Not The Top Ten: Ellery Queen

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

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

Most overrated novel

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

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

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

Most underrated novel

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

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

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

The novel containing the best hook

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

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

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

The novel containing the best murder method

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

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

The novel containing the best motive

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

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

The novel containing the most stunning surprise ending

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

The novel you should avoid 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover art through the years: The Rasp, by Philip Macdonald (1924)

Cover art through the years: The Rasp, by Philip Macdonald (1924)

It’s clear that my most popular posts have been the ones where I say the least and show the most pictures; my readership figures for recent posts collecting the cover art of Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr have been through the roof. So I’ll be bringing you more posts like that in the future, since they’re easy to put together and fun to conceive, and you folks like them. I’ll be calling these “Cover art through the years” unless they’re affiliated with another blogging project like Tuesday Night Bloggers.

The best way to appreciate how styles in cover art have changed, I think, is to take a classic book that has been frequently in print over many years and see how many iterations its design can go through. I decided on the spur of the moment to pick a book from my shelves at random — well, no, I should be more truthful. This happened when I was shelving books and sorting alphabetically by author.  As I muttered to myself, “Is it really necessary to have FOUR different copies of The Rasp on my active shelves?” an idea was born. And so I scoured the internet for different photos of different editions.

Look how many different ways of seeing the cover art there have been! It’s interesting, because the central mystery puzzle of this novel is dependent upon — and I’ll be circumspect about how I phrase this — a visual image. The only artist to even come close to this visual image (a) gets it wrong, and (b) is close to giving away the mystery; unfortunately all this suggests to me is that a bunch of art directors didn’t bother to read the book carefully before packaging it, which is quite common these days and apparently was back then also.

I do like the earliest Collins hardcovers, which are classically lurid, but my favourite here would have to be the cheerful surrealism of 1984’s edition from Vintage, where two oval portraits and a fireplace grate combine to form a shocked face. My second favourite would be US Penguin #79, with an extremely detailed pencil drawing and some exquisite typography.

But the most valuable paperback edition is the first UK Penguin (greenback) printing from 1937, in excellent condition with a crisp paper dust jacket (yes, early UK Penguins had a jacket; it adds hugely to their value if present). This edition also seems to be #79, which is a peculiar coincidence or else more probably my research has misled me. (added later the same day: See below in the comments; my expert friend John from Pretty Sinister books confirms that they are both #79, published years apart, and it’s just a strange coincidence.) Because of the superb condition and the provenance — it comes from the collection of Ian Ballantine, who founded Ballantine Books — ABE’s most expensive copy is priced today at US$175. A “Good” copy (“Good” is bookseller code for “barely acceptable as a reading copy”) of the 3rd printing with a chipped jacket will set you back US$60.

Which one is your favourite? And if anyone knows if UK Penguin #79 and US Penguin #79 are both The Rasp, let me know in the comments, please!

Death Walks in Eastrepps, by Francis Beeding (1931)

death-walks-in-eastrepps

WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about not only the book under discussion, but also Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad and The Mystery of the Dead Police, and Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, all of which are works of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solutions and the murderers are not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of these classic works so that you will enjoy them without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

As wealthy businessman Robert Eldridge embarks on the 7:15 train to the little seaside holiday town of Eastrepps, we learn a little about him from his interior monologue — not much, but enough to know that there is a secret in his past that has kept him exiled for a number of years in South America. Now he’s off for his weekly overnight visit to his married mistress Margaret.

In the next chapter, on the same date and time, we meet some residents of Eastrepps; middle-aged curmudgeon and borderline drunk Colonel Hewitt, and his unmarried sister Mary, who are sitting down to dinner. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Hewitts are broke; they lost most of their money when Anaconda Ltd. crashed. (“Broke” means that their household is down to a single incompetent servant girl.) After a tumultuous dinner in which the Colonel differs cholerically with the secretary of the golf club, the servant girl, and anything else that comes to mind, Mary goes out to take some flowers to the parish church. On her return, she stops in to spend a moment in the lovely garden of her wealthier friend, Mrs. Dampier; then turns her way towards home. She doesn’t live long enough to make it there, though.

We are then introduced to the local police who investigate her brutal murder; Inspector Protheroe, hungry for promotion, and his subordinate, the solid and stolid Sergeant Ruddock. We meet a few more locals, and hear that Mary Hewitt didn’t have an enemy in the world. Then a London reporter, Mr. Ferris, who is vacationing in Eastrepps, smells a juicy murder story. The locals are agog with the news of murder in their sleepy town, but the Honourable Alistair Rockingham, who is being nursed back to health after a nervous breakdown, is surprisingly unaffected. At the coroner’s inquest, which is meant to be adjourned while the police investigate, local fisherman John Masters announces that he has seen the killer walking in the darkened streets; a bearded man.

il_340x270.750477499_q6kfAs the police investigation progresses, Eldridge’s mistress, Margaret Withers, is being blackmailed by her dissolute cousin Dick Coldfoot; her divorce is not yet final and if her affair is exposed, she’ll lose custody of her child. But no one else appears to know of her affair. Then as Inspector Protheroe is making his way home late one night, after a hard day of investigation, he hears what seems to be a baying hound — almost immediately, he discovers the second victim.

Young Miss Taplow is of good family and no one knows any reason why she should have been killed. The murder method is the same, and the crimes are linked; it soon seems clear that a madman is murdering almost at random when there is another murder of a local. The newspaper headlines proclaim the existence of the “Eastrepps Evil”, and Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard begins an investigation (to the chagrin of Inspector Protheroe).

It soon seems as though the Honourable Alistair Rockingham is crazier than anyone has known, and he’s been sneaking out at night and strolling around the village tipping his hat to passing women. The police go through a great deal of trouble to establish that he’s getting out of the house at night, and upon his arrest, he falls to his knees and starts howling like a dog. (Parenthetically, it’s interesting that this particular type of madness appears to have been restricted to fictional crazy people; I’ve never heard of it in real life.) The newspapers trumpet the idea that the Eastrepps Evil has been caught right up until, whoops, the secretary of the local golf club and the genteel Mrs. Dampier are murdered in the same way. But just as questions are being asked in the House, Sergeant Ruddock remembers Mr. Eldridge having told a little lie about his whereabouts at the time of one of the murders. Ruddock finds a clue that links the victims, in that they all lost money when Anaconda Inc. crashed — and it turns out that Eldridge is actually the promoter behind Anaconda. This makes Ruddock the hero of the Yard, to the complete discomfiture of Inspector Protheroe. Inspector Wilkins builds his case and arrests a suspect, who is taken to trial — there’s a long courtroom sequence — and executed. That would seem to be the end of the story, until Margaret Withers notices a tiny physical clue that reveals the very surprising identity of the actual killer, and a dramatic finale ensues.

BeedingWhy is this worth reading?

I’ve written before about early precursors of what was not yet known as the “serial killer” mystery/thriller; the term “serial killer” was not yet invented in 1931. But there are a handful of mystery novels from the Golden Age, such as this, that prefigure the modern serial killer novel. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger fictionalized the case of Jack the Ripper in 1913. Philip MacDonald wrote two “mad killer” novels, Murder Gone Mad (1931) and Mystery of the Dead Police (1933, with two variant titles, which I discussed here). Agatha Christie flipped the narrative in 1936’s The A.B.C. Murders. And then there is Death Walks in Eastrepps from 1931, which was considered so significant that it’s on the Haycraft-Queen list of Cornerstones. This is almost certainly the most important book Francis Beeding ever wrote; the two authors who collaborated under that name do not cut an enormous figure in the history of detective fiction, but this book’s place is assured. Anything on the Cornerstones list is worth your time automatically.

The writing style is interesting. Writers at this point in time were experimenting with different ways of telling a story, and this one is in the “multiple viewpoints” format. We get to dip briefly into the minds and lives of various people in the town of Eastrepps, including some of the murder victims. In that sense it’s like MacDonald’s Mystery of the Dead Police, which does the same thing. This volume is not quite as successful, to my mind, perhaps because the effort of recomplicating the viewpoints is not sustained throughout the entire novel. (The courtroom sequence slows the book down to a crawl and to no really useful purpose.)

UnknownPart of this reason this volume is of particular interest in tracing the development of the serial killer novel is that it’s neither fish nor fowl. I can’t go too much into detail without giving away too much about this particular volume, but at the end of the book I think you won’t be 100% clear on whether the murderer is sane or insane, and that’s actually interesting. Sometimes the murder in these early stories is completely crazy (Murder Gone Mad, for instance); sometimes the murderer is a sane person counterfeiting the actions of a crazy person for his/her own purposes. That’s what I meant above by “flipping the narrative”. It only took five years from Murder Gone Mad for Agatha Christie to realize that you could subvert the premise and generate a very clever mystery plot such that a clever killer would mislead the police into thinking they were looking for an insane person.

In this volume, though, it wasn’t really clear to me whether the author was suggesting that either (a) Eldridge, who is tried and executed for the crime at about the three-quarters point, and/or (b) the person who actually committed the murders, is insane. There’s a school of thought that says that any person who murders another, let alone four or five, is insane. I’m not qualified to say whether that’s true or not. The courtroom sequence seems to be implicitly assuming that Eldridge has a reason to murder people whom he ruined financially many years ago; I don’t understand it, but there is also no suggestion that he’s killing them because he’s insane. Nevertheless there is no need to prove motive. The link between Eldridge and the victims seems to be sufficient for the judge and jury.

$(KGrHqRHJCYE8fi(bspCBPOqYprsIQ~~60_35The actual murderer seems very calm and cool and collected when in the process of confessing the crimes; not crazy at all. The part that is especially rational, though, is the deliberate way in which the evidence is planted on Eldridge. The murderer doesn’t have any personal animus against any of the victims; that’s irrational. I don’t want to be specific about the reason the murderer gives for committing the crimes, but — well, it’s sort of rational and sort of irrational. It actually makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s rather like using an elephant gun to kill a flea. So I think whether or not this is a “mad killer” novel is rather up to the reader. The novel says what it says, and what you make of it is up to you.

There is a “trick” — a surprise, or “reveal” — underlying this book that I shouldn’t reveal because it will completely spoil your enjoyment. I have to say, though, that the history of detective fiction is filled with firsts; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the first detective novel to work its particular trick on the reader, as are Murder on the Orient Express and The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window and, well, just about every John Dickson Carr novel. There’s a long-standing tradition in detective fiction that writers do not repeat a trick that was first used by another writers. Well, I’ve certainly read a couple of more modern mysteries that use this trick quite effectively, in different contexts, etc. But this is to my knowledge the first time this trick was used, and in 1931, this must have been an astonishingly creative piece of work. It’s clearly the reason why this is a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone volume. The modern reader may not be quite as surprised by this ending as the reader of 1931, but you will certainly understand why 1931’s reader was gobsmacked. Given the somewhat different social contexts, 1931’s reader would have been aghast and astounded. It’s a subversive premise to underlie a piece of Golden Age detective fiction; all I can say is, it would have been a great pleasure to be a reader in 1931 who picked this book up without having heard teasing hints about it from a blogger.

34570My favourite edition

The gorgeous Art Deco first US edition from Mystery League, to the left, is head and shoulders above every other edition. Beautiful colour scheme, a gorgeous piece of hand-drawn typography, and the stylized corpse below the green skull — just lovely. I’m not aware of any mass-market paperback edition; all the others I’ve seen have been just ordinary. You can have your own for about US$75 plus shipping as of today’s date from a dealer on Abebooks. It will always hold its value, because it’s a Cornerstone volume.

Cards on the fable: Mysteries written by bridge players

acedeathcardfrontI’m a bridge player and a mystery reader, and to me it doesn’t seem odd that there should be a natural affinity between playing serious bridge and appreciating a well-written mystery. (And doing difficult crosswords, but that’s another article.) Both require similar skill sets; the ability to notice small clues, draw inferences from them and form a theory that leads to a conclusion. Yes, really, playing bridge is like that if you’ve done it a long time. “Hmm, my left-hand opponent didn’t even twitch when I played the queen of diamonds, so I deduce his partner has that particular king. Therefore Lefty is more likely to have the spade king, and I’m going to finesse him for it.” That’s the same kind of thought pattern that solves fictional mysteries. There’s a similar pleasure in both milieus; the “Aha!” response to solving a problem can be very enjoyable.

4912745286_8d10008dd8Contract bridge was in its infancy during the Golden Age of Detection, of course, since it was invented in 1929. But immediately upon its introduction into polite society, contract bridge became extremely popular among writers of detective fiction and hence among their characters. How often, for instance, do an ill-assorted set of houseguests in a country-house mystery stand up from quarrelling at the dinner table to play bridge for a few hours, with people taking their turn as dummy and wandering in and out of Sir Cedric’s library accompanied by an astonishing variety of weapons and motives? Agatha Christie was a good social bridge player, or at least to my mind she knew enough about it to know the vagaries of how different people keep score, and what happens when you bid and make a lucky grand slam. Cards on the Table is where she has most to say about bridge, but there are many other mentions.

james_bond_03_moonrakerIn fact a number of fairly well known writers (both of mysteries and general fiction) were bridge players to greater or lesser degree, either known to us biographically or merely by things they say in their books. Somerset Maugham, for instance, was a bridge fiend and an excellent player; to a lesser degree, but apparently very highly skilled, was Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery). Philip MacDonald is said to have been an enthusiastic player. Ian Fleming thought so much of bridge that he inserted a well-known bridge problem into one of his James Bond novels (the “Culbertson hand” in Moonraker, where one player has the majority of
34549face cards yet cannot take a single trick). A couple of mystery writers have set a book against a background of the game; Georgette Heyer‘s Duplicate Death (1951) (discussed in detail by me here) is better known than Anne Archer‘s 1931 Murder at Bridge but both take place at a large card party. And well-known Sherlockian pastiche writer Frank Thomas wrote two elementary (sorry) textbooks on contract bridge using Holmes and Watson as a bridge partnership. They’re actually good textbooks for a beginner.

26f29cards1-461847

Omar Sharif at the table

Writers as a category, though, have not produced any great bridge players, it seems. Politics (Dwight Eisenhower and Deng Xiaoping), business (Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) and cinema (Omar Sharif, a top-ranked player who has represented three countries in international competition, and Chico Marx) have all generated great bridge players. But although certainly there are good writers who are good bridge players, no one appears to have reached the top rank of bridge players after achieving success in writing.

btmThe other way of going about it is to start as a bridge expert and write a great mystery. And believe me, folks, that’s never happened. I’m not sure why it is, but expert bridge players seem to have the writing equivalent of a tin ear when it comes to generating detective fiction or indeed any kind of fiction at all. Matthew Granovetter is a well-known American bridge player now living in Italy, and has written many interesting bridge texts and columns, but his three bridge mysteries have been ghastly. GHASTLY. I discuss his 1989 novel I Shot My Bridge Partner here; suffice it to say it made my list of “Mysteries to die before you read”.  There are many others equally awful, now that self-publishing is more common, even more of them, and I’m not sure why. Is it that bridge players think that mysteries are a kind of formula fiction, where you flesh out the activities of a game of Cluedo and meanwhile throw in a bunch of backstage information about bridge tournaments? I’ve seen that a number of times and it never works. I’ve talked before about how minority groups find it useful to use a mystery as a way of telling a story set in their particular milieu, in what I call the “information mystery” format. But those information mysteries have some “guts” to them because the minority stories are fresh and important and dramatic. The maximum stakes of winning or losing a bridge tournament were pretty much exhausted in that antique variety of film, the college football movie of the 1930s, and the two plot threads seem impossible to balance in intensity. Ah well.

41R4aESvkYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Being as obsessive as I am about reading all the mysteries, of course over the years I’ve tracked down dozens of mysteries about bridge written by bridge players. Unfortunately there are no really good ones. In fact the more famous the bridge player the more horrible the mystery, it seems. Terrence Reese and Jeremy Flint are two very famous bridge players who both competed for England at the highest international level, but their 1979 bridge/mystery/thriller novel, Trick 13, is tooth-grindingly painful to read. Reese was well known to be incredibly focused at the bridge table (there’s a famous story about his friends hiring a woman to walk nude around the table while he was playing a hand, and he didn’t notice) and wrote dozens of bridge textbooks; this novel reads as though it was written by someone who had been told how humans tend to act but who had never actually met any. Except for the parts where a woman is spanked with a hairbrush, which are regrettably salacious and smack of someone’s personal knowledge. Ugh.

268678Don Von Elsner was a very good bridge player and it may well have been that he would have found success as a mystery writer if he’d found a way to focus on the puzzle mystery. He had most of what he needed; a sense of how to sprinkle humour through his plots, an understanding that you had to tell a story before you gave bridge lectures, and the ability to occasionally create a reasonably good character.  Unfortunately in the early 60s when he was writing, what publishers wanted was spy novels, so he wrote spy novels with a bridge background about the adventures of one Jake Winkman: bridge player, low-level spy, and enthusiastic heterosexual. He achieved publication in mass-market paperback by a major publisher, so someone was reading these back in the 60s, but they don’t stand up well. The books focus more on sex than violence and the spying is minimal. (One of his plots, about a Commie code being transmitted via the spot cards in newspaper bridge hands, is just ludicrous.)

353927812Dorothy Rice Sims certainly stands out in the history of bridge, although unfortunately not especially for her contribution to mystery writing. Mrs. Sims may indeed have become famous to bridge players originally because of her marriage to a national bridge champion, P. Hal Sims, and their subsequent winning of the second national mixed-pair championship in the US (and then their shared participation in a very important public bridge competition). But her fascinating biography — read the bare bones of it here in Wikipedia — includes the invention of an entire area of bridge theory, that of the “psychic” bid. She played literally at the dawn of bridge when no one really knew what they were doing, but everyone was anxious to discern what the best “rules” for bidding and play were; except Mrs. Sims. Her philosophy was literally to make things up on the spur of the moment (she wrote a book called How to Live on a Hunch, or, the Art of Psychic Living) and her ground-breaking book, Psychic Bidding, was published after her multiple championships. The next year she collaborated on 1932’s Fog, a thriller taking place aboard an ocean liner, with experienced thriller writer Valentine Williams; I don’t think it’s going too far overboard to suggest that Mr. Williams did most of the heavy lifting. The book is interesting; I’m hampered by not having a copy at hand to refresh my memory, but I recall thinking it was at least competent and enjoyable reading.

2595722This brings me finally to the most successful writer of mysteries and writer on bridge, S. K. (Skid) Simon. Skid Simon collaborated with Caryl Brahms, a newspaper writer and ballet columnist, on the first of eleven comic novels in 1937, A Bullet in the Ballet. This novel immediately catapulted them to the front rank of a writing style which they pioneered, the madcap mystery — Julian Symons would have categorized them as Farceurs. A murder takes place in the eccentric ranks of the ballet company of Vladimir Stroganoff, a zany Russian-born impresario, and Inspector Quill of Scotland Yard must untangle financial, political, and unusual sexual motives before solving the crime. The book was a best-seller in the UK in its year (partly because it was unusually frank about the sexual preferences of certain of the ballet dancers) and generated a career for the pair writing comedic takes on various historical situations before Simon’s untimely death at age 40. I’ve never cared for this particular four-volume series about Quill and Stroganoff, because they seem a little overwrought to me, but they certainly have their adherents.

Skid Simon, though, is much better known to the bridge world than the mystery one; he was one of a small group who created the British-born bridge bidding system known as Acol. I’m not sure how to describe the magnitude of this achievement; it was a revolutionary thing in its day and created the foundation for decades of competition at the highest levels of international play, including the foundations of the careers of Terence Reece and Jeremy Flint.  Simon also wrote a brilliant bridge textbook in 1945, Why You Lose At Bridge, that is still useful today; it focuses on the psychology of bridge players and how they learn what they know about bridge. And it does so in a very amusing way; Simon invents humans like the garrulous Mrs. Guggenheim to take the place of the faceless Easts and Norths that populate many bridge texts.  His text will last a long time; it even has utility for games other than bridge.

41KMA5WMC6LAnd I have to say, in terms of a mystery with bridge in it, the Brahms/Simon collaborations are not on the map; there’s literally no bridge at all. So if you’re looking for a murder mystery that is set against a background of duplicate bridge, I have nothing to offer that I think you’ll really enjoy, I’m sad to say. If you want to read a mystery that has bridge in it that isn’t by a professional player, I recommend the works of Susan Moody about bridge teacher Cassandra Swann; there is a nice balance between bridge and mystery, Susan Moody has a great sense of humour, and she can actually write — she knows how to structure a book to make it flow, without being predictable. Okay, it’s a bit hard to imagine why a bridge teacher keeps getting involved in murders but I personally have been able to suspend my disbelief; I wish she’d write a few more.

Please, please, do not write and tell me about your cousin’s former bridge partner in rural Wisconsin who self-published a bridge mystery. I’ve read a couple of those, perhaps even that specific one, and trust me — I am doing the authors a favour by not reviewing them. So far the field of self-published bridge mysteries has been marked by a uniform awfulness, in my experience, and the experience of shooting those particular fish in that small barrel is not one I relish. Yes, it is impressive to have mastered the strip squeeze; I haven’t managed it. The place for that sort of anecdote is half-time break at a tournament, not grinding the action of a murder mystery to a complete dead stop while you explain your brilliance for ten pages. And, generally speaking, if one wants to write a murder mystery it helps to have read a couple first. Don’t whip out the unreliable narrator gambit or the long-lost twin brother as if I’ve been living under a rock for fifty well-read years. I went through three or four of these no-hit wonders a few years back and until someone writes the breakout novel, you can safely avoid everything that’s not from a major publisher.

1081529Similarly, I am absolutely not interested in any of the handful of cozy bridge mysteries in various series, some of which I’ve also read. On The Slam by Honor Hartman about the little old widow (#1 in a series!) who decides to learn bridge until an unpleasant neighbour is murdered at the table will stand for all of them, as far as I’m concerned. It might possibly be of use if you were having trouble understanding some of the most basic principles of bridge, since it handles them lightly and clearly and for the most part leaves them alone. The mystery itself might trouble a bright fourteen-year-old to solve before the police do; you will not be unduly strained. I gave this book to a dear friend who was very elderly at the time, and in roughly the same situation.  She returned it to me almost immediately with a withering glance, saying, “What PAP.” I have to agree. Generally, any book whose cover proclaims “Bridge tips included!” is suggesting a paucity of attention to the mystery in the process.  And all the Goodreads comments that suggest the positive virtue that you don’t actually have to know anything about bridge to read this book — are missing the point. That’s a bug, not a feature. The book should make you want to learn, not be pleased that you don’t know how.

If you are a bridge player who wants to read a mystery, I suggest that you either go with Susan Moody or avoid the topic of bridge entirely as a basis for a mystery. And if you want to know how to play a better game of bridge, I emphatically recommend S. J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge.

Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald (1933)

Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald (1933)

PM-Police2Author:

Philip MacDonald, although this book was originally published as by “Martin Porlock”. Philip MacDonald was a well-known Golden Age writer who came to prominence with a clever book called The Rasp, in 1924.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “L”, “Read a book that has been made into a movie.” This qualifies twice: The Mystery of Mr. X in 1934 and The Hour of 13 in 1952.

Publication Data:

Even so simple a question has a complicated answer here. This book was originally published in 1933 in the UK as X v Rex as by “Martin Porlock”. It has been suggested that it was later published as The Mystery of Mr. X under the author’s best-known name of Philip MacDonald, which would probably be some kind of movie tie-in edition (see above), but I am wholly unable to confirm this and I advise my readers to take good care before quoting me. It has certainly been published as the edition at the top of this post and numerous others in the United States as Mystery of the Dead Police as by Philip MacDonald. The edition shown above is Pocket Books #90 from 1940 which I believe is the first U.S. paper edition. Most publications these days appear to have stabilized as Mystery of the Dead Police, perhaps because most new editions are American.

MacDonald seemed to have an affinity for the letter “X”; his publishers seemed to have a positive delight in changing the titles of his books. You should be aware that this book has nothing to do with Warrant for X, another MacDonald book/film property that I’ve addressed here; I have more to say about MacDonald and his work there.

2196About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. 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. 

From the standpoint of 2014, it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t really such a thing as a “serial killer” plot. We are currently inundated by them, to the tune of a couple of prime-time television programmes, dozens of films, and enough good and bad novels to sink a yacht. Back in the day, though, before the term “serial killer” was invented — Wikipedia is not entirely sure, but the English-language phrase is “commonly attributed to … the 1970s” — we had novels and films about concepts like “psycho killer”, “Jack the Ripper”, “blood lust”, etc. I believe you’ll agree with me that the concept first became cemented in the language because of the activities of Jack the Ripper. No one really wrote a lot of fiction about Jack the Ripper (barring Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger in 1913) and relatively few people wrote novels about “lust murderers” until about the time of this novel (1933). By 1936, upon the publication of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, the concept had become solidified sufficiently to be the subject of one of Christie’s famous twists. But in 1933, there was a clean patch of untrodden snow upon which writers were free to scrawl whatever they wished. 

imagesSo it is difficult from the modern perspective to write about these books because the people who wrote them and read them had a different set of words they used in order to categorize them. It’s hard to trace the development of the serial killer novel back into a time when there was no such thing. In 1933, although as I’ve said such themes were not common, there was an occasional novel about the activities of an insane person who commits a series of crimes for what seems to the reader to be an insane reason. The course of the novel is something like a modern procedural, where we see the activities of crime fighters attempting to (a) figure out the linking theme that governs the killer’s choice of victims, and/or (b) use knowledge about the killer (including an awareness of that linking theme) in order to predict the next victim and thus intervene and capture the killer.

Philip MacDonald apparently enjoyed this theme sufficiently to write at least two similar novels, Murder Gone Mad and Mystery of the Dead Police. Both are about a series of violent murders committed by an individual who is insane, as above. In Murder Gone Mad (I don’t have a copy in front of me) it’s random members of a small British town, and the killer is someone who is concealing their madness and functioning quite well. In Mystery of the Dead Police it’s uniformed police officers, and the killer is less completely functional.

The first such murder takes place in the small town of Farnley; someone fakes a burglary call at the local manor and, when all active constables are called out, someone enters the police station and kills the desk officer. After that, the scene of the crimes moves to London, where someone is killing an on-duty officer every couple of days.  The tension mounts over the course of the novel until Scotland Yard forms an alliance with a consultant, Nicholas Revel, to trap Mr. X and bring him to justice.

Meanwhile, there’s another plot entirely going on in the background. Mr. Revel might be a criminal; he is certainly extremely wealthy and young and handsome, and he apparently hangs around with members of the underworld. We meet a young woman, Jane Frensham, cherished only daughter of Sir Horace Frensham, who happens to be in charge of Scotland Yard. Jane is on-again-off-again engaged to Christopher Vayle, a beefy alpha-male-type young aristocrat. Vayle gets drunk at his regimental dinner and decides he has to have a policeman’s helmet from which to drink; after he biffs the man on duty in the neighbourhood, the stunned constable is killed minutes later by Mr. X. Vayle is prosecuted for the death — but, strangely enough, Revel shows up and gives Vayle a complete alibi, corroborated by someone we learn is a henchman of Revel’s. (I have to admit, I might be confusing the details here with one of the films. The Mystery of Mr. X certainly makes it clear exactly how this process happens and cements it in your mind by linking it to an interesting character, the henchman who poses as a garrulous Cockney cab driver.)

In the next while, Revel uses this entree to Vayle and thereby to Jane Frensham in order to seduce Jane and meet her father socially. Since everyone in London is mesmerized by the Mr. X killings, Sir Horace is entirely consumed by the case and looking for suggestions; Revel piques his interest. It seems also as though Revel is planning some kind of criminal act but the details are certainly not clear, nor even is Revel guaranteed to be participating. We are told about the activities of a gentlemen who is extremely carefully disguised as a down-on-his-luck clubman, who gets together with other lowlifes in pubs and talks about … something.  But we’re not guaranteed at any point that Revel is in disguise, merely that someone is.

Sporadically through the book, we have also been given the ramblings of the killer himself, writing in a journal.  We learn something about why he does what he does, and certainly a lot about how, but we don’t have enough information to identify him or precisely why he has selected policemen as his victims. It becomes clear that the killer is, in modern terms, decompensating mentally, and stepping up the level and violence of his murders.

Revel makes a number of suggestions that Sir Horace finds very useful in the hunt for Mr. X. It seems to be that the unspecified crime to be committed by the disguised man is not going to be committed, unless the activities of Mr. X cease. Meanwhile — and this is a significant theme in the book — Vayle realizes that Jane has fallen in love with Revel and reacts very badly, threatening violence to Revel and creating social contretemps. Jane comes to understand that she has fallen for Revel; Sir Horace doesn’t quite understand what’s going on but will allow Jane to make her own choices, it seems.

Revel and Sir Horace set a trap for the killer, using Vayle as the figure of the policeman who is the bait. Together they trap the killer, arrest him, and find his diary, proving beyond doubt the identity of Mr. X. In something of a reversal of the reader’s expectations, we learn tangentially that a large robbery has taken place; Revel leaves town and Jane reunites with Vayle. Revel is last heard of when he sends them a wedding present.

Why is this book worth your time?

Mystery of the Dead Police would be a significant book even if it were only an early example of the modern serial killer novel. It’s fascinating to follow the development of the theme over the decades; at this point, the killer is “insane” and his actions cannot be predicted or even more than barely logical. In the 1950s, there was a growing awareness that some such murderers in real life, like the Boston Strangler, were motivated by some twisted sexual motive. And in the 70s and beyond, of course, the modern serial killer might be represented by Hannibal Lecter; a brilliantly insane figure who has rejected the ability of society to control his actions. But this is 1933, and thinking has only gone as far as imagining that the series of murders is committed by an insane person for a relatively inexplicable reason.

There’s another reason to source this book and enjoy it for yourself; it is really very well written, and one of its strengths is that it’s an example of a writer striking out, trying to find new forms and ways of telling a story. E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) contains a section near the beginning where the world’s newspapers are seen to react to the death of industrialist Sigsbee Manderson in a series of headlines, which was quite innovative for its day. This volume contains segments where the reactions of various levels of society to the activities of Mr. X are displayed in brief paragraphs, mainly for the amusement of the reader.

For instance, chapter 22 consists of small segments each from a different point of view. The first segment explains that every segment of society is concerned about Mr. X; Mr. X writes a letter to the newspapers and everyone reacts. The next segments are from the point of view, respectively, of Sir Horace, the Prime Minister, Mrs. Rawle of 14 Laburnum Road, Upper Sydenham, a General at the War Office, a couple of Mr. Revel’s henchmen, a superintendent of police under Sir Horace, Mr. X himself, three rank-and-file policemen, and finally Sir Hector again. Each segment is merely a few paragraphs long, more or less; characters like Mrs. Rawle are not so much introduced as allowed to speak characteristically for a few moments, then vanish from the novel.

I think of this technique as being an early precursor of what I call “intensively recomplicated” genre novels like, say, John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit (a dystopian science fiction novel of 1969) where the narrative is multi-stranded and some main characters never encounter each other. It is used to show various types of people reacting to a central event or trend, in this case interracial disharmony in the United States of — exactly 2014, which as I write on New Year’s Day 2014 doesn’t seem so far from reality! Anyway, Brunner was nominated for the Nebula for this novel, and deservedly so. But without the early efforts of writers like MacDonald, this method of storytelling wouldn’t have been possible.

x-screen.4The Mystery Of Mr. X (1934)

This book was first filmed, in a fairly faithful rendition of the two plots if not the recomplicated structure, a year later. It stars Robert Montgomery as Nicholas Revel, Elizabeth Allan as Jane, Henry Stephenson as Sir Horace Frensham and Lewis Stone, the garrulous Cockney cab-driver who plays a major role. The film’s equivalent of Christopher Vayle is played by Ralph Forbes, and Leonard Mudie is seen briefly as Mr. X.

Although I’ve sourced a copy of The Hour of 13 and it is on its way, I haven’t screened it in time for this to be my first post of 2014. I may return to this in the future and update this, if there’s anything truly significant about the remake.

936full-the-hour-of-13-posterJanuary 15, 2014: I’ve now screened The Hour of 13 (1952) a couple of times and thought I’d make a note of it. This may sound paradoxical, but what’s significant is that this movie is very nearly an identical remake of The Mystery of Mr. X except for the cast, and one unusual change; the time period has changed to what might be 1890. The garrulous Cockney cab-driver’s cab is drawn by a horse, for instance. I can’t think of why they would have arbitrarily changed the period. This must have been expensive in sets, costumes and props. It might be that the film company had just done an Edwardian production and found this convenient. Peter Lawford may have wanted to go all costume on us. Who knows?

Peter Lawford is Nicholas Revel, Dawn Addams is Jane Frensham, Michael Hordern is a wonderful Sir “Herbert” Frensham, Derek Bond as this film’s equivalent of Christopher Vayle.  There are minor changes here and there between the filmed versions, but the two are remarkably equivalent — except The Hour of 13 is slightly easier to follow, because they’ve added a scene or two that makes it clear how Peter Lawford’s character works as a jewel thief and just what the stakes are. I haven’t gone to the trouble of comparing exactly, but the climactic scene where Nicholas Revel and Mr. X are battling in an abandoned factory, or some similar building, appears to have been filmed on exactly the same set and even with exactly the same fight sequence, the same desperate scramble not to be decapitated by an elevator car, etc. Peter Lawford is quite charismatic but not up to Robert Montgomery’s high standard. The film overall is uninspired — the acting in general is not convincing and there is an air of dull melodrama throughout — but the studio has given it full value in sets, costumes, etc.

UnknownNotes for the Collector:

This novel has been in print for quite a bit of its long life; it was selected as #19 of the Dell Great Mystery Library in the late 1950s. The copy I read for this review is, as is my habit, pictured at the very top of this piece; it is a copy of Pocket #70 from 1940. A Near Fine copy on Abe is today selling for $40. A Canadian bookseller with more enthusiasm than realism wants $75 for a copy of the 1973 re-issue of the original Collins Crime Club edition, titled X v. Rex as by “Martin Porlock”, and insists that it is scarce; $75 will also get you a copy of the first US edition from Doubleday in 1933, Very Good in an ordinary jacket. I know which one I’d prefer for my $75. The true first can be found on viaLibri for $99 in VG shape; a  copy of the beautiful first paper edition, Collins White Circle, London, 1939, tenth edition in the scarce dust jacket (seen just above, with the standard “two hooded criminals” cover), will set you back $50.

And, of course, there are the usual wacky prices and editions from sources such as eBay and Amazon, mostly, as noted above, from vendors with more enthusiasm than realism. I don’t see copies of Mystery of Mr. X on Amazon but TCM shows it on an irregular basis. You can get a copy of Hour of 13 for $17.96 from Amazon today.

If I were buying a paper copy of this novel to lay down for the future, I think I might look for a pristine copy of the Collins White Circle edition with jacket, even over the early Pocket edition; the British edition is much more visually interesting than the muddy Pocket cover. If the true first is within your reach, by all means, get what you can afford; this is a fairly important book and will appreciate in the future.

Warrant For X, by Philip Macdonald

Title: Warrant For X (also published as The Nursemaid Who Disappeared)

Author: Philip Macdonald

Publication Data:  Originally published 1938 as The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, Collins Crime Club.  This edition: Vintage (1983).  Many other editions exist under both titles.  The American title seems to have stabilized as Warrant For X and was published in paper by Pocket, #328 (1945).

The book was used as the basis for two films: 1938’s The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, a black-and-white British film, and 1956’s 23 Paces to Baker Street, which departs considerably from the novel.

About this book:

Philip Macdonald was a clever writer who came to the public’s attention with his first mystery in 1924, The Rasp, a very early example of the “impossible crime” genre.  He also was responsible for some very early examples of the “serial killer” novel — before the phrase “serial killer” was even coined.  Murder Gone Mad, for instance, from 1931, chronicles the events surrounding a “psycho killer” who kills a string of people, apparently for no reason, and the mad scramble of the police to track down the murderer — so does X vs. Rex (1933), with the added fillip that the victims are all police officers.  Another, Rynox, known in the U.S. as The Rynox Mystery, has delighted a couple of generations of mystery fans with its light-hearted capers.  (I am aware of at least two other titles under which this book was published, so caveat emptor.  Many Macdonald novels, hatefully, have two or more titles.)

And in 1938, Warrant For X documents a very clever idea that is at the base of this clever novel.  An American playwright is in a teashop and overhears the conversation of two women (whom he cannot see) who are apparently planning a crime.  One, with a deeper crueler voice, is intimidating the other, with a higher, more gentle voice.  He catches a glimpse as they leave of a short stumpy brunette and a tall slender young blonde.  And one of them leaves a glove behind that contains what seems to be a scrawled shopping list.

This is an early example of what one might call a proto-police procedural, or perhaps if one allows such a sub-genre to contain amateurs acting like police this designation makes more sense.  The playright takes his suspicions to the police and is pretty much turned away, so he enlists the assistance of well-known detective Anthony Gethryn (whose adventures also began with The Rasp).  Together, they piece together crucial details from the few details offered by the playwright and from the shopping list, which turns out to contain much more information than one might have thought, and learn that a child of wealthy parents is going to be kidnapped with the assistance of her nursemaid.  And the book moves to an exciting finale, once the police get involved.

It’s hard to describe one of the most appealing things about this book and Macdonald’s work in general — the quality of sheer intelligence.  The extended piece of deduction from the shopping list is the equivalent of, say, the multi-page sequence of deductions from a broken shoelace and, later, the position of a filing cabinet, in Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery or the long chain of logic about teacups and tea in The Greek Coffin Mystery.  (I have to say that it is dependent upon a fact which was certainly known to Macdonald’s British audience in 1938 but not to the modern non-British reader — that it would have been illegal to purchase lamb or suet on a Sunday.  But in its own context it is entirely fair play.)  And when Gethryn and his crew of detectives go into action, I was reminded irresistibly of a number of adventures of Nero Wolfe marshalling the talents of his ‘teers.  The writing sparkles from time to time with excellent dialogue applied to bring to life a clever plot.

And one thing I have thought in the past about Macdonald is that he was really a very visual writer — which is perhaps why so many of his works were made into films.  (Wikipedia cites 13, including the well-known List of Adrian Messenger.)  When the playwright in the teashop cannot see or be seen by the criminal women, it is clear why — you understand it visually instead of merely being told to accept that they cannot.  The Rasp, for instance, is based entirely around a visual image (I cannot be more specific without spoiling it) that is crucial to the plot, and it is remarkably easy to accept that a witness has seen one thing when they have actually seen another, because you are shown, not told.  Things that are seen by witnesses and recounted seem to recur disproportionately frequently in Macdonald’s novels and thus I think it is legitimate to look at the filmed versions of his novels to understand the novels more clearly.

About the films:

I don’t remember seeing the earlier British production from 1938, the same year as the novel’s release, but I am given to understand that it is quite faithful to the novel.  23 Paces to Baker Street, unfortunately, is another matter.  It premiered on the American station TCM the other night and prompted me to dig out my copy of the novel for comparison’s sake.  The series detective, Anthony Gethryn, seems completely absent and the details of the playwright are sufficiently altered as to make him blind.  Frankly, I have no idea why.  Did Van Johnson want to play a blind man?  (Which he did quite unconvincingly, I may add.)  Was it that the producers felt it was not possible to make the playwright’s inability to see the women seem believable without removing his sight?  I just can’t say.  The film also suffers from a general dumbing-down — the shopping list has pretty much vanished, and Vera Miles is strongly present as a love interest who takes much less room in the novel, the playwright’s butler becomes a major character, etc..  The only nice thing was that the late great Estelle Winwood played the barmaid (the teashop becomes the local pub) and steals every scene she’s in, to great comedic effect and even a nice moment of pathos.

Another film I haven’t seen is what has been described to me as a “giallo classic”, 1972’s Crimes of the Black Cat.  I am informed that the opening and closing of the giallo owe a great debt to this material, which I have found to be a regrettably common practice among the first wave of Italian giallo masters.  If they liked an idea, they adapted it wholesale.  I have no idea what was lifted and how, so I’ll be looking to track this film down.  Another one for the “list”.

Notes For the Collector:

The edition portrayed at the top of this article is the one from which the article was written, as is my habit.  I have certainly owned a couple of nicer editions in my time, including a copy of Pocket #328, which has a dramatic cover in tones of black and red.  The first paperback, a Fontana edition as The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, is less dramatic.  The book is also #5 in the Dell Great Mystery Library.  Perhaps its most interesting publication is as part of the summer, 1940 edition of pulp magazine Detective Book Magazine, which is currently on Abebooks.com for $29. Certainly many other editions, including book club reprints and many paperbacks, exist.  Reading copies of this volume are plentiful.

My contention will be that the Pocket edition is the most beautiful and collectible.  Abebooks has a number of examples in varying conditions from $4 on up.  The UK first edition, the true first, will set you back at the most $140.13 as of October 2012, and the US first, fine in near fine jacket, is a cool $350.

My overriding contention is that a well-written and intelligent book by a skilful author is worth having because it will hold its value.  Good books are a better investment than their poorly-written brothers, even more famous ones.