The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1931)

dutchSome blogfriends are working their way through the great American mystery writer Ellery Queen book by book, a prospect which interested me sufficiently to chime in on a discussion of this volume at least.  I intend to add links to their work on this book as I become aware of it; I just wanted to mention that, as always, my work is based on my own analysis (since I haven’t yet seen theirs).

I will note here that I’ve
EQ & the Murder Ringalso screened the movie that was loosely based upon this novel, Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941), starring Ralph Bellamy as the great detective. The novel is not cited in the credits. Here, the phrase “loosely based” is stretched to its limits; I merely wanted to alert my readers to the existence of what might be termed a movie of this novel. Feel free to not track it down, it’s rubbish.

In an attempt at clarity, I use “Ellery Queen” to refer to the detective character and “EQ” to refer to the cousins, Messrs. Dannay and Lee, who wrote the books.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this mystery novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

The Dutch Shoe Mystery, by Ellery Queen

What is this book about?

TheDutchShoeMysteryEllery Queen is trying to figure out a tricky point concerned with the time of death of a diabetic, and drops in on his friend, Dr. John Minchen, for a consultation at Minchen’s offices in the Dutch Memorial Hospital. After they dispose of the question, the doctor invites Ellery to witness an operation.

Abigail Doorn, the elderly patron of the Dutch Memorial, has fallen and ruptured her gall-bladder; since she is also a diabetic, she requires the services of the hospital’s finest surgeon, Dr. Janney, to save her life, and the operation is imminent in the main operating theatre. Ellery is queasily interested in seeing the surgery; the two meet various hospital personnel and members of Mrs. Doorn’s family, awaiting the results.

03c_DutchA hush falls over the operating theatre as the doctors, gowned and masked, enter. The patient is brought in — but the doctors soon realize something is wrong. Mrs. Doorn was strangled with a piece of wire before her body was wheeled into the room.

Ellery takes immediate charge of the scene and stops anyone from entering or leaving while the police are on their way. Two immediate skeins of investigation present themselves. Mrs. Doorn’s immense fortune is the mainstay of a great deal of work at the hospital, and also supports her family. It soon appears as though a mysterious figure had been impersonating Dr. Janney in the minutes before the operation.

A discovery which interests Ellery more than any of the police is that of a bundle of clothes which were apparently used by the person impersonating Dr. Janney. Of most interest is a pair of white duck trousers that have been basted to temporarily raise the hems, and a pair of shoes with a number of interesting features, including missing tongues and a broken lace that has been mended with adhesive tape.

22991After suspicion has been thrown on various people affiliated with the hospital, and upon various members of Mrs. Doorn’s family, there is another murder that seems to clarify things for Ellery. He performs a piece of extended deduction about the condition of the shoes and pants, then about a piece of furniture in the room where the second murder takes place, and sends for a mysterious document that he knows exists. There is a stirring denouement in which Ellery announces a very surprising solution to the murders, and then the document is produced as complete justification for his theory.

Why is this book worth your time?

Dutch Shoe Mystery1This book gets an automatic pass into your library simply because, well, it’s an Ellery Queen novel. If you’re at all interested in the Golden Age of Detection, anything by EQ is important and the first dozen or so are absolutely crucial. In the 1930s EQ led the pack of many similar writers writing puzzle mysteries upon the Great Detective model of S.S. Van Dine; the plots are complicated and difficult and the erudition is sprinkled throughout. EQ set the goalposts for good mystery writing in the United States for a long time, both in their own novels and the significant contribution that is Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in order to understand the branding of mystery tropes, you have to understand Ellery Queen.

03l_DutchThat being said, even in that first nonet of the “Nationalities” series, some are primus inter pares and some are also-rans.  This book is chronologically the third written by the cousins: Roman Hat was 1929, French Powder was 1930, Dutch Shoe was 1931, and then, kaboom, a deluge of great mysteries. EQ published 4 mysteries in 1932 and 4 in 1933, four of them as by Barnaby Ross, and they’re all worth your time. An important EQ reference title, Royal Bloodline from 1974 by Francis M. Nevins, Jr., says that in 1931 the cousins “were persuaded by their agent to take the plunge and make it as professionals or bust”. I think it’s reasonable to assume that that plunge took place between the publication of Dutch Shoe and whatever volume came next. The cousins worked like dogs for the next two years to get their careers off the ground.

So let’s say that Dutch Shoe is the last of the Nationalities series to have any tinge of … I won’t call it “amateurism” because those books are not amateurish. But there is a small difference between someone who has a “day job” and writes, and someone whose writing pays the bills. Professionals try to write what sells (rubbish like 1938’s The Four of Hearts, for instance) whereas your day job supports you while you try out different ways of telling your stories.

971588Here, it’s interesting to see what EQ had not yet learned how to do. They hadn’t yet perfected the idea of “the false solution then the true”, which would blossom so dramatically the next year in Greek Coffin (1932). They hadn’t yet established Ellery’s reluctance to talk about the solution to a mystery before he was willing to commit to it (Greek Coffin and 1958’s The Finishing Stroke will tell you why) — and really this idea is present in everything else they ever wrote about Ellery Queen, because it’s so useful in a storytelling context for mysteries. It’s a reason why the plot should automatically build towards a dramatic climax, and the cousins must have blessed the day they thought of it.

For me, this novel is quite “stripped down”. Ellery still has large elements of pompous Philo Vance-ean twit, but we don’t get much of the angst about ruining people’s lives in the course of solving a mystery in which Ellery wallows later in his career. There’s truly a minimal amount of clueing, per se; the shoelace, the basted pants, a timetable, a map of the hospital floor, and that’s about it. Nothing like a corpse with spears stuck into its clothing, or a naked corpse in a full-length cape, or a crucified headless corpse; a dead old lady lying on an operating table. The rest is all investigation of people’s whereabouts and character. It’s not surprising that most of the hospital professionals and the victim’s family members have something to hide — this is, after all, a mystery. There’s chapter after chapter of “Ellery talks to another suspect”; here’s where he was, here’s why he might have wanted to kill Mrs. Doorn.

7156995._UY200_There’s not much … excitement here. The solution of the mystery is based entirely upon two things; deductions based on the shoes/pants, and deductions based on circumstances associated with the second murder (the position of a cabinet). As Ellery says in the blow-off, “the shoes and the trousers told me everything but the name … the cabinet told me the name. And it was all over.” No car chases, no forest fire. Ellery then deduces that a certain document must be in existence, and the revelation of its identity is the last line of the book. If you’re looking for action, this one is a dud.

There are two ways in which this novel is yet another variation on a recurring theme; I’m indebted to the Nevins text cited above for the overarching Queenian theme of “manipulation”. I can’t be too specific about what happens here, but there is a plot element in which one character directs the criminal actions of another, and this is a repeating element in many, many EQ stories: Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), The Player on the Other Side (1963), and 1932’s The Tragedy of Y, for instance.

The Tragedy of Y actually combines both recurring Queenian themes, as does Dutch Shoe from a year earlier; the second element is the story of a wealthy family ruled by an elderly matriarch where members of the family are “poisoned” and evil. In Tragedy of Y it’s the taint of syphilis, in 1943’s There Was an Old Woman it’s hereditary lunacy. The Doorn family in this novel is perhaps a prototype for these later examples; here, Abigail’s son is an overweight, profligate roue but her daughter is relatively normal, and the poison is merely money. Abigail Doorn’s character is perhaps more closely modelled on Hetty Green than later novels’ characters.

And finally, there’s an editorial note in Chapter 17 that specifically notes that Dutch Shoe takes place chronologically before even Roman Hat, the first volume published. This might actually be the first adventure of Ellery Queen … showing promise of greatness yet to come, but not manifesting much of it yet. Not much action, not much characterization; lots and lots of logical deduction from small clues and the occasional false note. You should read it, but you’ll enjoy others of the Nationalities series a lot more.

What do we learn about the society of the time from this book?

There are a number of interesting elements here for the social historian; some major, many decidedly minor.

I am still trying to figure out the meaning of a casually capitalized word tossed into the Foreword, as by unseen framing character “J.J. McC.”: “… this is my reward for engineering the publication of his Actionized memoirs”. Readers, on “Actionized”, I am stumped. I had rather thought it was some personal development movement like Pelmanism but my research has led me nowhere. Your comments are welcome.

One minor character is the head of the Obstetrical Department, Dr. Pennini. Dr. Minchen is explaining the bad relationships among the staff, and mentions that Drs. Pennini and Janney don’t get along.

“Not petty, Ellery.  You don’t know Dr. Pennini, or you wouldn’t say that. Latin blood, fiery, the vengeful type, she’s certainly far from –”

“What’s that?”

Minchen seemed surprised. “I said she was the vengeful type. Why?”

Ellery lit a cigarette with elaborate ceremony. “Naturally.  Stupid of me. You didn’t mention …”

In other words, in 1931, an exceptionally intelligent logician doesn’t consider the possibility that a doctor can be female. Fascinating as a pointer to how things were; after meeting Dr. Pennini, Ellery then proceeds to make a couple of sexist remarks, including quoting Euripides: “I hate a learned woman.”  There are a couple of examples in the long bibliography of EQ where there’s a woman character who is treated with an unpleasantly virulent misogyny, most notably Delia Priam in 1951’s The Origin of Evil; this would be one of the earliest, but luckily it doesn’t last long in this volume.

The relationship among amateur detectives, police officers, and the newspapers is an interesting one in this book. There appears to be an implicit assumption that the newspapers are entitled to access to police officials, and are always admitted to crime scenes to take pictures and the like; more interesting because it’s tacit. One newspaperman is allowed pretty much a complete entree behind the scenes and repays the favour by not writing negative stories during the course of the investigation. But there’s a brief moment where we see that other newspapers are calling for Inspector Queen’s resignation for his obvious failure, etc.

The reader has to remember that at the time of publication of this book, insulin was only ten years old; the management of Type 1 diabetes was not what it is today, to be sure. I suspect that the details of surgery on a diabetic are accurate for 1931, and that really is very interesting; it was much more life-and-death than it is today, to be sure.

And another tiny puzzling phrase: “[so-and-so] must be guarded as if he were the Maharajah of Punjab. I want a detailed report of the identity, conversation and subsequent movements of every soul who comes within ten feet of him!”  This Maharajah may have been the young man of the Victorian Era who spent his early years pretty much under house arrest; I’m not sure that his restrictive lifestyle was a household word in 1930s USA. Possibly this was just a generalized comment regarding how closely wealthy people are guarded; possibly this is a reference to the guarding of the Koh-i-Noor diamond and people who owned it. Hard to say.

There are a couple of examples in this book where a reasonable amount of research is unable to reveal exactly what the authors had in mind with a specific reference; it’s sad to think that in less than a century, our information about such things has deteriorated to this extent. In another 50 years we may have to have a cultural glossary attached to GAD just to understand things like telephone party lines, rubber rationing, and the niceties of interaction with servants (or servants themselves).

Notes on editions

My favourite edition, I think, is shown above; the later cover variant of Pocket 202 with the group of startled masked doctors against a yellow background. Delightfully lurid.

The first edition is the “Queen of diamonds” edition also shown above; as of today, there only appears to be one such for sale on Abe. This is a copy signed by Manfred Lee in terrible shape, with no jacket (“fair” in this context means, “barely saleable”); the dealer is asking US$250. Hard to say what that means a better copy would bring, signed or unsigned.

md1308691993There’s one interesting paperback edition from Signet in 1968; the cover nearly eschews illustration entirely and spends three-quarters of the cover in text, pretty much repeating the function of the traditional “Challenge to the Reader”. I think it’s quite appropriate for a novel like this, where the focus is almost entirely on deduction, to be marketed as such; a remarkable example of truth in book design, which doesn’t happen often.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Halfway House, by Ellery Queen (1936)

The Tuesday Club QueenA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every three weeks; the first three Tuesdays of November will be devoted to Ellery Queen.

A note: henceforth when I refer to “Ellery Queen” I mean the literary character. Any reference to “EQ” will refer to the two real-life cousins who wrote together and signed their work as Ellery Queen.

WARNING: 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. 

Halfway House, by Ellery Queen (1936)

51cUW5ymfFL._SY445_What’s this book about?

After what would prove to be the final appearance of introductory material by “J. J. McC.”, we meet Ellery traveling through Trenton, New Jersey on his way back to Manhattan. He runs into old college buddy Bill Angell, now a local prosecutor, who mentions that his sister Lucy is married to “a traveling man — Joe Wilson”. Wilson sells cheap jewelry and trinkets pretty much door to door; not much of a profession to confer social prominence, but Bill has to admit that Lucy and Joe are mad about each other, even though he’s away four or five days a week. Bill and Ellery make a spontaneous arrangement to give Bill a ride to the city in Ellery’s ancient Duesenberg roadster, but first Bill has an appointment to meet his brother-in-law.

Bill drives down a deserted road down by the Delaware River and finds more vehicles than he’s expecting; one huge Cadillac and his brother-in-law’s old Packard, standing outside a tiny old shack. As he sits there for a moment, a beautiful (and unveiled) woman’s scream pierces the night — she exits the building, hops into the Cadillac and flees in panic. Inside the shack, Bill finds his brother-in-law Joe, dying on the floor. Joe has just enough time to gasp out, “Woman. Veil. Heavy veil — face. Couldn’t see. Knifed me … Bill, Bill,” and a few more enigmatic words, then expires.

Bill has the sense to involve Ellery immediately, and they re-inspect the scene before the police arrive. Chief De Jong is an old friend of Ellery’s father and entirely amenable to Ellery’s involvement, but brash newspaper reporter Ella Amity is less easy to handle. Ellery looks over the shack and finds strange dichotomies; expensive clothing hanging up, but cheap clothing on the corpse. Almost nothing in the way of furnishings or fixtures, but an expensive carpet on the plywood floor. This is much the same difference as the luxurious Cadillac parked beside the ancient Packard; wealth contrasting with poverty. Why, it’s like the old shack is halfway between two worlds…

11h_HalfwayIt soon proves to be the case that Joe Wilson of Trenton, with his pretty wife Lucy, is also the wealthy Joseph Kent Gimball of Park Avenue, with his snooty wife Jessica and stepdaughter Andrea. That bigamy forms the basis for the remainder of the murder case, and the problem becomes an unusual one — who was murdered, Joe Wilson or Joseph Kent Gimball? Despite the obvious problems inherent in two separate lives and families, it’s not precisely clear exactly why he was killed, although the million-dollar life insurance policy whose beneficiary was recently switched to Lucy’s name might be a good motive.

The press, personified by Ella Amity, are in full hue and cry as Lucy goes on trial for the murder. The trial takes place over a large portion of the book, and brings forward all the evidence and relevant testimony. Lucy is convicted, but Ellery knows that one character has information that is not being revealed. When he pressures this witness, all of a sudden a set of new information comes out about what happened at the shack between the murder and Bill’s arrival. One tiny set of apparently inconsequential facts gives Ellery the solution to the case. After the traditional Queenian “Challenge to the reader” (its final appearance) in which the reader is informed that all the information required to solve the case is available, Ellery crowds all the suspects and investigators into the little Trenton shack on the river. Ellery begins a chronological reconstruction of events and announces that the surprise witness still has an important revelation to make. At that point — well, let’s just say that Ellery has sprung a trap and the killer is shot down while trying to escape, remaining still unidentified to the reader.

In the final chapter, Ellery explains his reasoning and defines a list of criteria that define the person and actions of “Woman. Veil. Heavy veil — face” and one by one the suspects are held against it. All of a sudden, a bunch of tiny clues and references make sense as Ellery exposes the surprising murderer in a dramatic finish..

What’s interesting about this book?

6a00d8341d6d8d53ef0168e901e152970cI’ve always been fascinated by this volume because to me it seems to mark a dividing line in the writing career of the EQ cousins. The nine previous novel-length adventures of Ellery Queen from 1929 to 1935 comprised the “nationalities” series; each volume contained a word denoting nationality and had other similar features like the “Challenge to the Reader”. I think of this as Period One in the EQ oeuvre. (And I owe that nomenclature to Francis M. Nevins, Jr., from his book on EQ, Royal Bloodline, although I haven’t adopted his schema dogmatically.) Then came Halfway House and then, after four further volumes (I’ll explain these later) came what I consider to be the first of three linked EQ masterpieces, 1942’s Calamity Town, the first Wrightsville novel. And I see that there’s a direct relationship between Halfway House and Calamity Town … so to me, this is the book which begins Period Two of EQ’s work, which contains the cousins’ finest achievements.

The cousins’ path from Period One to Period Two was not smooth, but clear. The nationalities series, Period One, contained puzzle mysteries that were technically brilliant, highly complicated, and for the most part not containing any realistic emotions. They usually took place in a bubble outside of the world, regardless of whether the setting was a Manhattan department store or the top of a mountain menaced by a forest fire; the characters were only as realistic as they needed to be in order to render their necessary actions believable as they furthered the plot. I will resist using the word “cardboard” here, because generally EQ were better writers than that, but for the most part the Period One books are more about the puzzle than the people. If you don’t believe me, reflect that in The Chinese Orange Mystery we don’t really know or care what the name of the victim is (and why).

3357132And then — something happened. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the personal lives of the cousins to know what happened … perhaps nothing “happened” in any concrete sense. Certainly the books of Period One had been operating in the same marketplace as S. S. Van Dine, and the star of the mystery universe that had been Philo Vance was starting to wane; the EQ cousins were sufficiently canny to understand the market forces and move to meet them. I think they made a conscious decision to try to achieve a more lucrative commercial return on their labours by selling Ellery Queen to Hollywood as a series character, and in order to do that — I’m on shakier ground here — they felt they had to free him up from the ratiocinative pattern in which he was embedded. So instead of calling this work The Swedish Match Mystery, which possibility is specifically mentioned in the “J. J. McC.” introduction, EQ broke the nationalities pattern and started to change Ellery Queen’s style to respond to the market. My contention is that they did so by starting to introduce emotional content into the novels’ construction and trying to make these novels work as both pure puzzles and novels about real people, partly in line with what Dorothy L. Sayers wanted; a “literature with guts”. And so after a few false starts and experiments, they arrived at their nearly perfect mingling of puzzle mystery and novel of emotion — the first three Wrightsville novels (Calamity Town, 1942; The Murderer is a Fox, 1945; and Ten Days’ Wonder, 1948).

halfwayNow, the path between the nationalities novels and the magnificent Wrightsville trilogy has a few bumps, as I suggested above. There’s a couple of novels in there that I think of as the Hollywood false starts, in which EQ wrote a few novels that were possibly intended first as screenplay scenarios, perhaps for the many Ellery Queen films in process or perhaps merely as the basis for filmed mysteries. Again, I can’t prove this by reference to any biographic material compiled by better-read researchers than I; this is merely, to me, what the books “feel” like. The skimpy characterization, emotional flatness, and focus on surprising and fantastic elements makes it probable, for me, that The Devil to Pay (1938), The Four of Hearts (1938),  The Dragon’s Teeth (1939), and There Was an Old Woman (1943) were fast-and-dirty attempts to turn unsold screenplays into income. I have to say I’m not sure what to make of The Door Between (1937); to me it’s just not a very good novel. Certainly EQ are trying to inject some emotional reality into it, but the fantastic elements of the crime and its solution are just way over the top for me. This novel for me ends up being either a novelization of a screenplay, written at a time when EQ didn’t understand screenplays very well, or else the beginnings of what would become the Wrightsville novels, when EQ didn’t understand the kinds of emotion that work within the murder mystery context. All these Hollywood novels, to me, have an unreality about them that makes them artistically unsuccessful; Halfway House is not very realistic, but it tries to stay grounded in the real world.

HalfwayHouseElleryQueenIn my view the relationship between Halfway House and Calamity Town is quite clear; almost as though EQ revisited the material they’d covered six years later and wrote with a surer, clearer vision to produce the masterful Calamity TownHalfway House attempts to introduce the effects of the press into the situation, to show the reader what happens when a “fine old family” like the Gimballs becomes the focus of the gutter press. This repeats itself in Calamity Town but with much more personal and telling effect. It’s what happens in the real world, and it’s important to note that it represents an external force that acts upon the situation that cannot be controlled by Ellery and/or the police; whatever the opposite of a “closed circle” mystery is. This is EQ opening up the form to take a wider reality into account.

The extended courtroom sequence of both novels is something different for Ellery Queen — perhaps it’s a useful way to get evidence before the reader when the continuing character of Sergeant Velie isn’t appropriate. (EQ has a habit common to many mystery writers of shoehorning in physical evidence by letting police officers tell it to Ellery. “No fingerprints on the gun, Maestro,” said Sergeant Velie.) It might even be that EQ realized that Erle Stanley Gardner was becoming more popular just as the Van Dine star was waning, and decided to move in the direction of courtroom drama.

Even the puzzle structure of both books is similar, although I’m going to be deliberately vague here; there’s one central character who is concealing vital evidence required to produce the solution, and that person is doing so for similar reasons in each case. Ellery has to break that person down in order to solve the case. Where Calamity Town rises above Halfway House is in EQ’s brilliant casting of the town of Wrightsville itself as a character, and the intelligent way in which EQ used Wrightsville to anchor and sustain the books served as a model for such future efforts as The Glass Village and The King is Dead.

11j_HalfwaySo to sum up, without giving a complete history of every Ellery Queen novel and its place in the various Periods of the canon; Halfway House is different from its predecessors and marks, for me, the bifurcation between Period One (nationalities) and Period Two (Wrightsville). This novel has emotional content where the Nationalities do not, and attempts to bring in the real-world context in which murders are done and solved. It gives the cousins a chance to continue appealing to their fan base that enjoys the complex and emotionless puzzles of Period One, while at the same time giving themselves a familiar structure within which to experiment with depicting emotional realities. And yet it is a strong puzzle with some very surprising elements, and a large amount of logic that underlies the solution. It’s not a great novel, but it contains the bones of greatness within it; if you read this and then read, or re-read, Calamity Town, you’ll understand from where that masterpiece arose and the elements that went into making it.  And yet if you’re simply looking for a darn good puzzle mystery, just think for a moment that you’re in an alternate universe where the cousins wrote The Swedish Match Mystery — and you’ll enjoy this final novel in the nationalities series.

In the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ brief time spent looking at Ellery Queen, I also intend to have a look at another novel that I think is pivotal in the EQ oeuvre; the transition novel between Period Three (EQ’s “imposed patterns” period) and Four (EQ’s writer’s block), 1958’s The Finishing Stroke; I also intend to have a look at some Ellery Queen rarities and oddities from the lesser-known byways of the printing universe.  Stay tuned!

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Where do we go from here?

The Tuesday Night Bloggers

A clever logo produced by group member Bev Hankins.

About a month ago, The Tuesday Night Bloggers (TNB) began as a kind of impromptu celebration of all things Agatha Christie to celebrate her 125th birthday. Essentially  members of a Facebook group decided that they were going to post something in their own blogs about Agatha Christie every Tuesday for what turned out to be a little more than the month of October, 2015. Yes, we’re still doing it. I’ve personally had fun working to a tighter deadline than “whenever”, and it encouraged me to find interesting things to present that could be explained in 500 words or so. Which, as you know, for me is barely a clearing of the throat 😉

dc9f2677eTuesday Night Bloggers (alphabetically by last name;the blog’s name links to the blog)

In conversation with a couple of my fellow TNB bloggers, I’ve learned that they are attracting a new and improved readership as a result of these Christie posts, as have I. Apparently people come for the Christie and look around for the Golden Age mystery, I guess, and welcome aboard! So I was wondering what would happen if we kept up the frequency but changed the topic a little bit … and we’re about to find out.

roundtableThe seven bloggers in Tuesday Night Bloggers have come to an agreement that, provisionally at least, we’re going to keep posting on Tuesdays but we’re going to change the topic once a month. We’re going to talk about a different Golden Age writer for a month of Tuesdays, and hope that our new readers are as interested in the other major names as they have been in Agatha Christie.

Personally I think this is going to work best if we focus on the major writers — as I put it, writers with a large number of novels that have been printed in a large number of editions. My TNB friends are all all aware of mystery writers whose work is rare and expensive, and when we find rare and expensive novels that we enjoyed or understood, I believe we’ll continue to bring you our opinions. (E.C.R. Lorac and Miles Burton are the literary equivalent of $500/bottle Scotch!)  In the meantime there are a bunch of Golden Age writers whose names many people will recognize and whose books are abundantly available at libraries and bookstores, and I think our breadth of information can shed light on these writers in a way that will interest people who may only be glancingly familiar with their work, or even people very familiar with their output. If you’ve read two Ngaio Marsh novels, well, we’ve frequently read all 29, and we have reasons why we like our favourites that we’ll share with you. I’m hoping this will encourage more people to share our pleasure in Golden Age mysteries.

sdc13504So here’s the list of suggested topics for a year.

  • October: Agatha Christie
  • November: Ellery Queen
  • December: Ngaio Marsh
  • January: Rex Stout
  • February: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • March: John Dickson Carr
  • April: Phoebe Atwood Taylor
  • May: Erle Stanley Gardner
  • June: Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • July: Arthur Upfield
  • August: Patricia Wentworth
  • September: S. S. Van Dine

Believe me, I’m open to changing this list, any part of it or any name on it. (I alternated males and females.) And I know that the TNB would join me in welcoming any blogger with an interest in Golden Age mysteries to add his/her blog to this list, even if — especially if — they’re not members of our Facebook group. There is no need to post every single Tuesday, for existing members or new ones; I’m sure we’d even welcome guests who merely wanted to contribute a single post from their own blog.

Your comments below are welcome and earnestly solicited. I have shamelessly swiped the logo that Bev Hankins designed for the group since I like it better than mine (and I will now retire my variant terminology for this effort of Tuesday Club Murders); thank you Bev!

 

 

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 dictionary.com 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.

1) COMPETITIVE GAMES ARE PLAYED BETWEEN OPPONENTS ACTIVELY COMPETING AGAINST EACH OTHER AND AWARE OF EACH OTHER’S EXISTENCE.

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…. :

2) PLAYERS OF A GAME COMPETE ACCORDING TO SPECIFIC RULES.

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.

3) RESULTS OF A COMPETITIVE MATCH ARE DECIDED EITHER BY MUTUAL ASSENT  OF THE PLAYERS (BY REFERENCE TO ESTABLISHED RULES) OR BY AN EXTERNAL ARBITER (ALSO, PRESUMABLY, IN REFERENCE TO ESTABLISHED RULES).

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:

4) PLAYERS COMPETE IN GAMES WITH A DESIRE TO WIN.

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:

5) A COMPETITIVE GAME DOES NOT EXIST AS AN ENTERTAINMENT INDEPENDENT OF SERVING AS A COMPETITION

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:

FullSizeRender-3

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.

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