Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, by S.S. Van Dine (1928): Some thoughts

In the last couple of days I’ve been following a discussion in my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection (you can find it here, although you may have to join the group to see anything). As you’ve probably already guessed, group members were discussing Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, an article from the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.  

Although I’ll quote extensively from this article, you can find a copy of it here and I recommend the full article to your attention.  The rest of this piece will assume that you have indeed gone and read it.

why-men-drinkIn the process of considering the various arguments, I realized that although I’d certainly read Van Dine’s 20 Rules, it had been so many years that I’d forgotten the article entirely. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at it and share the results here.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, in an introductory paragraph before he approaches the rules themselves, Van Dine outlines what he’s trying to do. And there are two things that are fairly crucial here. One is that he’s talking specifically about the “detective story” and the other is, as he says in the opening sentence, that “The detective story is a game.” In fact, he compares it to my favourite game, bridge.

Gaudy_nightNow, I’ll just ask you to agree with me that “detective story” has a very particular meaning, and it’s differentiated from other similar concepts like “crime story”, “spy story”, etc. First, a detective story must, ipso facto, contain a detective. I think you’ll agree that there must be a crime within the story that is investigated (“detected”) by that detective, and by and large that crime is murder. For the most part that crime is solved in the course of the story by the detective, and the criminal is brought to justice. This all seems very simple and straightforward, but I’ve learned in the past that when you’re dealing with slippery ideas it’s best to define your terms. Certainly there are detective stories not concerned with murder (Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) and occasionally a criminal gets away or “cheats the hangman” by committing suicide, etc. But for most detective stories, there’s a detective and a murder and a solution and a criminal.

e837293de9a79e7c468db088cea80a1a--cluedo-table-plansWhether or not detective stories are a “game” is something that I’ve seen discussed, and participated in discussing, practically to the point of screaming when the topic arises. So I will merely say that many, many people consider detective stories to have the nature of a game, a kind of battle of wits; but I don’t believe the definition of “detective story” should be restricted in this way, so as to entirely outlaw non-ludic approaches.

What follows purports to be “laws” governing the creation of a detective story. When I started looking at these 20 rules of Van Dine’s, I thought “Hmm, some of these aren’t rules.” And indeed, some of them aren’t. Quite a bit of the content of Van Dine’s article is two other things: (1) material that will enable you to discern if something is a detective story or not, and (2) material that lets you know which elements of detective stories Van Dine doesn’t like, or thinks are overdone.

Here’s a transcription of my notes as I read through the 20 Rules. You might want to open a copy of Van Dine’s original article in another window and follow along.

  1. Mostly correct, although it assumes that detective stories contain detectives, mysteries, and clues. I’d suggest the reader must have AN opportunity to solve the mystery before the detective announces the solution and should be in possession of all necessary information; deductions are another matter entirely.
  2. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect it has to do with mysteries that feature an unreliable narrator, like at least one Agatha Christie novel that I bet all my readers are muttering the name of at this point. Whatever Van Dine means, I’m not sure I care to bar anything from the detective story, and I like stories with an unreliable narrator.
  3. 51Cil1Cm-yLJust plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. If the A plot is a murder mystery, the B plot can be anything the author desires, and I think Patricia Wentworth demonstrates that romance works quite well.
  4. Ditto, although Rule 1 applies.
  5. Mostly correct, although Trent’s Last Case is an example of where this premise can fail. There’s an entire school of humorous detective story writers that would disagree also.
  6. Agreed, at least with the first sentence. The rest is either obvious or a statement of the kind of book Van Dine likes to read.
  7. I agree there usually should be a murder, although I offer Gaudy Night again. I am pleased to see Van Dine note that Americans (remember, this was published in The American Magazine) wish to bring the perpetrator to justice. The quote is from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet and might be rephrased as “Murder is always horrible.” I think personally a lot of mystery writers and detective story writers tend to forget that murder is horrible, and I’d like us all to remember that; we’re a bit desensitized these days by television programmes that are thinly disguised torture porn.
  8. HangmanI completely agree, although I have no issue with stories that raise the spectre of supernatural activities as long as they are debunked completely by the end. Vide John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot.
  9. Just plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. He assumes that his way of telling the story is the only way. I believe, however, that it’s a tenet of good fiction writing in a general sense that there should be a single protagonist, or a single individual with whom the reader identifies. So this is a generalized quality of good writing and not merely of good detective stories. For the rest of it — I give you The Moonstone, with its multiple narrators.
  10. Absolutely correct, although “in whom he takes an interest” might be overstating the case.  John Dickson Carr, in The Grandest Game in the World, put it as “any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.” I also disagree with that stricture; I wrote about it three years ago in a review of New Graves at Great Norne by Henry Wade. See also Rule 11.
  11. 1682156-inline-inline-2-a-real-life-butler-weighs-in-on-downton-abbeyWrong, wrong, wrong; merely Van Dine’s personal dislike, and snobby and elitist to boot. If Rule 10 is correct, Van Dine is saying here that servants cannot play a prominent part in the story; the way this reads, Van Dine thinks servants or menials are not “worthwhile” and capable of offering a spirited chase to the detective (or, perhaps, that they don’t have thoughts worth sharing). That’s a statement of his ideas about social class, but it should have nothing to do with detective stories.
  12. 95dec7a7d8f170fa5f4024758664a26fPossibly correct, in terms of guiding the “indignation of the reader,” but why bother making this rule? Half of the output of Freeman Wills Crofts disproves it, to name but one author.
  13. Correct; what Van Dine is saying here is that detective fiction is neither adventure fiction nor secret-service romance. It’s just a definitional issue. I gather he doesn’t care for those sub-genres.
  14. Correct, with the same stricture as I applied to Rule 8.
  15. I agree with at least the first sentence, although I think that the number of people who actually solve Golden Age mysteries before reading the final chapter is much, much smaller than Van Dine seems to think. The last sentence of this goes way beyond the evidence he’s offering and although it seems reasonable, I’d like to sit down and argue this out with a couple of well-read friends. Yes, there are readers who spurn the “popular” novel but read detective stories. But to assert that this is because of the possibility that the reader can possibly solve the mystery before the fictional detective is far, far too all-encompassing a statement to suit me. Frankly, I think it’s far more likely that they — we — read Golden Age detective stories because they eschew emotional content and we prefer that kind of emotion-free story. It may be a bug and not a feature.
  16. UnknownIt’s certainly true that Van Dine wrote his own books as if he agreed with this extraordinary statement; they mostly lack atmosphere and description (although Benson turns on subtly worked-out character analysis and Bishop and Dragon rely on creepy atmosphere for part of their charms). It rather makes me sad to think that he thought so little of the intelligence of readers and/or the writing abilities of his fellow writers that he thought it impossible to write a book with descriptive passages, character analyses, and atmosphere that would still perform all the functions of a detective story. Instead he prefers to pigeonhole detective stories and make them equivalent to a “ball game or … a cross-word puzzle”. I really dislike this idea; I want more. In fact I want as much atmosphere and description and characterization as I can get, along with the mystery, and I feel that many writers who wrote after Van Dine give it to me.
    My understanding is that many Golden Age detective story writers felt that in-depth characterization was inappropriate because it gave the reader a way of bypassing the correct “game” structure and instead allowed them to pick the murderer by his/her psychological profile — or, simply put, that the murderer was the person whose character the author most wanted you to understand. Well, as Van Dine himself notes, there are people who get their “answer out of the back of the arithmetic” and whether or not detective stories are a game, they’re not playing properly.  Too bad, but let’s not cater to that lowest common denominator.
  17. Just plain wrong (had he not read the Father Brown stories featuring Flambeau?) and I suppose a personal prejudice. There’s at least one novel by Anthony Berkeley that turns this on its head.
  18. 37dec98c957979fa20eadf6394380fc2Although I agree for the most part, I can think of at least one Sherlock Holmes story that disproves this idea conclusively and, frankly, there’s no reason for it to be a “rule”. If Van Dine is playing a game, and if the logical chain of events leads to accident or suicide and is fairly before the reader, how can this be wrong?
  19. Again, this is Van Dine distinguishing between detective stories and secret-service tales and war stories. The part that interests me is the two final sentences here; I think the emphasis on gemütlichkeit is misplaced, given Rule 7’s emphasis on the horror of murder. The last sentence is quite astonishing and I’m not sure I quite understand what Van Dine was getting at. If there are readers who have everyday experience with puzzle mysteries, I think I’m happy not to be one of them. And as an outlet for “repressed desires and emotions”? I think anyone who uses detective stories as that kind of outlet needs psychiatric help. Is he suggesting that people read detective stories because they want to commit crimes in their everyday life — or even solve them? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood; no doubt my readers will lead me to the light in their comments.
  20. imagesI must note right off the bat that Van Dine threw this in to make the numbers up to 20 Rules; he says so. That being said, this is nothing more than a list of ten things that Van Dine thinks are out of style. and in no sense a “rule”. It amused me to consider that (a) is so different in 2018 that, if you did manage to find a cigarette butt on the scene of a crime, not even considering DNA evidence from saliva, there are so few people who actually smoke these days that your criminal would stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure what (g) is referring to. For the remainder of these I can actually think of at least one specific story to which Van Dine would object; one is Poe’s Thou Art The Man. I’ll leave that exercise for the reader, for fear of spoilers.

I’m not sure if this next suggestion will strike fear into the hearts of my readers, or perhaps make them guffaw at how far out of my depth I am, or perhaps merely raise a dubious eyebrow, but I’m now working on my own set of rules, as yet undetermined as to number. I hope to bring that to you in the very near future.  Your suggestions are welcome.

 

 

A Murder in Thebes, by Paul Doherty (1998)

Note: This book was originally published as by “Anna Apostolou”; the author whose work it is has many pseudonyms but is generally known as either Paul Doherty or P. C. Doherty. It is now published as an e-book under Paul Doherty.

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

a-murder-in-thebes

I’m never quite sure how to feel about authors with a huge output of published writing. I’ve had bad experiences with Gladys Mitchell just lately — similarly Edgar Wallace, Elizabeth Linington, and John Creasey. Simenon leaves me relatively cold, although his skill is evident. But Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie are always interesting to me. It’s too simplistic to say that if an author produces a huge number of volumes they must automatically be a hasty and poor writer. It does sometimes make me approach a prolific writer with caution, though.

And that’s the frame of mind I brought to the work of Paul Doherty, who has written, by Wikipedia’s last count, more than 100 mysteries; I believe all or nearly all of them can be categorized as “historical”. I read a few of his earliest books back in the 80s, but have forgotten very nearly everything about them; at that point in time I was already surfeited with Ellis Peters’s adventures of Brother Cadfael (yes, you read that right, I’m not a fan; I think they’re ersatz and bland) and didn’t feel I needed more mediaeval hijinks in my life.  When you couple that with the idea that I only occasionally read anything written after I was born, you can understand why I’ve only experienced about 5% of his output, if that.

But then I discovered that, as Anna Apostolou, Doherty had written a couple of mysteries featuring Alexander the Great. Now, I’ve always had a huge interest in Alexander the Great; I’ve read a bunch of books about him, sparked off by the excellent novels of Mary Renault, and will always pick up anything about him, fiction or non-fiction. When I happened across a copy of #2 in the series, A Murder in Thebes, I thought, what the heck? How bad can it be?

I say this because my pessimism for once had no payoff.  I found, to my pleasure, that while this is not a novel for the ages, it’s very competent and smartly done, and Doherty (whom Wikipedia tells me is an expert on Alexander the Great in his own right) has hit most of the right notes along the way.

The story is actually about sister-and-brother Israelite detectives Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus; they are fictitious and the conceit is that they were sent to be educated by Aristotle along with Alexander. Miriam is an intellectual with a “determined mouth” who acts as a kind of … well, let’s say “private eye” for Alexander, who apparently keeps running into locked-room murders unknown to history.  Some other characters are actual historical figures in the correct time and place as we know from history; the events in this novel and most of its characters are imaginary, though.

5176BX692ALI suppose you can’t write 100 mysteries without having, if not a formula, then at least a pattern.  This one was easy to see, and the book is well-constructed.  The A plot is the murder case that involves someone killing Alexander’s officers during the siege of Thebes (and after Alexander takes the city); apparently there’s a spy among them in the pay of Persia, known as the Oracle.  Most of the book is devoted to the identification and unmasking of the spy/murderer and, honestly, since I spotted the central clue pretty much within seconds of its transmission, the problem didn’t occupy my mind much. (I will merely say I’ve owned dogs; I got the right answer for mostly the wrong reasons, so that little clue will mislead you.)

The B plot is involved with “The Iron Crown of Oedipus”, a sacred relic of Thebes in its own shrine with attendant priestesses.  The crown itself is fixed to a post, and the post is surrounded by pits of fire, pits of poisonous snakes, and pits of spears. In fact, it’s an “impossible crime” situation; the chief priestess knows how the crown can be removed (without the use of tools, which are blasphemous and sacrilegious in the context) but nobody else is aware.  When the crown vanishes, just before Alexander needs to wear it publicly to confirm his acquisition of Thebes by Macedon, Miriam has to figure out who took it and how.

The reader will not be surprised by this puzzle either, if s/he ‘s paying attention; there are a couple of very broad hints that seem a little anachronistic and thus obvious even to a reader of limited experience with detective fiction.  I’ll accept that Doherty is a historian and thus I’ll suspend my disbelief about what he says was a common toy among Theban children and Macedonian soldiers. But honestly, it might just as well have had a neon arrow in the text saying, “Big ol’ clue right here.” There was just no reason to include its repetitive mention otherwise.

I actually think the reader is supposed to grasp the central premise of what’s going on; it’s an interesting idea, that the author should build in opportunities to make the reader feel better about his/her intellectual gifts.  After you put two and two together — well, okay, I’d figured out the killer and I’d figured out the puzzle, and I felt very clever for a moment. It’s not an experience I often have with detective fiction, and it would have been very unusual to have it with, say, Christie, Carr, or even Gardner upon my first reading of their works way back when. I suspect I might be able to solve other volumes in this series, and others of Doherty’s many series, without too much strain, and while that seems superficially an attractive prospect it does rather pall when I contemplate the great books which have so cleverly pulled the wool over my eyes and provided me with more pleasure by fooling me.  Your mileage may definitely vary, and I know Doherty has a lot of adherents, so perhaps I’m extrapolating far too much from a single example.

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I’m not sure why Doherty inserted the distancing mechanism of having the central characters as Israelites … for me it doesn’t work as well as merely having a Macedonian do the job. I suspect it has something to do with offering the reader a female character with whom to identify and having her not be, as one might say, overly troubled with sexual activity. Miriam protects children and the innocent and wields great power as a favourite of Alexander, and reacts angrily for the most part when she is sexually harassed.  I just find it hard to accept that a female from what today is called Israel would be in that position; it strains my suspension of disbelief somewhat.

The part that Doherty really has nailed on the head is the character and situation of Alexander. I’ll be blunt and say that I was expecting Alexander to have been de-gayed for the lowest common denominator of reader; not so, and full marks for having Hephaestion described as Alexander’s companion and lover, and kissed once in a while to boot.  Indeed, the everyday socialization of what we would think of today as “kinks” is a part of the narrative, and not in a sniggering or heteronormative way either; it’s part of everyday Macedonian life and this murder too, since many of the male characters have male partners and casual lovers, and cross-dressing is an accepted idea that bears upon the plot without being meretriciously paraded.

Similarly, this is not your average cozy, in the sense that as the book begins, Alexander breaks the siege of Thebes and captures the city, killing many of its inhabitants and enslaving the remainder. We’re not spared the stacks of dead bodies and the terrible smell and floating ash of their funeral pyres; there’s also a rough-and-ready cure for diarrhea offered by Alexander. The punishment for just about everything is death. The characters lead lives, at that everyday level, that seem appropriate for the time and place without any sops to 21st century morality.  (Neither do any characters decry the backwardness of their own existence, thank goodness.)

All things considered, I enjoyed this. It’s a nice easy mystery story based firmly and accurately in historical knowledge — and you don’t “walk out humming the research,” as occasionally happens with other historical mystery writers. The characters are simply drawn and pleasant to contemplate and there is the “impossible crime” aspect, although not much of a one to be honest.

Would I go out and get more of these? I hope to track down the remainder of the Alexander series, certainly, but I would have done that anyway just to see how the rest stack up. I think I’ll spare myself his mediaeval mysteries for the moment; while I’m sure it would be delightful to have a further hundred books to add to my To Be Read list, I just can’t face all that mediaevality (with the disembodied face of Derek Jacobi floating in my mind, exclaiming pompously, “But this is positively mediaeval!”). It is, however, a sharp lesson to me not to be so fast to assume that because a writer is fast, his quality suffers. This is a well-written book with good characterization and an excellent balancing of the plot structure and I’ve read a lot worse — a LOT worse — in the cozy genre.

 

 

 

 

She Had To Have Gas, by Rupert Penny (1939)

SheHadToHaveGas315As I mentioned in my last post, after struggling hard with Gladys Mitchell, I felt I needed something a bit more … structured to read. A few weeks ago a copy of this Rupert Penny novel was on top of a box of books I was moving… and I spent an hour flipping through it refreshing my memory as to its contents.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

More than five years ago I first looked at a Rupert Penny novel here and another one here last year; I’ll just hit the high spots. Rupert Penny used to be one of the most difficult tastes in mystery reading to satisfy. His books were nearly impossible to get and commanded astronomical prices (in the range of US$500 for ANY hardcover). He was only published in flimsy wartime editions, many of which did not last, and his occasional paperback publications similarly came on the market in small editions and then vanished.

As of today, ABE Books has none of the first editions available, and the very rare paperback copies from the 1940s are US$75 to $100. I had a scarce Collins White Circle paperback edition of Sealed Room Murder that I recall brought me $75 some years ago. But then the excellent Ramble House brought all nine of his books back as print-on-demand trade-format paperbacks and the GAD world could finally read its way through Penny’s oeuvre. To the best of my knowledge, She Had To Have Gas was published once in 1939 by Collins Crime Club, and that was it until Ramble House reprinted it. My copy has a curious error; the back cover is a blurb for a different Rupert Penny novel, Cut And Run. But in the way of POD, possibly mine is one of a very few such misprints.

For those of you who have never encountered Rupert Penny’s work — well, his focus is definitely on the “impossible crime” story in the manner of the Humdrum school. In Penny, the puzzle is all, and characterization is not much in evidence. The novels are structured around really difficult puzzles that theoretically are “fair play” , in that Penny asserts that the reader is given all necessary information to make a solution possible.  To that end, I believe all his novels contain the Queenian conceit of the “Challenge to the Reader”; the novel comes to a halt while the author breaks the fourth wall and poses some questions that the reader should be able to answer (but, frankly, is unlikely to be able to).

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

What is this book about?

It is October, 1938 in the small town of Craybourne and we are introduced to Mrs. Agatha Topley, a somewhat meek widow and first-time landlady who is having a problem with her only lodger, a slatternly Londoner named Alice Carter. Miss Carter is behind on her rent and Mrs. Topley needs the money. Alice has introduced her frequent male visitor as her cousin, Mr. Ellis, and Mrs. Topley has written him a note to urge him to mention the matter to Miss Carter. Since she hates to cause a fuss, she hopes this will be sufficient.

When Mrs. Topley returns from a shopping excursion, she immediately loses her temper. Her lodger has apparently taken charge of Mrs. Topley’s cherished radio and moved it into her room, since it’s playing at full blast. Miss Carter’s door is locked and she’s not answering. When Mrs. Topley smells gas, her anger turns to panic. She pushes a chair in front of the door and peeps through the transom window, only to see Miss Carter’s body shrouded in the bedclothes, with a rubber tube disappearing beneath them.

Mrs. Topley immediately runs to get the local policeman and a few minutes later they return to find — the bed is empty and all Miss Carter’s possessions have vanished.

Meanwhile, mystery writer Charles Harrington is puzzled about the seeming disappearance of his niece Philippa and discusses the problem with his friend, the Chief Constable. Philippa has requested a huge sum of money (£5000, which in 2017 terms would equal the purchasing power of roughly US$320,000) and refuses to say why. The Chief Constable enlists the assistance of policemen Tukes and Best (whose girlfriend is Philippa’s maid) and both cases are investigated. Apparently Philippa got romantically entangled with a sleazy actor who has been blackmailing her …

The police quickly follow some clues and make a grisly discovery at the actor’s studio — the body of a young woman missing her head, hands and feet. The body is clad only in undergarments and the wrists and neck are concealed by tennis racquet covers. It’s not clear whether the corpse is that of Philippa or Alice Carter but everyone fears the worst for both girls.

At this point Penny’s series detective Inspector Beale, accompanied by journalist Tony Purdon, becomes involved. Assisted by Tukes and Best, they investigate. You should experience the details of the investigation for yourself, but as noted above, the action stops at page 200 and the author poses three questions. If you can answer them, you’ve solved the case. If not — Inspector Beale explains everything in the final chapter and unmasks the criminal, whose identity should prove to be very surprising to the average reader.

14675Why is this book worth your time?

If you’re an aficionado of the classic puzzle mystery, Rupert Penny is for you; particularly if you prefer your difficult logic problems unencumbered by excessive realism in the characterization department. The plot is not especially original, but Penny learned from the best. This particular volume has elements that reminded me of Freeman Wills Crofts (the minute-by-minute timetable involved in Alice Carter’s disappearance), Ellery Queen (I’ll merely mention the decapitations in The Egyptian Cross Mystery), John Dickson Carr (a certain sexual liberation of one of the female characters that may remind you of The Judas Window) and even, dare I say it, Agatha Christie (an aspect of the solution that I expect will surprise most readers, but I cannot identify which of her titles because I’d give the whole thing away).

Although I’ve suggested that Penny in general prefers to avoid in-depth characterization, this volume has some nice touches. The landlady Mrs. Topley, although offstage for most of the book, is a crucial witness to the events of the first chapter and if you hope to solve this mystery, you’ll have to understand both what she did and why she did it. And for once this is not unfair; her actions and reactions arise organically out of the text and she’s presented in sufficient detail that you won’t feel cheated when you learn what you overlooked.  You may even feel sorry for the widow who can’t bring herself to ask her lodger for the back rent due to an excess of gentility. Inspector Beale and his friend Tony are rather “jolly chums”, chaffing and teasing each other in the manner of public-school boys; you might find them a bit too carefree about the facts of brutal murders, but honestly I found this more believable than if they wrapped themselves in a shroud of gloom.

And there are some amusing asides from the character who is a mystery writer. I always enjoy seeing mystery writers put mystery writers into their books as characters, and here Charles Harrington has a bit to tell us about the business:

“Charles Harrington … had contrived twenty-three such works, and the plot for the twenty-fourth was in course of construction. His sales averaged thirty thousand copies per book, including the United States and editions down to half a crown, and as well there were at least five magazines of repute which would take a short story whenever he cared to offer one, and send him by return a cheque for round about forty guineas. … He had a good car, and servants, and every year he invariably passed one month in Scotland and one on the Continent; and all these things cost money.”

Harrington also supports his niece Philippa to the tune of £20 a month at a time when a young woman could survive on £50 a year if she got bought a lot of dinners by young men. He also has what seem to be genuine feelings about his missing niece. I have a feeling that Penny himself was not finding detective fiction so lucrative as his invented character, since he published no short stories and no cheap editions to my knowledge; perhaps this is the same instinct that made Dorothy L. Sayers live vicariously by allowing Lord Peter Wimsey to buy first editions and fancy motorcars with a lavish hand. It’s also mentioned that the sleazy actor twice tried his hand at detective fiction, which invariably piques the interest of the alert reader, but no further details of his efforts are given.

The puzzle at the core of this volume is a very difficult one. One essential element — and I’ll try and describe this without spoiling your potential enjoyment — requires the reader to connect two different viewings of the same physical object and identify a crucial difference. Again hoping not to spoil a different book, this certainly reminded me of John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murder because you need to form a picture in your mind of what you’re seeing and not just accept the description. You’ll probably find yourself at the denouement flipping back to an earlier page and thinking, “Oh, yes, he DID say that about that object, didn’t he? Damn, I missed that.” There’s another crucial aspect that requires one of the detectives to jump to a conclusion and for the murderer to gratefully agree and bolster the erroneous conclusion with some hasty lying, which is tough to spot. I didn’t solve this one, although frankly I rarely do, and if the pleasure of a difficult puzzle like this is of primary importance to you, you’ll enjoy reading this book slowly and carefully.

There are a number of interesting sidelights on social issues that are small but, to me at least, satisfying. Mrs. Topley, for instance, considers the various ways in which “three and six” could make a difference to her everyday life, including funding her contributions to the Christmas Club and getting in a quarter ton of coal before the price goes up. There are details of the grubby undergarments worn by the dismembered corpse that will interest my friend Moira of the excellent blog Clothes in Books (but very little else that will pique her interest, frankly), and quite a bit of background on the ways and means of gas in terms of household heating as well as suicide/murder. (How many minutes does it take to smell gas? You’ll find out.) There’s also an interesting moment or two about the state of the scientific art with respect to blood analysis in 1939.

But make no mistake, this is not a classic for the ages. By virtue of the difficulty of the underlying puzzle, it’s definitely a cut above a time-passer, but there’s a pervasive air of cardboard throughout that allows the characterization to be sufficient to conceal the murderer, if you follow me. The characters do what they’re said to do because the author says so, and not because Penny has troubled to construct them so that they will logically do those things.  Let me merely say that this is a first-rate second-rate mystery.

However, if you’re looking for a really difficult puzzle and don’t require much realism in its presentation — this is definitely a book for you.  Enjoy!

 

 

Hopalong Cassidy — detective?

Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

hoppy_headLast fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them.  As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.

In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.

Hop-a-long Cassidy - 1shtWilliam Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941.  Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.

hoppyadThat process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.

HoppyTVThere was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.

61Q84PPJXCL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.

hoppy-headerIt’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)

I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple.  Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:

  • Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
  • Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
  • Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
  • Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
  • Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.

Hoppy Serves a Writ - 1shtThe one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?

20ce0f649216fe71ddc69babf71e939aWhat prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear.  He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.

cdb2da219c6b80bec78aa253db7ea35cFor fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.

a5f5f7f13c4932f7c488e63ffed9c5b9There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.

Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about.  Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).

People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.

HopalongCassidyFilms.gifAfter further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.

There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.

To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.

983712c1ad67e46193d162211ca9f2b0At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.

So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation.  In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!

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.