Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

As promised in my most recent post, I thought I’d apply my Not The Top Ten (Personal) approach to Ellery Queen.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Ellery Queen. In at least one case the identity of the murderer will be obvious. If you haven’t already read these titles, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read any book whose title is unfamiliar to you (I’ve put them in bold italics) before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

Most overrated novel

472113f2176c6dff7e5e4c30bb818db3This is a tough call, but for me — and I emphasize this is based on personal factors — the most overrated EQ novel is And on the Eighth Day by a hair over The Fourth Side of the Triangle. Both, strangely enough, were written by science-fiction writer Avram Davidson under the direction of Messrs. Dannay and Lee; I’ve read his science fiction and it’s fairly … tepid. And yes, I am aware that And On the Eighth Day received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Each to his own, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.

To me, this book is gallingly annoying. It is clearly the product of a storyteller who is self-consciously constructing a parable; it pauses on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, like the “Locked Room lecture” chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, about the moral imperatives that underlie the agonizingly predictable activities of the book. “Look at me! I’m writing in metaphors! and look how abstract I can be!” Okay, not quite that far. But the authorial presence is clumsy and overbearing, at the “nudge nudge wink wink” level. Please, leave me alone and let me read the damn book.

I don’t like the intertwining of Naziism with religious parables; I don’t like the intertwining of the detective story with religious parables. (Let religions do their own work in their own way, say I, without coopting the forms of genre fiction. One of the conventions of detective fiction is that even the most basic assumptions must be verified and nothing is taken on faith.) And I don’t like an authorial presence that muscles its way into the moral high ground without allowing you to decide if it’s merited. So I’m the critic who likes this book the least, but there are a lot of smart people who esteem it highly, and you will have to make up your own mind what you think.

Most underrated novel

4e882a3ea7e348579188dc3e10dbaf48For me, the most underrated Ellery Queen novel would have to be The Murderer is a Fox (1945). I like the Wrightsville period of EQ because it represents the finest example of the Dannay and Lee trying to push the boundaries of the puzzle mystery. And I think The Murderer is a Fox is a better Wrightsville novel than Calamity Town. In Calamity Town the cousins had already established the focus on small-town America and its foibles; here in The Murderer is a Fox, I think they captured atmosphere better than in any other novel. You can see the dust motes dancing in the thick atmosphere of the attic, feel the weight of the heavy blue glass tumbler … and we can sympathize with the hero afflicted with “shell shock” who has to endure clacking tongues and being misunderstood, and with his adolescent self coping with a murdered parent. The solution is truly surprising and effective; it prompts the reader to real emotions and to sympathize with a character in an impossible situation. Just because it’s a book on a small scale doesn’t mean it can’t work on larger themes.

51cuw5ymffl-_sy445_A close runner-up would be Halfway House. I think if it had been called The Swedish Match Mystery as originally planned, we’d right now be acclaiming it as among the best of the Nationalities period.  As it is, it’s not quite Wrightsville and not quite bloodless logic, but in many ways it has the best features of both periods.

If the cousins had actually written A Room To Die In, instead of Jack Vance, I would have considered it in this category; it’s a smart little locked-room mystery that should be more widely read. As it is, it’s definitely the book that would have been better written by John Dickson Carr if I ever do that comparison.

The novel containing the best hook

siamese_twin1This one has to be The Siamese Twin Mystery, which starts with the realization that Ellery and his father are going to have to confront a forest fire in the course of the novel. It’s got everything, as the saying goes, “excepting Eliza running across the ice floes with the bloodhounds snapping at her ass”. I can’t think there’s a single reader who could stop reading once the Queens in the big old Duesenberg take that first fateful turn up to the top of the mountain hoping to escape the blaze… I was hooked like a trout and I think every other reader was too. A skilled authorial presence is saying, “Have I got a story for YOU.”

It’s also really difficult to start your novel with a bang, and then keep it rising steadily until the end; lesser talents can’t avoid a sag in the middle. Siamese Twin makes that work, and the finale is beautifully handled and truly exciting. It pays off every promise of the story hook and then some.

d4fb6aa891c234f7961d426e6e6f2090I suspect many people would suggest that The Chinese Orange Mystery was the best hook — except that it takes so long to get to, for me the little corpse with the spears stuck into his reversed clothes doesn’t really qualify as a story hook but more like the midpoint of Act One. A story hook starts bang! in Chapter One, and you’re either hooked or you’re not. It doesn’t count as a story hook if you expect it in Chapter Five because you read about it on the jacket flap’s précis. There’s a similar problem with The Lamp of God — yes, the vanishing house is a gripping plot development, but it doesn’t happen until too late in the story to qualify as a hook.

The novel containing the best murder method

Queen-Avon425This is a difficult topic that requires a little logic-chopping. The word “method” means, to me, “cause of death”. This lets out novels like The Chinese Orange Mystery, where the scene of the crime is truly outre — but the corpse was prosaically biffed on the head with a poker. The King is Dead certainly has a complex method, but is it “best”? No, it’s just overwrought.

The Egyptian Cross Mystery with the multiple decapitations is certainly a strong contender. I also like the methods in The Door Between, and The Dutch Shoe Mystery; they’re inventive and logical.  But for me the winner is The Tragedy of X, with the ball of needles coated with nicotine stuffed into the coat pocket of the victim. That method was produced by a creepy and inventive turn of thought. And best of all, it has a specific contribution to the book that helps identify the murderer (you’ll understand this if you remember the ending).

The novel containing the best motive

br02b_tragedy_of_yI struggled with this one because I wanted to be sure I understood what “best motive” meant. After much thought, I think “best” means the motive that you would never guess, but that arises organically out of the material.  So that means I’ve dismissed novels where the motive is to get a lot of money, or escape from a terrible relationship; those motives are commonplace. EQ occasionally has a plot structure where someone commits a bunch of actions or murders in order to conceal the only murder they wanted to commit — what you might call the ABC motive. This is a little bit fresher but honestly, in EQ’s hands most often it just means that the actions of the book are strained out of proportion in order to include whatever improbable linking structure the authors thought appropriate. (Ten Days’ Wonder and The Finishing Stroke come to mind.) So I’ve eliminated those, and I’ve also eliminated novels where the murderer is simply insane.

01d_RomanThat leaves me with kind of a tie, for different reasons. The Tragedy of Y is my winner by a hair — the murderer is following the written instructions of a dead man without understanding why. No one could intuitively grasp that, but it actually does arise organically from the characters and setting. A very close second is The Roman Hat Mystery, but the reason that no one would guess that motive is quite different. The book was published in 1929, and back then, it was actually a feasible motive that a person would commit murder because they had “just a drop of coloured blood” and wanted to keep that a secret. Wow — just, wow.  And thank goodness we’re beyond that now.

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

ac6b6a80250c6057f2ff0499a38e931bThe French Powder Mystery is well-known for having its final words reveal the name of the murderer for the first time. That was kind of a stunt, but for me it was a very surprising ending and a very surprising way of revealing that information. The other novel that truly surprised me was Drury Lane’s Last Case. EQ managed to build that ending organically until the reader is at a pitch of excitement before the reveal of what should be a very surprising murderer … the only trouble is, I didn’t really believe it was psychologically reasonable.

The novel you should avoid 

9780451045805-us-300I’ve had my say about the awfulness of A Fine and Private Place elsewhere, but I think I have to give pride of place to The Last Woman in His Life. This book is significantly ugly and ill-informed on the topic of homosexuality. It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that, you know, I don’t blame Dannay and Lee all that much (actually Lee probably didn’t have much to do with this one, since he was nearing the end of his life) — I think their hearts were in the right place even if the outcome was atrocious. They were trying to be forward-thinking and liberal, and they got it wrong, wrong, wrong.

This novel was written in 1970, two years before I came out, and even then I already knew that the stereotypical gay man they present either didn’t exist or had ceased to exist before I was born. Is it that the cousins never bothered to actually, you know, talk to anyone gay? Or that someone had filled their heads with these weird stories of guys built like football players who liked to wear evening gowns, and they accepted second-hand information rather credulously? Perhaps they were told about a bunch of different sub-groups of gay society and somehow conflated them all into one ghastly stereotypical gay equivalent of Little Black Sambo. We’ll never know.

The other problem with this book is that it is really a very poor mystery per se. EQ here offers a puzzle that is very Queenian, as it were: there are three obvious suspects, ex-wives A, B, and C, with little to differentiate them. The plot doesn’t go very far to make us think that any of them is guilty either. Speaking as someone who’s seen this EQ pattern many times before, it was crystal clear that the killer had to be none of the above. And since there are virtually no other people in the book who fit a few other crucial criteria, such as being present during the murder, it’s quite obvious whodunit. The rest is just foofaraw. And it’s foofaraw that EQ went to preposterous lengths to set in Wrightsville, which merely drags down our understanding of Wrightsville instead of adding anything.

This book is irredeemable. It is not merely poor, it is poor and offensive. It’s an ugly stain on a great body of work by two masters of the genre, and I hope no one ever reads it again.

The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

UnknownThe Greek Coffin Mystery is definitely a superb puzzle mystery; I think it’s the finest of EQ’s “Nationalities” series. It’s beautifully plotted, subtly clued, it has one of the least-likely murderers ever, and the book’s structure is one of the finest examples of leading the reader down the garden path in English literature.  (Yes, seriously. THAT good.) I’ve praised it even more extensively here. And yet — this is not the one I think you should read in your lifetime, even if you only read one Ellery Queen book. That honour belongs to Calamity Town.

Since I’ve said above that it’s not even the best Wrightsville novel, let alone the best EQ novel, you may be puzzled at this point. But I do have a reason. EQ mysteries like Greek Coffin and Chinese Orange are brilliant examples of the Golden Age’s finest achievement, the strict-form puzzle mystery. But they did not change the genre, they were merely among its best examples.

Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, tried something that only Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers had achieved thus far; they pushed the boundaries of the genre and changed detective fiction, not merely exemplified it. Christie did it by “breaking the rules” in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. EQ did it by boldly trying to add emotions to detective fiction in the United States, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers created her “literature with bowels” in England with novels like Gaudy Night.

Calamity Town is the book where the creativity really happens. (I think of Halfway House as a kind of false start; the two books have many similarities.) It might not seem like much to readers who have grown up with every detective revealing his or her inner humanity, but merely trying to write about people realistically was a great step forward. At the same time, they tried to use the town of Wrightsville as a kind of character in the book, giving us the massive ebb and flow of a small town on a large scale, from Emmeline DuPre to the depths of Low Town. It’s a huge step forward in the idea of putting characterization and reality into detective fiction, because the technique tries to mirror reality.

Inventively, EQ use intense recomplication in this book as a story-telling method — the sections where we get a whirlwind of comments and reactions from a wide variety of minor characters, and even newspapers and radio broadcasts. Not an absolutely original method of telling the story, since E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case did it in 1913 and Philip MacDonald did it in 1930 with Rynox and 1931’s Murder Gone Mad. EQ, however, have a really nice take on the technique by stretching it out into a longer, less frenetic process, and using it to build the rising tide of the action as part of the plot.

All things considered, Calamity Town is not a magnificent book. But it is an original and ground-breaking book and it took the American detective novel a great step forward in 1942, breaking the grip of the Golden Age forever. So it’s an important book, and if you only read one Ellery Queen title, it should be this one.

Top Ten Lists are boring!

carr-vs-christieMy friends Brad of ahsweetmysteryblog and JJ of The Invisible Event are two mystery experts in the blogosphere. Both are well-read gentlemen who make very insightful contributions to the ongoing GAD dialogue and are fun to read too. Recently they’ve been having fun with the 2017 Christie vs. Carr Smackdown — essentially a series of fun exercises in which they compare and contrast Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. I’ll link to a couple of useful entries here and here that will let you follow these guys on their own, which they deserve.

The Smackdown process has transmogrified into an interesting format they call Scattergories that has allowed Brad and JJ to work into something that’s quite different than the usual Top Ten list. I’ve done Top Ten lists myself at various times and it can be kind of fun to come up with a schema for how to rank your favourites and least favourites. But I’ve found the Top Ten format stale and unprofitable, mostly because it’s quite peculiarly personal. As my two blogfriends put it, “Top Ten Lists are boring!” It’s like trying to convince people that your favourite flavour of ice cream should be theirs.

Here’s their basis that underlies their Scattergories process:

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The most Carr-like Christie (or the most Christie-like Carr)
  8. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer . . . )
  9. The Christie that Carr would have made better if he had written it (and vice versa)
  10. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one Christie/Carr

As you might imagine, when I read this, I was fired up to get busy on my own and happily disagreeing with their choices. (You kind of have to be a book blogger to understand how disagreeing with someone you like can be fun. 😉 ) As I started to dig into the topics, I noticed they divided into two types of observations: one set about an author’s work ranked internally (“most underrated”) and a smaller set about how an author’s work compares to that of another author. Let me split these out and make a few alterations …

Observations about individual books in an author’s oeuvre

  1. Most overrated novel
  2. Most underrated novel
  3. The novel containing the best hook
  4. The novel containing the best murder method
  5. The novel containing the best motive
  6. The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending
  7. The one you should avoid (unless you’re a purist and/or like to suffer …)
  8. The one you must read in your lifetime even if you only read one by this author

And then

Observations about how one author’s work compares to another

  1. The novel by one author that brings to mind the style or focus of another author
  2. The novel by one author that would have been improved if it had been written by another author
  3. Of two authors’ best books, which is the best?
  4. Of two authors’ worst books, which is the worst?
  5. Of two authors’ entire body of work, which is better?

Those last questions I’ve added were intended to suggest, say, that one decides what Ngaio Marsh title is her best, and then what Christianna Brand title is her best, and then which is the better of the two.  And vice-versa for their worst efforts. And then — considering all the Nicholas Blake (for instance) novels against all the Michael Gilbert novels, who has the body of work which best repays study?

I like this way of looking at books and oeuvres and authors in this way; it seems fresh to me and is a kind of structure against which I can improvise, rather like jazz. And honestly the possibilities are endless. If I want to compare Anthony Berkeley to an endless succession of other authors, I can try … or I can blether on about someone obscure like Pat McGerr. And the process works quite well, heaven help us, for non-mystery authors as well. With apologies to Brad and JJ’s idea of Scattergories, I think I’m going to call this “Not the Top Ten”, or NTTT. In fact NTTT Personal and NTTT Comparisons.

elleryqueenAnd because I was provoked (a delightful process, I assure you) by the comments section into considering other authors by the addition of comparisons involving Ellery Queen works, my first NTTT Personal attempt will be a separate post on EQ, using the eight questions above.  See what you think!

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

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

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

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. You may learn more than you care to about a number of John Dickson Carr novels, but I don’t intend to reveal any significant plot points. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

f07a03263b6476d4f7458e895d84cc3cWhat is this book about?

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

john-dickson-carr

John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

Morgan looked embarrassed.

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

“Graft?”

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

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

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

14781997929My favourite edition

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

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

 

The Case of the Smoking Chimney, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1943)

erle-stanley-gardner-the-case-of-the-smoking-chimneyPerhaps it’s a bit too much, considering how much I enjoyed the brand-new Cool & Lam novel a little while ago, but not many other people are talking about Erle Stanley Gardner these days. So I hope you don’t mind me going back to the well. Right on top of a box of books I was unpacking was my copy of this scarce Gardner title and I enjoyed going through it after such a long absence, so I thought I’d share my pleasure with you.

28201395512_3e853d4936_zThis is the second of two novels featuring Gramps Wiggins as an amateur detective, solving crimes and assisting his grandson-in-law Frank Duryea, who is District Attorney of the semi-rural (and imaginary) County of Santa Delbarra in California. Frank and his wife Mildred, Gramps’s granddaughter, suffer through occasional visits from Gramps. Gramps is a defiantly long-haired senior citizen who tootles around the country in a house trailer, living with little reference to ration booklets and social convention. The last time he parked his trailer in Frank and Mildred’s driveway, he solved The Case of the Turning Tide (1941); this time he disposes of another complex case in no time flat in his final outing.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

124392In the first eleven chapters of this book, we meet all the suspects to a crime that hasn’t happened yet. However, the experienced mystery reader will certainly be expecting a murder soon … Ralph G. Pressman has pulled a fast one on a lot of ranchers and small-holders near the town of Petrie in Santa Delbarra county. Pressman realized that some boiler-plate clauses about oil that a lot of landowners thought were worthless encumbrances to their deeds actually had teeth; he bought them from the heirs of the original owners and began drilling for oil. And because of the way they’d been worded, Pressman could install equipment anywhere on any of the land, regardless of improvements.

Half of the landowners in Petrie are up in arms, particularly the large-scale farmers who don’t want to see derricks in the middle of their vegetable fields. The editor of the local paper, Everett True, has just learned that Pressman has the courts on his side, and the local farmers are putting together an association for what will likely be a fruitless legal attempt to stop him. George Karper, a land developer, is the leader of this association and has a reputation for being brutal and ruthless; the largest local farmer, Hugh Sonders, is happy to see Karper take the lead in the fight.

51sadvg9-cl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Meanwhile, Ralph Pressman’s wife Sophie has been taking advantage of Ralph’s frequent extended absences from the matrimonial home to step out on the town with a succession of other men; she has, as she puts it to herself, more than one beau to her string. She’s suspicious that her husband is having her shadowed, though; not long ago, Pressman’s secretary Jane received an envelope full of incriminating photographs of Mrs. Pressman from a detective agency addressed to her boss.

Another source of potential problems in Pressman’s office is the handsome but thieving bookkeeper Harvey Stanwood, who has embezzled nearly $20,000 to feed his gambling habit and impress his girlfriend, beautiful and hard-edged Eva Raymond. (She’s described as “a gifted amateur with commercial tendencies”.) Pressman is about to be discovered and faces prison; George Karper, though, has found out his problems and is bribing him for the low-down on Pressman’s machinations.

bookcaseofthesmokingchimneyStanwood reveals an important piece of information to Karper that he’s already told his girlfriend Eva (he also revealed he’s one step away from prison). The reason Pressman has been away from home so much lately is because he’s established a secret identity as a landowner in Petrie. In his pose as “Jack Reedley”, living in a little cabin on a small plot of land that’s potentially involved in the oil drilling, Pressman can join the farmers’ organization and stay ahead of his opponents by knowing all their plans.

So Pressman is leading a double life; he has a cheating wife and a thieving bookkeeper and a host of enemies, and everyone has just learned where the little cabin belonging to Jack Reedley is located.

At this point, Gramps Wiggins pulls his disreputable trailer into the driveway of the DA and wife for a surprise visit. Gramps proceeds to pour them a high-powered hot toddy and is making them hotcakes the next morning when the local Sheriff shows up to tell the DA that there’s a murdered body in a shabby old cabin — well, you guessed that already, didn’t you?

81-903946-9-xThe officials investigate, and Gramps Wiggins investigates unofficially. As is common in this vintage of detective fiction, nearly all the above-mentioned characters had occasion to visit the isolated cabin the evening before. Sonders and True have a harrowing story to tell about the inhabitant of the cabin locking himself in, when they come to remonstrate with him, and refusing to utter a word until they’re gone. There’s a woman’s compact with the initials “ER” lying on the front porch. There’s a “suicide note” made from the headlines of the local newspaper. And Gramps Wiggins, with his wide experience of camping and living rough, is very interested in the state of the chimney on an oil lamp that is the only potential source of light in the cabin.

The suicide theory is soon discounted as the officials investigate, thanks to a tip about the gun’s location from Gramps. Various of the parties immediately combine to start throwing suspicion on each other as fast as they can, and fooling around with pieces of evidence to see if they can mislead the police. Gramps and his grandson-in-law are at loggerheads about how to investigate the case — the DA prefers the official method and refuses to allow Gramps to take a hand. But when Gramps realizes what’s been going on, and that the DA’s political future could depend on the outcome, he solves the case in such a way that the DA gets all the credit.

Why is this book worth your time?

md10251406704I’ll be frank and say that you may not think that it is worth your time, although I hope to suggest that there’s many things in it you will enjoy and I personally would recommend it. Without putting too fine a point on it, this is a minor novel by a great writer who is better known (and justifiably so) for his other creations. Gramps Wiggins is not so much characterized as sketched. His fondness for homespun cooking and very strong cocktails is heavily emphasized again and again, but other than the label of “unconventional old coot” there’s really not a lot we know about him. Except that he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and for solving the mystery.

There’s also a small structural problem that’s eventuated by this being a little-known detective character for ESG. Essentially the first half of the book is spent laying down tracks for all the characters, so that you can understand that something is going to happen on the night of the murder, although not quite why and by whom. This is a lot more exposition than we usually get from Gardner, who generally starts Perry Mason novels with a bang and an exciting and enigmatic story hook. This novel is more subtly plotted, but it takes a long time to get off the ground.

And make no mistake, this book is pretty much only about the plot. None of the characters are all that believable; they do the things that they need to do to preserve the mystery. I still don’t know quite why Eva Raymond does what she does; she has to in order to keep the plot moving, but what little we know about her tells us that she wouldn’t have done it. She’s a minor character who rings quite false (and who could easily have been combined with Jane the secretary). Not Gardner’s best characterization by a long shot.

But if you can get past the idea that everyone in the book is more or less a cardboard cutout who is meant to be moved around the game board while Gardner tries to fool you with the complicated plot — I think you may actually enjoy this book. For one thing, the mystery at the centre of it is really well thought-out. Gramps Wiggins’s deductions from the state of the chimney of the oil lamp are clever and insightful, and lead the police to the solution, but there’s an easier path to the answer available if you merely pause to think about what you’ve been told about what characters heard and saw. This isn’t a puzzle on the level of John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen, but its details would not have disgraced either of those writers and you will probably have a forehead-slapping moment of chagrin when you realize just how you’ve been fooled. Yes, it’s the old, old ESG story, where the suspects troop to and from the murder scene at half-hour intervals and at least one suspect has the opportunity to say, “But he was already dead when I got there!” But just because it’s the mixture as before doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to see how it plays out.

md14280574877And there is a lot here that will remind you of other characters in other books. Gramps himself — who is mentioned in the foreword as being to some extent “inspired” by a New Orleans photographer whom Gardner had met in his travels — has a lot in common with the salty desert philosophers of The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (a Perry Mason novel, also 1943). There’s a supercilious cheating wife a la Eva Belter in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933); an endlessly loyal secretary a la Della Street, and a District Attorney who is very closely allied to Doug Selby, the protagonist of the nine D.A. novels from around the same wartime period.

In fact it’s interesting to speculate why exactly Gardner didn’t make this a Doug Selby novel. Did he think that Gramps Wiggins might catch on with the public (or his publishers)? There’s nothing about the plot per se that would disqualify it from being a Selby novel. Perhaps the answer is, as the foreword suggests, that Gramps Wiggins popped into Gardner’s head and “demanded to be set down on paper”. He neither spoils the book nor adds much to it; once you get past the disreputable surface, there’s nothing much below.

But I do think this book will occupy your mind enjoyably for a period of time; the plot moves ahead at a breakneck clip, for the most part. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s occasionally funny, and there’s nothing actively silly about it. Sometimes that’s all I ask from a murder mystery.

My favourite edition

13647032-_uy200_I have a great fondness for the early Pocket Books editions of Gardner, even those that are, like my own copy featured at the head of this essay, muddy-looking and unexciting. (It’s Pocket #667, the first printing of the first paperback edition from December, 1949.) I also like Pocket #6014, with the woman in the slinky green evening gown and the incongruous polka-dot gloves.  There aren’t many great looking editions of this book, including the dismally smeary first edition.

There’s also an edition from the Detective Book Club who published it in a three-up in a volume containing the excellent She Died A Lady as by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr). Two good books for the price of one, even if they are abridged.

But I do like the audacity of the publisher who just decided to say “the hell with it” and market it as a Perry Mason mystery, including a painting that looks awfully like Raymond Burr. That takes either great fortitude or a large amount of sheer stupidity, and I can’t say which one it is. (I also can’t identify the edition, because I scooped the illustration from the internet.) I have a couple of nice Pocket editions of this, but now I’m looking for the out-and-out lying one!

This title is easy to get in the used market, notably from ABE Books, and I understand there is an e-version available from Stratus Books in the UK (it’s the ugly cover with a Rosie the Riveter headscarf shown above) that should be very inexpensive if you decide you might like to read this.  Hope you enjoy it!

The Dartmoor Enigma, by Sir Basil Thomson (1935)

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

WARNING: This post concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

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

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

What is this book about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sir Basil Thomson

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

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

basil_thomson

Sir Basil Thomson

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 2 of 2)

12784234_10206990403411371_1309856526_nA 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’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

Book scouting John Dickson Carr (Part 2 of 2)

Part 2 is covers under JDC’s main pseudonym, Carter Dickson. Part 1, with illustrations of paperbacks as by John Dickson Carr, can be found here.

Pocket Books had a close association with both JDC and Carter Dickson in his earlier years and I think they did a particularly good job on his Carter Dickson titles. Pocket’s surrealism period is represented here with a few beautiful entries, and Pocket also provides my all-time favourite Dickson or Carr cover, The Red Widow Murders, with the corpse clutching the Ace of Spades against a background the colour of dried blood (Pocket #86). There are some good Dell mapback covers — Dell #108, Death in Five Boxes and Dell #65, Scotland Yard: Department of Queer Complaints are examples of the lush airbrushed abstract style pioneered by artist Gerald Gregg, and the spectacular “cobra” cover for He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. The Pan/Great Pan editions of Dickson from the UK are both lovely and very collectible. Just in case your heart stopped for a moment at the sight of a Dickson title you’d never seen, Cross of Murder is the UK retitling of Seeing is Believing. Sorry.

One thing to keep your eyes open for when you’re out scouting; some of the Bantam editions of John Dickson Carr titles were abridged, an ugly and reprehensible practice. The paperbacks themselves are still collectible as being in the first thousand or so Bantam titles, but you’ll find that students of detective fiction will be more anxious to have an unabridged version. Real collectors, of course, want all the editions, thank goodness!

8849365236_52126b715e_bThe best scouting tip I can give you is to keep your eyes open for copies of Avon #nn7 (un-numbered, but their seventh title), The Plague Court Murders. This one is interesting for a number of reasons. I have a copy of this surprinted with an indication that it sold for 29 cents in Canada, which I think definitely makes it the first Canadian edition and an interesting little bit of socioeconomic history. The Dickson aficionado will be amused to see that the cover tells you that the star of the book is Chief Inspector Masters (!) instead of Sir Henry Merrivale. And finally, you can distinguish the valuable first printing from the relatively less prized later editions by checking the endpapers.  Avon unnumbered firsts have “globe” endpapers (see above); later editions do not. Your discovery of a copy of this book will be sweet, but knowing the difference between editions will make your experience sweeter. How much sweeter? As of today, a later edition on ABE goes for US$15 and the first — cited with globe endpapers — is US$43 for a Good copy and US$65 for a Very Good copy from a very good bookseller.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite John Dickson Carr novels (Part 1 of 2)

12784234_10206990403411371_1309856526_n

A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue looking at a different Golden Age mystery writer each month; Tuesdays in March, 2016 will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.

My five most and least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

(and why I think so)

It’s been a while since I sat down to the pleasant contemplation of a large group of interesting mysteries with the task before me of identifying my five most favourite/least favourite books within the group. There are a few things that have to come together. First there has to be a fairly large body of work from which to select; second, a somewhat uneven quality of work so that there actually are good and bad books; and finally, there has to be a reasoned way of making a decision. By this last I mean that it has to be possible to discern what the author in question had as strengths and weaknesses, and to look for books where the strengths are mostly present and the weaknesses are mostly absent.

CARR1

John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr, of course, meets all these criteria. He has such a large body of work that I’ve given myself the pleasure of splitting this task into books published under his own name and that of his principal pseudonym, Carter Dickson. (Part 2, on Dickson, will be published later this month, and I’ll go back and add links.) JDC has a decidedly uneven quality of work, such that he has a few magnificent years when he’s at the top of his form, and his later books show a steep decline that is obvious.

In terms of strengths I’ll suggest the following.  JDC’s writing is the most interesting to me when it has these qualities: (1) A strong well-thought-out puzzle structure, which is usually for him based on a locked-room/impossible crime scenario. (2) A balance among setting, characterization, and plot, so that there are interesting characters doing interesting things against an interesting background, all well-written in their way but nothing overwhelming the book in any of those directions. (3) Some sort of creepy quasi-supernatural element; or, if not supernatural, something that creates a sense of menace or impending doom. This is something that JDC handled extremely well and he had excellent skills at creating these elements within the solid logical structure of a detective novel.

As far as weaknesses go: (1) JDC’s sense of humour and mine are rather different; I don’t think he wrote humour well and there is a kind of sniggering adolescent quality to his jokes that I find distasteful. So for me the less humour, the better. (2) Occasionally JDC’s books are unbalanced in one direction or the other. Sometimes the setting takes over and you wind up reading an evocation of his historical research. Sometimes the characters are merely sketched in, and you don’t care what happens to them. And sometimes the plot is so convoluted and difficult that it overwhelms any kind of realism, because there are simply so many plot points that must be gotten across.  And (3) — this one is hard to describe — I occasionally get the feeling with Carr’s work that there’s more in his head than he managed to get on the page. It’s as though he feels he’s given me enough information to understand what he’s getting at, but I haven’t managed to grasp it without re-reading multiple times. I admit this one could be just me being inattentive, but it’s happened enough times to me with Carr’s work that I suspect it’s not all on my side.

With those in mind, here are my choices. I’ll paraphrase myself when I performed this exercise with Ngaio Marsh: as always in situations like this, your mileage may vary. My own experience tells me that I cherish one of JDC’s novels because I read it at a young age and it made a deep impression on me that is perhaps not borne out by the quality of the work itself. Sometimes we like things for reasons that would mean little to anyone else; I like mysteries that take place in bookstores and tend to mark them higher. I cannot gainsay your feelings, folks, and I won’t dare to try. If you have a reason for liking a book that you particularly like, that’s fine with me. Merely allow me mine, is all.

My five most favourite John Dickson Carr novels

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

carr575. The Dead Man’s Knock (1958)

This is the story of a crumbling marriage between two people who each think the other is having an affair. He’s a college professor (and expert on the work of Wilkie Collins) whose supposed mistress, the voluptuous and vicious Rose Lestrange, is found in a locked room with a sharp dagger plunged into her heart. Meanwhile there’s a series of nasty practical jokes that came very close to murder.  Is Rose Lestrange’s death connected with mysterious notes that Wilkie Collins left about a locked-room mystery he proposed to write? Dr. Fell sorts it all out. I think this book is quite well-balanced among plot, setting, and characterization; the characters seem more human than is usual for JDC and you can believe that people committed acts for the very human reasons that are provided, rather than merely to further a puzzle plot. As well, the supernatural overtones are held to a minimum, which makes the practical joker’s subplot more realistic to me. I didn’t find the mechanics of the locked-room mystery ultimately very satisfying, but there’s a lot more humanity in this novel than many of Carr’s other mysteries.

n465194. The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)

Upon his release from the armed forces, Donald Holden discovers that he’s been presumed dead, which makes his relationship with his fiancee, Celia Devereaux, considerably more strained. Celia’s sister Margot died in peculiar circumstances about a year ago, after a dinner party at which everyone wore the death mask of a historical murderer. Everyone seems to be hinting to Holden that Celia’s mental stability is less than perfect … someone has opened up the disused office of a fortune teller in order to conduct some sort of tryst … and someone or some thing is moving the coffins around inside a sealed mausoleum. While Donald and Celia get to know each other all over again, Dr. Fell investigates and explains Margot’s death as well as all the other mysteries. This one meets my three criteria for a strong puzzle, excellent balance among the story elements, and a strongly creepy atmosphere. Added to which, this is one of the few GAD mysteries where Carr allows himself to be somewhat more frank about sexual matters than was commonly the case; the ideas of hysteria and a concomitant sexual dysfunction are key elements to understanding the motives in this novel.  I think it was very brave of Carr to put it in and very laudable of him to have gotten it right, instead of making up the details to suit the story.

The Nine Wrong Answers by John Dickson Carr, Corgi Books 1325, 1956

3. The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)

This is a non-series novel in which young, broke, and fairly stupid New Yorker Bill Dawson inveigles himself into a position where he agrees to travel to England impersonating Larry Hurst, the heir to a large fortune. Larry is promptly poisoned; Bill tries to fulfill his part of the bargain by leaving immediately for London and meeting with Larry’s wealthy wheelchair-bound uncle, Gaylord Hurst once a week. But Uncle Gaylord and his vicious manservant Hatto are not fooled and begin to play murderous games with Bill. After another death, Bill confronts the very surprising villain in a dramatic denouement. Again, a strong puzzle plot with a truly surprising ending; an excellent balance of story elements; and the escalating conflict between Bill and Gaylord Hurst that provides a nearly unbearable tension by the end of the novel. The element of this story I liked the most is where Carr breaks the fourth wall nine times during the book with footnotes, saying, in essence, “I know you’re thinking I’m trying to fool you in this particular way, but I’m not.” Meanwhile he is pulling the wool over your eyes in nine other ways, all of which are detailed in the final chapters.

images2.The Black Spectacles aka The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)

The subtitle of this novel is “Being the psychologist’s murder case”, and I think it’s a major clue to the type of entertainment you receive. Wealthy Marcus Chesney believes that the testimony of eyewitnesses is unreliable, and invites witnesses to be present while an event takes place, not only in their view but in that of a movie camera. It’s intended that each witness will answer ten written questions after the event, which appears to be the faked poisoning of Chesney using a large green capsule by a masked and disguised figure wearing black spectacles, who promptly vanishes. To everyone’s surprise except the experienced Carr reader, Chesney is dead, the masked figure has vanished into thin air, and no one can agree on any of the answers to any of the ten questions, including what time it was. It’s my favourite story hook in all of Carr. Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Sodbury Cross, Chesney’s niece Marjorie is suspected of poisoning some children with chocolates in the same way as historical criminal Christiana Edmunds. Gideon Fell investigates the crimes while waiting for the movie film to be developed. At its first showing, the climax of the book is reached and Fell identifies the murderer. The puzzle is the star here, although the characterization has a good deal of merit (it assumes that lots of ordinary people would be familiar with the the Chocolate Cream Killer, but I can live with that). There are not many overtones of the supernatural and I think Carr could sustain the reader’s interest quite well without them, as he proves here.

1271711. The Crooked Hinge (1938)

This might be one of the instances where I have a fondness for a book because I read it when I was much younger and it had a profound effect on me. Definitely this one did … I read this when I was about 16 and can remember having a mostly sleepless night because my dreams involved the fingers of the mechanical hag reaching out for me! But really, folks, I think this is one novel where HDC brought it all together and it clicked. Spooky atmosphere?  Top of his game. Puzzle story, magnificently thought through and difficult but not impossible to solve. Perhaps not the most memorable characterization but the plot surrounding the puzzle is wonderful; complex, interesting, and with lots of elements that don’t necessarily contribute to the puzzle but further the action. The pace is great, the book is beautifully constructed — all in all, this is the one I try to hand people when they want a good place to start with JDC.

My five least favourite John Dickson Carr novels

Also in reverse numerical order. My least favourite novel is at the end of this list.

fire burn 025. Fire, Burn! (1957)

John Dickson Carr wrote some great historical mysteries; this isn’t one of them. He certainly had a great deal of knowledge and expertise about the ins and outs of London society in 1829, and that’s the big problem with this book for me; everything is in there. He’s so proud of how much he knows about this topic that there are seven pages of notes at the end of the novel for all the stuff he didn’t manage to cram in! Yes, I learned a lot. Yes, it’s accurate and interesting. But my feeling is that here, Carr lost track of the idea that you actually have to have an interesting novel to sustain all the research and this one is slow, simplistic, only marginally believable, and BORING.
73164514. The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965)

I regard this novel as the precise point at which it became clear that Carr’s writing powers were henceforth to be on the decline. I’m not old enough to have read this when it first came out (I was about ten in 1965) but I do remember hitting it in my teenage quest to read everything that the greatest writer EVER had ever written (smiling now at my youthful passions).  And I remember thinking, “Wow, that one is really not very good at all.” Which it isn’t. There is a point in Chapter 10 in which a minor character is casually said to have an unusual talent — she can perfectly imitate anyone’s handwriting. I found that hard to accept as a teenager, and today it’s just the point at which I close the book and move forward with something else to read, because that’s just bullshit. Or as I call it elsewhere, “mystery cement” (put in to make the puzzle harder). This book has all the elements of classic Carr — ghostly hugger-mugger in the dead of night, a puzzle, unusual characters. But the elements never coalesce to form a decent readable book. This is what I was talking about when I mentioned that sometimes Carr’s novels don’t always make it entirely onto the page; there’s a good mystery in here somewhere, but Carr didn’t manage to write it.

be25693c48d45ebfc4eb87f06429f0303. Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956)

There’s a lot wrong with this book, but one of the major things is that the protagonist is … well, let’s say “hard to accept”. For me Patrick Butler is made of the purest cardboard, and if you take out all the padding about “I am never wrong” and “I always defend the innocent,” there’s bugger-all that makes any sense as a human being. Here, the spooky atmosphere is almost entirely absent and replaced with salacious leerings at a halfwitted female stage performer with a “funny” French accent which requires Carr to write ridiculous dialogue throughout the book. Everyone runs around at top speed for no real reason. And the mystery element depends on something that is so damn stupid … it’s just ridiculous. (And it depends entirely upon this being a book. If it was a film, the mystery would be over in 30 seconds.) This is a book about cardboard characters doing stupid things against a boring background.

61ZsBl62poL._UY250_2.The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936)

I’m on dangerous ground here, because the very eminent mystery critic and John Dickson Carr expert Douglas G. Greene — hell, he literally wrote the book on Carr, found here — thinks this is a great book. So I’ll say right off the bat, he’s probably right and you should take his word for it rather than mine. My issue with this book is personal. When I was reading my way through JDC’s complete works, this was the last one remaining on what birders call their “life list” … and this was before the internet, and before International Polygonics republished it. So I ended up paying what I recall as a huge amount of money for what was at that time the only paperback edition from Dolphin in 1962. I unwrapped the parcel from a faraway bookseller with trembling hands, because this was the very last John Dickson Carr I’d ever get to read … and oh my god it was boring. Stupefyingly, dreadfully, yawn-provokingly boring. This is, in fact, non-fiction, although JDC brought fictive techniques to it. But since it is a retelling of historical fact, he wasn’t allowed to twist characters and events to make the narrative a little more exciting. Yes, again, as I noted in my comments on Fire, Burn! above, Carr knew a LOT about historical fact. But no amount of historical accuracy could bring this corpse back to life for me. For me, this was like reading a textbook for a course you didn’t want to take but had to. I finished the book in an evening and set it aside forever, extremely disappointed.

6573986169_ae8008afea_m1.The Blind Barber (1934)

There are people who like John Dickson Carr’s sense of humour, which depends largely upon a broad sense of farce reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, or perhaps P. G. Wodehouse. When he can restrain it (as in, for instance, the ghost train sequence in the Carter Dickson title The Skeleton in the Clock) it can provide a useful silly interlude within a larger, more serious story, and relieve some tension only to let it start building again. But here, there is nothing other than pure unadulterated farce, leavened with horrific and bloody violence. The principal figure of fun is an elderly alcoholic puppeteer — I don’t think alcoholism is something to encourage people to think is funny, in this context. Everyone in this book drinks a lot and does silly things against their own best interests in order to further the plot and keep it moving so fast that you aren’t supposed to notice that really, nothing useful is going on. And the most annoying part for me is that, early on, a minor character says something about the official actions in regard to the murder that, as far as I’m concerned, ruins the ending. The reader was told that something had happened and the solution depends on that not having effectively happened. (I’m again on dangerous ground here because I don’t have a copy at hand to give you chapter and verse; this is my memory speaking.) This book isn’t as funny as Carr thinks it is, the mystery is a cheat, the characters are unrealistic in the extreme, the violence is unnecessarily horrible, and a lot of the humour is based on how funny alcoholics are. Ugh.

A note on omissions

I’m sure it will surprise some people to realize that there are two very significant John Dickson Carr novels that are not on my list of favourites: The Three Coffins and He Who Whispers. Most commentators on JDC would, I think, at least have those in their top ten. I have to say that if I had done ten favourites rather than five, He Who Whispers would have been a solid sixth place and Three Coffins might have been ninth or tenth.

51EbYUCUfNL._SY445_He Who Whispers has a lot of great things about it; notably it’s one of the instances where JDC was frank about sexual matters, and I have to think that improves the book when compared to the rank and file of his work. For me — and I know I differ from almost everyone on this — the vampire element just doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s something about me personally, but it was perfectly clear to me from the outset that the crime was not committed by someone with magical powers and so the reader had to look at what actually happened without JDC in the background making moaning noises and saying, “Oooooo, scary stuff over here!”.  The puzzle is clever, the writing is good, it’s just this particular volume didn’t work for me from the get-go because I didn’t believe the premise.

three-coffinsThe Three Coffins is another one with the same problem for me. Do I have something against vampires? Maybe so. All I know is, Carr can bring me to the point of screaming out loud when he writes about, say, the mechanical hag in Crooked Hinge, and here the vampire stuff is just silly. The reason why this book would make it into my top ten list is because of the magnificent chapter where Dr. Fell stops the action, breaks the fourth wall, and delivers a lecture about how locked-room mysteries work. It truly is great. And I think it would have been even better in a work of non-fiction, because what it does for me is slow the action of this novel to a complete and grinding halt from which it never really recovers. Act 1 raises a lot of questions, then there’s a lecture about, essentially, how to read the book, then Act 2 goes off on a tangent about the second crime, then Act 3 is so full of explanations that it’s just three chapters of lecturing by Dr. Fell. Without spoiling it for anyone, I have never liked the reason why no one except Dr. Fell can figure out the second murder; it just doesn’t seem possible to me that everyone overlooked that certain something. The characterization is simplistic (“good” people and “bad” people are easy to identify). And once you clear away the guff about people rising from their graves, what you really have is a book where most of the backstory is crammed into the final third of the book in order to explain the first two-thirds; readability is sacrificed to the goal of making the first third of the book spooky as hell and inexplicable.

Nevertheless, as I say, both these books have lots and LOTS of fans. They may not be to my specific taste, but they might be to yours, so you should definitely give them a try.