The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 2)

The Great Detectives: Two court officials

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby and Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-djieh

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesIntroduction

I’ve summarized the reason for my series of posts in part 1, found here: a group of GAD bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detective and I’ve taken on a full slate of ten detectives.  Well, when you read a lot, you have a lot of favourites; it was hellish to keep it to ten, and in the process of negotiating who got to write about whom, I had to relinquish the opportunity to blether on about, for instance, Miss Maud Silver.  (But I know my friend Moira will do a great job.)  The latest roundup of links to other bloggers’ work is found here — I will update this as I get more information.

My own Part 1 was about Perry Mason and the detective firm of Cool & Lam, both the product of the hardworking and enormously productive Erle Stanley Gardner (known here as ESG). In fact Gardner wrote about many, many series detectives and I number more than three among my favourites: for instance I talked here about Gramps Wiggins, whom I’m sorry to say was seen in only two novels. If I’m going to get ten detectives into four Tuesdays, though, I’m going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone; and so today, courtesy of the recent four-day weekend and some extra writing time, is my second look at two Great Detectives. My third favourite is District Attorney Doug Selby, about whom I get to write today, and I’ll also add a little appreciation of Dee Jen-djieh, a detective of 7th century China, whose detective stories were written by expert Sinologist Robert van Gulik.

Believe me, I feel kind of silly in linking ESG’s Doug Selby, who worked in 1940s California, with Judge Dee, who worked in the mid- to late 600s in China. Their participation in their own court systems is what links them tenuously together, but truly they have virtually nothing in common — except that the books in which they feature are very good and worth your time.

District Attorney Doug Selby

9781671002630-ukRecently I wrote about two of ESG’s series detectives; Perry Mason, the defence lawyer, and Cool & Lam, the private investigators. The third face of the triangle of judicial attention to murder cases is the state prosecutor, and that role is best filled by Doug Selby. It’s interesting to note that Perry Mason has PIs (Paul Drake) and prosecutors (Hamilton Burger) with whom to contend, and Cool & Lam are pestered by prosecutors and lawyers — each series tells a murder story from a different point of view.

51AK97dcFUL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_But where we know virtually nothing about Perry Mason as a person, Doug Selby is a fully realized person and his personal life is centre stage in the nine volumes about him. As the series begins, with 1937’s The D.A. Calls It Murder, Selby and his associate Rex Brandon have just won election as District Attorney and Sheriff respectively in “Madison City”, California — based on the actual city of Ventura, but in those days a more rural location — on a “reform” ticket, defeating a corrupt administration. The crooked politicians are constantly maneuvering against Selby and frequently do so through their newspaper, the Blade; Selby was supported by the Clarion and works with Sylvia Martin, the local reporter, to get his story told against the Blade‘s propaganda efforts. Selby is somewhat linked to Martin romantically, but also there’s a doomed love story when, in the second volume, Selby convicts a young hell raiser in the Stapleton family and ruins them socially. Beautiful Inez, the criminal’s sister, goes off and becomes a lawyer herself in order to make Selby respect her, and this highly-charged love triangle has echoes throughout all the volumes.

25236894Another fascinating character in the series is Alphonse Baker Carr, sleazy criminal lawyer. “A.B.C.” is Selby’s arch-enemy and rather like the anti-Perry Mason, and there’s a long storyline with A.B.C. that echoes through the final seven books of the nine. Essentially the Blade is out to get Selby and force him to resign, so that the corrupt politicians can take power again. They dog his footsteps and expose what they perceive to be his weaknesses; meanwhile, A.B.C., on the side of his criminal clients, throws up obstacles on the other side of his cases.

d-a-goes-to-trial-pb-407-erle-stanley-gardner-6th-prt-1949-646197f534cefca83504e68a746713ccIn the meantime, Selby and Rex Brandon, straightforward and good-natured sheriff, fight their way through unusual cases and apply old-fashioned police methods to new-fangled cases. Selby is a great character, perhaps one of ESG’s greatest successes. He’s fallible but excellent; as a mystery writer of my acquaintance once observed, the kind of person whom I’d like to have investigate my own murder. He seems very moral and upright but also very human, and finds the constant onslaught of abuse from the Blade hard to take. But his observational skills as a detective are excellent; he rather combines the functions of Paul Drake, who digs up the clues, and Perry Mason, who interprets them and forces the legal system to accept his view of them. I looked at volume #8, 1948’s The D.A. Takes A Chance, here — I recommend you read all nine in order, because the story builds to an elegant and dramatic conclusion in volume #9.

v1.bTsxMTU5NjUxNDtqOzE3NzI5OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQThere was a single made-for-TV movie in 1970, They Call It Murder, based on book #3, The D.A. Draws a Circle. It starred Jim Hutton as Doug Selby; Hutton later went on to play Ellery Queen in the eponymous TV series. They Call It Murder is … okay, but uninspired. But the books are great work.

Dee Jen-djieh

Judge Di (c. 630 - c. 700) of the T'ang court

Judge Di (c. 630 – c. 700) of the T’ang court

First of all — let’s get the spelling right. Robert van Gulik wrote before the introduction of a standardized orthography for representing Chinese in English, and his Dee (family name) Jen-djieh (personal name) would today be spelled as Ti Jen-chieh by users of the Wade-Giles script and Dí Rénjié in the most widely used system of today, Pinyin. This is important because, as some of my readers will be surprised to learn, the eminent Judge Di was a real historical person. So if you go looking for information about “Judge Dee” you’ll only be referred back to van Gulik; “Di Renjie” will get you a lot more information. (You might also look for Ti Jen-chieh and Di Renjiay.) I will call van Gulik’s character Dee and the historical personage Di.

810CKYghySLThe historical Di practiced as a district magistrate from 663 to 678, first under the direct rulership of members of the Tang Dynasty and later under the “monstrous” concubine, Lady Wu, who ruled “de facto or de jure” from 665 to 705. Lin Yutang remarked (in his biography of Lady Wu):

“Among the people he [Di] is more popularly known as the judge who invariably tracked down the criminal. As a judge who often went about in plain clothes to detect crime, he made the astounding record of always solving crime mysteries which had puzzled and frustrated other judges and magistrates.”

5418And so the Dutch historian van Gulik found references to Judge Di and translated a volume known loosely as Dee Goong An. This was published in English in 1949 as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and was the beginning of van Gulik’s many novels and short stories about Judge Dee, which he wrote from 1951 until 1968. van Gulik also translated and published a 13th century casebook for district magistrates, called T’ang-yin-pi-shih (Parallel Cases From Under The Pear Tree), from which he harvested many of the key elements of his Judge Dee plots.

x500So other than being a historical personage known for his detective skills, why is Judge Dee a great detective? There are a number of reasons why I enjoy his adventures very much. One is simply strangeness. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I enjoy finding out the minutiae of everyday life in 1930s England from reading Golden Age Detection novels; in the Judge Dee stories, everyday life in the second half of the 7th century in China is astonishingly different than my everyday life, and it’s fascinating to see the differences and the similarities.

ec7c898106057d3daf6082444ef5b372--deeOne thing that van Gulik found difficult was the transition between the Chinese literary tradition and the Golden Age model. In the Chinese originals, for instance, the identity, history, and motive of the criminal is stated right up front — making them all inverted detective stories instead of whodunits. The Chinese originals frequently feature supernatural elements; ghosts, visits to the Netherworld, etc., and bizarre elements like the testimony of animals and household objects. The original stories were part of a literary tradition that embraced … well, call it a “passionate interest for detail”…  and so there are many digressions, including poetry, Confucianist instruction, philosophy and religious discussions, etc. The Chinese loved novels with huge casts of related characters, and complex familial relationships; as well, they were accustomed to reading about exactly how the criminal was executed in great and gruesome detail.

x500So van Gulik had a great deal of work to do in order to re-cast his stories into a modality that would be acceptable to the Western audience. The testimony of animals and kitchen utensils is gone, as are most of the elements that we would see as digressions from the story line. Yes, there are supernatural elements in van Gulik — just as there are supernatural elements in John Dickson Carr. Judge Dee appears to believe in ghosts, but doesn’t rely on their testimony or allow them to do anything much more than guide him to places where actual evidence is found. Much of what Judge Dee does in his stories is detective work of a kind that would not be too bizarre to a modern audience. For instance, in The Chinese Bell Murders, he deduces that a student could not have strangled his mistress because his long fingernails “of the sort affected by the literary class” would have left marks on her throat that were not seen upon examination.

van Gulik artwork

A courtroom scene, illustrated by van Gulik himself. Note the flail and rod in the hands of the attendants; not just for show.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Judge Dee stories are the courtroom scenes; 7th century China had a legal system that was far, far different than our own. Judge Dee had very nearly absolute authority within his courtroom and acts as judge, jury, defence lawyer, prosecution lawyer, and weigher of evidence all at the same time. Dee was entitled to use torture in the courtroom to elicit confessions (such as in The Chinese Nail Murders) and is sometimes required to (Chinese court procedure forbade conviction without confession) but generally, in the best Perry Mason tradition, Dee relies on careful questioning and close observation of behaviour. He’s frequently solved the case himself before it comes to court, and he runs his courtroom in order to demonstrate to the populace the guilt of the villains.
And where Perry Mason has his private eye Paul Drake, Judge Dee has a small group of investigators around him who serve as his eyes and ears in levels of society where he cannot penetrate, even while disguised. Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai, and Tao Gan are all individuals with human qualities and failings, who have sexual and familial relationships, enjoy good food, and are constantly seeking adventure and excitement. Dee himself frequently disguises himself as a member of a lower class of society and goes out to investigate his cases; he’s occasionally required to demonstrate his mastery of sword-fighting and boxing.

9780226848754_p0_v1_s550x406As a person, Dee has many personal qualities that will be attractive to the modern audience. As a strict Confucian, he respects his ancestors; Dee regulates his household sternly but with both mercy and generosity. Dee has three wives, about whom we don’t learn much, although he acquires Third Wife in the course of one of the novels. We only know that he has three sons and a daughter from a casual mention in a short story. Dee’s relationships with his subordinates are correct but friendly; Dee is interested in the people around him and their lives, and interacts socially with many levels of society. And he’s what we might think of as a “good” judge; he cares strongly about finding the right answer and punishing the guilty. It’s frequently hard to figure out what’s going on in his mind, but it would be a pleasure and a privilege to sit down with him and discuss his cases.

I recommend that you experience van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories not in the order in which they were written, but such that you follow the chronology of Dee’s life as he moves upwards through the judicial ranks. You will find this chronology in Judge Dee at Work (1967) as a postscript.

image-w1280

Khigh Dheigh (left) as Judge Dee in the 1978 made-for-TV movie.

edbda5af07a0dfe4286274317c356ae7Other authors have written stories about Judge Di; Frédéric Lenormand has written at least 18 French-language stories that have yet to be translated into English, and other novelists both Chinese and non-Chinese have speculated about the character. There are (terrible) television series, and films — notably a weird 1974 made-for-TV movie called Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a sought-after collectible, but also three excellent recent Chinese-language productions produced and directed by Tsui Hark (2010, 2013 and 2018).

61HCF1BKN5L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_There are also other books about van Gulik, who was a fascinating polymath with many interests — his expertise in Chinese erotic drawings means that all the Judge Dee volumes have his drawings as part of the publication, and there’s always a nude woman depicted. I’m greatly indebted for a lot of this brief piece to a large and excellent volume by J. K. Van DoverThe Judge Dee Novels of R.H. van Gulik, where he traces the connection to
51R7JAQizoL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_various modern-day detectives in a fascinating and erudite way. It truly is everything you need to know and quite a bit more to think about, and I recommend it to your attention if you can find a copy. Any unreferenced quotes in this piece are to this book, and I’m grateful to Van Dover for organizing my thoughts quickly and easily. I’ve read other material about van Gulik, including what that brilliant Dutch mystery writer Janwillem van de Wetering had to say (Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work (1987); van de Wetering also published a volume in 1997 called Judge Dee Plays His Lute, which I have yet to read)Van Dover has everything you’ll ever want, both top-level fact and deep background, and says it all best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Poison in the Pen, by Patricia Wentworth (1954)

Poison in the Pen,  by Patricia Wentworth (1954)

Patricia_Wentworth_Poison_In_The_PenAuthor: Patricia Wentworth published 32 volumes in the Miss Silver series between 1928 and 1961; she also wrote dozens of non-series novels. The Miss Silver novels are all classic mysteries; Wentworth’s other novels are sometimes mysteries, sometimes gentle thrillers, or “woman in jeopardy” novels. Her first novel was published in 1910 and was set against the background of the French Revolution. Most of her books feature a romantic subplot and a beautiful young woman who is in some way menaced.

9780340217924Publication Data: As noted below, to the best of my knowledge, the first edition of this novel is from the United States, Lippincott in 1955; the first UK edition appears to be Hodder and Stoughton, 1957. There may well be an edition I’ve overlooked; there are many, many paperback editions from both the United States and the UK.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read does not discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery but it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Poison in the Pen begins the same way as many of the other volumes in this long series; handsome young Detective-Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard comes to visit his old friend Miss Silver in her lovingly-detailed drawing room. Frank has dozens of cousins and the plight of one of them is something that he wants to bring to Miss Silver’s attention and perhaps get some advice or assistance. Joyce Rodney has a delicate child and a husband who died while working in the Middle East; she was grateful when her late husband’s elderly cousin, Miss Renie Wayne, offered her a home in the village of Tilling Green. The trouble is that Joyce has been getting vicious anonymous letters — and she’s not the only one in the village receiving them.

715673309The local Manor is under the charge of Colonel Roger Repton, who is impoverished, and who is the guardian of young Miss Valentine Grey, who is wealthy. Valentine is about to marry Gilbert Earle, of the Foreign Office, who will be able to use her money since he has five unmarried sisters who need dowries when he inherits the title of Lord Brangston. Roger’s highly decorative but completely bitchy young wife Scilla also lives at the Manor, as does Roger’s unmarried sister Miss Maggie. The poison pen letters accuse Joyce of trying to attract the attentions of Gilbert Earle.

A few days later, Miss Silver reads in The Times that a young woman who ekes out a living as a dressmaker, Doris Pell, has been found drowned on the grounds of the Manor in a stretch of “ornamental water”; she too has been receiving vicious anonymous letters and is felt to have committed suicide. The Yard has been called in, and Miss Silver is brought in by them as a kind of spy. She travels to Tilling Green “on vacation” and takes a place as a “paying guest” in Miss Renie’s “Willow Cottage”;  Miss Renie obligingly clacks her tongue until Miss Silver has a complete picture of the affairs of the village, including eccentric Mr. Barton, who has a badly scarred face, does his own housework and has seven cats. Although Valentine Grey’s wedding is imminent, Miss Renie dwells upon her first love, the adventuresome writer Jason Leigh.

Meanwhile, village gossip is making the rounds that the village kindergarten teacher, Connie Brooke, knows who wrote the poison pen letters that drove poor Doris Pell to drown herself. Connie is deputized to take the place of a sickly bridesmaid at the wedding rehearsal — because the dress will fit her! — and later at a small party at the Manor is seen to have been crying. When she talks about her sleeplessness, Miss Maggie offers her some sleeping pills left over from an illness a few years ago.

As is inevitable in a Miss Silver novel, Valentine’s true love Jason Leigh picks this moment to return to her life and the rest of the novel will concern her difficulties in breaking off her imminent wedding with Gilbert Earle and admitting that she has always loved Jason; Valentine tells Jason, in a secret late-night meeting, that the wedding will be called off. What will help is that, immediately after her own secret meeting, she overhears Gilbert having a secret meeting with Scilla Repton, who is the true object of his affections; unfortunately, Gilbert must marry for money and Valentine is his best hope, he tells Scilla.

Upon her wedding morning, Valentine receives a poison-pen letter suggesting that Gilbert had also been carrying on with the late Doris Pell (and Scilla Repton) and also had already married in Canada years ago. But the entire village is completely in an uproar immediately upon the discovery of Connie Brooke’s dead body. Valentine tells Gilbert she can’t marry him. Miss Silver, of course, realizes that if Connie Brooke did actually know who the poison-pen writer is, her death may not have been an accidental overdose of sleeping pills but … murder.

Miss Silver brings Scotland Yard up to date, and keeps digging into the tangled affairs of the village as only she can; Miss Renie’s constant chatter contains many nuggets of information, and it is clear that, in this particular village at least, everyone’s comings and goings and opinions and past actions are the constant subject of discussion for most of the villagers. Meanwhile, Scilla Repton learns that Gilbert is now free, and quarrels with her husband as a result of her having been indiscreet about telephoning him. Colonel Repton tells her he has had anonymous letters about Scilla and Gilbert that arouse his suspicion — he tells her to get out and intimates that he too knows who wrote the letters. This information is immediately flashed around the village due to a helpful and gossipy maid, Florrie.

The next day, Sunday, there is the weekly Work Party (the village women make clothes for the less fortunate); Scilla encounters a woman who has been well-known to be unrequitedly in love with Roger Repton, Miss Mettie Eccles. Mettie takes Roger in a cup of tea to his study, where he is avoiding the gaggle of needlewomen, while Miss Silver comforts Roger’s sister Maggie. But when Mettie returns to see if Roger wants another cup of tea, he is found to have been poisoned by cyanide. Mettie immediately and loudly accuses Scilla Repton of the murder and spills the beans to all and sundry about their estrangement.

Miss Maggie collapses with the shock and Miss Silver helpfully moves in to take care of her and the household, enabling her to be present at all the interviews with Scotland Yard. The eccentric Mr. Barton proves to have been one of the last people to see the late Colonel Repton, and proves to be a woman-hater who testifies that the Colonel was not considering suicide, as Scilla has vaguely suggested.

Miss Silver discusses the case further with Scotland Yard and builds a tentative case against a number of people, merely pointing out the possibilities. But it is not until she goes to interview the first victim’s aunt, Miss Pell, that she learns a crucial fact about Doris Pell’s last afternoon of work that may explain everything that has happened. She discusses the case with a few more people and finally ends up confronting the murderer directly in a house with a strong smell of gas. Everything comes to a head in a dramatic climax and Miss Silver takes the final chapter to explain the entire complex plot to Detective-Inspector Abbott.

1094842873Why is this book worth your time?

One of the principal virtues of the long Miss Silver series is that each book contains a set of constancies which anchor the reader. In the beginning of each book, we always see Miss Silver’s drawing room and go through a litany of the specific Victorian pictures and pieces of furniture which exemplify her comfort and success. In each book, Miss Silver’s wardrobe, very nearly unchanging over the decades, is mentioned; the black velvet coatee that she reserves for wear in draughty country houses, the details of her dresses and hats and heirloom jewelry. We know the names and habits of her nieces (in this volume, the foolish Gladys Burkett is thinking of leaving her husband Andrew Robinson), the excellence of her maid Hannah at making scones, her constant cough when she wishes to reprove someone, and the ever-present knitting (with needles held in the Continental style low in her lap) — we always know what she is knitting, in what colour of wool, and for whom.

And every Miss Silver novel is, in its own way, very similar to all the others. There is always a beautiful young woman who is unhappy. (She frequently has caramel-coloured eyelashes.) The young woman’s romantic life is in some way snarled or frustrated. There is always a plot which even the simplest reader can discern is moving towards disaster; either someone is having an unfortunate romantic affair, or someone is about to marry the wrong person, or, in the classic pattern of Golden Age mysteries, a wealthy person at the centre of the action is quarrelling with relatives, changing testamentary dispositions, and/or uncovering crimes against a large estate. Miss Silver is called in — either by Scotland Yard or some interested party — and somehow embeds herself in the social fabric of the people involved in the case. And then she talks with people. She talks with lords and ladies, maidservants and mechanics, and most often other elderly women, who are seen to be in command of all the essential facts. Miss Silver, in fact, is a wonderfully skilful listener, and she encourages people to go into incredible detail about things which seem unimportant but which later turn out to be essential. In this volume, for instance, the reader who has been paying very close attention is aware of the colours of the bedroom carpets of four people — one of whom is the murderer. And the colours of those carpets are of crucial importance upon a very minor but vital point.

poison-in-the-penIn fact, it is clear that these novels are written for women; no doubt about it. They contain endless details of what women are wearing; Scilla’s clothes, immediately after the death of her husband, are a case in point.

“Scilla Repton … was still wearing the tartan skirt and emerald jumper, but she had taken time to put on fresh make-up, and her hair shone under the ceiling light. It had been in her mind to put on a black dress and play the disconsolate widow, but something in her rebelled. And what was the good of it anyway when there wasn’t anyone in the house that didn’t know that she and Roger were all washed up? … as she sat, her legs crossed, the mesh of the stockings so fine that it hardly seemed to be there at all, the red shoes a little too ornate, a good deal too high in the heel.”

Scilla, you see, is city and not “county”, and thus is not living up to the traditions of the Manor House; her clothes reveal that she is indeed the tramp who’s having an extra-marital affair. But Miss Silver understands clothes very well:

“If Miss Silver’s own garments were quite incredibly out of date, it was because she liked them that way and had discovered that an old-fashioned and governessy appearance was a decided asset in the profession which she had adopted. To be considered negligible may be the means of acquiring the kind of information which only becomes available when people are off their guard. She was fully aware that she was being treated as negligible now. She thought that Scilla Repton was putting on an act, and she wondered why she had chosen just this pose of callous indifference. She would not have expected good taste, but what was behind these bright colours, this careful indifference?”

Poison-in-the-Pen-279982Indeed, Miss Silver spends her life being considered negligible by nearly everyone, which enables her to listen to all the gossip unnoticed from the corner of the room. And this, I suggest, is meant to appeal to women readers. I’ll even advance that women readers who are habitually overlooked in their everyday lives are meant to see themselves in these novels, being able to solve mysteries that baffle the police by dint of knowing what colour their next-door neighbour’s bedroom carpet is. Miss Silver is seen as powerless, elderly, useless and gossipy, but she commands the respect of high-ranking police officers and is not above physically confronting the occasional murderer. Indeed, she focuses the abilities that most of the world sees as useless — gossip, knowledge of masses of tiny details about the lives of others, memory of everyone’s past — and turns them into assets in plots which are designed to show these talents as crucial.

I must confess that I’ve always found the Miss Silver novels charming and relaxing. Although there is little plotting that is so complex in the books that it will trouble the experienced mystery-solver to figure out, occasionally Wentworth manages to slip a suspect under the radar; this is one of those novels, I think. It was so long ago when I first read it that I can’t remember if I was surprised or not, I think it’s entirely possible that even experienced solvers will miss the key clues, as they are buried in a morass of detail about the everyday lives of the villagers.

I think one of the reasons that I enjoy the novels so much is that Wentworth has a huge skill at depicting character through detail; we see people using certain language when they speak, or wearing certain clothes, or even performing certain everyday activities, and we know what we are meant to know about them. There are few cardboard characters in these books; even minor walk-ons are given distinguishing factors that make them believable.  (In this book, look for the character of Miss Pell, aunt to the first victim; she’s only seen for a few pages, but it’s her religious convictions that explain why she’s withheld information, and this is delightfully and subtly portrayed.) Specifically, Wentworth shows us character by way of pinpointing social class. The reader can tell with absolute certainty where individual characters fit into the social matrix of English village life; this is shown by what they wear, and say, and do.

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, this focus upon social class is part of Wentworth’s charm, because I believe she does it with the assured skill of an expert in small details (the precise height of Scilla Repton’s heels shows that she’s not really “to the Manor born”). And I believe that the reason Wentworth had such a long career, and has remained constantly in print for a century, is that she uses this skill at writing about small details that reveal class in order to write books that reassure people about their own place in the social system. It is easy to see where Wentworth’s readers are meant to fall — they are above the humblest villagers, the dressmakers and shopkeepers and housekeepers, and very nearly the equal of the lords and ladies of the manor, if it were not for the accidents of birth and inherited money. The humblest villagers are shown warts and all, and the reader can easily feel superior to their low-class modes of expression and focus upon the quotidian and the mundane. The middle classes, artisans and professionals, are displayed sympathetically, for the most part. Sometimes they are bravely facing financial adversity, sometimes they are truckling to their wealthy relatives, or sacrificing their romantic and personal lives for the sake of children or invalids. Even Scilla Repton here is not innately evil; she is a woman out of her natural milieu and thus eventually a figure of pity rather than scorn.

m8NYCTqd45kN9gypsf5dezwAnd the upper classes are no better than they should be, which I believe is meant to be comforting to the middle class. Certainly in Wentworth novels the possession of large sums of money is only rarely a source of happiness; most often it makes you the object of murderous intentions from your poorer relatives and household hangers-on. Over and over again in Wentworth, wealthy middle-aged men try to control the lives of their younger relatives and get murdered for their trouble; either that or they threaten to expose illegal or immoral behaviour and pay the terrible price. The titled gentry are really just like us, we are told, only they live in larger houses and have larger problems. In this book, for instance, Lady Mallett is a very minor character but one who speaks to Miss Silver immediately as an equal:

“If she didn’t mind what she said, it was astonishing how often other people didn’t mind it either. Her large dark eyes held an unfailing interest in her neighbours’ affairs. She dispensed kindness, interference, and unwanted advice in a prodigal manner. Her massive form, clad in the roughest of tweeds, was to be seen at every local gathering. Her husband’s long purse was at the disposal of every good work. Tonight she was handsomely upholstered in crimson brocade, with an extensive and rather dirty diamond and ruby necklace reposing on a bosom well calculated to sustain it. Large solitaire diamond earrings dazzled on either side of her ruddy cheeks. Her white hair rose above them in an imposing pile. Her small and quite undistinguished-looking husband had made an enormous fortune out of a chain of grocery stores.”

In fact, she is no different than a number of her neighbours, the difference being mainly her “husband’s long purse” and her title. Note the delightful tiny touch that her diamond and ruby necklace is “rather dirty”; you see, even the upper classes aren’t as clean as we might think.

There is a strong focus in the series upon Miss Silver’s Victorian upbringing and morals; she is a constant benchmark of high moral standards and the utmost in propriety. (In this volume, for instance, there is a sympathetic young woman who asks Miss Silver in a friendly way to call her by her first name; Miss Silver refuses, because it is inappropriate in the social context.) By having this benchmark constantly in place, the behaviour of others has something against which it can be measured. Although it’s rarely explicit, Miss Silver is constantly assessing people to see if they are acting according to the best standards of behaviour appropriate to their social class. Are titled women helping and guiding the community? Are poor women clean and honest? Are middle-class women dressed appropriately for their situation, and faithful to their husbands? And it is never enough that Miss Silver identifies murderers and other criminals and restores order, with the help of Scotland Yard. In Miss Silver novels, virtue is rewarded and transgression is punished. People who are morally unsound are punished or reproved by the end of the book, regardless of whether they are criminals or not; sometimes they see the error of their ways, and sometimes they leave the happy village and find a milieu more appropriate to their moral level.

n57850And that is why I enjoy Miss Silver novels, regardless of the difficulty of the mystery plots or the occasional less-than-inspired choices of plot twists. (Indeed, Miss Silver novels are frequently based around a wealthy person who quarrels with his entire family, identifies a criminal within his household, frustrates a young woman’s marriage for love, and rewrites his will all within hours — the evening of his death, everyone troops in and out of his final resting place at five-minute intervals and lies like troopers about when and why.) Miss Silver is like comfort food, in a moral and social sense. Everyone knows their place and returns to it, once order has been restored. Characters do not break the boundaries of their pigeonholes; love almost always triumphs over adversity. Miss Silver is the restorer of equilibrium in a fluffy pink bathrobe and a hairnet.

The very earliest Miss Silver novels are quite antique, but Patricia Wentworth wrote roughly the same novel over and over between 1937 and 1961. If you read them all, you will either be charmed or repelled by the constant repetition of certain elements — by your 25th or 30th such novel you will be able to chant the names of the pictures upon the walls of Miss Silver’s drawing room along with the narrator, and await with interest the appearance of Miss Silver’s bog-oak pearl brooch and her black velvet coatee. I’m one of the ones who is charmed, like a young child who insists that his favourite fairy tale be read verbatim and unvarying every evening. If you are not charmed by what I’ve suggested, simply turn away; expressing your disapproval would lead to a hortatory cough from Miss Silver and you would feel compelled to apologize and mend your ways.

Notes for the Collector:

To the best of my knowledge, the first edition of this novel is from the United States, Lippincott in 1955; the first UK edition appears to be Hodder and Stoughton, 1957. I find this a little odd because the author was British, but — these things happen. Both the US and UK first editions are, to my eye, relatively undistinguished; of course a first edition is always worth having, and as of today a Fine copy in a chipped jacket is selling from an American bookseller for $50. I’m a little surprised at how inexpensive this is, comparatively speaking.

6774816682If I were collecting a full set of Wentworth, and couldn’t afford first editions, I would be looking at paperbacks; either unusual editions or interesting ones. Unfortunately this particular title appears to have fallen through the cracks of my favourite possibility; in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Pyramid in the US put out a paperback edition of some Miss Silver novels that made them look like Gothic romances, complete with the girl in the billowing white garments running away from the spooky old castle (which, of course, has nothing to do with the contents of the book). This book doesn’t seem to be one of that series, sadly. One of my favourite uniform editions of Wentworth was from Coronet in the late 70s/early 80s; the covers featured a photograph of a dead body, reproduced from the action of the novel with some degree of fidelity. This one is of the corpse of Connie Brooke, I believe (the cover is nearby).

There is a 2013/14 uniform edition from Hodder & Stoughton in the UK* which I think is very attractive; the publishers have gone to some trouble to counterfeit “period” illustrations and, if they manage to produce all of the Miss Silver novels in this format, I think I’d definitely be collecting it. They are relatively inexpensive at the moment since they are in print, and although I doubt they are available in the United States because Bantam seems to have the American rights, I doubt they’d be too expensive to bring in from Canada, where I see them cheaply in used bookstores. I’ve added an illustration here of this volume’s bright blue cover showing a young woman recoiling in shock from the contents of a letter.

*My first publication of this post today contained an error which was immediately caught by my alert friend John of the excellent blog Pretty Sinister; see the comments below. I’ve made an emendation. I won’t trouble to correct my opinions, even the frequent silly ones, but I do like to be as accurate as possible about facts. 

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1954 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “G”, “Read one book that features a crime other than murder.” The primary focus of the book is the sending of poison-pen letters and a death which is thought to be an associated suicide. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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