Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

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

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

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

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

1. Sharon McCone

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

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

2. Jane Marple

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

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

3. Maud Silver

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

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

4. Mrs. Bradley

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

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

5. Bertha Cool

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

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

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

6. Hilda Adams

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

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

7. Nancy Drew

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

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

8. Loveday Brooke

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

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

9. Flavia de Luce

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

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

10. Kate Delafield

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

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

October 8 Challenge

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

october-8-challenge-chart1

I Shot My Bridge Partner, by Matthew Granovetter (1989) (#002 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #002

I Shot My Bridge Partner, by Matthew Granovetter (1989)

imagesAuthor:

Matthew Granovetter is “a professional bridge player, writer, and teacher, who has won three North American Championship titles”.  

Publication Data:

I have to say that I’m not certain of these publishing details.  As best I can tell, the 1st edition of this was a trade paperback from the eponymous Granovetter Press in 1989; possibly in a jacket, which is unusual.  The edition you see to the left is the second edition, dated 1999, from Master Point Press.  Both publishers specialize in books about bridge (the card game) and generally these are at a level that would be largely incomprehensible to the average home player.

This is the second volume in a series of three mystery novels; this one’s focus is rubber bridge.  (The first volume was based in duplicate bridge and the third in team play.) The protagonist — it’s not correct to call him the detective, he’s more like the stupid Watson/narrator — is also named Matthew Granovetter, but it is impossible that these are meant to be taken as biography.  

About this book:

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

If I were to say that the victim in this mystery was shot while playing bridge in full view of three other people plus a number of spectators (“kibitzers”, in bridge parlance), but that no one was able to see who fired the shot because all the lights were out at the time, you might think that this was the basis for a clever puzzle mystery not entirely unlike John Dickson Carr. You would, of course, be wrong. Extremely wrong.

This is only a mystery because a character in it gets murdered and no one knows who murdered him. What this really is is a sort of annotated textbook on how to play rubber bridge for money, written by someone who I believe has actually done so.  The book is stuffed with bridge hands and an accompanying discussion of their bidding and play, based physically in a location that actually exists in the real world, the Mayfair Club (whose function is to facilitate the playing of high-stakes rubber bridge, as you can imagine from the context).  The discussion is at a high level, and is quite erudite and intelligent. The mystery content makes Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Machine seem like John Dickson Carr.

The story is told by a young university student whose name is the same as that of the author. I’m being careful to make this distinction because I believe the published antics of this nitwit cannot possibly represent any kind of reality. In fact, I believe if asked, the author would say, “Oh, no, I made it all up to amuse people while they absorbed the bridge lessons.”  The protagonist plays bridge with an assortment of “colourful characters”, one of whom is murdered.  There is a sub-plot  about his educational efforts, another about his efforts to get laid, and a bunch of muddled stuff about a notebook containing observations on bridge games and various people who owe money to each other as a result of bridge games.

In fact, I have to here confess something. This book is so awful, and so defiantly unreadable, that I really have very little idea what it’s about.  It seems to be about nothing much at all, frankly. I have to bow to the writer’s mastery of the deep reasoning that can underlie the playing of rubber bridge; he truly does know what he’s talking about.  What he apparently knows nothing about is the creation of fiction. That being said, I hope you will understand why I cannot give you much a précis of what happens here. First, as I read this book, it came to a grinding halt every few pages to present a bridge hand and its associated discussion. It’s hard to get your mind back in the game; rather like watching a difficult whodunnit TV programme dependent on tiny inferences that’s interrupted by a commercial every five minutes. Second, the characters are so poorly conceived and presented, their antics are so ludicrous and so deliberately manipulated, that I kept putting the book down and silently praying that they would all be hit by Acme anvils dropping from the sky.  These are not even remotely real people and it is impossible to work up any empathy for them regardless of how dire the events of the plot. Third, the story is told in a way that makes it really difficult to follow the plot, because the author keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time — not in the sense of “Twenty years ago, such-and-such happened”, but skipping back and forth almost at random over the period of what seems to be a couple of weeks.  I think.  It’s hard to tell.

Usually it’s part of my reviewing process to give the book a thorough re-reading before starting the review. Here, I started the review when I was about 20 pages into it, thinking, “Oh, well, I sort of remember reading this book when I got it, I’ll just keep flipping through it to find specific things that illustrate my analysis.”  I am ashamed to say that I just could not manage it, and I sincerely apologize. This is execrably, abysmally awful, and I couldn’t manage to read 20 pages at a time without putting the book down.  Although once I got out a deck of cards to play out a hand a few times, because I’m not as skilful as the author at hand analysis.  I suggest that a novel that encourages you to put itself aside has not grasped the concept properly.

I even read the ending a couple of times, trying to identify whodunnit so that I could try to go back and trace the actual plot from the dreadful muck that surrounded it. It will possibly not surprise you to know that this book is so poorly written that it is not absolutely clear who the murderer truly is.  There is a solution which seems acceptable to the police, even though it makes a limited amount of sense. Nothing in this book really makes much sense except the bridge hands. The whole thing is literally unreadable.

One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning.  For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.

In this book, there is one tiny piece of good work that gives the reader the faint hope that this relation of sub-themes will actually take place.  For a class assignment, the student protagonist is reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allan Poe, which proves to begin with a few paragraphs about how good whist players (whist, of course, is the precursor to contract bridge, which was not yet invented when Poe wrote) analyze hands based on the psychology of the opponents as well as mathematics and logic. Great stuff! This is precisely what the author is saying is crucial at rubber bridge, and what should inevitably happen is that psychology should prove to be the distinguishing factor in the solution of the mystery. For instance, someone who habitually overbids might commit a rash, impulsive murder. Where this breaks down is that the author apparently has no idea how human beings think or act away from the bridge table, and cannot depict characters in any degree of realism. It’s as though the author said, “Oh, I’ll make this guy like this, that will be interesting,” without stopping to think about how that character might serve to illustrate a theme of the novel. This book could have been written by consulting a copy of “What shall we name the baby?” and, after a silly name has been selected, three dominant character traits are selected from a bag filled with randomized slips of paper. So-and-so is “stingy”, “irascible” and “doesn’t bathe enough”.  Crucially, the author doesn’t make this character play bridge in a “stingy” way, and any idea of thematic relationships is completely beyond his ability. It was, however, nice to find this reference to card-play in Poe, and it’s like a hint of what might have been but could not.

To sum up as best I can: someone is murdered during a bridge game when the lights go out. The characters are unbelievably fake, the plot is ridiculous and chaotic, the writing is muddy and imprecise, and the author does not really understand how mystery novels are supposed to work. It is one of the few mysteries I have ever read where not only did I not care whodunnit, I wanted to go in and kill someone myself — the author.

Why is this so awful?

The history of detective fiction since the 1940s or so has contained a couple of major pathways or channels that are easily recognized by the student or even a frequent reader. One is what I have personally termed the “information mystery”. This is a kind of mystery written by an expert in a field — let’s suggest, at random, glass-blowing. The protagonist will be a glass-blower who has a personal reason to solve a murder that takes place among a group of glass-blowers and their hangers-on. Our protagonist is constantly throwing off little snippets of information about glass-blowing and, almost always, one of these pieces of information is absolutely essential to the solution of the crime. (“Hmm, there was no cadmium powder in the victim’s workshop, but he was blowing a blue vase. Therefore he must have gone next door to Mr. Jones’s workshop to borrow some and …”  You know the kind of thing I mean, although I made this up out of whole cloth.) It could even be stretched to say that many police procedurals are a variety of information mystery — it’s merely that the area of expertise is the actual workings of real police officers. But that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

Information mysteries can be fascinating, but they can also be both boring and illiterate. Think of Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, which is a simple mystery about a jewel robbery that has been padded to great length by the addition of huge indigestible wads of boring information about campanology (bell-ringing). That’s the boring kind. The illiterate kind is exemplified by a review elsewhere on this site of what purports to be an information mystery about interior decoration, Killed by Clutter by Leslie Caine, whose protagonist asserts that shoji screens come from China (https://noah-stewart.com/2012/11/08/killed-by-clutter-by-leslie-caine/).

The fascinating kind are ones in which the information is true — if one actually would need cadmium powder to blow a blue-coloured vase — but parcelled out in such a way that it’s not coming in great indigestible lumps, like The Nine Tailors. In addition, the reader cannot have the sense that the action grinds to a halt every once in a while for a lecture on how pigment is introduced into molten glass, as it were. The information has to be integrated smoothly into the plot. Also, and this is crucial, the plotting and characterization have to be the equivalent of a non-information mystery.

I once remarked in the context of Margaret Atwood’s first science-fiction novel that she seemed to have ignored the stricture that it was customary before writing one to have actually read a couple first. The problem with the information mystery is that someone in possession of a great deal of information about glass-blowing tends to think that the writing of epic passion or psychological accuracy against a background of glass-blowing is a daunting task, but that anyone smart enough to accumulate a wad of glass-blowing knowledge is certainly smart enough to write a mystery without, you know, actually knowing how.  Because mysteries are “formula fiction”, and anyone can look up that particular formula, or so they seem to believe. This misconception is responsible for a large number of rubbishy self-published mysteries, and a fair number of one-offs for publishers when it proves impossible to think of more than a single mystery plot whose solution depends on an abstruse point about glass-blowing.  (Gillian Farrell’s Alibi for an Actress comes to mind; a great little mystery based on the everyday life of an actress whose follow-up was atrociously unreadable.)

Here’s an important aside. There’s a kind of mystery very closely allied to the information mystery that I call the minority mystery. This is a style of mystery novel whereby the author uses the mystery form to introduce the reader to the workings of a minority group in society. I assert that this form is different, and probably much more important, than the information mystery because it allows minority groups in society to find a voice in fiction. It is no accident that the “lesbian mystery” sub-genre became an important way for lesbians to write about their lives; there’s an entire publishing house, Naiad, that was founded upon the mystery novels of the trail-blazing Katherine V. Forrest about a gay cop. I personally find Walter Mosley just about unreadable, but there is no denying that he and Chester Himes took the “black mystery” and elevated it to the level of literature, while letting people of every skin colour know what it’s like to live in everyday black society in the United States. Someday I’ll write about why The Glory Hole Murders by Tony Fennelly is NOT a minority mystery but a mean-spirited piece of crap, but not today.

Anyway, minority mysteries work differently. Minority mysteries always arise at a time when the publishing world is unwilling to publish mainstream novels based in this minority viewpoint, booksellers uncomfortable about displaying them, and potential readers are not comfortable with buying them. The minority mystery is a kind of literary toehold from which a minority takes its literary voice. The mystery element is less important and can actually be almost simplistic, because the mystery is not really the point of the novel; what’s crucial is that the author has the entree to a part of society that the reader does not, and displays its inner workings.  The information mystery, on the other hand, must have the mystery be crucial to the novel — because it’s the possession of that vital piece of information that solves the crime, and if there’s no crime that requires an insider to solve, there’s no novel.

What’s wrong with this particular book, over and above all the complaints I’ve outlined above, is that it purports to be an information mystery but doesn’t actually follow through. One doesn’t really have to know anything about bridge to read this book, even to agree with whomever you decide committed the crime, and that’s absolutely fatal. What this book provides is a huge wad of rubber-bridge theory surrounded with a mystery that is not baffling, but merely incomprehensible because the author doesn’t have the writing skill to make it come alive. It would have been an interesting textbook on how to think at the rubber-bridge table, and that is its only useful or entertaining or informative function.

There is one last serious error of judgment here; this book is illustrated. By “illustrated”, I do not mean the charming drawings of Sidney Paget that accompany the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Nor do I mean that they partake of the practice of a bygone age whereby five or six full-page illustrations are added throughout the book.  What has happened here is that someone with a desktop publishing program and access to a large file of computer clip art has selected snippets of illustration and splattered them throughout the book wherever they seem to be marginally relevant. The illustration styles vary wildly but are based in a uniform poverty of artistic inspiration. For the most part, they seem chosen to demonstrate someone’s command of wrapping text around artwork with a desktop publishing program. They cheapen the look of the book immeasurably, they are ugly, poorly-chosen, and break the flow of the book (which was already quite disjointed by poor writing).  It’s a way to explain to book designers why one doesn’t do this particular thing, because the results are so dire.

Notes For the Collector:

A Montana bookseller on Abebooks.com will provide you as of this writing with an inscribed copy of the true first edition for US$20 plus shopping.  That being said, I’m unable to fathom why an Australian bookseller wants $21.69 for the second edition and a Canadian wants US$103.53 for the first. The cover price of the 2nd edition was $15 US/$20 CDN and I paid $10 CDN for my copy used.

In a small way, I’m a collector of bridge literature and it’s never been tough to get a copy of this book.  Mr. Granovetter now lives in Israel, so is unlikely to be signing many copies in North America, but I don’t think his signature is all that collectible.  There are today 42 (mostly unsigned) copies available on Abebooks and a number of similarly-priced copies available from Amazon and eBay.  I cannot imagine that this book will appreciate at all and, if I have anything to say about it, its price will decline.  So unless you are some kind of maniac who must own a copy of every novel ever published whose basis is bridge, there’s no point in laying down a copy of this and it is likely to be cheaper in the future.