Thursday, September 20, 2012

The File on Claudia Cragge (1938), by Q. Patrick (Crimefiles Number 4)

This forgotten book for Friday is certainly a book, I would say, but is it a novel?  The Crimefiles were a 1930s series of murder case dossiers comprised of all the purported documents and clues in the case (letters, reports, statements, photographs, actual physical exhibits, etc.). Different series were published in England and the United States.  "A new dimension of reality has been brought to the detective story," boasted the publisher of the American  Crimefiles series, William Morrow, sounding a bit like Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone.

In his landmark genre study Bloody Murder, originally published four decades ago, critic Julian Symons--who, frankly, could at times be a bit of a killjoy when it came to Golden Age detective fiction--wrote dismissively of this "curious experiment" in mystery storytelling, terming the works produced in the series "artefacts rather than books."

Symons pronounced it "very nearly impossible actually to read them" because "there was in the nature of things no characterization of any kind, and interest rested solely in the comparison of the texts with the visible clues in an attempt to discover discrepancies."

Symons then expanded this criticism, declaring that "the orthodox detective puzzles of the time were only similarly bloodless and characterless games of a more sophisticated kind, after all."

I have to disagree with Julian Symons about Crimefiles, at least as far as Q. Patrick's The File on Claudia Cragge is concerned.  This book, dossier, call it what you will, I found to be rather fascinating and more gripping than one would ever suspect from Symons' negative comments on the series (Symons evidently thought so little of the series that in Bloody Murder he without warning spoils the solutions to two of the English dossiers).

Who strangled Claudia Cragge
 at the seance? It wasn't a spirit.
Symons' view notwithstanding, I thought of the book as a sort of epistolary novel.  It's certainly easy to see how the plot could have been filled out to encompass a full-scale traditional novel.

Claudia Cragge, who is murdered soon after the book starts, is the wealthy widow of Eliot Cragge, late millionaire and faddist of all things faddish, including spiritualism.  Before his death Eliot Cragge told Claudia, to whom he was giving the right to apportion the Cragge Trust among familial heirs deemed  "morally, physically and legally" deserving of inheritance, that he had grave suspicions one of his heirs was not so deserving.

Seemingly Claudia discovered who this person is; thus Claudia Cragge had to die.

Claudia is actually slain in the dark during a spiritual seance, strangled with the cord of a trumpet, while Patrick's detective, Timothy Trant, introduced the previous year in Death and Dear Clara (referenced in the current book), is actually present.  He thus has extra incentive to solve this case!

Besides the various Cragge family members who might have been cut out of the Trust on Claudia's command, don't let us forget the Cragge family spiritualist, the Javanese Julie Van Maas, or Olaf Rasmussen, the handsome Swedish masseur turned chauffeur Claudia was supposed to be planning to marry.

clues in the case (the face powder sample
was missing from my copy of the book)
For my part, I thought the characters came through rather well in the various statements provided (a clever idea also was to have the seance get recorded, providing a transcript of everything said).  Q. Patrick (at this time the writers Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler) not only was an ingenious plotter, but he had a considerable knack for conveying character.

I was able to deduce the culprit as I would have in a traditional detective novel, thought I did not figure out how everything was done. 

I missed the significance of someof the physical clues provided, and I very much enjoyed seeing how they fitted into Trant's solution.

Q. Patrick contributed another dossier to Crimefiles, The File on Fenton and Farr.  Based on my enjoyment of The File on Claudie Cragge, I definitely plan to read it.

Note: My copy of The File on Claudia Cragge had rather an interesting original owner.  I plan to do a separate blog post on this matter over the weekend, and also one on a novel--you know, a regular novel novel--by mystery writer Helen Reilly, who, incidentally, also contributed to the Crimefiles series.

5 comments:

  1. First of all, let me just say how much I envy you actually having a copy of this - I bet it wasn't easy to come by! I look forward to reading more about that side of it. Was Symons talking mainly about the Dennis Wheatley 'dossiers'? Also, I'm not 100% sure on this either, but the impression I had was that these dossiers were the work of Webb alone without Wheeler, though again, this may be my memory playing tricks on em - great review Curt, thanks.

    Sergio

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    1. Hi Sergio, thanks for the comment.

      Wikipedia credits the dossier-books to both Webb and Wheeler (though they do so as well with Death Goes to School).

      I suspect that Symons had only read the English dossiers, all by Wheatley and Links. The first American one was the same as the first British one (and authored by Wheatley and Links), but the second American one was by Helen Reilly and the third and fourth ones by Q. Patrick.

      But Symons doesn't limit his general comments to the English ones. "In America and in other countries they had less success in Britain," he writes. "The sudden end of the dossiers...reflected...principally the fact that it was very nearly impossible to read them...."

      On the other hand, they seem to have been well-reviewed, from what I can tell. Symons doesn't footnote so it often is difficult to assess the basis for some of his arguments. Sometimes they seem more personal than anything else.

      As you know, Symons felt very strongly that the detective story was an inferior thing to the crime novel. He called the Golden Age not the "main highway of crime fiction...but a minor road full of interesting twists and views which petered out in a dead end." Symons sees these dossiers as part of the dead end. I would say he's taking rather a too-serious view of it all!

      Incidentally, Symons also strikes me as a bit dismissive of Q. Patrick. He calls Patrick's books, and Jonathan Stagge's, "competent, but in no way exceptional crime stories."

      From what I've read of them they all strike me as higher-end Golden Age detection, particularly the Webb and Wheeler ones. Symons seems to think the Patrick Quentin books, which he prefers, began later than the Stagge ones, though they both began in 1936. He also thinks that there were no Peter Duluth books after the last Puzzle book, though I think there were in fact two or three others with him?

      Symons thinks the PQ books without Peter Duluth are the best, though he says even those "don't dig quite deep enough to be called serious crime novels."

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  2. Symons does particular praise the short stories, some of which appeared under the 'Q. Patrick' byline and you are being a teensy weensy bit selective in your quoting there as he follows on to say, ", but all are alert studies of people who commit crimes for plausible reasons", comparing favourably against later Queen books liek TEN DAY'S WONDER in terms of credibility. But you are right that he does seem to think the Duluth books ended in the 40s, which is odd as he includes MY SON THE MURDERER, the actual last Duluth novel, as amongst the best of the later Quentin books - though, as with Campion in some of the later Allingham books, the series character is seriously sidelined which may explain that. But obviously he is wrong about the Puzzle titles being all there were.

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  3. Hi Sergio,

    Thanks for the response.

    I'm definitely not trying to suggest that Symons didn't like the PQ books, but I wonder whether PQ admirers would agree with Symons that they aren't quite deep enough to be considered serious crime novels, even thought they are "alert" and "plausible"? Symons seems to be setting an awfully high bar here.

    Of course it's true too he was far kinder to PQ books than the later EQ books!

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  4. By the way, Sergio, I do think these dossiers are rather neat items. I have all the non-Wheatley ones, will do another sometime soon, I hope. To Symons they may have seemed a depressing dead end, but today, at least, I think many would find them an enchanting novelty. I wish John Dickson Carr had done one!

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