The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

This morning I encountered an article from The Guardian written by one Sarah Hughes; you can find it here, and you may want to skim it before you continue (if you care to continue, that is). At first I was merely angry, because my initial reaction was that Hughes was an uncritical cheerleader who merely absorbed what she’d been told by publicity people and regurgitated it into a cheerful puff piece. Then I started to think more clearly about what I had read.

Her thesis, such as it is, suggests that “Crime fiction is turning back the clock to its golden age with a host of books that pay homage to the genre’s grande dame, Agatha Christie, either intentionally or in spirit.”

Some points that this thesis, and the article in general, brought to mind:

  • 162499Sophie Hannah is not a good example of a writer who is “paying homage” to Agatha Christie. While I’m not prepared to go as far as others and say that she’s dug up Christie’s corpse and is assraping it in the public square in return for sacks of money and more celebrity (as you can probably tell, I’m not far from that opinion; my review of the first such continuation is here) , her two recent “continuations” of Hercule Poirot are more like examples of how NOT to pay homage to Agatha Christie. #2, Closed Casket, contains a fart joke. I rest my case.
  • “[R]eprints of 30s and 40s crime classics are continuing to sell well …” Well, first, that’s not the Golden Age; the Golden Age is the 20s and 30s. Second — prove it. That is, prove it without reference to publicity material from any major publisher which has a vested interest in making some people believe that they should get on the bandwagon and purchase reprints of crime classics because everyone else is. I don’t think the reprints are selling “well”; my sense is that, as I’ll discuss later, large publishers with a Golden Age backlist are generating profits where none were available before, but only slight profits. They’re merely selling well enough to repay the minuscule cost of keeping them available in electronic format.
  • The article goes into detail about a lot of new authors who have little or nothing to do with Golden Age mysteries. If, to quote the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, a  series by one Plum Sykes is “subversive, wickedly funny and modern”; fine, but those things aren’t really the hallmarks of the Golden Age. The hallmark of the Golden Age is plotting — and not, as a HarperCollins editor suggests, that “the disciplines of the golden age … really centre around plot and character.” Since Golden Age writers specifically and deliberately eschewed characterization, that particular editor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s a lot of rubbish in this article about books that have no relationship to the Golden Age because they’re coming out soon, and that’s the actual point of this article; selling a few books that have nothing to do with the Golden Age.
  • I am sad to learn that “writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy” has been hired to complete an unfinished novel by Ngaio Marsh. I’m not enormously familiar with Stella Duffy’s work, but she has written a couple of crime novels that I thought were well-written and interesting (see, I do occasionally read something written after I was born!); it’s not Duffy to whom I object. It’s the idea itself; that Ngaio Marsh is merely the latest mystery writer to be continued. If you are a publisher and you seriously think that Golden Age mysteries will sell in quantities that please you, then by all means commission one from a mystery writer.  I have a few friends I can recommend who are very knowledgeable. (Jeffrey Marks has a track record in fiction, wrote a book on how to market genre fiction, and is an acknowledged expert on the Golden Age. And he hits his deadlines.) Dressing up a corpse and having it wheeled around the bookstores by another author is starting to get tiresome. What I really think is that HarperCollins, despite its protestations, is only sure that it can sell books by an author whose name has a high recognition factor regardless of the fact that she happens to have been dead since 1982. And that is not the unalloyed confidence in the material they would have me believe they possess.

But I didn’t write this entirely to slag some silly under-informed writer for The Guardian for doing a puff piece; I actually used to take that paper, all the way to Western Canada, because it has a wonderful crossword puzzle, and I’ll let a few things slide for having received so much cruciverbal pleasure in the past. What I think is happening here is that Britain’s major publishers buy a lot of advertising space. While I would never dare suggest that they paid for this article — that is emphatically untrue, from what I know of The Guardian — I will say that major publishers are probably not unhappy to see a piece addressed to uninformed readers that suggests that those readers will be part of a hot literary trend if they are to buy something that says it’s a Golden Age mystery, and coincidentally here’s a couple of upcoming projects to put on your Christmas list. I get that. It’s part of how books are marketed these days. It should not be a surprise if people who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries are selling books by writers who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries to readers who, etc.  And they’re attaching the Agatha Christie/Golden Age label to such things in the same way that the Ngaio Marsh label is being attached to Stella Duffy’s next volume. It’s like the label “gluten-free!” on food that never contained gluten; not exactly untrue, but misleading.

You may be surprised that I think Sophie Hannah is quoted as actually having said something sharp and on the money.  I liked it so much, I’ll set it out for you:

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

Now, that, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “absolutely whangs the nail over the crumpet.” It’s sort of the inside-out version of what I noted above, the well-known truism that Golden Age mysteries are all plot and not much characterization. People who like strong plots like Golden Age Mysteries. But Hannah here puts it in a way that is much more accessible to the average reader, and much more likely to actually SELL a few than me blethering on for many thousands of words about plot structure and social issues. “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” What this makes me think is that Sophie Hannah is an intelligent and competent writer who understands the Golden Age mystery, and would probably be able to write a really good one if she were not lumbered with the corpse of Hercule Poirot having to be front and centre. (And probably she could do without people like me making fun of her work; I bet she could write something that would appeal to my Golden Age sentiments and really sell like hotcakes at the same time. I look forward to that.)

I hope that sense of fun comes through in my appreciations of Golden Age mysteries, and I will be trying in the future to bring quite a bit more of that if it’s currently lacking. Thanks to Sophie Hannah for putting this idea in this way; it was something I needed in my toolkit. And it’s something with which my fellow aficionados will agree, I think.

Even James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, has something more intelligent to say than anything I’ve read from him lately.

“There’s a terrible tendency to see golden age crime as cosy crime, but I think it’s pretty evident that my great-grandmother found murder a serious and horrific business,” he says. “The reason that these books have lasted and that so many people still read or try to emulate them today is because the plots stand up. People enjoy the puzzle elements in them and they like the fact that you might feel a little uncomfortable, but never so uncomfortable that you can’t go on.”

Remarkable that for once he seems to have the right idea — the plots stand up.

murder_is_easyNow that I’ve followed the time-honoured tradition of a slam, then a bouquet, I’ll finish out the pattern with a closing slam or two. The Guardian chose to illustrate its understanding of how Golden Age mysteries are paid homage to with a photograph of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch “in an ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy“. How stupid and insensitive was THAT particular choice? As I’m sure my readers know, Miss Marple was not actually in Murder is Easy — she’s been wedged in there to get a few more viewers, because, you know, Agatha Christie apparently needs help to draw an audience. “Of course we respect Agatha Christie, except we’ll change her bestselling work around as we see fit, because the poor old dear didn’t understand the modern day.” Sounds more like assrape than homage to me.

My final observation has to do with one of the people quoted in this article. David Brawn is the “estates publisher at HarperCollins” who says this:

“One of the main reasons behind the sudden popularity of crime from this period is that modern publishing and new technology allows for shorter runs in printing, which means that we can now mine backlists that would previously have been unprofitable …”

In other words, they’re delightedly mining their own backlist for books where they don’t have to pay the heirs, for one reason or another, to bring in a few extra pence. The part that surprised me, though, is his title as “estates publisher”. There’s an article from The Bookseller here that talks about what that is and how it works. Honestly, you should read it. It sounds like half his job is disabusing literary heirs to a major oeuvre that their dead granny’s literary output deserves a full hardcover re-issue and a film deal, and the other half is encouraging literary heirs to a major oeuvre that they should slap a coat of lipstick and a sexy dress on their deceased granny and hire her out for the aforementioned assraping, with a chorus chanting “Now a major motion picture!”. The whole idea of having an “estates publisher” gives me the cold chills. You might feel the same way.

 

 

 

 

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

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

NeroWolfeWhat’s this book about?

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

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

f643024128a041cb24846010Why is this worth reading?

It’s not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My least favourite volume

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

 

The 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.