The Birlstone and other gambits

GroombridgePlace01

Groombridge Place, the real-life counterpart of what Doyle called “Birlstone”.

The other night I was re-reading an old mystery from the 1930s and muttered to myself, “Oh, pfui, this is the Birlstone gambit.” A family member in the room, who is probably accustomed to me talking to myself, said, “Huh?  What’s the Birlstone gambit?” And so a conversation was born, and hence this post.

I’m afraid before I start I must go much, much further than my usual spoiler warning. Ordinarily I warn people about my discussion of a specific book because they may spoil their enjoyment of the book if they haven’t read it yet.  Here, I’m going to be discussing the patterns of plots of Golden Age mysteries — various structures that underlie certain mysteries that are not related to each other but which repeat as what I’ll call “gambits”. Gambits are related to “types” of mysteries, like “locked room” or “Had I But Known”, but they relate more to the way in which the plots are constructed.  You’ll understand more as you get into it.  The point is, if you keep reading, you’re going to be better able to recognize certain repeating structures of murder mysteries regardless of who wrote them or when they were written.

I will be revealing the solution of certain well-known mysteries that either originated these gambits or are famous for having used them. If you are well-read in detective fiction, you will already be familiar with the solution to, say, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But if not, your enjoyment will be spoiled irreparably.  Really I only mean this post for the enjoyment of very well read mystery fans; be aware, and please be prepared to pass on to other reading if there’s a possibility I’ll spoil your enjoyment.

Here, alphabetically by author (so that there will be no chance of you making an accurate guess based on proximity) are the novels that will specifically be spoiled for you by reading the following article.  

  • Blake, Nicholas: The Beast Must Die (1938)
  • Brand, Christianna: Tour de Force (1955)
  • Carr, John Dickson: The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)
  • Christie, Agatha: After the Funeral (1953)
  • Christie, Agatha: Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Christie, Agatha: Hallowe’en Party (1969)
  • Christie, Agatha: Peril at End House (1932)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Hollow (1946)
  • Christie, Agatha: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Plague Court Murders (1934)
  • Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Red Widow Murders (1935)
  • Doyle, Arthur Conan: The Valley of Fear (1915)
  • Flynn, Gillian: Gone Girl (2012)
  • Hawkins, Paula: The Girl on the Train (2015)
  • Lorac, E.C.R.: Still Waters (1949)
  • Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) et seq.
  • Van Dine, S. S.: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Catherine Wheel (1949)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Chinese Shawl (1943)
  • Wentworth, Patricia: The Silent Pool (1954) 

The nomenclature I’ve used to label these gambits is not necessarily the earliest such example, or the best, or the best-written. Frankly, it’s just how I have personally come to think of them over the years; a kind of mental shorthand, if you will. You will not find many of these gambits so labeled anywhere else. If it makes you happier to think of these ideas as tropes or even cliches, feel free. Does it seem like half of them were invented by Agatha Christie? Well, that’s why she was a great mystery novelist.

The Birlstone Gambit

doyleart32893289In this gambit, A is found dead and B is a suspect. A has died in such a way as to render the body unrecognizable; B frequently provides corroborating evidence as to the identity of the corpse.  The corpse, however, is actually that of B, and A has taken his place at the time of death. The gambit probably originated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear (1915), or at least he made it his own; this has henceforth been known as the Birlstone Gambit, after Birlstone Manor House, the scene of the action in that novel. I like the way it was handled by Christianna Brand in Tour de Force (1955).

Recognizing this gambit: B sometimes displays an odd lack of knowledge of the details of B’s life, or alternatively knows too much about the details of A’s life. It’s usually cast such that B is better placed (wealthier, happier) than A, and there’s a strong motivation for A to disappear.

The Lion’s Mouth Gambit

Peril_at_End_House_First_Edition_Cover_1932A decides to murder B; A creates a situation where it looks as though someone is trying to kill A. After a few faked attempts on A, B is murdered by A, apparently by someone trying to kill A. Sometimes A continues to fake attempts on his own life to convince detectives that B was killed in error for A; sometimes A puts his hand in the lion’s mouth and makes a great show of hiring a detective to identify the killer of B. To my mind this was best handled in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House in 1932.

Recognizing this gambit: A usually benefits a great deal by the death of B, to A’s mock surprise.

The Distinctive Garment Gambit

0950711f7e25a0734232811e47bb0e8dThis is rather similar to the Lion’s Mouth Gambit. There are two similar patterns to this one. In one, A decides to kill B. There’s a distinctive garment that is associated with A, and B is found dead wearing that garment. A has killed B, and it’s assumed that B was killed by someone who thought they were killing A. In the main variant, the actual murderer is C; A provides the garment to B unbeknownst to C, and C actually does make a mistake and kills B, having mistaken B for A.

In Christie’s Peril At End House in 1932, the garment is a shawl; it’s also a shawl in Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl (1943) and in her The Silent Pool (1954) it’s a coat with a pattern of huge checks in vivid colour.

Recognizing this gambit: The minute you hear of a distinctive garment (for men, it can be a hat) you should be listening for people who want to wear it; they’re about to die.

The Most Likely is Least Likely is Most Likely Gambit 

Hollow-WhiteCircleThis gambit was a specialty of the great Anthony Berkeley. Essentially, A has a strong motive to kill B. When B’s corpse is found, A is in such a position that the blood is literally dripping from his hands. The experienced reader knows that the most likely suspect is always the least likely suspect, and that there is some X out there who has set this up.  The VERY experienced reader knows that when someone is the least likely suspect, they are the most likely suspect; A looks as guilty as possible because they’re actually guilty.  My favourite of these is Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (1946) but she also worked a variant of this in 1937’s Death on the Nile. Berkeley’s variants are frequently arranged so that the most likely suspect is, after much investigation by Roger Sheringham, ultimately found to be the killer and hasn’t set anything up at all.

Recognizing this gambit: When A points out, midway through the murder investigation, that had he wanted to kill B, he could easily have done it in a much less obvious way and escape detection, you should pay close attention.

The Complicit Victim Gambit

the red widow murders, carter DicksonIn this gambit, A wishes to kill B. A creates a situation such that, unbeknownst to anyone except A and B, the two arrange a plot so that B will be able to, for instance, kill C with the assistance (alibi, etc.) of A. But halfway through the plot, A kills B (which was A’s plan all along) and, because B has helped to arrange the circumstances of his own death, A hopes to escape detection through impossibility. I like the way this was handled by John Dickson Carr (as by Carter Dickson) in The Red Widow Murders (1935) but there are many other examples.

The-kennel-murder-case-1933Sometimes the assistance of B in his own death is accidental. There’s a sub-gambit of this that I’ve given its own name: the Elizabeth of Austria Gambit. In 1898, that noble lady was stabbed by an anarchist with a thin blade, and managed to walk unassisted to her cabin on a boat, where she died. I use this to stand for the cases where A kills B and then, unbeknownst to A, B continues to move around and lock himself into rooms and the like, and muddies up the path to A’s having murdered him. Principal among these is S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933).

Recognizing this gambit: you have to recognize that the plot is quite simple if the deceased person has cooperated cheerfully in setting the scene of their own demise, and then figure out who might have convinced them to do that.

The Somebody Else’s Problem Gambit

a8f966f5701d90d5fb1f82a450a8c7dcBack in the 1980s, the late mystery novelist Greg Kramer and I used to earn small sums by writing and producing live murder mystery games over the course of a Saturday in Vancouver, culminating in a banquet in which All Was Revealed. (And may I add here that actor Curtis Armstrong, who played a supporting role in Moonlighting, is the finest real-life detective we ever encountered; a natural-born Sherlock.) There’s probably a novel or two based on the crazy stories Greg and I created for those games, but one gambit that we used over and over was a character to whom we referred as the SEP, or Somebody Else’s Problem.

00422813607212c7a4f38ab57ca34796Essentially we gave a single character a crucial fact and told the actor to conceal it by being annoying. A woman with a high squeaky voice who wanted to tell you the details of her recent encounter with aliens; an elderly man with a severe drinking problem and a failed marriage who wanted sympathy.  Most of the players weren’t prepared to put in the work to dig that crucial fact out of such an annoying person and tended to encourage their teammates to do so, with greater or lesser success. But you couldn’t solve the case without getting that little fact possessed only by the SEP.

In mysteries in the print medium, this is a more difficult element to maintain; it’s usually done by creating a character whom no one believes or whose evidence is “clearly” incorrect.  Agatha Christie did this best, I think, in 1953’s After the Funeral but also in 1969’s Hallowe’en Party.

Recognizing this gambit: when a character is either so grating that you don’t want to read about them, or you’ve become convinced that their evidence is unreliable, that’s the person who knows what actually happened, if you can only dig it out of them.

The Unreliable Narrator Gambit

9780008164997Just lately, this has become a big thing in the literary world with the huge success of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 debut novel, The Girl on the Train and 2014’s Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Essentially the protagonist represents a situation to be a certain way in the earlier part of the book and then, over the course of the action, reveals that she’s been “lying” to the audience and the truth is quite different. Successful films were made from both these books and seem to have spawned a spate of imitators.

Blake1In GAD, of course, this concept is represented by the magnificent novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and the equally clever The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake (1938).

Recognizing this gambit is very difficult. Essentially you have to mistrust what you are reading from the very beginning and always have the potential for an unreliable narrator in your mind. If the narrator says something that seems to gloss over an essential fact — “I did what little had to be done” — focus in on that.

The Scooby-Doo Gambit

Scooby-DemonShark-05-Unmasked

plaguecourtA situation is outlined that contains a supernatural or creepy element; something that tends to keep people away from a certain building, or area, or room. It might be the rumour of a ghost or other monster. Upon investigation, it turns out that the supernatural element has been deliberately falsified and bolstered so as to keep people away from a criminal activity.  “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been

still-watersfor you meddling kids!” In other words, every single episode of the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and its sequelae, but also many different novels by writers like John Dickson Carr (many times, but I like 1934’s The Plague Court Murders and 1947’s The Sleeping Sphinx). Carr had a stronger emphasis on the supernatural; other practitioners created less spooky and more outright threatening situations to cover crimes like smuggling, such as E.C.R. Lorac’s Still Waters (1949) and Patricia Wentworth’s The Catherine Wheel (also 1949).

Recognizing this gambit: Frankly, if it’s a ghost, the tradition of GAD is that it has to be revealed by the end of the story as not being of supernatural origin (except that one Carr story LOL).  So if you see a story element that involves people being warned away from the Spooky Old Woods — it’s a Scooby plot.

*****

635508844151936194-BasilRathbone-SherlockHolmesI know my friends and fellow GAD enthusiasts are champing at the bit to tell me their own gambits. Feel free, with appropriate spoiler warnings. I would suggest that a “gambit” per se is something that’s used in more than one book and by more than one author, but I’ll be interested to know your thoughts.  If I’ve gone wrong, feel free to say so.  And if you have a better title for one of my gambits, I’d love to hear it!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chinese Shawl, by Patricia Wentworth (1943)

8cab35653a74e396c5cbad7820a339b7.jpgI had a small stroke of luck a few weeks ago and found a handful of Patricia Wentworth titles in a charity shop that included a couple of my personal favourites; it seemed like an opportune time for some re-reading and reconsideration.

I’ve read The Chinese Shawl (1943) before, many times in fact since I first discovered the Miss Silver novels. Miss Silver for me has become a kind of “cup of warm cocoa”, a familiar world where all the young women are beautiful, all the young men are handsome and gallant, and Miss Silver solves everything while knitting and emitting the occasional hortatory cough. For those of you not familiar with Patricia Wentworth’s oeuvre, she wrote 32 novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a professional private detective, between 1928 and 1961. The novels usually have a romantic subplot where a nice young woman with long eyelashes finally hooks up with a wealthy young man and heads to the altar. I’ve written about Miss Silver before, and in quite some detail here in an analysis of Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949), so if you want my generalized look at all 32 novels that’s where to look.

51HoKXRCNKLMy most recent re-reading of The Chinese Shawl produced a somewhat different thought pattern than my usual pleasant nostalgia, though, and I wanted to share it with you. Essentially I realized that over the years in my mind I have developed a kind of idealized mystery novel template in the back of my mind; something against which I hold up Golden Age mysteries and see where they fail to live up to my hoped-for experience. But when it occurred to me that I had never really tried to determine what that idealized mystery novel looked like, I knew I had the beginnings of an article for you.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, I’ll be revealing every crucial element of the above-captioned book, including the identity of the murderer and all relevant plot details. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

2650783What is this novel about?

Beautiful young Laura Fane comes up to London from the country in January, 1943 because it is soon to be her 21st birthday. We learn about some complicated family issues dating back decades, but in essence Laura inherited a house from her father that is being lived in by her father’s wealthy former fiancée, the formidable Agnes Fane — who was also the father’s cousin at the time of their engagement. Laura’s father broke it off after falling head over heels in love with Laura’s mother. Agnes then went out riding on her high-spirited horse, fell, and has spent the intervening years in a wheelchair. There has been a split in the family ever since; the proud and self-possessed Agnes never spoke to Laura’s father again.

Before he died, the month Laura was born, her father gave a 21-year lease of the house to Agnes. Agnes has lavished money and attention upon the place and paid Laura a considerable amount under the lease; now she wants to own the house. Laura meets Agnes’s adopted daughter, the strikingly beautiful Tanis Lyle, and learns that Agnes wants Laura to come and visit, heal the family breach, and sell the house to Agnes. Tanis is a classic villainess; she entraps young men and toys with their affections, then breaks their hearts and casts them aside. Agnes is completely devoted to Tanis, despite a failed marriage and a young son who remains conveniently “away”, and wants to leave her the house.

95cea3d5e3f3fd2596a6b4c6f51444341587343Laura also meets one of the many young men in Tanis Lyle’s orbit, the handsome young airman Carey Desborough, who is recovering from a crash and may not be able to fly again. Carey was once engaged to Tanis but she broke it off. As frequently happens in Wentworth novels, Carey and Laura fall immediately in love and are clearly on their way to the altar, but Tanis decides that, no, she hadn’t broken off the engagement after all.

When Laura arrives at the house that she’s never seen, it’s with the twin problems of not wanting to sell the house to Agnes and trying to find a way of marrying Carey Desborough without being called out by Tanis as a man-stealer. So there’s some tension in the household when Laura comes to stay.

9780060810474-ukThe house has other inhabitants; the full-time dwellers are Agnes’s dull and dumpy cousin Lucy (chapter 4 starts off with a genealogical chart for anyone unable to follow the familial relationships), and Agnes’s long-time maid Perry and other staff, but there is a wing full of wartime evacuees and another house guest — Miss Silver, an old school-friend of Lucy and Agnes. Tanis has created a house party full of anxiety and jealousy among many of her suitors and their current romantic partners (when she re-announces her engagement to Carey, which is merely a ploy for this poisonous young woman to get her own way); when Tanis’s ex-husband shows up and makes a scene, the tension levels are raised even higher.

Laura has brought with her a family heirloom, an antique black and heavily embroidered Chinese shawl that she wears to dinner. She accidentally forgets to bring it upstairs with her one night; the next morning, Tanis is found dead in the hallway the next morning, shot in the back, and Laura’s Chinese shawl has vanished.

Wentworth_Chinese_ShawlAt this point the official investigation begins under Superintendent Randal March, who had once been a schoolboy under Miss Silver’s tutelage. I’ll go more deeply into the details below, but essentially a number of suspects present themselves to the attention of the police. Some are excellent suspects, like the crazy ex-husband; some are merely obvious, like a few couples whom Tanis was splitting up by “taking” the male, apparently merely for practice. And then a number of primary characters are more or less equally under suspicion, with no known motive.

Since Miss Silver has been present in the house the whole time, she’s in an ideal position to investigate, and does so at the request of Agnes. Miss Silver sorts out the impossible suspects and focuses upon the likely ones, sorting out a few misguided young people along the way in her inimitable fashion. Although warned by Miss Silver in advance, a slatternly servant who attempts to blackmail the murderer is herself murdered; very soon thereafter Miss Silver listens to the murderer confess and steps in to save the next proposed victim from the same fate.  And then everyone whom the reader wants to get married, or stay married, accomplishes that in a coda.

ce32ed3581ecad5f86276ef24794ed15Why is this novel worth your time?

It’s definitely worth your time if you like the particular admixture of detective fiction with light romance that was Patricia Wentworth’s specialty. As I said above, for me it’s the literary equivalent of a cup of cocoa; Wentworth has the knack of being able to convince us to suspend our disbelief and just accept that two nice young people fall in love with each other against the background of a puzzling murder mystery.

The mystery itself is not enormously difficult, probably because there are only a few possibilities. If the reader accepts that Tanis picked up the shawl in the dead of night to keep herself warm, and then was shot, it would be because she had been mistaken for Laura. And there are only really three people who have any reason to kill Laura for the sake of what must have been a family-based grudge, as Miss Silver outlines in the second-last chapter.

And this is where my idealized murder mystery began to take shape. I was considering writing about this novel and thinking, “Now, my favourite kind of mystery is one where there is one suspect for the consideration of the police, and another for the dullest of readers, and another for the quite perceptive reader, and finally the actual murderer, whom only the most acute reader will identify. And that’s what’s happened here.”

The ex-husband is soon eliminated conclusively as a suspect, even to the imagination of a John Dickson Carr; he’s strapped to his hospital bed under full-time 24/7 nursing care. So there are two Tanis-besotted young men and their aggrieved young wives who hate Tanis, for the dullest of readers. Miss Silver sorts the second couple out around Chapter 35. In Chapter 36 we learn something that Miss Silver has always known but has not yet told the police OR the reader, which is a little unfair — Agnes Fane is not confined to her wheelchair, but merely prefers that the severe limp bestowed by her riding accident not be seen. But she walks around the house in the middle of the night.  And this, of course, immediately places her at the head of the perceptive reader’s suspect list. (In Golden Age mysteries, anyone in a wheelchair is immediately suspect of being able to get around without one, am I right?)

9780515030525-usSo in chapter 39 the blackmailing maid is killed by a shadowy figure, and immediately after in chapter 40 Laura hears and surprises Agnes Fane in the act of walking around the house. In chapter 41, dull cousin Lucy comes to rouse Laura yet again, because Agnes has had some sort of health crisis and Lucy needs help getting her a doctor without letting anyone know (because these sorts of things should be kept in the family). Lucy babbles on to Laura about the night Tanis was murdered, and the reader is increasingly convinced that Lucy is not quite saying outright that Agnes shot Tanis in mistake for Laura. And since this fits the plot so far, we don’t quite know what’s coming next but we expect that Agnes will have to pay for her crimes.

And Miss Silver has roused Carey Desborough to back her up physically, because only she knows that the murderer is really cousin Lucy, who is nuttier than a fruitcake. (Lucy wants to kill Laura and blame everything on her so that she and Agnes will live happily ever after with Tanis’s offstage young son.) So this penultimate chapter surprises the reader yet again. Lucy is the killer whom only a few will legitimately suspect.

Miss Silver provides a tiny clue which lets you know that, yes, you could have figured it out if you had been superhumanly observant. She boils it down to three suspects (Agnes, her maid Perry, and Lucy) who may conceivably have a grudge against Laura, and notes that Lucy is the only one who is short-sighted. “Laura had been wearing a black lace dress. Tanis had changed into black pyjamas and a heavy black silk coat. Only a very short-sighted person to whom all black materials look alike at a little distance could have mistaken that heavy silk for so different a material as lace.” And so that becomes the if-and-only-if condition that identified the short-sighted Lucy as the murderer, which Randal March calls “acute — and how feminine!”

517QMEd1LmLIt’s actually a cheat, since at no previous time has Wentworth remarked that Lucy is short-sighted. She has noted, though, that Lucy reads a lot of thrillers and tries to act like she doesn’t, so perhaps that is hint enough.

However, it did seem as though Wentworth was working towards layering the book in such a way that the identity of the murderer would really be a surprise, and doing so in the way I’ve noted works well. Another mystery writer has commented along the same lines, although my memory fails me as to exactly whom that was. You create a suspect who is obviously guilty and whom the police arrest, then one a little less guilty-looking for the duller reader, a well-hidden suspect for the smarter reader, and a very slender path leading to the only correct answer for the smartest few.

What else, I wondered, has Wentworth done here from which I might extract certain basic principles of mystery construction?

imageWell, there is something here that I only find among the best-constructed mysteries — and it’s the reason I had to abandon spoilers and Tell All, in order to get this across. Essentially there is an underlying structure in this book where the physical facts and actions of the characters combine to produce a puzzle; but all the physical facts and actions of the characters share a kind of thematic bond. The book is “about” something.

Let me show you what I mean with reference to this particular book. The event that starts all the other balls rolling is that, many years ago, Laura’s father broke his engagement with Agnes because he had fallen in love with Laura’s mother and ran away with her. Twenty-one years later, Laura herself breaks up the engagement of Carey and Tanis — at least, from the point of view of Agnes. Imagine you’re Agnes for a moment. You were thrown over by Laura’s father 21 years ago, and now your beloved ward is going to be thrown over by her fiancé at Laura’s behest. So the emotional betrayal of the past is echoed by the emotional betrayal of the present.

0af638dafb7bc2a7071b8939503939b4.jpgI have to say, as a reader I find this kind of mystery to be a very satisfying reading experience. I look for thematic echoes like this in mysteries and very frequently do not find them, although they are the everyday stuff of what I term “literary fiction”. Even more interesting to me is the idea that these echoes result in a mystery plot that grows out of character and not mechanical necessity.

Here, it’s entirely possible that Agnes has gone crazy enough to try to shoot Laura (and mistakenly gun down Tanis). Why? Because we understand that Agnes’s betrayal 21 years ago has affected her entire life. We know she is proud and that her broken engagement essentially left her a lifelong spinster, unable to trust men. And Agnes has raised Tanis in such a way that she herself is entirely untrustworthy in romantic matters. She steals other women’s beaux and then casts them aside, she makes and breaks marriage engagements without scruple. You can understand why Tanis is the way she is, because you can understand why Agnes is the way she is. And the whole plot flows from those two characters.

Sure, it doesn’t sound like much to an audience capable of understanding the byzantine relationships of Game of Thrones, or even The Young and the Restless. But think about it in detective fiction terms. Take, for example, The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934). There is pretty much zero in the way of psychological realism; the activities of the plot are entirely subordinated to making the set-piece that is the surroundings of the corpse make any sense. Why would someone come up with a murder plot that requires the murderer to insert two long spears through the clothing of the corpse, all of which is reversed? There’s no reason that doesn’t have the theme to Looney Tunes playing in the background. Whereas here — why, for instance, does Agnes want to own the house so badly? Because she wants it as a legacy for Tanis, and even Tanis’s son after her death. She wants to give her something permanent that will always be there, unlike men LOL. Everything rings true, because you can understand why the characters feel that way.

Detective-Book-Patricia-Wentworth-The-ChineseI’m not saying I dislike Chinese Orange, by the way, just that I much prefer it when a mystery has some element of … psychological necessity, if you will. I like detective novels even more when they contain an attention to detail such that every sub-plot contains the same thematic element. Here, people’s lives worsen when they interfere with romantic relationships, or their own romantic relationship is damaged or broken. Not only are Tanis and Agnes and Laura and Carey all affected by the broken engagement 20 years ago, husbands who dally with Tanis get suspected of murder by their wives, and vice versa. The puzzle is not as difficult as Chinese Orange but there is a good balance between plot and characterization here, and I enjoy that.

There are a few problems, of course. Wentworth here cheats a few times, notably in not providing sufficient evidence about the exact circumstances of Agnes and Lucy. And Lucy is pretty far-fetched as the ultimate murderer; Agnes is the one with all the steely determination who could pull that trigger and then kill the servant to hide her crimes. It’s hard to understand how Miss Silver herself could have known both these women from children and yet not realized that either was capable of murder; she was either less piercingly smart than she usually is, which isn’t possible 😉 or she was giving them the benefit of a doubt, which is not really the firmly upright Miss Silver.

The idea of the disloyal servant who Knows Something and tries to blackmail the murderer is a favourite idea of Wentworth’s — it shows up again in identical form in 1955’s Out Of The Past. I think she found it convenient in plotting terms, since it lets you have an exciting Act II without getting rid of any of the main suspects.

I’ve spent a lot of time re-reading Patricia Wentworth in the recent months and I’m really enjoying the process. There is always something diverting that she has to say about social issues, and even domestic economy, an interesting mystery to solve, and a light romantic plot that doesn’t strain credulity. (Well, okay, all those young women with caramel-coloured eyes and huge eyelashes, that strains credulity. But the romance is fine LOL.) And there is the presence of Miss Silver, who represents order and method and everything that is good about being an English gentlewoman. I’ve gone through her books a number of times now and always enjoyed the experience; I recommend her work to your attention.

 

Four unpleasant children (Part 2 of 2)

imagesThe other day, I published the first half of this essay. It was based upon the experience of picking up four mysteries at random from a box of recent acquisitions and finding that they all, to my surprise, contained children — unlikeable, unpleasant, and vaguely sticky children — as principal characters. This will be slightly less of a hatchet job than Part 1, since I actually liked one of today’s books … but I was in a mood to be less than pleased by children in mysteries.

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) The Widow’s Cruise, by Nicholas Blake; (2) Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth; and some others, including one by Christianna Brand to which I refer obliquely but specifically below, and Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words.  If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this rant about?

51Cx4OmyUXL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_The third in my unbroken sequence of children in mysteries occurred when I picked up a copy of The Widow’s Cruise, a 1959 novel by the great Nicholas Blake. I provided a very brief biography of this writer some years back here; under his own name of Cecil Day-Lewis, he was indeed Poet Laureate of England (and his son is indeed the famous actor Daniel Day-Lewis).

As his career wound down, he published fewer novels in the series about amateur detective Nigel Strangeways and this is almost the last really satisfying one, I’ll suggest.  (That would be 1961’s The Worm of Death, which has small problems but large brilliancies.) In this outing, Nigel and his life partner Clare Massinger, a sculptor, board the Menelaos to cruise around the Greek Islands in the company of an assorted group of fellow passengers. The two of most interest are a pair of middle-aged sisters, one of whom is Melissa, a wealthy and glamorous widow, and the other a frustrated academic (Ianthe) recovering from a nervous breakdown.

447a5923b4b047fca5a624e0f32b639fOne of the other passengers is a teenage girl who attended the girls’ school where the bitter academic had taught until her breakdown; Faith and her brother are eager to snap at the heels of the former schoolteacher, who is withdrawn and unpleasant. Also in conflict with Ianthe is the scholar Jeremy Street, who is leading the “Greek history” part of the tour aboard the Menelaos; Ianthe’s last rational act before her breakdown appears to have been to publish a scathing review of Street’s scholarship.

UnknownBut it’s not teenage Faith who aroused my dislike; it’s another fellow passenger who is very little seen in the book but leaves an indelible impression. Little Primrose Chalmers, aged about nine, is the child of two psychoanalysts and her hobby appears to be spying on her fellow passengers and writing things down in a notebook. This unpleasant child contradicts her elders, doesn’t appear to realize when people don’t want her around, and appears to regard her fellow passengers as analytic subjects rather than adults to whom one should be respectful. Things build rapidly to a head and one afternoon, after a shore excursion during which Ianthe disappears, missing and presumed dead, Primrose is found face-down in the swimming pool and her notebook is missing. Apparently she saw or heard the wrong thing at the wrong time.

tumblr_lhm2a4iPD31qd7ygho1_1280Just imagining what it must be like to be trapped on a cruise ship with a child spying on you — let alone under circumstances productive of sexual dalliance, over-indulgence in food and drink, bitter arguments with persons on board from one’s past, and scholarly infighting — it all sounds very unpleasant to me. I’m not suggesting that Primrose deserved to be killed, that’s not fair to say at all about a child, but … how shall I put this? … the experienced mystery reader is not truly surprised.

517AXFNBzAL.SX316.SY316For the most part, this is really more a character study than anything else. Blake does a wonderful job of making us see bitter Ianthe and her less than virtuous sister Melissa, the pouty teenage Faith, the pompous but wounded Jeremy Street, and even the minor characters like a Bishop and his wife whom Nigel befriends, and the Greek cruise director, the greasy and highly-sexed Nikolaides. As you reach the conclusion of the book you will realize that you have actually been fooled by a complex and very deliberate plot, and that you have been given a large number of clues as to what actually happened — and you’ve overlooked or misinterpreted most of them.

My blogfriend, the percipient Kate Jackson, looked at this book last year with her usual acuity, and I do think her opinions and mine coincide for the most part. She made a good comparison of the central plot device here to certain of the works of Agatha Christie, and I agree. However, I think there’s even a stronger parallel in a novel of Christianna Brand’s from 1955 (don’t look up this piece by blogfriend Dan at The Reader Is Warned unless you are prepared to have some enjoyment spoiled of both this book and the Brand one).

51Mbiq780FL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_What I enjoyed most about The Widow’s Cruise was the quality of the writing, which is head and shoulders above Blake’s contemporaries. The prose is elegant and intelligent, the plot is tidy and masterful, and the characterization, as I said, is the strongest point. Just a pleasure to read something this well-written, where intelligence leaks through the pores, as it were. I’m prepared to sacrifice a couple of Primroses for a book this smart and engaging.

4279de94b610700b1002b4e3cac79b7cAnd so I turn from a child who was a victim to a child who ought to have been a victim, as I mentioned yesterday. Grey Mask, a 1929 novel by Patricia Wentworth, is the earliest of my four encounters with the under-21 set and the very first in the long series of novels about Miss Silver, a retired governess who became a private investigator.

I’ve had quite a bit to say over the last few years about the work of Patricia Wentworth; The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944); The Dower House Mystery (1925) (a non-Miss Silver mystery); Poison in the Pen (1954); and a long piece about Miss Silver Comes To Stay (1949) that contains quite a bit of general observation about her entire oeuvre. I’m thinking of another more major piece in the future (in that regard, does anyone know why you would want to poison an innocent caterpillar?) but in the meantime it’s been pleasant to dip into the many mysteries she currently has available thanks to e-books. I’ll let those other pieces speak for themselves, if I may.

6a00d834515bbc69e2019101ea6a4f970c-600wiHowever, this is Miss Silver’s first outing, and honestly I suspect it was nearly her last. It took nearly ten years for the author to create a second Miss Silver novel and there were well more than a dozen non-series novels in the interval. I think it’s clear that Miss Silver got re-worked a little bit in the interval. She’s more aggressive here, less self-effacing, and, if you’ll pardon a more modern metaphor for this antique character, she’s more in your face. It’s the only book in the entire series where Miss Silver is heard to speak using contractions.

51B6LNvU-FLGrey Mask comes from a more antique tradition, and one that will not be well known nearly a century later. Essentially this comes from a style of novel that asks the reader to believe that (a) there is a secret society devoted to a large-scale cause, usually political, personal, or financial gain; (b) the people involved in this secret society wear masks at their meetings so that they won’t recognize each other if they meet mask-less; and (c) innocent and brave young people, frequently with troubled romantic lives, are constantly getting mixed up with these societies and bringing them to an unpleasant end. Indeed, you may have already read one of these (Agatha Christie’s 1929 novel, The Seven Dials Mystery) or seen this repetitive element used in film or television (for instance, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut and a vast array of direct-to-video gialli about witchcraft and female frontal nudity).

9781453223628-book-coverSo in 1929, when this was written, I suspect it may have been about the final point in time in which the reader was meant to take this seriously. This book, like all such books, chronicles the involvement of an innocent young person with the masked secret society; the innocent person decides that s/he is going to find out just what’s going on and do the job that the police cannot. Here it is Charles Moray, who four years ago had his engagement broken by the beautiful Margaret Langton. He travels the world, trying to forget (yes, the book is pretty much at this level of cliche) and upon his return he finds out that Margaret is a member of a masked secret society that is … blackmailing people? It’s not absolutely clear. But any clandestine meeting of people where everyone gets a mask and a number has got to be more than vaguely criminal. So Charles decides to take on Grey Mask, the leader of the group, and win back Margaret.

Wentworth_Patricia_Grey_Mask2Meanwhile, and this is what brought this so unfavourably to my attention, a new character arrives. Margot Standing is approximately 18 years old, fresh from a European finishing school, and the beautiful blonde daughter and heir of a wealthy shipping magnate who was recently lost at sea.  There’s a lot of money at stake and Grey Mask has his/her eyes on controlling Margot’s inheritance, so plans begin to take shape.

But Margot — oh, my, Margot. Oh, my. Apparently she’s been living in an extremely limited environment for the past decade or so, possibly one for the mentally challenged. She acts like an unsophisticated girl of about 12; she is credulous, pleasure-seeking, slightly rebellious, lazy, and oh, so stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Walking-into-traffic stupid. One of the first things she does is reply to a want-ad that is clearly designed to lure girls into the white slave traffic . She has no sense of self-preservation and apparently no sense that anyone would want to injure or inconvenience her. Why? Well, mostly because …

“A glance in the mirror never failed to have a cheering effect. It is very difficult to go on being unhappy when you can see that you have a skin of milk and roses, golden brown hair with a natural wave, and eyes that are much larger and bluer than those of any other girl you know. Margot Standing’s eyes really were rather remarkable. They were of a very pale blue, and if they had not been surrounded by ridiculously long black lashes, they might have spoilt her looks; as it was the contrast of dark lashes and pale bright eyes gave her prettiness a touch of exotic beauty. She was of middle height, with a pretty, rather plump figure, and a trick of falling from one graceful pose into another.”

What happens is that every single eligible male and a few who aren’t fall immediately in love with her, and wealthy aristocrats are competing for the right to buy her dinner and listen to her burble about whatever is on what passes for her mind.

9780446301350So that’s half the plot right there; Margot charms everyone. The remainder consists of Margot doing things that are unimaginably stupid and to the immediate benefit of Grey Mask and the group of conspirators, and then Margaret and Charles quite obviously falling in love all over again (but first, of course, he has to find out why she jilted him). And there’s a small percentage about Miss Silver acting rather in the role of private investigator Paul Drake from the Perry Mason series, whose job it is to pop up every now and then and provide information about who lives where and what they did last night. Miss Silver actually does save the day at the end, after some moderately surprising plot developments, and rescues Margaret and Charles from their imprisonment in a soundproof cellar. You will not be surprised to know that Grey Mask is someone who has not previously given any signs of the ability to be the mastermind of a powerful criminal organization — and has been fooling everyone for years.

51XlQmHKasL.SX160.SY160I suppose for me Margot was the sticking point. Frankly, if you have a plot that allows you the freedom to have just about anyone — passers-by, delivery boys, taxi drivers, waiters — be in the pay of your secret society, you don’t need the active cooperation of your victim in walking directly into every trap in sight. Similarly if you’re trying to keep Margot disguised and out of the hands of the secret society, it doesn’t help that she lets her secret slip to every man who talks to her politely for five minutes. She is a fifth wheel in the budding re-romance of Margaret and Charles, she eats all Margaret’s food and can’t afford to replace it, and is constantly gushing about how fabulous all the men in sight are and whether they are romantically interested in her. In later decades and milieux she might have found herself a preppy, bon chic bon genre, or a Sloane Ranger. But in this volume she’s a pompous little Valley Girl before her time. It’s unpleasant to consider that a wealthy man would have left his daughter so completely unequipped to meet the exigencies of modern life; her idea of work is apparently asking her father’s lawyer to give her money.  And I rather think this is the kind of person the Communists wanted to stand up against a wall and shoot; I’m somewhat more sympathetic now.

29010So Margot is carrying the weight of the plot and just cannot stand up to it. If you find yourself unable to countenance Margot, as I was unable, then you will not enjoy this book very much since it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen from the outset. The day will indeed be saved, the lovers will reunite, and the villain will be killed while trying to escape. I did have a moment’s pleasure thinking of what Miss Silver might have made of this lazy nitwit as a governess but I think Miss Silver would have more sense than to waste her effort. There is not much here but the bare bones of what Miss Silver would become in the future; she’s the only person in the book I wanted more from.

EUni12TPatricia Wentworth made the error of introducing repellent children at least once more; Vanishing Point, from 1953, features a young girl who is simultaneously an invalid and a plucky young thing with dreams of becoming an author. The result may leave the reader needing insulin because of a sugar overdose. But I haven’t heard anything from most of my regular commenters about other awful children in detective fiction. Does no one remember the xiphopagous twins from Ellery Queen‘s The Siamese Twin Mystery? The impossibly perfect offspring of Lieutenant Mendoza in the works of Dell Shannon? Horrible little Billy and Jackie from Queen’s The Tragedy of Y? Agatha Christie is full of them: the Girl-Guide-aged taxi dancer in Christie’s The Body in the Library, or Hallowe’en Party, with two repellent little girls (one sweet, one sour); the little ballerina in Crooked House, or the pudgy and unpleasant victim in Dead Man’s Folly; Pippa Hailsham-Brown from Spider’s Web or Linda Marshall from Evil Under The Sun. That creepy little group in Margery Allingham‘s The Mind Readers; brats in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s TCOT Empty Tin, Deadly Toy and Spurious Spinster — and that’s just with thinking about it for ten minutes.  There’s possibly a long series here!!

 

 

 

 

Death of an Old Girl, by Elizabeth Lemarchand (1967)

51jjX-d5qQL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl is the first of a series of mysteries featuring CDI Tom Pollard of Scotland Yard and his assistant Sergeant Toye. The series ran for 17 volumes between 1967 and 1988 and exhibited many characteristics of Golden Age detective fiction; there’s a certain gentility and good nature that shines through these novels but not at the expense of interesting plots.

This volume came to me unexpectedly as I scoured a used bookstore; I haven’t seen any Lemarchand at my usual haunts for quite some time; although I recall the volumes that were in paperback as having been much more prevalent 20 years ago, they don’t show up often these days. About half her books were never published in paperback and will give you more trouble to find; this one is more common.

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

UnknownWhat’s this book about?

The scene is Meldon School for Girls, a venerable institution for teenage girls that has recently undergone some updating. A new headmistress with more modern ideas is making changes, much to the displeasure of a coterie of Meldonian Old Girls. The ranks of the old guard are led by a wealthy spinster, Beatrice Baynes, who has an outsized bee in her bonnet about change in general and in particular the sudden modernization of the Art Department by young Miss Cartmell, its new instructor.

In the course of Old Girls Reunion weekend, passions come to a head. After some tempestuous interactions with staff and relatives, Miss Baynes’s murdered body is found stuffed into a puppet theatre off to one side of the Art Room at Meldon. Pollard and Toye are brought in to make sense of the many motivations for this crime and bring it home to what might be a surprising perpetrator.

Unknown-1Why is this book worth my time?

Generally when I try to bring a book to your attention, it’s because it has some feature that is worth your time. Sometimes I’ve tried in the past to convince you that a less-than-stellar book deserves your time because of its historical significance, or prefiguring of another, better novel; many reasons other than mere quality.  With this volume, I’d merely like to suggest that you will enjoy it — reason enough, I trust.

This book is a debut effort by a novelist who has absorbed the general airs and graces of the Golden Age of Detection of the 1920s and 1930s, taken them to heart, but updated them to the period of the 1960s. What made me think so is that, like the 1920s and 1930s, this book contains no graphic violence, no objectionable language, and very little that would offend anyone. The murder takes place offstage (except that the corpse is found hidden behind a little stage, ha ha) and all other crimes are non-violent and moderately forgivable. Perhaps we could call this the ancestor of the modern cozy, although expressed to the Scotland Yard detective format of a previous age.

51majp2SJZL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Death of an Old Girl was published at a time when almost no one was writing — or really reading — this kind of book as popular fiction. I think it’s interesting that it had sufficient in the way of readability and sheer pleasure to get published at a time when this sort of nostalgic exercise was not popular.

There is not much here to trouble the attentive reader who wishes to solve a murder. Pollard and Toye are rather bland and Inspector-French-like nonentities with sketched-in family and personal lives. When they arrive, they reconnoiter, investigate obvious suspect #1, move to #2, on to #3 and in that context reveal some underlying realities behind the murder and unmask a slightly surprising murderer. (I think all my readers will find their way to suspecting #3 but some will not make the leap to the identity of the murderer, #4.)

The people whom I can really see enjoying this are readers who hanker for that nostalgic exercise, a kind of applied blandness that has its adherents among people who want to read unchallenging fiction. All the people here are “nice” except for the few who are “not nice”, and those few are pretty much caricatures. The only not nice person is the murderer, who manages to conceal his/her not-niceness under a bland facade.

12869054I thought it was interesting to look at this book as an exercise in construction, because that’s so clearly what it was for this neophyte author. Only four main subjects, considered seriatim, and nothing happens to interrupt this vision. I couldn’t help but think along the way that Lemarchand had deliberately restricted the field by not offering us even the dismissal of further possibilities.  A bunch of women are mentioned early on as being supporters of the late Miss Baynes and her dislike of modern art (aka nude sculpture and drawing LOL).  But these women never show up and don’t provide interviews or names, so it’s clear they’re not involved. Similarly the upper registers of the Meldonian hierarchy are pretty much sacrosanct; it’s clear that the new Headmistress is unimpeachably virtuous.

There was some interest I found in the character of Miss Baynes, who reminded me of the crazed anti-sex spinster in Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death, but she’s killed far too early to give more than a hint of her presence. In a way, Lemarchand has made an error that I have seen writing textbooks teach is a bad idea; she seems reluctant to have her characters experience any conflict (so everyone has to be pretty much pleasant to deal with). If Baynes’s rages against modernity had been more on-stage than off-, or if she had had a lieutenant prepared to take up the cudgels against vulgarity and young girls seeing the naughty bits in art, this might have been a more exciting book with a few more false trails and interesting characters.

But we can only review the book we actually read. And so I’ll say that I suspect my readers who are fans of Freeman Wills Crofts will enjoy this book; aficionados of the gentle Silver Age mystery that hearkens back to the classics, for instance. Fans of Dorothy Simpson, later Patricia Wentworth, and early P.D. James will like this; fans of Mickey Spillane and male private eye novels will likely not. It’s a gentle murder mystery that will be fairly easy to solve. The difference between this and the kind of cosy mystery that sets my teeth on edge is that, while the author doesn’t focus strenuously on the pool of blood or the battered corpse, neither does she spray everything with potpourri in an attempt to disguise the blood. She’s merely writing about nice people for nice people, that’s all.

This is a charming little book and you’ll come up for air after a few hours thinking, “Wow, for an unassuming mystery that sure had a lot to offer.” I hope you can find a copy cheaply, you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Clock Strikes Twelve, by Patricia Wentworth (1944)

the-clock-strikes-twelve-ebook-by-patricia-wentworthHappy New Year!

In the spirit of the new year, I was trying to recall a Golden Age mystery that took place on New Year’s Eve. There are a fair number of these, I gather, but the one that first came to mind is this Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth, where the title gives you a strong indication that the changing of the date at the stroke of midnight is an important factor.

If you’re interested in a list of mystery books and movies that take place on New Year’s Eve, I’m happy to recommend you to the excellent list kept by the hard-working Janet Rudolph, found here. (She does all kinds of lists like this, very handy!) It’s interesting that I’d forgotten so many titles took place at New Year’s; I haven’t read J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Death in Fancy Dress and will be on the lookout for that one! As far as mystery films are concerned, I definitely recommend After The Thin Man (1936), where the plot turns upon the precise date.

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

6817318124_b9ea7be764_bWhat is this book about?

Wealthy industrialist and martinet James Paradine puts together an assortment of ten family members for a dinner party on New Year’s Eve, 1941. The late Mrs. Clara Paradine is now remembered principally by a large portrait in his study where she is festooned with diamonds, and so his unmarried 50-something sister Grace keeps house for him with her well-known icy calm and total mastery of every situation. Mr. Paradine’s sons Mark and Richard (Dicky) are employed in the family business. Clara’s children by her first marriage, Frank and Brenda Ambrose, will also be at dinner, as will Frank’s wife Irene — who is principally concerned with her two children — and Irene’s sister Lydia, who is a spectacular (but tactless and headstrong) beauty with whom Mark and Dick are both enamoured. Grace adopted a child years ago, the delicately beautiful and frail Phyllida Paradine, who is the focus of Grace’s entire attention. And to make up the family party, the rabbity Albert Pearson is both James’s secretary and a distant cousin.

51yml8w2qylPhyllida, however, became Phyllida Wray a little more than a year ago when she married Elliot Wray, a vital employee of the Paradine company. Grace, however, cannot stand to have anyone take Phyllida away from her; she’s manufactured a story and broken up the marriage after only a few days. Phyllida and Elliot haven’t spoken in nearly a year, thanks to Grace’s machinations. Elliot, though, has been commanded to come to dinner by James, and this is one of the major contributions to an extremely difficult and unpleasant New Year’s Eve dinner.

2519319-_uy200_The other difficulty is that James announces at dinner that one of the family “has been disloyal” and betrayed the family interests — and that he knows who it is. He announces that he will be in his study until midnight in order to give the guilty party an opportunity to confess. He doesn’t want to wash dirty family linen in public, so if and when the guilty party arrives, James will be “prepared to make terms”.

After such an opening sequence, no mystery reader worth their salt will be surprised to learn that the next morning, New Year’s Day, James Paradine is found to have gone over the parapet outside his study and is dead as a doornail. And for various reasons, this has to have happened precisely as the clock struck twelve.

07265Almost everyone in the house has no alibi. Lydia Pennington runs into her acquaintance Miss Silver buying wool in a department store and discovers that she is staying with her niece, literally across the hall from Mark Paradine’s flat. Lydia persuades Mark, the principal heir, that the case must be solved and that he has to bring in Miss Silver to do so.

The groundwork to this point has taken approximately half the book, but we now proceed to get a good idea of what must have happened on New Year’s Eve. Essentially most of the inhabitants trooped in and out of Mr. Paradine’s study at regular intervals between dinner and midnight, on subplots connected with a set of missing blueprints, another theft the details of which aren’t revealed until the end of the book, and various other smaller defalcations and misdemeanours. There’s also the ongoing warfare among Grace Paradine, Phyllida, and Elliot, as well as Lydia’s romantic dilemma.

Miss Silver, while producing an entire knitted outfit for one of her infant nephews, solves every sub-plot in sight (right down to a housemaid who’s been pilfering candy) in record time, mostly by invoking her knowledge of human nature. In a dramatic conclusion, the criminal leaps over the same parapet, saving the cost of a trial, and all romantic and other sub-plots are resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.

3463Why is this book worth your time?

Well, I’m a big fan of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novels and would recommend that you read all of them. That being said, if you come to this expecting to learn a lot about Miss Silver, you can expect to be disappointed. Miss Silver’s presence is rather unlikely — a stack of coincidences that are hard to swallow. And to my mind, what she does here is not so much solve the mystery using clues per se; it’s more like she analyzes the personalities of the suspects and narrows things down to a few by realizing what clues must exist and setting out to find them. This is more intuitive than I usually care for in a mystery plot but Wentworth carries us along very ably and really you won’t notice much unless you’re looking.

patricia_wentworth_the_clock_strikes_twelveThere’s an interesting theme in this book that I think is quite well developed but not made enough of. Essentially there are two female characters in the book who are monomaniacally devoted to their children; one is played for laughs and the other is pathological. This hearkens back to something I’ve observed about Wentworth’s work before, in that she knows how to construct “situations that a woman especially would experience as jeopardy, and she tells the story in a way that strikes a not wholly unpleasant fear into the hearts of women. … [S]he knows what would scare a woman.” Here it’s the 50-something Grace, who breaks up Phyllida’s marriage just because she wants Phyllida all to herself forever. Wentworth does a variation on this theme in The Gazebo (1956) where the possessive mother tries to ruin her daughter’s romantic life … in both cases, carrying it through by sheer force of personality. I’m afraid as a male my reaction would be, “*** you, I’m off to get married, see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya,” but that tends not to complicate plots in a useful way 😉  Perhaps I’m over-generalizing, but it seems to be more woman-on-woman bullying that a woman would understand in a way that a man could not.

The nice part of this here is that it’s actually explained in a way that makes sense. Grace’s own marriage went sour before it happened because she found her betrothed fooling around (innocently) with another woman, so it’s pretty clear why she’s determined to spoil Phyllida’s marriage. There are a lot of sour middle-aged and elderly women in Wentworth’s oeuvre who do this to their younger female relatives. Wentworth being the clever writer that she is, there’s also at least one instance where the once-betrothed couple pretend to be dead cuts to each other, but in fact are collaborating in a criminal enterprise. Here, Irene is depicted as a fool who runs to the doctor when she perceives the slightest (imaginary) illness in one of her children … but there’s an incident in her past where she very nearly committed a murder by hysterically responding to a threat to her kitten. The male police officers think it’s entirely possible she could have done the same again.

16260There are plenty of things here that will resonate with the frequent reader of Miss Silver. There’s the housemaid who knows something important, and only Miss Silver can coax it out of her. There’s the beautiful young woman who keeps two wealthy men on a string without making up her mind. There’s the wealthy patriarch who runs his large country manor with an iron fist, a weedy young man whom everyone dislikes, and a butler who might not be as morally upright as he seems. There are handsome young male nonentities whose function is to be romantically involved with the beautiful young women. All these characters have cognates in other Miss Silver stories, although with slight variations as seems appropriate; literally, anyone can be guilty depending on how Wentworth writes the ending. But we have seen, or will see, these types repeating in other stories throughout her oeuvre.

660273I will say that I enjoyed this book more than it might seem, considering that I’ve rather picked it apart above. The character of Grace is really well done; very menacing, and thoroughly thought through. You really believe that she would lie and cheat and do underhanded things to break up Phyllida’s marriage, and you know why she’s like that, and you can see just how efficient and effective she is at it. And when Phyllida says the one thing she must never say to Grace, just before the finale — you know why things explode the way they do. It’s a beautiful piece of work. I can’t tell you the ending, but it’s dramatic and has a great rightness about it that you will appreciate. I also liked the minor character of the awful Albert, who is constantly retailing facts about the world that no one wants or needs to know. You realize before the end why he too is the way he is, and it’s nicely written. Even the character of the silly Irene, played mostly for comic relief, is effective because you know enough about her to realize that, yes, she actually could be the murderer, and why. There are no 100% red herrings in this book.

So as always, I do recommend this to anyone who likes this sort of small-scale puzzle mystery, filled with the upper classes and their snarled romantic relationships. Miss Silver is not much in the foreground, which is a little disappointing, but the characterizations are sufficiently well done to make the book move along briskly to a satisfying conclusion. Try it and see if you agree.

9780060924089What do we learn about the social context?

The first thing to note is that although this book was published in 1944, it is very specifically set on New Year’s Eve, as 1941 becomes 1942. So yes, there is a certain amount of to-do about clothing coupons, and Miss Silver doesn’t have the selection of wool colours that she might like, but there is no food rationing that I could see and all the males don’t seem too worried about the prospect of being called up. I imagine in 1944 this book was hearkening back to a kinder, gentler England of 1942, if you know what I mean, before things got really bad. You might imagine someone reading this in the Tube during the blitz and sighing for the good old days, as it were.

clock-strikes-12-32I have to acknowledge a debt to my friend and fellow blogger Moira Redmond, whose excellent blog Clothes In Books looked at this specific volume last July. She says the things about women’s clothes that I would like to say if I knew what they were, especially with respect to Lydia’s exotic brocade trousers made out of “gorgeous furniture stuff and no coupons”.  It was Moira who pointed out the “monstrous silver epergne” that is constantly filled with food and the above insight about food rationing is really hers and not mine. She also notes that the details of the dinner are “like a child’s version of how they think a smart dinner might be”; my own take is that this is food porn for people in 1944 eating rationed food. I have shamelessly stolen her photo of a “monstrous epergne” to show you, because it’s so perfectly grotesque. Can you imagine dining with that blocking your view of your tablemates? Moira’s blog is always entertaining and she has an acute eye for details of clothing and furniture in old mysteries; you should check out her blog and I will add that I follow it for good reason.

There is quite a bit of text and sub-text in this book about family and marriage, which seems to be a constant preoccupation of Wentworth; this is an unhappy family to be sure, but the point is constantly made that everyone, even the unpleasant Albert, is a member of the family by blood or marriage. Wentworth’s idea of family in this book seems to be of a bunch of rats locked in a very expensive and posh cage, but that’s as it should be for detective fiction.

9780446349055-us-300The outside world is so little a part of this book that for the life of me, I cannot remember what Mr. Paradine’s company actually makes or does, although I re-read the book just the other day. What is important, as we are told a number of times, is that everything in his home is very plush and fancy, because that’s the way he likes it. Nothing is shabby and nothing is quite new, but everything is the very best that can be had. This apparently was Wentworth’s way of explaining that Mr. Paradine was a wealthy member of the upper class (or upper middle class, I’m not quite certain), but not a titled gentleman; they actually embrace a little shabbiness and don’t have their wives painted dripping with diamonds, as his was.

There is surprisingly little in this book of the kind of tiny detail that usually delights me, although I had to look up at least one phrase (de haut en bas) to understand just what a snotty bitch Grace was being. It’s interesting that Mr. Paradine keeps “boiled sweets” in his desk — to the modern person that’s “hard candy”. I was surprised to see that Wentworth thinks that a roll of blueprints could be adequately concealed by a folded newspaper; not in my experience.

(One day later) I came back to add to this piece, which I rarely do, because I wanted to mention the absence of something that occurred to me later. Simply put, this household doesn’t celebrate New Year’s Eve in any way that we would recognize. No champagne, no kissing, no counting down with the clock, and everyone is in bed well before midnight. Grace gives out a few small presents to people, and it’s not clear to me whether that’s leftover Christmas presents, but other than that, this is not much of a holiday. All they do is kill the head of the household 😉

My favourite edition

This was a tough call. I prepared this piece using a combination of an e-book from Open Road, shown at the top of this piece, and my copy of Popular Library #131, shown near the top, with the lurid colours, the falling male silhouette, and the gap-toothed skull.  All in all, I have to give a slight preference to the Popular Library. The colours, the airbrush art, the sheer vulgarity, are all wonderfully appealing to me. But my regular readers know that I have a peculiar fondness for the Coronet editions where they actually took a photograph of someone as if he was the corpse, and that is a close second. I note that there are many, many editions of this book and you won’t have any trouble finding one in a used bookstore or online if you try.

I note that today a copy of the first Hodder & Stoughton edition from a British bookseller is today about US$50 whereas a near fine copy of PL #131 is US$28 from the highly regarded Graham Holroyd. When Mr. Holroyd says “near fine” that means so close to fine you won’t be able to tell the difference; he’s a bibliophile who only deals in the best.  If I didn’t already have my own VG+ copy, worth perhaps US$15, I’d be ordering Mr. Holroyd’s.

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Where do we go from here?

The Tuesday Night Bloggers

A clever logo produced by group member Bev Hankins.

About a month ago, The Tuesday Night Bloggers (TNB) began as a kind of impromptu celebration of all things Agatha Christie to celebrate her 125th birthday. Essentially  members of a Facebook group decided that they were going to post something in their own blogs about Agatha Christie every Tuesday for what turned out to be a little more than the month of October, 2015. Yes, we’re still doing it. I’ve personally had fun working to a tighter deadline than “whenever”, and it encouraged me to find interesting things to present that could be explained in 500 words or so. Which, as you know, for me is barely a clearing of the throat 😉

dc9f2677eTuesday Night Bloggers (alphabetically by last name;the blog’s name links to the blog)

In conversation with a couple of my fellow TNB bloggers, I’ve learned that they are attracting a new and improved readership as a result of these Christie posts, as have I. Apparently people come for the Christie and look around for the Golden Age mystery, I guess, and welcome aboard! So I was wondering what would happen if we kept up the frequency but changed the topic a little bit … and we’re about to find out.

roundtableThe seven bloggers in Tuesday Night Bloggers have come to an agreement that, provisionally at least, we’re going to keep posting on Tuesdays but we’re going to change the topic once a month. We’re going to talk about a different Golden Age writer for a month of Tuesdays, and hope that our new readers are as interested in the other major names as they have been in Agatha Christie.

Personally I think this is going to work best if we focus on the major writers — as I put it, writers with a large number of novels that have been printed in a large number of editions. My TNB friends are all all aware of mystery writers whose work is rare and expensive, and when we find rare and expensive novels that we enjoyed or understood, I believe we’ll continue to bring you our opinions. (E.C.R. Lorac and Miles Burton are the literary equivalent of $500/bottle Scotch!)  In the meantime there are a bunch of Golden Age writers whose names many people will recognize and whose books are abundantly available at libraries and bookstores, and I think our breadth of information can shed light on these writers in a way that will interest people who may only be glancingly familiar with their work, or even people very familiar with their output. If you’ve read two Ngaio Marsh novels, well, we’ve frequently read all 29, and we have reasons why we like our favourites that we’ll share with you. I’m hoping this will encourage more people to share our pleasure in Golden Age mysteries.

sdc13504So here’s the list of suggested topics for a year.

  • October: Agatha Christie
  • November: Ellery Queen
  • December: Ngaio Marsh
  • January: Rex Stout
  • February: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • March: John Dickson Carr
  • April: Phoebe Atwood Taylor
  • May: Erle Stanley Gardner
  • June: Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • July: Arthur Upfield
  • August: Patricia Wentworth
  • September: S. S. Van Dine

Believe me, I’m open to changing this list, any part of it or any name on it. (I alternated males and females.) And I know that the TNB would join me in welcoming any blogger with an interest in Golden Age mysteries to add his/her blog to this list, even if — especially if — they’re not members of our Facebook group. There is no need to post every single Tuesday, for existing members or new ones; I’m sure we’d even welcome guests who merely wanted to contribute a single post from their own blog.

Your comments below are welcome and earnestly solicited. I have shamelessly swiped the logo that Bev Hankins designed for the group since I like it better than mine (and I will now retire my variant terminology for this effort of Tuesday Club Murders); thank you Bev!