The Deadly Sunshade, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1940)

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade (1940) is the sixteenth in a series of mystery novels about Asey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock” of Massachusetts, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (PAT). It has PAT’s characteristic breakneck bumper-cars plot structure — Asey begins by being surprised by a murder and everyone races around at top speed in all directions until he solves the case. But, since it’s 1940, there are interesting undercurrents of espionage and wartime hardships and social disruption.

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

What is this novel about?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, a Norton reprintAsey begins at home, dealing with his cousin Jennie Mayo and the wonderful Mrs. Pussy Belcher, known to everyone as Picklepuss because she runs Aunt Pussy’s Perfect Pickles. Picklepuss and Jennie have been inflamed by a radio personality (one Rounceval Jones) with a talk show and have joined the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action; they are collecting guns and are urging women to become well-armed against the apparently imminent point when Cape Cod will be invaded from Europe.

Asey is against the idea of arming the women because the accident rate will outweigh the benefits. Well, okay, also because he’s sexist, but I think the events of the book justify it; immediately after he insists that the women obtain licenses for the guns and be far more careful with them, a bullet whizzes past his ear, fired from nearby sand dunes. (Later the local doctor reports his wife has also accidentally fired at him.) Then he gets a phone message from an epicentre of local issues, Mrs. Newell, who asks him to meet her at the Yacht Club because it’s a matter of life and death. Apparently it was — by the time he arrives, she’s lying dead on the beach under a bright umbrella, poisoned with atropine.

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, Foul Play Press edition from the 1980s

As I noted, this starts everyone in the book running around in all directions at top speed. Asey forms a little group of apparently like-minded people around him, all who have an interest and most a motive, and he caroms around among them like a pinball. The reasoning behind all this activity is usually reasonable … okay, sometimes reasonable and sometimes just silly. But it keeps your mind occupied with diverting sub-plots like why is someone burying Mrs. Newell’s knitting bag in a sand dune, and is it true that the Commodore of the Yacht Club is raising money for the club under false pretences, and why did his son misdiagnose Mrs. Newell’s atropine poisoning as sunstroke. And of course, many of her ex-suitors and occasional providers of expensive jewelry are nearby at the Yacht Club.

Meanwhile Picklepuss and many other housewives are running around with guns ostensibly patrolling the beaches against the prospect of enemy submarines. After a number of chases and bizarre complications, Asey is taken hostage by a well-armed woman sharpshooter (who has been brought in to teach the women to shoot). In the process of lying on the floor under armed guard, staring at some quilt patterns, Asey has the crucial realization about Mrs. Newell’s knitted mittens pattern and realizes whodunit and why, just in time to forestall some terrible developments.

Why is this novel worth your time?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, 1st US edition (Norton, 1940). Note the sticker.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor is like well-aged single-malt Scotch. If you have a taste for her work, you make sure to put yourself in the way of as much of it as possible; if the taste makes you shudder, you should certainly find something else to read. PAT’s novels always take place at high speed and minimal coherence, and there is quite a bit of the narrative that is intended to make you chuckle. These are the screwball comedies of mystery. If you’re a devotee of, say, the dry-as-dust timetable mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts, you may well be repelled by PAT’s entire oeuvre (especially by her eight books as by Alice Tilton, which are even more breakneck and hilarious).

But if you are amused by such things, as I am in the case of PAT, you will read all her books and notice a few things that seem to recur. The plot structures are all very similar, as previously noted. Asey forms a little group of people around him who aid him with solving the mystery or keeping its insane side-effects under control. I’ve noticed, though, that there are a few types that seem to recur in that little cadre.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, The Deadly SunshadePrincipal among them is a “competent housewife”. There’s a sensible woman who is in the middle of a group of people who are not very sensible, and she’s attempting to maintain order and keep the house running in the midst of chaos. Then there’s usually some single-minded people who are trying to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. There’s a plucky young woman who has faced adversity and is unjustly suspected of murder; she usually helps Asey out first-hand, and/or a handsome young man who is in trouble but you know he has a good heart.

Also frequently, there is a nasty bitch who delights in stealing other women’s husbands and whatever money isn’t nailed down; her male equivalent is a cranky middle-aged man who controls other people’s money and is unjustly denying it to them, or making it impossible for them to get it. Another repeating type is a family of people who are somehow off-kilter … a middle-aged couple who are eccentric and have eccentric children.

And nearly always, the local colour characters. There’s a network of people in Quanomet and Skaket who don’t interact with “people from away” but have all been intermarrying for hundreds of years, and they are all somehow related. So Jennie Mayo can always tap into a community resource and locate someone’s quaint relative who can come up with just the right element to resolve a plot twist.

I’m not saying all these stock characters are in each and every book (and certainly not in this particular volume); some, like PAT’s “world-weary soprano” character (yes, really) appear only a few times, but enough that you recognize them as repeating from other stories, with different names. But one reason to read your way through all 24 volumes of Asey Mayo stories (and the eight Alice Tilton books about Leonidas Witherall, “the man who looked like Shakespeare”) is for the pleasure of recognizing these recurring characters and seeing just how PAT has turned them into new faces for this new story. It’s kind of like commedia dell’arte. There are even repetitive elements of the plot that are in the nature of lazzi; someone always drives too fast on the back roads of Quanomet without lights, Asey always chases the murderer on foot and trips, and someone attempts to dispose of an incriminating or inconvenient object by burying it in a sand dune or throwing it in a pond, under the hidden scrutiny of a puzzled Asey.

So if you read the whole 32 volumes, you’ll understand what I mean. No single volume is absolutely representative but, taken together, they all form a picture of PAT’s stable of stock characters — and her obvious pleasure in writing about them.

I think this volume is also worth your time because it’s one of a few stories where a mystery writer takes an essentially light-hearted series character and involves them directly with World War 2.  I did say that I was going to give away a little bit about Agatha Christie’s N or M? and that’s about all I’ll say; Tommy and Tuppence interact with an espionage-based plot that involves Fifth Columnists and spies. It’s the same here, Asey Meets The Fifth Column, although you could be excused for overlooking it; honestly, the spy subplot doesn’t become apparent or functional until the final pages of the denouement because PAT has concealed it so well. There’s a function to some of the war-news radio broadcasts that may escape the unwary reader.

md22521949944But if you read only the wartime PAT efforts, as I have done recently, another pattern starts to emerge. It seems as though PAT saw herself as a kind of unofficial propagandist on behalf of the war effort. In this volume, from 1940, it’s only about the possibilities of espionage and a possible enemy naval presence off the seacoast. Yes, she uses it as a plot element to poke a little fun at listeners who got inflamed by a radio talk show to form the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action. But there’s something underneath the fun-poking that seems a little more serious. Two old duffers in the Yacht Club are a background ostinato of “Sea power! No, air power!” Everyone listens to the war news on the radio. By the time PAT reaches 1942 and The Six Iron Spiders, as I talked about the other day, one character is informing Asey sanctimoniously that rubber is a sacred trust for the nation and it’s everyone’s duty not to waste it by racing around at high speed. First aid classes and spotter duty are irksome and chafing, but everyone is always ready to pitch in and do them. And Jennie Mayo becomes a human dynamo who apparently means to single-handedly win the war.

This book contains a glancing reference in its initial pages that could stand for a lot of offhand phrases and brief observations in this and other books.  It’s just thrown away, but it’s meant to be telling — the speaker is not pleased with Asey and he’s in the room.

“‘The Yacht Club?’ Mrs. Belcher sniffed as she sat down in the rocker. ‘I should think that Asey might find more to do for his country these days than wear white flannels and go to Yacht Clubs!'”

PAT never forgets that the country is at war and neither do her characters.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was the way in which the narrative acknowledges the influence of radio commentators like Rounceval Jones. Jones’s voice is not heard directly in the book, so this is a very minor point, but it did make me chuckle to think that people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones had WW2 counterparts, agitating for not only the right to bear arms but the duty to do so.

To sum up — there’s the usual PAT high-speed mystery plot and her standard cast of characters, a great deal of good humour, and overtop it all is a medium-heavy dose of We Must Win The War. If this is the delightful taste of single-malt Scotch to you as it is to me, settle into a large armchair to find out what the hell it is about that knitting pattern that gets Asey to the solution.

A note on editions

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, First UK edition, Collins Crime Club

Phoebe Atwood Taylor was not well served for many years by the paperback market. There was a single uniform edition by the great people at Foul Play Press in the 1980s where they did her entire oeuvre, in a simple and distinct artistic style; this is the edition you’ll have seen everywhere. Countryman Press did most of them about a decade ago but I’m unable to find evidence that this specific title was among their reprints. But before the 1980s you were pretty much restricted to ugly inexpensive hardcover reprints from Norton and Triangle.

This title, though, was one of a few of PAT’s that received the full “Good Girl Art” treatment as part of the early Popular Library line; #126, from 1947, has the corpse in a two-piece swimsuit as the principal design element. A crisp copy of this will hold its value and might set you back US$20.

The first edition has an interesting sticker on it that pinpoints its publication date as December 1940, and that it is BRAND NEW and Not previously published anywhere. But I think the first UK, from Collins Crime Club, puts a delightful British take on the cover art; I’d be looking for this very pretty book in jacket if I didn’t already have a full set of reading copies.



It’s all my fellow bloggers’ fault: three lazy reviews

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

It’s been a little while since I’ve been a very regular blogger, I’m sorry to say, and I’m going to take the liberty of blaming some of my recent laziness on the excellence of my fellow bloggers. Allow me to explain. Three times in the last few weeks, I’ve thought, “Oh, that particular piece would make a good blog post, because reasons.” Two books and an old mystery movie, to be precise. So I take the work and go through it a couple of more times, looking for themes, something unusual about this particular item, etc. And then I go and look on the internet and, darn it, someone by whose intelligence I have been impressed in the past has already taken the same item apart and explained it much better than I would have done, and — and this is the killing part — in fewer than a third the words it would have taken me to do it. How galling. 😉

So may I recommend you to a couple of other reviews?

The Six Iron Spiders, Phoebe Atwood TaylorThe Six Iron Spiders, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (she liked to sign herself PAT) from 1942, was well covered by the excellent (and enviably prolific!) Kate Jackson here, in her blog crossexaminingcrime in 2016. Kate notes the idea right off the bat that also made me think the book was interesting; that the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot as well as of the setting in this story.

WW2 First aid courseAsey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”, is involved with a murder that happens in his own home at a meeting of volunteer first aid attendants being instructed in advanced techniques by Asey’s cousin Jennie. The story proceeds at PAT’s characteristic high-speed pace, with bodies that disappear and reappear and people running in all directions at high speed. The difference here is that everyone speaks through the shared lens of The War at its everyday level for the American populace. Thus high-speed chases are discouraged because tires for one’s personal vehicle are impossible to obtain, and people are constantly doing war-related things like spotting — sitting in a dark place looking for enemy aircraft/submarines — or studying first aid, or doing a kind of orienteering, where everyone agrees to meet in 90 minutes at an encoded location on a list everyone should have memorized.

As Asey remarks to himself near the end of the book,

“… it would be hard to plan a murder, and harder to commit one after you’d planned it. You couldn’t ever quite tell where your victim might be, what he might be doing, or how many other people might be watching you from a spotter’s station, or how many people might suddenly fly to the scene on a problem of one sort or another.”

Given the type of plotting that PAT is famous for, no wonder; the more confusion with people running around on secret business, the better. So that was the main point of interest for both of us. I must agree with Kate’s dislike of PAT’s less than charming observations about women in slacks; I can only add in PAT’s defence that generally she was more tolerant of difference than many of her contemporaries, and actually seemed to me to champion a specific kind of ultra-competent womanhood. There are many examples of highly competent women in PAT’s novels, Jennie Mayo herself being a prime example.

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

And to answer the question shared by everyone who cannot see the cover art for most editions: “iron spiders” in this case are a Cape Coddy way of referring to cast-iron frying pans. The spider appears to me to have a longer handle and a deeper bottom than similar skillets.

Atomic Renaissance, by Jeffrey MarksIf you want more information about Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this most fascinating writer of fast-moving wholesome Americana, the only reference book worth your time is by a friend of mine, Jeff Marks.  Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s is the only volume to give you the background on this madcap writer. I will forgive Jeff that his blog, The Corpse Steps Out, doesn’t get enough attention because I know that his biographies of mystery writers always take a long time to research and are just fascinating when they get to us … write faster, Jeff!

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931


Next I was going to have a look at an old film from my archives, Murder by the Clock from 1931, based on two works by mystery writer Rufus King. “Oh, good,” I thought idly, “there’s a book AND a movie that I can talk about, and Inspector Valcour deserves some attention.” Cliff Aliperti at his blog Immortal Ephemera, to my horror, had more to say about the movie in his excellent piece found here than I would have done, and — oh, the shame — at even greater length, because he knew about many

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

Murder by the Clock, by Rufus King (Popular Library #31 from 1944)

filmic things I’d never heard of. Then when I found that my superbly well-read friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books had in 2012 done an in-depth look at the book … found here … my review was mentally being wadded into a ball and tossed away. Why bother, when these guys totally get it already? John’s assessment that this book is more like Ross MacDonald than any of King’s contemporaries is just brilliantly insightful, and I like King’s playful way with language just as much as he does. One tiny correction to a comment in John’s column; the William Boyd who plays the lead here is not the same William Boyd as became Hopalong Cassidy. The lead actor here called himself William “Stage” Boyd to distinguish himself from the man who later became Hoppy, and nearly ruined Hoppy’s film career by being involved in a scandal.  Fascinating stuff.  But the two actors had the same name, which made it very confusing.

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

Anyway, the movie has a creepy element injected into it that has nothing to do with the book of the same name, that I understand is taken from a stage play of Rufus King’s. An elderly woman is terrified of premature burial and has had an elaborate system installed  that sounds a booming horn outside the family mausoleum, if she should wake up in her coffin. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, right? The horn, as you may well expect, goes off at least once during the movie and if you’ve been following along, it will make you jump when it booms. The really amazing thing about this movie, though, is the performance of Lilyan Tashman playing, apparently, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Tashman takes the ball from Theda Bara and runs with it. She is the Vamp ne plus ultra and can apparently rule every heterosexual male in sight with just a whiff of her perfume. Valcourt is made of stronger stuff, though — although the fact that Rufus King was gay may have something to do with his resistance. Lilyan Tashman is a fascinating figure who died only a few years later at age 33, probably from breast cancer, leaving only a handful of fascinating performances by which to judge her. Here, she’s really something. The movie is definitely worth a look for her alone, since the mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long. As of today, you can find it here on YouTube.

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

After being outdone twice, I thought I’d have a look at something by a favourite author of mine, Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (1933). (Published in the US as Dead Mrs. Stratton.) This time I looked first to save myself some time — sure enough, Kate had looked at this book six months ago. Karyn Reeves, at A Penguin a week, also had a look at this one some years back. Both bloggers have insight into what’s going on here and have given us interesting assessments; not much more for me to add. I’m going to have to start unearthing books that are far more scarce!

I agree with Kate Jackson that this is a kind of variation on The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in that Berkeley’s plot makes it clear that the truth about what happened to the completely obnoxious Mrs. Ena Stratton is entirely a function of who happens to be telling the story of her death. The story begins by … well, sort of telling you who commits the murder, but anyone familiar with Berkeley’s over-the-top cleverness knows that it can’t end there. Ena is constantly threatening to kill herself, as one of a vast range of attention-getting stratagems that have infuriated everyone around her, and when she is found hanged after a bizarre party, no one is surprised. Berkeley’s detective, the Silly Ass Roger Sheringham, traces the peculiar course of a chair upon which Mrs. Stratton did or did not stand, as various characters report having moved it here, there, and everywhere around the roof upon which her body is found. It seems as though everyone lies to the police at every opportunity and Sheringham is the only detective in a position to find out what really went on. Again, the experienced Berkeleyite will know that there is always one final twist at the end of the tale, and so it is here. I think you will be ultimately surprised when you learn who did what to Ena Stratton, and when; the final pages hold the final punch.

“Jumping Jenny” is a colloquial back-formation from Robert Louis Stevenson for a hanged woman, which practice thankfully died out some time in the 20th century nearly everywhere on earth. Its male equivalent is the “jumping jack”, the phrase Stevenson used; to my knowledge the exercises that one does in calisthenics classes are named after the jerks and spasms of a person who’s just been hanged. Perhaps your instructor will switch to more strenuous pushups, as mine did when I mentioned this cheerful fact. I need to learn to keep things to myself sometimes. 😉

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping Sphinx, by John Dickson Carr (Bantam #996)

The reason I mention the bizarre nature of the party is that it has an echo in another great mystery by a great writer. Here, as in John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), there is a party at which people dress up as “a well-known murderer or his victim.” In Carr’s book, this is two days before Christmas (!). Okay, who has parties like this?

Sheringham notes that the host is a writer of detective stories and that the idea of the party

“… exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well-known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original …”

This seems to me to be saying that at some point in the past someone had given such a party, and not in a fictional sense either. My online searches revealed nothing about who might have done so, but either Carr and Berkeley are referring to the same thing or else Carr is referring to Berkeley, which is likely — the idea has a certain Grand Guignolerie about it that would appeal to Carr. My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death”, a novella by Rex Stout, this newspaper insert edition from 1943

I know from an old Nero Wolfe story, “Cordially Invited To Meet Death”, that there was such a profession as “party-arranger” that encompassed activities like that. Bess Huddleston, in the story, arranges “the Striker dwarf and giant party”, among other such extravaganzas (including an abortive attempt to hire Wolfe to attend a party and solve an imaginary crime). But enticing people to dress up like murderers or victims to have a party is just beyond me. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I hope the Carr/Berkeley reference to such a party is merely a detective writer’s way of establishing mood and not a kind of party that actually existed.

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for “chicken à la Toulousaine”. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.


I think the lesson is clear that I will have to look further into the recesses of Noah’s Archives to find things about which my fellow bloggers haven’t already spoken. Well, consider me as doing the literary equivalent of spitting on my hands … But it is a pleasure to recommend good work by other bloggers too. Now that I have managed to master the intricacies of the linking function at the top left of this page, I can recommend entire blogs to your attention where I merely cited individual articles before. Go through the three dozen links there and see where your fancy leads you!





Some thoughts on Herbert Resnicow’s mysteries

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 Herbert Resnicow. In no instance here do I reveal the identity of a murderer, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read Resnicow’s works, 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 his books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. (The second-last paragraph mentions the two volumes by name that I think you will enjoy the most.)

Herbert_ResnicowThe works of Herbert Resnicow have recently become available to me — okay, I opened a dusty box in “Noah’s Archives” and there they were, held firmly in place beneath the weighty output of Ruth Rendell. As is my habit, I picked one up to flip through in order to remind myself of his work, and eight books later, I thought I’d make some notes. 😉

I mention my personal process only to indicate why I’ve chosen to go against my habit. Generally when I look at an

9780380692781-usauthor, I choose a single book and examine it in depth as a way of talking about a broader view; the author’s themes or preoccupations as exemplified within the pages of one of his/her works. In the case of Resnicow, I found not that much that can be examined in depth and so I thought I’d look at everything at once to see if there was anything of interest that could be teased out with a wider viewpoint.

Resnicow’s oeuvre

Herbert Resnicow’s publication history began in 1983 with The
9780380699230-usGold Solution
, which was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel. There were four more novels in five years in the Gold series, about the adventures of a middle-aged Jewish married couple who trade barbed insults and solve crimes, rather after the model of Mr. and Mrs. North, Nick and Nora Charles, and a host of other married sleuths.

In 1985, he began a second series about a male attorney and his romantic partner, a female university dean, against a background of crossword puzzles and having crossword blanks as part of the story, to be filled in by the reader so as to provide clues to the mystery for the perspicacious.  There were five of these in two years, with the collaboration of well-known crossword compiler Henry Hook (who here has exceeded even his usual brilliance in many instances by constructing puzzles that meet the needs of the plot).

UnknownIn 1987 and 1990, Resnicow published two novels about Ed Baer and his son Warren, a financier and a philosopher respectively. The first of these was The Dead Room and I’ll suggest it’s one of his best known books: it’s the one that appears on lists of locked-room mysteries including the relevant Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of his brief career, he published five novels with famous co-authors: two with Edward Koch, and one each with Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, and Pelé. I must confess I haven’t seen these in a long time and would have been unlikely to re-read them; the celebrity names are uppermost in large type and Resnicow’s name is presented as “with”. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this “ghost-writing” if your name is actually on the book; a writer friend of mine once referred to this as “withing” and that word suits me just fine. Resnicow was a “wither” for celebrity mysteries and there are five of them.

Gold-CurseWhat you’ll find in his work

As I said, I flipped through a bunch of these in a short time, although I’ve certainly read all these volumes and more previously. I re-read all five crossword mysteries and the first two Gold volumes, and The Dead Room. My archives appear not to contain a copy of the second Baer novel, The Hot Place, and I think I shall have to remedy that; I remember it as being quite readable.

The Gold novels set the tone for much of Resnicow’s remaining work. Alexander Gold and his wife Norma are introduced to a mystery that involves some sort of impossible situation. There is a motivation supplied for the Golds to solve the mystery, either financial or in order to save someone from being unjustly convicted of the crime. And the circumstances of the crime are … well, “impossible” is perhaps more precise than I can be in these circumstances. Let’s say it usually seems as though no one could have reasonably committed the crime and then the experienced Golden Age reader will know what’s coming.

md1077001541I don’t think the “impossible crime” puzzles at the centre of these novels are as clever as others do. I have to say, though, that the critical faculties which my fellow bloggers bring to the defence of Resnicow’s abilities are sufficiently significant that I can’t ignore them, and honestly I feel a little guilty for not liking these as much as my peers. Smart and insightful people think these puzzles are clever, and all I can respond is, “didn’t seem that way to me”. I suspect my faculties have been dulled over the years by overexposure to the particular brand of cleverness that produced these plots … or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what others see. For a really detailed look at Resnicow’s career from someone who esteems him more highly than I do, I recommend my blogfriend TomCat’s 2011 opinion at Beneath the Stains of Time.

9780345322821-usIn the background of each Gold novel is some consideration having to do with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gold. Mr. and Mrs. Gold are nice. Indeed, they are what one would call “good people”; they care about each other and trade barbs and witticisms with the ease of a long relationship with strong bonds of affection (but it’s clear that either would die for the other). They take care of each other, help their friends, and are valuable and productive members of society.

And that’s kind of a problem for me. In modern genre studies there’s a concept that has arisen from the bottom up (rather than as the product of, say, academic thought that gets translated down-market to mere fans ;-)); the Mary Sue. This is seen as a common cliché of wish-fulfillment in fan fiction; an “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ensign Mary Sue, age 16, single-handedly saves the Enterprise with a bobby pin and starts dating Captain Kirk, etc. And it’s linked to the slightly more academic concept of self-insertion, whereby “a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.” The author writes him/herself in as the star of their own story; in academic terms, the character is the raisonneur. Here it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Gold is based on Resnicow himself, as is the male protagonist of the crossword novels. If you read the biographical details in TomCat’s piece linked above, I think you will be even more convinced that this is probable.

9780345327321-usI’m not saying that Resnicow does this in any way objectionably; in fact, it’s quite cute and naive. However, I think it is commonly understood that novels based on a Mary Sue protagonist are usually quite boring, and that’s certainly something to consider here. If the impossible crime is the A plot, then the B plot is — well, it’s not much of a plot of all, it’s mostly characterization. The Golds and their best friends are charming and delightful, but nothing really bad ever happens to them, and not much happens to change them or their personalities. They don’t grow, and this is a characteristic of Mary Sues. Now, fans of Nero Wolfe like myself can stand the idea of a B plot about personalities who don’t change much. But unless you are a writer of the quality of Rex Stout, the B plot tends to fade away, and that’s what I find happens here. I remember the A plots quite clearly after 20+ years, but all but the simplest recollection of the Golds’ personalities had gone.

the-dead-room1The two novels about a father-and-son amateur detective team where the father is a businessman and the son a philosopher seem to me to be Resnicow’s best work; at least, The Dead Room has considerable critical acclaim. I certainly liked it, partly because there is some tension between the protagonists. The story is very strong and is an impossible crime mystery, although with a modern twist; it takes place in an anechoic chamber at the headquarters of a stereo manufacturer. I have to say, though, that I solved this one without thinking very hard about it, which frankly surprised me. I’m not very good at solving these plots, even though I’m very interested in how they’re constructed; when I get one first crack out of the box, it’s a signal to me that either I have a bent for this kind of story or it’s not well done.

md1077051789I actually liked the solution of The Gold Deadline the best of all, and here TomCat and I are in agreement, it seems. The book itself has tinges of homophobia (although to be clear it’s actually biphobia about the unpleasant victim), but the central premise is an ass-kicker. The victim is alone in a theatre box during a performance, under observation and someone is guarding the only door to the box. How the crime is committed will doubtless surprise you but it’s really clever, a contrivance at the level of a Death of Jezebel or The Chinese Orange Mystery. 

The five Gold novels and the two about the father-and-son team, the Baers, are the best of the lot; the other nine are distinctly minor.

3185460The five crossword novels feature a couple similar to the Golds, except that one is the world’s most esteemed crossword composer unknown to anyone. They have a number of good things about them, principal among which is four or five original puzzles per book created by the late great Henry Hook. I’ve read plenty of other crossword mysteries and I have to say these might just be the best crosswords ever found in a mystery. They are integral to the plot — you really should solve them as you move through the book in order to understand what’s going on. They are difficult but not impossible to solve, at the level of a New York Times Sunday puzzle. And in at least one instance Hook created a new kind of puzzle which he gives many names; I’ll call them Crossonics, because the sounds of the words are important to the context of the novel.

Unknown-1The most successful of the five to me is the entry about a group of cruciverbalists who are the stars of a New York crossword club, Murder Across and Down. This is the only one where the addition of crosswords actually makes sense to the plot and the crosswords’ solutions have a bearing on the solution. Other than that, there are various specious excuses under which Resnicow assembles precisely six suspects (why six, I wonder? Ellery Queen got by with three) and has them solve and/or create puzzles. Other plots range from far-fetched (six heirs to a cruciverbalist’s will, six candidates for a plum job) to the absolutely ridiculous (a nonsensical Russian spy plot that involves coded messages in the daily crossword puzzle of a newspaper). This last one reminds me of an equally preposterous bridge spy/mystery novel by Don Von Elsner in which codes are transmitted via the bridge column … just not a very good idea.

Murder_City_HallThe worst thing about these is that really they are not mysteries that are solved, per se. I believe all five share the common thread that the murderer is induced to reveal his/her guilt by the process of solving or setting a crossword. Sure, there are clues to guilt that are noted after the fact, but … what it all boils down to is the old “set a trap and the murderer falls into it”. Not plotting for the connoisseur. I have to say that the characterization is well-done throughout these novels; Resnicow does an excellent job of helping us keep the six suspects distinct each from the other.  The Crossword Hunt is particularly good, where Resnicow lets us see six job candidates and then at the end reveals why five of them shouldn’t have gotten the job — for reasons we’ve seen, but may not have thought about. The author shows an excellent grasp of psychology here. But ultimately these five suffer from the same problem as all “crossword mysteries”; it’s nearly impossible to make crosswords a necessary part of the plot of a mystery without structuring the book with impossibilities.

9780688067168-usAnd as for the five withed novels, the less said about those the better.  I did read these on their first publication and they are … competent examples of commercial writing. It’s hard to say if his collaborators contributed anything at all to the novels except their names and a couple of “shooting the shit” sessions to provide background; I rather think not. It’s just that, as Phoebe Atwood Taylor found with Murder at the New York World’s Fair, when half the book has to be there for reasons which have nothing to do with the mystery, and you really need the money for the book, the mystery suffers. The two books with Ed Koch I recall to be particularly egregious; they are determined to present Koch in the best possible light regardless of how much it strains credulity. If the authors had dared to tell the truth about Koch’s everyday life and political manoeuvrings, they would have been much more interesting and less “safe”, and a lot more readable. As they are, they’re what booksellers think of as instant remainders. (Apparently Resnicow died before he did much with the second Koch title beyond an outline, but he gets credit.)

PeleIf you do decide to try Resnicow’s work, I suggest the Gold novels and the two Baer novels, of course, but probably The Dead Room and The Gold Deadline will be sufficient to give you the highlights.

To the best of my knowledge, most of these books are unavailable in electronic editions. You can see that the crosswords would be tough to make available; all five of the Gold novels are available from Kindle Unlimited but I don’t see any evidence of the Baer novels or the “with” novels having made the E-transition. The Dead Room I used to see everywhere as a used paperback, but here in Canada it was issued by Worldwide Library, a prolific subsidiary of Harlequin. Amazon or ABE should get you any of the others you need, though.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite Ellery Queen novels

The Tuesday Club Queen

A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

A note: henceforth when I refer to “Ellery Queen” I mean the literary character. Any reference to “EQ” will refer to the two real-life cousins who wrote together and signed their work as Ellery Queen.

My five most and least favourite Ellery Queen novels

It’s always difficult to pick just a few titles from a lifetime of writing, but rather than simply present you with my “five best/five worst” list, I thought it would be worthwhile to give you an example of the factors that bounded my decision. I trust that will make it easier for you to decide if you agree for yourself or not, because it’s usually the case that there are as many opinions about such things as there are devoted readers of any author. What I think is most important is not whether you agree with me, but if you get to spend an enjoyable moment thinking, “Why, that nitwit, it’s perfectly clear that the best/worst one is X because what *I* like most about the work is …”. So have fun deciding exactly where I went wrong!

It seems to me as though for many mystery writers there is something that they’re trying to say, or a theme they’re trying to express, that you can find repeating throughout their work. One underlying theme is “Police work is demanding and difficult, but somehow rewarding.” Another is, “I wrote this so that you could have fun figuring it out, but I’m not really serious.” (Freeman Wills Crofts and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, respectively.) Sometimes an author will have two modalities: Robert Barnard, for instance, was as wacky as Taylor half the time and  wrote dark and complex literary mysteries the rest of the time.

Ellery Queen, though, showed us FOUR different themes during different time periods. Period 1 is generally acknowledged to be the “nationalities” mysteries, where the focus is on pure logic. Let’s call the short Period 2 “trying to get Hollywood’s attention”; plot-heavy, snappy dialogue, simple caricatured characters. Then Period 3, “Wrightsville”, where EQ mixed crimes and small-town American values. Period 4 was “solve the imposed pattern” mysteries, where Ellery met a situation where there was some sort of structured pattern of events that didn’t make sense unless you knew the hidden theme. Next, Period 5 was when Ellery Queen became a house name, and the theme was “here’s an exciting, shallow, and straightforward story about a crime”. I think instead of defining a Period 6 it’s easier to say that Period 4 resumed after Period 5 had run its course; the quality declined at the end of this long oeuvre but the theme of the imposed pattern remained the same.

I differentiate here between my idea of a theme, and something that many people have noticed about Ellery Queen stories — they’re frequently structured like “first the false solution, then the true one”. Yes, I agree, this is frequently the case — but it’s not thematic, it’s a way of telling that thematic story. That’s why it cuts across all the EQ periods in the same way as their standby short story structure (which is, “X is dead, A, B, C are the suspects; they all look equally guilty but two are disqualified because of Z”).

I’ve gone into this in a little detail because I think it’s important for you to know that I enjoy Periods 1 and 3 the most, and that’s likely to colour my ideas of which novels are my most and least favourite, and why. I don’t really think Period 4 is the equivalent of Period 1 … your mileage may vary simply because you prefer one theme to the other. In the same vein, I’ve deliberately called these my “most and least” favourites — not “best” and “worst”; and I’ve excluded volumes of short stories.

My five most favourite Ellery Queen novels

And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite EQ novel is at the end of this list.

5. The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933)

siamese-twin-cover-pocketbookThere’s not much to the puzzle issues in this book; the clues are slight and well-hidden. There’s a tiny bit more coincidence in a few of the plot twists here than I ordinarily prefer (the initials of one character, for instance, are a stretch). But the situation that underlies this book is perhaps the most exciting thing EQ ever wrote; all the characters are stranded at the top of a mountain and, chapter by chapter, the fire is creeping up the mountain towards them. As Thelma Ritter observes in All About Eve, “Everything except the bloodhounds snapping at her behind.” This book is beautifully put together to increase the tension in a long slow slope. By the time the fire reaches the mountaintop your nerves are pitched at the point where you want to scream and hide your head, but you absolutely must know what happens next. It’s a wonderful experience and masterfully written.

4. Calamity Town (1942)

d90baa33c135fd52b915c8f508884828This book is so excellent in so many ways … It’s from Period 3 and is really the volume where Wrightsville comes into full flower. Halfway House seems to have given the EQ cousins their first taste of making small-town America a character in their book, or an ongoing landscape against which morality plays were displayed. In Calamity Town they have a sure-handed mix of the detective plot and the small-town America setting, and a story that links them both together. This is one of the two novels in which EQ demonstrated their understanding of how a media frenzy works; the other one is my next entry, Cat of Many Tails. I really think this is what Dorothy L. Sayers was talking about when she wanted detective fiction to become “a literature with bowels”; this is a strong family drama about horrible things happening to nice people. Ellery, as the outsider, is the perfect narrator and begins his process of worming his way into the heart of Wrightsville.

3. Cat of Many Tails (1949)

cat-of-many-tails-2An absolutely crucial step in the development of the serial killer novel, this beautifully written book is a look at the investigation of a Manhattan-based serial killer who is strangling victims with pink and blue cords: pink for girls, blue for boys. It’s told in a recomplicated style that introduces dozens of characters and follows them for varying lengths of time; a few close relatives of the first victims form a small group of amateur investigators helping Ellery solve the case. The tension builds and builds and this novel is a classic in EQ’s best story-telling modality; the false solution, then the true. Brilliantly written in a whirlpool of action and tension.

2. The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

the-greek-coffin-mystery-1960-illus-james-meese-1I’ve written extensively about this novel before and how and why I like it so much.  (The previous piece is here.) Simply put, I think it’s the best pure puzzle mystery from Period 1 and one of the best puzzle mysteries EVER. It’s a long and complicated puzzle with lots of clues and some interesting characters. The narrative leads you in many directions but if you understand the tiny clues correctly, you can only come up with one very, very surprising killer. This is also the novel that contains the reason why Ellery never talks about his inferences and possible solutions until the end of each case, because he gets so badly burned here by speaking in advance. I can remember distinctly thinking I’d finally solved this one, in my teenage years, only to realize I’d been beautifully led down the garden path by a typewriter key.

1. The Murderer is a Fox (1945)

25b_FoxThis is my favourite Queen, and I suspect I may well be alone in this. It’s a Wrightsville novel from Period Three and most people automatically accept the consensus that Calamity Town is the best Wrightsville novel of all. That novel is certainly fine. But this novel has all the good points of Calamity Town, plus it has a wonderful familial intimacy that the other novel only hints at. These are real people who are suffering greatly, and trying to reconstruct the actions of a fateful day years ago. And the writing is just so beautiful … you can
tragedyofy-avonsee tiny dust motes dancing in the air of the attic, you can see the lines on Davy Fox’s face that shouldn’t be there but for the war. There is not a lot of evil intent here, but there is great and powerful sadness. It’s also one of the few endings where Ellery cheats justice in a good cause; ultimately this novel is about how we should treat war veterans and rarely do.

And two explanatory notes. I have deliberately drawn my terms to exclude the four Barnaby Ross novels but if I hadn’t, I would have had to find
ARoomToDieIna way to wedge The Tragedy of Y (1932) into this list. And if you want to know what my favourite ghost-written Ellery Queen novel is, it’s A Room to Die In (1965), written by science-fiction writer Jack Vance.

My five least favourite Ellery Queen novels

Again, in reverse numerical order.

5. The Glass Village (1954)

ggpb0776I don’t care for this novel for a number of reasons. One is that it pretty shamelessly takes off the real-life Grandma Moses, which is a bit lazy. What really bothers me, though, is that this novel is like a Wrightsville novel, if Wrightsville had been populated by inbred cretinous bigots. Wrightsville has the advantage of being balanced and realistic in other novels; this is the Dark Side, and it’s very unpleasant. The book as much as admits to the reader at one point that the plot depends on nobody having access to a long-distance telephone, which is unlikely, and to me the central plot point that identifies the murderer was clear and obvious. Yes, I get that this is about McCarthyism and the mob mentality. But it’s just unpleasant and unhappy and discouraging.

4. The American Gun Mystery (1933)

dell0004This one is on my list as one of two Queenian adventures here where I just flat-out cannot believe the solution. In this case, without getting into details, I cannot accept where the gun was said to be hidden; it’s not built up enough to be remotely possible. All the foofaraw with closing the circle and searching 80,000 people in the audience was just so much fluff. The suspects all seem phoney and there is one character whom we never get to meet for long enough to see something that would have been nice to have a chance of assessing; a bit of a cheat. And the way in which Ellery attains the solution is, when all else fails, pull something ridiculous out of your ass because it’s the only thing left. Rex Stout did it much more elegantly and much more tersely in a 1960 novella, The Rodeo Murder (found in Three at Wolfe’s Door). 

3.The Origin of Evil (1951)

UnknownUnpleasant people doing unpleasant things against a backdrop of Atomic-Age paranoia makes for a very unpleasant book. And in this one, just as the outset of And on the Eighth Day, EQ makes fun of Period 2 — they mock the reader for ever thinking that Ellery could have been a screenwriter. The common theme that underlies this Period 4 novel is so far-fetched that it’s impossible to figure out even if you had more useful clues than being required to know that worthless stocks are called “cats and dogs”. And there’s something in this book that is so unpleasant to read … the misogyny and sheer hatred that EQ express for the “poisonous orchid” woman at the heart of this mystery through the lips of Ellery himself. It’s almost as though there was someone in the lives of one or both of the authors against whom they were taking revenge with this vicious portrait of a woman who is married to an impotent cripple and still has the nerve to want to be sexual.

2.The Four of Hearts (1938)

1543-1This is the most commercial novel the EQ partnership ever wrote, to my mind, and it’s meretriciously setting itself out to be a screenplay without caring that there’s nothing of any substance here. The movie-star characters seem as though they were created with specific actors in mind — fine, but if you expect them to be suspects in a murder mystery, don’t make them so darn perfect, because then the reader cannot help but solve the mystery by elimination. The plot line is flat and shallow and things happen for no really good reason, except that a change of location is needed to move the story along. The ending is both hard to understand and just plain silly. And perhaps it’s a very small thing, but I really prefer it it an author doesn’t treat me as sufficiently credulous to believe a “fact” that he just out-and-out makes up. Why anyone would accept that “in fortune telling, cards that are torn in half reverse their meaning” is beyond me; how many times have you accidentally torn a card in half? What they were getting at, of course, is that in a Tarot deck the meaning is reversed if the card is upside down. But apparently I cannot cope with the exotic knowledge that Tarot cards are one-side-up. Bah.

1. And on the Eighth Day (1964)

930-1I know I’m going to take a lot of flack for this — many people regard this as one of their favourite Ellery Queen novels. For me, this is a philosophical religious parable and not a detective story. You can tell that because the characters aren’t referred to as people, but as functions: Storekeeper and Teacher. And I find that kind of story intensely annoying, because to me it seems lazy. If you really wanted me to reach a philosophical and/or religious point, don’t take me by the nose and lead me through cardboard sets and silhouettes to illustrate that point — hide it from me and tease me with clues as to what it might be. (Some people say this book does that for them, I admit.) Put real people and realistic events into it and leave me a little ambiguity as to whether I’ve figured it out, but let me try to figure it out. The other part of why it annoys me is that it’s just so damn pompous. It’s as though the writer wants to tell you a story complete with a musical score filled with shrieking organs to let you know that this is a Really Important Story. It’s histrionic and overwrought and overwritten, and does everything except part the Red Sea to make the point. Oh, how I wish Manny Lee could have done the first draft of this instead of Avram Davidson; he would have been able to rein in Dannay’s plotting and make a real story out of this. And by the way, this book won the Grand Prix de Litérature Policière — it’s entirely probable that they know better than I do.

41sbh8qx8qL._SL500_I’ll note here that I’ve left out the final two Ellery Queen novels, The Last Woman in His Life (1970) and A Fine and Private Place (1971). Yes, folks, I believe these are pretty awful, and have said so here about A Fine and Private Place since it is #1 on my list of “mysteries you should die before you read”. But I’m willing to cut some slack to EQ on these two since they were written by elderly men who were at the end of a long and distinguished career. Both books are poorly executed, but they are at least trying to entertain; there is no point in reading them,
9780451071231but they have not gotten off on the wrong foot entirely like a couple of novels in this category.  Last Woman is impossible to discuss in any detail without giving it away in its entirety. But I think it would be fair to say that it couples an advanced and liberal view of a social issue with the most profound ignorance about its actuality; again, I can cut some slack here for elderly men who are trying to be progressive, but this book casually makes statements that are the equivalent to the modern ear of Agatha Christie using the n-word in the title of a book. For 1970, perhaps that might have been an advanced viewpoint; it’s pretty ugly today.

Let me pause at the end of this month of Tuesdays to tip my hat to Messrs. Dannay and Lee, who had a long and distinguished career in which they entered upon a path of untrodden snow and over the decades left the trail cleared and marked for everyone else to follow. They are one of the most important names in detective fiction and any criticism I have to offer is a small thing against their larger achievements.

Next month’s Tuesdays will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh. I hope you’re enjoying this guided tour and will continue to follow along! Your comments, as always, are welcome.

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!



Quick Look: Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout

Where There’s a Will, by Rex Stout (1940)

24073PWhat’s this book about?

Take a deep breath: this will be complicated. Nero Wolfe has been overspending and a new case drops into his lap that will pay the bills. June, May, and April (oldest to youngest) are three sisters. June is a famous author whose husband is Secretary of State; May, a brilliant chemist, is the president of Varney College; and April is a celebrated star of stage and screen. When their wealthy older brother Noel dies, his will’s provisions for distribution of his multiple millions leave the sisters aghast; he’s left it all to what they are too mealy-mouthed to call his mistress, femme fatale Naomi. The sisters come to Wolfe to broker some kind of agreement — it’s not the money, they all say, it’s the scandal. Meanwhile, Noel’s widow Daisy is a bizarre figure. She had been a great beauty until the late Noel shot off a stray arrow and hit her in the face. She apparently lost an eye and is terribly scarred, but nobody knows for sure because she has worn a veil ever since. Daisy arrives at the brownstone and announces that she doesn’t care about the scandal, she wants to squash Naomi like a bug in public. The family conference deteriorates.

n61493Very shortly thereafter, we learn, in what will be a surprise to very few by now, that Noel was actually murdered and everyone is a suspect who was at his country house that weekend; all the people mentioned above plus a couple of State Department guys, a lawyer or two, a swain for the intoxicating April, and June’s two early-20s children. Everyone is gathering (for no better reason than to scrap it out en masse, it seems) and Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house to meet with them all. Many, many plot complications ensue in short order; the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that if you have a person whose features are always veiled, don’t be terribly surprised if someone impersonates her in the course of a murder mystery. The intense activity culminates in Archie Goodwin’s discovery of the second victim, about 90 seconds before Wolfe hightails it out the door so as not to be detained by the police and miss dinner.

Wolfe quickly talks to many of the principals but it’s not till he works his way down to Sara, June’s young daughter, and learns that someone has tried to steal a bunch of old photographs that she took the day of the murder, that he gets a vital piece of information. Coincident with Inspector Cramer showing up at the brownstone with a warrant to arrest him as a material witness, Wolfe delivers the murderer instead and gets to stay home counting his fee.

409f094176c73647da1f66f30edcbbc0Why is this worth reading?

Occasionally I am willing to recommend books just because they are by a certain author, mostly because, well, if you are seriously interested in this Golden Age Detection stuff then you need to have read everything this person wrote — because it’s important. Some of these are, off the top of my head, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout.   So all the work of Rex Stout gets an automatic recommendation from me. Even if it’s a lousy book, it’s still important to understand where it fits into his entire oeuvre because you have to assume that everyone else who wrote at that time and henceforth will be familiar with it.

That being said, there are not many Stout books that are dreary to plough through; even given my relaxed standards and great affection for his work, this is a pretty good book. It’s a lot of fun; there is a cheerful spirit that underlies it throughout and it almost seems as though Stout had a good time writing it. The plot moves at a HELL of a clip, darn close to the pace of a Phoebe Atwood Taylor novel or a Craig Rice story about Jake and Helene Justus. When you look back, the entire novel takes place in a completely compressed time frame that almost seems like 24 hours or so. There are lots and lots of vivid subsidiary characters, Nero Wolfe actually leaves the house on work! and, let’s face it, this book has a veiled scarred lady and three extraordinary sisters named June, May, and April. If there is anyone that’s ever put this book down halfway through, I’d like to know why and how.

b78e1e402bd573e96d98ad955f0a515aThere is also some really good writing in this book. Stout has a little writing trick I’ve noticed. He tends to not describe rooms and locations unless something is actually going to happen that requires you to know what the location looks like. So about halfway through the book when he goes into detail about what is where in something like a rec room in a mansion, with a wet bar, the Stout fan’s ears prick up just a tich. But the precise writing of that section of the book was a pleasure to re-experience. Certainly the lives of the characters and their personalities are larger than life. But there is some nicely observed writing where Archie, who has “a month ago paid a speculator five dollars and fifty cents for a ticket to Scrambled Eggs” and professes himself a big fan of April’s work, nevertheless has a moment where he sees her truly: “she came in and pressed her hands to her temples like the heroine at the end of the second act …”.

And of course the brownstone itself is eternal. Barring Johnny Keems, who … well, it’s best to read these books in chronological order, isn’t it? Wolfe is peevish and unpredictable, Archie is faintly lecherous and keenly observant, Saul, Fritz, and Fred are their usual selves, and the red leather chair is in its accustomed place. All’s right with this world.

6bd2ef9cb824cd475ba920f2a38dff3cMy favourite edition

This has in the past been a very difficult book to find in print. It’s a long story and I’m not sure I understand it all, but when Bantam acquired the Nero Wolfe novels to print as paperbacks, it was forced to leave this one book in the hands of Avon, who reprinted it sporadically and let it lie until Bantam finally acquired it. Added to which, there is a clue in the book of a group of photographs. In the first edition, and in the edition to your left, and not very many other editions, that set of photographs is reproduced in a small and fairly useless form (in the Avon edition it’s tipped in between pages 162 and 163). In most later editions, at least until fairly recently, the photographs were absent.

Anyway, my favourite edition is the one you see to the left, Avon 103, part of a brief experiment they did with putting picture frames around their book covers.  Because of its scarcity, I used to find all the editions of this book very beautiful, because they meant I would shortly be quite a bit wealthier (depending on edition); mystery bookstores used to have a long waiting list for any reading copy of this book, and the vile green undistinguished edition above could bring me $20. Those days are gone!


Murder at the New York World’s Fair, as by “Freeman Dana” (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1938)

Murder at the New York World’s Fair, as by “Freeman Dana” (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1938)


“Freeman Dana” is a one-time-only pseudonym of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, who is much better known for her series about “Codfish Sherlock” Asey Mayo, and her eight comedy mysteries about Leonidas Witherall as “Alice Tilton”. Wikipedia has little to say about her personally, and it seems as though not much is known, but it seems to be agreed that her family lost its money in the Depression and PAT (as she called herself) started writing for money.

Publication Data: Published, under the personal supervision of Bennett Cerf, by Random House in 1938. The edition I read for the purposes of this post is NOT the first edition shown above; I read the 1987 Foul Play Press trade paper edition with a brief foreword by Dilys Winn and an extensive afterword by Ellen Nehr, who contributed a wealth of knowledge that I’ve raided for this discussion. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the entire internet was unable to offer a reproduction of its boring cover; I can testify that it is accented in the same blue and orange that mark the first edition, which I gather were the colours of the fair itself. Frankly, you should be glad you can’t see it; it is mostly grey on grey, and a representation of a train’s window with a three-quarters-pulled shade upon which is written the title of the book. The art consists entirely of textures (it’s dark beyond the window, it seems), the typography is indifferent, and the small representation of the fair’s logo accurately displays the perisphere (the round thing), misrepresents the shape of the trylon (the obelisk-like object) and seems to omit the helicline entirely (a kind of ramp). It’s like something went wrong with their cover art and they had to put together a cover in a morning.

To the best of my knowledge, there are only the two editions of this book. The first edition was published in an edition of 900 books and that was pretty much it until 1987, whereupon this book appears to have sunk from sight again.

1939fairheliclineAbout this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read might discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Mrs. Daisy Tower is, pardon me for saying so, a tower of rectitude; she’s the 67-year-old widow of a former state governor and the protagonist of this novel. As we begin, she’s at the end of a nine-month stint recuperating from a broken hip and a bout of pneumonia as a house guest of her solicitously attentive nephew and niece, Egleston and Elfrida, and has reached the limits of her patience with frequent doses of beef tea, good advice, and their slatternly housemaid Fannie. Upon a rebellious whim, she borrows some money and clothes from the cook and escapes by hiding in a laundry truck, making her way to Boston and thence to visit the World’s Fair in New York. And thus begins a novel that is part murder mystery, part screwball comedy, and quite a bit of World’s Fair guidebook.

Mrs. Tower’s act of rebellion soon develops ramifications; she learns that Eggy and Elfrida have been managing her money and property to their own benefit and are so horrified at her disappearance that they’re having the local ponds dragged. Daisy soon accumulates a small cadre of people around her, all of whom wangle an invitation to travel to New York in the private train of millionaire art collector Conrad Cassell. It’s not only Daisy who has reason to stay out of sight; one of her new associates recently had a run-in with Cassell and has been followed ever since. Luckily he is not aboard the train, but the mysterious shadow soon ends up dead in the train car.

Everyone arrives at the World’s Fair and most of the rest of the book is spent with this small group running around trying to solve multiple segments of the mystery while staying out of the hands of the police. They disguise themselves as official tour guides (which coincidentally enables PAT to display having done a great deal of research about the buildings and layout of the Fair) and race around at breakneck speed, forming theories, testing them and discarding them — and in the meantime having run-ins with international dignitaries, Cassell and his staff, and everyone else who comes into their orbit.  The first victim is identified, surprisingly, as Egleston Tower, and his demise is soon followed by that of Elfrida; Eggy needed money badly and the group must learn why both he and Elfrida were trying so hard to contact Cassell in person.

In the finale, the motley group of crime-solvers learns that there’s a plot to set off a large quantity of explosives in a Fair building during a ceremony; they defuse the explosives and the situation, bring the crime home to its perpetrator, and live happily ever after.

389px-US_853Why is this book worth your time?

Dilys Winn, in the foreword, was graceless and uncomplimentary — honestly, it’s a wonder that any of the trade edition sold, since most people would put it back on the bookstore shelf immediately upon reading her comments. She says that she’s a PAT enthusiast and compares the experience of reading this book with finding that there’s a Rex Stout title she hasn’t read — only to find out that it’s a Tecumseh Fox story, to her dismay. In other words, Ms. Winn thinks this is the worst book by a good author, a sentiment which is echoed by Ellen Nehr in the afterword. We learn that Westinghouse intended to bury a time capsule in the courtyard of its pavilion at the Fair and Bennett Cerf, the publisher of Random House, decided that a novel specially written for this momentous event would be part of the time capsule.  He selected PAT, who seemingly needed the $250 advance. She submitted a first draft and, as Nehr remarks:

“Mr. Cerf and a number of Random House staff members (one of whom had read and admired all the Asey Mayo novels) were unanimous in pointing to the manuscript’s essential weakness. In a letter, the publisher baldly states that the novel was singularly marked by an apparent lack of interest on the part of the author.”

Nehr also quotes from the actual note that accompanied the submission of the first draft, and I found it fascinating to learn about PAT’s creative process. I thought it was worth a large-sized quote which was of great interest to me:

“If you are wedded to the Little-did-we-guess-two-weeks-from-Candlemas-we-would-be-corpses School, you will loathe this. It isn’t an orthodox mystery; it couldn’t be. But it has corpses, a detective, suspects and an occasional clew. I don’t feel that I can accent too strongly two important points. The worst problem I faced was that of keeping the murder at the Fair. The minute the police arrived, there would be no Fair colour, because everyone would be whipped away. for that reason, the characters had to be manipulated into positions where they couldn’t go to the police, or be caught. That way, everyone stayed at the Fair, roamed at will and at random. The other problem was how to make people, who are wanted for and involved in a murder, actually go to a fair. There was one solution, and I hope you don’t think the chases are overworked. So, before you and your readers uncork the vitriol bottle, I hope you’ll bear these mechanical problems in mind. … And if you say the helicline with it (Trylon, perisphere, helicline, remember?) I said it first back in chapter three.”

Insightful indeed. I now have considerably more sympathy with ghost writers who are required to write around a character, situation, or … something or other … created by external forces that cannot be ignored when creating a tie-in novel. The deformations that had to go on in this book to keep its action at the Fair are substantial and strain the reader’s disbelief to the utmost.

Nevertheless, I think you will be surprised at just how readable this novel is. You will have already gathered that it’s not a great mystery, but it’s not an atrocious one either. In fact if you are a fan of PAT’s work as “Alice Tilton”, the eight novels which chronicle the high-speed and highly nonsensical activities of Leonidas Witherall, “The man who looked like Shakespeare”, you will find this novel at the very least worth a few hours of your time and you will occasionally chuckle aloud; I certainly did. For the PAT fan like Dilys Winn and myself there are occasional aha! moments where you recognize a character or phrase that recurs later in PAT’s oeuvre in a different context; for instance, the off-hand reference to Tootsy-Wheetsy breakfast cereal which recurs in a short story found in Three Plots for Asey Mayo (see my review here). Similarly, there are a few characters here whom the PAT aficionado will recognize, although not by name; the helpful young newspaperman, the officious clubwoman who cannot be deterred, the pompous member of multiple fraternal organizations, the grande dame soprano who actually has the common touch, etc. If you’ve read all of PAT’s novels, you’ve met most of these people before, and you’ve seen them collected into a group and moving at breakneck speed through a comedy mystery. In this novel, though, the highly competent housewife takes centre stage, and displays great insight into how people think without worrying too much about clues and evidence. “Isn’t it amazing! I thought that to solve a murder, you had to have material clues. Things like shreds of Harris tweed, and scraps of paper, and hairpins of a peculiar color and size. But think what we’ve pieced out, just from odds and ends!”

1000x1000So it’s unlikely that you will be surprised by the ending, and it’s exceptionally unlikely that you’ll find it believable. As Bennett Cerf noted, it didn’t seem as though her heart was in this novel. But as to why it’s worth your time — it’s the most rare and hard-to-find novel of what I will call a first-rate second-rate mystery writer. PAT was no Agatha Christie, but she has earned her place in American mystery literature and a certain amount of honour for her skills and talents, and if you want to truly understand her, you have to read all of her work. If you approach it with an open mind and not allow yourself to be put off by Dilys Winn pre-judging the novel for you, you will find much to enjoy. And the occasional guffaw, like when I found out what was in the soprano’s suitcase.

There is one further piece of information provided by Ellen Nehr which will not likely be a surprise to PAT’s fans; PAT wrote fast. For instance, she began Banbury Bog on May 20, 1938 and finished it some twenty days later. From a letter from January 1938:

“I know there’s nothing now but for me to get down to the business of writing; only it seems — well there’s no point in disillusioning you, but my scripts usually reach people on time, via air express. They’ve never been known to reach anyone ahead of time, ever. It’s all on acc’t of my habit of not beginning a script until two weeks before it is due. Then the suspense, you see, is genuine. Taylor books have Pace. Eight years of fresh killed fiction has convinced me (have convinced, maybe) that you can’t murder slowly. But of course, as Norton always says, “I think beforehand, and That Is Something.” And I truly think I’ve got some things brewing for you.”

So it seems likely that, based on the correspondence and documents unearthed by Ellen Nehr, PAT was given a year to research this novel and wrote it in the final two weeks before the deadline. I don’t know if there are other authors who are so procrastinative, but it gives me hope for my own extremely poor writing habits to someday pay off. I work the same way — I think and think and think, and construct the document in my head, and then sit down and pound it out in an extremely short time moments before it’s due. I’ll never be the writer that PAT was, but at least we have one thing in common, and I feel good about that.

Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Random House, 1938) is apparently the only hardcover edition; it was published in a single edition of 900 books. The New Jersey antiquarian bookseller who wants $1,200 for his VG copy in VG jacket calls it “an uncommon and desirable title” and I must agree. A few other copies I note are selling for between $180 and $550 and this to me seems to be a more reasonable range.

The only other edition of which I am aware is the trade paper edition I used to review this book, from Foul Play Press (Countryman Press) in 1987, which contains a brief foreword by Dilys Winn and an exhaustively knowledgeable 9-page afterword by that excellent reviewer Ellen Nehr, stuffed with interesting research and quotations from letters. In the introductory material, buried in copyright dates and ISBNs, is a note: “The publisher would like to thank Ellen Nehr for the energy and enthusiasm she has brought to this project.” I do too; it was great to have a copy of this to read. I remember buying this book as a gift for my sister when it came out, and paying what was then the rather large sum of CDN$12.95 (the price sticker still adheres to the back cover; the US price was $8.95). You can source a couple of copies on the Internet for between $7 and $15 more than 25 years later, which indicates that the book has held its value — I consider the two copies priced at $85, from different booksellers, to be an aberration.

It’s odd to think that PAT’s most valuable book is possibly her most poorly-written one, but that’s the way of book collecting. Crappy books don’t sell well and are not reprinted, and not picked up by paperback publishers, making them scarce and desirable. Compare the $1,200 copy to, say, the best available copy of this writer’s first novel, a VG copy in G jacket for $750 (and it’s a Haycraft/Queen cornerstone). Of course having a beautiful copy of the first edition would be lovely, and anyone reading this would be very welcome to send me one. 😉 But honestly, if you want to read this novel and appreciate it, the trade paper edition with the material by Ellen Nehr would be the best; if you can afford it, buy both and read the trade edition. It seems like any copy of this hard-to-get book will hold its value.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1938 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “N”, “Read one book with a place in the title,” which in this instance is of course the New York World’s Fair. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.