Brief looks at a stack of books

97450_shutterstock_74821612It may well be that I’ve been concealing my reading habits from my friends and blog followers. It’s true that I’m relatively lazy about writing blog posts about books I’ve been reading, at least compared to other bloggers; I’m always astonished that my fellow bloggers can come up with so many interesting things to say every 48 hours or so. And I thank them for it.

51QnFtRcB4LThat doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t been reading. My actual reading rate is at least a book a day, every day, and quite a bit of it in areas that would be of little or no interest to my readers — heritage cookbooks, for instance. I’m currently going through a lot of self-published zombie apocalypse novels, pandemic stories, and others in the EOTWAWKI/SHTF genre; my interest in LitRPG novels is still with me; and I’m reading Gore Vidal‘s novels as I find them. (Julian is excellent.) A couple of months from now, I’ll be on to other things.

Last month I picked up a couple of boxes of paperbacks at an excellent used bookstore a few hours’ drive from my home; I’m still sorting through them looking for things to re-read. Here’s a handful that don’t offer me the opportunity to talk at greater length but I can still recommend or not, as the case may be.

51Hfc0nsaFL._SX281_BO1,204,203,200_Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Queenly Contestant (1967). The last few Perry Mason novels are the most difficult to lay your hands on in paperback, and if you’re interested in courtroom drama they may be the last titles you tick off your list. I buy them when I see them … this one is not all that gripping, and there’s elements of the story that seem to be recycled from ESG’s earlier books. Although, as I’ve noticed before, Gardner always has something to teach us. (This time it’s the apparent tendency of hotel-based cat burglars to strike while the hotel guests are in the bathtub, because nudity inhibits the desire to chase thieves.)

Cody_dupe_2Liza Cody, Dupe (1981). The very interesting Anna Lee is a British private investigator and all six of the books in the series are worth your time; this is the one that got the ball rolling. Anna is tough and yet vulnerable, and she was those things before it became a cliche of the female PI novel. Her debut case involves investigating a fatal car accident that proves to be connected to a ring of Hollywood film pirates. Beautifully written, a terse and intelligent writing style, and an interesting plot. If you like these, seek out Cody’s other series, three outstanding books about security guard (and amateur wrestler)  Eva Wylie.

2101483Sara Woods, Naked Villainy (1987). The final entry in the 48 books chronicling the adventures of British barrister Antony Maitland, this was published two years after the author’s death. I have often complained about the tendency about elderly authors to write lousy books near the end of their careers; this one is not as bad as all that, but there is rather a lack of tension and excitement. (I note that the author was exactly my age when she wrote this, so obviously it’s not senility LOL.) Woods is an engaging writer who focuses on character nearly as much as plot; the books usually contain an extended courtroom scene and that’s clearly the author’s major interest. This particular story is a rather muddled tale of witchcraft rituals in a wine cellar.

PrintKitty Curran and Larissa ZagerisMy Lady’s Choosing (2018). I picked up this e-book because it was such a peculiar idea; it’s a “Choose your own adventure” type of interactive novel, but with the storyline of a Regency romance. A distinctly modern Regency romance, frankly, because the heroine seems to spend a lot of time moaning with pleasure as the baronet presses his straining manhood against her crinoline, or something. The joke rather palls after a few minutes, I found, but then I don’t read Regency romances at all. This may be gentle mockery or bitter send-up, I can’t be sure.

35881952Ellery Adams, Murder in the Locked Library (2018). Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this one. Adams is by all accounts an extremely popular writer, at the level of the New York Times bestseller list; I’m willing to believe she writes something that the public wants to read. But this is way beyond the slight suspension of belief I associate with the modern cupcake cozy. This is out-and-out fantasy. There’s a mysterious semi-rural hotel that’s like a castle and spa designed to attract bibliophiles; a secret society that’s protected the hotel’s secrets for centuries; and every other aspect of a woman’s fantasy that you might expect, including wonderful gourmet food, a castle filled with dedicated servants, a village filled with charming shopkeepers and handsome attentive single males, and the protagonist’s delightful twin teenage boys. It’s actually leading me to think that there might be something going on within the cupcake cozy after all — this is on the level of the literary school of magical realism. So this is either really, really good or really, really bad. I do know that it’s not meant to appeal to me in the slightest since there is almost no logic or rigour to what’s going on here. The mystery plot is nonsensical and mercifully brief; almost there merely to serve as a carrier wave for lots of bumph about banquets and personal relationships and the love of books. I can’t say I think most of my readers will enjoy this; I certainly didn’t. If you happen to have enjoyed this, please feel free to comment below and tell me what I have apparently missed.

UnknownAnthony Berkeley, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927). Amateur sleuth and well-known silly ass Roger Sheringham travels to Hampshire on behalf of the Daily Courier to investigate what looks like the accidental death of Mrs. Vane. Roger’s cousin Anthony follows along and promptly falls in love with the principal suspect; Inspector Moresby keeps his nose to the grindstone and solves the case. Berkeley is famous for his revisionist takes on the Golden Age traditions of the traditional puzzle mystery; this is yet another one of his exercises about the “most likely suspect” being the “least likely suspect” and therefore the “most likely suspect”. I love Berkeley in general for his brilliance, and his sense of intellectual humour, but some of his books are more for the scholar than the reader; this one is Berkeley arching his eyebrow at some mystery cliches and coming up with a surprise ending that you didn’t expect. Here’s the final lines of the book, which sums it up for me: [Inspector Moresby saying to Roger Sheringham] “Do you know what’s the matter with you, sir?” he said kindly. “You’ve been reading too many of those detective stories.” So, apparently, had Berkeley.

the-last-equation-of-isaac-severy-9781501175121_hrNova Jacobs, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy (2018). The subtitle is “A Novel in Clues” and I think that’s the signal that this is some sort of merging of the traditional detective novel with … I’m not sure. Post-modernism? Some sort of highfalutin’ literary movement with which I’m not familiar. It’s as though Raymond Chandler had been asked to write a story about a group of advanced theoretical mathematicians and physicists but not been given all the facts until too late. An elderly scientist dies and members of his family hunt for his final equation; the search takes them to many strange locations, including within themselves, I think. I really did want to find out what happened and persevered, but I’m not sure the ending was worth the effort. None of this could really have happened, which brings me back to the same idea of magical realism.

9780008280260.jpgJ. V. Turner, Below the Clock (1936); the edition shown contains an informative and useful introduction by David Brawn (whose acumen gets more impressive each time I encounter it). Before I say anything about this novel, I learned from the introduction that Turner also wrote as David Hume, and was as such the king of the British hardboiled thriller for decades; all of a sudden, much more interesting. Here, solicitor-detective Amos Petrie takes on a case of murder within the British House of Commons, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer is poisoned with the exotic substance strophanthin. You don’t need to know much more than that — a traditional detective story populated with men in high places who are not as honest as they should be. There’s a fine ending where the murderer poisons himself on the floor of the House rather than be arrested. All in all this is a rather antiquely-flavoured mystery but it’s logical and smart, with a fascinating background and somewhat exciting plot. Well done, David Brawn and the Detective Story Club at Collins, for unearthing this from obscurity and bringing it back for our enjoyment.

pile-of-booksI find to my surprise that I have recently acquired enough books by Michael Gilbert as both e-books and paperbacks to devote an entire post to this excellent writer, even in this brief format, and so I’ll save that pleasure for a later time. The more I read of Gilbert the more I come to think that he rarely, if ever, put his literary foot wrong; I’ve enjoyed everything of his large output that I’ve read, and I hope to recommend some of the better ones to you.




The Tragedy of Y, as by “Barnaby Ross” (Ellery Queen) (1932)

The Tragedy of Y, as by “Barnaby Ross” (Ellery Queen) (1932)

BR02b_Tragedy_of_YAuthor: “Barnaby Ross” is a pseudonym adopted by the two gentlemen better known as “Ellery Queen” for a series of four books featuring detective Drury Lane, a wealthy retired actor who has become deaf.

Publication Data: The first edition is from Viking Press, 1932. Many, many editions exist. It’s not entirely clear to me when the publication as by “Barnaby Ross” became as by “Ellery Queen”, but an edition from Frederick A. Stokes in 1941 cites both names on the cover and contains a foreword as by Ellery Queen which appears to explain the transition. A number of paperback editions exist, including early Avon and Pocket editions. For this review I used a searchable PDF copy that came in a bundle from a friend, although I’m not sure exactly from whom or when, and so have chosen to illustrate the topmost section of this review with the edition whose cover I find most attractive, Pocket Books #313.

This is the second of four volumes in the brief Drury Lane series; The Tragedy of X, Y (both 1932) and Z were followed by Drury Lane’s Last Case (The Tragedy of 1599), both published in 1933.

10639765895About this book:

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

This story begins with the discovery, by a fishing boat, of a nearly-unidentifiable corpse which is carrying a signed and dated suicide note identifying its transport as Mr. Y. (York) Hatter of New York. The York family consists of the late York, a somewhat ineffectual paterfamilias and dabbler in science who is married to the true governor of the family, the hugely wealthy, eccentric, and tyrannical Emily Hatter.  There are four children in the next generation, and everyone lives in the Hatter mansion — home to, as the tabloids put it, the “mad Hatters”. Eldest daughter Barbara is an intellectual and a well-known poet; Conrad is a drunk weakling who married weak-willed Martha and produced two boys, Jackie (13) and Billy (4). Jill, the youngest, is a sensation-seeking debutante who is constantly gracing tabloid covers. And the fourth child, the daughter of Emily’s deceased first husband Tom Campion, is Louisa, who is completely blind, and soon becomes what was in 1932 called “deaf and dumb”. (We are told soon that there is “something evil in the blood” of Emily, since she has given birth to afflicted children by two different fathers; the word is never used, but I gather they mean syphilis, which was incurable in 1932.) Louisa is in many ways the focus of the household, since Emily is fiercely protective of her, and in many ways ignored by everyone else. One final member of the household is the one-legged Captain Trivett, a dependent of Emily’s first husband. He actually lives next door but has complete access to the Hatter home since he is a friend and companion to Louisa.

tragedyofy-avonSoon after the discovery of the body, someone leaves a glass of eggnog containing strychnine out waiting for Louisa; it is actually gulped as a spiteful joke by little Jackie, who nearly dies as a result. The doctor calls the police, to the great anger of Emily, and Drury Lane is asked to take a hand. He lives in a castle (complete with “feudal village” full of 20th century people) overlooking the Hudson in Westchester County and we see his vaguely Shakepearean intimate household; we also meet Inspector Thumm, who brings him the case. They have hardly begun to get to know the facts of the case when Emily is bizarrely murdered. She is found dead in Louisa’s room and some unusual bloody markings on her face soon reveal that she’s been beaten to death with, of all things, a mandolin that is usually found in the library. Other clues include a strip of carpet covered with spilled powder that reveals some footprints; a bowl of fruit with a bruised pear that has been poisoned with bichloride of mercury, but, oddly, indications that although it seems meant for Louisa, it’s well-known she would not have eaten one with bruises. Finally, Louisa herself was in the room and has two observations; she touched the murderer’s cheek and it was smooth, and there was a faint smell of vanilla in the room.

The household’s alibis prove out or do not, as the case may be, and various subplots within the younger generation’s lives begin to manifest. The children’s tutor is apparently in love with Barbara; the footprints were made by a pair of Conrad’s shoes, which are found to be stained with bichloride of mercury. The entrance to the late York Hatter’s laboratory is surrounded by unmarked dust, but there proves to be a secret entrance into the room via the chimney from Louisa’s room. About midway through the book, someone sets fire to the laboratory; the fire is doused, but no one is clear why the laboratory was set on fire. The police are looking primarily at women suspects, because of the clue of the smooth cheek, but admit that a man and woman could be working together.

Emily’s will contains some odd provisions, mostly concerned with ensuring Louisa’s future; Louisa has become a source of income, in a way, since whoever agrees to take care of her will inherit considerably more money. (Emily’s estate is the enormous sum of more than one million dollars.) Drury Lane and the police begin to understand portions of what happened the night of Emily’s death, but some parts of the story seem inexplicable and almost random.

257e343303cdc023ab204c924a88f84eDrury Lane fakes a heart attack in order to move into the house as a convalescing invalid. The discovery of a document in York’s laboratory  explains quite a bit of what happened the night of Emily’s death, and why it happened, but Drury Lane is certain that the murderer still has more actions to perform. One final murder takes place which completes the story for Drury Lane, and he calls together the police and explains everything to them, with the help of extended logical deductions based upon such things as the distance between the powdered footprints on the murder scene; Drury Lane combines these deductions with the other clues to reveal the unexpected identity of the murderer. He also reveals that he has taken a more active hand in the process and that there will be no further acts of violence in what remains of the Hatter family. In fact, he communicates that he has in effect murdered the murderer without actually saying so, and the police, without actually saying so, decide to let him get away with it, as the book ends.

tragedy-of-y-mapWhy is this book worth your time?

Ellery Queen, of course, is one of the all-time masters of a certain kind of detective story. Its hallmarks are logical deduction from physical clues, characters who are somewhat more types than actual fleshed-out characters, and a certain deliberate amount of bizarrie added in order to interest the reader. And the underlying basis of these stories is always a murder plot which at first glance appears both insoluble and very strange. Many of these stories fall into the “impossible crime” or “locked-room mystery” sub-genre; others you might call howdunnits, alibi mysteries, timetable mysteries, and the like. These are the volumes that come provided with a helpful floor plan so that you can trace the paths of characters as you try to imagine them doing what they’ve said they did, and get a grasp of when people’s paths might have intersected. I think of this kind of detective story as the basis for what we presently call the Golden Age. It is certainly true that not all great Golden Age mysteries are this kind of story, but quite a few of them are. Since Ellery Queen is one of the finest practitioners of this type of story, I’ll suggest that just about anything he (or rather “they”, since Ellery Queen is a pseudonym for two writers, but “he” is easiest) ever wrote is worth your time, pretty much automatically.

Ellery Queen novels are easily separated into a handful of periods, and this is from the first, most puzzle-oriented period. The Tragedy of Y was published in 1932, and Queen’s career started in 1929. One can only imagine the spurt of creative energy that produced, between 1929 and the end of 1932, five Ellery Queen novels of the highest calibre and two Drury Lane mysteries as by Barnaby Ross. In fact, both Tragedy of X and Y were published in 1932 — along with The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Egyptian Cross Mystery, making an unbelievable four volumes of complex, difficult puzzle mysteries in a single year. The two remaining novels in the four-volume Drury Lane sequence were published in 1933.

It’s hard to understand at this remove exactly what might have motivated Ellery Queen to move aside from what seems to have been a very successful mystery series to write another mystery series. Of course the answer is money, since this enormous workload was not undertaken lightly; I suspect there’s a strong component of striking while the iron is hot. Francis M. Nevins, Jr.’s 1974 volume on Ellery Queen, Royal Bloodline, tells us that in 1931 “they were persuaded by their agent to take the plunge and make it as professionals or bust” (p. 5). I can see where, in the middle of an economic depression, it would be important to work very, very hard to maintain a living and people did not give up jobs lightly, so they would be impelled to be writing a lot. Yet it’s generally accepted that Ellery Queen is the far more successful character; Drury Lane is considered artificial and cliched and the Drury Lane series was wisely, I think, retired the next year. I suspect that Drury Lane began for the same reason as John Dickson Carr began publishing as by Carter Dickson in the same period, because the authors had been told that the public understood large numbers of books coming out under a single name as a signal of low quality. At this 80-year remove, it seems hard to understand why Ellery Queen would “waste” so interesting and complex a plot on the meagre talents of Drury Lane. Just as I understand that a later Queen novel, Halfway House, could have been titled The Swedish Match Mystery in order to fit into the nationalities series, so I also see that this book could easily have been called The Peruvian Balsam Mystery and recast with Ellery Queen. Oh well — perhaps in an alternate universe.

51NhO8o-QkL._SL500_AA300_And to the student of Queen, there are elements of this book that are fascinating when you consider the repeating of elements throughout the Queen canon. This is the first example of a story which Queen later re-wrote as by Queen, with 1943’s There Was an Old Woman. An enormously wealthy woman, cruel and dictatorial, as the matriarch of a family that has been tainted by syphilis and that has both sane and crazy members — this is all the same. In 1943, Queen was trying to produce novels that would be taken up by Hollywood and filmed, and so the characters in TWAOW are more caricatures than in TTOY, but there is little difference in the basic elements of both books. The wealthy dictatorial patriarch/matriarch, of course, is a mainstay of the detective story — if these wealthy men and women were not around to quarrel with their relatives and catch their secretaries embezzling hours before they change their wills, the detective fiction world would be a sadder, more sparse place. Yes, this theme of the wealthy parent and angry damaged children repeats through Queen’s novels and stories, but it also does so in the work of almost every other Golden Age writer, because … well, it’s just such a useful basis for a story. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) — there’s not much difference between Carmen Sternwood and this story’s Jill Hatter, and only little more between Barbara Hatter and Vivian Sternwood. Offhand, I can think of stories from Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Patricia Wentworth about poisonous wealthy parents and their poisoned unhappy children. Queen himself revisits the same territory of damaged children in 1952’s The King is Dead, although the wealthy damaged parent is in this case the eldest brother.

Mr. Nevins suggests that TTOY partakes of a “motif that [has] come to be distinctively identified with Queen … distrust and despair of human nature”, and cites The Origin of Evil and The Glass Village as later examples of this distrust. Fair enough; there is certainly enough here to make one distrust human nature, from the sluttish yet frigid Jill right down to the uncontrollable sadism and misbehaviour of Billy and Jackie. My own take is that what Ellery Queen was getting at here was his interest in the idea of “tainted blood”. I thought this was interesting as an attempt to introduce some motivation to these characters; of course they’re crazy and unpredictable, their brains have been affected by syphilis. Remember that this was at a time when human behaviourists were attempting to explain psychology by the action of glandular secretions; the idea of being somehow “tainted” and therefore not entirely responsible for one’s actions was a new one, but becoming widespread. In TWAOW, this is played for laughs; in TTOY, it is accompanied with a strong air of sadness and despair. Nevins suggests that this is “as haunting in its own way as the nightmare stories of Cornell Woolrich”; I think I would agree. The Hatter household is dark and brooding and there appears to be no way out of it. The blind, deaf, and dumb Louisa is a bizarre personality at the centre of the household, and is described in relatively inhuman terms as, for instance, uttering a “thrilling animal cry”; she’s referred to as “plump” so often that I had the mental picture of a kind of grub with “still, blank, almost lifeless features, the quivering fingers …”. Her “waving fingers were like the antennae of a bug, oscillating with intelligence, clamouring for enlightenment.” Certainly the reader is meant to feel sorry for Louisa’s restricted life, but I can’t help but feel there is a certain component of creepy horror here as well. Everyone in the house is nearly horrible; even the relatively normal people like the one-legged neighbour and the scatterbrained nurse have problems. The general air of the household is that everyone within it is trapped by blood and money and who cannot be released until the mother, whose venereal disease tainted them all, has died and expiated her sin. I have to say that this is considerably easier to advance as a theory when, say, writing an essay about this novel than it is to consider while reading it. Queen’s intention is certainly not to focus on a philosophical stratum that underlies this book; it’s just a detective story, although a very clever and creepy one. I absolutely cannot go as far as Nevins and say that:

“Although rooted in a genre that has traditionally been oriented to reason, order, and optimism, Y evokes depths of tragic despair that are virtually without parallel in the history of crime fiction.”

Put down the cheerleader’s pompoms, Mr. Nevins, it’s not quite THAT important a book. It is well-written and maintains a consistently eerie air throughout, but even The Big Sleep evokes more poisonous despair with the same plot structure, let alone another few dozen novels with more despair and less syphilis. Nevertheless, this is a darn good dark and troubling mystery.

Nevins then suggests that the other such theme in this book associated with the longer view of Queen’s work is that of “manipulation”. Without getting too deeply into the details, this book involves manipulation of one character by another in order to generate most of the criminal actions of the plot, although not in an obvious or even strong way. Such later Queen novels as Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) carry forward this theme of one character creating a plan that another one carries out; similarly, The Player on the Other Side (1963) co-written with Theodore Sturgeon, and … and on the Eighth Day … (1964),  co-written with Avram Davidson, the theme of one personality following the instructions of another appears. The Player on the Other Side even has a criminal who signs himself with the letter Y — and so we come full circle. It’s definitely a useful basis for a mystery plot; one character has guilt and intent, but not physical involvement, and the other character has the responsibility of committing the crime(s), but usually without the ability or intent to design them. I agree with Mr. Nevins on this point, at least that this theme recurs. I see it only as a useful way of establishing the central spine of a detective story, and he may be giving it more importance in the analysis of the character of the two gentlemen who made up Ellery Queen, but we agree that it’s there and recurs in a number of Queen stories.

The only strongly annoying part of this book, in fact, is the character of Drury Lane himself. Let’s face it, he’s a slumgullion of cliches, starting with his name itself. Mr. Lane is a cardboard character who has been marked with deafness not out of any organic understanding of how this would affect someone’s personality, or desire to make the reader understand anything about the nature of deafness, but merely as an interesting trait to attract and retain the reader’s attention. (I admit that the final volume of the four, Drury Lane’s Last Case, brings deafness to the table, but in a kind of meretricious way as merely a plot point explaining an action.) I can’t help but speculate how much more interesting this book would have been with Ellery Queen trying his hand against the Addams-family menage under the roof of the Hatter mansion. Another smaller flaw is that, with the death of the matriarch Emily, the novel’s strongest antagonistic character moves offstage and no one is really there to take her place; this makes the second half of the book rather inactive and smooth, somewhat to its detriment.

All things considered, though, this is a difficult and intelligent puzzle plot, for people who like that sort of thing — I certainly do. Although the Queenian convention of the Challenge to the Reader is absent here, you can readily stop precisely at the chapter heading of “Epilogue” and you will be in possession of every fact you need with which to produce a complete solution of the mystery. If you can successfully pretend that Ellery Queen is generating the long involved logical chains that lead to the solution, you’ll be very pleased with this book in almost every respect. It is difficult, puzzling, surprising, creepy and atmospheric, and an important novel by an important mystery writer.

12026482914Notes for the Collector:

The most interesting take on cover art is perhaps the foreign-language edition pictured nearby, complete with strategically-covered naked breasts (sigh). I believe that the original editions as by Barnaby Ross, pre-dating the admission that the author was indeed Ellery Queen, would be the most valuable, and of course the first edition would have pride of place. I note that today a VG copy without jacket is selling for $150, and this seems about right; it might be anywhere from $300 to $700 with a jacket, depending on scarcity. I’m fond of quite a few of the paper editions of this book; most notably, of course, as I said above, Pocket #313, with the purplish hues and abstract cover; a VG copy of the first edition will cost you about $7 plus shipping. But the Avon editions featuring, in T-337, “girl with large breasts in a nightgown” — this would have to be the plump and middle-aged Louisa, I think — and #450’s  “cat-eyed girl with anachronistic pixie cut” are also good camp value and either, in Near Fine or Fine shape, may cost you less than $25 in a local bookseller’s or an online market.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “N”, “Read one book written by an author with a pseudonym.” This certainly qualifies; it was originally published as by “Barnaby Ross”, which is a pseudonym of “Ellery Queen”, a pseudonym concealing two real people. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.



The Layton Court Mystery, by Anthony Berkeley (1925)

The Layton Court Mystery, by Anthony Berkeley (1925)


Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote under a number of names but Anthony Berkeley might be the best known; admittedly he wrote a couple of wonderful novels as Frances Iles, notably Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion.  Indeed, he pretty much invented the “inverted mystery” as Frances Iles. As Anthony Berkeley, though, he chronicled the adventures of yet another Silly Ass detective named Roger Sheringham, whose first adventure this is.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “L”, “Read one country house mystery.” The titular house is the scene of the crime and almost all the action of this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

41kAX3MKbBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Publication Data:

The publication history of this novel is quite interesting. Its first publication was as by ? — yes, Berkeley published two early novels as by a question mark. (Examine the green volume to the left carefully.) Perhaps this was some sort of publicity idea whose concept is beyond my understanding. Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for librarians, who had to figure out how to shelve these? Anyway, it was next published in the U.S. in 1929 as by Anthony Berkeley, and it has remained thus ever since.

I found the publication history particularly interesting because it includes the edition from which I wrote this post: it was electronic and found here. My practice is to show the cover of the book I used, and it is at the head of this post; it’s also at the head of the page containing the novel. I have to say, this was my first on-line book. It was an interesting experience. I have an e-reader but have found that not much of a decent antiquity is available for reading in those formats; I expect that will change as the copyright freedom date creeps slowly forward.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this 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. 


Roger Sheringham is your basic wealthy upper-class British nitwit who talks a great deal of piffle, as Maggie Smith once put it, and is staying at a country house when his host, wealthy Victor Stanhope, is found dead in the final sentences of chapter two, shot through the forehead in the library at his country house, Layton Court. And all the doors and windows are locked from the inside.

Victor is a bachelor whose widowed sister-in-law, Lady Stanhope, keeps house for him. He has a secretary, Major Jefferson, and a chauffeur who used to be a boxer. Other than the usual household full of servants, Victor enjoys a house full of guests, it seems. Lady Stanhope’s friend Mrs. Shannon has brought her daughter Barbara, and Mrs. Plant is a beautiful young woman whose husband is in the Soudanese Civil Service.  Barbara, as our story begins, becomes unaffianced to the handsome young athlete Alec Grierson, who has been asked to the house to keep Barbara entertained; Alec has brought his friend, aforementioned silly ass author Roger Sheringham.

In the pages that lead up to the discovery of the actual murderer on page 291, certainly there is a great deal of piffle proffered for the amusement of the reader. Alec quickly takes on the role of Watson to Sheringham’s Sherlock Holmes, a combination acknowledged specifically by both of them, and Sheringham soon begins to speak in great gusts of rolling sentences, almost like a detective stream of consciousness. He has ideas about everything, he pokes his nose into everything, and he soon begins to learn that very nearly nothing in the house is what it seemed upon the surface.

He is helped along in this by the police, who seem relatively uninterested in further investigation. After all, the man was found clutching the gun that killed him, with a kind of suicide note in front of him, and all the doors and windows of the room locked from the inside.

Of course, all the house’s inhabitants immediately start acting guilty as hell, one by one. One by one, so that each person can be interviewed in a chapter that provides a piece of information that takes us to the next chapter. There are occasional false starts and false trails. At one point, the principal characters spend a couple of chapters chasing down the lead of a name which, to everyone except the dim-witted detective and his even dimmer-witted assistant, it is obvious is that of an animal. We soon learn how to lock a certain kind of window from the outside so that it looks like it’s been locked from the inside, disposing of the locked-room problem. Suspicions shift from one house guest to the next, but each time something is learned that pretty much eliminates the individual from further consideration.

Finally, Roger Sheringham works out whodunnit. If you are anything like me, the identity of the murderer will have been screamingly, patently obvious from about page 100, but given the fact that the puzzle mystery was at the time in its complete infancy, the contemporaneous reader will have been gobsmacked to realize that his morally upright assistant, Alec, is the killer. The book ties off its loose ends and closes.

211Why is this book worth your time?

One thing it’s important to note at the outset is that this book was published in 1925. In 1925, to give you some context, Agatha Christie had published five novels and was probably working on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for publication next year. Chesterton had only published two small volumes of Father Brown stories more than ten years previously. Philo Vance showed up a year later; Ellery Queen’s debut was four years in the future; Raymond Chandler’s debut novel was 14 years away. Movies were silent and the publishing industry was much more active, and considerably different, than it was today. And the Golden Age of mysteries was in its earliest period.

Specifically, John Dickson Carr was five years into the future and the locked room mystery was in its infancy — which is one of the reasons why this book is so interesting, because its clever author was making things up as he went along and yet influenced an entire genre. Yes, it was absolutely bold-facedly obvious that the assistant was the killer. But in 1925, before the publication of very nearly every single book that contained such a twist, this must have been astonishing and avant-garde and even thrilling. I expect that the Silly Ass narrator idea was also in its infancy and no one had yet done much with it — in fact everything here that is presently a boring cliche was fresh and new. Even the country house mystery hadn’t been done to death at this point.

The other main reason is that this is the first book by an author who went on to write some of the most important and influential puzzle mysteries in the history of the genre. This is by no means his best book, not even close, but you can see the bones of a major talent beginning to fill out with flesh. This book is filled with cleverness. Some of it doesn’t come off — the two chapters where the action grinds to a halt while the detectives track down a suspect who turns out to be an animal are excruciatingly awful — but the author is not copying anything, or riffing on anything, or providing variations on a theme. He’s inventing things that we think of as absolutely classical trophes of the genre.

Frontispiece, SheringhamYou will probably find this volume difficult to take seriously, because you have read its imitators so many times before. Ngaio Marsh lifted the idea of interviewing a subject per chapter for about 90 percent of her own books, and ground us all between millstones of boredom while doing so. The false solution then the true was not yet the basis of 90 percent of Ellery Queen’s activities. The locked room mystery was not yet the bailiwick of John Dickson Carr. And at this point in his career, Anthony Berkeley was not yet a polished writer. There’s certainly an artificial air of “jolly hockey sticks and a ha’penny’s worth of chocs a fortnight come Michaelmas” — a forced bonhomie coupled with a deep vein of Anglophilia — that is hard to plough through. Indeed, if this book had been written in 1935, it probably wouldn’t have seen publication. But in 1925, this is the bomb, and you should suspend your critical facilities long enough to slog through it. And you will thereby learn a lot about how mysteries work and where they come from.

Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (UK, Herbert Jenkins, 1925, as by ?) first printing is completely unavailable, it seems. One bookseller suggests that none has come to light in his 34 years of experience. The second printing is available VG, without jacket, for a maximum of $320. The American first, 1929, as by Anthony Berkeley, from Crime Club/Doubleday Doran, is in a similar range of prices. None of these firsts comes in jacket, but there are excellent reproductions available (two of which are shown in this post). Honestly, if I had a book like this without a jacket, I certainly wouldn’t mind having a repro jacket for it; it would add beauty, if not much value.

The contents of the book have apparently now fallen into the public domain since it is available on line from a library as a PDF file here. It is also available in various print on demand formats available over the internet, including Kindle.

Vintage Golden Card 001

Anthony Boucher

As I’ve commented here, I’m not reading very many actual physical murder mystery books these days.  Indeed, many of the ones that have passed through my hands recently were *not* read for pleasure but skimmed for ideas and/or to analyze where they went wrong.  So I will not be treating you all to a scathing review of the work of, say, Leslie Meier.  For one thing, it wouldn’t really be all that scathing.  Ms. Meier writes simple cozies and I am emphatically not her target audience, so why should I take offense at being treated like a dummy if that’s what her readership — which I take to be considerable — actually wants from her?  I was merely curious about how she manages to sell what she manages to sell, and how well she writes, and so on.  So I picked up three of them at a garage sale and skimmed them to see the voice she was using, and the underlying structure, and the opening lines, and how she handled the introduction of characters, etc. Possibly it will be considered scathing to say that she is a “competent” writer. But I think it’s just a case of what an old queen of my acquaintance used to call NOSD — “not our sort, dear”. If you like her work, feel free to keep liking it.  I will continue to avoid it, but not for any vituperative reason, merely that it’s not to my taste.

But a friend recently returned to me a copy of The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) by Anthony Boucher, and THAT was worth re-reading for pleasure. Yes, I’d given him the edition whose cover you see here — I love Dell mapbacks. (Look them up in Wikipedia if you’re not aware of them.) Boucher’s mysteries are relatively scarce in paperback and one or two of them are darn near impossible to find, notably The Case of the Seven of Calvary. But they are decidedly worth tracking down if you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery.

Mr. Boucher was many, many things in the writing field and good at all of them.  He was a superb reviewer of mysteries, he wrote them himself, he was also a science-fiction writer of note, and a great anthologist.  He was also responsible for an enormous body of work writing radio scripts and you can probably find the Sherlock Holmes radio programmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as MP3s, freely available, if you go searching for them.

His mysteries are fascinating examples of the puzzle mystery and one or two of them are even locked room mysteries, or “impossible crime” mysteries.  (Again, if you’re not up on this sub-genre, I recommend Wikipedia.) This particular novel takes place on a tiny island and, in the classic pattern, all entry to and exit from the island is controlled in such a way that the suspects are limited to only the people on the island at the time — no extraneous characters can possibly be responsible or even accomplices.  Someone was killing cats and people at a wedding reception 25 years ago and seems to be repeating the pattern in the present day (which is in the 1940s, as I recall without having the book at hand).

I admit that this sort of book held much, much more delight for me in the past than it does these days. As a younger reader, I found myself able to overlook certain mawkish elements like cardboard-y characters and silly plot twists — at one point in this particular novel, a man escapes certain death by stabbing because his heart is on the wrong side of his body, which is a little too much like a cheap radio script for my tastes — in favour of the sheer inventiveness and creativity that Boucher brought to his work, and large quantities of cutting-edge daring. To the modern reader, some of the inventiveness and creativity may go unnoticed and the daring may be overlooked. For instance, in TCOSS,  there is a character (Alyx) who is, essentially, what used to be called a “nymphomaniac” (in present-day terms, a sex addict).  It’s she who is depicted on the cover, threatening to cry rape and tearing her stocking to add verisimilitude. Well, that you can see on daytime TV these days.  But in the 1940s, OMG, that was shocking. Dangerously close to unpublishable. People just did not talk about sex in mysteries of the 1940s in such an open way. They also didn’t speak of these things in terms of psychological syndromes. In this novel, Boucher actually lays the groundwork for the realization of the reader that not only is the nymphomanaical Alyx a sex addict, but she is that way for reasons connected with traumatic events in her past.  Again, that seems simple to the modern reader, but that was not the type of conclusion that people were encouraged to draw in the 1940s.  Think of Carmen Sternwood, for instance. It was only at the level of Raymond Chandler’s writing that this sort of sexual pathology was acceptable.  In the pulps, I think the best explanation for the lack of that kind of verisimilitude is that (a) there was a kind of self-censorship to stay within the obscenity laws of the time, and (b) I suspect there was a common understanding among pulp writers that the audience just wouldn’t get it.

But I digress.  One of the reasons that I enjoy Boucher’s work so much is that he has, simply put, a great sense of humour.  It’s not especially evident in this specific novel, but it permeates his work like an undercurrent.  His detective, Fergus O’Breen, is not especially realistic, but constantly lulls the reader into a sense of mild amusement with his brash comments and general approach.

The main reason, though, is the thought that went into the plotting. Obviously it would be terrible to reveal whodunit, for instance, and I have no intention of doing that here. But Boucher’s level of intricate plotting is equaled by very, very few writers — people like Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Hake Talbot.  The amount of thought that goes into constructing such a plot is monumental.  I can’t say you will never figure this one out, because I actually did (but based on a principle that is unfair to this great writer, since it’s more based on my knowledge of the way mysteries work than anything else).

Incidentally, the “marooned on the island” theme is of course common to the country-house mystery genre of this period; if I were teaching this novel, I’d suggest that students would “compare and contrast” this to, say, Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery and/or The Spanish Cape Mystery, or Hake Talbot’s The Hangman’s Handyman.  Especially now that I’m not one of the few people in the world who’s read that last one, since Ramble House has re-published it. Or, of course, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. You can find examples of the closed circle throughout this sub-genre, but this one of Boucher’s is especially well-done.  Sometimes OTT, but a good, solid, enjoyable read that will probably surprise you at the end.