Binge-reading Gladys Mitchell

Part 1: The Worsted Viper, by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

51hkUNzfaVL._SY346_When you accumulate a really significant number of books — let’s say five digits’ worth — you do things that seem incomprehensible to people whose accumulated books consist of a shelf of dusty college textbooks, three Stephen King paperbacks with beach sand between their pages, and a coffee table book about Lady Di. This story starts a few weeks ago when I was in my local thrift shop and picked up a 1986 Canadian paperback edition of one of the final few Gladys Mitchell mysteries for $2.

“That looks interesting,” said my companion, “Is she any good?” Dangerous words to a book reviewer. I imagine that many of my readers have faced a similar problem. It is certainly quite all right to admire the work of … let’s say any Golden Age of Detection author who is not one of the Big Four. The problem comes when you try to answer the question of “good”. All these books have relative merits and accompanying drawbacks and it’s likely that your inquisitor has never heard of any other GAD author to whose work you might draw a comparison. Finally I decided that utility was the best guide for my response.  My companion would not be likely to invest the time to finish the novel I was holding (Uncoffin’d Clay from 1980) and was unlikely to pursue the issue at a library. “She wrote this one when she was quite elderly,” I said, “You probably wouldn’t find it amusing. She wrote a shitload of mysteries over a long career, but I’ve never personally been enthusiastic about most of them. She has a kind of … incoherent quality that is not easy to get over.”

9780770104023-us-300“Oh,” said my companion, “Okay, guess I won’t borrow that one.” And the talk turned to other things. But over the next few days, my mind kept returning to Gladys Mitchell. She’s on my list of authors whose books I will always buy, even if I’m not planning on reading them immediately, because (a) she’s always been scarce and hard to get, and (b) I know that people will always want them. A great part of Mitchell’s output, probably two-thirds of it, has never been published in paperback in North America; in my long experience constantly dealing in such things, I’ve never had more than half her books go through my hands in any affordable format. A Canadian publisher named PaperJacks did a handful of Mitchell’s last few books in small-format paperback (with a linking photo illustration of someone who reminds me more of Jessica Fletcher than Mrs. Bradley). I expect they were inexpensive to license, and no one else seems to have wanted to publish them in paperback, so they’ve become more valuable than their appearance promises. My $2 investment may pay off with $5 or even $10 in the future. So I’ll buy them, but as I now recalled, I very rarely bother to read one.

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Gladys Mitchell

It occurred to me that if I were to actually form a taste for Gladys Mitchell, I would have some 50 or 60 titles to read. I’m always crabbing about having too many books on my To Be Read pile, but truthfully much of my reading these days is more dutiful than pleasurable. If I can find an author who’s got a big backlist whose work I enjoy, so much the better. So I looked on-line. My readers will, I’m sure, have already anticipated what I found; a clever publisher (Thomas & Mercer of Seattle, WA) has made the Gladys Mitchell mysteries available through Amazon Publishing. All of them. And if you have Kindle Unlimited, they’re free.

So I got them all.

There’s really no justification. All I can say is, for years and years I was vaguely aware that Gladys Mitchell had written a hell of a lot of novels that I’d never seen, and I guess I panicked.  I’ll have to go back and check to make certain that, like Pokemon, I have them all, but presently my e-reader is stuffed to the gun’l’s with obscure Gladys Mitchell novels.

My readers can probably expect that, over the next while, like a python digesting a pig, I’ll have more to say about Gladys Mitchell en masse; I’ll certainly be trying to tease out linking themes and threads from her work on a larger scale. But when an unabashed bibliophile comes home with a large haul, the temptation is to savour a few choice bonbons off the top, as it were. So I’ll first give you a few initial reactions, since I’ve read a handful of these over the past week. You will be amused to know that I dipped into these based entirely upon their titles; what sounded interesting? Here’s the first of my finds.

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

The Worsted Viper by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

This made me think of a couple of other books; it’s 50% Witch Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic, and 50% E. Phillips Oppenheim (or some other early practitioner of the desultory thriller). Essentially Mrs. Bradley confronts a witchcraft cult that is killing “women of the streets” and leaving a linking device on the bodies; a worsted viper. Mrs. Bradley musters the aid of the police and a small group of personal friends and solves the crime in a book that has many of the features of the 1910s/1920s thriller; at one point she’s shot at with a poisoned dart. If it had been “sinister Orientals” instead of “sinister witchcraft practitioners”, it would have been perfectly 50% Carvic and 50% Sax Rohmer.

FA-A36015-2I got off onto a long track of delightfully useless internet research about what precisely Mitchell meant by “worsted viper”. I had rather thought it was like a handmade stuffie that blocks draughts at the bottom of a door, made to look like a metre-long snake but along the lines of a sock monkey. (There’s a P.D. James mystery in which such an object plays a part; “Hissing Sid”.) But Chapter 5 tells us this:

“… was a toy snake made or worsted in the way that children make woollen reins on a cotton reel with four tin-tacks, so that its body was solid and circular. Some beads had been sewn on here and there, and its head, which was made of two pieces of soft leather stuck together with thin glue, was horribly and cleverly an imitation of the flat broad head of the English viper, which is without the head-shield common to most specimens of poisonous snakes.”

I’m still not sure what’s meant precisely about how this is made — some kind of small-scale macrame with fine wool? I believe “or” in the first sentence to be a typo; “worsted” is “a fine smooth yarn” so this snake was made OF worsted. At first I considered that there might be a process akin to tatting called “worsting” but I think it’s just a typo. And that is how one wastes 90 minutes on the internet, by the way. 😉

Anyway — quite a bit of the book is told through the POV of three young women, one of whom is Laura Menzies. Laura, as I recall, appears quite a bit throughout Mrs. Bradley’s oeuvre as being a “jolly hockey sticks” young athlete who manages the strenuous bits that Mrs. Bradley could not reasonably be expected to undertake. Here, she and her faithful chums Kitty and Alice are expert boat-women on holiday who touch on the periphery of the murders, and most of the action of the book takes place on or near the water. Mrs. Bradley’s niece-in-law Deborah performs a very similar “hearty young athlete” role in other books (I’ll have to confirm this) and does so here as well.

There is a lot about this book that didn’t live up to reasonable expectations. For some reason I kept expecting the witchcraft plot to be a fraud, rather like a Scooby-Doo outing where there’s really a smuggling plot going on in the background. But no, it’s witchcraft all the way. I was rather disappointed that one central issue of the book was clued with something that I recognized instantly, but which apparently was meant to be a major reveal at the climax; it was so obvious to me (I speak a particular foreign language) that I thought it must be a red herring. But no, it’s flat-out what it looks like. There are long passages told by characters who discover various deceased prostitutes; these people never appear again and there’s no real reason for them to be in the book.

There are also a couple of very odd things about this book and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them. One is that there is a really interesting focus upon female sexuality, to such an extent that I thought, “Whoa, there’s more sex here than in half the Golden Age.” There are some perfectly reasonable observations about sexuality in the book, at least for the context of the 1940s when this book was published. There’s some quite frank talk about what the body of a prostitute reveals about her occupation, and the above-noted niece-in-law Deborah has sex with her husband twice in Chapter 10 when they’re alone on a boat. This is certainly referred to in oblique and obfuscatory terms, but they’re definitely Doing It; the only thing missing is a row of asterisks.

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Diana Rigg as Mrs. Bradley, from the only television productions of Mitchell mysteries; this beautiful lady is entirely inappropriate to play a woman of such legendary ugliness that she is referred to as “Mrs. Croc”.

As to why this is so odd — well, it’s a kind of trick. We wouldn’t blanch at finding a passage in a 1940s private eye novel that indicates that married couples or prostitutes actually have sex. Here it seems shocking because so much of the language and style of this book are based in the 1920s; we are led to expect the prudery of, say, Dorothy L. Sayers trying to shock her readers with Lord Peter saying “Hell!” and we get a much less unbridled sexuality. The other odd part is that as I understand it Miss Mitchell remained an unmarried teacher for all her long life and yet seems to have quite an understanding of, specifically from Chapter 10, the languorous afterglow after vigorous sexual activity. She does not, however, have an accurate view of — and I’m kind of guessing here as to what precisely she’s talking about — the idea that you can identify a sex worker’s trade by examining her body.  Check this out, and remember that Mrs. Bradley is not only a psychiatrist but of necessity a medical doctor:

“Mrs. Bradley looked at the cheap and tawdry clothing, the worthless jewellery, the almost complete absence of underclothing, the high-heeled shoes and cobweb stockings, and then turned to look at the body from which these poor lendings had come. … [Mrs. Bradley says:] “Not much doubt how she made her living, either, Inspector. There are various indications ….”

Indeed. I’ll leave the physiological determination to the reader, but I suggest that Miss Mitchell is talking through her cloche. “Various indications” — pfui.

mitchell_worsted_viper_newWhat interested me is that sexuality is actually a kind of focus of the book, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the mystery’s solution. I noticed that every time one of the female characters gets dressed or undressed, particularly when swimming around boats (which happens a lot) there’s a little moment where she’s described as changing.  “She explained, pulling on, as she did so, slacks and a sweater over her vest and knickers.” “She slipped off her pyjamas, put on her bathing costume, and went out to test the temperature.” Once I noticed it, I saw it everywhere in the book; women change clothes in front of the reader. We don’t see male characters treated similarly, although to be fair there are very few instances where male characters in the book go swimming. I don’t have enough of Mitchell’s oeuvre in my recent memory yet to be able to say whether this is common or unusual, but I’m going to keep my eyes open as I go through my recent haul.

The other unusual thing I noticed that piqued my interest is that, quite late in the book, an unusual character is introduced. As I noted above, the bodies of prostitutes are being scattered about by the witchcraft cult, and for the most part they are left in yachts and houseboats. The innocent owners of these craft are introduced, discover the body, and then pretty much vanish, but they get a goodly chapter of characterizational writing before they do.

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The jacket of the first edition. The playing cards are nothing more than a mention in an idle paragraph of the book; completely misleading.

Chapter 19 tells the story of Edgar Copley and his sister Romance, who are on holiday so that “Edgar could sail a boat and Romance find peace and quiet”. The unusual thing is that — well, in modern terms, the young woman has a genetic disorder we call Down syndrome. In 1943, “Romance was what the neighbours called ‘not quite normal’ …” and the way she’s described is frankly shocking to the modern sensibility. “For the first five years after the death of his father … Edgar had hoped that Romance might die; but she did not.  She lived on, pallid, large-faced, fleshy, resentful, and childish, until sometimes he wished that he himself could die, if only to be rid of her.” Mitchell refers to her as “the puffy-faced defective”. By the end of the chapter, she has been violently murdered and left aboard their rented yacht.

Now, I keep trying to remind myself that it is unfair to expect that characters created in 1943 should partake of modern attitudes and knowledge; better that they don’t, indeed, so that we don’t forget how short-sighted and prejudiced we used to be.  Well and good. What really bothered me about this is that, in narrative terms, the whole chapter serves no real purpose. The characters are not involved further in the narrative — although there is a distinct suggestion that All Is Not What It Seems with regard to Edgar’s innocence, it essentially goes nowhere. Mrs. Bradley says immediately, “To me, the whole thing is too elaborate a framework within which to plan the murder of one poor mental defective.” This in fact is quite clear to the reader because the entire witchcraft plot would then either be unnecessary or partaking of the central premise of Christie’s The ABC Murders, and at this point in the novel those things are impossible to assert; it’s just too late.

So the whole chapter seems to be just Gladys Mitchell writing a lot of unpleasant description about someone with Down syndrome and then having her killed, in a violent and vicious way. I agree that it’s reasonable that this unenlightened point of view would largely go unremarked in 1943; it’s just really unpleasant to see it trotted out for no real reason except to add a bit of background colour. I can only hope that readers of 1943 found this as unkind and unfortunate as I did in 2017.

Summing up overall, I can’t recommend this as a place for someone to start with the Mrs. Bradley novels; there’s a good deal about this novel that is antique, including the plot structure and the central premise, and at least one authorial attitude that is actively unpleasant. Nevertheless I am determined to either find a better one or write them all off; I’ll continue to report back.

Unknown-1In closing, I wanted to mention that, although this novel was published in 1943, you’d hardly know there was a war on; just not part of the narrative. My next random selection from the works of Gladys Mitchell was quite the opposite. Although I chose Sunset Over Soho entirely by its title, it turns out to also be from 1943 and to contain, astoundingly enough, one major character taking some time out of the plot to go and assist with the evacuation of Dunkirk.  It begins with a corpse being discovered during an air raid, but this one is in a coffin already. I’ll let you know more as my next entry, perhaps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Ellery Queen, broad brand, and continuation works

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

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

 

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Ellery Queen as a brand

Literary characters like Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen are called “brands” in certain contexts because of the similarities between them and the brands of, say, Nike and Burger King. There is a set of associations that aficionados associate with each brand; Nike denotes speed and Sherlock Holmes denotes deductive logic, among many other associations that compose the “brand platform” or brand image. The brand platform — or corporate image — represents how customers feel about the brand in various ways. If I wear a T-shirt with the logo of Apple or a silhouette of Hercule Poirot on it, what am I saying about myself as a person? Whatever the qualities that people associate with Poirot, by wearing the shirt I am associating myself with his brand.

Good brands have three properties: length, depth, and breadth. Length is longevity; good brands have been around for a long time and expect to be around in the future. Superman, dating back to 1938, is a more powerful brand than X-Men, who only date back to 1963. Depth is more difficult to define, but a brand with depth is one where the brand platform has a larger number of complex associations that come to mind in connection with the brand. You might think of Ferrari as a brand with more depth than Chevrolet because there are so many associations for Ferrari with wealth, the international racing circuit, or high performance machinery.

Ellery-Queen-television-full-episodeIn terms of Ellery Queen, it’s the breadth of this brand that is most impressive to me and what I propose to discuss here. Breadth increases with the number of ways in which the brand is available to be experienced. Superman, for instance, began in the pages of a comic book. That brand has since transmigrated to television, film, books, hip-hop dance, popular music, numismatics, video games, and many other modalities. In detective fiction, I’d say there are three major brands with the most length, depth, and overall breadth: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, and Hercule Poirot. But at the second rank there are a number of excellent brands, and in terms of breadth I think Ellery Queen is primus inter pares with other detective brands like Nero Wolfe, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jessica Fletcher because of the extraordinary breadth of the brand.

EQ, the cousins Dannay and Lee who created the Ellery Queen character and eponym, were early innovators in branding breadth. It’s as though, after a certain point, EQ were determined to extend Ellery Queen into every conceivable variation within every available medium. I don’t think what they did was really a brand strategy, as we today know the term; EQ were innovators who were making it up as they went along, since branding theory had not yet been invented, but they had a huge amount of natural talent and an almost uncanny instinct for what worked and what didn’t.

Mag_Myst_Leag_193310_smallIt’s far beyond the limits of a blog post to examine the entire EQ career as an exercise in branding; that would be enough material to write a textbook, although I doubt I ever will. Let me take the lazy man’s way out and present you with a series of roughly chronological bullet points, each of which illustrates an aspect of how EQ approached their literary property. The chronology can be found in detail here and begins in 1929 with the publication of their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery.

  • After their first three Ellery Queen novels, EQ began to diversify and published their first of four mystery novels as by Barnaby Ross. Although the differentiation made for some interesting marketing ploys, such as the cousins giving amusing lectures while both masked, one as Queen, one as Ross, it soon became apparent that the Ellery Queen brand was the dominant one. It seems as though they quickly admitted the pen name and folded it into the Ellery Queen brand. EQ licensed out the Barnaby Ross name in the 1960s for a series of historical novels … I’ve never been sure quite why.
  • The cousins began a short-lived magazine of their own called Mystery League, which published short stories. It ran only four issues.
  • Over the five years following the first Ellery Queen novel, the cousins diversified by selling short stories to the “slicks”, magazines like Redbook; after five years they had enough to collect in a volume and published their first anthology, which also went into paperback. This encouraged them to keep a strong secondary focus on the short-story form as it allowed them to sell the same material in two markets.
  • Pic_Grub_StreetIn 1934 the first “package” — a compendium volume collecting multiple earlier novels — was published, The Ellery Queen Omnibus.
  • With the final First Period “nationalities” novel in 1935, The Spanish Cape Mystery, EQ began to experiment in two literary directions. One was the subject of my last blog piece, Halfway House as the transition between Periods One and Two; the other was the production of fast-and-dirty novels which seemed designed as scenarios for motion pictures. The first Ellery Queen movie, The Spanish Cape Mystery, came out in 1935 and was followed by two more films based recognizably on novels, and then seven films between 1940 and 1942 that were not based on anything canonic.
  • 57-04-18-Hugh-Marlowe-as-Ellery-Queen-TVThe radio programme The Adventures of Ellery Queen ran between 1939 and 1948; Dannay and Lee wrote the scripts until 1945 and then handed the job to Anthony Boucher.
  • In 1940, one of the radio programme’s scripts was turned into a Whitman Big Little Book; this is a palm-sized (3-5/8″ x 4-1/2″) volume with text on the verso page and a black and white illustration on the recto page. The Adventure of the Last Man Club was a typical entry in the series, which was a primitive attempt at cross-platforming properties from radio, comic strips, and series of adventure novels like Tarzan.  This specific novel will come up in my discussion again; I’ll just note here that this book was written by an unknown author based on an EQ radio script. It was later turned into a paperback original by deleting the illustrations and editing the volume. Even more interesting to me is  Ellery Queen, Master Detective, which is a 1941 novelization of the movie of the same name. The movie is “loosely based” on 1937’s The Door Between. In other words — there’s a book called The Door Between that was altered for a movie and then taken by another (unknown) author and turned into a novel called Ellery Queen, Master Detective. Similarly, The Devil to Pay became the film Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime, which was novelized as The Perfect Crime. More novelizations of radio plays from the period exist.
  • Ellery Queen’s first appearance in comic books/graphic novels was in 1940, and he was the subject of two short-lived series in 1952 and 1962.
  • 1941 saw the introduction of EQ’s second and soon-to-be-permanent foray into magazine publishing, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is still published today in 2015.
  • 12188071_10153295969008108_7416595006290925792_oEQ were becoming known as assemblers of short-story packages and they contributed extremely well-informed forewords to a number of other author’s collections, including John Dickson Carr, Dashiell Hammett, Stanley Ellin, Stuart Palmer, Margery Allingham, and Roy Vickers. They continued to assemble volumes of short stories by other authors and occasionally volumes of Ellery Queen stories.
  • 1941 saw the publication of the first novel as by Ellery Queen, Jr., all of which were written by other authors and edited by Lee.
  • In 1942 EQ began to write critical non-fiction about an area of their particular expertise, the detective short story. Queen’s Quorum (1951) is still considered the principal text in this area.
  • In 1961, EQ licensed the first novel as by Ellery Queen (Dead Man’s Tale by Stephen Marlowe) which was the first of 28 novels written by other authors and published as by Ellery Queen. This, with the earlier 5 novelizations brings the total to 33 “as by Ellery Queen” novels; another four novels were ghost-written with close supervision by EQ, so the total is (loosely) 37. This contrasts directly with 30 novels as by Ellery Queen that actually were written by EQ over their lifetimes. There’s an asterisk to this: The Lamp of God by EQ was published in a 64-page edition by Dell Ten-Cent in 1951. So let’s call it 30-1/2 volumes they wrote and 37 they didn’t.  There are a lot of other ifs-ands-buts that go along with this; my point is either that EQ had more novels as by Ellery Queen ghosted than the ones they wrote themselves, or damn close to.
  • Ellery Queen became the subject of a television series a number of times in the 1950s, a television movie in 1971 and 1975, and another short-lived series in 1975-76.
  • Throughout EQ’s lifetime, they licensed the character of Ellery Queen for board games, jigsaw puzzles, and computer games, etc., as often as they could.
  • Finally, although it counts as posthumous, I couldn’t resist the temptation to add in a plug for the first Ellery Queen theatrical adaptation of Calamity Town, written by my Facebook friend and expert in all things Queenian, Joseph Goodrich. The play opens at the Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, Canada, on January 23, 2016 and runs till February 21, 2016.

To sum up: novels, magazines, anthologies, compendia, films, radio, odd-format books, comic books/manga, assemblages of short-story collections, children’s books, non-fiction, licensed novels, television, board games, jigsaw puzzles, computer games and live theatre. The only other detective brands that can approach or equal this breadth are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.

Continuation novels

At this point let me stop for a definition of the “continuation novel”; I intend to link this to the breadth of the Ellery Queen brand to tie off my thesis.

“Continuation novel” is a polite term for a novel that, as Wikipedia puts it, “is a novel in the style of an established series, produced by a new author after the original author’s death”. When the series’s characters are still within copyright, the new author must have the permission of the deceased author’s estate (such as Sophie Hannah’s 2014 Hercule Poirot continuation, The Monogram Murders). Characters like Sherlock Holmes may be continued by anyone, and it seems as though any number of authors have had a whack at Holmes in the past decade or two.

You may be surprised to know just how many well-known mystery writers have been continued by other authors.

  • Margery Allingham was continued immediately after her death by her husband and within the last year by mystery writer Mike Ripley.
  • Agatha Christie was continued by Sophie Hannah in 2014, as noted above, and also by Charles Osborne,who novelized three plays in 1998-2000.
  • 58430Dorothy L. Sayers has been continued by mystery writer Jill Paton Walsh.
  • Rex Stout was continued by Robert Goldsborough from 1986 – 1992, and then from 2012 to the present.
  • Erle Stanley Gardner was continued by Thomas Chastain in two Perry Mason novels in 1989/1990.
  • Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan series was continued by Dennis Lynds in 1974. (Lynds apparently novelized an unproduced screenplay by other authors.)
  • Heron Carvic’s Miss Seeton series was continued by two other authors in paperback originals from 1990 to 1999.
  • Raymond Chandler was continued by Robert B. Parker in 1991; Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series has been continued by Ace Atkins.
  • Leslie Charteris’s The Saint series was continued by Burl Barer in 1997, who novelized a film script of the same year.
  • Craig Rice was continued by Ed McBain.
  • Virginia Rich was continued by Nancy Pickard.
  • And of course a reference work outlining continuation pieces goes on for an entire chapter about Sherlock Holmes. It’s interesting to note that one such novel bears the name of Ellery Queen!

Admittedly some of these would qualify as “collaborations” rather than continuations. For instance, Ed McBain was given half a book written by Craig Rice before she died and completed it and this is commonly referred to as a collaboration. The operative part of the definition of “continuation novel” is that the original author is dead. The related definition of “pastiche” is apparently based upon the idea that the original author is still alive; thus Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce, which presents thinly-disguised portraits of Peter Wimsey, Father Brown, and Hercule Poirot by different names, counts as pastiche but not continuation. Another closely related concept is the “adaptation”, wherein one author adapts the work of another into a different medium (such as film or radio); adaptations can be close or extremely loose (Sherlock Holmes in Washington comes to mind, or the current US television series Elementary). 

If you’ll allow me to lump all these definitions together into one for a moment, to create my own usage, let’s imagine that a “continuation” work is where one writer creates a character and another writer uses that character in an original work, whether closely or loosely allied with the original author’s vision. Under this definition it seems as though nearly every single well-known mystery writer has been continued in one way or another … I can’t think of more than a few who haven’t been, although Sue Grafton comes to mind. (Grafton herself continued Miss Marple by writing a screenplay for A Caribbean Mystery.)

Under this looser definition, Ellery Queen is already a shining example of continuation. EQ published a number of novels as by Ellery Queen that were about the Ellery Queen character but written by two other writers (Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson). EQ licensed both the Ellery Queen authorial name and their other pseudonym of Barnaby Ross for the publication of a wide range of novels, ranging from hard-boiled cop novels to a charming locked-room mystery by John Holbrook Vance. Other authors wrote screenplays, teleplays, and radio plays (including Anthony Boucher) about Ellery Queen. And as I noted above, EQ allowed a couple of their books to be turned into screenplays by one writer which were then novelized by another; I honestly can’t think of another example in literature like this, where an author authorizes two different versions of the same material (one EQ’s, one not) to be simultaneously available. There are Ellery Queen computer games and “mystery jigsaw puzzles” and board games that were designed and created by other people. Now there is a stage adaptation of Calamity Town that means that the Ellery Queen brand is available in just about every communications medium known to humans. And more often than not, that material was created by people other than the EQ cousins.

This really is an extraordinary achievement by EQ, especially since in modern terms it’s taken the resources of a large corporate structure (currently Acorn in the UK) to extend the Agatha Christie brand into as many media platforms. Not only did EQ have to achieve this breadth, they had to invent its possibility; in 1929, “branding” meant something you did to the rear ends of cattle. So full marks to Messrs. Dannay and Lee for creating such a versatile character as Ellery Queen and then for creating the methods to ensure that character’s spread into as many niches as possible.

Into the future

Manfred Lee died in 1971 and Fred Dannay in 1982, and 1982 seems to be the moment when, unsurprisingly, the Ellery Queen brand began to sink into desuetude. Other than the continuing existence of EQMM, which Dannay continued to edit until the year before his death, there was almost no product in any medium bearing the name of Ellery Queen. The people at Crippen & Landru did a diligent and thorough job of tracking down the last remaining unpublished or uncollected material and putting it into modern volumes for our convenience about ten years ago, and Ellery Queen fans owe them a vote of thanks. I’d be willing to believe that pretty much everything is in print that’s going to be in print, barring a few rags and tags. There appear to be no new television adaptations or films, Internet series or virtual reality games on the horizon that leverage the Ellery Queen brand, and pretty much all the print volumes have been published in an attractive uniform E-book edition. I think it’s very likely that the brand has slipped into stasis since 1982 and is in great danger of not being able to recover. (I’m aware that occasionally a brand gets reversed upon itself upon revival, and becomes something quite different from what it used to mean — look up Space Ghost — and I can only hope that that doesn’t happen here.) The neglect of any appreciable amount of new product in 30 years has put the Ellery Queen brand into a terminal condition and it may become a dead, historic brand very much like what happened to Philo Vance.

elementary-london-season-2__140130180340In fact, there appears to be nothing that can rescue the Ellery Queen brand except continuation works. I think most people would be expecting new novels and/or short stories featuring Ellery Queen to come along sooner or later, simply because so many other detective character brands have made it happen that way. In a way I think that Acorn’s production of Sophie Hannah’s Poirot novel of 2014 might have opened the door for a number of such revivals. A couple of GAD brands are in the process of rebooting. I understand there is an American television series production coming in the near future that will transplant Jane Marple to the US as a young woman, and of course there are currently two productions featuring Sherlock Holmes in a modern-day setting. If I had to speculate, I’d say that the most likely thing to happen is that the EQ estate will license someone to write a handful of new novels.

Oh, sure, it would be tempting to suggest finding a continuation author to write actual novels. Certainly the idea appeals to me personally, since I could stand to have a regular supply of new Ellery Queen novels, one every six months for the rest of my life. And I imagine that a lot of my fellow GAD fans would love that to happen. The trouble is, the original Ellery Queen brand appealed to a wide range of regular readers, and the life-support activities implied by, say, bringing out a new Ellery Queen volume once a year for the next decade would not attract any readership beyond a cadre of middle-aged to elderly people (yes, like myself) who are aficionados of the Golden Age form and who know exactly what Ellery Queen stands for. And, frankly, we don’t focus enough buying power to make it worthwhile. It would almost be more sensible to just open up Ellery Queen to full-time house name status, like “Margaret Truman” or “Franklin W. Dixon”, and commission paperback original crime novels at the rate of three or four a year. The brand would be devalued but at least it would still bring in money.

Is that what I would do with the brand personally? Not really. One of the hallmarks of the Ellery Queen brand is a high degree of written literacy; the language, plots, and characters are sophisticated and urbane. Unfortunately today’s post-literate generation is unlikely to want to burden itself with the tedium of actually reading difficult books like that, even on an e-reader. I’d be looking for a way to leverage the brand into an extremely modern platform of some kind, probably as an on-line series, and I’d be looking to cast a very talented young actor to carry the weight of the role for a long time, along the lines of David Suchet. And I would insist that the continuation activities had three hallmarks. It doesn’t seem useful to reviving the brand to reboot it in a 21st-century way, by making Ellery Asian or female or an Asian female, or whatever. Sometimes that works, but I can’t think that would please anyone except those for whom Ellery Queen was a completely new character. So the first stricture would be, keep Ellery pretty much the way he is — single white New York male.  My second idea would be to fix Ellery Queen very firmly in the historical past. I think the 1930s would be most appropriate, but there are problems with this — I understand that Acorn have research that suggests that the period has to be “within living memory”, which is why so many 1920s/1930s brands have been updated to the 1950s and 1960s for recent television production.  If I couldn’t manage the 1930s, I’d fix him in the 1950s and do the rebranding as a period piece, just a different period. And the third stricture is that since Ellery Queen is now really associated principally with the publication of mystery short stories, that’s what I’d be building on. Sure, I’d like some novels. But I think it would be better for the brand to revive by using the short story form, if print is required.

And, of course, this is not my business, in the most literal sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ellery Queen and respect the EQ cousins’ great achievements with the character. I don’t want to see the brand die, but I also cannot see that it’s possible to keep the brand alive and preserve it in amber as a Golden Age relic. I have no idea why the current EQ heirs are not licensing continuation material; it’s almost too late, if it isn’t actually past the sell-by date, so perhaps they merely feel that it’s appropriate to let the brand die, out of respect for its former achievements. That’s fair and reasonable, as long as the heirs don’t need the money. If they do want to continue the brand, they have to get busy quickly.

What do you think? Is it time for Ellery Queen to sink into the dust of history, or would you like to see something happen to revive the character and the brand?

 

 

 

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

NeroWolfeWhat’s this book about?

Most aficionados of detective fiction are familiar with the exploits of Nero Wolfe, the corpulent private detective who directs the activities of his associate Archie Goodwin in some 70 recorded cases written by Rex Stout (and a handful of licensed continuations by Robert Goldsborough). Nero Wolfe has been the subject of two films, four radio series, and two television series — you can read all about him in his Wikipedia entry here.

This book is what used to be called an “appreciation” — perhaps it still would be. It consists of a recapitulation of the plots of all extant novels and short stories as at the date of publication. Both Rex Stout and the series were still alive at this point and my first paperback edition is missing information about the final three novels, a couple of short story accumulations, and all of Robert Goldsborough’s continuation novels. As well, since all the stories take place against a common background of Wolfe’s New York brownstone and a recurring cast of characters, the volume accumulates what is known of persons, places, and things that figure in what has become known as the “corpus“. Corpus is a play on words referring to Wolfe’s bulky body and the complete oeuvre of his fictional adventures. As the back cover blurb on my first paperback edition (shown above) indicates, this is “a handbook for informed appreciation, a compendium and a chronology”. There is nothing here that attempts to bring any new understanding to where the character comes from, or to deepen your understanding of Nero Wolfe’s place in detective fiction; this is merely an assembly of facts and citations.

f643024128a041cb24846010Why is this worth reading?

It’s not.

This is because we now have Wikipedia and the internet; anyone can now indulge him- or herself in whatever level of information and speculation they wish about the exact dimensions of Wolfe’s office, the placement of his red leather chairs, how many cookbooks precisely are on the shelves of his chef Fritz, etc. The publication dates and plot summaries of every single Nero Wolfe volume are available from Wikipedia and a number of other websites. There are single-purpose Wolfe-oriented discussion groups (one of which I helped moderate for a few years), organizations like the Wolfe Pack operate websites and have physical meetings, etc. The functions of this volume have been entirely superseded by the internet.

In fact, I’m kind of at a loss to know why this volume was published at all, although until Penguin reprinted it in trade paperback format I used to sell a lot of used paperback copies of the Bantam edition to Wolfe aficionados at fairly high prices. There is nothing in this book that one cannot glean from reading the novels themselves and, honestly, the novels are much, much better written and more lively. If you have read the books, then you don’t need plot recaps. If you haven’t read them, well, there is a faint likelihood that it will be of benefit to you to know what you’ve missed, but isn’t it better to merely obtain a list of the books and tick them off as you go? And if you for some unfathomable reason cannot live without knowing the dimensions of Wolfe’s office — his fictional office, I hasten to add, and subject like everything else in the corpus to the vagaries of Rex Stout’s constant forgetfulness of minor details — then that information can be gleaned from the novels themselves, and you can spend an evening if you so desire in drawing up a floor plan and trying to imagine what the waterfall picture looks like. This volume, incidentally, does not contain such a floor plan.

But if you are a Nero Wolfe fan, and you have tracked down a copy of Where There’s A Will complete with photographs, and you have spent a month’s rent on a first edition of Corsage, and have a copy of every Tecumseh Fox mystery and Alphabet Hicks mysteries and the Dol Bonner mystery, and Double for Death in the mapback edition, and the book/movie The President Vanishes, and the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and all the Goldsborough novels, and and and — then you will not strain at the gnat, relatively speaking, that is this volume. You can acquire a copy on Abebooks for under $10 as of this writing. One of the entries for the hardcover first says “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” And that sentiment brings me to my point.

In recent months I have been giving thought to “tie-ins”. These are artifacts that are connected with fictional characters but not usually invented by the original creator of that character. I’ve posted an article (found here) about Sophie Hannah’s authorized continuation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot character, The Monogram Murders. My piece here talks at some length about the relationship between the book and the film of S. S. Van Dine’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and goes into the nascent industry of the movie tie-in novel represented by such volumes as Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. My piece even notes the existence of a Milton Bradley board game called “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game” marketed as an adjunct to the short-lived film that will set you back a cool $700 or so IF you can find a well-worn copy, which you probably can’t; it’s bloody rare indeed.

In 2015, the movie tie-in paperback has perhaps waned in popularity from its zenith in, perhaps, the 80s and 90s, where it was very nearly obligatory for every film being marketed to boys and young men to come with its accompanying novelization (a kind of prosodic dumbing-down of the plot of the film in simple English), and for films featuring handsome male actors and/or musicians addressed to girls and young women to have an accompanying novelization in slightly higher-level language but more colour close-up photos tipped into the centre. Tie-in novels have rather died down in the subsequent years, but the concept is still going strong in ways you may find difficult to believe. Murder, She Wrote was last broadcast in 1996 (although there were four subsequent made-for-TV movies). Donald Bain, listed as co-author with the imaginary Jessica Fletcher, has published 35 volumes in the series of novels featuring Jessica Fletcher, most in hardcover; two a year for quite a while, including 2015. Thirty-five volumes, still going strong almost 20 years after the last episode of the TV series — quite an achievement.

In a very general sense, a tie-in is a commercial product that is associated with a character, either real or imaginary, but that does not contribute to the original purpose or reason for the celebrity of that character. Jessica Fletcher was the main character of a television series; therefore, novels — as well as lunch boxes, memo pads, aprons, tote bags, coffee cups, and “appreciations” — which feature that character are all tie-in materials.

There are mysteries which purport to be written by celebrities like Martina Navratilova and Willie Shoemaker, and ones which apparently actually were written by Steve Allen. Those are tie-ins to celebrity. There are ancillary novels that accompany various series of films and television; Quantum Leap books, Babylon 5 novels, Indiana Jones adventures, and enough Star Trek novels to sink a Battleship — which also has its own movie tie-in novel. Frankly, the thought of a board game becoming a film which is then turned into a novel fills me with wildly mixed emotions ranging from nausea to hilarity, but mostly I find it bathetic in the extreme. That novel must take awfulness to a new Stygian depth. I have the weird feeling that if I open the novel, I’ll implode and form a new Heinleinian multiverse, or something.

What the tie-in process boils down to, though, is that a writer creates a character; in this case, Nero Wolfe. The character becomes very popular and people are anxious to get, and read, new books in the series. (Or to experience new Indiana Jones films or watch new episodes featuring Jessica Fletcher or, way back when, listen to new radio episodes featuring The Shadow.) The original material doesn’t appear fast enough to suit enthusiastic fans, and this is where tie-in materials start to be created. What also happens, of course, is that the creation of these tie-in materials makes economic sense to someone. If you can create a lunch box for $1 and sell it for $3, fine. But if you can put a picture of Donny Osmond on it and sell it for $7, even if you have to pay Mr. Osmond $1 for the privilege, you are doing very well indeed. A $3 lunch box works as well as a $7 lunch box; what you are saying is that you like Donny Osmond and want your luncheon companions to know that, and it’s worth $4 to be able to say so.

Back in the day, this was a primitive form of branding. The manufacturers of Ovaltine knew that children liked radio stories about Little Orphan Annie and so created mugs for drinking Ovaltine with pictures of Little Orphan Annie on them. Note that in the old days, these things related directly; Ovaltine provided mugs from which one could drink Ovaltine, and this is an elegant closed circle. It didn’t take long to figure out, though, that there were two ways in which this process could be made to pay. One is that the tie-in didn’t have to relate directly to the character; for instance, a Little Orphan Annie colouring book. The other is that sometimes it is worthwhile to create tie-in materials that are nearly worthless and give them to children (and credulous adults) as ways of cementing brand loyalty. Hence, the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. If you listened to the radio program and possessed a decoder ring, you would receive secret messages which you could decode — mostly, as I understand it, having to do with the advisability of drinking lots of Ovaltine. If you were a child who was not in possession of the ring, your ring-less status was derided by your friends and it was clear that you were not getting the full benefit of your fannish appreciation of Little Orphan Annie. Children who owned rings were au courant with the cultural zeitgeist, although I doubt they’d have expressed it that way. Either way, children drank more Ovaltine and more than repaid the cost of the nearly worthless rings.

As time marched on and branding became a more sophisticated process, the existence of tie-ins was a signal of a certain level of brand involvement by the parent company. The folks at Disney were the masters of such branding programs. When the very first sketches were being laid down for the first nascent ideas that were to become, say, The Lady and the Tramp — those sketches were also passed to the marketing department to get to work on Lady and the Tramp comic books and plastic toys and lunch boxes and colouring books and dozens of other things. And the number and extent of such tie-in materials signalled the level of investment that the parent company found worthwhile. Lassie and Dan’l Boone had huge ancillary marketing materials in hundreds of categories; a decade later, The Munsters and The Partridge Family took those numbers into the thousands. You could sleep on Munsters sheets and eat Munsters cereal from Munsters bowls, and carry your Munsters lunchbox home from school while wearing your Eddie Munster jacket, read a Munsters comic book, and play with your glow-in-the-dark Munsters toys and games, while signed-in-plate photographs of Butch Patrick and Yvonne de Carlo smiled down from your bedroom walls. There was no limit to the things upon which Munsters iconography could be stencilled — that is, until they went off the air and everyone had to have a Star Trek lunchbox. There’s no money in static branding.

And so I believe that the adults to whom brands and characters were marked with tie-in materials became accustomed to thinking of characters as the appropriate subject of tie-in materials. For something to be culturally significant, it had to be accompanied by tie-in materials; and this brings us finally back to Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. As I said, there is really no reason for this volume to exist. It is a kind of cooing noise expressing pleasure at the idea of Nero Wolfe. But it was created, and marketed, as “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” That’s an idea that deserves a little unpacking.

wolfe-plaqueWhat exactly is a “serious” Rex Stout collection? I’d venture to say that it’s one that is worth the most money. But I have been in the position of selling relatively worthless objects at hefty prices — like, for instance, first editions of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street — to people who didn’t want them for some pleasure that they’d receive by reading the book, but merely wished to possess a copy of the book so that they could say they owned one. So that, indeed, they could prove they had a “serious” collection. I think a “serious” collection can be paradoxically defined as the one that contains the highest number of frivolous objects. The less the object has to do with the original character, the more it’s only in the possession of the “serious” collector. The possessors of these serious collections are thoroughly convinced that the money they spent on acquiring them will be recompensed some day, perhaps by an envious younger person who will double or triple the price paid in order to acquire the tie-in object. But for an example of where that goes wrong, I give you (a) Beanie Babies; (b) the egregious and nearly worthless objects known as “collector plates”; (c) the entire output of the Franklin Mint. Did you pay $500 for a copy of a script from the original Nero Wolfe TV program, apparently annotated in Lee Horsley’s handwriting? Kiss your $500 good-bye, unless you can find someone with the same disease you caught; you may have to infect them personally with the importance and significance and sheer gravitas of such a scarce object.

As to why one would have a Nero Wolfe “collection” that consisted of anything more than novels written about Nero Wolfe — your guess is as good as mine. I confess to having owned a “Nero Wolfe” necktie that is vaguely orchidaceous, that I bought at the time of the Timothy Hutton TV series; it’s a nice tie, but I never wore it and gave it to my brother. I bought it because it was attractive, not because it was associated with the program. It cost me about twice as much as it should have. I have a copy of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street that originally sold for 75 cents; I paid $3 for it, and I would expect to get $5, possibly from one of my readers. That’s the used book business; old books are worth what they will bring from a knowledgeable reader. I paid $35 for a bootleg DVD of 1937’s The League of Frightened Men, because I wanted badly to see it; I wasted $35.

In fact, I actually really, really like the Nero Wolfe novels and stories; I’m well versed in their details and chronology. I’ve read every single one, again and again. I can quote chunks of them. But let me confess; I don’t care in the slightest how big the front room is, or how big the globe is, or the dimensions of the waterfall picture. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t CARE. I like the characters, I like the writing, and I like the spirit and feeling of the books. But by and large, I can tell you — anyone who is trying to convince you that there is something called a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” is trying to take your money. I know this, because I have stood behind the counter of a mystery bookstore and sold people copies of this book, and the Cadfael Companion, and a twee little volume purporting to detail the Wimsey family history, and Agatha Christie tote bags, and Murder, She Wrote coffee cups, at a minimum of 100% markup and, frankly, whatever the traffic would bear. I did that so that I could afford to keep the store’s doors open to make copies of really good, well-written mysteries available to people who wanted to read them, but the people who manufactured the coffee cups have no such excuse.

I have no objection to getting together with like-minded people to discuss the novels and stories, as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand. Most members of organizations like the Wolfe Pack are sensible and intelligent bibliophiles who esteem the same fiction I do, and know the difference between a first edition in jacket of Fer-de-Lance and a TV script that Lee Horsley has scribbled on. In fact, some of my best friends, et cetera. I enjoy finding depths of meaning and a better understanding of American cultural themes and motifs in the books, and I enjoy discussing those things with other people. But if you come to me looking for my $3 paperback of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, I might take $5 but I’ll try to stick you for $12 — and I’m a relatively nice person. Other merchants will not be so kind, and you may end up with a sample of Lee Horsley’s handwriting at vastly inflated prices.

If you think you need to have a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” — try and understand that that really consists of fiction written featuring Nero Wolfe. Be well-read rather than “serious”; buy the novel and not the lunch box. And leave this book alone.

51pwNjGwcbL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My favourite edition

I have a first paperback edition that I skimmed to write this piece, and I’ve had and sold a number of copies of the first edition; since I always made more money from the true first, seen here, I suppose it would be my favourite edition. It’s certainly the one with the best graphic design of any I’ve seen. As of today on Abebooks, a decent copy should set you back somewhere around $25 depending on where you live. Beware of the BCE (book club edition), which looks quite similar but is relatively valueless.

My least favourite volume

I will add here that if you think I was hard on THIS volume, I reserve the utmost scorn and disapproval for a similar volume by one Ken Darby. William Baring-Gould was merely an enthusiastic fanboi before the term existed, albeit a literate and well-read one; Darby regurgitates the same material in worse prose and less exact detail and, to my enormous distaste, stops for a wholly unnecessary chapter to “prove” that any rumours that Messrs. Goodwin and Wolfe are gay are false and vile canards, and says a lot of nasty things about homosexuality in the process. Frankly, I’m gay and had never even considered such an idea; it’s directly contradicted over and over by the Stout-written stories themselves. I gather that the Darby book is out of print and relatively unavailable, and in my opinion it should stay that way, because the author was a vulgar and homophobic toad. I’ll decline to provide you with the title of this piece de merde or even to tag his name; let the book die in its well-deserved obscurity.

 

Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)

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Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

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

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

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

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

1. Sharon McCone

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

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

2. Jane Marple

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

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

3. Maud Silver

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

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

4. Mrs. Bradley

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

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

5. Bertha Cool

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

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

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

6. Hilda Adams

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

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

7. Nancy Drew

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

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

8. Loveday Brooke

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

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

9. Flavia de Luce

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

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

10. Kate Delafield

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

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

October 8 Challenge

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

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Miracles For Sale (1939)

Miracles For Sale 

14806Author: Screenplay by Harry Ruskin & Marion Parsonnet and James Edward Grant, based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat written by Clayton Rawson.

Harry Ruskin was a prolific writer of, among other things, a double handful of Dr. Kildare films and “additional dialogue” for The Glass Key. (Mr.) Marion Parsonnet wrote the screenplay for GildaCover Girl, B-movies and some television episodes. James Edward Grant seems to have been a kind of two-fisted specialist with a long career primarily focused on Westerns and war movies.

And of course, based on the Great Merlini novel by Clayton Rawson noted above.

Other Data:  71 minutes long. Released August 14, 1939, according to IMDB.  Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and wardrobe by Dolly Tree. I don’t ordinarily mention the wardrobe mistress by name, but I have to say, her work here is extraordinary. There is no Wikipedia page for Dolly Tree, and someone should rectify this, based on what little I could find on the Internet.  Anyway, Florence Rice gets to wear two absolutely amazing evening gowns that a fashionable woman of seventy-five years later would have no problems wearing to the right event. They both have a very unusual shoulder treatment that is really attractive, a kind of Judy Jetson effect of multiple tiers. I’ll show you a picture below; these have to be seen to be believed.

miraclesforsale1939_ff_188x141_071020130425Directed by Tod Browning — indeed, his last film before retirement. This is not much more than a B picture in intent, I think, but he gave it a professional polish and treatment. I’m not an expert on Browning’s work, but it occurs to me that the unusual occupations of the characters are what attracted him to this piece.

Cast: Robert Young as Mike Morgan (because The Great Merlini needed his name simplified, apparently). Florence Rice as Judy Barclay, Frank Craven as Dad Morgan. Among the suspects are Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Frederick Worlock, Gloria Holden and William Demarest (of My Three Sons fame).

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I want to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing most of the ending of the film, and the twists that underlie some events.  You should also be aware that there is a novel called Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson to which you will find out the ending, plot, etc. If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own.   

Thank you, TCM, for providing the original trailer.

There are not many films that are strict-form whodunits that are actually solvable by the viewer. I admit whenever I encounter one these days, it usually takes me a couple of tries to work out if, and then exactly how, the director has made a clear logical path available for me. First I have to understand what’s being asserted as the solution, and then I have to look to see if indeed it’s possible to figure that out from what is on the screen. I have to look at the film a couple of times with my little notebook at hand, marking time points with plot points.

I didn’t do that here. My rate of posting is down to around once a month as it is.  If I give Miracles For Sale the strict analysis, I would be at my desk well into 2014, I’m sure. This is an extremely difficult and complex film; perhaps the most difficult and complex plot ever smushed into 71 minutes of rapid-fire film, complete with the occasional comedy aside. Add to which, it is based on a novel (Death From A Top Hat, hence DFATH) that is among the most difficult and complex ever written in the mystery field — so much so that they had to leave out bits of it because it would have doubled the running time of the film to explain things completely.  I’m quite familiar with this book, having loved it for years, and it’s a fascinating strict-form puzzle mystery based on the principles of stage magic, against a background of people whose professions include ventriloquist, stage magician, escape artist, medium, and a pair of nightclub performers with a telepathy act.  There’s also a professional debunker of phony mediums and a main character whose job it is to create the objects and routines with which stage magicians make their living.

At this point, the book and film diverge. The ventriloquist disappears from the film, to my sorrow, and to my much greater sorrow, the book’s grandstanding and verbose character of The Great Merlini, owner of a magic supply store and amateur detective, has been replaced by Mike Morgan, portrayed by the debonair but considerably more pedestrian Robert Young.

Browning_1939_MiraclesForSale_1As I said, a complex and difficult plot; I’ll give you the bare bones. A group of assorted professions as noted above are involved in the circumstances of the murder of the first victim, X, who is found dead in his locked apartment, spread-eagled inside a pentagram on the floor filled with black magic symbols and objects. Suspicion immediately falls on another character, Y, who leaves the murder scene because he has to appear on a live radio show.  Y promptly vanishes and later appears to have been lying dead elsewhere, spread-eagled inside a pentagram, the whole time. A number of other characters go through a lot of plot machinations in a remarkably short period of time, speaking crisply, and someone keeps trying to kill Florence Rice’s character, including one character whom we see clearly and whose corpse (to the left in the pentacle) is pretty cold at this point.  That’s her in the wide-shouldered gown above; she’s about to be shot at during a magic act in the finale, just before the real murderer is unmasked.  There’s a seance, a stage act, a car chase, and a bunch of magic tricks that go off at the right time. In the meantime we have seen an actual locked-room mystery brought off before our very eyes — in a solvable way.

But, dear reader, you will not solve this mystery. I believe it is possible to do so, given the information on the screen and in the soundtrack, but I will tell you in real life that you’ll never get it first time through. You have a dim chance, if you’ve read the book but forgotten most of the details; if you come to this cold, you’ll just never do it. Frankly, this is one for sitting back and allowing it to happen and enjoying it, and then, if you’re interested, watch the film again and see if you can figure out where and how you were fooled.  I will say, just a tiny bit enigmatically, that I was not aware of anyone leaving the apartment after the penny had been electrified, although I understand that someone had to have done so. I accept that the murderer can physically have accomplished what he did, and he had just enough time to do so, but honestly, folks, he would have been out of breath upon arrival everywhere and phenomenally lucky to boot.

If you’d actually like to try, I suggest that you stop the recording at the point when Florence Rice is going to be the target of the bullet — at the 1:09 mark — and start again from the beginning until you know what is about to happen and why, and instigated by whom. There is no Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in this film or its source material, but if you wish a point at which to try yourself, that would be it.

Points of Interest:

5845664999_350ae6cd42_mI’ve always liked this movie, and in the years before videotape it was very difficult indeed to see; at least one very muddy print was making the rounds of small television markets, and I picked up VHS copies two or three times hoping vainly for a better copy.  Part of my affection for the book version comes from its origin in my life; I’ve been a collector of and dealer in mapbacks for many years, and it used to be that the source material, DFATH, was only available in a low-numbered and valuable paperback edition, complete with the “map of crime scene on back cover” that contributes to these early Dell editions being so charming and collectible. So whenever I managed to find a copy, not only did I have a very pleasant re-reading experience immediately at hand, but I also had an immediate customer for the book.

My affection for the movie, I think, stems from the fact that it’s an extremely difficult strict-form puzzle mystery — perhaps THE most difficult strict-form puzzle mystery on film — translated from book to film with very little loss. There is charm, humour, the events move at the same breakneck clip as in the original, and for those of us who enjoy ratiocination, there’s plenty of room for deduction. I would show my best copy of this to personal friends, inviting them to bemoan with me the general dullness of Hollywood mysteries that almost never rose to this level of complexity and difficulty.

I have to say, I have changed my tune somewhat. There are only a few such films that are strict-form and worth watching that date back to the 1930s, and definitely not very many overall — Clue, a comedy from 1985, is perhaps the latest, and The Last of Sheila from 1973 is perhaps the last serious one not based on an Agatha Christie piece. The ones that managed to get made — this has never been a popular genre — were marked by extreme originality and usually based in some profession or background that would have been interesting in any context. Unfortunately, for the handful that are worth watching, there are ten times as many unwatchable, dull and chaotic failures.

x-miracles-for-sale-jWhy is that?

Oddly enough, I figured this out by watching every single episode of the 80s TV series Murder, She Wrote at least twice, and this is an exercise I don’t recommend to you. MSW tries to be a strict form puzzle mystery, for the most part, and part of the reason that it is dull and considered suitable for the elderly is that a strict form puzzle mystery is very difficult to SHOW.  It is much easier to write. The other reason the series is dull is that in 264 episodes and four made-for-TV movies, Jessica Fletcher is on the scene when a body is discovered.  This is beyond ridiculous, and thus the production is constantly winking at the audience that this is merely a set piece, a kind of game played out for your amusement, and to me this sucks a lot of vitality out of the plots.

I don’t remember the episode name, but I dimly recall one of the clues was that Jessica Fletcher walked into a room and put her hand on a TV set and grimaced a little.  This was meant to indicate that the TV set was still warm, and thus the room had been occupied when someone said it wasn’t, and therefore the murderer was some washed-up 80s TV sidekick. The point is, though, that it was necessary to show Jessica putting her hand on the TV set and reacting, and the viewer had to figure out why she had grimaced and draw all the same conclusions. Something peculiar happens in the very tightly scripted episode of a network programme when this happens; the canny viewer immediately becomes aware that an important clue has just been shown, because every single other word and gesture and movement and camera angle and interaction has a purpose and a function.  When we are shown something that is seemingly extraneous, well, we’re all wise and experienced TV viewers, and we know there is some reason for being shown this, if we can only figure it out.  Since the strict-form mystery must show you the clues, they are much more difficult to conceal or obfuscate than they are with the printed word. Here, you’ve got 71 minutes of vital plot points being rained upon you like confetti; miss one and you can’t solve the mystery.  In the book you have to construct in your head a map of the whereabouts of every character, and follow them all the way through the plot to realize that there is only one person who can have done everything that happened.  In this movie, you have to sort information like the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, and there’s no time to think about anything except what just exploded.  That’s why MSW is considered dumbed down for a dumb audience — the producers knew their audience could only handle one or two difficult clues every fifteen minutes or so. Here, it’s vital information every fifteen seconds. All of it necessary to a truly complicated plot, and upon fifth or sixth viewing of this gem, you’ll appreciate the shovel-loads of data that the writers threw at you so skilfully. First time through, fugeddaboudit.

While I do think there are a double-handful of strict-form puzzle mystery films that are enjoyable — I’ll make a list for you someday — I think I have come to understand over the years why there are not more of them. You run a double risk of failure.  You have failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that they could NEVER have solved the damn mystery and it will be a cold day in hell before they ever go to another Mike Morgan movie.  Unfortunately you have also failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that of course it was perfectly obvious whodunnit and really, they must think we’re just idiots to make it that easy, I’ll skip the next one and send my 11-year-old to see it.

As I’ve said or suggested above, I’m a reasonably intelligent person with a very wide knowledge of murder mysteries, who is accustomed to the challenge of trying to figure them out and succeeds a great deal of the time — and I failed to figure this one out on the first go-round. I venture to say that this means that approximately 100% of people who see the movie are surprised by the ending, and in this case it cannot be a very pleasant surprise. The actual murderer has disguised himself as a number of other people, but he is only on screen in his own persona for 60 or 90 seconds of the film at most. This is not enough time for anyone to grasp the individual and understand exactly who he is and what he does for a living, especially since the movie proceeds at breakneck speed and all the men are wearing nearly identical clothing at all times.  I have this little vision of a stream of people leaving the theatre after the premiere, saying, “Well, you know, not as much FUN as those Thin Man movies, don’t you think?”  I love this film, I love the level of expectation that it has of my puzzle-solving efforts, but I have to say, all in all, it’s a failure.  It’s just too damn tough.

And that’s why I’m not expecting a lot of enormously popular strict-form puzzle mystery films to be greenlit in the near future. It’s a chancy and difficult exercise that is fraught with peril and, very often, the modern screenplay doesn’t exhibit that level of wild imaginative originality that is so necessary to lift a mystery plot from the level of MSW to Miracles for Sale.  You have to have a mystery that is based on a visual premise. You need interesting detective characters, a strange background, a weird murder idea. And there’s no guarantee that anyone will like it even if you get it right.

There’s one further point of interest, albeit a minor one.  I learned from the TCM introduction to this film that it represents the first time that contact lenses were seen to be used in a film. That is a minor plot point, but it will explain why one or two characters seem to have weird colourless eyes; you’ll understand this in the last minutes of the film.

Notes For the Collector:

1289890045Copies of the film seem readily available.  It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in October, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while. TCM and Amazon both have the same double-feature DVD available for under $20.

Copies of the book, especially the Dell edition pictured above, are certainly worth having. To me, Clayton Rawson is one of the cornerstones of the puzzle mystery and Dell mapbacks are a cornerstone of paperback collecting.  All four of the Merlini books in mapback edition might set you back $100 and they will only increase in value with time; the most expensive copy you can find is probably the biggest bargain. The hardcover first without jacket starts at about $45, but the jacket is extremely scarce in any condition and the cheapest one I saw was $310; the VG+ copy in VG+ jacket will set you back $3,750 (pictured at left). I’ve never held in my hands one for sale with its original jacket, but I note that there is a really good facsimile jacket out there. So a good rule of thumb is that if the jacket is in good condition, it’s either a facsimile or you probably can’t afford it.