Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)


Phoebe Atwood Taylor, writing as Alice Tilton. The Alice Tilton pseudonym was reserved for the eight novels featuring amateur detective Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who looked like Shakespeare”; this is the seventh.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “L”, “Read one book with a man in the title.” The titular Ernest is the victim in this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is US, Norton in 1944.  First UK edition is Collins, 1945. Many editions exist; the paperback I used is depicted at the top of this post and is from Foul Play Press, 1992.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Leonidas Witherall is known to one and all in his small New England community as “the man who looks like Shakespeare”. He’s also well-known in civic circles, he’s the owner and headmaster of a prominent boys’ school — and, a fact known to few, he’s also the writer of radio’s Lieutenant Haseltine series. “Haseltine to the res-cue!”  (Indeed, the exploits and habits of Haseltine and the beautiful Lady Alicia are a constant theme in Witherall’s adventures. We never exactly understand any of Haseltine’s story lines, but they sound hokey, simplistic, and repetitive.) As the story begins, Witherall is in his study desperately trying to complete the latest Haseltine adventure and being pestered by his housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, a sturdy middle-aged woman who is constantly expressing her “candied” opinion. She’s trying to tell him a number of important things that later he wishes fervently he’d understood, but he brushes her off and she leaves.

Almost immediately, two drunken deliverymen insist that Leonidas is to receive the delivery of a deep freeze (a household freezer), which they unload into his kitchen. Nearly simultaneously, a gorgeous violet-eyed blonde (named Terpsichore, but known to one and all as Terry) in an evening gown rings Leonidas’s front doorbell and insists that he is the person for whom she has been paid to sing “Happy Birthday” — which she promptly does. Leonidas then discovers that the deep freeze contains the corpse of Mr. Ernest Finger, whom he has just hired as the latest French language instructor at his boys’ school and who is related to his neighbours, the Finger family.

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens for the remainder of the novel; a bald recital of the facts of the movements of the characters would have my readers tugging at my sleeve and saying, “Um, WHY exactly would they all want to attend a policeman’s supper during such urgent and dangerous circumstances? Why exactly do the neighbours keep popping into the kitchen on errands? What combination of circumstances exactly left Mrs. Mullet tied up in Leonidas’s basement and only able to identify her assailant by the stitch that produced his hand-knit socks?” It’s pretty clear that it’s the murderer who is trying to get Leonidas in trouble and accused of the Finger murder, but what does moving the corpse around erratically have to do with it? (Accompanied by many, many jokes about the Finger family name; comments about “the moving Finger” and “I’ve had those Fingers in my hair all day” abound.)

Honestly, if I told you what happened, you wouldn’t be interested in reading the novel because you would, probably rightly, think that it was ridiculous and never bother to pick it up.  It IS ridiculous. Nearly everything that happens is ridiculous, zany, and improbable in the extreme. Essentially what happens is that Leonidas puts together a small crew of associates and they all race around like crazy people, reacting spontaneously to things that happen in the vicinity while they try to solve the murder of Mr. Finger and keep Leonidas from being arrested for it — or anyone else in the crew, many of whom have reason to have done violence to Ernest. Indeed, in all the books, this is the pattern; Leonidas assembles a crew that usually contains a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man, a ditzy but highly competent housewife, a child with no conscience, and a couple of salty-tongued members of the lower classes. This particular novel features lower-class Mrs. Mullet prominently, who here is constantly acting out the actions of the beautiful Lady Alicia as she attempts to aid the gallant lieutenant, and her daughter Gerty, who wishes to be known as Sonia. (Well, wouldn’t you?)

Finally, everyone takes a leaf from Haseltine’s adventures as Leonidas invokes the constant factor in the Haseltine stories; the principle of Cannae. “Cannae,” chant all the good guys simultaneously since they are all Haseltine devotees, “is the historic battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians, fought in Apulia in the year 216 B.C., in which the small, weak army of Hannibal cut the incomparable forces of eighty-five thousand proud Roman legionnaires to pieces.” (The action stops for a moment while they discuss whether the word is “pieces” or “shreds”. They continue …) “By means of an ingenious strategical concentration, it caught the enemy from the flank with calvary and surrounded him. Clausewitz and Schlieffen of the Prussian General Staff elaborated the idea of Cannae into a general theoretical doctrine, and then compressed the doctrine into an exact strategical system: Blitzkrieg.”  This exact speech recurs in every single Witherall novel and signals that Leonidas is about to solve the mystery, ensure the arrest of the criminal, and cause everything to end happily. Which he does and they do. “Bathed in the refulgent glow of the setting sun, Haseltine clasped the Lady Alicia to his manly bosom.” And Leonidas and Mrs. Mullet exchange a set of little jokes about what to call the next Haseltine adventure, which will be based on recent events — not “The Moving Finger” or “Deep Freeze”, but “Dead Ernest”.

6263Why is this book worth your time?

“Screwball comedy” in film pretty much began in 1934 with It Happened One Night, according to Wikipedia, but that reference also suggests that the style ended by 1942. It also says screwball comedies  “… often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret.” That sounds like a murder mystery to me. I’ll tentatively suggest that mystery writers who were looking around for new twists on the traditional mystery noted the success of the screwball comedy in film and decided that it would go well as the foundation of a murder mystery plot. And thus began the transmigration of the filmic screwball comedy into the novelistic comedy mystery.

I can’t say that I understand the entire history of the particular sub-genre of the “comedy mystery”. I’m not certain I know of all early examples; I’m aware of a couple of instances, including works by Marco Page (a pseudonym of Harry Kurnitz) like Fast Company that were filmed at about the same time as this book was published. But historians and analysts seem to be interested in very little in the way of comedy mystery before the work of Craig Rice, whose first novel, Eight Faces at Three (1939), began the genre, it seems. Except that if that’s the case, then Phoebe Atwood Taylor beat her to it; Taylor’s first novel as by Alice Tilton, Beginning With a Bash, was published in 1937 and the third in the series in 1939.

It’s hard to tell the impact of a particular writer at such a great distance. We know that Craig Rice was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time (January 28, 1946), and a number of her works were filmed (including Having Wonderful Crime in 1945, the film for which certainly qualifies as some kind of comedy, screwball or otherwise). Phoebe Atwood Taylor doesn’t appear to have been the subject of any media interest that I can locate, and her cross-platform success was limited to a single year (1944-1945) of a radio program, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, starring well-known actor Walter Hampden. So I’m guessing that Craig Rice was much more impactful than Phoebe Atwood Taylor. I cannot imagine why no one tried to film any of Taylor’s Witherall adventures when lesser writers’ attempts at screwball comedy were being filmed right and left; it just didn’t happen, and now the moment has passed.

This book, and indeed the whole Leonidas Witherall series, are beautifully crafted examples of screwball comedies in novel form. They are not especially interesting as mysteries if that is your only purpose in reading. The plots are so convoluted and baroque, and move at such a careening clip, that it is impossible to suggest that you will solve the mystery in the usual sense. Usually there is one character who stands out as the only potential suspect; either that, or you take a brief moment to wonder who might have done the murder and think, “Oh, THAT person, I guess.” It’s not usually possible, in a strict and formal sense, to “solve” an Alice Tilton mystery. That requires certain kinds of facts that are not really available to the reader.

For instance, in this case, we do not “see” the actions of the murderer in the sense that we would be able to go back and trace that person’s actions throughout the day, to know where they were when and with whom as witness. Instead, and I don’t think I’m going to spoil your enjoyment of this novel by saying so before you read it, the murderer here is someone who had a reason to put Ernest Finger’s body in a deep freeze and have it delivered to Leonidas Witherall’s kitchen. That action sparks the actions of the plot, but there really is only one person who had a (barely) sane and sensible reason to do such a thing. You can imagine that that limited the list of potential murderers to a single name, which it does here. That will have to be sufficient for those of us who like to have a try at actually solving a mystery; the others will have little about which to complain. There is so much going on here, and so much of it is actually hilarious, that you won’t mind a bit that the mystery ingredient is a bit skimpy.

I’ve enjoyed this whole series and read them all a number of years ago, and they stand up well to re-reading; not all books by the writers about whom I was enthusiastic in my youth have done so. This book is funny in a way that is hard to describe; to me, the closest analogy is the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the creator of Bertie Wooster, the quintessential “Silly Ass” in the tradition of Philo Vance, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. I’ve read a quotation from Wodehouse to the effect that he was being blamed for writing about the same characters, just giving them new names in each book; Wodehouse announced he was confounding his critics next time by keeping the same names. And this process is very much what happens in these eight books. They are a series of linked character trophes, like Benny Hill or the Carry On movies. There’s a smart and practical housewife whose presentation is that of a ditz. There’s a beautiful girl who is in trouble through no fault of her own. There’s a handsome young man of good family and education who is misunderstood but anxious to help solve the mystery.  And there are a couple of plucky and stupid members of the lower classes, pronouncedly comedic characters, along to do the heavy lifting and offer silly suggestions about alternatives. The author has a limited deck of characters whom she shuffles and recombines; some overlap and recur in the author’s Asey Mayo mysteries under her own name. An ineffectual middle-aged upper-class male who turns out to have a backbone. A young woman who learned competence by serving in the Armed Forces during WWII. A self-sufficient man of great age, a spoiled young wealthy woman, a preternaturally intelligent child — there are more (not all these trophes are represented in this book, I have to add).

Dead Ernest might be thought of as a kind of proto-cozy (oddly enough, this came out the same year as another possible proto-cozy, Craig Rice’s brilliant Home Sweet Homicide). It has some of the same qualities I associate with the modern cozy: violence is offstage and not indicated in any graphic way, there are strong implicit and sometimes explicit moral values, and the narrator is fallible. And that it is meant to be purchased by a female reader. To my mind, the difference is that the modern cozy lost most of the humour of a classic comedy mystery and replaced it with a kind of communication of “gentle” social values. Perhaps the premise that these two genres are related is fallacious; possibly I’ve omitted important intermediate steps. Maybe it’s just that the modern cozy is so cold-bloodedly commercial that any such relationship is possible, because commercial writing will use any cultural tradition it can to sell another book. Usually this involves the merger of the form of the “light comedy mystery” with the purveyance of a great deal of detailed information about, say, knitting; experts in knitting are easier to find than someone who can actually write comedy, so the focus changed as the cozy became more commercial, produced on assembly-line lines. I think it’s likely Taylor was writing for a female audience, but I also know many men enjoy her books (there are only a few men who can survive a regular diet of cozies). So, I’ll leave this to my readers’ speculation; I have no conclusive answers. I don’t know of any attempt that’s been made to trace this kind of literary relationship, but since there are so many doctoral students who have been forced to look at genre fiction because all the interesting work on Jane Austen has been done, perhaps we can expect such a thesis at some near future point. “Origins of the Cozy Mystery: from Craig Rice to Phoebe Atwood Taylor to Ailsa Craig to Marcia Muller, Joan Hess and beyond.” We can but hope.

Ultimately,  I think this book deserves your time because, like its seven fellows in the series, it is literate and intelligent, well-written, and fast-moving. Taylor’s work presents a detailed portrait of a certain period in American history, focused on the domestic economy of Cape Cod in the period during and immediately after WWII. She is a clever and economical constructor of characters; I suggest that the fact that she reused a group of stock characters is evidence that she understood the inherent comedy situations in class conflict (again, this echoes British bawdy humour based on repetitive trophes) and this kind of writing came naturally to her. And she is a wildly inventive and truly eccentric plotter who has the skill in writing necessary to keep her plots moving at breakneck speed without losing the reader. Best of all, you can re-read them two or three times in your lifetime at long-separated intervals and still enjoy them in the same way, for that timeless quality of inspired silliness that brings out the child in us all.


Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Norton, 1944) is available today from an American bookseller, Fine in a VG to NF jacket, for $65.  A slightly less crisp copy is $40 from a Canadian bookseller. The UK first is Collins, 1945. A number of editions exist; Norton reissued the Alice Tilton novels in hardcover in the 1970s or thereabouts, Foul Play Press did a uniform paper edition including the copy I have re-read (seen at the top of this post) in 1992, and Popular Library did a 1970s edition with a wacky and reasonably irrelevant cover illustration, which I have shown to the left.

Here, I think the first edition is the most collectible; the cover illustration is charming, a drawing of the two drunken deliverymen who make up part of the wacky crew inhabiting this novel. (Why those two, I have no idea; they’re nowhere near being the most important characters in the book.) There is not much of a market for Alice Tilton these days; she seems to go in and out of favour. Considering the nonsense that got made into movies at about the time of publication, I am at a loss to understand why any of these books were never filmed; perhaps because of the one-year tenure of The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall on Mutual in 1944/1945.

By way of contrast, Home Sweet Homicide mentioned above, that came out in the same year, by Craig Rice, NF in NF jacket, is $1,250 plus shipping. I have to say there is a chance the specific value would be affected by having been named a Haycraft-Queen “cornerstone”, and filmed to boot, but this is still  quite a difference from $65 for an Alice Tilton novel. I’m still not sure why the public loved Rice and was indifferent to Taylor, but this will give you a good idea of their value to posterity.

The handful of surviving episodes of the radio program are readily available on the internet for free, here and elsewhere; if you’re interested, I can’t guarantee that any of them contain Agnes Moorhead in her brief stint as Mrs. Mullet, but they’re worth a listen.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris (1996) (#004 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #004

Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris (1996)


Charlaine Harris was born in 1951 and toiled away in the lower reaches of commercial fiction until she hit it big with the Southern Vampire Mysteries, aka the Sookie Stackhouse novels, the source material for the well-known and well-received television series True Blood.

Publication Data:

This is the fourth volume in the Aurora Teagarden mystery series and has a slightly unusual history. In 1996, the Southern Vampire series was some five years in the future; Aurora Teagarden was Ms. Harris’s only source of writing income, barring two very early non-series novels. (She was in the same year to introduce the first novel in her second series, the Lily Bard mysteries.) Anyway, the first edition of this book is Scribners US.  The first paperback appears to be — I’m not absolutely certain — the book you see in the vicinity of these words, from Worldwide Library in 1997 (cited in Abe) or January, 1998, as it says in my copy. Since Worldwide Library was at that point in time a subsidiary of Harlequin Enterprises, that makes the first paper a Canadian edition.

Then came the success of True Blood, and all of a sudden you could have sold Harris’s laundry lists. The first US paper seems to be 2008, from Bantam (note that this is 12 years after US hardcover publication). There has been a British omnibus edition in two volumes containing all eight novels in the series, the full series in individual paperbacks from Gollancz, and  a new hardcover edition from Bantam in 2012, no doubt for the library trade.

What’s important to note is that the traditional path of hardcover-to-paperback has been deformed here for whatever reason, and that no one was interested in this book in the slightest until 2008 when Harris hit the jackpot with True Blood.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Aurora Teagarden lives in the small imaginary town of Lawrenceton, Georgia. At the opening of this eight-book series, she works as a librarian and has an extra-curricular interest in “real murders”. Over the course of the series, by the time we reach this fifth book, she has dated a policeman, a priest, and a writer, but married a wealthy industrialist. Aurora — “Roe” — is wealthy in her own right, having inherited the property of a fellow librarian in book one.

As this book begins, Roe is lounging on the patio while the female half of her husband’s married pair of bodyguards is mowing the lawn.  A low-flying plane buzzes by and a man’s body falls from it, embedding itself into the freshly-mowed turf.  The body turns out to be that of a local police officer with whom Roe had had a history of disagreements, as has her female bodyguard. In short order other people in the town are attacked, all of whom have had public disagreements with Roe just before they died. Roe, in the meantime, deals extensively and in detail with her personal life while the investigation goes on around her. It turns out that Roe has had a secret admirer for a long time who has decided to kill people who have the bad luck to come into conflict with Roe. The climax of the book comes when the admirer is holding Roe’s husband at gunpoint in a cemetery and is forestalled by Roe stabbing him, then hugging him until her husband can hit him with a gun butt.

Why is this so awful?

There are two things that are wrong with this novel in a very large way. One is its mistaken emphasis on the form of the “cozy” mystery, and one is its membership in what I will call the “industrial” novel.

What is an “industrial” novel?  It’s certainly an adjective that I use idiosyncratically. In order to understand it, you have to place it within its proper context, that of “commercial fiction”.  And so I’ll define that first. Commercial fiction is probably most easily defined by its antonym, literary fiction. If it isn’t literary, it’s commercial. I suggest that literary fiction is most often written for artistic reasons and commercial fiction is most often written to make money.  You know the difference, right?  Literary fiction wants to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and commercial fiction wants to sell a million copies of itself.

Commercial fiction embraces a large range of genres: mystery, romance, western, science fiction, etc.  (So does literary fiction but genre-based literary fiction is quite rare.) Some writers of commercial fiction are trying to approach the standards of literary fiction; most are just trying to make a buck.  I should add here that I have no problem whatsoever with commercial fiction; in fact, I find literary fiction quite tiresome. I do not disrespect commercial fiction because it is written to make money; usually, books in this category have a strong focus on entertaining the reader, and I am a reader who likes to be entertained.

I use the term “industrial fiction” to describe a subset of commercial fiction; again, it’s hard to define, but what I’m talking about here is fiction that is not constructed with the pleasure of the reader foremost in mind. In fact, I think of industrial fiction as novels that are written to fulfill a contract. Or, as Truman Capote said in a different context (referring to Jack Kerouac), “That isn’t writing.  That’s typing.”  Monty Python’s Flying Circus once released a record (in 1980, so pre-CD) called “Contractual Obligation Album” and I think that title encapsulates what is happening here.  I’m also reminded of the Jack Nicholson character in the film version of The Shining, typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over and over.  Had he collated those pages and submitted them to his publisher to fulfill a contract, that’s what I mean by industrial fiction.  And the day that robots or computers or artificial intelligences begin to publish their own works, that will truly define industrial fiction.

As to why this particular novel seems to me to be industrial fiction;  this is a slight, slight book that has been padded into 80,000 words. The actual material of the plot in and of itself takes very little space; the criminal events are few and far between.  The rest of the book consists of bumph, which to me means padding; material about the personal life of the protagonist that has little or nothing to do with the events of the novel.

For instance, I opened my copy of the novel at random and found (page 53) a large paragraph detailing the physical layout of the Lawrenceton Public Library along with a note to buy pregnancy vitamins for her pregnant bodyguard and some anguish about how the woman could be pregnant because her husband had had a vasectomy. Page 130, immediately after Roe discovers the concussed body of her male bodyguard on her lawn, has a paragraph detailing what Roe needs to do about, among other things, picking up the man’s paycheque at the factory. Pages 164-165 are completely devoted to Roe’s mental monologue as she leaves the house for the beauty parlour to get ready for a dinner party (which party also has nothing to do with the plot except for the murderer’s presence).

Now, the fact that this bumph has nothing to do with the plot is not automatically a bad thing, of course. This could be termed characterization; we learn more about Roe than this reader, at least, actually wanted to. The fact that there is such an enormous amount of bumph that one has to wade through in order to get to anything meaningful could also be described in the context of detective fiction as obfuscation; hiding tiny clues in a long laundry list of stuff is a tradition that dates back at least to E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. So, for me to call this industrial fiction is more a personal reaction that is saying, “I don’t like this kind of fiction and think its primary reason for existence is monetary,” whereas I’d be ready to praise similar novels for similar reasons.  I acknowledge that. I disliked this novel and I’m prepared to admit that that colours my interpretation of the motives which produced it.

Where I am on more secure ground, though, is with the nature of this bumph.   And here, I’m going to quote myself from elsewhere in this blog (specifically, the entry for #002 in this series). “One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning.  For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.”

The plot here is based on the idea that Roe has a secret admirer who commits crimes against people whom he believes to have disrespected her.  The theme — hard to say.  Perhaps it’s that unrequited love should not be concealed, or that crazy people do crazy things in the name of love, or … well, I can’t say.  It’s certainly not obvious.  And one of the reasons it is not obvious is because there is literally nothing in the novel that illustrates it.

There is a sub-plot in this book wherein a married couple learn that the wife is pregnant although the husband has had a vasectomy. I was immediately looking for connections here and found nothing.  Similarly, there’s quite a bit of material about the relationship between Roe and her husband, all of it irrelevant. There is no instance of unrequited love anywhere else in the book; we know absolutely nothing about why the murderer has fixed his attentions upon Roe. There is nothing in the book that could be described as a reversal, or a twist, on the idea of unrequited love — barring a brief moment when one of Roe’s discarded boyfriends announces that he wants her back.  But this goes nowhere.

In fact, one of the reasons that I chose this particular novel to pillory in this series is because I was extremely amused by the idea that the author has indeed revealed the real theme of this book; “Things drop out of thin air and land in front of you and cause you problems”.  Can’t you just see Ms. Harris thinking, “Oh, I know, I’ll have the dead body drop out of an airplane in Chapter 1! That’s exciting! That’s going to really hook the reader and get her interested.” It might do so, but for someone who is actually reading this book looking for structure, it tends to send entirely the wrong message. There is just no reason for anything to happen in this book. It’s more like Harris made up what she feels to be an interesting character — Roe, who has lots of money, gets lots of sex, has a handsome husband, loving family, and devoted retainers, a career, and a cat — and then had to think of something for her to do that would qualify as a mystery without, you know, actually AFFECTING her.  I think of this as the worst kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. I am told by textbooks on writing that the cardinal sin is to be too kind to one’s protagonist, and that this is the sign of a novice writer who is destined to remain unsold.  And that’s why I suggest that this is industrial fiction, because there is no other reason for this to exist save that two parties signed a contract agreeing to publish what showed up as long as it had Aurora Teagarden in it.

Which brings me, at long last, to the second part of my complaint; the mistaken emphasis upon the “cozy” form. It is certainly true that I dislike cozies as a sub-genre of the mystery; I don’t think that murder should be a bloodless game, by and large, and there ought to be a certain amount of societal outrage inherent in the killing of one person by another. But mostly why I object to cozies is that, 95% of the time, they are written by people who either don’t understand how commercial fiction works or are incapable of producing it skilfully.

A defender of the work of Ms. Harris, and I imagine there are quite a few of them (whom I will discourage from sending me angry screeds about my insolence in daring to suggest that someone who sells as many books as Ms. Harris can possibly be incompetent; save your breath to cool your porridge, ladies, that argument won’t fly with me) will say, “Well, you know, I don’t read these for the murders.  In fact I don’t usually care whodunit.  I like to read about Aurora Teagarden and her everyday life and what it’s like to live in small-town Georgia. So POOH to you and your insistence that mysteries should be written to your stupid high standards, I like these and I’ll continue to read them.”  Go for it; if you wish to embrace mediocrity, I have no wish to stop you and will take great pleasure in selling you rare copies at inflated prices of the rubbish you apparently cherish.

The problem with this particular book is that about 75% of its contents have nothing to do with murder or the plot. Do you wish to call the padding and bumph about Roe’s personal life “characterization”? I will only ask you to note that Roe Teagarden is not someone who exists in the real world. In fact, this character is not likely to exist anywhere because she seems to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for Charlaine Harris about what she would like her personal life to be like. Roe Teagarden is a cardboard cutout whom Harris shuffles through events taking great care to preserve her from any lasting impacts.  The cutout is incredibly detailed, right down to the colour of the frames of her eyeglasses, but cardboard nevertheless.

“But, but, but,” sputter the fans.  “Harris actually kills off the husband in a later book.” Yes, and that’s an example of another big and similar problem that is only really easy to see when you look at Harris’s work as a whole. I can give you an example from the work of someone who is a much better writer; Agatha Christie.  Her mystery-writing character, Ariadne Oliver, is constantly bemoaning the fact that she has made her detective, Sven Hjerson, a vegetarian Finn.  I’ve forgotten the reference, but at one point Mrs. Oliver bemoans the fact that she is constantly getting letters from people who say, rightly, that a REAL Finn wouldn’t say/do such-and-such, and that a REAL vegetarian wouldn’t say/do such-and-such.  That’s because Christie wishes us to believe that Mrs. Oliver (like her own experience with Hercule Poirot) makes up bits of the character to simply generate some interest in the reader and is then buried by their accumulated weight in later volumes.  And that’s what happens here; and she gets out from under the accumulated weight by killing the husband and starting fresh.

In Charlaine Harris’s work, this is most easily seen by looking at the 13 volumes of the Southern Vampire series. Here’s how it works.  In a novel, Harris has a plot problem, usually that there is not enough of the primary plot structure upon which to usefully or productively focus.  So she introduces a subsidiary character or two, and introduces a sub-plot, that enables her to deliver a complete book.  I’m thinking here of the character of Alcide Herveaux, a handsome werewolf who first appeared in book 3, Club Dead. To me, it’s easy to see that she introduced werewolves in an off-hand way because she wanted a supernatural romantic involvement for Sookie as a sub-plot in a book where Bill Compton was off-stage. Then she had to give Alcide a girlfriend and tie her into the plot, so that Sookie wouldn’t have to deal with three romantic interests instead of merely two.

But in the nature of such things, the reader becomes invested in secondary characters who recur from book to book and wants to see them in every book. And since Harris uses this trick in nearly every book to add some oomph to a sagging plot — by the time the 13th volume rolls around, there is almost no room for plot, because we have an obligatory interaction with every single minor character who has ever stepped onto the stage, even if it’s only a “hihowarya” phone call or a brief musing about whatever happened to …

And it’s the same in this series, although somewhat less because the series was shorter. The first few volumes use the trick of having Roe in an unsatisfactory romantic relationship and aware that she is interested in someone else.  Then there’s a volume where she meets a man and is powerfully attracted to him, and marries him.  But this means that the plots cannot contain new potential boyfriends — so Harris kills off the husband.  As I recall dimly, she then stupidly repeats the process of boyfriend/boyfriend/husband and, had the series not ended, Roe would have been well on her way to a third husband.  Anyway, at this point in the series we have to deal with many characters and incidents from Roe’s previous adventures, and the leftover attitudes of those characters towards her, and bringing those characters up to date with a snippet of information about how they’ve changed lately, or not changed lately, plus Roe’s favourite stores, jewelry, habits, attitudes, moralizing … it’s as though the character is wearing a “fat suit” made up of old material that she has to drag with her wherever she goes. And listening to it all is like sitting on an airplane trapped next to someone who wants to tell you the story of her life and her opinion on everything under the sun, and you sat next to her the last four flights.

The point of this is that because the “characterization” doesn’t arise organically from the characters interacting with sensible plots, and is merely meretricious and/or wish-fulfillment fantasy for the writer, it’s leaden and it weighs down the character. And it weighs down all future novels in the series, and accretes more such bumph because Harris, having discovered a trick that works, makes use of it again and again.  This is, to me, why Harris is now working on her fourth series character; she doesn’t have the knack of creating a plot and characters that illustrate a theme, so she pads the novels with bumph and then has to deal with the consequences, and soon she has to abandon these characters who have become too laden with bumph to move in any direction.  It’s the literary equivalent of an episode of “Hoarders”.  If Roe was the type of person who would organically accumulate, say, old lovers and people who wanted to possess her for their own, this particular novel would make some sense.  As it stands, it’s just the fantasy of an author who probably wishes someone would admit to having unrequited love for her AND it’s really obvious that she hasn’t the faintest idea how this might work in real life.  The character in the novel is unremarkable in the extreme and has no psychological realism.  If he’s fixated on Roe to the point of killing for her, would he casually introduce her to his date at a dance?  Doesn’t ring true, and nothing about this character, plot or book does ring true.

I should add that I have no wish to see Charlaine Harris in the poorhouse, as it were.  She’s quite entitled to write this nonsense in whatever quantity she wishes, and sell it to the credulous people who require nothing more than what one amateur reviewer charmingly called a “brain dump”.  If you love her work because it doesn’t challenge you, I have no doubt there will be plenty more of the same.  But you will not be able to change my mind about the true merits of her work, so don’t bother trying; your comments will be deleted and I will be much more amused than taken to task by them.

One final parenthetical note: the acknowledgement cites “the fact that Joan Hess gave me exactly one suggestion for this book when I was in a bind”.  Since that is one more idea than I have ever found in the collected works of Joan Hess, I find that difficult to believe, but having swallowed the camel that is Aurora Teagarden, why should I strain at this gnat?  I expect that some work of “housewife mystery soft-core porn” that is the specialty of Ms. Hess shall form the basis for a future work in this series, if I can ever bring myself to finish and then re-read one.

Notes For the Collector: has a signed copy of the uncorrected proofs for the first edition at $50 plus shipping, similarly a signed first for $25 and a signed paperback for $10. It’s odd that most of the books I look at under the Die Before You Read heading are essentially worthless; this is not likely to be so for Charlaine Harris ever again. Because of True Blood, Harris’s entire oeuvre has become somewhat collectible. Still, this really is a poor book in a poor series; purchase with care.

My favourite puzzle mystery writers (Part 1)

A still from “The Kennel Murder Case” showing Archer Coe’s dead body as seen through the keyhole of his locked bedroom. A great mystery film!

Years ago, I stood behind the counter of a murder mystery bookstore and recommended books to people. Those recommendations were based on my having read 25,000 of the damn things — yes, you read that right, 25,000 mysteries, and I’m not even the best-read person I know. My recommendations usually went down three specific lines. (1) “If you like this writer, you’ll like that writer.” (2) “This is an absolute classic that almost everyone enjoys.” (3) “If you’re interested in [fill in name of occupation, background, locale, whatever] you’ll like this book/author.” As you can see, most of my recommendations were based on memory… knowing that Joan Hess fans will usually like Joanne Fluke novels, for instance, after having read enough of each author’s work to be able to make the connection with a degree of certainty. Or remembering that the only murder mystery about croquet is H.R.F. Keating’s A Rush on the Ultimate.
Occasionally, someone was sufficiently interested to ask “But what are YOUR favourites?” I usually sloughed that question off since the answer was not likely to be helpful to the person who asked it. Frankly, my taste is for a particular kind of antique story that’s very much out of favour these days, the puzzle mystery — and to be precise, I like the subgroup of that set called the locked room mystery. (If you’re not grasping these definitions, try Wikipedia; I contributed to those articles.) These are absolutely not to everyone’s taste. For one thing, there’s a tradition in that genre that the characterization is more or less absent; all the characters are cardboard caricatures. They kind of have to be; the novels themselves are on the level of a game of Cluedo, and if the characterization is not all at the level of Miss Scarlett and Colonel Mustard, any characters who are more realistic stand out like a sore thumb and call attention to themselves as potential murderers. The classic puzzle mystery is more about timetables and maps and alibis than it is about who WOULD have committed the murder. (And, obligingly, most victims in antique puzzle mysteries have thoughtfully quarreled with everyone in sight and changed their wills twice on the day of their demise, just to make it possible for everyone to be a suspect equally.)
Why do I like this style? Oh, I suppose it’s the same instinct as leads people to do crossword puzzles. It’s like a two-handed game between the author and the reader, for me. The author tries to fool me or mislead me, and I try to see through the stratagems. It’s pretty much just based on the kind of mind one has, and the kinds of entertainment that particularly amuse that kind of mind. I like puzzle mysteries, duplicate bridge and crossword puzzles, and you can see how those things go together. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you just don’t — no harm, no foul. (Although I love to quote, or misquote, the esteemed critic Mrs. Q. E. Leavis, whom I recall as saying “The novels of Miss Dorothy L. Sayers present the appearance of intellectual activity to people who would very much dislike such activity if they were forced to undergo it.” Now THAT is my kind of bitch.)
Occasionally, I will encounter someone who shares my interest in the Golden Age puzzle mystery, and whom I sense will not be bored by recommendations of my favourite authors. So, if you’re one of those people — here you go. These are in no particular order and I’ll try to indicate the books that have most pleased me. You can find out more about these authors in Wikipedia, by and large, and I recommend you start there if you’re curious. Since this is likely to be a long list, I’ll only do a few authors at a time over the next while and make this a series of posts.

Christianna Brand

Christianna Brand
Ms. Brand is better known these days for having written the children’s books upon which the Nanny McPhee films were based, but she got her start writing mysteries. Her mysteries have always been difficult to obtain — one of them, Death of Jezebel, may take half your life to track down — but they are both delightful and nearly impossible to solve, although quite fair. (For instance, a vital clue to the solution of 1955’s Tour De Force is displayed openly, but in the opening paragraphs of the book, an excellent piece of misdirection; by the time the information is useful, you’ve forgotten all about it.) Green For Danger was made into a brilliant film in 1946, starring Alastair Sim, and is her best-known novel. It is certainly good, and I also enjoyed Suddenly at His Residence (also published as The Crooked Wreath), London Particular (also published commonly as Fog of Doubt) and the three mentioned above. Heads you Lose and Death in High Heels, from the beginning of her career, are less successful; try not to start with them, if you can. One of the things that I find most enjoyable is that Brand has the ability to create characters who are quite realistic, and flawed, without making them stand out as being obviously guilty of the crime by dint of being the only realistic characters in the book. This set her apart from her contemporaries. Yet, the puzzles at the heart of the novels are so difficult and complex that you could never, ever guess the answers; these are mysteries that need to be solved with logic and observation, not intuition.

Mystery writers Dannay and Lee, who wrote as — and about — Ellery Queen, and as Barnaby Ross

Ellery Queen
At the beginning of his/their career, between 1929 and 1936, the authors who wrote as and about Ellery Queen produced a series of ten puzzle mysteries that I’ll call the “nationalities” series. Each novel (except the last) has a nationality in its title and almost all of them are brain-crackingly difficult. At that point, the authors were tightly focused on creating difficult puzzles that admitted of only one logical solution. To that end, the books stop at a specific point and the authors issue a “Challenge to the Reader”; at that precise point in the book, you have all the information you need to solve the mystery. The nice thing is, you do. I find it hard to recommend any of these in particular, although The American Gun Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery are probably the worst through being too histrionic and overwrought — the rest are uniformly brain-crackingly brilliant. 1936’s Halfway House was originally planned to be called The Swedish Match Mystery and its removal from the series signals an intention by Queen to stop writing this sort of novel, which is a shame from my point of view. Queen’s later mysteries tended to focus upon themes and to my mind were less successful. 1943’s There Was an Old Woman, for instance, sacrifices intelligibility for the purposes of fitting the book into the scheme of a nursery rhyme. You might enjoy the later works Calamity Town, The Door Between and Cat of Many Tails, which is actually a very early example of the “serial killer” novel. 1958’s The Finishing Stroke returns chronologically to the era of the earliest novels and makes it clear that the authors have really finished mining out that lode; their hearts aren’t in it and they never published another decent mystery that wasn’t ghost-written by someone else. 1970’s The Last Woman in His Life is so awful that it ought to be withdrawn from publication to preserve their honour.
PS: As Barnaby Ross, the authors wrote four novels, two of which are certainly worth your attention; The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y. Y, particularly, is a brilliant piece of logic — these novels are only marred by the detective characters themselves, who are even more deliberately conceived as cardboard than was usual.

More soon — stay tuned!

Okay, what I’m NOT reading

I’m a natural-born speed reader and, from about ages 16 to 45, read about a book a day.  At least one book a day, more if I had them around.  This included re-reading old ones.  It’s kind of baffling these days to me to realize that I just don’t read as much as I used to.  This is for a number of reasons — partly that I can’t afford to spend as much on books as once I did, partly that I experience a lot of books on audio these days, partly that I’m writing one and don’t want to be influenced.

But I can say that there are a couple of writers whom I used to love and now — well, as I put it the other day, they’ve changed from unputdownable to unpickuppable.  I remember the day when I used to buy Reginald Hill in hardcover, just because I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out.  Well, I’ve had his last-but-one in paperback sitting on the to-be-read shelf with a bookmark at about page 50, and I have finally stopped believing that I am ever going back to it.  It’s going in a box for storage.

The other writer I used to love is Elizabeth George.  I was fortunate to meet her a couple of times, when she came and signed at my store — apparently we sold a disproportionate number of books of hers out of sheer enthusiasm and she was sent to us more often as a result.  I also took a brief course with her on “How to write a mystery”, which doesn’t seem to have gotten me anywhere because all I remember is that I was seated next to Kareen Zebroff — if you are a Canadian, you will remember Yoga with Kareen on television from the 70s or 80s.  Ms. Zebroff was probably a good yoga instructor (her program was at this point off the air) but as a fellow course-taker she was annoying as hell, because it was all about her.  I wanted to hear Elizabeth George talk about mysteries, thanks very much, not a fellow student monopolizing the conversation with talk about how interesting this all is to a yoga instructor.  I note that I have never heard of Ms. Zebroff writing anything since and probably not even signing autographs. And I seem to have forgotten everything I learned from Elizabeth George, but that’s okay, she leads by example. If I hadn’t read A Great Deliverance, I wouldn’t have been able to write my own current novel in progress.

Anyway — I thought her first book, A Great Deliverance, was truly fine, one of the best mysteries of its decade.  She proved she knows how to show character and let you figure it out, rather than telling you “If A, therefore B,” which “leading by the nose” I so dislike in lesser authors. I loved most of her subsequent three or four novels (okay, I didn’t like #2 and asked her once if she had had it in her trunk before selling #1, whereupon she justifiably froze me with a glance). These days, I cannot deal with all that angst and frustration and the layer upon layer of minuscule detail in her work that I gather people do so love, that incredible accretion of observations that conceal the clues. That and my current idea that Barbara Havers needs to be put out of her misery as being the unhappiest person in detective fiction.  I started to read the last two or three, got about ten pages in and said “Fuck it.” As my friends know, if something doesn’t explode every once in a while, I get bored.

Parenthetically — I was present when a fan asked her if Barbara Havers was ever going to find love and/or happiness. She said, approximately, “Not if I can help it.” Good answer!

There are other authors whom I never have been able to stand reading, notably Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess and the truly unspeakably awful “Cat Who” mysteries.  I’m not a big cosy guy.  But I am kind of at a loss to understand how I can just “go off” an author whom I used to love.  And make no mistake, George and Hill are very, very talented writers.  I suppose I’ve just lost my taste for them. Perhaps my taste has worsened over the years, become more flattened and bland from years of pap on television.

Perhaps your experience is better than mine.  I know I’m likely to hear from Elizabeth George fans (Cat Who fans, save your breath) — and, Susan, if you’re reading this, I still love you as a person, it’s just I’m not buying your books any more. I loved the course, honest. And I still remember our conversation while driving through the streets of Vancouver about petals dropping from the flowering cherry trees and how the presence or absence of them on a car’s windshield might be a clue in a mystery. Someday, I’m sure it will be.