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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

Honest Doubt, by Amanda Cross

Title: Honest Doubt

Author: Amanda Cross

Publication Data:  Originally published in hardcover by Ballantine, 2000.  This edition: first paper, Ballantine, 2000, ISBN 0449007049.

About this book:

“Amanda Cross” (a pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun) came to prominence in the detective fiction world beginning in 1964 with the publication of In the Last Analysis, the first Kate Fansler mystery.  (Heilbrun concealed her identity at first to protect her academic career.) She cemented her mystery-related position in 1981 when she won a Nero Award for Death in a Tenured Position.  Honest Doubt is the second-to-last; The Edge of Doom was published in 2002 and she committed suicide in 2003.  It is unlikely that Heilbrun would have regarded her mystery writing as her crowning achievement; she is much better known, in the academic world, for feminist literary texts — principally Writing a Woman’s Life (1988).

Kate Fansler was, I suggest, inextricably linked to Heilbrun.  Both were university professors, both were feminists, both were in love with literature and both were inexplicably involved with mysteries.  (One of Heilbrun’s academic mentors was Jacques Barzun, well known critic of detective fiction.  Perhaps that started her off.) It’s just difficult to think of a reason why  the author of Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women and a tenured professor at Columbia — the first woman to receive tenure in the English department — would bother with whodunnits.  But, as Wikipedia notes, “the novels … often were an outlet for Heilbrun’s views on feminism, academic politics, and other political issues.”  Indeed, they are all set against an academic backdrop and over the years they are increasingly more about feminism and women’s issues than murder.

The earliest mysteries are bland and intellectual, almost boring.  As her skills increased, her interest in murder qua murder seemed to decrease and, to loosely paraphrase a commenter on Michael Innes, the plots became extremely thin and supported by large jets of conversation and literary theory.  The author, indeed, became so little interested in her detective that she pretty much abandoned her, as in the present volume.

The reader should be warned; although the cutline on the front cover says “A Kate Fansler Mystery”, neither of those assertions is really true.  Kate Fansler is a faint, dim presence in this novel, rarely moving from her chair, her glass of ancient Scotch and her Saint Bernard.  The detective work here is done by the narrator, a woman private investigator named Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven.  And as to this being a mystery — well, when I finished it, I think I was more willing to describe it as being an anti-mystery.  There is a murder and the murder is, more or less, solved.  But I have to say that the ending is simultaneously one of the most ridiculous and the most aggravating in the history of detective fiction.  I can honestly say that about half the people who bother to finish this book will throw it against the wall in disgust.  It’s like the author decided to write a kind of literary joke without telling the reader, and the publisher cooperated by not even hinting at the asinine way in which this plot is “resolved”.

SPOILER WARNING:  I’m about to reveal the ending.  You may skip this, or read it and thank me for saving you time and money.

A university professor is murdered at an academic party and, as is usual in such situations, many principal characters had a reason to want him out of the way.  Most people had academic motives; the nasty professor was imperiling or frustrating their careers as he had so many others in the past.  His personal and familiar relationships were fractured or non-existent.  Woody Woodhaven is hired to bring home the guilt (frankly, for no real reason that I could see, but it matches the remainder for inventiveness and realism).  She investigates and spends two-thirds of the book demonstrating that pretty much anyone in the professor’s life not only would have killed him but had the opportunity to do so.  At this point, Kate Fansler invites Woody over to watch a screening of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express.  Kate has come to the conclusion, on no evidence whatsoever, that everyone did it.  Everyone in the book immediately agrees with this, including the police, and stops looking further.  The book ends.  And I suggest that this is what Edmund Wilson meant when he said that reading detective fiction was “unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails”.

In the meantime, we find out more than we ever may have wanted to know about Tennyson, the workings of a university’s English department, and the difficulties inherent in being a woman employed by a university, whether in an academic or secretarial position.  There is quite a bit of material about just how old men frustrate the careers of their younger and more energetic colleagues and incompetent professors rise to the top, about how secretarial staff are ignored and devalued, and no one really wants to do anything that looks like teaching (the only professor in the group who enjoys teaching and is good at it is depicted as a kind of lusus naturae).  There is, in fact, an awful lot of whining about various subjects.  Woody herself cannot shut the fuck up about being fat.  She is fat.  She says so to total strangers and, indeed, everyone to whom she speaks for more than five minutes.  She equates fat with feminism, I think, or somehow feels that being fat is a sign that she will be able to fly under the radar and remain unnoticed while solving a mystery (which, in fact, she does not do).

All things considered, this book is a kind of literary joke or game, and I found reading it extremely unpleasant.  It’s as though the author decided that she wanted to subvert, or twist, or smear dung upon, the conventions of an area of genre fiction that she had mastered — as though she were setting fire to her history and thumbing her nose at her fans who were stupid enough to enjoy her previous works of detective fiction.  She is bitter and sour about almost every topic, and almost no one in the book takes any pleasure in anything at all except, believe it or not, the beauties of the Saint Bernard dog (and teaching, as noted above).  This book is, in fact, a set of cardboard characters shuffling through a cardboard landscape executing ridiculous actions in order to mark time before the absolutely ridiculous, emotionless and flat ending is achieved.

The most interesting part of this for me was, in bitter retrospect, looking at the quotations on the back cover.  This was a main selection of the Mystery Guild, possibly chosen by someone who neglected to finish it or understand it.  Someone at the Washington Post Book World is quoted as saying “As shocking as it is plausible”.  Which, I can say, is just about zero in both cases, so the quotation is reasonably accurate.  The Providence Journal calls this “One of Cross’s best books in years”, which if I had been Ms. Heilbrun I would have found profoundly insulting.  And Sara Paretsky, also a well-known proponent of feminist-oriented detective fiction, says “For more than twenty-five years Amanda Cross has been blazing a trail for the rest of us to follow.”  What she neglected to mention is that this particular trail goes off the end of a cliff and ends up in hell.

Notes For the Collector:

As I always say, really good books hold their value and indeed increase.  I paid $1 for my paperback copy of this piece of arrogant crap and it was marked down from $5.  The first person to send me a SASE can have it, free.  The most expensive copy on Abebooks is the hardcover first signed by the author, for $140; another copy is $45.  I have to say, I wouldn’t pay $140 for a copy of this unless it had been signed by Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha and someone had thoughtfully tucked dozens of $100 bills between the pages.