LitRPG and other ludic fiction

Columbo and DogI’m always fascinated when someone comes up with a new take on an old sub-genre, or inverts an old sub-genre to create a new one. An example of how this can work is the howcatchem — the audience knows quite well whodunit, but wants to see how Lieutenant Columbo will bring home the crime to its perpetrator. That one is a variation on the open mystery, where we don’t always know if the perpetrator will be caught. The howcatchem is not a huge sub-genre, but writers know that audiences are prepared to find that story fascinating as long as it pays off at the end in the way they expect.

wheatley_covercolorOne sub-genre from the end of the Golden Age of Detection was the dossier mystery, which is rather like a whodunit; instead of being entirely written in prose, there are photographs, documents, and actual objects (like a postage stamp or a piece of “bloody” fabric in a glassine envelope) bound or glued into the text. The final chapter was always sealed to prevent premature peeking, and the reader had to exercise some fine
hair_wheatly2colorobservational skills to note that, for instance, the jacket sleeves on one character were too long in a photograph, or there were marks on a handwritten letter indicating water droplets. The originals of these are currently esteemed by collectors and the dossier mystery has enjoyed occasional revival every so often. You might think of it as a cross between a novel and a pop-up book, or some other form in which the reader actually has to manipulate the contents of the volume physically in order to get a complete reading of everything available. Julian Symons in his history of the detective genre Bloody Murder felt that the creation of the dossier novel marked the point at which the classic detective novel became something of a cliche and the crime novel began to arise; certainly the dossier mystery is structured more like a game than an all-prose book.  Perhaps we might think of it as one of the earliest precursors of today’s topic, ludic fiction. (“Ludic,” meaning “game-like” or “about games”.)

19535293488_2Branching away from the Golden Age for a moment, many of my readers will be familiar with a peculiar sub-genre known as a gamebook, especially if they know that what’s meant is more commonly known as a CYOA or “choose your own adventure” novel. The book written in the second person (“You’re heading home after a hard night at the factory …”) and is divided into numbered sections; you start at #1 and read until you come to a decision point, at which point the book offers you choices.  “If you investigate the strange sound, turn to 34; if
51J1viA39lLyou proceed directly home, turn to 187; if you stop at the gas station, turn to 51.” Each choice leads to a small set of different outcomes, some of which end your experience abruptly; the experienced reader will be aware of reading strategies that involve bookmarks or thumbs inserted at decision points. I have a couple of paperback gamebooks written about Sherlock Holmes, although they’re not very interesting. Many of the best entries in this sub-genre were written by Steve Jackson and not all of them are for children.

17736There are very early precursors at the beginning of sound films with a sub-genre that essentially no longer exists, the college-based football movie. Biff the hero has to outsmart the wicked gamblers and make it back to Riverdale in time to play in the Big Game, which is depicted in excruciating detail and in glorious black-and-white. I don’t really think it survived the 1930s as a sub-genre but you’d be amazed at what a lot of those movies there are. The Marx Brothers parodied them in Horse Feathers (1932).

Silent_Hill_film_posterBut all these sub-genres predate the internet and the computer age, and that’s when things really started to get interesting. Essentially a number of tiny niche sub-genres of fiction sprang up that had to do with the interface between games and stories. Clue, Doom and Silent Hill, among many others, are all movies based on games; the novelizations associated with such films are books about movies about games. (Yes, it gets complicated.) A few years ago I wrote about one such movie, Battleship, which takes that relationship between story and game and extends it beyond the breaking point.

MystCoverWhen the gamebook met the computer age, two different things happened. One was the novelization of computer games; essentially, in the same manner as the movie tie-in novel, the events of a computer game were written as prose and published, usually as a paperback original. The other was the invention of the adventure game (think Myst) itself, which was more or less a computer-based
MV5BZGY0MjUwZTktNmM4OS00NmEyLWFmYTYtMDRiNDJjZTM5Y2FhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg5OTk2OA@@._V1_updating of the choose-your-own-adventure form — with a more formalized version of “saves” to replace having to keep your thumb at paragraph 83. Sometimes the adventure games became novels; sometimes novels became adventure games, such as a long series of Nancy Drew adventure games and a wild version of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that features a very unexpected twist ending.

981838Just as there are movies based on games, there are also books based on games. I wrote recently about the puzzle adventure, a sub-genre in which the reader follows along an exciting plot line as the protagonist competes in a large-scale puzzle-solving exercise for high stakes (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance). As noted above, some computer games have been novelized; for instance you can read a fairly faithful version of an old Infocom adventure game called Planetfall in paperback, where the protagonist doesn’t have to keep saving and going
WoW_Box_Art1back to points before he gets killed through ignorance. There are a number of novels that fill in the backstory of the Myst games, and these later became a contribution to a MMO in the Myst universe. An MMO is a Massively Multi-player Online game like World of Warcraft, where hundreds of thousands of players go online every night to kill monsters (and each other) with primitive (and digital) weapons by working in small groups. And of course someone made a movie out of that called Warcraft in 2016, which was then novelized the same year, to fill in more backstory of the particular plot they’d chosen to represent the MMO. Like I said, it gets complicated.

zero-charismaBack in the pre-internet day, I was an occasional player (and even more occasional Dungeon Master) of Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as an RPG; Role Playing Game. In D&D, you generate a character for yourself and join other such characters in playing out a fantasy-based game scenario administered by an all-knowing Dungeon Master. Each such character has attributes that are expressed numerically, and events in the game are mediated by rolling dice for random results. It gets very, very complicated, but at a basic level, a stupid character like Axel the Barbarian might have an intelligence of 6 and his smarter associate, Greymalkin the Wizard, an intelligence of 18. Axel’s Strength values, though, would be higher to compensate. Every character has ability scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then you get into the finer points; if you’re hit with a rock by a child you might take 2 points of damage, which is quickly recovered, but if a Gold Dragon breathes fire on you, you might take 650 points in an instant and “die”.

dekaron-fotoRPGs in the internet age are frequently indistinguishable from MMOs and you are most likely to see the acronym MMORPG commonly used.  There are MMOs that are not RPGs, such as Second Life, and RPGs that are not MMOs, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly there are MMORPGs. Most MMORPGs of today are currently about Tolkienesque landscapes where warriors and magic-users fight against monsters and evil magicians, but there are many other types; space opera, historic RPGs in various eras (Shogunate Japan, World War II, Ancient Rome), comic book superheroes, global trade, etc. The MMORPG automates the process of dice-rolling and keeps track of various “buffs” (your expensive sword that does an extra couple of points of damage each blow) and “debuffs” (“You have been stabbed by a poisonous blade and will lose 5 points of damage each minute until you take an antidote”) that affect the outcome of play and allow things to move along much, much faster than your Dungeon Master rolling twenty-sided dice behind a screen to figure out if you got hit with a sword or not.

9272bdacef02f937c0b33132905ceb70--new-chapter-cyberpunkAnd that finally brings me to my latest discovery, a brand-new take on ludic fiction. It’s known as LitRPG and it’s starting to be weirdly popular. It’s not exactly what you’d think of as a novelization of a sequence of RPG gameplay: that’s because the fourth wall is constantly being broken to keep the reader updated as to the statistics of the protagonist (and occasionally other characters). You’re in a game and you always know you’re in a game. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Here are “the two Commandments of LitRPG” (that I’ve lifted from a website devoted to such things, so it’s their statement, not mine):

  1.  A LitRPG shall involve some type of explicitly stated progression (leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc.)
  2. A LitRPG shall involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.

And here’s the way it works in the text, sometimes:

“I pick up the items and add them to my inventory.
Currency.  500 gold.
Item:  Jeweled Lich Eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul.
Another notification pops across my vision.
Congratulations!  You have just completed the quest ‘Guardian Forest Dungeon.’  You now have an increased alliance with the elves.”

From chapter 7 of S.L. Rowland. “Pangea Online Book One:
Death and Axes: A LitRPG Novel.” (2017)


This cover art is an excellent way of understanding LitRPG; the primitive warrior in a rough landscape, but with a superimposed computer screen giving him information.

In other words, the fourth wall is broken and the reader is yet again reminded that the protagonist is within an MMORPG. Also the reader is constantly being updated as to the status of the protagonist’s health and the things he has in his pockets (“inventory”). So in a Big Battle that is meant to be the climax of a LitRPG novel, every time one character attacks another, you know exactly who hit whom with what, numerically how much damage it did, and what the effects on future combat events are likely to be.  (“White Fang strikes the undead monster with her +2 Elven Broadsword, but undead are naturally immune to Elven weapons so its attack is full force.”)

tumblr_inline_mrg5gaRoB61qz4rgpWhat attracted me to this sub-genre initially is that I always think it’s fascinating when a literary movement starts from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I admit that slash fiction got quite out of hand in the ’00s.  This is a modern genre wherein an author “ships” or writes about sexual relationships between well-known fictional characters who weren’t known to have them — for instance, Sherlock Holmes taking Dr. Watson to bed. I knew it in the 70s and thereabouts as fanfic. In the 00s, all kinds of unskilled enthusiasts were writing about how Ensign Mary Sue attracted the attention of Captain Kirk and got rogered on the holodeck, or whatever. They would post slash on fora for each other and developed a critical language that encompassed it (see Wikipedia on Mary Sue). Slash was a brief craze among young women but it remains popular, and “shipping” appears to have made it into the language. And as I noted, slash was generated by those young women themselves. They weren’t sold it by Random House or Amazon. Their enthusiasm for an implausible sexuality may have led them to excess, but they thought of that stuff themselves and they worked hard doing it.  Possibly from slash we’ll get the Mary Higgins Clark of tomorrow. And so I make a point of looking at genres that create themselves spontaneously, as opposed to, say, the cupcake cozy, which appears to me to be a research-based construct of major publishing companies, purveyed to an uncritical and uncaring public.

2bb598129088196cea260629c5f89963Indeed, LitRPG seems to be something which came spontaneously to life. It’s going to be a difficult genre for anyone to understand who hasn’t played in an RPG or an MMORPG, but it has all kinds of interesting characteristics that are not unlike more successful genres. It appears to have arisen primarily in Russian-language materials associated with professional gamers but, as sometimes happens, there’s a bunch of Americans who claim they did it first. And if they weren’t first, by golly they’re going to be the best and get ‘er done on Amazon. To the credit of both countries, the writers recognize the economic advantages of having the books available in English for the English-speaking market. I might be seeing more than is there; my assessment of the materials surrounding the market was very limited. It looks like a lot of young men are having a lot of fun writing and reading these books; they may not be making a lot of money but they’re having a great time and forming a community.

I surveyed a random sample of LitRPG, which in itself is kind of an issue. Quite a bit of the LitRPG I saw is fantasy RPG based (think Tolkien-ish) but there’s a goodly amount from the strongly militaristic game background and some very odd outliers. I have to confess I didn’t think I’d really enjoy living through the adventures of someone in a mechanized combat suit killing things, etc., so I read through some fantasy based ones and called it a day. I’m saying this so you know my sample is skewed and I may not have the full grasp yet.

My first reaction after gulping one of these novels down was “Wow! Not many people other than gamers are ever going to enjoy that, but it was a lot of fun!” At the outset I was prepared to be quite snotty about the amateurish nature of the writing, but I soon realized something. As you can imagine, LitRPG is quite rigorously plot-driven; literally, the protagonist is given a quest or task and must find a way to accomplish it. Characterization is at a minimum. But if you think about it — that’s very similar to the earliest days of the puzzle mystery in the Golden Age of Detection. I admit that Inspector French doesn’t exactly level up when he works out that the criminal’s alibi can be broken, but there’s a process in RPG called “grinding” where you repeat low-level activities a number of times that reminds me very much of French sending out his minions to search for London stores that sell a certain kind of typewriter. So perhaps it’s merely good fortune, or perhaps a clever selection of an appropriate genre for a novice writer, but these young writers with excellent plotting skills and limited characterization skills get the job done quite nicely, for the most part.

Indeed, there are actually characters in these narratives who are literally labeled as NPCs (non-playing characters), which is a great idea that should have been adopted for the puzzle mystery. That means that only specific characters could be suspects and that old Mrs. Twitterbury who runs the local teashop is merely there to add local colour, and you can be guaranteed she didn’t kill Lord Oldandrich. NPCs are there to add colour and the protagonist knows it, so the audience knows it too and doesn’t get emotionally invested when an NPC gets killed.

The LitRPG authors usually go to a good deal of trouble to create a framing story that is not merely “Generic kid plays a game and this is how it goes”, but adds some urgency or higher-stakes outcome to the situation.  For instance, one protagonist has his consciousness downloaded into an RPG in order to escape an asteroid that’s going to strike earth and kill him and almost everyone else. Another one is playing for economic reasons; his daughter needs a heart transplant and this is the only way he can make the money. My first LitRPG  experience (quoted above; S.L. Rowland’s Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, 2017) has a framing story very much like what I expect to be next year’s hit movie, Ready Player One; a young orphan starts out toiling in the lowest levels of the data mines and ends up owning most of cyberspace and Getting the Girl. I’m not sure where these novice writers learned how or why to add this framing story, but I’d say the best ones have it and it’s an elegant technique that is frequently beyond the grasp of amateurs.

And plotting itself is meant to meet the expectations of people (mostly young men with good reflexes) who play a lot of MMORPG. At the outset of games/novels, your character must do low-level things like meet the locals and dispatch unfriendly creatures like … rats. As the protagonist increases in stature and experience, he can interact more seamlessly with the NPCs and fights with progressively stronger enemies (“minibosses”). The classic gaming structure leads to a final “boss fight” with the most powerful entity in the narrative. The boss fight often has an element whereby the protagonist must possess a certain object in order to defeat the final boss (the “sacred sword of the Ancients” or suchlike), or must have teamed up with a certain other character for a joint attack, or in some way met a prerequisite before the final battle. This structure naturally lends itself to a plot-driven novel in a way that is easy for novice writers to execute; gamers know this structure instinctively and, based on their experience of what makes the most satisfying narrative, arrange that whatever it is that the protagonist is fighting at his current level of experience is sufficiently strong itself to put up a good fight but not usually kill the protagonist. It kind of writes itself: a level 35 elf battles three level 32 orcs, not three level 2 fluffybunnies or a level 268 telepathic dragon that spits battery acid.

There seems to be a firm determination that every LitRPG book created shall be part of a series, which is another similarity with Golden Age detective fiction. I’m not sure why there’s an implicit assumption that the character of the protagonist is sufficiently interesting to carry the story, but perhaps this is merely why the best authors create the framing stories noted above and expect those to carry the reader.  Will the hero get his daughter a heart transplant and move forward? (Generally, yes indeed, and has a bigger problem in volume 2.)

I strongly suspect that LitRPG will have little appeal for people who haven’t already played MMORPGs but I found a great deal of simple pleasure to be had in this form; it might be naive in a literary sense but it has energy and enthusiasm.  The plots all move forward pleasingly at a high rate of speed, and there’s always something new and dangerous right around the corner.

51JdHvHLIULIf you’re interested you can find out more by searching for “LitRPG” on Amazon or your preferred bookseller; most of these books are not easily available in printed formats but almost entirely for the Kindle et al. I did enjoy the book I found serendipitously, Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, from S.L. Rowland — it was free for Kindle Unlimited and a mere CDN$4.98 if you’re so inclined. If you have a bright nephew of 11 or so who plays MMORPGs, by all means get him a copy; it’s the equivalent of a simple Heinlein juvenile. I read my way through quite a few of these in a week or ten days, trying to isolate some generalized observations, and they’ve all rather blurred together, but honestly I didn’t find many clinkers — just the ones for which I didn’t care due to the subject matter being “future war” or “urban jungle”. If you’re a gamer you’ll know the kind of thing you like already and you should be able to pick it up cheaply. And if your idea of a good time is being the tank for your party while the rest of your crew kills the skeletons and picks up the loot, you’ll love these books.



The Murder that had Everything!, by Hulbert Footner (1939)

12540270_10208104766567176_726760561_nWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

Mystery writer and well-known New York amateur detective Amos Lee Mappin is called in by pretty socialite Peggy Brocklin, whose $40 million have been abandoned before the altar by a disappearing fiance, Rene Doria.  Rene is not from the highest drawer; in fact, he’s a coarsely handsome nobody who’s spent the last four years in Hollywood trying to get into the movies, and he captivated Peggy with his sexual magnetism. A man like that always has more than one woman on the string to provide the large sums of money that fuel his activities, and we soon meet the wealthy and middle-aged Mrs. Vosper, who loaned Doria a valuable piece of  jewelry when he said he was in a jam. Mappin quickly locates Doria, or at least his lifeless body, and nearby in his apartment are three clues. One is a flower — prepared to be worn in a man’s lapel. The second is a strange doodle on a desk blotter, with four dots in the centre of a circle. (Much as you see on the cover of the latest edition, depicted at the top of this review.) And the third is a tiny piece of broken glass that has a strange shape; maddeningly familiar but unidentifiable.

As Mappin continues to investigate, he has occasion to take advice from a couple of well-connected reporters on the society circuit, including Beau Gramercy, whose column can make or break anyone in modern cafe society. Using his extensive contacts in the upper social echelons, Mappin starts to uncover the outlines of something larger than this isolated incident, where a number of handsome impoverished men have been systematically fleecing wealthy women. The detective identifies the mastermind behind these schemes and solves the case.

1363Why is this worth reading?

If you aren’t familiar with the life story of Hulbert Footner, I recommend you to his Wikipedia article found here. I’m a Canadian, and he was too — but I wouldn’t recommend you to his work merely for that, or that he explored the rather remote area of the Canadian Rockies in which I live in 1911 and gave his name to Lake Footner in northwestern Alberta. He was at various time an actor and a dramatist, but eventually settled into writing detective fiction until his death in 1944. This is one of the writers who used to have the most interesting biographic paragraphs on the inside back jacket flap … not much seen these days. That alone might interest you in his work, though.

He wrote two different detective series. His first was from a series of short stories in a “slick” magazine about Madame Rosika Storey that were accumulated into books, and these are perhaps his best-known works. But later in his career he switched over to writing about mystery novelist Amos Lee Mappin, protagonist of this novel, who moved in New York’s cafe society. Both detectives have young women who assist them in something of the Watson role; this is an unusual thing in GAD and gives both series a bit of proto-feminist interest. Really, though, it seems to me as though he was merely writing for a female audience.

dell0074And in terms of a female audience, I thought this book was very interesting. Without revealing too much about the book and potentially spoiling your enjoyment, I can say that the criminality that underlies the book is the getting of money from wealthy women who become emotionally involved with the wrong man. Some of it seems like blackmail, some of it seems like merely … social pressure. It can’t be easy to be young, pretty, and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the world, if you happen to meet a devilishly handsome “bad boy” who sweeps you off your feet.

dell0074backSo the crime here is one in which men prey on women, and Amos Lee Mappin and the young woman who assists him together find out who is guilty and stop the blackmail. An interesting story and an interesting premise for a story at a time when, even though women were reading detective fiction in large numbers, they weren’t finding themselves often represented as either the partners of male investigators or the targets of large-scale criminal operations.

At least, that’s the point I was going to make when I first started to write this review. Because up until then, the picture in my mind was of a charming piece of GAD written in the 1920s. Nothing disturbed my picture of a detective of the early 1920s; everything that was described seemed to be contributing to this picture, whether it was clothes, patterns of speech, and a specific detail that I cannot explain for the sake of your potential enjoyment, but which explains two of the three main clues noted above. Then I realized that this had been published in 1939! It really did surprise me, and I went looking for evidence that this had been written and kept in a drawer for 15 years, or perhaps was a re-writing of an earlier book or story … but no. This book was written in 1939 but if you start the book with the presumption that you are in 1924, you won’t be any worse off.

This, to me, is strange stuff, and I can’t explain it. I mean, more famous authors like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, as they advanced in age and were nearing the end of their careers, wrote books that took place in the year of publication and yet contained the attitudes, vocabulary, and social mores of a time 20 or 30 years earlier. I suspect that the context is long gone that will let me understand how this book achieved publication when it, to me, seems to be completely out of step with its context. I mean, 1939 — the year of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Rawson’s Footprints on the Ceiling, and Stout’s Some Buried Caesar. Okay, this book is not quite antimacassars and voh-de-oh-doh, but neither is it seemingly set in the same social context as any of those novels, all with wealthy women who do pretty much what they choose.

Anyway — unless you are over 90 and read this when it first came out, and have a social context in which you can place it, you’re probably going to enjoy this novel; just ignore the copyright date and revel in a time when “cafe society” meant something different than hanging with your crew at Starbucks.

My favourite edition

Full disclosure: Although I’ve had the Dell mapback edition shown above for years, and even read it way back when, I’d quite forgotten about this minor work until Coachwhip was kind enough to send me a review copy of the edition shown at the head of this review. I’m sorry to say that my first love will always be for the mapback, but I have to say this is an attractive modern edition. The typography is attractive and the book has a nice hand-feel to it, in weight and cover finish; I am happy to see that Coachwhip avoids the bad habits of other small presses and sticks to simple cover designs like the one here.  I venture to guess that their edition will be about the same price as a Very Good to Near-Fine copy of Dell #74, the first paperback edition, and will look considerably less lurid on your shelves. So call this one my second favourite, but if there weren’t a mapback, it might be my first.



The Hog’s Back Mystery, by Freeman Wills Crofts (1933)

$_57WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Note: This book was also published in the US under the title The Strange Case of Dr. Earle, although that title is considerably more uncommon.

9781842323960What’s this book about?

In the opening chapters, we are introduced to a small-scale domestic situation near Hog’s Back, which is a geographic feature of Britain’s North Downs (and close to where the author lived). Dr. and Mrs. Earle, and the doctor’s assistant physician Dr. Campion, are entertaining some house guests, Julia Earle’s sister Marjorie Lawes, and their mutual friend Ursula Stone. Everything is bucolic on the surface, but Ursula soon learns that her hostess appears to be conducting at least a flirtation with rabbit-faced young Reggie Slade from the next-door manor. (Everyone else is close to middle age or beyond.) When Ursula visits Dr. Campion’s sister Alice, who lives close by, she confirms that the Earles are not the happy couple they seem on the surface; Julia has a roving eye and likes to spend money, and the spouses quarrel frequently. Then, quite by accident, Ursula sees Dr. Earle giving a lift to a striking woman whom she doesn’t recognize — and the doctor later lies about where he was at the time.

The evening before she leaves, Julia spends the evening with Dr. Campion, Alice, and another sister Flo, talking about old times and admiring Dr. Campion’s woodworking shop. The party drives Ursula back to the Earles’ home only to learn that, in the last few hours, Dr. Earle has mysteriously vanished from the house, hatless and wearing house slippers.

The household raises the alarm and begins to search the grounds and vicinity, but Dr. Earle, alive or dead, is nowhere to be found. The local constabulary is also unable to locate any trace and so Inspector French of Scotland Yard is called in.

mlhd0mHMQFTtqcpu0kN_GbwFrom this point, the remainder of the novel is told from French’s view. He repeats his thorough search and then begins to widen the net, trying to consider whether Earle has disappeared of his own accord or by the acts of an enemy. There are a couple of tiny clues that are more loose ends than anything concrete, but French investigates Ursula Stone’s sighting of the striking woman in more depth. Similarly he takes in the information about the possible extra-marital activities of both the Earles into account.

I think you’ll enjoy this book more if I say very little about the plot beyond this point. I’ll merely say that two more people connected with the strange case of Dr. Earle also vanish mysteriously, and Inspector French’s dogged and painstaking investigation of the underlying crimes and motives occupies the entire remainder of the novel. He learns many things about many people, finds some tiny physical clues from which he gleans a surprisingly large amount of information, traces everyone’s movements in the smallest detail, and all in all exhibits magnificent police skills that allow him to solve the crime and enable the guilty to be punished. The ending is quite surprising, especially in some details of what really happened and the degree to which the crime was planned in advance.

6546Why is this worth reading?

In this blog post from last year, I talked about the difference between the police procedural and what I call the “detective novel”. This, to me, is a detective novel, because it follows the actions and thinking of a single detective as he solves a single crime. I agree that there are other levels of the Scotland Yard/constabulary organization in play here, especially the wonderfully-named Sergeant Sheepshanks; they do things like follow people around and confirm French’s suspicions about various elements of the case. Importantly to the distinction, though, we don’t really partake of their investigatory thoughts. Indeed the constabulary function is pretty much to leap to the wrong investigatory conclusion so that Inspector French looks smarter.

This is, in fact, a timetable novel. And what is a timetable novel? Rather a specialty of Crofts, who may not have invented it but certainly perfected it. Essentially Inspector French starts investigating the alibis of every person in his case, in order to find who might have been at a certain place at a certain time. One character’s perfect alibi cannot be confirmed in some detail, or seems a little off.  French digs and digs and worries at every tiny portion of the alibi until a thread comes loose, and he is finally able to demonstrate that the perfect alibi has been hocussed by the murderer in some complicated and difficult way. The reason this is known as a timetable novel is — well, let me give you a quote that shows the issue for Inspector French. (I’ve omitted full names so as not to give too much away.)

“But this matter of the alibi was fundamental to his progress. … Item by item he went over the thing again in his mind, with the sole result of becoming more puzzled than ever. X and his car were definitely at Petersfield at 4.0 p.m. Of that there could be no doubt; it was checked by the people he had visited. From St. Kilda to Petersfield was something like 21 miles, part of it over narrow and twisting roads. It would be impossible to run the distance in half an hour. But at 3.30 W was alive. The servant, L, had seen her just before going out. And L had unquestionably caught the bus which passed the house at 3.35. There was her own evidence, and that of the friends to whom she was going, as also of the bus company as to their service, all of which points French had checked. It was certain, therefore, that X could not have committed the murder before reaching Petersfield.”

970Note the phrase, “all of which points French had checked.” We have indeed met “the servant, L,” and had her evidence, and we have seen that French is delighted to telephone or visit bus companies — or any other corporation — to find out that the 3.35 bus had run on time that day, and if not why not. French, indeed, is like Robert Heinlein’s character of Anne, the Fair Witness — who, when asked what colour a distant horse is, says, “It’s white on this side.” Inspector French checks everything right down to the smallest detail and we get to see him do it.

To me, this is delightful stuff. Some critics of Crofts will suggest that his work is lacking in characterization and I entirely agree. The servant, L, for example, is barely even there. There’s not a word of description of what she looks like, merely a recitation of her evidence. One lady “replied frigidly, but with evident irritation” to one of French’s questions, and this is pretty much the only description of her emotional state that we are given (although she is quite condescending to him in a way that you can only get by reading the entire exchange). These aren’t really characters as we know them in modern novels. They are little plastic figures that French is moving around a board, trying to figure out what happened. I expect Crofts would have said that he deliberately kept characterization out of it, so that the grander game of the solution to the puzzle could get on without causing false trails due to one or another character being more vivid or dramatic than others. Part of it for me is that, although French is faultlessly polite, he doesn’t really care or need to care about the emotions of the people with whom he interacts, except as those emotions provide a possible motive for criminal actions; at least, that seems to allow me to suspend my disbelief that a man who can spot a fragment of paper with a few letters on it can fail to notice that a woman is furious at his questions.

But without characterization, what we have is a large scale logic problem that we see solved before us by Inspector French. It’s not quite as cold and artificial as “The lady in blue who lives next door to the man who owns the sheepdog is not named Barker.” People are variously unhappy; they are sad when they lose their loved ones, and they are angry at being involved on the periphery of a murder investigation even though they have nothing to do with it. But to be honest, this whole book is about the experience of watching Inspector French solving this puzzle, and feeling on-side with him as he does it.

This is cleverly built in two ways. One is that Crofts has written this particular volume to lead you down a certain garden path; French doesn’t jump to conclusions, but it seems as though he gets to the gist of a clue a millisecond before the reader does. He has his little “aha!” moment, and then you do … because Crofts has phrased it in such a way that the reader allows himself the tiny logical leap that isn’t perhaps justified, but is very satisfying. “By golly, I’ll bet *I* could have been a Scotland Yard inspector, I figured that out!” Yes, because Crofts carefully led you to the threshold and let French carry you over. The second cleverness is that we find it easy to identify with French because he’s so damn … nice. He’s four-square and plays the game and is pukka sahib and stiff upper lip and any number of other cliches that purport to describe the essential goodness of the British character. He is straight up with his suspects; in fact it’s charming to see him getting pouty when they accuse him of trying to trick them. He is thoroughly married, it seems, and never has an impure thought about any female. But he does disapprove of inappropriate behaviour among any of the classes, disreputable servants and rakish aristos coming in for a larger share of his internal tsk-tsking.

In this volume, I came across a tiny paragraph that just sums up Inspector French to me.

“Tired but not discouraged, French went out after dinner to try what Farnham could do in the way of amusement. He saw a first-rate film about a trainload of persons who were held up by bandits in the disturbed East, but who after surprising adventures safely reached their journey’s end, and much refreshed in mind, he went up to bed.”

And that’s the guy I want to investigate my murder. As near as I can tell, Crofts is indicating by French’s choice of cinematic entertainment that he is either of the upper reaches of the lower classes, or, more probably, in the middle or artisan class. This is not the film that an upper-class person would have chosen; it seems wholesome, unromantic, and un-bawdy and thus would not attract servants. I like Inspector French; I would like to entertain this shy little man to dinner and hear the stories of his adventures after a brandy or two. And Crofts has given him just enough personality to make that the case, possibly because it stretches the limits of his skill at characterization to do so. Not too little — not too much, so that he anticipates modern ScandiNoir. Just right.

When considering any Golden Age mystery, I try to always find things in the book that educate me about the social context at the time. Here there is frankly very little of interest … nothing of the minutiae of everyday life that I find so fascinating. There were a few points that interested me, though. My understanding is that Crofts was what one might think of as a “moral” writer — PG-13, in modern parlance — and I was surprised at the general attitude in this book towards the possibility of both Dr. Earle and his wife having an extra-marital affair. To be honest, there is not really a suggestion that either party is slipping off for a cinq-à-sept with anyone; the idea is that one spouse would have occasion to complain about the potentially inappropriate friendships of the other. Certainly there is disapproval and a sense that the spouses are making a mistake. But there’s nothing that indicates they’re going to lose their social status as a result, and that interested me.  However, it’s difficult to analyze what the absence of a reaction in a novel means.

There are certainly things in this book about which I want to learn more. Apparently, for instance, DIY types in 1933 were being offered the chance to construct a doll’s house from pre-made pieces, and this was an unexceptional idea. And there is quite a bit of observational material that depends upon the social status of a hospital nurse in society that is tantalizingly enigmatic. Crofts is not precise about whether he thinks a member of the upper classes is having it off with a nurse; it’s as though the characters are all agreed that either “Yes, that’s the sort of thing nurses do,” or “No, nurses would never do THAT” — but they don’t tell you what their assumption is. The unspoken assumptions are much more clear to the author, the characters, and the putative readers than they are to me. She’s not quite a servant and not quite a member of the middle class. I remember a reference in another mystery to a servant who was addressed as Cook, and who was voluble about one’s employer having to pay for the privilege of “calling you out of your name”. Parlourmaids were merely Judkins or Smoot, but one had to be earning a larger salary to be called Cook — or Nurse, as this lady was. And yet not a member of the professional or artisan classes — almost like French himself. I’m sure Miss Silver or Miss Marple could lay it out for me in detail, but the social context is just a little elusive in this novel.

There’s an elegant conceit at the end of this novel that I feel compelled to mention. In the “blow-off” in the final pages, where Inspector French Explains It All To You, there is the very scarce device of the “clue finder”. That is to say, when Inspector French says that he noticed such-and-such a clue, you are referred to the page upon which the revelation took place, so in the e-version the last chapter is a forest of hyperlinks. This is actually very good for the novice mystery-solver, who can bounce around in the book and know just where they’ve gone wrong. There aren’t many mystery writers who expended the time to put in these clue-finders; Crofts, Ronald Knox,  John Dickson Carr, and C. Daly King are among the few. It signals that, whatever caveats you may wish to put upon the definition, the author of a book containing a clue-finder is trying to “play fair” with the reader, and I like that.

Summing up: reading this novel is rather like sitting behind the shoulder of Inspector French as he solves the case, but it’s less like an exciting narrative and more like someone who has enlisted your help to solve a difficult crossword. French seems to get there just a moment before the reader does, and to this reader at least, that’s a very enjoyable experience. There’s no real way that the reader could determine why the criminal plot works the way it does, so all that you can do is observe the clues as French sees them and hope to put them together before he does. The plot is tricky, and the solution to the puzzle is difficult but based on clues that you can look back and see. French is a charming detective with whom to share the experience.

My experience is that Crofts novels appeal to a wide spectrum of readers, which I think is unusual. Admittedly there is none of the depth of characterization that seems to attract many readers to the modern mystery, but Inspector French has a quality that I term “charm” that carries this novel (and many other adventures of Inspector French) very successfully to a satisfying conclusion. If you like the idea of a timetable mystery, you’ll really like this one.

I realize that I have been known to focus on rare mysteries that cost a lost of money if you are lucky enough to find one to purchase. It’s therefore delightful to say that for once you can have this novel inexpensively with the click of a mouse; it’s in print in both paper and e-book and available on Amazon at prices ranging from $7.27 to $150-plus.  My thanks to British Library Crime Classics for bringing this great mystery back into print.

Crofts-HogPBMy favourite edition

Although the first editions, both US and UK, are very attractive indeed, and worth the pretty prices that I see on online bookselling sites — I like the look of the Pan paperback you see at the left very much indeed. The colours are beautiful, the antique wood-cut look is very attractive and the artwork is dramatic and striking. Even the typography and general design evoke a period of Pan when they were at their height in selecting good mysteries for their line. I’d love to have a copy of this one.

However, my current favourite edition is the British Library Crime Classic reissue in shades of sage green seen at the head of this article. Not only is the faux-30s illustration done very well indeed, but it has the added benefit of a good introduction by mystery expert and fiction writer Martin Edwards, who produced an engrossing history of the Detection Club last year. Martin Edwards gives you enough background information about Crofts himself to make the book’s context more interesting, and the little introductory essay is a pleasant appetizer before the meat of the novel.


200 authors I would recommend (Part 2)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; Part 3 is found here.

11.  Bentley, E. C. You’ve got to like a guy whose middle name was used as the name for a style of verse (the “clerihew”). You’ve also got to respect his creation of Trent’s Last Case, which was written in 1913 and is an absolutely crucial volume in the history of detective fiction. There are two follow-up volumes from the 30s but Trent’s Last Case is just a necessary book. You have to read it and remember that it was written in 1913 — this writer invented things that we take for granted today.

not to be taken12.  Berkeley, Anthony I’ve written about Mr. Berkeley elsewhere, in connection with his creation of an absolute classic of detective fiction, The Poisoned Chocolates Case. To my mind, the guy is just brilliant. Writing as Francis Iles, he pretty much invented the “open mystery”, where you know whodunnit from the outset but the story is still gripping.  I read a comment recently that said that Berkeley seems to specialize in “trick” stories, where if you know the trick the book is over. There is a little bit of truth in this, but honestly I’d rather try to figure out Berkeley’s tricks than those of a dozen other authors. He’s funny, he’s sardonic, and his puzzles are extremely difficult. Not To Be Taken is generally considered to be right up there with his finest work (Before The Fact, Malice Aforethought, Poisoned Chocolates) but few people have read it.

a90bf282e3fa430250641e41423bdb4f13.  Biggers, Earl Derr Biggers created Charlie Chan and wrote the six novels in the series between 1925 and 1932. So there are about six times as many movies as actual novels, and the movies were created as B-level commercial products. You’ll get a different idea of the Chinese-American detective if you go back to the source material and actually read the books, and I recommend it. The stories are clever and it’s nice to read something from the 1920s that treats Asian-Americans in a little more enlightened way. They’re approaching 100 years old, so don’t be surprised if you find them a bit creaky, but remember that these are the six novels that created a character whose name is still a household word. n59669

14.  Blake, Nicholas Nicholas Blake was the mystery-writing pseudonym used by Cecil Day-Lewis, who late in life became Poet Laureate of England. I’ve heard it said that he will be remembered more for his politics — he was a Communist at a time when that was violently unpopular — and his detective fiction than his poetry. I can’t speak for his politics but his mysteries are exceptional, especially the ones featuring Oxford man-about-town Nigel Strangeways. His most famous mystery seems to be 1938’s The Beast Must Die, which has an excellent premise at its core, but I have liked nearly all of them (a handful of later ones I found a little disappointing). Malice in Wonderland is a witty portrait of a bygone English institution, the “holiday camp”, and a bygone profession, the “mass observer”; Minute for Murder is a favourite of mine. I understand that Head of a  Traveller and The Private Wound both draw heavily on his personal life. I’d recommend any of them, but the earlier the better as a starting point. (And yes, his son Daniel Day-Lewis is the famous actor.)

15.  Block, Lawrence In a long and distinguished career like Lawrence Block’s, you’d expect that there would be a bunch of clunkers among the gems. The gems are there for you — the brilliant and gritty and powerful Matt Scudder private eye series makes up for his beginnings writing “Lesbian confession” paperback originals, I hope — but Block is a master of so many styles and niches that you will certainly find things you love and things you don’t. I’ve found that Scudder fans tend to not like the lightly amusing Bernie Rhodenbarr novels, and vice versa, and that’s fine. Block writes a lot and publishes often, and has tried his hand at a lot of different things. He’s a damn good writer and you’ll find something to your taste, I think. Just don’t give up quickly if you don’t like the first one that comes to hand.

92cbb48cc04905a1e4147d1c5ece6ba516.  Boucher, Anthony I’ve written about Boucher’s novels before, here and here.  He only wrote seven full-length mysteries, but every single one of them is worth reading and is important to the field. He was, in my opinion, the best reviewer of mysteries ever; he knew what to look for and what to point out, telling the reader just enough to pique curiosity without giving away too much. Boucher was frighteningly intelligent and knowledgeable in widely separated areas, from opera librettos to Sherlock Holmes to craft beer; his career spanned books, reviewing, radio scripts, and perhaps most importantly his role as a catalyst around whom other writers coalesced. Strangest of all, he had an equally strong presence in the nascent field of science fiction. I always recommend the Fergus O’Breen series, start to finish; if you’re interested in science fiction, Rocket to the Morgue is a roman a clef about west coast writers such as Robert Heinlein (and yes, the victim is apparently based on Adrian Conan Doyle, whom a lot of real-life people thought needed murdering).

179 Edgar Box (Gore Vidal) Death Likes It Hot Signet05517.  Box, Edgar Edgar Box was the pseudonym used by Gore Vidal for his three mysteries from the early 50s starring randy PR consultant Peter Cutler Sergeant II. It’s a shame he didn’t continue the series, but these three are acerbic, bitterly funny, clever, beautifully written, and fascinating looks at a bygone era. It’s hard to imagine at this remove that it was considered shocking to write about a gay ballerino as a minor character in Death in the Fifth Position, but it was even more shocking at the time that the protagonist didn’t find it shocking, if you follow me. Vidal was a great writer and these are a fascinating little sideline; I frequently recommend these to people who have a taste for “literary fiction” and consider genre works beneath them. Vidal knew how to say just enough to get his point across, and the books are smooth as silk.

18.  Brackett, Leigh Leigh Brackett gets wedged into this category because she ghosted an interesting mystery novel for George Sanders, and wrote a few non-series mysteries that are above average and screenplays for some famous movies, but really she’s much better known as a master of science fiction. Her science fiction is still very readable and has the delicious flavour of high adventure that appeals to adolescent boys of any age; the Eric John Stark series will appeal to 14-year-olds and lure them into reading in a painless and clever way. It seems as though she could write in any genre in both screenplays and print; she novelized Rio Bravo, wrote the screenplay for one of the early Crime Doctor mystery films, an episode of The Rockford Files, the screenplay of The Big Sleep — and has a screen credit for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. That credential alone will hook your 14-year-old non-reader!

19.  Bradley, Alan Alan Bradley is one of the few writers who knows how to write from a child’s point of view; his series protagonist, teenage Flavia de Luce, is a brilliant creation and one of my T0p 10 Women Detectives in books. The stories are balanced on the knife-edge between sympathetic and twee; my opinion is that they never go too far, but I know some people find them cloying. Try The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and give it 50 pages. You’ll either set it aside, which happens occasionally, or you’ll immediately go and get the other six in the series and savour them slowly.

29571371_christianna-brand-tour-de-force-1955-trad-marilena-caselli-classici-del-giallo-mondadori-1164-del--120.  Brand, Christianna I’ve been a champion of this writer ever since I first read the incredible Tour de Force — about murder on a package tour of the Mediterranean. The central clue is so squarely and fairly planted that it gave me the wonderful forehead-slapping moment I so often want but rarely find — I SHOULD have known whodunnit, but Ms. Brand slipped it right past me. She often does. Death of Jezebel is wonderfully difficult and satisfying, I think. Not all her works are perfect; Heads You Lose has a brilliant story hook but a truly disappointing finish, Death in High Heels has a few false moments, and I don’t personally care for Cat and Mouse much at all, although many people love it. Green for Danger is a well-known puzzle mystery that was made into an Alastair Sim movie, and many people come to her work via that classic. I recommend nearly everything she wrote; I even like Suddenly at His Residence where few others agree. One characteristic of her writing I enjoy is that she added characterization at a time when it wasn’t considered appropriate to detective fiction; the portrait of an adolescent hysteric in Suddenly at his Residence, for instance, is beautifully observed and rather unnecessary; she was writing like a novelist, not just a mystery writer.  She also tried her hand at other types of story; I think it’s almost funny that this great mystery writer may be more remembered for creating the children’s character Nanny McPhee.

Part 3 will be along soon.