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

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

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

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

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931

MURDER BY THE CLOCK, 1931

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

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

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

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

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

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

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

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

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

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

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

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

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

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

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

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

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for¬†‚Äúchicken √† la Toulousaine‚ÄĚ. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.

***

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

 

 

 

 

The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

The Poisoned Chocolates Case,  by Anthony Boucher (1929)

1946070Author:¬†Anthony Berkeley¬†was¬†the pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox, an extremely talented and inventive mystery writer who also wrote as Francis Iles and other names. His biography in Wikipedia is found here; I have elsewhere reviewed his first novel, The Layton Court Mystery, originally published as by “?”. Yes, a question mark. His novel as by Francis Iles, Before the Fact, was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1941 as Suspicion, with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. He was one of the founding members of the Detection Club. His principal detective as Berkeley is Roger Sheringham, silly-ass amateur detective, but a couple of novels feature Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, mild-mannered criminology expert; this is the only novel to feature both.

thPublication Data: The first edition of this novel is probably the Collins (UK) edition from 1929 (the jacket features Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown); I am unable to say reliably whether it predates the Doubleday Crime Club edition of 1929. The first paperback edition is Penguin #36, dating from 1936, originally published with a dust wrapper; you may find it significant that it predates the first paperback published in North America by three years. In other words, one of the first paperbacks ever.

I like the look of Pocket 814, which you’ll see elsewhere in this post, featuring Mrs. Bendix in a low-cut evening gown (do you sense a theme?). This novel was also part of an edition from Dell in the 1980s that I call “puzzlebacks”;¬†the books have the uniform feature of a jigsaw piece¬†on the front,¬†and you see on the back cover where the piece fits into an illustration from the novel. That’s the copy I’ve used for this post.

It is a reworking of a short story published earlier* the same year called “The Avenging Chance” — the solution of the short story is actually one of the solutions that is presented and discarded in the novel form (see below for an explanation of this). (*See a discussion in the comments below.)

This particular book was selected as a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone, which is to say that Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen thought it was one of the most important works of detective fiction ever published. I agree wholeheartedly. In my personal opinion, it is one of the finest murder mysteries of all time.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and 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.

I believe this book to be sufficiently significant in the history of detective fiction that I have decided to spoil your potential enjoyment as little as possible. Nevertheless, if you want to have a delightful experience, I advise you to turn away now, go find a copy of this book and read it before you return.

24044PThis book is about a group of six amateur detectives who call themselves the Crimes Circle. As a discussion topic, they decide to investigate a crime which is familiar to all of them, and some of them have personal connections to various of the dramatis personae. Each detective agrees to investigate the case and provide a solution; one by one, week after week, each presents his or her ideas and conclusions. By the time of the sixth such presentation, it becomes absolutely clear who is responsible for the crime.

The case they investigate involves a box of liqueur¬†chocolates which was received through the post by the universally loathed Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, with a letter asking for his endorsement as a kind of advertisement that was common at the time. Sir Eustace is both disagreeable and hot-tempered and announces that he’s going to throw the chocolates away, but a fellow club member, Graham Bendix, asks for them because he has lost a bet with his wife Joan and needs to produce a box of chocolates to pay the forfeit. Bendix takes them home; he eats a couple and Joan eats quite a few more. The chocolates have been poisoned with nitrobenzene; Graham Bendix recovers, but his wife dies.

The six members of the Crimes Circle are as follows (and their solutions are presented in this order):

  • Sir Charles Wildman, well-known bombastic defense lawyer; we later learn that Sir Charles’s daughter means to marry Sir Eustace as soon as his divorce becomes final.
  • Mrs. Fielder-Flemming, a playwright whose work focuses on emotions more than facts; some of her dramatic productions have been thinly-disguised retellings of famous murder cases.
  • Morton Harrogate Bradley, a writer of detective novels who has considerable knowledge of criminology in the abstract, but who is perhaps not very serious about its concrete details.
  • Roger Sheringham, amateur detective and man about town, who has solved other murder mysteries in the recent past (chronicled by Anthony Berkeley).
  • Alicia Dammers, an icy and beautiful novelist whose brilliance is universally acknowledged. She writes novels that dissect in unflattering and cold-eyed logical detail the failings of others.
  • Ambrose Chitterwick, a mild-mannered gentleman who nevertheless appears to know an enormous amount about the history of detective fiction and true crime.

anthony-berkeleyEach detective does whatever investigation he or she feels is appropriate and makes a case. Week after week, the opinions of the group are swayed in one direction or another. Although there are really only three principal characters, various other possibilities are considered. At first, everyone is considering the possible reasons for someone to try to kill Sir Eustace, who is very disagreeable, a well-known womanizer, and looking to marry into money; no one could have known that he would pass the chocolates to Mr. Bendix, whom he hardly knew. As time goes by, the possibility is considered that Mr. Bendix has taken the opportunity to murder his wife and throw suspicion on an unknown enemy of Sir Eustace. Some detectives focus upon psychology and some upon physical clues, and the way in which these clues are investigated is gone into in exhaustive detail. As one investigator remarks, even so small a detail as access to the model of typewriter upon which the letter accompanying the chocolates has been typed, or potential access to the letterhead of the chocolate company, is considered indicative of the guilt or innocence of a number of different people.

Week after week, solutions are presented that are, to a greater or lesser degree, believable.¬†One early solution accuses another member of the group; so does the next presentation, although the reader may not feel that a detective who accuses himself is entirely serious. Roger Sheringham’s detailed and intelligent solution is considered quite definitive, but then Miss Dammers presents a different and brilliant solution that seems completely¬†conclusive … so much so that everyone almost forgets that little Mr. Chitterwick has yet to present. However, he takes his turn and, to the astonishment of the group, comes up with a sixth solution to the crime that is both unexpected and absolutely correct.

the-poisoned-chocolates-caseWhy is this book worth your time?

Simply put, this is an absolutely key volume of detective fiction. Anthony Berkeley was a crucial figure in the history of the Detection Club and thus in detective fiction; he wrote some magnificent novels¬†that are still read and enjoyed today. He is pretty much responsible for the invention of the “open mystery” (Malice Aforethought¬†from 1931). And this volume is a puzzle mystery that combines a strong vein of humour with some superb detection. Ellery Queen and Howard Haycraft selected it as a “Queen Cornerstone” and I wholeheartedly agree. This is an amazingly clever work of detective fiction that dazzles in the same way as a Catherine-wheel of fireworks; brilliance piled upon brilliance and building to a completely unexpected solution that nevertheless is completely, wholly right. You may actually gasp aloud.

Occasionally, commentators mention¬†Rashomon in connection with this volume, because of how we see the same set of events interpreted by six different viewpoints. The brilliance of this interpretation is that Berkeley has given us six different styles of detection that could have been produced by fellow members of the Detection Club, each of whom has his or her own modality of detective work. Mrs. Fielder-Flemming is perhaps the most wildly emotional — she is the kind of person who “feels” guilt rather than thinks it, while Miss Dammers’s approach is coldly logical about the emotions of others. Roger Sheringham focuses on clues and their meaning; so does Morton Harrogate Bradley, although his approach is more haphazard and amateurish. Sir Charles Wildman takes the legal approach; decide who is guilty and focus your argument to indicate that all the evidence and interpretation leads to the inevitable choice of murderer. ¬†And finally Mr. Chitterwick admits that he has had the benefit of hearing five other interpretations of the situation and has had to only select from bits and pieces of theory in order to build his case; his success lies in his brilliance in sorting theories and facts and not restricting himself in his assessment of responsibility.

poisoned_chocolates2There is also some beautiful and elegant writing here for your delectation. In a way, each detective’s presentation takes on the flavour of that detective’s personality. Sir Charles relies upon bombast, Mrs. Fielder-Flemming emotional speechmaking, and Miss Dammers’s style is the icy dissection of someone who understands emotions but apparently does not experience them. Mr. Bradley’s scattered and diffuse detection approach is the most humorous, probably because he’s the most self-deprecating; and Roger Sheringham’s inner sense of his own intellectual superiority shines through his entire approach and solution. Even Mr. Chitterwick, whose personality is pretty much defined by his not having one, is beautifully portrayed; he has nothing to offer except being perfectly correct. Each presentation has the flavour of its presenter, in the choice of language and description. And each presenter selects a murderer that, in a way, is indicative of his or her personality.

I’ve read this book about five or six times over the years; each time, I think, “Oh, I’ll just skim through it and remind myself why I think it’s so great.” and each time, I find myself savouring it slowly, relishing the fine writing and characterization. I always find some little delightful moment that seems fresh and new (this time through, I was amused by Mr. Bradley’s description of his household’s focus on “paper games” which explain why he has a wad of stolen stationery). Yes, this book is very much of its period — the attitudes towards divorce and extra-marital affairs, for instance, and the common acceptance that an impoverished peer must marry for money. At the same time if you brought the time period up to date, I think these characters would not seem out of place in the modern day. In short, I think this book is a timeless classic.

As I noted above in my “spoiler alert”, if you haven’t yet read this magnificent work, throw your “to be read” pile into the corner and get a copy of this book immediately. ¬†Yes, it’s that good.

7de361267eb67b548f28ba616fc35198Notes for the Collector:

The first edition appears to be from Collins, 1929; the first US edition is Doubleday (Crime Club), 1929.¬†An American bookseller has an “exceptional” copy of the US first of this Haycraft-Queen cornerstone for $1,250 as of this date. I could be mistaken; the British 1st is also 1929, as far as I know. An Oxonian bookseller has a signed copy of the 1930 Collins edition, second printing, no jacket, for ¬†$500. I don’t see any copies of the British 1st available for sale as of today.

I must admit I gravitate towards signed copies and feel they hold their value, but of the number of editions available today, perhaps the most interesting to the collector should be the first paper; Penguin greenback #36 from 1936. ¬†This paperback’s original state has it with a dust wrapper or jacket, apparently identical in design. You can have a copy of this for $150, Near Fine in a VG+ wrapper. Note that this is one of the earliest crime titles in Penguin, the first Berkeley title in Penguin and, to give this some context, was published¬†three years before the first paperback published in North America. Not very beautiful, except to those of us who appreciate the austere simplicity of the Penguin greenback, but definitely a significant edition of this significant novel.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1929¬†novel¬†qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth¬†under “O”, “Read one one book with a method of murder in the title.” The victim is dispatched with, of course, poisoned chocolates. I am delighted to note that, as my twentieth review in this group, this now completes my first Bingo — the fifth line from the top.¬†I hope to achieve a couple more before the end of the calendar year. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

vintage-golden-card-00112111

 

The Layton Court Mystery, by Anthony Berkeley (1925)

The Layton Court Mystery, by Anthony Berkeley (1925)

imageAuthor:

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. 

228

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

The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938) (#005 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

$(KGrHqZ,!oQF!K6tt)S5BQK)+QwFlQ~~60_35The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938)

Author:

S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) was, in the late 1920s, one of the best-selling authors in the United States. ¬†In 1939, he died “of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking”. He published 12 mysteries between 1926 and 1939 that featured Philo Vance, a foppish aesthete and amateur detective, and was also a well-known writer on such topics as Nietzsche and aesthetic philosophy. Many of his books were made into films and he also wrote a dozen mystery “short subjects” for the screen. His best-known biography, Alias S. S. Van Dine, says that he got started writing mysteries when he was confined to bed recovering from a cocaine addiction. ¬†His life and work are interesting and complex, and summarizing it in a single paragraph cannot do it justice: I recommend the biography, and the Wikipedia entry for both Van Dine and Philo Vance.

Publication Data:

This is the second-last of 12 novels, from 1938, and was the last novel published in the author’s lifetime. The Winter Murder Case, released posthumously, was conceived as the basis of a movie featuring Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie. ¬†It seems unarguable that this book was conceived and produced with a similar motive in mind, as a vehicle for popular radio star Gracie Allen, who was known for publicity stunts. ¬†The film version was released in 1939, a year before Allen ran for president of the U.S. and received 42,000 votes.

The first edition is from Scribner’s in 1938; first UK is from Cassell, also in 1938. ¬†First paper is the edition you see above, released as The Smell of Murder by Bantam, 1950, #756. To my knowledge this is the only time that a Van Dine novel was issued under any other title. (Philo Vance books follow a pattern of titles: The (six-letter word) Murder Case, and I gather that originally this title was meant to be merely Gracie.) ¬†Other editions exist, including a paperback from Otto Penzler’s line, and the entire text of the novel is online from¬†Project Gutenberg.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it.¬†

Philo Vance and his associate S. S. Van Dine, chronicler of his exploits, are assisting District Attorney Markham with a case focused on gangster Benny the Buzzard. Vance and Van Dine are out in the country when they encounter a young woman (Gracie Allen) employed by a perfume company, the In-O-Scent Corporation, as assistant to George Burns, here represented as a perfumier. Ms. Allen is what would today be known as a ditz; her conversation is replete with non-sequiturs and she is surrounded by a general air of goofiness. Vance apparently finds her charming. The action soon focuses on a nightclub called the Domdaniel where not only do a group of gangsters hang out — I almost called them a coterie, which gives you an idea of how Van Dine’s language rubs off on the reader — but Gracie’s brother is employed as a dishwasher. (It is not likely that the brother’s character in the book is meant to have anything to do with Allen’s real-life brother, but it is worth noting that in 1932/33, the Burns/Allen radio appearances contained a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother as a publicity stunt. ¬†Contemporary audiences would be likely to have this more at the top of their minds some five or six years later.)

The activities of the gangsters, escaped convicts, etc., are focused on the Domdaniel nightclub and the first dead body is identified as that of Allen’s brother. There is a character involved with the gangsters, a Mr. Owen, who stands out because of his anguished and rather Nietzschean philosophy (the author’s first success was with a volume called What Nietzsche Taught, and the action grinds to a halt whenever Owen and Vance begin to chat) and the rather muddled plot concerns a secret entrance to the nightclub’s office, an escaped convict, and various manoeuvrings concerning a poisoned cigarette that smells of “jonquille”.

After some tedious gangster-focused material (the author apparently knew nothing about real gangsters) that is periodically interrupted by Gracie Allen saying cute and silly things, Vance solves the crime and arranges that an associated reward should go to Allen; Burns proposes to Allen in the final pages.  Vance also encourages the murderer to commit suicide, a Nietzschean echo of an earlier book, The Bishop Murder Case.

As noted, there is a filmed version of this novel which was released in 1939. Gracie Allen receives first billing over Warren William’s efforts as Philo Vance (referred to by Gracie as “Fido”) and many poor-quality prints exist of this film if you’re interested in seeing it. The film ignores most of the more complex material of the book and instead is a starring vehicle for Gracie, including an opportunity for her to sing a novelty song (“Snug as a Bug in a Rug”) where she runs the first lines of many popular songs together, apparently mistaking the link between tune and lyrics.

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of¬†Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/33, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work. ¬†In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

Part of the reason why his income was decreasing was because his work was, not to put too fine a point on it, getting worse and worse. There is an often-quoted line by Julian Symons in his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder, which runs “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.” And this book is his eleventh.

To the modern eye, frequently, there is little to choose between Philo Vance at his best and worst. Such tricks as having an alibi established by a specially-made phonograph record were inventive in 1927 but vieux jeu today. Certainly, connoisseurs of the locked room mystery appreciate the door-closing mechanism in The Kennel Murder Case as well as the Benson, and there is inventiveness and intelligence behind quite a bit of all of the first six novels. It has been said that The Bishop Murder Case is an early and essential precursor of the modern serial killer novel, but written at a time when the concept of a serial killer did not yet exist.

What is really hard to take, though, is the pompous nitwit who is at the centre of it all, Philo Vance. This is the detective about whom Ogden Nash wrote “Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance.” ¬†Wikipedia has a full article¬†on him that goes into great detail, but I can find no better commentator than Dashiell Hammett reviewing the first Vance novel:

“This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”

Yes, it’s unfair to judge the mysteries of yesteryear by the standards of today. Yes, literary styles were different then. And yes, mysteries were in their infancy and one cannot expect the same level of sophistication as available to a modern writer who has the inventiveness and trickery of a century upon which to draw. But honestly, Van Dine was not much of a writer. Philo Vance is a ghastly annoyance with whom you must deal if one wants to try one’s hands against his clever plots (or his stupid ones since, for instance,¬†Greene’s¬†murderer is pretty much the only suspect left alive at the end). And judging by the alacrity with which the filmed versions calmed down Vance’s pomposity, I think most people would agree that one reads Van Dine to get past Vance for the intricacy of the solutions.

So we have a trajectory of an author whose best-selling days are behind him and who is scraping around trying to find well-paid work in Hollywood. And we have the beginnings of something that is a much more common and well-developed phenomenon in this day and age — product placement. ¬†And when they collide, this is the result.

445467522The movie industry was just waking up to the possibilities of tie-in materials. At about the same time, Whitman Publishing did a series of novels for young people with names like¬†Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx and¬†Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. Whitman later went on to publish many series familiar to children in the 1950s and 1960s, with cheap pictorial board covers and names like¬†Walt Disney’s Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay; not much in the way of change, merely new faces.

This volume is something quite special, at least I think it is. You’ll note that¬†Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx contains no author’s name upon the jacket; the author was more or less irrelevant to the experience. But a merger of Philo Vance and Gracie Allen is a cross-over perhaps not quite as impressive as, say, Spiderman versus Superman, but an amalgamation of two media platforms nevertheless, and this is unusual for such an early time as 1938. This is not an age where the crossover is common, either by shuffling two icons together into a story or taking a single franchise into a quite different platform. Its examples are unusual and worth noticing.

gracie-allen-murder-case-smUltimately, that’s why this belongs in my Die Before You Read section; it’s a very early example of the crossover novel, and it fails more thoroughly than any other in my recollection.¬†Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, let’s face it, was a piece of disposable trash aimed at pre-teen girls. It might even be an early example of slash fiction, albeit the authorized version. It doesn’t really matter if the novel had any literary quality because it didn’t need to, and thus its author remained mercifully anonymous. But when you take a well-known intellectual like Willard Huntington Wright and put his writing talents at the service of a radio comedienne, well, you already have a brand mismatch. Vance is known for being smart, Gracie’s known for being dumb. Putting the two together in a single novel is a waste of talent; his fans won’t appreciate her, and vice versa. And all the attempts to try to make it work — don’t work.

And so the book is excruciating. Since everything in the plot has to be engineered to keep Gracie in the scene as much as possible, allowing her to exhibit multiple virtues but giving her absolutely no vices, the plot becomes merely ridiculous. Everything — logic, common sense, characterization, human qualities — is sacrificed to the need to show off Gracie Allen. You’ll notice in the plot outline above, I haven’t really said very much about the plot. That’s mostly because very little of it makes much sense. It’s easy to tell that the writer intended this as the basis of a screenplay (I think of this as a “reverse novelization”) because there aren’t all that many locations used; the Domdaniel nightclub recurs again and again, and other obviously interesting locations like, for instance, George Burns’s perfume factory are ignored because they would be expensive to shoot. For the rest of it, well, there are gangsters, and Van Dine had no ear for how gangsters talk or who they are. They are merely physical descriptions with labels like “chanteuse”, “boss”, “underling”. ¬†And there is a silly murder method based on a poisoned cigarette. And there is Gracie Allen making silly jokes and non-sequiturs, and Vance having a quite unnecessary fondness for her on first sight. Nothing makes sense and nothing rings true.

In short, this is tawdry and meretricious and altogether unfortunate. It really makes one think that, like so many other authors, Van Dine should have quit mysteries before releasing his last few, or perhaps that he should merely have settled for the screenplay income and not released this as a novel also. After his death, his estate felt more free to tamper with the asinine character at the base of all this, and the 1940s brought a considerably more ordinary Vance to prominence in radio for many years. ¬†There was a market for a detective brand named Philo Vance, it just wasn’t the one the character’s creator had much to do with. ¬†But the author was busily ruining his own brand before he died, and it was rehabilitated by others. If modern television is looking for competition for Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, this is one brand that could, I believe, be rehabilitated successfully. Just not by doing cross-over stuff with it.

There is a further reason why this volume in particular rather than, say, the 12th in the series (the Sonja Henie vehicle) I have pinpointed for my Die Before You Read series, a specific defect of literary quality unique to this volume. ¬†It’s because of what Colin Watson calls, in¬†Snobbery With Violence, the Silly Ass quality.

Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey and Reggie Fortune and Albert Campion and even Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham all qualify as the Silly Ass detective (but only Vance is American, which tells you something). ¬†Watson describes it as:

“[A] young man in smart clothes, sickly grin and monocle, whose vocabulary was as limited as his means and expectations were supposed to be substantial. He was generally depicted as having difficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him. When making his own laboured but idiotically affable contribution to dialogue, he would … address his companion as ‘old bean’.”

A well-known type in the early history of detective fiction. But two things occurred to me in considering the Silly Ass character type in relation to this particular novel. The first is that, in order to work, the Silly Ass has to be surrounded by characters who are not actually Silly Asses, in order for the Silly Ass’s mannerisms to be more attention-getting. ¬†For every Peter Wimsey there needs to be a Charles Parker against whose backdrop he can glitter.

And the second is that, in every reasonable sense, Gracie Allen has assumed the mantle of the Silly Ass. Read the above quote again with that in mind. ¬†“[D]ifficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him”? Exactly. The Silly Ass was pretty much over when Philo Vance worked it to death, and other comic talents mined its base metal for new alloys. ¬†Like Gracie Allen, who transmogrified it into the Ditzy Young Woman.

But, as I noted in point one — the one thing you need if you have a Silly Ass is a Not-Silly-Ass. ¬†In fact, the one thing you do not need is the modernized version of your own protagonist as Ditzy Young Woman. ¬†There is no staid presence against whom they can play, and so they merely try to out-amuse each other until the piece of fiction is over. ¬†This is not very enjoyable to consider in the abstract, since there is no opportunity for the interrelationship to contribute to any plot structure, and in this concrete case it’s simply boring and silly, like two seven-year-olds shrieking “Look at me! Look at me!”.

If you actually want to read a Philo Vance novel after this, I’d recommend¬†The Bishop Murder Case, which as noted above is actually a proto-serial killer novel at a time when the phrase didn’t exist.¬†The ‘Canary’ Murder Case — yes, there is a single quote mark surrounding the word “Canary” and yes, that is how the book’s title is represented if you’re a purist — is also interesting for its very early puzzle-mystery contributions to the construction of an alibi. And if you want to see one of the films,¬†The Kennel Murder Case is considered the best, but I actually also highly recommend¬†The Bishop Murder Case because Basil Rathbone’s only outing as Philo Vance is not to be missed.

Notes For the Collector:

Abebooks.com has a Very Good copy of the first edition for $500, which seems a bit high to me: other similar copies are listed from $235 to $350, and less crisp copies from around $90 up. ¬†The only copy on Abe of the first paper edition shown at the top of this review is listed at $20. ¬†My own copy is in much better condition than the one shown; I would say it’s VG+ and I might price it for retail sale at $20 to $25. ¬†I always think the variorum title is worth having, especially since Van Dine is so rigorous about naming his books.

Since the text of the novel is freely available for the interested reader, this novel is certainly not scarce. A poor book in a well-known series is often scarce, but this book is also available in print-on-demand format. Unlike most of my Die Before You Read series, various copies of this book might appeal to collectors interested in Burns and Allen, Philo Vance completists, and even collectors of Bantam paperbacks. It’s not easy to find a crisp one of these and although the cover illustration doesn’t appear to be Gracie Allen, this would qualify as a movie tie-in to some collectors.

pic1583568_mdA DVD copy of the film version is available on Amazon for $22 as of this writing; I have never seen it screened on television. I was fascinated to learn that as a tie-in to the tie-in of the filmed version, Milton Bradley released a board game¬†that looks to be a cousin of Clue. I’ve never seen this object in real life and I suspect that if you like this sort of thing, this particular item would be VERY collectible if it was accompanied by the novel and film.