Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

NeroWolfeWhat’s this book about?

Most aficionados of detective fiction are familiar with the exploits of Nero Wolfe, the corpulent private detective who directs the activities of his associate Archie Goodwin in some 70 recorded cases written by Rex Stout (and a handful of licensed continuations by Robert Goldsborough). Nero Wolfe has been the subject of two films, four radio series, and two television series — you can read all about him in his Wikipedia entry here.

This book is what used to be called an “appreciation” — perhaps it still would be. It consists of a recapitulation of the plots of all extant novels and short stories as at the date of publication. Both Rex Stout and the series were still alive at this point and my first paperback edition is missing information about the final three novels, a couple of short story accumulations, and all of Robert Goldsborough’s continuation novels. As well, since all the stories take place against a common background of Wolfe’s New York brownstone and a recurring cast of characters, the volume accumulates what is known of persons, places, and things that figure in what has become known as the “corpus“. Corpus is a play on words referring to Wolfe’s bulky body and the complete oeuvre of his fictional adventures. As the back cover blurb on my first paperback edition (shown above) indicates, this is “a handbook for informed appreciation, a compendium and a chronology”. There is nothing here that attempts to bring any new understanding to where the character comes from, or to deepen your understanding of Nero Wolfe’s place in detective fiction; this is merely an assembly of facts and citations.

f643024128a041cb24846010Why is this worth reading?

It’s not.

This is because we now have Wikipedia and the internet; anyone can now indulge him- or herself in whatever level of information and speculation they wish about the exact dimensions of Wolfe’s office, the placement of his red leather chairs, how many cookbooks precisely are on the shelves of his chef Fritz, etc. The publication dates and plot summaries of every single Nero Wolfe volume are available from Wikipedia and a number of other websites. There are single-purpose Wolfe-oriented discussion groups (one of which I helped moderate for a few years), organizations like the Wolfe Pack operate websites and have physical meetings, etc. The functions of this volume have been entirely superseded by the internet.

In fact, I’m kind of at a loss to know why this volume was published at all, although until Penguin reprinted it in trade paperback format I used to sell a lot of used paperback copies of the Bantam edition to Wolfe aficionados at fairly high prices. There is nothing in this book that one cannot glean from reading the novels themselves and, honestly, the novels are much, much better written and more lively. If you have read the books, then you don’t need plot recaps. If you haven’t read them, well, there is a faint likelihood that it will be of benefit to you to know what you’ve missed, but isn’t it better to merely obtain a list of the books and tick them off as you go? And if you for some unfathomable reason cannot live without knowing the dimensions of Wolfe’s office — his fictional office, I hasten to add, and subject like everything else in the corpus to the vagaries of Rex Stout’s constant forgetfulness of minor details — then that information can be gleaned from the novels themselves, and you can spend an evening if you so desire in drawing up a floor plan and trying to imagine what the waterfall picture looks like. This volume, incidentally, does not contain such a floor plan.

But if you are a Nero Wolfe fan, and you have tracked down a copy of Where There’s A Will complete with photographs, and you have spent a month’s rent on a first edition of Corsage, and have a copy of every Tecumseh Fox mystery and Alphabet Hicks mysteries and the Dol Bonner mystery, and Double for Death in the mapback edition, and the book/movie The President Vanishes, and the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and all the Goldsborough novels, and and and — then you will not strain at the gnat, relatively speaking, that is this volume. You can acquire a copy on Abebooks for under $10 as of this writing. One of the entries for the hardcover first says “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” And that sentiment brings me to my point.

In recent months I have been giving thought to “tie-ins”. These are artifacts that are connected with fictional characters but not usually invented by the original creator of that character. I’ve posted an article (found here) about Sophie Hannah’s authorized continuation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot character, The Monogram Murders. My piece here talks at some length about the relationship between the book and the film of S. S. Van Dine’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and goes into the nascent industry of the movie tie-in novel represented by such volumes as Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. My piece even notes the existence of a Milton Bradley board game called “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game” marketed as an adjunct to the short-lived film that will set you back a cool $700 or so IF you can find a well-worn copy, which you probably can’t; it’s bloody rare indeed.

In 2015, the movie tie-in paperback has perhaps waned in popularity from its zenith in, perhaps, the 80s and 90s, where it was very nearly obligatory for every film being marketed to boys and young men to come with its accompanying novelization (a kind of prosodic dumbing-down of the plot of the film in simple English), and for films featuring handsome male actors and/or musicians addressed to girls and young women to have an accompanying novelization in slightly higher-level language but more colour close-up photos tipped into the centre. Tie-in novels have rather died down in the subsequent years, but the concept is still going strong in ways you may find difficult to believe. Murder, She Wrote was last broadcast in 1996 (although there were four subsequent made-for-TV movies). Donald Bain, listed as co-author with the imaginary Jessica Fletcher, has published 35 volumes in the series of novels featuring Jessica Fletcher, most in hardcover; two a year for quite a while, including 2015. Thirty-five volumes, still going strong almost 20 years after the last episode of the TV series — quite an achievement.

In a very general sense, a tie-in is a commercial product that is associated with a character, either real or imaginary, but that does not contribute to the original purpose or reason for the celebrity of that character. Jessica Fletcher was the main character of a television series; therefore, novels — as well as lunch boxes, memo pads, aprons, tote bags, coffee cups, and “appreciations” — which feature that character are all tie-in materials.

There are mysteries which purport to be written by celebrities like Martina Navratilova and Willie Shoemaker, and ones which apparently actually were written by Steve Allen. Those are tie-ins to celebrity. There are ancillary novels that accompany various series of films and television; Quantum Leap books, Babylon 5 novels, Indiana Jones adventures, and enough Star Trek novels to sink a Battleship — which also has its own movie tie-in novel. Frankly, the thought of a board game becoming a film which is then turned into a novel fills me with wildly mixed emotions ranging from nausea to hilarity, but mostly I find it bathetic in the extreme. That novel must take awfulness to a new Stygian depth. I have the weird feeling that if I open the novel, I’ll implode and form a new Heinleinian multiverse, or something.

What the tie-in process boils down to, though, is that a writer creates a character; in this case, Nero Wolfe. The character becomes very popular and people are anxious to get, and read, new books in the series. (Or to experience new Indiana Jones films or watch new episodes featuring Jessica Fletcher or, way back when, listen to new radio episodes featuring The Shadow.) The original material doesn’t appear fast enough to suit enthusiastic fans, and this is where tie-in materials start to be created. What also happens, of course, is that the creation of these tie-in materials makes economic sense to someone. If you can create a lunch box for $1 and sell it for $3, fine. But if you can put a picture of Donny Osmond on it and sell it for $7, even if you have to pay Mr. Osmond $1 for the privilege, you are doing very well indeed. A $3 lunch box works as well as a $7 lunch box; what you are saying is that you like Donny Osmond and want your luncheon companions to know that, and it’s worth $4 to be able to say so.

Back in the day, this was a primitive form of branding. The manufacturers of Ovaltine knew that children liked radio stories about Little Orphan Annie and so created mugs for drinking Ovaltine with pictures of Little Orphan Annie on them. Note that in the old days, these things related directly; Ovaltine provided mugs from which one could drink Ovaltine, and this is an elegant closed circle. It didn’t take long to figure out, though, that there were two ways in which this process could be made to pay. One is that the tie-in didn’t have to relate directly to the character; for instance, a Little Orphan Annie colouring book. The other is that sometimes it is worthwhile to create tie-in materials that are nearly worthless and give them to children (and credulous adults) as ways of cementing brand loyalty. Hence, the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. If you listened to the radio program and possessed a decoder ring, you would receive secret messages which you could decode — mostly, as I understand it, having to do with the advisability of drinking lots of Ovaltine. If you were a child who was not in possession of the ring, your ring-less status was derided by your friends and it was clear that you were not getting the full benefit of your fannish appreciation of Little Orphan Annie. Children who owned rings were au courant with the cultural zeitgeist, although I doubt they’d have expressed it that way. Either way, children drank more Ovaltine and more than repaid the cost of the nearly worthless rings.

As time marched on and branding became a more sophisticated process, the existence of tie-ins was a signal of a certain level of brand involvement by the parent company. The folks at Disney were the masters of such branding programs. When the very first sketches were being laid down for the first nascent ideas that were to become, say, The Lady and the Tramp — those sketches were also passed to the marketing department to get to work on Lady and the Tramp comic books and plastic toys and lunch boxes and colouring books and dozens of other things. And the number and extent of such tie-in materials signalled the level of investment that the parent company found worthwhile. Lassie and Dan’l Boone had huge ancillary marketing materials in hundreds of categories; a decade later, The Munsters and The Partridge Family took those numbers into the thousands. You could sleep on Munsters sheets and eat Munsters cereal from Munsters bowls, and carry your Munsters lunchbox home from school while wearing your Eddie Munster jacket, read a Munsters comic book, and play with your glow-in-the-dark Munsters toys and games, while signed-in-plate photographs of Butch Patrick and Yvonne de Carlo smiled down from your bedroom walls. There was no limit to the things upon which Munsters iconography could be stencilled — that is, until they went off the air and everyone had to have a Star Trek lunchbox. There’s no money in static branding.

And so I believe that the adults to whom brands and characters were marked with tie-in materials became accustomed to thinking of characters as the appropriate subject of tie-in materials. For something to be culturally significant, it had to be accompanied by tie-in materials; and this brings us finally back to Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. As I said, there is really no reason for this volume to exist. It is a kind of cooing noise expressing pleasure at the idea of Nero Wolfe. But it was created, and marketed, as “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” That’s an idea that deserves a little unpacking.

wolfe-plaqueWhat exactly is a “serious” Rex Stout collection? I’d venture to say that it’s one that is worth the most money. But I have been in the position of selling relatively worthless objects at hefty prices — like, for instance, first editions of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street — to people who didn’t want them for some pleasure that they’d receive by reading the book, but merely wished to possess a copy of the book so that they could say they owned one. So that, indeed, they could prove they had a “serious” collection. I think a “serious” collection can be paradoxically defined as the one that contains the highest number of frivolous objects. The less the object has to do with the original character, the more it’s only in the possession of the “serious” collector. The possessors of these serious collections are thoroughly convinced that the money they spent on acquiring them will be recompensed some day, perhaps by an envious younger person who will double or triple the price paid in order to acquire the tie-in object. But for an example of where that goes wrong, I give you (a) Beanie Babies; (b) the egregious and nearly worthless objects known as “collector plates”; (c) the entire output of the Franklin Mint. Did you pay $500 for a copy of a script from the original Nero Wolfe TV program, apparently annotated in Lee Horsley’s handwriting? Kiss your $500 good-bye, unless you can find someone with the same disease you caught; you may have to infect them personally with the importance and significance and sheer gravitas of such a scarce object.

As to why one would have a Nero Wolfe “collection” that consisted of anything more than novels written about Nero Wolfe — your guess is as good as mine. I confess to having owned a “Nero Wolfe” necktie that is vaguely orchidaceous, that I bought at the time of the Timothy Hutton TV series; it’s a nice tie, but I never wore it and gave it to my brother. I bought it because it was attractive, not because it was associated with the program. It cost me about twice as much as it should have. I have a copy of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street that originally sold for 75 cents; I paid $3 for it, and I would expect to get $5, possibly from one of my readers. That’s the used book business; old books are worth what they will bring from a knowledgeable reader. I paid $35 for a bootleg DVD of 1937’s The League of Frightened Men, because I wanted badly to see it; I wasted $35.

In fact, I actually really, really like the Nero Wolfe novels and stories; I’m well versed in their details and chronology. I’ve read every single one, again and again. I can quote chunks of them. But let me confess; I don’t care in the slightest how big the front room is, or how big the globe is, or the dimensions of the waterfall picture. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t CARE. I like the characters, I like the writing, and I like the spirit and feeling of the books. But by and large, I can tell you — anyone who is trying to convince you that there is something called a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” is trying to take your money. I know this, because I have stood behind the counter of a mystery bookstore and sold people copies of this book, and the Cadfael Companion, and a twee little volume purporting to detail the Wimsey family history, and Agatha Christie tote bags, and Murder, She Wrote coffee cups, at a minimum of 100% markup and, frankly, whatever the traffic would bear. I did that so that I could afford to keep the store’s doors open to make copies of really good, well-written mysteries available to people who wanted to read them, but the people who manufactured the coffee cups have no such excuse.

I have no objection to getting together with like-minded people to discuss the novels and stories, as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand. Most members of organizations like the Wolfe Pack are sensible and intelligent bibliophiles who esteem the same fiction I do, and know the difference between a first edition in jacket of Fer-de-Lance and a TV script that Lee Horsley has scribbled on. In fact, some of my best friends, et cetera. I enjoy finding depths of meaning and a better understanding of American cultural themes and motifs in the books, and I enjoy discussing those things with other people. But if you come to me looking for my $3 paperback of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, I might take $5 but I’ll try to stick you for $12 — and I’m a relatively nice person. Other merchants will not be so kind, and you may end up with a sample of Lee Horsley’s handwriting at vastly inflated prices.

If you think you need to have a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” — try and understand that that really consists of fiction written featuring Nero Wolfe. Be well-read rather than “serious”; buy the novel and not the lunch box. And leave this book alone.

51pwNjGwcbL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My favourite edition

I have a first paperback edition that I skimmed to write this piece, and I’ve had and sold a number of copies of the first edition; since I always made more money from the true first, seen here, I suppose it would be my favourite edition. It’s certainly the one with the best graphic design of any I’ve seen. As of today on Abebooks, a decent copy should set you back somewhere around $25 depending on where you live. Beware of the BCE (book club edition), which looks quite similar but is relatively valueless.

My least favourite volume

I will add here that if you think I was hard on THIS volume, I reserve the utmost scorn and disapproval for a similar volume by one Ken Darby. William Baring-Gould was merely an enthusiastic fanboi before the term existed, albeit a literate and well-read one; Darby regurgitates the same material in worse prose and less exact detail and, to my enormous distaste, stops for a wholly unnecessary chapter to “prove” that any rumours that Messrs. Goodwin and Wolfe are gay are false and vile canards, and says a lot of nasty things about homosexuality in the process. Frankly, I’m gay and had never even considered such an idea; it’s directly contradicted over and over by the Stout-written stories themselves. I gather that the Darby book is out of print and relatively unavailable, and in my opinion it should stay that way, because the author was a vulgar and homophobic toad. I’ll decline to provide you with the title of this piece de merde or even to tag his name; let the book die in its well-deserved obscurity.

 

The end of the Golden Age?

CluedoToday I was scanning some blogs I enjoy when I came across a brief post on At The Villa Rose in which the author says, in reference to Crime and Detective Stories (an irregular journal that usually contains fascinating non-fiction articles about detective fiction) #67, “I could have done without Mike Ripley dissing traditional mysteries, though.”

Mr. Ripley is then quoted as saying:

“The idea of a novel as an artificial puzzle, a literary parlour game or an extended cryptic crossword did not appeal to me: then or now. I am firmly of the opinion that the so-called Golden Age of that sort of English detective story ended in 1949 when it was replaced by the board game Cluedo. Not, in my opinion, a moment too soon.”

Well, I beg to differ for a number of different reasons, partly because I’ve coincidentally been reading a 1926 article by Willard Huntington Wright — better known to mystery connoisseurs as S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance novels — called The Detective Novel in which he appears to specifically disavow the relationship of the detective story to the cryptic crossword.

Helen Eustis

Helen Eustis

Many years ago, I remember reading The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, published in 1946, and said to myself, “Well, THAT was the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” I remember thinking that it seemed to me the the first time that what then might have been called “abnormal psychology” formed a crucial part of the solution to a mystery, and that it was the first mystery where the solution might not have been understood by one’s maiden aunt (and certainly would have met with violent disapproval). I’m not absolutely sure that that novel remains my choice to signal the end of the Golden Age; I’m starting to think that it was more of a slow, gradual fade-wipe between one style and another. And I’m also not prepared to say authoritatively that The Horizontal Man is the first such novel (I’d want to re-read Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer and do quite a bit more research); that’s just a memory of my moment of awareness that the Golden Age actually did come to an end.

012-01I could be persuaded that the beginning of the end was prefigured by the 1936 publication of “Murder off Miami” by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links — the first “dossier novel”, which seems to me to more accurately represent Ripley’s point about the detective novel being reduced to a kind of abstract game experience. And yet, if that is the case, how are we to feel about Ellery Queen’s “Challenge to the Reader”, wherein the fourth wall is broken and the mystery is revealed to be, after all, an artificial puzzle? 

2132_7f90There’s an article in Wikipedia called “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction” which offers Julian Symons as a reference such that the Golden Age was “the Twenties and the Thirties” and suggests that Philip Van Doren Stern’s article, “The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley”, from 1941, “could serve … as an obituary for the Golden Age.” I was considerably amused by the “talk page” accompanying that article where some pompous little oaf waggles his finger and says that, because a Yahoo discussion group thinks it’s 1910 to 1960, so it must be or else “Wikipedia will have egg all over its face.” And yet the very blogging challenge in which I’m participating, the “Vintage Mystery Bingo” challenge, agrees with 1960 as the cut-off date. Honestly, I think 1960 is just ridiculous. These people are confusing the continued publication of puzzle mysteries with their membership in a literary movement. This is rather like insisting that, because people still continue to ride horses, therefore the horse and buggy are still a viable form of transportation. I suspect that a great deal of the reason that the Yahoo discussion group wants the boundary to extend to 1960 is because they want to discuss books that they enjoy, and some of them fall outside any logical boundary; just because Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie began working in the Golden Age doesn’t mean their entire oeuvre defines the Age ipso facto. I’d prefer a more logical boundary than mere personal preference.

eustis1I’ve been giving these issues some thought lately, mostly because this blog’s most recent post has enjoyed a great deal of discussion in the comments section about the Humdrum School, and the fascinating insights have provoked me to consider the idea that the decline of the Humdrums and the decline of the Golden Age go hand in hand. In fact, I’m in the throes of some kind of insight that has to do with an X/Y axis, where one line moves from realism to fantasy and the other moves from the detective’s POV to that of the criminal. It might be that “the end of the Golden Age” might merely be the point at which the balance tipped from preferring the POV of the detective to preferring the POV of the criminal — and another balance tipped from a preference to realism towards a preference to fantasy. (Today, I think, the marketplace’s domination by the cozy represents a return swing towards the POV of the detective but now presented in a fantasy modality.)

However, I will throw this question out for discussion. Do you think there is a particular event that precisely defines the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction? If it’s a particular book, which one? Perhaps that might be a year, or a range of dates; what might that be? And if you think that 1960 is the correct date, why on earth do you think so?

Postscript, later the same day: And, as if upon cue, another mystery-oriented blog I follow, Beneath the Stains of Time, today had a post wherein the opening sentence is “The year 1920 is generally accepted as a semiofficial starting point for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which witnessed the debut of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the rest, as they say, is history.”  And I’ll accept that very sensible statement backed with sensible evidence.  So the starting point is 1920; thank you TomCat!

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

n60581Author:

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

My favourite strict-form puzzle mystery films (part 2)

This is part 2 of a post from perhaps a week ago.  These are in no particular order. “Strict-form”, to me, means that there is a mystery as a major part of the plot and it can be solved by an intelligent and observant viewer, because all the clues are displayed fairly. And I’ll note here that I say “favourite”; not necessarily the best, but these are the ones I can watch again and again, and recommend to friends.

I have to say that for one or two of these I don’t have a copy at hand to screen, and that’s a dangerous thing for a commentator.  I’ll make that clear if that is the case, in case I get a detail wrong..

And_Then_There_Were_None__1945_And Then There Were None (1945)

This is the first filmed version of an Agatha Christie piece usually known as Ten Little Indians, which has been remade multiple times.  In fact, I’ve amused myself in the past by screening a bunch of versions one after the other … including the wonderfully insane Gumnaam from 1965 in Bollywood.  Gumnaam has four songs in it instead of just the traditional performance at the beginning by victim #1, and that’s merely the first of the differences. Check it out if you can.

You know the story: ten people show up in an entirely isolated place (over the years it’s been an island, a Swiss castle, an Iranian hotel, and an African safari).  One by one they are killed by a mysterious figure called U. N. Owen (unknown) and they slowly come to realize that U. N. Owen is a member of the party … as little china figurines disappear one by one from the dining room table.  There is a surprise ending that I won’t include here;  you’ll be familiar with it anyway but there’s always that one person in a billion who hasn’t hit this piece of art yet, and they deserve to have it unsullied.

As promised, this is a strict-form mystery; I venture to say, though, that the crucial clue will escape your notice, mostly because it’s not really shown very well. We are told that something has happened and not really shown its results in order to assess whether what we have been told is accurate. As well, two of the characters are said to be collaborating, and a knowledge of the personality and intimate habits of one of them is necessary to the functioning of the murder plot; I don’t see that it’s possible to have obtained that information even though it’s indicated (possibly in the book — I tend to get these things mixed up) that it was indeed obtained by the murderer.

Gumnaam (1)This version was directed by Rene Clair, who has created here a nearly perfect film. I will be the first to say that this perfection is quite modest; the film occupies a limited philosophical space and fills it admirably, but this is not high art.  This is merely a very, very, VERY good B-movie.  The casting is wonderful, the script is delightful, photography is great and other technical elements are well-done. There are standout performances from Walter Huston as the alcoholic doctor, Barry Fitzgerald as the kindly old judge, and Judith Anderson as the censorious old biddy. Even tiny roles like Richard Haydn’s butler are imbued with depth and accuracy far beyond the scope of most B-movies.  Most importantly there is an air of gentle humour about the whole production that hasn’t been imposed; it grows in a really natural way from the actors and their interactions.  (I credit Barry Fitzgerald for this; he would have a wry twinkle in his eye under almost every circumstance.) I know it’s hard to believe that a film with ten murders, some quite violent, can have gentle humour; Rene Clair brings it off.

As I said, this has been remade many times, but most of the remakes are less about the characterization and more about the gimmicks.  In one version (1965) the elderly spinster played here by Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) is replaced by Dahlia Lavi, who has large breasts and little talent. Of course, that’s what was missing from a really complete production of an Agatha Christie novel — tits! That’s what brings the guys in, after all.  (groan)  The 1965 version  stops the action just before the first death for a musical performance by, of all people, Fabian, and also offers the Whodunnit Break, which stops the action just before the climax to give you sixty seconds to guess the killer’s identity. So I do recommend that you start with the best and then proceed to enjoy how this lovely work devolves over the years until in 2005 it became — a computer game. Actually a rather good one as these things go, but considerably altered in every respect.

Card_Cape2The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

I am not a big fan of most of the adaptations of Ellery Queen material, but this one has consistency and common sense, and a good cast.  Although this is one film a copy of which I couldn’t put my hands on immediately, I’ve seen it a number of times and always enjoyed it. It’s close to the original book. Ellery and a friend go to the country — Spanish Cape, by the water — for a rustic vacation, and a young girl next door and her uncle are set upon; the uncle is kidnapped but the kidnappers apparently believe him to be a different person, a houseguest named John Marco, whom they’ve been sent to “get”. Uncle David hasn’t returned, and the next morning Marco is found dead on a terrace wearing only a bathing suit and a full-length opera cape. (In the book, he is also minus the bathing suit, but nudity in the movies was not yet countenanced.)

More bodies pile up and Ellery (Donald Cook) digs to the bottom of things in a fairly straightforward way; the central idea, why Marco’s body is dressed the way it is, is sensibly investigated and laid plain. It is very difficult to figure out whodunnit, mostly because so much else is going on in the plot, but once you realize the implications of the clothing, there can only really be one murderer. In the meantime, Ellery romances the daughter of the house, played by the pretty and talented Helen Twelvetrees.

dvd197The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

Any person who’s even vaguely heard of old black-and-white mysteries may have heard of this one, or even seen it.  According to Wikipedia, a film historian named William K. Everson pronounced it a masterpiece in the pages of Films in Review. I like it slightly less than that, but it is an extremely good film nevertheless. It is one of the most approachable complex-murder-plot stories for the viewer because William Powell, here playing dilettante detective Philo Vance, brings his usual air of debonair competence to the role. Since he masters this so easily, we think, of course we could too. Mary Astor plays the heiress at the heart of the action with great skill and a certain edge of arrogance that makes us dislike her a bit; the familiar tubby figure and gravelly voice of Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath of the police force anchor this film in familiar territory. Similarly familiar figures in small roles like Etienne Girardot, James Lee, Helen Vinson, and Paul Kavanagh are an important factor in lifting this film to excellence.

The real attraction is the plot, though, and it is very unusual for a filmed mystery; it is accurate to the original, and the original is a difficult and complicated mystery involving the locking of a door from the outside while the key is inside (Philo shows you how). Archer Coe is that familiar thing of detective fiction, the wealthy man enmeshed in plots who quarrels with everyone in his life and then is found murdered in a room locked from the inside. Philo Vance knows the family because of their mutual interest in show dogs (hence Kennel) and investigates Coe’s murder as the first in a bloodbath that culminates when a prize Doberman who has been injured by the murderer returns to seek its revenge, prompting the murderer to confess.  In between there are plots involving a collection of rare Chinese porcelain, Coe’s mistress and neighbour, and his niece Hilda (Mary Astor) and her suitors — and also his quarrels with his brother Brisbane. Brisbane turns up dead in short order, though, and things are very messy until Philo Vance works it all out.

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Really, this might be the most difficult method of murder ever successfully described on film; your instinct will be to rewind at least once when Philo is showing you how the string and pins are hooked together to lock the door from the outside. (Note that this differs from what I said about Miracles for Sale recently, which has the most complicated plot stuffed into 71 minutes ever successfully described on film.) The ending is the classic reconstruction of the crime, in this case using a charming little scale model of two apartment buildings to demonstrate the motivation for some of the actions around Coe’s death with what passed for trick photography in 1933. Exquisite stuff; there are also photographic innovations like zooming the POV in through a keyhole to see the dead body.  A clever plot, fine actors, innovation and intelligence all combine to produce a film you will want to see more than once.

zbish The Bishop Murder Case (1930)

Before Kennel, there was an earlier adaptation of a 1928 Philo Vance best-seller by S. S. Van Dine.  This is another of my favourites, mostly because it is so much fun to see Basil Rathbone as a different detective than Sherlock Holmes, with whom he is so closely identified. Those of you who are not enthusiastic mystery fans may find this a bit harder going, though. All existing prints appear to be muddy and dark, to my eye; the sound quality is poor (admittedly, this was a new thing for 1930); and the director appears to be instructing the actors to use techniques more appropriate to the pre-talkie, all rolling eyes and head-tossing to express strong emotion.

Nevertheless, there is much here to enjoy. For those familiar with the novel, you will find an extremely faithful representation in nearly every detail, albeit set among a group of people who live in rooms with impossibly high ceilings. (Set design was also in its infancy.) The story has points of interest. The first victim is a Mr. Joseph Cochrane Robin, who is found killed by an arrow with a note pinned to his chest signed by “The Bishop” and some mention of “Who killed Cock Robin?” Subsequent crimes also involve various verses from Mother Goose, and this is an extraordinary concept for the investigators, who immediately postulate insanity of the highest order. I know, right? But this is 1930, and thousands of serial killer novels have not yet been written on every permutation of the idea of killing a string of victims according to a motif. And then, of course, in 1936, Agatha Christie published The A.B.C. Murders and gave us the idea of someone who only pretends to kill according to a motif. This case actually started us off with that idea, as well as a number of other related ones. In this case, the murderer is attempting to throw suspicion upon a specific person by his choice of motif, and have this person executed by the state without having to sully his hands with actually killing that particular individual himself.  So he kills a couple of others instead; hard to figure, but what the heck, he was crazy. Anyway, if that sort of modern novel is of interest to you, well, here is the one that pretty much started it all, in a funky old movie for your viewing pleasure.

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In the meantime, in the 88-minute running time, we get not only a string of crimes but some information about archery, “modern” physics, chess, and the plays of Henrik Ibsen, one of which contains a central if obscure clue to what’s going on. I’m sorry to say that this movie hasn’t aged well, though, or perhaps it’s just that in 83 years the social context has changed so much that some things that would have been known to the 1930 viewer are completely lost on the 2013 one. There’s a brief scene, for instance, where a comedic maid is shown using a vacuum cleaner. No biggie, thinks today’s youngster, unaware that this meant in 1930 that your household was very wealthy and possessed every luxury, because the vacuum probably cost more than a year’s worth of the maid’s services. It’s hard for us to understand today how a wealthy brownstone in Manhattan could have a private archery range in the back yard. And how a bunch of unattended children in Central Park can run up to a pretty young blonde and ask her to read them a story, no parents or nannies in sight.

There’s another strange thing about this movie that doesn’t really sink in until later. Philo Vance (Rathbone) figures out whodunnit and gathers a group in the library. Vance realizes that the murderer has built an elaborate edifice of craziness that points at a third person as the murderer; the real killer plans to poison that third person at this gathering and give every impression of suicide upon being found out. Rather than make a big fuss, Vance merely switches the glasses; the murderer dies. (In the book, Vance makes a remark to the effect of, “Oh, I’ve saved the hangman the trouble. Hope you don’t mind, Mr. District Attorney.”) I have to say, this is quite a bit beyond the normal realm of, say, Ellery Queen or Perry Mason, both of whom prefer to let the wheels of justice grind exceeding small. Very few likeable detectives commit cold-blooded murder and completely get away with it, but Vance not only walks but we feel everyone around him is saying, “Oh, thanks for taking care of that messy task, Philo. See you next murder.”

bmc100So this can be a problematic film; it can be dark and unattractive and hard to hear, and some of its meaning has been lost over time. But it’s based on a book that is a cornerstone of modern detective fiction, and it has Basil Rathbone for the detective, years before he portrayed Sherlock Holmes. And as crime fiction goes, it seems to take place in an unkinder, more Nietzschean time; a little bit like a cross between film noir and Sherlock Holmes. I think you should check it out.

More to come in part 3. This will certainly comprise a number of entries from the long-running Charlie Chan franchise, which probably provided more strict-form puzzles than any other film series.

Availability:

To the best of my knowledge, each of the above-noted films is available from the usual sources: Amazon and eBay are where I would start, but there are many inexpensive sources if you know where to look.

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

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

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

Author:

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

Publication Data:

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

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

About this book:

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

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

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

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

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

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/32, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work.  In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes For the Collector:

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

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

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

The Wall Street Mystery (1931)

The Wall Street Mystery

Author: The authorship is credited prominently to S.S. Van Dine, writer of the Philo Vance novels. “Adaptation and dialogue” by Burnet Hershey, for whom IMDB gives 65 writing credits, almost all of which are short subjects.  Hershey wrote a bunch of other entries in the 12 short subjects instigated by Van Dine.

S.S. Van Dine is worth reading about but Wikipedia has done such a thorough job there is no need for me to repeat it here.

Other Data:  November, 1931, according to IMDB.  Directed by Arthur Hurley, who also appeared to specialize in short subjects, for Vitaphone (Warner Brothers).

SS Crabtree 2Cast: Donald Meek (see left) as Doctor Crabtree, hero of 11 of the 12 short films that Van Dine wrote between 1931 and 1932.  John Mailton as Inspector Carr (who appears in all 12), Frances Dale, Hobart Cavanaugh, and a black man I am unable to identify who deserved better than the comedy-relief role of the elevator operator.

About this film:

I believe this to be the second of 12 shorts written by S. S. Van Dine, featuring Donald Meek as Doctor Crabtree in all but one.  It is 17 minutes in length and there’s not a lot of time to get anything across to the audience except the bare bones of what’s going on.  Two stockbrokers are found shot to death in their Wall Street office; a beautiful secretary is found locked in a closet in the office, and a disgruntled investor had had an appointment with one of the stockbrokers the night of the crime.  “There’s nothing mysterious about a killing in Wall Street,” chuckles Dr. Crabtree, criminologist.  “I know — I made one myself.”

The story is not especially mystifying and the solution really depends entirely on forensic evidence — the angle of the bullet wound in one of the victims. In fact, none of the hugger-mugger with the other suspects is even necessary since a competent CSI would have solved the crime in no time flat.  But everything is competently handled by the director, writer and cast and my interest was sustained for the entire 17 minutes; difficult not to be!

Donald Meek will be very familiar to fans of old mysteries; most of the rest of the cast is unknown to me. The script, unfortunately, descends to the use of a comedic African-American elevator operator with amusing speech patterns and a general air of cowardice. He is really the most interesting character in the film, at least to me, because I was trying to figure out what the point was of his being in the film in the first place. He offers no evidence and seems meant as comedy relief — of course, this sort of comedy relief is extremely painful to the modern viewer by dint of its racism. It’s just incomprehensible to me because I am not old enough to have been immersed in a cultural milieu which cheerfully accepts its own horrific racism, and even uses its victims as figures of fun. Most such characters I’ve seen were played by Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland; this actor is not credited and IMDB does not identify him.

The film uses an interesting and noteworthy technique, considering that it’s 1931. As Dr. Crabtree is explaining both who- and how-dunnit, the actors are seen as phantom figures — the background is solid but the actors are transparent. They act out the crime before our eyes while Meek, in voice-over, describes the action.

Notes For the Collector:

This film is extremely scarce and I have never seen it before; I recorded a copy quite by accident the other day when I was recording a copy of The Mystery of Mr. X on TCM and this short subject filled the space until the next film started. Of the dozen Van Dine shorts, this is only the second one I have managed to see; TCM also showed “Murder in the Pullman” within the last couple of years. Unfortunately TCM does not to my knowledge announce in advance what its short subject offerings are going to be, except as a forum post a week or so in advance. No copies are available on Amazon — nor are any of its 11 brothers. If anyone from TCM is listening, please PLEASE package these 12 shorts for purchase; I badly want to see what S.S. Van Dine had to say in them, based on the two I’ve managed to view.  I have not even managed to find still photographs from the film to illustrate this piece and could only provide a photo of Donald Meek from something similar.