Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Catch As Catchpool Can't: The Monogram Murders (2014), by Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah
"The Poirot I've written about is absolutely in every detail Agatha Christie's Poirot.  The originality and innovation comes in with the story.  My way of making it new is to bring an exciting and intriguing case for Poirot to solve...."

"With my other books, the only reputation at stake is my own.  I was very conscious of making sure I did Agatha proud and didn't let her down...."

"I have read the Poirot novels several times each and I just know him....I know him in the same way I know my husband and kids...."

"Having read all of her books more than once and having been so influenced by her, I just instinctively know what kind of story would appeal to her and what her priorities were in storytelling. You can tell that by reading all of a writer's work...."

"Most crime fiction plots are not ambitious enough for me.  I want something really labyrinthine with clues and puzzles...."

Sophie Hannah, interview with Susan Swarbrick, Herald Scotland, 13 September 2014

Anyone slightly familiar with Sophie Hannah's crime fiction surely appreciates that Hannah enjoys constructing labyrinthine plots and puzzles in her books. Unfortunately, in her just-published debut Hercule Poirot detective novel, The Monogram Murders, once Hannah has led her readers into her murder maze, she has considerable trouble getting them out of it. More than a few Agatha Christie fans are questioning whether The Monogam Murders really reflects, not only the personality of Christie's iconic Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, but the Queen of Crime's basic storytelling priorities. In my view the novel frequently does not.

The Monogram Murders opens in 1929, with a chapter reminiscent of the late Christie novel Third Girl (1966). Poirot encounters a mystery woman named Jennie, who seems to be in fear for her life.  Jennie makes intriguing cryptic comments about her plight ("Oh, please let no one open their mouths!") before fleeing from Poirot into the night.

Even here, however, what seem to me false notes concerning Poirot's character are struck.  First, the encounter takes place in a "coffee house" that, though "in a part of London that was far from being the most salubrious, made the best coffee Poirot had tasted anywhere in the world."

For those of us used to Poirot delicately sipping tisane, chocolat, creme de menthe and sirop de cassis, the idea of this well-traveled Continental often dismissive of English gastronomy not only grabbing coffee at an insalubrious London coffee house--he eats beef chop and vermicelli souffle there too, incidentally--but actually finding it the best coffee he has had in all the world seems well-nigh inconceivable.

Then there's the fact that Poirot is staying at a lodging house just down from his own flat, for what he calls a "rest."  This seems odd behavior for our Poirot, even if the lodging house is "impeccably clean."

Christie fans have pointed out elsewhere in The Monogram Murders things that have struck them as additional anomalies in Poirot's personality: he walks in the cold night, he rides a bus to ruminate, he draws with his finger in the mud.  But I don't want to get bogged down in what some might dismiss as Poirot pedantry (however, Hannah herself has made this an issue by insisting that her Poirot "is absolutely in every detail Agatha Christie's Poirot"). With this novel I have what I deem more serious problems, having to do with narrative and plot structure and depictions of character (in addition to Poirot's) and setting.

After the first chapter, the narrative abruptly changes, from third to first person.  Our new narrator is one Inspector Edward Catchpool, who rooms at the same lodging house as Poirot (so that's why Hannah plops Poirot down there!). We learn the novel is in fact a manuscript written by Catchpool, which explains the sudden point-of-view shifts that occur (the name, incidentally, is reminiscent of crime writer Julian Symons' Superintendent Hilary Catchpole, who appeared in a couple of novels in the 1990s).
Sometimes Catchpool is alone or with Poirot, describing things at first hand, while sometimes Poirot is on his own, with the narrative shifting to third person. I found this distracting--though I preferred the third person narrative to that told in Catchpool's own voice.

Catchpool may vie for the title of most tiresome and inept Scotland Yard policeman in the history of British crime fiction. Besides being dumb as a box of rocks, Catchpool is one dismal fellow. Never have I so missed Poirot's perennial Golden Age "Watson," Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings may not be the brightest bulb in the art deco chandelier, but he is of course merely an amateur assistant to Poirot and there is a great deal of charm and affection in the Poirot-Hastings relationship, as portrayed by Christie.  I discerned neither charm nor affection in the Poirot-Catchpool relationship.

Throughout the book Catchpool struck me as a miserable and glum individual. This is not surprising, since Hannah in thoroughly modern fashion has saddled him with a load of psychological baggage, rather in the manner of Charles Todd's seriously shell shocked Inspector Ian Rutledge, who gets sleuthing wisdom from the voice of the dead friend that he hears in his head (though Catchpool's problem does not arise, as one might have surmised given his age--32--from Great War service, but from some not altogether shocking childhood trauma). Catchpool does not seem, really, even to like Poirot, nor Poirot him.

as a cop Edward Catchpool does
not quite measure up in skill to
 PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost)
in Hot Fuzz
Catchpool also makes an absurd policeman. He has a morbid fear of dead bodies--the childhood trauma, you see--and runs away from the novel's crime scene (see below). Why on earth did he become a cop? At least he didn't take up the mortician trade!

Catchpool lets Poirot completely take over his investigation, doing everything on direction of the Belgian sleuth, who seemingly has no qualms about acting as investigative head in all but name and who misses no chance to rather cruelly belittle the poor schlub.

I know Golden Age detective novels often are castigated today for unrealistic depictions of police procedure, but Hannah's novel really outdid her purported models in this regard.  I found it so ridiculous as to be alienating.

But what crime scene is it that Catchpool flees from ("Fly, Catchpool, fly!"), you ask? Well, as you probably know by now from other reviews and HarperCollins' publicity campaign, three dead bodies are found in three rooms on three floors of a fashionable London hotel, the Bloxham, each with a monogrammed cuff link placed in his/her mouth.

Based on the mysterious Jennie's earlier cryptic comment (see above), Poirot concludes that she is connected to this conundrum. Identification of the dead persons, two women and a man, leads the investigation to events that took place long ago in an English village, Great Holling.

On orders from Poirot, Catchpool travels to the village and wanders rather aimlessly around the place, listening to anyone who will tell him anything about these past events. Here he finds a surprisingly freethinking vicar's widow, Margaret Ernst, who gives him (and readers) a huge amount of expository back story--two chapters worth--including information on a pair of tragic deaths that took place in the village way back before the First World War.

Catchpool, after promising Ernst--whom he calls "Margaret"--that he will talk to no one else in the village about this information, departs to report back to his master, Poirot. Meanwhile Poirot does some leg work of his own in London, the most significant being an interview with an artist, Nancy Ducane, who also has a connection to Great Holling.

Then Jennie shows up again, in a manner of speaking. Has there been a fourth unnatural death at the Bloxham Hotel?  At this point Hannah starts laying out the solution(s) to the mystery, and this leads to perhaps the gravest fault of the book in my estimation: a veritable water torture of a mercilessly drawn-out explanation that extends over eight of the novel's twenty-five chapters, about 36% of the book.

Worse yet, I not only found, like Simon Brett did in his review (if you follow the link to Brett's review beware the spoiler in the next-to-last paragraph), much of the explanation extremely implausible, I also found it, frankly, approaching the impenetrable.

This part of the book made extremely tedious reading, the kind of fictional murk one wades through simply out of a grim determination to somehow make it to the end.

Sophie Hannah says she instinctively knows Christie's storytelling priorities, yet surely one of those priorities was narrating a mystery with clarity and cogency.  On this count, The Monogram Murders is a failure.

To the extent the novel resembles a Poirot mystery in terms of narrative it is one from later in Christie's career, when the Queen of Crime was losing her extraordinary facility with narrative: Third Girl (1966), say, or Hallowe'en Party (1969). There are clues in those novels, yes, and involved plots, but the deft storytelling is gone. Yet even those books I would rank higher than The Monogram Murders, which, out of the entire Christie canon of Poirot novels, probably is superior to just one, Elephants Can Remember (1972).

If you really think The Monogram Murders captures the essence of Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries from her best years, you should compare the elegant explanatory chapter in Murder on the Orient Express (1934)--7% of the novel--with the stodge offered by Hannah now, eighty years later. The difference illuminates why we call the Golden Age of detective fiction (1920s-1940s) golden.

Additionally, I was underwhelmed with Hannah's depiction of character and setting. There's a waitress introduced in the first chapter who has some of the qualities of a memorable Christie person, but otherwise I found Hannah's characters a forgettable, charmless lot.  As Noah Stewart points out in his splendid review of The Monogram Murders, the three most potentially interesting characters in the novel are all dead when we encounter them; and we only ever learn anything about them from the exceedingly long-winded individuals who have long hated them.  Christie gave much more dramatic force to her celebrated retrospective death Poirot mystery, Five Little Pigs (1942).

As for setting, Hannah's (deliberately) dreary village of Great Holling is most disappointing, essentially false and absolutely nothing like Christie in my view; but the Bloxham Hotel never really comes alive either.

once read, never forgotten
I am saddened to post such a negative review of this novel, because I have praised Sophie Hannah in the past for publicizing her great admiration for Christie and her belief that plot is actually important in a detective novel (this shouldn't be an exceptional assertion, but these days it seems to be). However, it is precisely because I believe plot is important in a detective novel that I am so disappointed with The Monogram Murders.

The great Golden Age detective novels are not just about complexity, but complexity clarified. This is especially true of Agatha Christie's miraculous Golden Age mysteries, which have plots that are tricky yet comprehensible. Deft misdirection, not lumbering obfuscation, characterizes Christie's narratives.

One can explain the brilliant solutions to novels like Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in single sentences. I would not even care to try to explain the solution to The Monogram Murders.

There are clues of a kind in this new Poirot mystery that often seem clearly inspired by Christie, but they are not carried off with the peerless panache of a Christie, let alone the fleet skill of, say, a Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Ruth Rendell or Peter Lovesey, to name some additional immortals of English-style mystery.

Detection as a Fine Art
In his essay in Mysteries Unlocked (2014), "Agatha Christie and the Impossible Crime," John Curran, author of two highly-praised books on the Queen of Crime--he's read all her books several times, I believe--writes that "Christie's ingenuity...lay in the simplicity of her plots and it is that simplicity that accounts for her presence today on the shelves of bookshops and libraries worldwide."

It is for this reason that in her review of The Monogram Murders Christie biographer Laura Thompson--she also, one imagines, has read all the Christie novels several times--contends that Hannah's mystery "actually bears very little resemblance to [an Agatha Christie novel]."  Notes Thompson: "What is not there, crucially, is [Christie's] sublime simplicity."

If, as I expect, Hannah produces another Poirot mystery, I hope she improves the clarity and cogency of her plot and makes her narrative much sprightlier. Since HarperCollins and Christie's heirs seem determined to make a go of a new Poirot series, I would like for the next novel in the series to be one I really can enjoy reading.

Dare I also hope that Hannah might ditch the dire Catchpool and bring back Hastings? If she does, I think I have the perfect title for this novel: The Murder of Edward Catchpool.

Come back, Captain Hastings....

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders (2014) and the Perils of Pastiche

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah's much-anticipated Hercule Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders, is out and reviews are coming in fast and (sometimes) furious.

First there are the book blurbs from crime writers--Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Charles Todd, Laura Lippman--and Agatha Christie's grandson Mathew Prichard, praising Hannah and her novel to the skies.

In the New York Times cozy mystery and children's book author Alexander McCall Smith assures us that Hannah's plot in The Monogram Murders "is as tricky as anything written by Agatha Christie."

In the Independent, reviewer Andrew Wilson, evidently gifted with clairvoyance, declares that Hannah "has written a novel that not only would have delighted the Queen of Crime, but her rather more highbrow sister in suspense Patrica Highsmith too." What is one to make of that, I wonder?

In the Washington Post reviewer Carol Memmott confidently pronounces that "Christie herself, some might say, could do no better....I'd challenge any Christie-phile to find differences between her distinctive writing style and and Hannah's mirroring of it."

On the other hand, in the Express crime writer Simon Brett, President of the Detection Club, laments that the novel suffers from a dull narrator and that the plot is lacking in "one brilliant central idea" as well as basic credibility.  It's "not up to the rigorous plotting standards of the Queen of Crime," he concludes (beware a spoiler in the next-to-last paragraph).

Christie's latest biographer, Laura Thompson, is similarly unenthusiastic: "For all its approximation to an Agatha Christie, the book actually bears very little resemblance to one."

Carol Memmott might lose her challenge, judging by reviews on Amazon.com (where the book currently averages 2.8 out of five stars) and Amazon.co.uk (where the book currently averages 2.6 out of 5 stars), which currently are leaning towards the disappointed and even distressed.

A few who did not find Sophie Hannah comparable to Christie:

Look closely and you actually
will find Sophie Hannah's name on
the cover of the American edition
Under an Amazon.co.uk review pungently headlined "codswallop" F. M. Stockdale writes scathingly:

This would be a dull, repetitive, unendurable book even if it was unconnected to the Poirot oeuvre.  As it is, it simply absurd. The first chapter is quite fun, but thereafter the story descends into a farrago of unconvincing nonsense.

At Amazon.com, JMB believes that

Sophie Hannah, on the other hand, has written a ham-fisted pastiche of a Poirot mystery that dwells unnecessarily on useless and obscure clues, far too many red herrings and a convoluted plot line that stretches credibility.  Her Poirot is charmless and flat, the Japp/Hastings substitute so bland and characterless to be completely superfluous and forgettable.

On the other hand, the reviewer the Great Reads, who posted the first review of the novel on both websites back on September 9, lauds "bestselling author Sophie Hannah's fine writing and the compelling plot line" in The Monogram Murders and avows that "Princess" Hannah has fashioned "an absorbing story true to the legacy of its original writer," the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

What do you think?  Are you going to read The Monogram Murders, or have you read it already?

For my part I got the book on Kindle and am halfway through it now.  I will be posting my thoughts on Sophie Hannah's narrative and plotting choices in a few days.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Death in Venice (and Other Places): Daphne du Maurier's Don't Look Now (2008), edited by Patrick McGrath

"She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we would be in danger if we stayed in Venice...."

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) sometimes seems to get left out of crime fiction studies, not, I surmise, because she is seen as unworthy of the genre--she is a very well-regarded writer--but because she is seen, so the saying goes, as having transcended it.  Yet with several of her novels she produced some of the greatest modern Gothics, the best known of which remains Rebecca (1938). And then there is her short fiction.

Don't Look Now is a collection from the quality imprint New York Review Books of nine du Maurier tales. Several of these works, I would argue, can be classified as crime fiction, including the superb title piece.

The novella "Don't Look Now" (1971) familiar to many, no doubt, from the much-praised 1973 film adaptation with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, is the story of a British couple vacationing in Italy, where they are trying to recover emotionally from the tragic death of their young daughter.

At dinner in a Venice restaurant a blind woman claiming to be clairvoyant (there with her sister) tells the wife that she saw the couple's dead daughter sitting with them.

The wife is inclined to believe this tale, while the husband thinks the sisters are crude crackpots or connivers.  The couple is also informed that they will be great danger if they stay in Venice, but again the husband scoffs.  Is he right to do so, or is there real peril for the grieving pair? Don't look now....

Venice makes such a creepy setting for s suspense story, and du Maurier makes the most of it.  "Don't Look Now" truly is one of the great short form suspense tales in the literature and if you have not yet read it--well, really you should.

If only he could keep them from his eyes.  Nothing else mattered.  He must keep them from his eyes....

The second story, the novelette "The Birds" (1952, filmed in a typically loose adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963), is equally remarkable. Strictly speaking, it is outside this blog's purview, as it is not a crime story, but it is certainly a tale of suspense.

Probably most people here are generally familiar with the plot, wherein birds suddenly begin savagely attacking humans at a rural settlement in Cornwall (Hitchcock shifted the setting to northern California and made the protagonist a wealthy playgirl socialite, inevitably a blonde).

This is one of the most powerfully creepy tales I have ever read, a true masterwork of the storyteller's art.  I am an admirer of the Hitchcock film, but to me it does not attain the sheer elemental terror of du Maurier's original "end-of-the-world" story.

The shorter "Kiss Me Again, Stranger" (1952), which shares some affinity with "Don't Look Now," is another of du Maurier's best-known tales.

As editor Patrick McGrath suggests, this is masterful femme fatale story.  It may not be "hard-boiled," but it definitely packs a punch.

Another tale from the collection that I should mention is "The Blue Lenses" (1959), about a woman recovering in hospital from an eye operation who starts seeing things--people, actually--in a very different light. This is another one of du Maurier's best suspense stories, one about which one must restrain oneself from saying too much!

In Don't Look Now some terrific stories are omitted, such as "The Apple Tree" (1952), "The Old Man" (1952) and "The Alibi" (1959), but this is still a wonderful collection, splendidly produced by New York Review Books, who has made some other fine ventures into crime/suspense genre fiction, which you may see reviewed here in the future.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Dew Over: The False Inspector Dew (1982), by Peter Lovesey

Tomorrow is the birthday of Peter Lovesey, whose distinguished career in mystery writing now stretches back nearly forty-five years, to 1970, when he published the wonderfully-titled--and simply wonderful--Wobble to Death, the first of his eight Sergeant Cribb Victorian mysteries, a series that ran until 1978 (the last novel in the series, Waxwork, is reviewed here).

Since 1991, Lovesey's crime fiction output has been dominated by his much-praised present-day Peter Diamond series (the fourteenth novel in the series is about to be published in the US), but in between these two series Lovesey shook things up quite a bit.

Between 1982 to 1990 he published under his own name six crime novels: The False Inspector Dew (1982), Keystone (1983), Rough Cider (1986), Bertie and the Tinman (1987), On the Edge (1989) and Bertie and the Seven Bodies (1990). Of these books only the two Bertie--i.e., Albert Edward, Prince of Wales--mysteries were part of a series (a third, Bertie and the Crime of Passion, would follow in 1993).

The False Inspector Dew, Keystone, Rough Cider and On the Edge are standalones but all reflect Lovesey's interest in history and period settings in his mysteries.  I intend to look at each of these interesting novels over the rest of the year, beginning with Lovesey's hugely praised The False Inspector Dew, which won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association.

The False Inspector Dew somewhat reminds me of HRF Keating's The Murder of the Maharaja (1980), which won the CWA Gold Dagger two years earlier, in that it too is a witty, virtuoso take on the classical mystery.  After a very short opening section, which includes a dramatic episode on the torpedoed Lusitania (today this part inevitably would be called a prologue by the original publisher), Lovesey takes us to 1921 and introduces the various characters who will find themselves enmeshed in drama on the high seas, when they fatefully go aboard the SS Mauretania.

Our central figures are Walter Baranov, a henpecked English dentist ("Baranov" is a family stage name; Walter once worked the halls as a mentalist), and Alma Webster, a naive fan of the romance fiction of the much-ridiculed but much-read Ethel M. Dell.

Walter's wife, Lydia, is a faded stage actress of, to put it charitably, quite mercurial temperament, who has decided, based on the slenderest of hopes, that she can revive her moribund career in the American film business. Lydia controls the purse strings in the marriage, owning, along with the couple's house, Walter's dental practice, and she has announced that Walter must abandon his new vocation to become her agent in Hollywood. Walter refuses, so Lydia angrily declares she will go without him, selling his practice anyway (she says she needs the money for her American career promotion).

Walter, who has become romantically attached to Alma, one of his patients, begins planning with the lovestruck woman some way to get rid of Lydia--for good. Eventually they decide they will murder her on board Mauretania. Alma will be a stowaway on the ship, taking Lydia's place after Lydia is extinguished and dropped out a porthole, while Walter will take passage under a false name, "Walter Dew"--after the police inspector who famously apprehended the wife murderer Dr. Crippen aboard SS Montrose in 1910 (Walter is fascinated with the case).

This sounds like classic suspense, and, indeed, the tale is plenty suspenseful. You likely will feel compelled to finish the book in one or two sittings.

Yet embedded in the text is a legitimate "fair play" mystery, for Walter Baranov, the false Inspector Dew, ends up investigating murder on the Mauretania (I won't say more, except that I found intriguing the development of Walter's character over the course of novel).

If you read carefully you definitely should hit upon part of the solution after about 200 pages or so, I think, but another aspect of the puzzle is harder to discern ahead of the author's grand revelation. A few readers have complained that this part of the novel is not "fair play," but I beg to differ. I was partially mystified too originally, but legitimately so.

The False Inspector Dew is a wonderful, witty, tricksy mystery novel (right down to the last line), a true high point in post-WW2 crime fiction for lovers of the classic form.  This is one fictional voyage you do not want to miss.

Note: I should mention that Peter Lovesey contributed the coda essay, on the Detection Club, in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (McFarland 2014), which I edited.  His substantial piece is a lovely homage to the Detection Club and to that great historian of the mystery genre, Doug Greene.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Actors! Death of a Star (1932), by GDH and Margaret Cole (mostly Margaret)

As I pointed out in my last piece in the English mystery-writing team of GDH and Margaret Cole, on The Man from the River, Douglas Cole probably wrote eighteen of the twenty-eight detective novels credited jointly to them, and Margaret ten.  The Man from the River was primarily by Douglas, so I thought I would look at a Coles novel primarily by Margaret: Death of a Star (1932).

Who murdered Rita Morning?
Death of a Star details events that follow the discovery of the head of an English film actress, Rita Morning, left in a fishbag in the back seat of a London taxi. World events have brought actual decapitations into the news in the West, as we all know, and this fact was unpleasantly in my mind when I reread this novel.

As has been observed many times, Golden Age detective novels often treated death as a game and in some of them gruesomely gamboling with body parts could be part of the "fun" (see, for example, Gladys Mitchell's The Mystery of a Butcher Shop, where the murder victim is cut into joints in a butcher's shop--hilarious, huh?).

However, in Death of a Star the decapitation is not treated as a grisly joke by the author but as something genuinely horrific, which of course it is (as an aside I should note that the period known as the Golden Age of detective fiction also seems to have been the Golden Age of the Trunk Murder, if you will).

a club I would have
joined in the 1930s
In fact when rereading Death of a Star I was struck even more forcibly than before about what an impressive exercise in social realism it is for the period.  The author deftly portrays social classes high and low, from London society--aristocrat Everard Blachington, who appeared previously in the Coles' excellent The Blatchington Tangle, 1926, and Burglars in Bucks, 1930, pops up again, though as an observer rather than as a sleuth--to London toughs; and she also is painstaking in her depiction of police investigation. Her cops--Supt. Henry Wilson does not appear in this one--are not idealized and, with one exception, a lowly police constable, are not even likable, really (certainly the lower classes do not like them--with some justification, Cole suggests).

There are a few Jewish characters--a lawyer, a film producer and a fishmonger--and the police are allowed some ethnophobic thoughts in their direction, which is probably a fair enough portrayal of a number of police at the time, I imagine.  The author is also frank in her portrayal of the casual sexual morals of the film world.

All this I found made highly interesting mystery reading.  I enjoyed the puzzle plot as well, but of course can't talk about that in detail here!  This is another Coles novel I would love to see reprinted someday.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Found Drowned? The Man from the River (1928), by GDH and Margaret Cole (mostly GDH)

Below is pictured the dust jacket of The Man from the River, the 1928 detective novel by the mystery-writing English couple GDH and Margaret Cole--one of the finest dust jackets for a Golden Age mystery in my view.  How is the novel itself?

In The Man from the River Dr. Michael Prendergast is on vacation in the quaintly decayed Essex village of Steeple Tollesbury, outside Colchester, awaiting the arrival of his clever policeman friend, Superintendent Henry Wilson of Scotland Yard (Mrs. Wilson is nowhere in evidence in this one). Two later Coles novels also pair Wilson with his sometime Watson, Dr. Prendergast, as do some Coles short stories.

Before Wilson's arrival to join Prendergast at The Old Malting House, a corpse is fished out of the River Toll.  Foul play is suspected--but just how was the corpse done to death?  The dead man is William Meston, a partner in a Colchester brokerage firm.  It turns out that there are quite a few people who might have wanted Weston dead, for motives both financial (there seem to have business shenanigans going on in the brokerage firm) and amorous (Weston's beautiful wife, Sylvia, had recently left her husband to stay with relations at nearby Loring Grange--see map--where she had a great many male admirers).

Local law enforcement being a bunch of nitwits, they are soon relying heavily on the informal aid of the vacationing Wilson, who in turn informally allows his minion Prendergast to do some investigative leg work for him and to sit in on all his interviews with witnesses and suspects. Golden Age crime writers tended to be rather casual about this sort of thing in the 1920s, don't you know.

endpaper map (showing Loring Grange)

Critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor liked the plot of The Man from the River, but thought the approach too whimsical and discursive. There is a somewhat facetious tone to the proceedings that detracts from the book, in my view, although this ultimately is a matter of personal taste.  But the plot is a rich and complex, with the authors (primarily, with this one, GDH Cole) impressively juggling some two dozen characters.*

*(a list of the characters to go with the wonderful endpaper map would have been nice, especially since some of the names are similar: William Meston, Mark Warden, Wallace Burden).

The last third of the book, when the investigation begins really to focus, is quite good and the solution clever and surprising. The Man from the River is, all in all, a fine example of a twenties English village mystery: a bit flippant, perhaps, but oh! so clever.  Sadly, it is out-of-print, like the other Coles detective novels.

GDH and Margaret Cole were prominent twentieth-century English intellectuals and socialists who over a period of some twenty years in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s published close to three dozen detective novels and novellas/novelettes, as well as nearly three dozen mystery short stories.  GDH, or Douglas, Cole probably wrote eighteen of the twenty-eight novels, and Margaret ten.

The majority of these works concern the exploits of their character Superintendent Henry Wilson, who, like Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French, was one of the most prominent Golden Age fictional police detectives.  For more on the Coles' detective fiction see my forthcoming book The Spectrum of English Murder.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Headline Crimes of the Year (1952), edited by Edward D. Radin

a not-so-sweet hitchhiker
For this month's #1952 book challenge, there are, in addition to the already discussed Black Widow, two more reviews I am adding today.

First there's Headline Crime of the Year, edited by the Edar-winning American criminologist Edward D. Radin (1909-1966).

The book was published first in hardcover by Little, Brown, but its most memorable incarnation probably was in paperback, when it was reprinted that same year by Popular Library, in an edition thrillingly headlined The Inside Story of America's Most Shocking Crimes. Who wouldn't buy that for a quarter, Popular Library must have thought.

Just how Shocking are these true crimes, all of which were in the news around the late 1940s/ early 1950s? Well, by today's sad standards, not so much, but it's still interesting to see what mayhem was going on in the United States and other parts of the world during those ostensibly good old days.

Only eight of the book's eleven crimes (all but one murders) actually took place in the US.  The one that made it on the cover involved a seventeen-year-old Texas hitchhiker con artist who at gunpoint robbed the men who picked her up; when one man resisted murder resulted.

It's not that interesting case from the standpoint of murder being a fine art, but Popular Library obviously liked the elements of sexual titillation. Also this case at the time inspired a lot of press editorializing about the menace of hitchhikers.

The real life culprit, "Sandra Peterson" (Sophie Anargeros from Massachusetts), was much younger looking than the artist's conception rendered for the cover (see pic at left).

We have pretty women murder victims in no less than four of the American cases, one a secretary at Pennsylvania's Franklin & Marshall College, one a high school student in the New Jersey factory town of Millville, one a wealthy Buffalo, New York housewife and one a high schooler--this one engaged to be married--from suburban Chicago.

The most interesting of these was the Millville murder, because the young man convicted was mentally impaired and may have been innocent, the author suggests. Certainly there would have been grave problems with his "confession" today.

The most classical of the American murders was a murder for gain perpetrated by another woman, this one a "wife from hell" from suburban Los Angeles.  The victim was shot down in his own house. Police soon focused on the wife from whom he had recently separated, but she seemed to have an alibi.

Like so many fictional slayers, she claimed at the time of the murder to have been seeing a movie. In this case the film was, appropriately enough, a little B crime movie, Decoy, starring Jean Gillie as one of the most fiendish femme fatales in cinema history.

Decoy (1946)

In another American case, a war bride provided the motive for the murder, the shooting of Harold Mast, a Medina, Ohio veteran.  There's also a race track killing.

For the most classical murder Radin had to go to another country, Sweden, for a case involving poisoned chocolates. Who put the arsenic in the candies?  Could it have been the college student who had recently directed a performance of Arsenic and Old Lace?

Even with this chocolates murder, however, Headline Crimes of the Year inevitably will disappoint students of murder as a fine art.  There's nothing here to compare with the great cases of Edmund Pearson and William Roughead, and I call that shocking!