Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck (1949)

arrest-the-bishopArrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck (Lady Peck). First published by Faber & Faber in 1949, but set in 1920. With an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, an expert on the Detection Club and a fine crime writer in his own right.

I’ve read a lot — a LOT — of old mysteries. Over the years, the cream of the Golden Age has floated to the top, and the higher-quality second-class novels occupy a large stratum immediately below that cream. If I haven’t already read or even heard of an old mystery, chances are there’s a reason for that, and it doesn’t usually bode well for the quality of the book.

The recent groundswell in Golden Age mysteries that goes hand in hand with the availability of e-books has certainly been unearthing all kinds of scarce volumes. Quite a few times recently I’ve done the electronic equivalent of tossing aside a creaky old volume that contained nothing new and had nothing to say … and with nothing that will interest you either. By and large, if I’ve never heard of it, these days it’s usually because it deserves to remain in obscurity. I read them, or at least the first half of them and then a quick skim of the last chapter, but I don’t bore you with them.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the present volume, lured by the prospect of the usual excellent introductory material by Martin Edwards. I had never heard of Winifred Peck, I’d never heard of this volume, and I’ve been ploughing through a lot of old rubbish lately. My friends, I’m happy to say that this one is a winner.

WARNING: This essay concerns a 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 novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

It’s December, 1920, and the Bishop of Evelake and his wife, the superb Mrs. Broome, are preparing to welcome a large house-party to the very large Bishop’s Palace. There is a coal shortage, and they can’t keep the bedrooms warm enough; there’s a servant shortage, and they’re forced to settle for the insufficient attentions of the egregious and recently-acquired butler Soames. (The elderly housekeeper Moira, who had diligently ruled the roost for 25 years, is installed in an upstairs bedroom, awaiting an urgently-required cancer operation.)

The most difficult part of the house-party, though, will be the guests. There’s a number of young men who are soon to be ordained as clerics; they will dine en famille, but take little part in the imminent goings-on.  Chancellor Chailly and Canon Wye are both expected. Two young parsons should be no trouble; the Bishop’s secretary, Robert Borderer, known to all as Bobs, and an old friend of the family, Dick Marlin (whose wartime service suits him admirably to be an amateur detective). The Bishop’s younger daughter Sue should be as charming as ever.


This unconnected photo seemed to me to evoke the Bishop’s Palace.

There are two visitors who are guaranteed to cause trouble wherever they go. The Bishop’s older daughter Judith, a famous and high-living beauty, is in the throes of a divorce and thus has been … unhousable … at the highly moral Palace; however, she’s telegraphed to say she is in “terrible trouble” and thus Mrs. Broome insists that she be accommodated along with the rest of the party. The surprising guest is the repellent cleric Mr. Ulder, who is universally loathed and constantly makes trouble for his fellow clerics. He is a habitual drunkard who is as close as a clergyman gets to being a blackmailer, constantly looking for preferment or income by threatening to reveal the dirty little secrets of those around him. (As is usual in mysteries of this era, every potential suspect has a secret they’d like to keep.) When Ulder passes out from illness and drink upon arrival — after Judith has announced that Ulder is privy to a recent scandalous hotel stay with the man whom she intends to marry after her divorce — he is installed in an upstairs bedroom under the supervision of Dr. Lee.

The stage is set and, of course, there is a mysterious death that very night. The clerical establishment lets it be known that they would prefer everything under the rug and decide upon a verdict of accidental death. Unfortunately for all concerned, the local constabulary arrives in the person of Chief Constable Mack, whom the Bishop knows to be “a real enemy of the Church”; hushing things up discreetly will be impossible. Luckily Mack enlists the assistance of the Rev. Dick Marlin, ex-intelligence officer during WWI.

Mack pursues his inquiries in pretty much the wrong direction and the excellent Dick immediately spots the most promising line of inquiry. From the title, you may well guess that the Chief Constable is on the trail of a case against the Bishop, and this is definitely a possibility. Dick, however, has had his detective instincts aroused by an overheard name; he tracks various people’s family connections to their origins and solves the case, revealing a most unlikely criminal. In the best traditions of 1920, a number of sub-plots, romantic and otherwise, come to a happy fruition in the final chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

peck-winifred-arrest-the-bishop-spine-croppedAs I noted above, I was dubious about this book before I picked it up. I found it so enjoyable from the first pages that I gulped it start to finish in a single sitting. I feel compelled to add that it is very likely that you will have a different reaction; this is one of those books about which it is rightly said, “They don’t write ’em like that any more.” Nor should they, frankly. This is very much a book about time and place and I suspect that no living writer will ever again have the knowledge necessary to bring this off in such a masterful way. Winifred Peck (later Lady Peck) was herself the daughter of a powerful Bishop, and insider information is rarely as well informed about subjects like the running of a Bishop’s Palace as we see here.

Remember that this book was published, and likely written, in 1949, but specifically locates itself in December, 1920, and doesn’t break that context. That’s important to know, because the entire action of the book, and certainly all its characters, are operating to a specialized point of view that might slide right by the modern reader. Simply put, the motives of everyone in the book are assumed, without ever saying so, to be pretty much above-board and for the betterment of humanity, etc. This is prima facie the case because they are members of the clergy and have taken Holy Orders, and the author of this book has ensured that every such clerical character can only act from the best of motives. Once you realize it, it’s like the experience of one of those quirky novels that doesn’t contain the letter “T”, or whatever. Everyone in this book of the higher social orders is GOOD, goodity goody good good, and pretty much the servants are the only characters who can possibly commit crimes. Clerics and their family members could not possibly commit a crime except perhaps by accident or misunderstanding; they might be guilty of cowardice, but never murder. This assumption is shared by everyone in the book, barring perhaps the heretical and anti-clerical Chief Constable, and that’s why this is the central idea of the book. If someone is capable of thinking that the Bishop is capable of murder; if they publish that idea in the newspapers or it becomes common chatter in the pub; then the Bishop will pretty much single-handedly have destroyed the Church 😉 So the title question is a very, very serious one to the Bishop for most of the book. If he gets arrested, he’ll have to resign the Bishopric. And that will affect all the other characters.

I don’t believe this “sinless clerics” point of view could have been maintained much beyond 1920; certainly not if the book had been set in 1949, well past the time when people were willing to believe without evidence that all clerics were completely incapable of murder. I suspect that no Golden Age author who didn’t have to face a clerical family over Christmas dinners would have been able to conceive of such a basis for a mystery, let alone carry it off. But Lady Peck manages it and does so with complete dedication.  She believes all these characters are automatically innocent and thus we must as well. This is the sort of historical accuracy of viewpoint that I often look for and rarely see.


Winifred Peck

The characterization is not superb; there are a few characters who stand out as having some life to them but by and large these are stereotypes. In fact there is one character who serves almost no real function in the novel (the Bishop’s secretary) and this rather makes me think that this is a kind of roman a clef. The character of Mrs. Broome, the bishop’s wife, is really well done. I was irresistibly reminded of Agatha Christie’s Lady Angkatell in 1946’s The Hollow … and, no, I’m not suggesting Lady Peck owes Dame Agatha anything, they’re merely similar. If this is a roman a clef, then Mrs. Broome would be the author’s mother and Judith, the flibbertigibbet and very nearly immoral sister, would then be the author’s sister; I don’t know enough to tell one way or the other. If the characters are taken from her family, then she might owe an apology to her father. The Bishop is portrayed accurately, if unflatteringly, as a man with an inadequate personality who may have committed a sin if not a crime. Again, I was reminded of the fact that this book came out in 1949 but was set in 1920. If it had been published in 1920, there would have been a lot less characterization and a lot more plot, since that was the tenor of the times for mysteries. No character would have been characterized as subtly as the author presents the Bishop; it’s much more literate than mysteries were in the 1920s. There are all the trappings here of the 1920s mystery, including timetables and lists of suspects setting out their motives and opportunities, and no indication that the author had ever read a mystery published after 1930. It’s just that more attention has been paid to characterization.


Monseigneur Ronald Knox

The author’s family is worth a volume in itself (and there actually is one by her niece, found here). Briefly put, her maiden name was Knox. Her father was the Bishop of Manchester, one of her brothers was the editor of Punch, and another brother is well known to Golden Age mystery readers; Monseigneur Ronald Knox, who wrote six well-received mysteries and who was both a well-known Sherlockian and an early member of the Detection Club. In 1929, Ronald wrote the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, found here. It was delightful to me to learn about this author’s family, since there’s probably an entire essay available to write someday tracing the family’s mystery-writing similarities … what a pity that of her 26 books, Lady Peck only wrote two mysteries.

The language of this book is wonderfully erudite, even when considered with the higher educational standards of the Golden Age. It’s not often I have to stop to look up not one but two completely unfamiliar uses of language (collet monte and advowson, if you’re curious); the dialogue is not entirely believable but it has a great vivacity in its variety of expression. I have to say, there’s a consistent undertone in this book such that English people are automatically superior to the Irish; it’s subtle and nowhere really overt, but it is there and it’s a little unpleasant to contemplate. Yes, it was the attitude of the times, and we can find it easy enough to forgive, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t notice it and deprecate it. Everyone who commits a criminal act in this book is of Irish origin, and we can only wish the author had done better with that.

As usual, the introduction by Martin Edwards adds a great deal of value to the book; he goes into detail about things I’ve only touched on here, and surprised the hell out of me when he told me about the author’s family (it actually made me much, much more interested in what I was about to read). He suggests that this qualifies as a “Christmas mystery” — I can’t say there is much here about Christmas per se, but some of the action of the plot is occasioned by the presence of a heavy snowfall, so perhaps I’ll agree. I’m starting to feel that every book introduced by the erudite Mr. Edwards is automatically worth my time; so far, every one a winner.

To sum up — not a great mystery but a really interesting novel, filled with the accurate observations of someone who lived in a bygone and vanished milieu. This book is something a little different from the run of the mill mystery of its 1920s setting, and its evocation of 1920 in a Bishop’s Palace is delightful. I very much enjoyed this book, I intend to acquire the other of Lady Peck’s mysteries as soon as possible, and I hope you will find the same pleasure in this volume that I did.

My favourite edition

pod-cover-dsp-arrest-the-bishopThis book is so rare that I couldn’t even find an illustration of the first edition to show you; I’m unable to say whether the recent edition by Dean Street Press reproduces the jacket of the first edition, but I think it’s very likely, given the unusual typography. (Putting the title of a book in quotation marks on the cover was a bygone fashion that died out long, long ago.) You can find the recent Dean Street Press edition here, in a trade paper edition or Kindle. Since there isn’t a copy available of the first (and probably only) edition in hardcover for less than US$50 from ABEBooks, I recommend you get the modern one. As I’ve indicated above, the introduction by Martin Edwards makes it even more desirable.

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.


Guest editorial: Scott Ratner on The Myth of Detective Fiction: “Fair Play”

This is the first time I’ve offered space to a fellow Golden Age of Detection enthusiast to express his views, but I couldn’t resist this opportunity to bring this interesting material to a wider audience. Scott Ratner and I have gotten to know each other through a Facebook group devoted to Golden Age Detection (GAD) as fellow aficionados who share an interest and have gone deeply into it; our views are generally similar, but occasionally quite different. As it should be. Over time, I’ve come to respect his knowledge and analysis.

I’ve known for a long time that Scott has a well-developed argument about the words “fair play” in the mystery context, and I’ve  read short comments that interested me in hearing the full argument.  Recently, in the course of a wide-ranging discussion on various GAD topics, Scott mentioned that he wanted to lay out this argument, but didn’t have anywhere to publish the result; I offered him the space below.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no actual spoilers in the material below but it’s possible that you will learn more than you wish to about the plot and construction of various Golden Age mysteries by a number of authors. I’ll approve on Scott’s behalf any comment that seems relevant to the discussion (I draw the line at advertisements disguised as general praise) as fast as I can manage.  Scott’s opinions are his own; I’ll comment or not as I see fit, and I didn’t edit his work (although I’m sure I reflexively corrected a typo or two; I can’t help it, it’s a disease).

Thanks to Scott for his contribution — I hope you enjoy it and find it thought-provoking!

The Myth of Detective Fiction: “Fair Play”

by Scott Ratner

Time to ruffle some feathers. I’ve already upset and inadvertently insulted someone I admire with my views on this subject, but I know that that’s no good reason to deny my own convictions. And please note this disclaimer: if the arguments I present do not all seem to hold, please consider that it may be not that the ideas themselves are unsound, but rather that my ability to convey them is weak. At any rate, here goes:

“Fair play” is one of the key and most oft-cited principles of Golden Age and Puzzle Plot Detective Fiction. However, what is rarely examined is what that term really means, how it can be measured, and whether it even really exists in relation to the genre.

First, it should be noted that “fairness” (and by this term, of course, I mean its definition relating to equitability, not lightness of hue, or or attractiveness) is always treated as an objective concept, and always considered in reference to a presumed exact and objective standard.  Our language reflects this: we speak of “fairness” in binary, “lightswitch” terms– things are either “fair” or “unfair.”  Moreover, the very fact that questions of fairness are disputed is evidence of its perceived objective status; subjective concepts cannot logically be disputed– one may argue the merits of a work, but a sincere subjective statement such as “I don’t like it” is inherently and inarguably true– the maker of the statement is the sole arbiter… he doesn’t like it!

As with the concept of justice, we may not agree upon where the standard of fairness lies, but recognize that, if it indeed exists, it exists independent of our personal judgment. A phrase such as “that’s more than fair” further demonstrates a recognition of the exactitude of that standard, suggesting a level of generosity beyond it. Even such subjective statements as “that strikes me as unfair” or “it seems fair to me” do not imply a subjective standard, but rather indicate a subjective understanding of an objective standard; that is, they assert “the line of fairness exists, and I believe this is where it lies.”

This is an intuitively understood notion, and its value is realized even by the small child. The child cries, “It’s unfair!”, and while he may be feeling merely that wants more of something or that he is unhappy with the treatment he is receiving, he appeals to this presumed objective standard, a threshold above which he is being treated fairly, and below which he is not (in many cases with children– and even with adults– this is equated with equal treatment: “you let Tommy do it!”). He realizes, even at this early age, that reference to this standard carries more persuasive weight than a mere expression of his desire;  even if all the grownup  responds with is “no, it’s not,” in disagreeing where the standard lies he is confirming the concept of the standard, and that it is a valid basis for decision. For many children, this is perhaps their earliest attempt to get their way via reason; realizing that while they can only express a desire, they can argue a point of fact (fair or unfair).

The concept of “British Fair Play,” which is most probably the direct source of its use in detective fiction, may seem more casual and inexact, based on a personal, subjective sense of “gentlemanly” conduct– indeed, one might think I’m taking the whole matter too literally. But this use of the term is also integrally related to the others, and just as solidly tied to the concept of an objective standard. It is a reference to the very rigid and explicit rules of British sports (“it’s not Cricket!”) and military regulations, which are in turn presumably based on the “real,” objective standard of fairness. Thus, while our personal decision of what constitutes giving an enemy or opponent a “fair” or “sportsman’s” chance may be entirely intuitive, that intuition is presumably based on what is truly fair, independent of our belief.

The point of all this is not that there is necessarily an exact, objective standard of fairness (I don’t really know if there is), but rather that the concept is always treated as such, and that every use of the term “fair,” “fairness,” or “fair play” implies and references such a standard, regardless of its actual existence.

So, how does this apply to the detective fiction genre? Well, in citing fair play, the reader of such a work is holding it up to an subjectively felt, though recognized-as-objective standard. And because he recognizes the standard as objective, if he feel the work falls short of it he does not complain that “this is not satisfying to me!” but rather that “this is unfair!” However, unlike with the child, it is not sufficient for the author to reply “No, it’s not!”– not sufficient, that is, for either his sales or his pride. It is important to him that the reader believes that the standard has been met. And that’s where the “rules” of the genre fit in. They are cited to define the standard of fairness, to arbitrate whether a work is fair or unfair.  But can they really achieve this?

In regard to one aspect of detective fiction, I believe they can. That is the realm of what might be described as “narrative fairness” (not a particularly satisfactory term, but I’ve not been able to come up with a better one). By “narrative fairness” I am simply referring to the question of which techniques the author is or is not allowed to employ in the “telling” of the tale. People may argue about what be the rules should be, but at least regarding this aspect it is possible to establish and cite clear-cut rules.  I myself subscribe to Dorothy L. Sayers’ notion in that there is only one thing an author may not do in this respect, and that is to make a false statement “on his own authority.” In other words, a third-person narrator cannot lie. This does not prohibit the author from employing deception– deception by omission, deception by misleading inference, or falsehoods by first person narrators, who, as Sayers reminds us, are “not necessarily the author.”  Thus, the Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd is exonerated on several counts (it’s rather stunning how “clean” this once-controversial book is in this regard), while a rarely-questioned work such as Death on the Nile turns out to actually be unfair, based on an extremely minor technicality. A book such as Carr’s Seeing is Believing is admittedly difficult to judge, but that doesn’t affect the rule– the question of whether it plays fair depends upon how one interprets the tricky ambiguities of the English language. Similarly, the narrative fairness of Christie’s A Murder in Announced must  based on how we answer the question of whether that which we call ourselves is our true name. Whether these works follow the rule is in question, but the rule itself remains constant. Now, others my argue that narrative fairness consists of more or less than my (or Sayers’) single rule, and I’m not insisting that I’m right about it. I’m just pointing out that that it is possible to define clear-cut criteria for this question, and judge works according to it.

But what about the issue of clue sufficiency? Here’s where it all blows up. Let’s look at some of the offered “rules” regarding this question. The first category would be those rules that state “the reader may not be denied any clues granted the detective” or “the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery” (there are several other versions of this which say the same thing). And that’s fine as far as it goes– I’m sure that most would agree that fairness dictates that the reader is provided with all the clues granted the detective. The problem is, it’s a rule with no minimum standard. For, if that’s all there were to it, a story in which the detective arrives at the solution based on little or no evidence must be deemed fairly-clued, just as long as the reader has been provided with the same sparse or nonexistent evidence. As you can see, that rule really gets us nowhere.

Nearly all other clue sufficiency rules consist of variations of the idea that “the reader must be provided with all the clues necessary to solve the case.” This initially appears to be much more useful, until one faces the task of defining or measuring its terms. What is really meant by “all the clues necessary”? Indeed, what does it even mean to “solve the case”? (I can’t help thinking of Robert Benchley’s hilarious “Does the average man get enough sleep? What is ‘enough sleep’? What is ‘the average man’? What is ‘does’?). Seriously, though, what does qualifiy as “solving” a mystery? If a reader has arrives at the solution of mystery thru sheer guesswork or an arbitrary hunch, can he be said to have solved it? If not, does the fact that a reader has employed indications (clues) provided by the author to arrive at the correct solution mean that the he has “solved” the mystery?

Suppose that I arrive at the solution that Phillip Latterby was killed by his nephew Nigel based on the fact that Nigel owned the crossbow employed in the commission of the crime, and that Phillip had stated that he planned to disinherit him. Can I be said to have solved the mystery if that turns out to be the correct solution? If so, then what about another reader who decides that the culprit was Phillip’s wife Adeline, who may have stolen the crossbow from Nigel’s’s room (it had been earlier established that she had once been arrested for shoplifting), and whose disagreement with Phillip’s political beliefs was well known? Is this reader less correct than I am, or is he justified in claiming that the author was not “fair,” that he had not provided the reader with “all the clues necessary to solve the mystery”? Again, we are referencing some invisible but objective standard.

The question, then, is clearly:  how many indications qualify as “enough”? How many constitute “all the clues”? One? Five? 50? Outside of the standard of “some” clueing (which means at least one clue– and I doubt that many would agree that the inclusion of a single clue guarantees that a work is sufficient to be called fairly-clued), there is only one standard of clue sufficiency that can be clearly defined and universally agreed upon as sufficient, and that is the standard of total deductive provability.

Now, total deductive provability is a great, solid standard, against which no cries of “unfair” could ever be raised, but unfortunately it entails certain problems in relation to detective fiction, not the least of which is that no works of detective fiction have ever met it! A bold statement, I realize, and one that I certainly can’t back up from personal knowledge– I haven’t read (nearly) all works of detective fiction. There is certainly the possibility that I am wrong about this point. But I have read a great deal of the most lauded works of the genre (all of Christie, most of Carr, Queen, Berkeley, Brand, and several others), and none of what I’ve read (or heard about) suggests that there are any works that qualify.

Admittedly, there are occasional works that prove that “x and only x could have committed the crime” (though even these are rarer than it would seem, as the “logic” that “proves” this point is more often than not flawed). However, even those works that do arrive at this point by unassailable deductive logic do not meet the standard, as the solution to the mystery in these books never (in my experience) consists solely of this single point.

Rather, the solutions to detective stories (presumably) all consist of a scenario of contentions, some of which may be arrived at deductively, but which are all linked together by abductive reason (inference to the best explanation). This abductive link itself can not be proven, and very often the details it connects (and which subjectively strengthen the credibility of the solution) cannot be deductively proven either.

A large category of such details are behavioral discrepancies, clues which very often (in my personal opinion) offer the most fascinating, satisfying and convincing of evidence, and yet which can never be deductively proven. Examples of such behavioral discrepancies are the suddenly heightened volume of Simon Doyle’s voice in Death on the Nile, Avory Hume’s abrupt apparent change in attitude toward Jimmy Amswell in The Judas Window, and the uncharacteristic comportment of the two Generals in Chesterton’s The Sign Of The Broken Sword. The solutions of these stories not only explain these discrepancies, but are made more interesting and convincing by them. The explanations fit in with everything else in the solution, and reinforce the solution’s sense of inevitability. Yet none of them can be deductively proven, as there are countless other possible explanations for these behavioral discrepancies. For instance, Simon Doyle’s sudden vocal volume increase might have been due to the fact that at that moment he felt a sudden surge in pain from his injured leg. Or, he may have suddenly gone deaf in one ear and was attempting to compensate. That such explanations have no clues to support them and do not otherwise bolster the solution is of no importance; the point is that they are no less provable than the more satisfying explanations ultimately given, and in fact no less logically possible.  Furthermore, not only are the explanations to behavioral discrepancies unprovable, they in turn prove nothing.

Are then works that consist largely or solely of such clues—works that are richly and satisfyingly clued (IMO) and include many of the most lauded works of the genre—“bad” detective stories? Or are they not even detective stories at all? Carr, Van Dine and others call the genre a game, but if these works cannot “play fair” (which, as we’ve seen, is nearly impossible to do), do they not qualify as of the genre? Certainly Christie’s Five Little Pigs and Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (again, for me and others, beautifully and satisfyingly-clued) never strive for anything even remotely approaching total deductive provability (heck, not even partial deductive provability)—are they not legitimately detective stories?

Note, moreover, that any (possible) detective story of total deductive provability would also have to exclude motive as part of its solution. After all, due to the impenetrability of the human mind, motive can never be deductively proven. Sure, we might be able to prove that Uncle Phillip threatened to disinherit his nephew Nigel, that Nigel threatened Uncle Phillip (“I’ll kill you before I let you change you will!”)… even that he DID kill him, and shouted afterward “I killed him because he was going to change his will!” But we still cannot prove that that was the reason he killed him. All that we can prove is that he had a strong possible motive. (Though people often refer to a strong possible motive as a motive, only the actual desire to commit a crime [or other action] constitutes an actual motive. Otherwise, any person with a weak possible motive [“I’ve never cared for Australians”] must be deemed to have a motive for, as with the matter of clue sufficiency, there is no way to objectively define the threshold between weak and strong possible motives).

And, as I mentioned before, even if we were able to deductively prove all the individual points of a detective story solution (which would be an incredibly tedious and lengthy process), we would still not be able to prove the abductive chain that links them (the cause and effect relationships  between them). So then, am I suggesting that the greatest works of the Golden Age masters are all failures? Well, set against the either uselessly vague or virtually unattainable standards of “fair play” I’d say… yes, they are.

Now, before anyone brings out the tar and feathers and starts referring to me as the “21st-century Edmund Wilson,” let me state emphatically that I love Golden Age Detective Fiction! It is my favorite genre, and John Dickson Carr is my favorite author (with Agatha Christie running a close second). Further, I consider their greatest works (along with those of Queen, Berkeley, Brand and several others) as masterpieces of their art. But I consider them brilliant examples of what they are, not of what they’re not, just as I consider Twelve Angry Men a triumph of drama and a failure as a musical comedy. The fault then, dear Brutus, lies not in these works but our model. And that faulty model– that model that does not fit the genre– is that of the “game.”

Now, there’s no doubt that games and games-playing were extremely important to the world of Golden Age Detective Fiction. The people who both wrote and read GA fiction were by and large games-playing people, the type that Anthony Shaffer memorialized with the character of Andrew Wyke in his play Sleuth (though most of them were presumably more likable and kind-hearted than Wyke, of course). Games were indeed all the rage in that era, and it is quite natural that a type of fiction bearing resemblances to games would be appealing to those people who reveled in playing them.  Games-playing and GA Detective Fiction undoubtedly fed and fed off each other. But resemblance is not the same thing as identity, and just as singing at a karaoke bar does not constitute a concert, I maintain that a work of detective fiction is fundamentally distinct from a game.

Of course, much depends on how one defines the concept of a “game.” There are many definitions out there, some of them admittedly broad enough to include detective fiction, but those definitions are also broad enough to be of no use in resolving the question. For instance, the first definition of a “game” on is “an amusement or pastime.” Well, yes, by that definition, a detective story clearly is a game, but then so is watching The Sound Of Music. That really doesn’t help us, I’d say. One might enjoy or not enjoy The Sound Of Music, but the mere watching of it does not constitute playing a game, and even those who do not like the film wouldn’t claim that is unfair in not giving the viewer sufficient opportunity to “win” (whatever that would mean in this case).

Another “game” definition (same source) is “a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.” This is clearly closer to the definition we seek, but it matches rather badly with the genre, as we’ll see below. But let’s first take a look at the descriptions provided by the people who were actually insisting on the connection in the first place. First, here’s the way S. S. Van Dine put it:  “The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more – – it is a sporting event.”

Similarly, John Dickson Carr wrote: “It is a hoodwinking contest, a duel between author and reader.”

So, what both are suggesting (and also corresponding to that second, more specific dictionary definition) is that, more than just a pastime, detective fiction is specifically a competitive match, a battle of wits between the author and the reader. But is it? I’d call attention to several points that illustrate the distinction between this pastime and all other competitive games. I’ll start with my weakest assertion.


As I mentioned, this is the weakest of my assertions, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with it. But when I read the works of Golden Age Masters– who clearly never knew of me or my level of intellect– am I really competing against them? Doesn’t their lack of opportunity to rebut or parry against my moves disqualify it as a competition? And if I’m able to arrive at both the identity of the culprit and the motive of a mystery prior to the author revealing it (as I did with Christie’s The Body In The Library) did I actually outwit them? It would be nice to think of myself of as the man who outwitted Agatha Christie (clearly I’m much more clever than she), but I don’t honestly consider it an valid claim.

And even if we do accept the idea that someone totally unaware of us (and who in certain cases has died before we were born) can be competing with us, it certainly gives detective fiction a unique status among games. Admittedly, in such activities as crossword puzzles, the puzzle has been designed without knowledge of us or our intellectual capacities (and the crossword puzzle deviser might too have died before we were born). But no one refers to a crossword puzzle as a competition or battle of wits between the person trying to fill in the answers and the puzzle deviser. And there is also another important distinction between a crossword puzzle and detective fiction…. :


I suspect that many who buy into the detective-story-as-game scenario think this one is covered. What about, they may say, the lists of rules set forth by Van Dine, Knox, Gorell, Milne, even Carr? To which I call attention to one monumental point they’re overlooking… the matter of just who these rules are written for! Van Dine’s rules are titled “Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories” and, similarly, the rules propose by Knox, Gorell, etc… are all placed upon the writers of the stories. If the detective story is, as proposed, a competitive match between the author and the reader, where are the rules that the reader must follow?

To my knowledge, none have ever been suggested, let alone laid down as law. I can only think of one possible rule placed upon the reader, and that is the tacit rule that he mustn’t peek at the end of the book. But whereas the reader may call “foul” at the writer not following the “rules” (whosever’s rules they choose to appeal to), no one is insisting upon (or even mentioning) that the reader must heed the “no-peek” rule– it is both unspoken and self-enforced. What other competitive game lays down rules for players on one side and not on the other? None which I can think, which brings up the next distinction.


This axiom applies to all competitive games, from thumb wrestling to baseball to hopscotch to championship chess.  When the players themselves call the decision (as in, say, a card game) it is in reference to a specific set of rules, calling upon such rules to provide an objective arbiter of victory. Other competitions do admittedly have more subjective rulings (e.g. a beauty pageant, a dog show, or a singing competition), but these too are presumably following specific set guidelines and, more importantly, in such cases the judges are not the players themselves but external arbiters. The outcome of the detective fiction “game” is neither decided by mutual assent of the players (J.D. Carr is not there to agree that I outwitted him), nor is there an external judge deciding the outcome (“No, Scott, you did not properly solve this one before Ellery Queen revealed it. I’ll be back next Thursday, and have the check postdated”). No, the outcome of a detective fiction match is decided by a judge solitary, subjective and “of the players”… the reader himself. And what if that reader arrives at a solution he deems superior to the solution subsequently revealed in the book? Was he wrong? Did he “win” or did he “lose”? Who is to make the call? Not only is the reader himself not an objective arbiter, but he has no standards to appeal to other than varying, unstandardized sets of “rules” (we play cards according to Hoyle, but are we playing the detective fiction game according to Van Dine? Knox? Carr?). Further, the most frequent grounds for crying “unfair”– insufficient clueing– has, as we’ve seen above, either no objective standard to appeal to, or else an objective standard that is never met. In essence, only the gut of the reader can decide whether he is victorious, and certainly no other competitive game is decided by the subjective belief of one of the players.

So far, I’ve noted that in at least three important ways, detective fiction is unique from competitive games of the type suggested by those who promote the “whodunit-as-game” theory: it has players often unaware of each other’s existence, it has no rules set forth for players on one side, and it offers no objective (or external subjective) arbiters of success. I think these points alone are enough to raise serious doubts that detective fiction falls into the category of games. But I believe the fourth distinction puts it beyond doubt:


No doubt, one can enjoy playing a game even if one loses it. And there also unrelated reasons for desiring to lose a game (“If I let her win, she’ll sleep with me, give me the promotion, etc…”). But I can think of no game which many people play actually hoping– for no other ulterior reason– to lose. Yet, there are many, many people (myself included) who would a actually prefer to “lose” the detective fiction “game.” For, if detective fiction were indeed a game, “winning” (for the reader) would consist of correctly arriving at the solution to the mystery prior to it being revealed by the author, and “losing” would mean not anticipating it (or arriving at an incorrect solution). And a substantial portion of the mystery reading public would actually rather be proven wrong, to “lose” under this definition. Why? Because, if the author is able to successfully conceal the truth from them until the moment at which he chooses to reveal it, the reader may experience– in the dramatic way the author intended– a pleasing sense of “sudden retrospective illumination” (or paradigm shift, or epiphany, or in Aristotelian terms, anagnorisis)– that is, the sudden simultaneous sense of surprise and inevitability.

If you are not among the people who prefer this sensation to correctly anticipating the answer, I invite you take a survey of fellow mystery readers. I’m not suggesting the that our way of enjoying detective fiction is superior to the other, only that we constitute a substantial portion (perhaps even majority?) of the mystery readership.

Why then, one might ask, do we “hopeful losers” still try to solve the mystery while reading it? Well, I certainly can’t answer for everyone here, but I can explain my own reasons. I try– earnestly and intently– to solve the mystery, all the while hoping in my heart to be proven wrong because, if the author can surprise me with a richly clues-solution I had not foreseen despite my best (and frankly, “seasoned”) efforts to anticipate it, my regard for his skill will be all the greater, and my pleasurable experience of “sudden retrospective illumination” all the more intense and powerful. Thus, I’m employing my own “puzzle solving” prowess as a measure by which I judge the quality of the work. And this I would characterize far more as an act of “art appreciation” than of “games playing.”

Moreover, there are many readers who claim to read a detective story without trying to solve the mystery at all– they’re just there for the ride. How does that fit in with the games concept? Quite simply it doesn’t. Which brings us to another point about games:


Of course, many people do try to solve the mystery they are reading, and would rather arrive at the correct solution prior to being given it by the author. It is quite fair to say that these readers are treating the  detective story as a game– they are “playing” it as such (serving as their own rule makers and arbiters of success). But there’s a fundamental distinction: a detective story exists as an entertainment independent of its employment as a game– one can actively participate in its function as designed (i.e. one can read it and enjoy it) without anyone treating it as a game. This same is not so of entities designed solely or even primarily as games. Yes, one can enjoy baseball or chess as a spectator, but someone must be playing it as a game in order for anyone at all to enjoy it. Not so of detective fiction.

Also note that ultimately any entertainment– not just detective fiction– can be treated by an individual (or even a group) as a game. Even the aforementioned activity of “watching The Sound Of Music” can easily be turned into a drinking game (take a shot every time Gretl cries “Fräulein Maria!”). But this doesn’t mean that The Sound Of Music or the act of watching it is inherently a game. Admittedly, the puzzle provided by a detective story more readily invites its treatment by individuals as a game– that is, they make a game of it for themselves. But as with The Sound Of Music, The ABC Murders can be enjoyed as an entertainment without the reader choosing to treat it as a game. Thus, if we say call detective fiction a game– merely because it can be treated as such– it follows that we must say the same for all types of fiction, and indeed for all types of entertainment.

Speaking of comparison to to other entertainments, let’s make a comparison of the activity of reading a whodunit (say, Death on the Nile) with playing an actual game (we’ll use baseball, though the comparison would work with chess, backgammon, croquet, or any other real game) and with watching the film Citizen Kane:

FullSizeRenderI believe that side-by-side comparison makes it easy to recognize what type of activity detective fiction more closely resembles.

One further point (and it is indeed an important one): that element of “sudden retrospective illumination”– a key element of the detective fiction genre, and described by Carr and other genre experts as a euphoric, almost religious experience– is  found nowhere in games. One might be surprised by the outcome of a game, but games are not specifically designed to provide an ending that both surprises and seems retrospectively inevitable. It is however, found elsewhere in art, not only in detective fiction, but in other genres as well (e.g. the 1945 romance film Brief Encounter— anything but a murder mystery– concludes with a revisit to the first scene, with a new, more intense audience understanding of the meaning of the events).

And so, one further comparison:


An interesting case is that of Cluedo (or Clue, as it is known here in the States) which, much as the character in Chesterton’s The Man With Two Beards is described as the reverse of a ghost (“not the antic of the soul freed from the body. It was the antic of the body freed from the soul“), is in several respects the exact opposite of detective fiction: whereas a detective story is a fiction that in some respects resembles a game, CLUEDO is a game that resembles detective fiction. For, despite involving many of the stylistic trappings of the classic Golden Age Detective Story (the Victorian British setting, the stock character types, the genre-common instruments of death), it is indeed a true game which is played by employing strict deductive logic. Moreover its solution offers no sudden retrospective illumination. One might be surprised that Colonel Mustard committed the murder in the conservatory with a lead pipe, but there’s nothing in the game designed to make that scenario seem any less likely than any of the others. Conversely, there’s nothing (in the way of clueing) provided to make one feel, “Of course! I should’ve known! It was there before my eyes all the time!” At the same time, it does provide the true “fair play” which detective fiction cannot.

Finally, what is my point in “attacking” the idea that detective fiction is a game and the notion of detective fiction “fair play”? I assure it is not to upset the apple cart, nor is it to spoil the fun. And it is certainly not for the purpose of criticizing or belittling the genre. On the contrary my purpose is rather to glorify the genre… I come not to bury GA Detective Fiction, but to praise it. However, to call the detective story a game merely because some readers think of it as such is actually to do it a disservice. For, while one may admittedly use a shoe to drive a nail into a wall (indeed, I have), to then call a shoe a “hammer”–merely because it can be employed as such– is to call attention to all the ways in which it is inferior to those objects (real hammers) that were designed expressly for that purpose. Similarly, to call the detective story a game both highlights the many ways that detective stories fall short as games, yet overlooks the wonderful pleasures they offer that games cannot.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)


Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the events of this murder mystery in GREAT detail. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001