly cozy, flavour that may remind TV viewers of Midsomer Murders. Clark knew a lot about poisons and frequently each volume’s murder has a rare poison as its cause. Perennial Library printed a lot of these titles in the 80s, and Dell did a couple as part of their “puzzleback” series at around the same time. For a while you couldn’t be in a used bookstore without finding a stack of them, and now they seem to have disappeared. There are a bunch of titles that are all equally good places to start; perhaps you’d like to find out from Roast Eggs why a man seems to have burned his house down in order to kill his wife. (It’s from an old quote about selfishness; “He sets my house on fire only to roast his eggs.”) Any of the Perennial Library or Dell titles will get you started, though.

1356595637. Clason, Clyde B.

Clyde Clason wrote ten novels featuring the elderly Theocritus Lucius Westborough, expert on the Roman emperor Heliogabalus and amateur sleuth, between 1936 and 1941. Quite a pace! These books are intelligent and packed with information, with a very elegant writing style; Professor Westborough sprinkles his observations with classical references. Perhaps the most well-known novel is Murder gone Minoan, which reminded me somewhat of Anthony Boucher‘s The Case of the Seven Sneezes; one of a group of people isolated on an island that can be reached only by speedboat is murdered, and Professor Westborough takes a hand to solve the murder as well to try to restore a millionaire’s piece of Minoan treasure. Many of the ten novels feature a locked-room mystery or an “impossible crime”. Rue Morgue has recently brought these novels back into print, and you’ll have a much easier time than I did in getting hold of them; I envy you the opportunity to stack up all ten and knuckle down, since they’re both pleasant and difficult puzzles.

229114938. Cleeves, Ann

Ann Cleeves is the author of the novels upon which the currently popular television series Vera is based, about a dogged and emotional Scotland Yard DI in Yorkshire; there are six original novels and they’re all in print. My exposure to this writer came long before, when I picked up the eight novels about George Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly. George and Molly are from the cozy amateur school, but Ann Cleeves has a lot more up her writing sleeve than can be covered by the word “cozy”; she has a great deal of insight into how people’s minds work and why they do what they do, and her art makes George look as if he’s quite intuitive. I really enjoyed this series; the other three Cleeves series are a bit harsher, but not really hard-boiled. I recommend the first George and Molly story, A Bird in the Hand, as a good place to start.

978044011944939. Clinton-Baddeley, V. C.

Another “don’s delight” writer, although not so much for the erudition as the attitude and background. The author wrote many things, including film scripts as far back as 1936, but produced this lovely set of five mystery novels featuring Dr. Davie of St. Nicholas College, Cambridge, between 1967 and 1972 at the end of his life. Dr. Davie is an elderly don with an almost childlike delight in the wonders of everyday life, and a general unwillingness to do much in the way of exercise. But his bright, intelligent eye takes in everything around him and he finds himself in the middle of mysterious murder cases that only he is able to solve. Death’s Bright Dart mixes a stolen blowpipe with the murder of an academic — in the middle of giving an address to the college — and Dr. Davie takes a hand, mostly by pottering around and chattering with people. All five novels are good fun and contain interesting puzzles at their core. The writing has a great deal of gentle humour of the observational variety. I’ve always felt Dr. Davie was gay, mostly due to a brief passage in one of the books where he observes what must be a group of gay men chattering over drinks, but it’s never mentioned and not really relevant. Any of the five books is a good starting point.

n11303940. Cody, Liza

Every so often I find a book that just sets me back on my heels, it’s so powerful and strongly observed. That’s how I felt about Bucket Nut, the first Eva Wylie novel about a young woman wrestler/security guard/minder in 90s England who goes about her business as best she can despite being what I think of as an emotional basket case. She is rude and crude and powerful and very damaged by her past, and you won’t forget her in a hurry. I’d been following Liza Cody’s work from a previous series about Anna Lee, a woman PI, but the “London Lassassin” stories are, I think, Cody’s best work. There are three Eva Wylie stories and six Anna Lee novels; Anna Lee is a great private eye and worth your time, but you must read the Eva Wylie novels. (I’ve been told by some that they had the reverse of my reaction; they couldn’t get beyond a few pages because the character was so unpleasant. Your mileage may indeed vary.)