The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Ellery Queen, broad brand, and continuation works

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.

 

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Ellery Queen as a brand

Literary characters like Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen are called “brands” in certain contexts because of the similarities between them and the brands of, say, Nike and Burger King. There is a set of associations that aficionados associate with each brand; Nike denotes speed and Sherlock Holmes denotes deductive logic, among many other associations that compose the “brand platform” or brand image. The brand platform — or corporate image — represents how customers feel about the brand in various ways. If I wear a T-shirt with the logo of Apple or a silhouette of Hercule Poirot on it, what am I saying about myself as a person? Whatever the qualities that people associate with Poirot, by wearing the shirt I am associating myself with his brand.

Good brands have three properties: length, depth, and breadth. Length is longevity; good brands have been around for a long time and expect to be around in the future. Superman, dating back to 1938, is a more powerful brand than X-Men, who only date back to 1963. Depth is more difficult to define, but a brand with depth is one where the brand platform has a larger number of complex associations that come to mind in connection with the brand. You might think of Ferrari as a brand with more depth than Chevrolet because there are so many associations for Ferrari with wealth, the international racing circuit, or high performance machinery.

Ellery-Queen-television-full-episodeIn terms of Ellery Queen, it’s the breadth of this brand that is most impressive to me and what I propose to discuss here. Breadth increases with the number of ways in which the brand is available to be experienced. Superman, for instance, began in the pages of a comic book. That brand has since transmigrated to television, film, books, hip-hop dance, popular music, numismatics, video games, and many other modalities. In detective fiction, I’d say there are three major brands with the most length, depth, and overall breadth: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, and Hercule Poirot. But at the second rank there are a number of excellent brands, and in terms of breadth I think Ellery Queen is primus inter pares with other detective brands like Nero Wolfe, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jessica Fletcher because of the extraordinary breadth of the brand.

EQ, the cousins Dannay and Lee who created the Ellery Queen character and eponym, were early innovators in branding breadth. It’s as though, after a certain point, EQ were determined to extend Ellery Queen into every conceivable variation within every available medium. I don’t think what they did was really a brand strategy, as we today know the term; EQ were innovators who were making it up as they went along, since branding theory had not yet been invented, but they had a huge amount of natural talent and an almost uncanny instinct for what worked and what didn’t.

Mag_Myst_Leag_193310_smallIt’s far beyond the limits of a blog post to examine the entire EQ career as an exercise in branding; that would be enough material to write a textbook, although I doubt I ever will. Let me take the lazy man’s way out and present you with a series of roughly chronological bullet points, each of which illustrates an aspect of how EQ approached their literary property. The chronology can be found in detail here and begins in 1929 with the publication of their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery.

  • After their first three Ellery Queen novels, EQ began to diversify and published their first of four mystery novels as by Barnaby Ross. Although the differentiation made for some interesting marketing ploys, such as the cousins giving amusing lectures while both masked, one as Queen, one as Ross, it soon became apparent that the Ellery Queen brand was the dominant one. It seems as though they quickly admitted the pen name and folded it into the Ellery Queen brand. EQ licensed out the Barnaby Ross name in the 1960s for a series of historical novels … I’ve never been sure quite why.
  • The cousins began a short-lived magazine of their own called Mystery League, which published short stories. It ran only four issues.
  • Over the five years following the first Ellery Queen novel, the cousins diversified by selling short stories to the “slicks”, magazines like Redbook; after five years they had enough to collect in a volume and published their first anthology, which also went into paperback. This encouraged them to keep a strong secondary focus on the short-story form as it allowed them to sell the same material in two markets.
  • Pic_Grub_StreetIn 1934 the first “package” — a compendium volume collecting multiple earlier novels — was published, The Ellery Queen Omnibus.
  • With the final First Period “nationalities” novel in 1935, The Spanish Cape Mystery, EQ began to experiment in two literary directions. One was the subject of my last blog piece, Halfway House as the transition between Periods One and Two; the other was the production of fast-and-dirty novels which seemed designed as scenarios for motion pictures. The first Ellery Queen movie, The Spanish Cape Mystery, came out in 1935 and was followed by two more films based recognizably on novels, and then seven films between 1940 and 1942 that were not based on anything canonic.
  • 57-04-18-Hugh-Marlowe-as-Ellery-Queen-TVThe radio programme The Adventures of Ellery Queen ran between 1939 and 1948; Dannay and Lee wrote the scripts until 1945 and then handed the job to Anthony Boucher.
  • In 1940, one of the radio programme’s scripts was turned into a Whitman Big Little Book; this is a palm-sized (3-5/8″ x 4-1/2″) volume with text on the verso page and a black and white illustration on the recto page. The Adventure of the Last Man Club was a typical entry in the series, which was a primitive attempt at cross-platforming properties from radio, comic strips, and series of adventure novels like Tarzan.  This specific novel will come up in my discussion again; I’ll just note here that this book was written by an unknown author based on an EQ radio script. It was later turned into a paperback original by deleting the illustrations and editing the volume. Even more interesting to me is  Ellery Queen, Master Detective, which is a 1941 novelization of the movie of the same name. The movie is “loosely based” on 1937’s The Door Between. In other words — there’s a book called The Door Between that was altered for a movie and then taken by another (unknown) author and turned into a novel called Ellery Queen, Master Detective. Similarly, The Devil to Pay became the film Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime, which was novelized as The Perfect Crime. More novelizations of radio plays from the period exist.
  • Ellery Queen’s first appearance in comic books/graphic novels was in 1940, and he was the subject of two short-lived series in 1952 and 1962.
  • 1941 saw the introduction of EQ’s second and soon-to-be-permanent foray into magazine publishing, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is still published today in 2015.
  • 12188071_10153295969008108_7416595006290925792_oEQ were becoming known as assemblers of short-story packages and they contributed extremely well-informed forewords to a number of other author’s collections, including John Dickson Carr, Dashiell Hammett, Stanley Ellin, Stuart Palmer, Margery Allingham, and Roy Vickers. They continued to assemble volumes of short stories by other authors and occasionally volumes of Ellery Queen stories.
  • 1941 saw the publication of the first novel as by Ellery Queen, Jr., all of which were written by other authors and edited by Lee.
  • In 1942 EQ began to write critical non-fiction about an area of their particular expertise, the detective short story. Queen’s Quorum (1951) is still considered the principal text in this area.
  • In 1961, EQ licensed the first novel as by Ellery Queen (Dead Man’s Tale by Stephen Marlowe) which was the first of 28 novels written by other authors and published as by Ellery Queen. This, with the earlier 5 novelizations brings the total to 33 “as by Ellery Queen” novels; another four novels were ghost-written with close supervision by EQ, so the total is (loosely) 37. This contrasts directly with 30 novels as by Ellery Queen that actually were written by EQ over their lifetimes. There’s an asterisk to this: The Lamp of God by EQ was published in a 64-page edition by Dell Ten-Cent in 1951. So let’s call it 30-1/2 volumes they wrote and 37 they didn’t.  There are a lot of other ifs-ands-buts that go along with this; my point is either that EQ had more novels as by Ellery Queen ghosted than the ones they wrote themselves, or damn close to.
  • Ellery Queen became the subject of a television series a number of times in the 1950s, a television movie in 1971 and 1975, and another short-lived series in 1975-76.
  • Throughout EQ’s lifetime, they licensed the character of Ellery Queen for board games, jigsaw puzzles, and computer games, etc., as often as they could.
  • Finally, although it counts as posthumous, I couldn’t resist the temptation to add in a plug for the first Ellery Queen theatrical adaptation of Calamity Town, written by my Facebook friend and expert in all things Queenian, Joseph Goodrich. The play opens at the Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, Canada, on January 23, 2016 and runs till February 21, 2016.

To sum up: novels, magazines, anthologies, compendia, films, radio, odd-format books, comic books/manga, assemblages of short-story collections, children’s books, non-fiction, licensed novels, television, board games, jigsaw puzzles, computer games and live theatre. The only other detective brands that can approach or equal this breadth are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.

Continuation novels

At this point let me stop for a definition of the “continuation novel”; I intend to link this to the breadth of the Ellery Queen brand to tie off my thesis.

“Continuation novel” is a polite term for a novel that, as Wikipedia puts it, “is a novel in the style of an established series, produced by a new author after the original author’s death”. When the series’s characters are still within copyright, the new author must have the permission of the deceased author’s estate (such as Sophie Hannah’s 2014 Hercule Poirot continuation, The Monogram Murders). Characters like Sherlock Holmes may be continued by anyone, and it seems as though any number of authors have had a whack at Holmes in the past decade or two.

You may be surprised to know just how many well-known mystery writers have been continued by other authors.

  • Margery Allingham was continued immediately after her death by her husband and within the last year by mystery writer Mike Ripley.
  • Agatha Christie was continued by Sophie Hannah in 2014, as noted above, and also by Charles Osborne,who novelized three plays in 1998-2000.
  • 58430Dorothy L. Sayers has been continued by mystery writer Jill Paton Walsh.
  • Rex Stout was continued by Robert Goldsborough from 1986 – 1992, and then from 2012 to the present.
  • Erle Stanley Gardner was continued by Thomas Chastain in two Perry Mason novels in 1989/1990.
  • Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan series was continued by Dennis Lynds in 1974. (Lynds apparently novelized an unproduced screenplay by other authors.)
  • Heron Carvic’s Miss Seeton series was continued by two other authors in paperback originals from 1990 to 1999.
  • Raymond Chandler was continued by Robert B. Parker in 1991; Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series has been continued by Ace Atkins.
  • Leslie Charteris’s The Saint series was continued by Burl Barer in 1997, who novelized a film script of the same year.
  • Craig Rice was continued by Ed McBain.
  • Virginia Rich was continued by Nancy Pickard.
  • And of course a reference work outlining continuation pieces goes on for an entire chapter about Sherlock Holmes. It’s interesting to note that one such novel bears the name of Ellery Queen!

Admittedly some of these would qualify as “collaborations” rather than continuations. For instance, Ed McBain was given half a book written by Craig Rice before she died and completed it and this is commonly referred to as a collaboration. The operative part of the definition of “continuation novel” is that the original author is dead. The related definition of “pastiche” is apparently based upon the idea that the original author is still alive; thus Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce, which presents thinly-disguised portraits of Peter Wimsey, Father Brown, and Hercule Poirot by different names, counts as pastiche but not continuation. Another closely related concept is the “adaptation”, wherein one author adapts the work of another into a different medium (such as film or radio); adaptations can be close or extremely loose (Sherlock Holmes in Washington comes to mind, or the current US television series Elementary). 

If you’ll allow me to lump all these definitions together into one for a moment, to create my own usage, let’s imagine that a “continuation” work is where one writer creates a character and another writer uses that character in an original work, whether closely or loosely allied with the original author’s vision. Under this definition it seems as though nearly every single well-known mystery writer has been continued in one way or another … I can’t think of more than a few who haven’t been, although Sue Grafton comes to mind. (Grafton herself continued Miss Marple by writing a screenplay for A Caribbean Mystery.)

Under this looser definition, Ellery Queen is already a shining example of continuation. EQ published a number of novels as by Ellery Queen that were about the Ellery Queen character but written by two other writers (Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson). EQ licensed both the Ellery Queen authorial name and their other pseudonym of Barnaby Ross for the publication of a wide range of novels, ranging from hard-boiled cop novels to a charming locked-room mystery by John Holbrook Vance. Other authors wrote screenplays, teleplays, and radio plays (including Anthony Boucher) about Ellery Queen. And as I noted above, EQ allowed a couple of their books to be turned into screenplays by one writer which were then novelized by another; I honestly can’t think of another example in literature like this, where an author authorizes two different versions of the same material (one EQ’s, one not) to be simultaneously available. There are Ellery Queen computer games and “mystery jigsaw puzzles” and board games that were designed and created by other people. Now there is a stage adaptation of Calamity Town that means that the Ellery Queen brand is available in just about every communications medium known to humans. And more often than not, that material was created by people other than the EQ cousins.

This really is an extraordinary achievement by EQ, especially since in modern terms it’s taken the resources of a large corporate structure (currently Acorn in the UK) to extend the Agatha Christie brand into as many media platforms. Not only did EQ have to achieve this breadth, they had to invent its possibility; in 1929, “branding” meant something you did to the rear ends of cattle. So full marks to Messrs. Dannay and Lee for creating such a versatile character as Ellery Queen and then for creating the methods to ensure that character’s spread into as many niches as possible.

Into the future

Manfred Lee died in 1971 and Fred Dannay in 1982, and 1982 seems to be the moment when, unsurprisingly, the Ellery Queen brand began to sink into desuetude. Other than the continuing existence of EQMM, which Dannay continued to edit until the year before his death, there was almost no product in any medium bearing the name of Ellery Queen. The people at Crippen & Landru did a diligent and thorough job of tracking down the last remaining unpublished or uncollected material and putting it into modern volumes for our convenience about ten years ago, and Ellery Queen fans owe them a vote of thanks. I’d be willing to believe that pretty much everything is in print that’s going to be in print, barring a few rags and tags. There appear to be no new television adaptations or films, Internet series or virtual reality games on the horizon that leverage the Ellery Queen brand, and pretty much all the print volumes have been published in an attractive uniform E-book edition. I think it’s very likely that the brand has slipped into stasis since 1982 and is in great danger of not being able to recover. (I’m aware that occasionally a brand gets reversed upon itself upon revival, and becomes something quite different from what it used to mean — look up Space Ghost — and I can only hope that that doesn’t happen here.) The neglect of any appreciable amount of new product in 30 years has put the Ellery Queen brand into a terminal condition and it may become a dead, historic brand very much like what happened to Philo Vance.

elementary-london-season-2__140130180340In fact, there appears to be nothing that can rescue the Ellery Queen brand except continuation works. I think most people would be expecting new novels and/or short stories featuring Ellery Queen to come along sooner or later, simply because so many other detective character brands have made it happen that way. In a way I think that Acorn’s production of Sophie Hannah’s Poirot novel of 2014 might have opened the door for a number of such revivals. A couple of GAD brands are in the process of rebooting. I understand there is an American television series production coming in the near future that will transplant Jane Marple to the US as a young woman, and of course there are currently two productions featuring Sherlock Holmes in a modern-day setting. If I had to speculate, I’d say that the most likely thing to happen is that the EQ estate will license someone to write a handful of new novels.

Oh, sure, it would be tempting to suggest finding a continuation author to write actual novels. Certainly the idea appeals to me personally, since I could stand to have a regular supply of new Ellery Queen novels, one every six months for the rest of my life. And I imagine that a lot of my fellow GAD fans would love that to happen. The trouble is, the original Ellery Queen brand appealed to a wide range of regular readers, and the life-support activities implied by, say, bringing out a new Ellery Queen volume once a year for the next decade would not attract any readership beyond a cadre of middle-aged to elderly people (yes, like myself) who are aficionados of the Golden Age form and who know exactly what Ellery Queen stands for. And, frankly, we don’t focus enough buying power to make it worthwhile. It would almost be more sensible to just open up Ellery Queen to full-time house name status, like “Margaret Truman” or “Franklin W. Dixon”, and commission paperback original crime novels at the rate of three or four a year. The brand would be devalued but at least it would still bring in money.

Is that what I would do with the brand personally? Not really. One of the hallmarks of the Ellery Queen brand is a high degree of written literacy; the language, plots, and characters are sophisticated and urbane. Unfortunately today’s post-literate generation is unlikely to want to burden itself with the tedium of actually reading difficult books like that, even on an e-reader. I’d be looking for a way to leverage the brand into an extremely modern platform of some kind, probably as an on-line series, and I’d be looking to cast a very talented young actor to carry the weight of the role for a long time, along the lines of David Suchet. And I would insist that the continuation activities had three hallmarks. It doesn’t seem useful to reviving the brand to reboot it in a 21st-century way, by making Ellery Asian or female or an Asian female, or whatever. Sometimes that works, but I can’t think that would please anyone except those for whom Ellery Queen was a completely new character. So the first stricture would be, keep Ellery pretty much the way he is — single white New York male.  My second idea would be to fix Ellery Queen very firmly in the historical past. I think the 1930s would be most appropriate, but there are problems with this — I understand that Acorn have research that suggests that the period has to be “within living memory”, which is why so many 1920s/1930s brands have been updated to the 1950s and 1960s for recent television production.  If I couldn’t manage the 1930s, I’d fix him in the 1950s and do the rebranding as a period piece, just a different period. And the third stricture is that since Ellery Queen is now really associated principally with the publication of mystery short stories, that’s what I’d be building on. Sure, I’d like some novels. But I think it would be better for the brand to revive by using the short story form, if print is required.

And, of course, this is not my business, in the most literal sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ellery Queen and respect the EQ cousins’ great achievements with the character. I don’t want to see the brand die, but I also cannot see that it’s possible to keep the brand alive and preserve it in amber as a Golden Age relic. I have no idea why the current EQ heirs are not licensing continuation material; it’s almost too late, if it isn’t actually past the sell-by date, so perhaps they merely feel that it’s appropriate to let the brand die, out of respect for its former achievements. That’s fair and reasonable, as long as the heirs don’t need the money. If they do want to continue the brand, they have to get busy quickly.

What do you think? Is it time for Ellery Queen to sink into the dust of history, or would you like to see something happen to revive the character and the brand?

 

 

 

Cards on the fable: Mysteries written by bridge players

acedeathcardfrontI’m a bridge player and a mystery reader, and to me it doesn’t seem odd that there should be a natural affinity between playing serious bridge and appreciating a well-written mystery. (And doing difficult crosswords, but that’s another article.) Both require similar skill sets; the ability to notice small clues, draw inferences from them and form a theory that leads to a conclusion. Yes, really, playing bridge is like that if you’ve done it a long time. “Hmm, my left-hand opponent didn’t even twitch when I played the queen of diamonds, so I deduce his partner has that particular king. Therefore Lefty is more likely to have the spade king, and I’m going to finesse him for it.” That’s the same kind of thought pattern that solves fictional mysteries. There’s a similar pleasure in both milieus; the “Aha!” response to solving a problem can be very enjoyable.

4912745286_8d10008dd8Contract bridge was in its infancy during the Golden Age of Detection, of course, since it was invented in 1929. But immediately upon its introduction into polite society, contract bridge became extremely popular among writers of detective fiction and hence among their characters. How often, for instance, do an ill-assorted set of houseguests in a country-house mystery stand up from quarrelling at the dinner table to play bridge for a few hours, with people taking their turn as dummy and wandering in and out of Sir Cedric’s library accompanied by an astonishing variety of weapons and motives? Agatha Christie was a good social bridge player, or at least to my mind she knew enough about it to know the vagaries of how different people keep score, and what happens when you bid and make a lucky grand slam. Cards on the Table is where she has most to say about bridge, but there are many other mentions.

james_bond_03_moonrakerIn fact a number of fairly well known writers (both of mysteries and general fiction) were bridge players to greater or lesser degree, either known to us biographically or merely by things they say in their books. Somerset Maugham, for instance, was a bridge fiend and an excellent player; to a lesser degree, but apparently very highly skilled, was Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery). Philip MacDonald is said to have been an enthusiastic player. Ian Fleming thought so much of bridge that he inserted a well-known bridge problem into one of his James Bond novels (the “Culbertson hand” in Moonraker, where one player has the majority of
34549face cards yet cannot take a single trick). A couple of mystery writers have set a book against a background of the game; Georgette Heyer‘s Duplicate Death (1951) (discussed in detail by me here) is better known than Anne Archer‘s 1931 Murder at Bridge but both take place at a large card party. And well-known Sherlockian pastiche writer Frank Thomas wrote two elementary (sorry) textbooks on contract bridge using Holmes and Watson as a bridge partnership. They’re actually good textbooks for a beginner.

26f29cards1-461847

Omar Sharif at the table

Writers as a category, though, have not produced any great bridge players, it seems. Politics (Dwight Eisenhower and Deng Xiaoping), business (Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) and cinema (Omar Sharif, a top-ranked player who has represented three countries in international competition, and Chico Marx) have all generated great bridge players. But although certainly there are good writers who are good bridge players, no one appears to have reached the top rank of bridge players after achieving success in writing.

btmThe other way of going about it is to start as a bridge expert and write a great mystery. And believe me, folks, that’s never happened. I’m not sure why it is, but expert bridge players seem to have the writing equivalent of a tin ear when it comes to generating detective fiction or indeed any kind of fiction at all. Matthew Granovetter is a well-known American bridge player now living in Italy, and has written many interesting bridge texts and columns, but his three bridge mysteries have been ghastly. GHASTLY. I discuss his 1989 novel I Shot My Bridge Partner here; suffice it to say it made my list of “Mysteries to die before you read”.  There are many others equally awful, now that self-publishing is more common, even more of them, and I’m not sure why. Is it that bridge players think that mysteries are a kind of formula fiction, where you flesh out the activities of a game of Cluedo and meanwhile throw in a bunch of backstage information about bridge tournaments? I’ve seen that a number of times and it never works. I’ve talked before about how minority groups find it useful to use a mystery as a way of telling a story set in their particular milieu, in what I call the “information mystery” format. But those information mysteries have some “guts” to them because the minority stories are fresh and important and dramatic. The maximum stakes of winning or losing a bridge tournament were pretty much exhausted in that antique variety of film, the college football movie of the 1930s, and the two plot threads seem impossible to balance in intensity. Ah well.

41R4aESvkYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Being as obsessive as I am about reading all the mysteries, of course over the years I’ve tracked down dozens of mysteries about bridge written by bridge players. Unfortunately there are no really good ones. In fact the more famous the bridge player the more horrible the mystery, it seems. Terrence Reese and Jeremy Flint are two very famous bridge players who both competed for England at the highest international level, but their 1979 bridge/mystery/thriller novel, Trick 13, is tooth-grindingly painful to read. Reese was well known to be incredibly focused at the bridge table (there’s a famous story about his friends hiring a woman to walk nude around the table while he was playing a hand, and he didn’t notice) and wrote dozens of bridge textbooks; this novel reads as though it was written by someone who had been told how humans tend to act but who had never actually met any. Except for the parts where a woman is spanked with a hairbrush, which are regrettably salacious and smack of someone’s personal knowledge. Ugh.

268678Don Von Elsner was a very good bridge player and it may well have been that he would have found success as a mystery writer if he’d found a way to focus on the puzzle mystery. He had most of what he needed; a sense of how to sprinkle humour through his plots, an understanding that you had to tell a story before you gave bridge lectures, and the ability to occasionally create a reasonably good character.  Unfortunately in the early 60s when he was writing, what publishers wanted was spy novels, so he wrote spy novels with a bridge background about the adventures of one Jake Winkman: bridge player, low-level spy, and enthusiastic heterosexual. He achieved publication in mass-market paperback by a major publisher, so someone was reading these back in the 60s, but they don’t stand up well. The books focus more on sex than violence and the spying is minimal. (One of his plots, about a Commie code being transmitted via the spot cards in newspaper bridge hands, is just ludicrous.)

353927812Dorothy Rice Sims certainly stands out in the history of bridge, although unfortunately not especially for her contribution to mystery writing. Mrs. Sims may indeed have become famous to bridge players originally because of her marriage to a national bridge champion, P. Hal Sims, and their subsequent winning of the second national mixed-pair championship in the US (and then their shared participation in a very important public bridge competition). But her fascinating biography — read the bare bones of it here in Wikipedia — includes the invention of an entire area of bridge theory, that of the “psychic” bid. She played literally at the dawn of bridge when no one really knew what they were doing, but everyone was anxious to discern what the best “rules” for bidding and play were; except Mrs. Sims. Her philosophy was literally to make things up on the spur of the moment (she wrote a book called How to Live on a Hunch, or, the Art of Psychic Living) and her ground-breaking book, Psychic Bidding, was published after her multiple championships. The next year she collaborated on 1932’s Fog, a thriller taking place aboard an ocean liner, with experienced thriller writer Valentine Williams; I don’t think it’s going too far overboard to suggest that Mr. Williams did most of the heavy lifting. The book is interesting; I’m hampered by not having a copy at hand to refresh my memory, but I recall thinking it was at least competent and enjoyable reading.

2595722This brings me finally to the most successful writer of mysteries and writer on bridge, S. K. (Skid) Simon. Skid Simon collaborated with Caryl Brahms, a newspaper writer and ballet columnist, on the first of eleven comic novels in 1937, A Bullet in the Ballet. This novel immediately catapulted them to the front rank of a writing style which they pioneered, the madcap mystery — Julian Symons would have categorized them as Farceurs. A murder takes place in the eccentric ranks of the ballet company of Vladimir Stroganoff, a zany Russian-born impresario, and Inspector Quill of Scotland Yard must untangle financial, political, and unusual sexual motives before solving the crime. The book was a best-seller in the UK in its year (partly because it was unusually frank about the sexual preferences of certain of the ballet dancers) and generated a career for the pair writing comedic takes on various historical situations before Simon’s untimely death at age 40. I’ve never cared for this particular four-volume series about Quill and Stroganoff, because they seem a little overwrought to me, but they certainly have their adherents.

Skid Simon, though, is much better known to the bridge world than the mystery one; he was one of a small group who created the British-born bridge bidding system known as Acol. I’m not sure how to describe the magnitude of this achievement; it was a revolutionary thing in its day and created the foundation for decades of competition at the highest levels of international play, including the foundations of the careers of Terence Reece and Jeremy Flint.  Simon also wrote a brilliant bridge textbook in 1945, Why You Lose At Bridge, that is still useful today; it focuses on the psychology of bridge players and how they learn what they know about bridge. And it does so in a very amusing way; Simon invents humans like the garrulous Mrs. Guggenheim to take the place of the faceless Easts and Norths that populate many bridge texts.  His text will last a long time; it even has utility for games other than bridge.

41KMA5WMC6LAnd I have to say, in terms of a mystery with bridge in it, the Brahms/Simon collaborations are not on the map; there’s literally no bridge at all. So if you’re looking for a murder mystery that is set against a background of duplicate bridge, I have nothing to offer that I think you’ll really enjoy, I’m sad to say. If you want to read a mystery that has bridge in it that isn’t by a professional player, I recommend the works of Susan Moody about bridge teacher Cassandra Swann; there is a nice balance between bridge and mystery, Susan Moody has a great sense of humour, and she can actually write — she knows how to structure a book to make it flow, without being predictable. Okay, it’s a bit hard to imagine why a bridge teacher keeps getting involved in murders but I personally have been able to suspend my disbelief; I wish she’d write a few more.

Please, please, do not write and tell me about your cousin’s former bridge partner in rural Wisconsin who self-published a bridge mystery. I’ve read a couple of those, perhaps even that specific one, and trust me — I am doing the authors a favour by not reviewing them. So far the field of self-published bridge mysteries has been marked by a uniform awfulness, in my experience, and the experience of shooting those particular fish in that small barrel is not one I relish. Yes, it is impressive to have mastered the strip squeeze; I haven’t managed it. The place for that sort of anecdote is half-time break at a tournament, not grinding the action of a murder mystery to a complete dead stop while you explain your brilliance for ten pages. And, generally speaking, if one wants to write a murder mystery it helps to have read a couple first. Don’t whip out the unreliable narrator gambit or the long-lost twin brother as if I’ve been living under a rock for fifty well-read years. I went through three or four of these no-hit wonders a few years back and until someone writes the breakout novel, you can safely avoid everything that’s not from a major publisher.

1081529Similarly, I am absolutely not interested in any of the handful of cozy bridge mysteries in various series, some of which I’ve also read. On The Slam by Honor Hartman about the little old widow (#1 in a series!) who decides to learn bridge until an unpleasant neighbour is murdered at the table will stand for all of them, as far as I’m concerned. It might possibly be of use if you were having trouble understanding some of the most basic principles of bridge, since it handles them lightly and clearly and for the most part leaves them alone. The mystery itself might trouble a bright fourteen-year-old to solve before the police do; you will not be unduly strained. I gave this book to a dear friend who was very elderly at the time, and in roughly the same situation.  She returned it to me almost immediately with a withering glance, saying, “What PAP.” I have to agree. Generally, any book whose cover proclaims “Bridge tips included!” is suggesting a paucity of attention to the mystery in the process.  And all the Goodreads comments that suggest the positive virtue that you don’t actually have to know anything about bridge to read this book — are missing the point. That’s a bug, not a feature. The book should make you want to learn, not be pleased that you don’t know how.

If you are a bridge player who wants to read a mystery, I suggest that you either go with Susan Moody or avoid the topic of bridge entirely as a basis for a mystery. And if you want to know how to play a better game of bridge, I emphatically recommend S. J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge.

200 authors I would recommend (Part 5)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 4, is here; I’ll link here to Part 6 as soon as it’s written.

41. 1418801800Cole, G.D.H. & Margaret

I’ve reviewed a book by the husband-and-wife Coles recently and I have to say, if it’s not clear, that I managed to find one of their less-well-written books to look at — but their books are so scarce and expensive that I think that’s one of perhaps three I have in my library. Even that excellent site, stopyourekillingme.com, doesn’t have a listing for their published works and so I’ve sent you to Wikipedia. I’ve heard it suggested that mediocrity is a reason why some authors remain in obscurity but, honestly, I don’t think that should apply to the Coles. Their mysteries really are worth reading; they were both important writers and opinion leaders in various political spheres and that quality of intelligence in my experience usually produces clever and intelligent mysteries. I certainly enjoyed Death of a Millionaire, and I don’t think it would be spoiling your enjoyment to say that it reminded me of both the best of the Humdrum school and a particular Philip Macdonald novel. The Superintendent Wilson novels will be your best starting point to appreciate the Coles’ work, and that earlier novels are more likely to be to your taste than later (they get rather more political as time goes by). My friend Curtis Evans, whose blog is here, is an expert on the Coles and has a learned book that looks at the full body of their work, a privilege afforded to few but the diligent, that I bought the day it came out.  You can get your copy of The Spectrum of English Murder here.

PB037-750x75042. Conan Doyle, Arthur

The author of Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t need much recommendation from me, but I’ll bring his name forward anyway. As I’ve said, I don’t automatically recommend writers just because they’re well-known, but Conan Doyle stories are really enjoyable reading, by and large. He had a really appealing writing style — a great eye for description, beautiful word choices, simple and direct chains of ideas without too much foofaraw.  I admit sometimes I’ve been annoyed when Sherlock Holmes picks up a clue and, without showing it to the reader, tucks it in his pocket until the denouement. But that was before the “fair play mystery” idea had even been thought of, so I don’t blame him for not fulfilling my expectations. Sherlock Holmes is a character for the ages, and, to disclose fully, I have him tattooed on my chest. Yes, really. I’ve read each of the stories countless times and can always find something new to think about. And if you don’t like reading in the antique style of language, then I recommend you seek out the television series that did all the stories as accurately as possible, starring the wonderful Jeremy Brett. If you’re looking for something of his that isn’t Sherlock Holmes, you might try The White Company, a historical novel that I understand was his personal favourite of his own works.

982662525243. Connelly, Michael

It is true that I don’t read much these days that was written after about 1950, but a damn good writer will always get my attention. I can remember finishing the last page of 1992’s The Black Echo and immediately starting it again from page 1, because it was so elegantly and lyrically written that I didn’t want to leave. By the way, it won the Edgar in 1993 for best first novel. I think you will agree with me that Connelly’s stories about Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch, a homicide detective in Los Angeles with a sad and troubled life, are magnificent. Start from the beginning and savour these powerful and intelligent novels. Connelly’s work has been made into a couple of good movies; 1998’s Blood Work, a very smart novel, had its ending changed when they made a smart movie out of it in 2002, with Clint Eastwood. That means you get to have two bites at the apple of solving it. Connelly himself, by the way, makes the occasional appearance in Richard Castle’s writers’ poker game on TV’s Castle.

103157270844. Connington, J. J.

As well as reawakening my interest in the Coles (above), I’m also indebted to Curtis Evans for reminding me just how good a mystery writer J. J. Connington was. His extremely significant volume of critical analysis from 2012, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (buy your copy here and I highly recommend it; you’ll gain a lifetime reading list from it) spends about a third of its time discussing J. J. Connington (under his real name, Alfred Walter Stewart, apparently no relation LOL).  Connington novels used to be an extremely difficult thing to acquire in the used book market, but these days with ABEBooks and eBay, and the fact that he’s completely in print at the moment thanks to Dr. Evans, you can look forward to an enjoyable set of volumes. These are classic British puzzle mysteries from the true Golden Age, the genuine whodunit. Connington’s intelligence and creativity shine through these stories. At his very best, he takes the reader on a guided voyage through a set of interesting facts and allows you to arrive at the wrong conclusion, then dazzles you with what was really going on. I very much enjoyed being hoodwinked by all those I’ve been able to read so far; The Sweepstake Murders stood out, and so did Case with Nine Solutions when I reviewed it here.

51ctTMG5GhL45. Constantine, K. C.

The 17 novels featuring Mario Balzic, a police chief in a small Pennsylvania town — well, you may think they’re just too artistic to be thought of as “only” mysteries. To me, this is what the idea of genre fiction is all about; really great genre fiction transcends itself and becomes a story that can be appreciated by anyone, even if they’re not familiar with the genre’s historical and popular forms. Constantine writes at an elegant and lyrical level while talking about simple and ordinary things. There are a few mystery writers who manage it; the poet Stephen Dobyns does it, Dashiell Hammett did it, and so does Constantine. These are plainspoken stories about ordinary people whose lives have somehow gone a little wrong. They’re inarticulate and in pain. Chief Balzic has to put things right as best he can, with the profundity only available to a wonderfully ordinary and real man. His love for his town and his fellow man is what sustains him, I think. Start at the beginning with 1972’s The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, reading in order, and you will see how the writer grows the character lovingly over the next 30 years and shares that growth with us.

362c697d009b5a6e69e62385908027c846. Coxe, George Harmon

George Harmon Coxe was a prolific writer of pulpy mystery novels — many of them about hard-drinking newsmen who solved crimes, and in general about hard-punching men who squared off with violent criminals. His books were a mainstay of the early Dell mapback series, which is where I picked up the taste for them. The Kent Murdock stories about a newspaper photographer on the crime beat in Boston are quite a bit more literate than you might imagine from looking at the salacious artwork. As was not always the case in the days of pulp, the stories make logical sense; they’re about ordinary people trapped in desperate situations who do what we might do, and yet there’s always a beautiful dame in trouble. There’s a number of writers who were mining this vein, but I like Coxe the best. Start with Murder with Pictures, proceed chronologically, and see how many Coxe stories you can acquire in the original mapback edition just for the verisimilitude.

7e345eef0fcbc134cd3d7112bdcac2b147. Crais, Robert

I don’t really read private eye novels any more, but Robert Crais’s name on a new novel always makes it into my to-be-read pile anyways. He’s another of the writers like K. C. Constantine, above, who writes so beautifully that he could transcend his genre. But Crais is completely grounded in the traditional private eye novel and perhaps doesn’t care about transcending the genre, thanks very much. He just wants to write interesting, intelligent, exciting novels about two wonderful characters, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. I remember when the first volume came out as a paperback original in 1987, The Monkey’s Raincoat; everyone in the mystery world was gobsmacked, and the book was on all the major awards lists. He hasn’t stopped being a great writer, but now the characters are deeper.

1235014278548. Crispin, Edmund

Sooner or later every mystery reader discovers the Gervase Fen novels and if you haven’t already, now is a good time. Crispin was unique. He was a master of the Farceur school of detective fiction, whose work has a constant mocking smile playing around the corners of its mouth as it says outrageous and unexpectedly funny things. Not out and out farce, mind you — classic whodunits, with Oxford don Gervase Fen investigating locked room mysteries and various other impossible crimes, but at the same time constantly keeping the reader off-balance and giggling. If you trace down every literary reference in every Fen novel, you’ll be a very, very well-read person and you’ll have had a great deal of fun being fooled by the novels. My favourite Crispin is Love Lies Bleeding, but the first novel, The Case of the Gilded Fly, is also a good place to start reading. A lot of Crispin’s reputation rests on the widely-beloved novel, The Moving Toyshop; for me, that emperor has no clothes, and I’d recommend almost any of the others first. Your mileage may of course vary.

1354382237049. Crofts, Freeman Wills

Crofts is yet another focus of expertise for historian and analyst Curtis Evans, so I’ll recommend you to the same book, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, as I did above — another third of the volume is about this author and his mastery of the Humdrum style. Freeman Wills Crofts came to prominence with the 1920 publication of The Cask, and was considered a major author of the Golden Age of Detection. Crofts is the master of the “alibi mystery”, especially with respect to railway journeys; his detectives are always questioning station attendants to find out if a disguised Mr. X could have taken the 3:16 from Little Puddleworth and arrived at the manor in time to kill Lady Pamela, although I just made that bit up. You get the idea. Inspector French always seems to be in charge of cases where the murderer is willing to go through an incredible rigamarole to make himself immune to suspicion, and he is what Julian Symons was talking about in Bloody Murder when he invented the term “Humdrum”. Inspector French solves cases by painstaking, exhaustive detective work; he makes sure that what people tell him is true, and his focus is on physical facts. The Cask is a bit dated these days, and it doesn’t feature French, but it’s a good place to start; the only novels that might disappoint you are ones from the late 1950s when Crofts’s confident writing and plotting had fallen off due to age. But he was very readable for 30 years and more than 30 volumes!

43867379250. Cutler, Stan

Occasionally I just want a light mystery with which to relax; something where I don’t have to try too hard to figure out the puzzle, because it’s pretty obvious, and instead I can focus on some interesting and charming characters and their humorous interactions. If you’re looking for something along those lines, try Stan Cutler’s four novels about the unlikely partnership of gay ghostwriter Mark Bradley and straight and old-fashioned PI Rayford Goodman solving L.A. crimes in the 90s. The writer has the pleasant habit of alternating POVs of the protagonist, chapter by chapter, and I think the stories are well handled and very readable. You see the same events from two different perspectives and that’s fun. If you start with Best Performance by a Patsy, you can read the four novels in order. Cutler seems to have moved on to a different style of mystery fiction, and I haven’t read any of it yet, but I would be prepared to pick them up; he has the knack of amusing me without being cloying or unlikely.

Quick Look: Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

Nine Times Nine, by Anthony Boucher (1940)

nine_times_nice_coverWhat’s this book about?

Matt Duncan is an impoverished writer who’s just been let go from the Los Angeles WPA writers’ project (it would take an entire article to explain this idea to the millennial reader; Wikipedia has one here). He runs into a wealthy school friend and rapidly finds himself working as an assistant to Wolfe Harrigan, a professional debunker of phoney religious cults; meanwhile Wolfe Harrigan’s beautiful niece Concha is attracting quite a bit of Matt’s attention, even though she’s engaged to his wealthy school friend.

Currently, Wolfe Harrigan is investigating a religious figure calling himself Ahasver, the Man In Yellow, whose “Temple of Light” is developing a huge following. Sure, it looks like another loony-tunes cult, but Ahasver is raking in a lot of money and developing a lot of fanatical converts. The Temple of Light has a cursing ritual that it enacts in order to bring disaster to its enemies, called the “Nine Times Nine”. When Wolfe Harrigan is the latest recipient of the curse, he laughs; but the next day, Matt Duncan looks up from the croquet lawn to see a man in a yellow robe in the study with Wolfe Harrigan. Harrigan’s sister is sitting outside the study, and she didn’t see anyone leave … all the doors and windows are locked from the inside. But Wolfe Harrigan’s murdered body lies on the floor and no one knows what happened. Lieutenant Marshall of the LAPD investigates, with the help of his wife, who’s a retired burlesque dancer (coincidentally, she’s reading the locked-room chapter from John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins at the time), and learns that, at the exact time of the murder, Ahasver was lecturing to a group of his followers miles away. It takes the talents of Sister Ursula, amateur detective and member of the Sisters of Martha of Bethany, to figure out the answer to this difficult locked-room mystery.

4476825990Why is this worth reading?

Anything by Anthony Boucher is worth your time, to be honest. Boucher — yes, the guy after whom they named the BoucherCon mystery convention — was a prominent critic (for the San Francisco Chronicle) and mystery writer, expert on Sherlock Holmes, creator of mystery-oriented radio programmes, and also an expert on science-fiction. And in general he was a polymath; one of those people who knows everything about a few things and a lot about everything in general. He only published seven mystery novels, but each one of them is intelligent, inventive, and brain-crackingly difficult. Boucher only wrote two Sister Ursula novels, of which this was the first; the other, Rocket to the Morgue, is a fascinating roman a clef set against the background of the actual science-fiction writers group of which Boucher formed a part. Both were first published as by H. H. Holmes (who was an actual turn-of-the-century murderer in Chicago), but Boucher’s other five mysteries came out under his own name.

I won’t say much about the mystery itself here, for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. Trust me, it is a genuine locked-room mystery, and you can imagine that if Boucher had the nerve to suggest to the reader that the locked-room chapter from The Three Coffins would be worthwhile reading, you can bet that he came up with a solution that will make you slap your forehead at the end of the book. If you follow the plot very closely and don’t allow yourself to be fooled by preconceptions, you will possibly be close to the solution at the end; it’s a satisfying and smart answer to a difficult puzzle.

il_570xN.672463820_t2nxBut there are other reasons why this book is worth your time. For one thing, Boucher gives us a wonderful glimpse of West Coast U.S. society just at the U.S.’s entry into the Second World War; these pseudo-religious cults used to be a regular thing in Southern California, and Boucher has produced a delightful insider’s view. The characterizations are charming and, while some of them might be difficult to believe (it’s not likely that burlesque artists marry policemen and settle down, and this is just as unlikely as a mystery-solving nun) they hang together and definitely interest the reader. In fact this novel has a lot about people and how they react to stressful situations. I think it’s safe to say that the mystery is the strongest point of interest in the book, but the background interactions are fun too.

One small point I did notice particularly; Boucher is one of the few mystery writers of the time to introduce a homosexual character, Robin Cooper, into this work (someone who wouldn’t yet identify as a “gay man”, but that’s what we see). Yes, the portrayal is of an effeminate “swish” who’s in cahoots with Ahasver; pretty offensive to the reader of 2015. But two things stand out. One is that there’s a homosexual character at all which, believe me, was very rare in this time and place for a mystery novel. The other is that, interestingly enough, Boucher gives us a glimpse of the social context and tells us that not every 1940 adult was so simplistic as to partake of knee-jerk homophobia.  Listen to this little passage, from page 199 of the IPL edition:

[Lieutenant Marshall is speaking to Matt Duncan] “But Mr. Cooper still interests me. I’ll go further — I am fascinated by our sweet little Robin.” “Why, Lieutenant!” Matt imitated the cherub’s birdlike cadences. “It’s a good act. It’s a honey of an act. But it is an act, and it slipped at the end. He’s no ecstatic hanger-on of the Ancients. He knows what he’s about; and unless my guess is way off, he’s probably about as influential as any member of the Temple.” “You think so? Him?” “The stupid tendency of the normal male is to discount everything said or done by one who seems effeminate. You think, ‘Nuts, he’s a swish — the hell with him.’ It’s about as clever a front as you can pick. Smart lad, our Robin.”

Still not especially politically correct or even enlightened, but further down the path than one might have expected.

I know you’ll enjoy this novel, if you just relax and let it roll along. If you are like me and always want to try to solve the mystery, you’ll find this one quite difficult but not absolutely impossible. And you will also enjoy the milieu of 1940s California, and Boucher’s insightful eye for social change and ear for dialogue. There’s also a romantic subplot, some interesting observations on religious belief, and Sister Ursula, who to me should have been the hero of a few more Boucher novels.

My favourite edition

ninetimesholmesI am given to understand that the first edition of this book was issued without a dust jacket, probably because of wartime paper restrictions. (Added a few days later: I listened to the wrong bookseller — see the comments section below.  The paper restrictions idea was mine alone, and it was wrong.  I’ll add a photo of the first edition’s jacket in the middle of this post for the reader’s edification.)

I think my favourite edition would be U.S. Penguin #553, pictured here. #553 is not, as you might, think, their 553rd book; their numbering system is quite bizarre but this would be one of their first 50 publications, in 1945. I like the deep green that is shared by this line of books; the illustration is cheerfully bad and I like the idea that this is the only such paperback as by H. H. Holmes.

 

 

Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)

october-8-challenge-chart1

 

The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah (2014)

The Monogram Murders,  by Sophie Hannah (2014)


thAuthor: Sophie Hannah,
born 1971, came to the public eye first as a poet and a translator of children’s books. In 2006 she published the first of what so far has been nine well-received works of crime fiction in what’s known as the Waterhouse and Zailer series. The series has sold exceptionally well in the U.K. and two very popular ITV television productions have been based on her works.

For further information about her published works, the Wikipedia article is here; I recommend care since they have not provided a clearly chronological listing but instead divided her publications into a number of different categories.  (A surprisingly large number of different categories; this author has many interests.) For an interesting take on her career considering her as a poet, the British Council’s take is found here, and the author’s own website is here. The British Council material has a couple of interesting observations about her crime fiction in general.

Sophie HannahHannah has entered into an arrangement with the estate of Agatha Christie to publish this new work using Christie’s character Hercule Poirot.

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel was published September 9, 2014; about four days before the writing of this post. It is currently available in bookstores everywhere and, doubtless, is stacked to the rafters on pallets at Costco. There is a Kindle edition available here and doubtless other formats, but not, at the time of writing, paperback. The copy I used was electronic and from my local library (thanks to a helpful librarian who prefers to remain nameless but, like all her kind, is devoted to bringing books to people who want to read them and deserves our respect).

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will concern large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this book. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

In this particular review I have not come close to naming any guilty party or revealing any crucial plot details. 

Monogram-Murders_612x952I’m not going to say much about the plot of this book because I expect that it will affect your enjoyment of it should you choose to read it. In bare bones, here’s what happens at the outset; Detective Catchpool of Scotland Yard has fallen into the orbit of Hercule Poirot, who is enjoying a bizarre staycation at a rooming house to get out of his regular routine without leaving town. Three people are found dead in separate rooms on separate floors of a hotel, and in each of their mouths is found a monogrammed cufflink. It is soon discovered that all three people have been involved in each other’s lives in the past, and a long-ago death seems to have had repercussions that reverberated into the present. Catchpool investigates the physical circumstances of people and objects, and Poirot wanders around and says enigmatic things about things that might have happened, or how to view and interpret small events, in order to urge Catchpool to greater effort in improving his detecting skills. Catchpool thereby comes to a number of wrong conclusions, including a couple into which Poirot maliciously misleads him.

At the end, Poirot gathers a large number of people, including hotel staff, into a hotel ballroom and delivers three chapters of explanation as to what happened in everyone’s lives that led to the three deaths. After a fairly exciting and dramatic conclusion, almost everyone lives happily ever after.

monogram-murdersheaderWhy is this book worth your time?

Well, you know, it barely is worth your time. It’s certainly not worth your time at the price you’ll have to pay for a first edition, even at Costco. As I like to say, this is the sort of work that you can wait until it comes out in paperback and THEN avoid it. But there is just enough skill here to keep it from being part of my category of “100 mysteries you should die before you read.” This one won’t kill you, unless it annoys you to death. Sophie Hannah is an able writer who has marketable skills, and this is a competent novel. There are no obvious plot holes, nothing that just doesn’t add up.

I deal with a lot of people regularly who are interested in Golden Age mysteries, and they read them and review them and talk about them. For people like us, this book is environment-forming; this is a significant development in the history of the single most important Golden Age mystery writer and, if this catches on, we may find ourselves inundated by Poirot and Marple authorized fanfic, as it were. But if this is the level of quality we’re going to get, no, it will not be worth much of our time, and after a few such contractually-obligated efforts, the re-animation of Poirot will cease.  (The literary equivalent of a DNR.)

This is not a great mystery or even a believable one. It merely has the legal right to say that Hercule Poirot is a character within its pages. Thus it is interesting in a way that — oh, how can I put this.  If you’re at a dinner party and someone serves you a dish like this, you think of something to say that’s complimentary about a particular excellence of the creative effort, like the innovative spirit that made the chef put fresh lime juice on the scalloped potatoes, and then you push it around with your fork until it’s time for dessert. It doesn’t really matter that the chef is well-known for cooking other kinds of food. It doesn’t matter that only a very few people in the world have the right to add that very particular flavour of Belgian lime juice to the potatoes, because it still tastes weird. And all you can really do is refuse the next invitation to dinner from such a chef.

“People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding fresh lime juice to scalloped potatoes, try to understand that there must be a reason for this.”

Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)

I haven’t used the word “fanfic” lightly; as near as I can tell, the impulses that lead a person to produce an original work about a copyrighted character and publish it on the internet, or in a photocopied hard copy, are that the person honours the writer, respects the character, and is unable to stop living in that character’s world without new fantasies. Obviously this is a different impulse than that which motivated Sophie Hannah. Hers was probably immense buckets of cash and an iron-clad contract for four more with an option. But the outcome is the same. This is a novel about Hercule Poirot that had nothing to do with Agatha Christie’s mind, or inspiration, or pen, and its reasons for existence have nothing to do with literary achievement.

This sort of post-mortem continuation has been rare, thus far (except in the rarefied reaches of trufan fanfic, which frankly are beyond either my understanding or my patience). The first such continuation I can recall in the puzzle mystery world is the series about a little old lady detective named Miss Seeton, with the five-book series begun by Heron Carvic in the late 60s – mid 70s and continued well after his death in 1980, first with three by James Melville under a different pseudonym, and then 14 by Sarah J. Mason under yet another pseudonym. The complicated bibliography, courtesy of stopyourekillingme.com, is found here, but the point is that the original author only wrote 5/22 of the series. Later on, Rex Stout’s series about Nero Wolfe has continued post-mortem with nine novels by Robert Goldsborough, the latest of which was in 2014.

And of course Sherlock Holmes, where frankly the weight of accumulated fanfic, parody, homage and secondary materials would probably sink 221B Baker Street into the ground were anyone foolish enough to load the building with it. Sherlock Holmes has become the fictional character who is in more films than any other (Dracula is second). In my personal collection I have two textbooks on how to bid at contract bridge wherein Sherlock explains it all to Watson, and a kind of Biblical treasure hunt wherein Sherlock explains complex and fairly ridiculous points of Biblical hairsplitting in the voice of the author. I also have a complete set of the animated cartoon “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” wherein Holmes is a reanimated clone, Watson is a robot, and Lestrade is a beautiful female expert in hand-to-hand combat. Yes, really. The character of Sherlock Holmes has been assraped so many times by so many callous authors that his current American television incarnation as a New York tattooed hipster with a drug problem, and an Asian female Watson, is barely even remarkable.

I have spoken in these pages before about the “tie-in” novel which leads to objects like “Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx” or “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game”. The tie-in is based on the premise that, if there is a particular piece of writing that you like, you are likely to like other pieces of writing which take place against a common background. For instance, I have squirrelled a bunch of “Indiana Jones” paperback originals. They have no relationship to any existing film except that they all have a drawing of Harrison Ford on the cover; the stories seem designed to appeal to a 12-year-old pre-pubescent boy. Closer to home, you should take a look at the entry in Wikipedia for Ellery Queen. Among the ancillary products associated with this character are comic books, board games, computer games, films, graphic novels, radio and television programmes, and a couple of postage stamps. Tie-ins in the mystery realm are nothing new. This sort of tie-in material that we’re looking at here — because a “continuation novel” is pretty much the same to me as a “tie-in novel” — has the same quality as a tote-bag bearing Hercule Poirot’s silhouette, or a Hercule Poirot video game of “Murder on the Orient Express” (which I’ve played, and it’s pretty good).

poirot-link_1I think, though, that it’s necessary to talk about what is being purchased here, because I have a feeling that a lot of people think they’re about to read something that is like an Agatha Christie novel. Think of it instead as a tote bag. The purpose of the object is to fulfill a function that could easily be fulfilled by many other similar objects, most of them less expensive; a tote bag holds shopping and a novel can be read. But the purpose of purchasing the object is to somehow associate yourself with an evanescent quality; the feeling that you, as a reader, had when you read those authentic Christie novels.

This is very hard to describe; perhaps it’s easier to understand with the tote bag standing in (the one with a silhouette of Poirot on it) for The Monogram Murders. You bought that tote bag because of how it made you feel; perhaps, as you pick it up to go out the door for a round of shopping, you get a little smile knowing that other people will know that you are a connoisseur of good Golden Age detective fiction. Perhaps it’s that you are very fond of Poirot; perhaps it was an idle whim that prompted your purchase. (Even if it was an idle whim, something made you select Poirot as opposed to, say, Mike Hammer or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Marilyn Monroe.) The fact that it holds your shopping is a good thing, but to be honest there are many such bags and some are free at the supermarket. You bought the tote bag not because of function but because you wanted to have an emotional experience associated with the pleasurable experience of reading Agatha Christie novels. In a way, you have chosen to advertise for the brand of your own accord.

And that’s what’s happening here. I suspect that 98 percent of the people who buy and read this novel in first edition will believe, as they turn the last page, that they have just read a puzzle mystery that is as good as anything Agatha Christie ever did; that they have been dealt with fairly, so that no clues have been omitted or hidden; and that their friends will draw certain favourable conclusions about their intellectual activities and abilities, should they happen to see “The Monogram Murders” lying on the coffee table. They choose, in fact, to associate with the Agatha Christie brand experience and advertise on its behalf. (Remember, if one such book is much like another, they can certainly do the job more cheaply by buying, of all things, an authentic Agatha Christie novel and carrying it around.) And whoever is responsible for putting together this package on behalf of the Christie estate will have brought in a lot of money and created a lot of buzz.

The remaining 2 percent of us — some of whom will be reading this, I trust — know what they’ve read, because they have read huge numbers of similar novels. We have already associated ourselves with the Agatha Christie brand, because it’s a useful form of shorthand when explaining our reading tastes to strangers at cocktail parties. “I read Golden Age mysteries.  You know, like Agatha Christie.” “Ahh, yes.” We are familiar with whodunits and whydunits and howdunits and open mysteries and police procedurals, locked rooms and unreliable narrators and Ten Rules for this and that.  And we have pretty much already read ALL the Agatha Christie novels. It’s you — us — to whom I’m speaking here.

For us, I think it’s safe to say that we will be disappointed in the book qua book. This is not, in fact, a very good mystery. It is a so-so mystery that happens to have Hercule Poirot walking through it. It is far too … embellished; there are plot flourishes and idle references to other topics, and incomprehensible character arcs, and the occasional piece of extraneous philosophy. The crimes at the core of this novel are difficult to understand, certainly. They are complicated and involve events that happened 20 years ago, the reverberations of which have concatenated into the present. Bad blood for decades, old festering motives, strong emotions.

And the whole thing is just nonsense, because it doesn’t hang together. It’s missing one essential element that Agatha Christie could nearly always bring; the actions of the plot arise organically from the personalities of the characters. To pick a Christie at random, The Hollow, the crime that takes place would not have occurred in precisely that way if it weren’t for the characters of Gerda and her husband, and the young sculptress, and Lady Angketell.  We see these people sufficiently clearly to realize what they would and would not do, and we believe the emotional truths that Poirot discerns that determine guilt and innocence. In “The Monogram Murders”, we have a farrago of nonsense that’s been cobbled together in order to meet the plot demands of the story hook — three different corpses on three different floors of a hotel. Once that set piece of fireworks has been fired off, well, then someone has to explain it and it has to be complicated. So Hannah seems to have invented three very morally twisted people in order to generate the long string of plot twists that results in three full chapters of explanation; then she has to get them into the same village. Then she has to have someone do an action which is apparently completely against her character, so much so that she spends the rest of her life regretting it. Death, recriminations, hugger-mugger, brouhaha, three accusatory chapters, resolution.

I’m not even sure that it’s possible to write a sensible story based around that story hook, three bodies on three floors of a hotel. The convolutions that Hannah has to take her characters through in order to generate motive and situation are just tortuous;  I think, as a general rule of thumb, if it takes three full chapters at the end of the book to explain the activities of the plot, then there is a little too much plot. Part of that problem is that by the time we are introduced to the three most interesting characters in the action, they are dead. Which is fine, except that everything we are told about their behaviour and actions we have to take with a grain of salt because they’re not around to testify themselves. It adds an air of distancing to all the activities where Catchpool pokes around the nasty underbelly of the charming rustic community, and that takes away from any immediacy the novel might have. You’re listening to other people’s versions of important things that happened 20 years ago.

Then there’s a bunch of stuff that falls into the category of what I call “mystery cement”, because it’s put in only to make the mystery harder.  One, at random, is that our intrepid Scotland Yard investigator has a thing about dead bodies, and there are little flashbacks of his childhood to explain why. Later on in the book, he realizes that it’s not dead bodies per se by which he is revulsed, it’s being left alone with said dead bodies. Great. I think we are meant to grasp that he is making progress in detection, because he is learning that the simple assumptions about what underlies human behaviour are not always precisely correct. There’s an old quote from Chekhov, which I paraphrase as “If there’s a gun on the wall in Act I, it has to go off by Act III.” Agatha Christie’s guns on the wall always went off by Act III; Hannah’s do not. Far from being part of an exciting climax in which Catchpool gets left in a room with a dead body, this little piece of information just … vanishes.  And there’s quite a bit too much of that sort of thing for my taste in this book. Poirot gives Catchpool a significant look and winks and mugs, indicating, “Oh, this is an important clue, reader, it’s just that Catchpool is too stupid to know what it signifies.  So why don’t you worry at it for the next 150 pages until I tell you that it meant … absolutely nothing.”  I still don’t really know why the downward view of one of the hotel employees embracing a woman was even remotely significant, but I think I was just too darn exhausted after three chapters of explanation to take it all in. (Well, that and I’m lazy that way. Once I figured out it went nowhere, I ignored it.)

There are a few good things in this book, though; I must give full credit to the spirit of inspiration that put the lime juice on the potatoes in the first place. Hannah has created a couple of memorable minor characters, including a saucy waitress who really is the best writing in the book, and a feisty elderly lady villager who is hampered by having to mouth ridiculous plot developments. For some reason for me these two characters rang more true than others; the entire staff of the hotel, for instance, is 100% cardboard. (One of them tells lies for no more good reason than to delay a piece of information for a couple of chapters, which is annoying.) The book is structured well, such as it is. Story hook, Act I is competently handled where the principals are accumulated at the hotel; Act II is kept moving more briskly than some (like Ngaio Marsh) where the regrettable sag as dozens of people are interviewed is balanced by different viewpoints and geographical motion. And again, if you have to shovel out three chapters of blow-off as the second half of Act III, that’s hard to manage.  Given the enormous amount of bumph that she has to get across, it’s organized well and presented with reasonable clarity.  I’m not saying that it’s enjoyable to read, or even very interesting, but when I undertook my usual process of trying to follow the path of the crimes in chronological order, step by step, I found it clear.

While I was working on this piece, I had a vision of an editor at Hannah’s publishing house.  This person has perhaps not an enormous amount of knowledge about mysteries in general and Agatha Christie in particular, but is able to keep track of the guns on the wall in Act 1 and knows that some few people like us will actually be reading this book looking to know if the plot makes 100% sense. Now, I got the feeling that this person worked very, very hard in the line edit. I saw no typos, no formatting errors, and no shifts like the one to which I have become prone here, where Catchpool becomes Catchpole and back again. No, this has been professionally line-edited and quite beautifully so, I think. Where this person had to throw up her hands and admit defeat was in bringing this editing to the plot. I can imagine what happened if this book hit my desk. I would have read it through perhaps three times, making sure I grasped the entire structure of the plot and the motivations of the characters, and then — tried in vain to find a way to make this hang together in the way that Agatha Christie’s work did, such that the actions of the characters are created by their motivations, and these actions come together to form a plot that has inter-related elements.  (Murderers plot murders for victims who have done things deserving of murder, in simple terms.) This editor also knows that Belgian lime juice is not habitually consumed on top of scalloped potatoes, as it were, and that if you’re introducing a feature element into your dish, you’d best compose the remainder of the dish to make it stand out. And this editor could do nothing with the nonsense mess of scalloped potatoes — the weirdly recomplicated plot, based on making sense of the three-victims/one hotel paradigm — and the lime juice — Hannah’s take on Hercule Poirot. So the editor gave it a darn good line edit and passed it up the line to people who approved its publication because it will make a shitload of money, as I’m sure they would put it.

So should the 98% of casual occasional mystery readers read this book?  Oh, why not? It’s as good as anything else they’re likely to pick up at random in a bookstore, nine times out of ten. It may make them feel silly that they cannot figure out the solution to the crimes even though it seems to be expected that they will; c’est la vie.  Personally I’d use the money to take a friend out for a nice dinner; the costs are roughly equivalent. But we know our own pleasures best.

Should the 2% of of who are really well read and knowledgeable about mysteries in general and Agatha Christie in particular read this book? Not really. I suspect that one or two of my associates in the GAD blogosphere will enjoy the act of not enjoying this book, as I rather have myself. It is certainly pleasant to know that you have better taste in mysteries than 99% of the world due to your erudition. and it is occasionally pleasant to take one’s sharpest claws to a ready-made scratching post. Those are pleasures that should be beneath me but rarely are. But if you expect intelligent characterization, deft and clever plotting, and an understanding of how the best-selling fiction writer of all time worked her magic, you will definitely be disappointed.  You will find little pieces of nice writing and a few clever bits — early on, there was a piece about the meaning of a sentence where Poirot discerned a very different meaning from other listeners and it gave me false hope for the intellectual level of the remainder.

Ultimately, I think what it all boils down to is, what would this book be like with an original detective character and not Poirot?  On that basis, I think you’ll agree — ugh. This is a turgid, slow-moving book with a far too complicated plot, and a complete disconnect between what people do and why they do it.  And when it has the brand of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot attached to it — well, as Nero Wolfe would say, “Pfui.”

If you want a good mystery that’s like Agatha Christie, go find one of hers you haven’t read and read it.  And if you want to advertise that you are the kind of person who likes Agatha Christie — buy a tote bag.

Notes for the Collector:

It’s hard to say if this book will have any value in the future. The first edition has been published in immense quantities and it may end up being a situation where, at least for a year or so, it’s more difficult to get a second printing than the first.

Without specific reference to this book, I have noticed in the past that items like this that are attached to the oeuvre of a much more famous author have a way of developing value at a distance that is far greater than the investment required to obtain them. The only problem is, you have to hold them for 30 years for that investment to become worthwhile, and there are no guarantees. Strangely, I suggest that value accretes in relationship to the perceived value of the work, but in a way opposite than you might expect. For instance, if this book is the first in a series of 60 Poirot books by Sophie Hannah, then the first edition will have a relatively low value because millions of copies will remain in circulation, being traded by people who have an interest in the series. If this book is the first and only such Poirot book by Hannah because the public isn’t interested, then it will have an extremely low value for a number of years, the millions of first editions will pass from circulation, and the few remaining copies will be valuable. I have to say that this is the way it used to work, at least. Now that anyone who wants a reading copy can have an electronic one, I don’t know how that will affect the value equation.

 

 

The Case of the Seven of Calvary, by Anthony Boucher (1937)

The Case of the Seven of Calvary,  by Anthony Boucher (1937)

7calv1Author: Anthony Boucher was a very talented man who became well-known in a couple of different competencies. He was a mystery writer, of course, of both novels and short stories; he was also a popular writer of science-fiction novels and short stories. A huge annual conference for mystery fans and readers, Bouchercon, is named after him. In the 1940s, he was the principal writer not only on the Sherlock Holmes radio program but The Adventures of Ellery Queen and his own series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. He was an esteemed editor of short-story collections, particularly of science-fiction short stories, and received a Hugo Award in 1957 and 1958 for editing Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. And perhaps in the foremost of these multiple occupations, he formed the opinions of generations of mystery readers by his power as the mystery reviewer for the New York Times.

In short, a fascinating, intelligent, and multi-talented man whose life and friendships were just as interesting as his multiple streams of work. I am happy to recommend you to a book called Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography, by Jeff Marks which as you may have gathered is a cross between a biography and a bibliography. I’ve gotten to know and like Jeff over the internet, where he shares his erudition freely, but you don’t have to take my friendly word for the book’s value; it won an Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction Work, and was a finalist for the Agatha. You can find a copy of the book here, and I think you will find it very interesting. It will also give you full bibliographic detail of Boucher’s many streams of work which, honestly, is a godsend to finally have assembled in one place. I’ll also happily refer you to my friend and fellow GAD blogger John Norris, who reviewed this book insightfully and with useful detail in his blog, Pretty Sinister, with the specific review found here. (And in fact I am indebted to him because I lifted his scan of Collier #AS97 to illustrate this review, since it was the only image available on the entire internet.)

6a00d8342fd07e53ef0134878f90b5970c-800wi

Anthony Boucher

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Simon and Schuster (1937). It has not often been reprinted. I suspect there might be a Japanese edition, but I don’t read kanji. The copy that I used for this review is my paperback from Collier, #AS97, published in 1961; this may actually be the latest edition as such, although the novel is collected as part of a four-book omnibus in trade paper format from Zomba in 1984, which to my knowledge is the only UK edition.

Collier #AS97, shown at the top of this review, is so far away from what’s currently fashionable in terms of book design that it has a kind of normcore beauty. Ah, for the days when the book’s title in large and poorly-kerned Helvetica Bold and a crummy, hard-to-see woodcut at the bottom right was sufficient to cause it to leap off the shelf and into the buyer’s hands. (If you see it at its original cover price of 95 cents, it should leap into your hands; it will probably cost you at least $20 at an antiquarian bookstore if the proprietor knows what she’s got.) I note with particular approval that the potential reader is tantalized by the blurb telling them that this is one of those books where “the reader is given clues to solve the mystery”. Considering that this book is most attractive to highly literate and experienced mystery readers, this seems rather like alerting people at the entrance to the Kentucky Derby that they are likely to see some horses. But 1961 was apparently a more solicitous time in the marketing of paperbacks.

This mystery has recently become available on Kindle from Amazon and I’m happy to see that it’s now available for reading by a wider audience.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

12309174502The framing device for this novel is that Martin Lamb, a graduate student at UC Berkley in San Francisco, is out at dinner with Anthony Boucher; Boucher is writing up the story that Lamb tells him over dinner. This gets a tiny bit confusing because most of what happens in the book is that Lamb sits and tells things to a different listener in a different armchair, but eventually it becomes easier to pick out where we are. Lamb sits and tells the story of recent on-campus events to his advisor, Dr. Ashwin, an eccentric professor of Sanskrit. Lamb goes into great detail about the events of a recent evening among a group of international students on campus, while Dr. Ashwin listens from his armchair, a glass of scotch in his hand. The evening ends with the stabbing death of an elderly and apparently inoffensive Swiss humanitarian and quasi-diplomat as he is out for a stroll, and a scrap of paper is found nearby that contains what we learn is the symbol of an obscure religious sect, the Seven of Calvary. (There’s an illustration below.)

I think you’ll enjoy the way the events of this novel unfold, so I’m not going to go into an enormous amount of detail in case you haven’t yet read them;  I’ll give you the bare bones to whet your appetite. Martin Lamb is falling in love with a beautiful Hispanic fellow student, Mona Morales, and thus becomes a kind of bemused spectator at the string of events. The late Dr. Schaedel has a nephew in the graduate school, Kurt Ross, and he and a number of other young men have spent the evening drinking and talking. (This book has quite a bit of drinking and talking in it.) And many of these young men (including one Alex Bruce) have an interest in the beautiful young Cynthia Wood, at whose house Dr. Schaedel, she says, asked for directions moments before his murder.

Everyone thinks that the mysterious illustration of the Seven of Calvary means that some sort of religious fanatic is responsible for the murder of Dr. Schaedel, and while there are a number of people with strong religious beliefs, including Cynthia, whose wealthy father recently embraced a strict form of Christianity, none appears to be a fanatic attached to an obscure European sect. Paul Lennox, one of the young men who spent the evening of Dr. Schaedel’s death drinking and talking, goes on for a chapter about the history and background of Gnosticism, and Vignardism, and the history of the Seven of Calvary in the Swiss Alps and their belief in the septenity of their god.

Meanwhile, the police, whose efforts to solve the mystery are almost entirely invisible in this book that focuses upon armchair detective methods, appear to be getting nowhere; most of the principal characters find themselves involved in a university-based production of Don Juan Returns. Martin Lamb plays the murderer and Paul Lennox plays Don Juan, his victim. But during the first-night performance, something is wrong with Lennox’s performance as he is strangled on stage; he actually does die.

12663737861_4Lamb finds himself in over his head in the murder case and turns to Dr. Ashwin’s insight (and never-empty bottle of Scotch) to establish his innocence. Ashwin deciphers the mysteries from the comfort of his armchair. He gathers the group together in his rooms and explains that he had only had three remaining questions before solving the case. The first was answered by an express parcel from the head librarian at the University of Chicago that very afternoon; the second was answered that day by a discovery of Martin Lamb in a novelty and theatrical shop near the campus; and he asks the third on the spot. When he receives a surprising answer to this surprising question, he has everything he needs to solve the case, and explains everything.  In the course of his explanation, he reveals that he had started with seven questions to be answered (and had whittled them down to four before the session began. This further instance of the Seven-ness of the case gives him a way to explain everything that happened, and in great detail, just by answering those seven questions. It’s completely clear who did what and to whom, and why. At this point, Dr. Ashwin explains that there is actually an eighth question; that of the Seven of Calvary. He explains exactly where that idea entered the case and why, and there is nothing further to reveal (except a few paragraphs of “where are they now” as the framing story, wherein Martin Lamb is telling the story to Anthony Boucher, is tied off.)

Why is this book worth your time?

As I mentioned above, Anthony Boucher is of the premier rank of mystery critics and editors; he understands how mysteries are constructed and written. He only wrote a handful of novels and every single one of them is worth your time. If you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery, you will find something to amuse and/or challenge you in every one of his novels — guaranteed.

This particular book is in fact his first published mystery novel. With many writers’ careers, it very often happens that their first novel is a kind of false start; they manage to sell a book which is their foot in the publishing door, and then after a while find their voice and begin to write the books for which they become known. Is this one of those?

7ofcalvWell, yes and no. Certainly this book is very clever and very original, and obviously written by someone with both a great knowledge of and a great love for murder mysteries. At the second paragraph, the Anthony Boucher character starts to lecture about the nature of a “Watson” to Martin Lamb, who actually plays the Watson role throughout most of this book, and the self-referential nature of having the author be a character adds a kind of bizarre Wonderland quality. Really, given that the author is a character and considering the nested “story within a story” conceit that is framed within the prologue and epilogue, this might almost pass for an early attempt at a kind of self-referential post-modernism. Just like Scream was a slasher movie about people who have seen a lot of slasher movies, this book is a mystery for people who have read a lot of mysteries. The first pages of my copy are a cast of characters with asterisks thoughtfully inserted against the names whom Boucher wishes us to know are possibly guilty; minor characters and spear-carriers are ruled out.

This is also a mystery for people who have read a lot of everything else. Only a very few authors in the mystery genre have this enticing quality, where the action frequently stops dead in its tracks for a two-page lecture on ancient Swiss religious beliefs, Sanskrit tongue-twisters, or the origins of the Don Juan mythos. (At one point Boucher inserts an asterisk to a footnote that says, in my paraphrase, “If this doesn’t interest you, skip two pages ahead; you won’t miss anything relevant to the murder.” Saucy, but useful.) I can only think of John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as sharing this quality whereby they spray nuggets of information, relevant or irrelevant, through the pages of a mystery. (Yes, others do it too, but more sparingly; these guys are the big three.) Speaking as a reader, I find it charming and diverting but I know that some people find this kind of information dump annoying in the extreme.

The actual mystery element is a strong and predominant part of the novel’s plot, which is why I’ve been, for me, relatively uncommunicative about its details. There are only a few suspects and while it is not terribly difficult to assign responsibility for the murders, it is considerably more difficult to figure out howdunit. John Norris, in his review referred to above, makes the point that there are a couple of easy deductions available at the beginning of the mystery that may well make the incautious reader think they’re about to beat one of the great puzzle constructors, but, at about the midpoint of the book, there’s a revelation that completely recontextualizes everything that’s happened thus far and throws all those earlier deductions up in the air. (And again, I’m indebted to him for saying it first.) In other words, the author has been a couple of steps ahead of the reader the whole time and has led you down the proverbial garden path; in a way, this is a kind of Ellery Queenian “false solution then the true”. The ending, with everyone gathered for the “blow-off”, is certainly a Golden Age trope but the manner in which it’s conducted, with the kindly old professor listing off the seven crucial points and following with the unexpected eighth, is pure John Dickson Carr/Dr. Fell.

And that’s my only small quibble with this great book; it borrows here and there. One of the central puzzles is strongly suggestive of an earlier novel by S.S. Van Dine; there are elements reminiscent of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout. Another small problem is that the premise of having Dr. Ashwin sit in his armchair and have stories brought to him (the Rex Stout aspect) means that there has to be a way to introduce action into the plot or it descends, as it does here, into long chapters of storytelling by someone who isn’t guaranteed to be a reliable narrator. I note that this is the one and only adventure of Dr. Ashwin; Boucher’s subsequent creation of brash California PI Fergus O’Breen is much more suited to tell interesting stories. Let me be clear, though, this is more a meta-problem; there’s nothing at all wrong with the way that this book is constructed and written. The characterization is sufficient to the needs of the plot, the settings are obviously something of which Boucher had personal knowledge, and the language is elegant and erudite.

Really, there is a huge amount here to enjoy, especially if you like to experience an author’s growth by reading his work chronologically. If you like an unexpected spate of learning about — well, about something you didn’t know that seems interesting — then Boucher is one of a very small group of authors with a style of sufficient authority that they can just shut the plot down for a moment’s lesson, or a joke, or even a little puzzle that pays off in a later chapter. It’s a fun and charming style and it takes a great deal of obscure knowledge to bring it off. It’s not impossible to solve this mystery upon first reading, but I suggest that even an aficionado of the puzzle mystery will find it difficult. I enjoyed this book a lot and it’s part of the oeuvre of an important mystery writer and critic; I urge you to read it.

807072190Notes for the Collector:

As I’ve noted above, the first edition is from Simon and Schuster, 1937; first UK is as part of an omnibus volume published by Zomba in 1984, and first paper is from Collier, 1961. There’s an ugly Macmillan edition as part of their Cock Robin imprint, some sort of “bringing back the oldies” line from 1954 (the primarily blue cover earlier in this review). A facsimile of the jacket of the first edition is $18 and it’s the cheapest Boucher-related item in AbeBooks.

If I were going to get a reading copy, I’d be after a crisp Fine copy of Collier #AS97 for $20 to $30 or the Kindle edition; if I had just won the lottery, I’d be investing $600 to $800 in one of the three — three! — signed first editions on sale today. They may not be the prettiest editions — the $600 one has a facsimile jacket and none is what I’d call crisp — but, gee, the thought of having a copy that my favourite mystery critic of all time had held and signed, well, that would be worth every penny.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1937 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “G”, “Read one academic mystery.” Very nearly every single character in this novel is either a student or a professor and the action takes place on the UC Berkley campus. I’d originally meant to read this as “a book with a number in the title”, but I have a couple of those in mind and close at hand. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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