Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Life's a Beach, Then You Die: The Barbarous Coast (1956), by Ross Macdonald

The Passing Tramp is still passing time in California--the California of hard-boiled fiction that is.  He's just been on the coast with Ross Macdonald, and he'll soon be hitching up to the mountains to see Bill Pronzini.


The cleverly titled The Barbarous Coast is the sixth Lew Archer detective novel by Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) and the last, I believe, of his more Chandler-derivative tales.  Beginning, I would argue, with The Doomsters (1958) and certainly by The Galton Case (1959) Macdonald definitively established a voice independent of the Chandler-Hammett tradition. Since Kevin Burton Smith puts it so well at thrillingdetective.com, I will quote his words:

The Galton Case became a watershed, both personally and artistically, in Millar's life. Archer's (and Millar's) obsession with the twisted, secret history of families, and how the sins of the past shape the present, were finally nailed down, for all who cared to see. Although the early Archer's were well-written and tightly plotted, The Galton Case really got down to business. From that point on, it has been noted, Macdonald wrote the same story over and over, endless variations on the same themes of lost and abandoned children, absent parents, family secrets denied.  

The Barbarous Coast is not quite in this mold, but it does seem to me transitional in some ways.  As explained in Tom Nolan's splendid biography of Macdonald, this period, the mid to late 1950s, brought difficulties to the lives of Macdonald, his wife (the equally distinguished crime novelist Margaret Millar) and their troubled daughter, Linda.  Though Macdonald actually completed The Barbarous Coast before 1956, when his daughter Linda was embroiled in a hit-and-run fatal accident case (a shattering event in Macdonald's life), Macdonald's interest in psychiatry--something that was to become a dominant element in his later books--already plays a pivotal role in Coast, as well be seen below.




Coast is the third of the early group of six Archer detective novels that I have read and I think the most problematic (my favorite is The Ivory Grin).  Macdonald's uncertainly over Coast's title may suggest some uncertainty in its composition. His publisher, Knopf, rejected Macdonald's proposed title, The Dying Animal; we hardly can blame Knopf for this, although some of Knopf's proposed alternatives, it must be conceded, were simply horrendous:

Skull Crasher
Cut the Throat Slowly
My Gun Is Me
The Blood Pit
Blood on My Knuckles
His Head in the Gutter
A Fist in the Guts
A Handful of Guts

Some people at Knopf seemed to be under the impression Ross Macdonald was Mickey Spillane!  In the end Macdonald had the brilliant inspiration of "The Barbarous Coast"; yet, unfortunately the novel is not, in my view, as successful as the final title.

Knopf seemed to be under the impression
that Ross Macdonald was Mickey Spillane

Still, this is a Ross Macdonald novel I am discussing, so there is plenty of interest in it. Certainly Coast does not lack incident: we have a couple young nymphettes (one already murdered when the novel begins, one possibly about to be); a schizophrenic matron; a pretty boy boxer turned actor ("He's got prettier muscles than Brando"); a corrupt movie executive making the move into Las Vegas; a crooked cop; vicious mobsters (straight and gay); and some first rate beatings-up of our hero, Archer, in the best Chandler style (at one point Archer gets sapped three times in a few hours by my recollection and never has to seek medical assistance--the man gives extra meaning to the word hardheaded).

Unfortunately the plot is not one of Macdonald's most inspired and the portrayals of the film industry and of Las Vegas remain more quick, bright sketches than sustained, in-depth canvases.  The comparative dearth of true ratiocination is especially disappointing from my perspective.  Archer does do a bit of good deduction from the clue of a dropped earring, but mostly he wanders around getting people to spill their guts to them (sometimes this happens literally).  Much of the solution is handed to Archer near to end of the book, in the form of a long lecture from a psychiatrist (here we have wandered a long way from Casa Chandler and Hammett Hideaway).  Despite said lecture, I found the culprit for the many murders unconvincing.

this one is more distinguished
for writing than for plotting

At this point it must sound like I am not recommending this novel, but, hey, not so fast, buddy!  Besides colorful incident, there is the writing: like Chandler, Macdonald is always worth reading for that.  Major and even minor characters come alive in this tale (so that we want the latter to become major characters): the vain yet at her core realistic mother of one of the nymphettes; the aging, retired boxer turned security guard; the young African American lifeguard who came back from Korea determined to better himself through education (this utterly winning character makes one entire chapter and allows Macdonald some commentary on fifties racism); the homely, sourpuss Las Vegas hotel manager, and others.

This latter character, the hotel sourpuss, gives rise to something I have found a comparative rarity in the usually ever so serious and sober Macdonald: a really good Chandleresque joke one-liner.  When sourpuss thinks the attractive woman she has been asked by Archer to talk about may be in big trouble her face brightens:

"Are you after her for some crime?"
"Third-degree pulchritude."
She chewed on this like a camel, then shut the door in my face.

Archer tries to be cynical and tough-hearted, like the hard-boiled patron dick, the Continental Op.

As here:

"You leave a trail of destruction like Sherman marching through Georgia."

 And here:

I braced myself for another life-story.  Something about my face, maybe a gullible look, invited them.

Yet he simply cannot help helping people.

As here:

I put George in my bed.  My cleaning woman had been there that morning, and the sheets were fresh.  Hanging his torn clothes on a chair, I asked myself what I thought I was doing and why.  I looked across the hall at the door of the bedless bedroom where nobody slept any more.  An onion taste of grief rose at the back of my throat.  It seemed very important to me that George should get together with his wife and take her away from Los Angeles.  And live happily ever after.

And here:

The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them.  I was a long way from solving that one.

Scattered throughout the novel are some beautiful examples of Macdonald's fine writing. Here are some I highlighted for this piece:

He reached for the string that controlled the light, and jerked the grief-stricken room downward into darkness.

Dancers were sliding around on the waxed tiles to the music of a decimated orchestra.

I felt his glance like an icicle parting my hair.

Self-pity stalked me, snuffing at my spoor.

That was the trouble with alcohol as a sedative.  It floated you off reality for a while, but it brought you back by a route that meandered though the ash-dumps of hell.

The brightness left his eyes like something quick and timid retreating into its hole.

Memory had given him a sudden stab.

The [swimming] pool was gray and restless like a coffined piece of the sea.

Such writing makes a Ross Macdonald crime novel always worth reading, even when the plot is not his most entrancing.  The Barbarous Coast is worth a stop and a dip.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Writing the Impossible: A Review of More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2006)

If any single person were to get my vote for the "greatest modern master of the mystery short story," it would have to be the late Edward D. Hoch, who passed away four years ago at the age of seventy-seven, up to the very end an astonishingly prolific author.  What would have been Hoch's eighty-second birthday was just three days ago, so I thought it would be especially appropriate now to do a piece on this great mystery writer.


Although at his death Hoch amazingly was nearing the 1000 mark in mystery short stories authored and had created an impressive array of series investigators, my favorite Hoch detective has remained Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the country physician who during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s solved a really quite surprisingly large number of impossible crimes (usually murders) in his not so peaceful little corner of New England.


Crippen & Landru, that wonderful mystery short story publisher, produced the first "Dr. Sam" story collection when it published the original dozen Dr. Sam stories as Diagnosis: Impossible in 1996 (this volume was the fourth book done by Crippen & Landru, after books by John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham and Marcia Muller).  Ten years later C&L followed with More Things Impossible, a collection of the next fifteen Dr. Sam tales (these originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine between 1978 and 1983).

Edward D. Hoch

The appeal of Hoch's Dr. Sam stories is twofold, I think.

First, they offer a dazzling mother lode of miracle problems--the sort of superbly ingenious, densely clued mystery puzzles associated most prominently in mystery genre history with the brilliant locked room novels and stories of John Dickson Carr.  When I bought my copy of the first Dr. Sam collection way back in 1996, I was moved to write Professor Doug Greene, the distinguished mystery scholar and Crippen & Landru guru, an Edward D. Hoch fan letter, telling Doug that Hoch seemed to me "a certain mystery author reinCARRnated."  The puzzles Dr. Sam confronts often are that clever.

Second, however, the stories have a great deal of appeal for their local and period color. Though Hoch never forgets he is presenting readers with a puzzle, he nevertheless manages as well in each story to give an appealing and convincing portrait of a time and place (charmingly, Dr. Sam's Northmont is a neighbor village to Ellery Queen's Shinn Corners--see EQ's The Glass Village).  Indeed, I would say that the Dr. Sam stories not only boast many marvelous puzzles, but also that they constitute one of the mystery genre's finest collections of local color fiction.

More Things Impossible offers readers a bounty of fifteen mystery stories, dated from 1927 to 1931.  In each one Hoch presents a fairly clued miracle problem.  Only one of them I managed to fully deduce--and that was one Dr. Sam's not over-keen Watson, Sheriff Lens, managed to solve, which may tell you something!  Opinions will vary, but my favorites are:


"The Problem of the Revival Tent"--Dr. Sam himself is the suspect when a revivalist huckster is stabbed to death in a tent which only he and Dr. Sam occupied.  The man had a faith healing son who was filling some of Dr. Sam's incurable patients with false hope, enraging Dr. Sam.  This is one of my very favorites in the collection, because the clueing to method and motive is so masterful (also it bears a certain resemblance in its subject matter to an important episode of the fine American television mystery series "The Mentalist").


"The Problem of the Whispering House"--Dr. Sam solves a murder in a sealed secret room in a haunted house.  What more could you ask for than this highly Carrian setting?


"The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle"--Who poisoned the judge during the murder trial?  And how?!  Just how did the poison get into the glass?  It seems impossible, but Dr. Sam deduces.  This one reminded me a bit of John Dickson Carr's The Black Spectacles.


"The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill"--This one introduces the Pilgrim Memorial Hospital, which is frequently mentioned in the stories.  It also is one of Dr. Sam's most bizarre cases: a Satanic windmill that sets people in it afire.  Though the setting is Carrian or Chestertonian (the author specifically references G. K. Chesterton), the problem itself is like one out of John Rhode, another clever creator of impossible crimes. There's also a bit of a lesson in social justice.


"The Problem of the Octagon Room"--Sheriff Lens is getting married!  His fiancée has chosen to have the ceremony in the famous Octagon Room of a Cape Cod mansion. There's a bit of an impasse, however, when a corpse is found in that very room (when locked, naturally).  Here Hoch references S. S. Van Dine's locked room murder in The Canary Murder Case, but even those who have read that classic crime novel may not deduce the solution!


"The Problem of the Bootlegger's Car"--Dr. Sam goes hard-boiled when he confronts an impossible vanishing while being held prisoner by a group of bootlegging gangsters. Carr crossed with Dashiell Hammett.


"The Problem of the Hunting Lodge"--"Who could have done it?...A tramp passing through the woods?"  "A tramp who didn't leave footprints?"  Dr. Sam's visiting parents appear in this one, which involves another clever impossible killing.  No one on earth would really try to accomplish a murder this way, I suspect, but it's all fairly clued!


"The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse"--Perhaps my favorite story in More Things Impossible is this Christmas tale of an impossible murder in a haunted lighthouse (a man is stabbed and thrown down to the ground but it appears certain that no one else was near him at the time).  In succession Hoch provides not one, but two, brilliant solutions.  I dare you to get even one right (I partly did)!

By my count Edward Hoch wrote 72 Dr. Sam tales before his death, taking the brilliant amateur detective medico up to the end of World War Two.  I so would have liked for Hoch to live to tell us of some of Dr. Sam's Cold War exploits, but what he gave us is, as is, one of the very finest bodies of short fiction in the history of the mystery genre.

Crippen & Landru has a third Dr. Sam collection in the planning stage, I understand.  All devotees of classic puzzle and local color mystery fiction will love it, I am sure.  Indeed, one might say that it would be impossible for them not to love it.

Note: A few hardcover copies of More Things Impossible are still available from Crippen & Landru (the first collection is out of print).  It's a high quality limited edition, with a frontis of Edward Hoch, and it's numbered and signed by him.  There's also a tipped-in booklet with an additional Hoch story.  See http://www.crippenlandru.com/books.php?bookID=75 --The Passing Tramp

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Detections and Tribulations: Short Stories by Dashiell Hammett and Bill Pronzini (Then and Now #2)

Stories considered:

By Bill Pronzini
It's a Lousy World (1968) (Casefile, St. Martin's, 1983) (C)
Death of a Nobody (1970) (C)
The Pulp Connection (1978) (C)
Cat's-Paw (1983) (Spadework, Crippen & Landru, 1996)
Skeleton Rattle Your Mouldy Leg (1984) (S)
Twenty Miles to Paradise (1985) (S)
Ace in the Hole (1986) (S)
Here Comes Santa Claus (1989) (S)
Worried Mother Job (1996) (S)

I got out one of the issues of Black Mask I keep in desk drawer to pass idle time, but I couldn't concentrate on the Frederick Nebel story I tried to read.  I put the pulp away and lit another cigarette.

--"Death of a Nobody"

"It's a Lousy World," Bill Pronzini's original Nameless Detective short story, was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1968, thirty-five years after the appearance in The Black Mask of Dashiell Hammett's first Continental Op short story, "Arson Plus."  Unlike Hammett, whose entire body of Op detective stories appeared in a relatively short creative burst, the eight year period from 1923 through 1930, the Pronzini Nameless stories under consideration here were published over three decades.  It is fascinating to study the evolution of the hard-boiled detective story in the creative hands of Bill Pronzini, a writer adept at providing both human and puzzle interest in his work.


The two early Nameless tales, "It's a Lousy World" and "Death of a Nobody," both published before Pronzini was thirty years old, reflect the influence, I think, of Hammett but more particularly Raymond Chandler.  Consider the classic cadence of the writing:

Colly Babcock was shot to death on the night of September 9, in an alley between Twenty-ninth and Valley streets in the Glen Park District of San Francisco....I reed about it the following morning over coffee and undercooked eggs in a cafeteria on Taylor Street, a block and a half from  my office.  The story was on my inside page, concise and dispassionate; they teach that kind of objective writing in the journalism classes.  Just the cold facts.  A man dies, but he's nothing more than a statistic, a name in black type, a faceless nonentity to be considered and then forgotten along with your breakfast coffee.

--"It's a Lousy World"

He was drinking whiskey at the long bar, leaning his head on his arms and staring at the wall.  Two men in work clothes were drinking beer and eating sandwiches from lunch pails at the other end, and in the middle an old lady in a black shawl sipped red wine from a glass held with arthritic fingers.  I sat on a stool next to Tommy and said hello.

He turned his head slowly, his eyes moved upward.  His face was an anemic white, and his bald head shone with beaded perspiration.  He had trouble focusing his eyes; he swiped at them with the back of one veined hand.  He was pretty drunk.  And I was pretty sure I knew why.

--It's a Lousy World

His name was Nello....He was what sociologists call "an addictive drinker who has lost all semblance of faith in God, humanity or himself."  And what the average citizen dismisses unconcernedly as "a Skid Row wino.

--Death of a Nobody

In these two tales "Nameless" seems a morose, disconnected loner (he does have a cop friend named Eberhardt, however; a long-recurring character).  The bleakness is indicated by the change in title of the first story, "It's a Lousy World" (its title in Casefile).  In its original magazine appearance it is called, more hopefully, "Sometimes There is Justice."

In both tales, however, Nameless acts from a genuine sense of empathy to find the truth about downtrodden murder victims: his ex-con friend in "Lousy World" and a homeless wino in "Nobody."  Though I think it's a myth that the Continental Op never shows any sympathy for his fellow human beings in the Hammett stories, Pronzini feels closer to Chandler here.

Both are moving stories, with rather simple plots that feel like they could have come straight from the newspapers.  Something significant was to change in Pronzini's work, however.  The author himself writes about this change in his Casefile collection.

Pronzini, it seems, had determined to kill off Nameless in 1975, by giving the heavy smoker terminal lung cancer.  Once he changed his mind, making that lesion on Nameless' lung providentially non-malignant, Pronzini not only had Nameless give up smoking but also "change his outlook and...develop in a different direction," becoming "mellower" and "more cheerful" and showing "more of his sense of humor."  Also notably for Pronzini's readers, Nameless' cases became more "puzzling than his straightforward investigations during the pre-lesion period."

One sees this new style immediately in the 1978 story "The Pulp Connection" (published, appropriately, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine).  Here is a story where Pronzini breaks with Chandler, who as we know from his "Simple Art of Murder" professed disdain for "gimmicky" plots.  Fortunately, I love them, so I appreciate this development in Mr. Pronzini's work!

Chandler might not have approved of "The Pulp Connection"--oh well!

Despite being associated with hard-boiled writing specidically, Bill Pronzini has a great love for and vast knowledge of the mystery genre in general, including works of classical detection ostensibly incompatible with the hard-boiled style (for evidence of this see his and Marcia Muller's 1001 Midnights and his Gun in Cheek and its sequel Son of Gun in Cheek).  In "The Pulp Connection," Pronzini has Nameless confront both a locked room problem and a dying message!

"He's dead--murdered."
....
"He was found here by his niece shortly before one o'clock.  In a locked room."
"Locked room?"
"Something the matter with your hearing today?...Yes, a damned locked room."

Some hard-boiled fans wear it as a badge of honor that their favored mode of crime writing is "above" such things as locked rooms and dying messages, but I don't see why.  Surely it is no crime for any genre writer to be entertaining.  Dashiell Hammett himself wrote a story that has a locked room situation ("Mike, Alec, or Rufus") and one that is in effect a closed circle country house mystery (Night Shots).  "The Pulp Connection" fits right in with the spirit of those tales.

Pulp fiction functions as a dying message
in "The Pulp Connection"

As do the Cats-Paw, an award-winning Pronzini tale, and Ace in the Hole, a little tour de force--both collected in the Crippen & Landru collection Spadework.  In the latter story Nameless functions as an armchair detective, in the manner of Baroness Orczy's Man in the Corner, solving a miracle problem ("locked doors, disappearing guns--screwball stuff") during a poker game.


In the later tales, Pronzini also humanizes Nameless by letting him have sustained personal relationships, most importantly with his girlfriend, Kerry.  In "Twenty Miles from Paradise," Kerry is along for the ride when Nameless nimbly realizes appearances can deceive, and she helps provide an amusing (and somewhat racy) ending.

In another tale, "Here Comes Santa Claus," Kerry puts Nameless into a situation in which one could never imagine the Op, Spade or Marlowe getting inveigled, especially by a dame: acting as "Santa" at a Christmas party.  Detection is light in this one, but the story delights.

Nameless makes a better Santa than this guy, anyway

My two favorite Nameless short stories, "Skeleton Rattle Your Mouldy Leg" and "Worried Mother Job," represent the crime tale at its peak, combining genuine detection and fair play clueing with genuinely moving situations.  "Skeleton," built upon a Francois Villon poem, offers a powerful and memorable depiction of a depressing residence hotel for senior citizens and some of the most haunting closing lines I can recall in a short story, genre or otherwise.

Worried Mother Job for me recalls Ross Macdonald's favorite Hammett short story, Fly Paper, with its searing portrayal of dysfunctional family relationships (it recalls the work of Ross Macdonald too, for that matter).  It's another one you will remember--both for the anguished characters and the adept clueing.

Bill Pronzini's short stories honor both the hard-boiled tradition and that of the classical detective story--as, I would argue, do many of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op tales.  While he frequently offers  readers clever and teasing problems Pronzini does not neglect the human dimension either.  While Pronzini tales like "Pulp" "Cat's-Paw" and "Ace" are pure puzzles, in stories like "Skeleton" and "Job," murder is very real--and it really hurts. The great Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald storytelling tradition is done ample justice by Bill Pronzini.

For part one of this piece, which considers short stories by Dashiell Hammett, see http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2012/02/detections-and-tribulations-short.html

Friday, February 17, 2012

Killing Cousins: A Review of Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950

Writers of biographies and/or critical studies know what a thrill it is to discover caches of personal letters written by one's subjects.  The dead people about whom one writes sometimes can become almost as real as living ones.  In Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950, Joseph Goodrich has reproduced some fascinating material: a group of letters--culled from the Frederic Dannay Papers in the archives at Columbia University--exchanged over a four year period between Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the two cousins once well-known to the world as the mystery writer "Ellery Queen."

Ellery Queen arguably is the greatest American exponent of the classical (puzzle-oriented) detective novel that we associate with the Golden Age of detective fiction (c 1920-1940).  Without a doubt Queen also is one of the great figures in the entire history of the mystery genre.

In addition to producing some of the most acclaimed works in the classical tradition--novels such as The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Tragedy of X, Calamity Town, Ten Days' Wonder, and Cat of Many Tails, for example, and the novella "The Lamp of God"--Ellery Queen also was, through Frederic Dannay, of huge significance in the genre.  As an "editor, anthologist, collector and critic" Dannay was hugely important in his own right.  His "four decades at the helm of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine would be enough to insure his immortality in mystery publishing," Joseph Goodrich rightly avows.

I have to commend Perfect Crime Books, the publisher of Blood Relations, for printing a collection of letters by an author who, despite his undeniable importance to the mystery genre, is currently mostly out of print and sadly short shrifted by academic scholars in modern studies of the genre (three EQ novels currently are available in print on demand format from Langtail Press and Crippen & Landru offers two fine collections of shorter EQ works, The Tragedy of Errors, 1999, and The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries, 2005).

Although admittedly Blood Relations is of special interest to those who have read works by Ellery Queen, there nevertheless is to be found within its pages fascinating detail about the views of the two cousins, Dannay and Lee, on the mystery genre in general; and I wholeheartedly recommend the book to all lovers of Golden Age mystery.  Let us hope more reprints of the EQ books soon follow.

After a charming forward by William Link, producer of the television detective series Columbo, Ellery Queen and Murder, She Wrote (and author of The Columbo Collection, a short story volume published by Crippen & Landru), Goodrich provides an introduction explaining the historical significance of Ellery Queen and the nature of the interest of the published correspondence between the two cousins.  First, the letters highlight a highly contentious, even "vitriolic" (to use William Link's word) working relationship between the two passionately opinionated cousins.  People who think authors of "mere puzzles" are hacks who do not feel deeply about their work should think again after reading these letters. Second, the missives give great insight into the thinking about the mystery genre by two of its great men.

Dannay plotted the books and came up with the characters while Lee fleshed everything out in prose. Dannay was the one with the puzzle brain, Lee the one with the grand ambition to be, as Goodrich puts it, "the 20th Century's Shakespeare."

"That [Lee[ failed to do this," continues Goodrich, "is no shame, but the gap between desire and achievement" was a "source of torment" for Lee.  Lee's son Rand, notes Goodrich, admitted that his father "was one of the unhappiest men" that he had ever known.  Where Dannay believed that the detective novel could be raised to the level of literature, Lee had his doubts. Lee was, writes Goodrich, "far less interested in the form per se, and conflicted about expending his literary energies on something critics like Edmund Wilson held in contempt.  As good as he was at it, he didn't like what he was doing."

By the 1940s both men wanted to move beyond their glittering puzzles of the thirties (the brilliant succession of four-word nationality mysteries--The French Powder Mystery, The Greek Coffin Mystery, The American Gun Mystery, The Spanish Cape Mystery, etc.--and the "Barnaby Ross" Tragedy series), with their fiendish problems and flimsy characters, toward something more resembling mainstream literature.  In 1942 they produced Calamity Town, a more naturalistic work with greater character and setting interest.

During the time of the correspondence Goodrich has collected, Dannay and Lee were working on two of the mysteries commonly regarded as among their greatest, Ten Days' Wonder and Cat of Many Tails, as well The Origin of Evil.  The heated arguments the cousins got into over the composition of these books are fascinating.




Dannay insisted to Lee that with these books he was "trying to get away from material clues and positive, ultra-logical deductions." But Lee still tended to find situations in them false and artificial, and he let Dannay know this in no uncertain terms. He identified something that I have felt is true of the Ellery Queen books in general: even the ostensibly naturalistic ones are not all that naturalistic; most of them have implausible, anti-realistic elements imposed on them by the puzzle structure (I would say this is true to some degree even of Calamity Town).

Lee wrote a particularly thoughtful and incisive letter to Dannay on January 23, 1950 highlighting this "problem":

As I see it, what trouble exists between us on this question of fantasy in plot stems from our opposing points of view....I have a drive toward "realism"--conformity to the facts and color of life and the world as we live in it--in story; you have a drive to a sort of "superman" psychology in plot, in which vastness and boldness of conception is nearly everything--the colossal idea, planned to stagger if not bowl over the reader....While recognizing, even applauding all this, I still look at the result and I must say, "But how fantastic.  Who would--could--do such a thing?  Nobody human.  It doesn't ring true to life in exactly the proportion in which it is brilliantly conceived.  The more brilliant, the less convincing.  Yet I have to write the story in terms of people, in recognizable "realistic" background.

Dannay retorted that there "is more realism in good fantasy than in bad realism"--a point I would have loved to see him develop in the correspondence.  As it is I can sympathize with what Lee must have felt when he was presented with books like The Origin of Evil and The Glass Village.  The latter book, for example, is meant to be a savage satire of 1950s American McCarthyism, yet it is continually undermined, in my view, by its wildly unrealistic aspects. Trying to make all the plot points plausible must have been a real strain for Lee.  This is why I on the whole prefer the EQ books from the thirties, which are unashamedly artificial.  If the situation in The Siamese Twin Mystery, say, is contrived, so what?  It's not aiming at realism.  These 1930s tales are some of the most splendid examples of Golden Age Baroque in existence.

"Bad Realism" according to Ellery Queen

Both Dannay and Lee found an example of "bad realism" in the 1949 serialized version of hard-boiled master Raymond Chandler's novel The Little Sister.  The comments by both cousins concerning Chandler's work are strikingly splenetic (in their defense I should note that Cosmopolitan, the magazine that serialized The Little Sister, has just turned down the highly regarded EQ serial killer novel Cat of Many Tails, a book the cousins had figuratively sweated blood over in composing).

Of the Little Sister serialization a baffled and demoralized Dannay begged Lee:

Please read the Raymond Chandler story in the current issue of Cosmo and tell me how in the name of all that's reasonable, [Herbert] Mayes could buy the Chandler shit and reject the cat story? How? How?

Lee responded with another extraordinary missive, one that demands to be read in full.  It's an amazing jeremiad against what Lee derisively terms the "slick" school, with its

hard, millicron-thick veneer of sophistication-leer-tongue-in-cheek-we're-hep-boys-worldly-wise-night-club-stripper-rod-"quietly"-obscure-dialogue-reeferaddictswhoreshomosmobsters....

"Recognize facts," Lee lectured thunderingly of the slick magazines.  "They want shit, they are shit, and it takes a shit expert to satisfy them."

Like Dannay's and Lee's letters, Chandler's "Simple Art" reflects resentment over rejection by the slicks

The supreme irony here is that "The Simple Art of Murder" (1944), Raymond Chandler's famous (or infamous) attack on the traditional puzzle detective novel (the sort Ellery Queen produced in the 1930s), surely was motivated to some extent by Chandler's own resentment over his novels and stories not being serialized in the highly remunerative slicks up to that time.  Now in the late 1940s Chandler's stuff was on the inside track and the EQ cousins feared that they were the ones being pushed to the outside.  That all Chandler's fictional works are in print and selling well while Ellery Queen books have faded shows Dannay and Lee were right to be concerned.

Modern critical opinion tends to see Raymond Chandler as a legitimate "serious" novelist, someone who raised the detective novel to the level of "literature," while dismissing Ellery Queen as a gimmicky purveyor of mere puzzles.  But anyone who does not believe that the cousins who comprised Ellery Queen were major creative artists in their own right, men who put a terrific amount of thought and labor as well as consummate skill into the composition of their mysteries, should read Blood Relations and learn something.  "Ellery Queen is the Forgotten Man of the mystery world," laments Goodrich in his conclusion.  While there actually are numerous undeservedly forgotten men (and women) from the Golden Age of the detective novel, certainly Ellery Queen is at the very top of the list of mystery writers who merit revival.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Detections and Tribulations: Short Stories by Dashiell Hammett and Bill Pronzini (Then and Now #2)

Stories discussed:


By Dashiell Hammett (in part one)
Arson Plus (1923) (Crime Stories and Other Writings, Library of America, 2001) (CSAOW)
Slippery Fingers (1923) (CSAOW)
Crooked Souls (1923) (CSAOW)
Night Shots (1924) (Detective Stories, Coyote Canyon Press, 2009) (DS) (also in Nightmare Town, Vintage, 2000)
Who Killed Bob Teal? (1924) (DS) (NT)
Mike, Alec, or Rufus (1925) (DS) (NT)
The Scorched Face (1925) (CSAOW) (also in The Big Knockover, Vintage, 1989)
The Gutting of Couffignal (1925) (CSAOW) (BK)
Creeping Siamese (1926) (CSAOW)


By Bill Pronzini (in part two)
It's a Lousy World (1968) (Casefile, St. Martin's, 1983) (C)
Death of a Nobody (1970) (C)
The Pulp Connection (1978) (C)
Cat's-Paw (1983) (Spadework, Crippen & Landru, 1996)
Skeleton Rattle Your Mouldy Leg (1984) (S)
Twenty Miles to Paradise (1985) (S)
Ace in the Hole (1986) (S)
Here Comes Santa Claus (1989) (S)
Worried Mother Job (1996) (S)

the putative hard-boiled credo:
shoot first, ask questions later

Frequently it is asserted that the hard-boiled style crime tale is inherently antithetical to the classical, puzzle-oriented mystery story associated most strongly with the Golden Age of detective fiction.

I challenge this assertion.

Notable instances of true detection can be found both in Dashiell Hammett's pioneering hard-boiled tales of the doings of his tough Continental Detective Agency operative, "the Continental Op," as well as in the "Nameless Detective" stories of Bill Pronzini, a modern master in the hard-boiled school who has never looked down his nose at "mere puzzles."

Yet the short works by both men also offer instances where a puzzle is combined with the sort of greater literary depth associated with mainstream literature.  That puzzles and literary depth have been mutually exclusive neither in the Golden Age of detective fiction nor in more recent times is demonstrated in the best tales by these two fine writers.

Dashiell Hammett memorably burst on the crime lit scene in 1923 with the publication in The Black Mask of the first of his Continental Op stories (for a fascinating, very detailed look at these stories as puzzles see Mike Grost's analysis of them).  Hammett's three earliest Op tales, published within two weeks of each other, are "Arson Plus," "Slippery Fingers" and "Crooked Souls."  All three works are straightforward detective stories.

the presence of ratiocination in hard-boiled tales
can be lost in blinding hails of gunfire,
but it nevertheless can be found
by those keeping focus
"Slippery Fingers," the most derivative of the three tales, bears a marked resemblance to R. Austin Freeman's forensic detection classic, The Red Thumb Mark (1907).  For its part, "Arson Plus" recalls the sorts of tricks used in the novels of Austin Freeman disciple Freeman Will Crofts, a British railway engineer turned mystery writer.  Crofts had made a great splash a few years earlier with his landmark intensively detailed police novel, The Cask (1920), and by 1923 he had produced three additional popular works of detective fiction: The Ponson Case (1921), The Pit Prop Syndicate (1922) and The Groote Park Murder (1923).  "Crooked Souls," the third in Hammett's initial trio of Op stories, is the most original of the group, but it too is built upon a strong puzzle plot.

In his influential introduction to a 1974 collection of Continental Op tales (The Continental Op, still in print), Steven Marcus takes a different view from the one I have expressed above, contending that there is a fundamental difference between the crime fiction of Hammett and classic puzzle-oriented detective fiction, the latter embracing rationality and the former rejecting it:

The typical "classical" detective story--unlike Hammett's--can be described as a formal game with certain specified rules of transformation.  What ordinarily happens is that the detective is faced with a situation of inadequate, false, misleading, and ambiguous information.  And the story as a whole is an exercise in disambiguation--with the final scenes being a rational demonstration that the butler did it (or not); these scenes achieve a conclusive, reassuring clarity of explanation, wherein everything is set straight, and the game we have been party to is brought to its appropriate end.  But this...is not what ordinarily happens in Hammett or with the Op.

In a 1997 interview ( Hard-Boiled Writing from a Private Eye: A Conversation with Steven Marcus ), Professor Marcus explains what he believes "ordinarily happens...with the Op."  In his analysis, the Op's explanations of the mysterious events that have beset him are not necessarily any more credible than those put forth by the putative criminals:

When the Op comes into a situation, a number of people give him accounts of what happened. These accounts do not make a great deal of sense and may, in fact, contradict one another. The Op begins to set these stories against one another, to take them apart--to use a fashionable word, to "deconstruct" them. Then he starts substituting alternative stories--stories that he has made up, stories that he has figured out, stories that he thinks are plausible for the characters with whom he is dealing. Now, the interesting thing is that most of the time the stories that he substitutes don't make any more sense morally or rationally than the ones that the people who are either guilty of a crime or involved with a crime tell him. Through one means or another, he usually finds the crook, but it is not clear that the story which he has concocted is any more accurate--or, shall we say, any less fictional--than the stories put forward by the people whom he will subsequently turn over to the law for punishment. 



I find that Professor Marcus' description of the Op tales does not really correspond with what I see in many of them.  A goodly number of Hammett Op stories, including the ones I discuss in this piece, actually have ratiocinative clarity (notably, not one of the nine stories I have selected for discussion is found in Marcus' 1974 Continental Op collection, although six of them do appear in the 2001 Library of America collection, also edited by Steven Marcus).

One point we should recall is that as a former "tec" himself Hammett had great authority with his readership.  Surely part of the appeal of many of the Op tales for 1920s readers was the feeling Hammett gave them that they were following a "realistic" crime investigation. Pertinent to this point, both the Library of America collection and that by Coyote Canyon Press (Detective Stories) include Hammett's 1923 The Smart Set article, "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective."


My favorite bit from Hammett's "Memoirs" is this mordant observation:

The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to a mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.

But Hammett also delivers more strictly serious pronouncements, such as: 

Even where the criminal makes no attempt to efface the prints of his fingers, but leaves them all over the scene of the crime, the chances are about one in ten of finding a print that is sufficiently clear to be of any value.

In his Op tales, we often find Hammett, through his lead  character, giving similar tips about the tec biz to his readers.  Here for example is some expert wisdom from "Mike, Alec, or Rufus":

An identification of the sort the janitor was giving isn't worth a damn one way or the other. Even positive and immediate identifications aren't always the goods.  A lot of people who don't know any better--and some who do, or should--have given circumstantial evidence  a bad name.  It is misleading sometimes.  But for genuine, undiluted, pre-war untrustworthiness, it can't come within gunshot of human testimony.

Sounds to me like the Op is talking up the possibility of finding "reassuring clarity" here!

In "Arson Plus," the Op is called in to investigate a case of possible arson and murder.  The Op's investigation and the criminal gambits are so classical in form that the tale easily could be resituated in an English village and investigated by Agatha Christie's Miss Marple (okay, minus the car chase and gunshots at the end).


There are some bits that are all Hammett, however.  The brief appearance of "a scrawny little man named Philo" who stutters "moistly" is rather amusing when one considers that Hammett would scathingly review S. S. Van Dine's debut Philo Vance detective novel, The Benson Murder Case (1926), a few years later.  Like him or not, the affected Philo Vance is one of the mystery genre's great dilettante gentlemen detectives, a world away in social type from Hammett's all-professional, fat and fortyish Op.

Hammett no doubt agreed with Ogden Nash that Philo Vance
--and likely his creator as well--
deserved a good kick in the pance

Also of note is the Op's casual spurning of traditional love interest, when presented with a lovely woman--a potential suspect--in the case:

I had to wait three-quarters of an hour for Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge to dress.  If I had been younger, or a social caller, I suppose I'd have felt amply rewarded when she finally came in....But I was a busy, middle-aged detective, who was fuming over having his time wasted; and I was a lot more interested in finding the bird who struck the match than I was in feminine beauty.

Although "Arson Plus" in form is a traditional puzzle story, the above quotation indicates an aspect of it that must have seemed so compelling and fresh to American readers in 1923: the language.  It sounds like real American people, not storybook characters.  Compare Hammett's writing with the rather prissy description of an underworld den from a cumbrously titled 1929 American detective novel, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (by Milton M. Propper):

Pop Ashby's was a rooming-house, a saloon, and a dance hall combined: and it was something of a blot upon the record of Philadelphia's law and order.  The most vicious denizens of the underworld frequented its rooms, and the lowest dregs of humanity could be found there.  The evil that was there hatched would horrify the average citizen and cause a widespread demand for its destruction, and destruction it undoubtedly deserved.

No one reading the above passage, surely, would imagine that the author (only 22 when he wrote it!), talented mystery plotter though he was, had actual experience with the squalid locale about which he was writing.  With Hammett, on the other hand, one can easily believe the author had first-hand knowledge of everything about which he wrote.

"Arson Plus" is a good tale (though there is one question that surprisingly goes unasked by the usually incisive Op), but "Crooked Souls" is even better, Hammett's first great Op classic of the crime genre.  As the evocative title indicates, here Hammett already evinces more interest in character.  Where "Arson Plus" is strictly a crime problem story, "Crooked Souls" also is a crime story about people with problems.

A tale of kidnapping and family dysfunction, "Crooked Souls" introduces the first in Hammett's long gallery of overbearing, ruthless and predatory millionaire businessmen, one Harvey Gatewood.  "He had made his several millions by sandbagging everybody that stood in his way," the Op matter-of-factly informs his readers of Mr. Gatewood.

Gatewood's mansion is the sort associated with snobbish English country house mystery tales, but the domicile is sardonically described without reverence by the distinctly unawed Op:

At the Gatewood residence I found butlers, second men, chauffuers, cooks, maids, upstairs girls, downstairs girls, and a raft of miscellaneous flunkies--he had enough servants to run a hotel.

There is certainly action in "Crooked Souls":

Coming silently to the door of apartment 202, I listened.  Not a sound.  This was no time for hesitation.  I pressed the bell-button.

As close together as the tapping of three keys under the fingers of an expert typist, but a thousand items more vicious, came three pistol shots.  And waist-high in the door of apartment 202 were thee bullet holes.

The three bullets would have been in my fat carcass if I hadn't learned years ago to stand to one side of strange doors when making uninvited calls.

But there is also plenty of ratiocination by the Op.  "How'd you rap to it?" the Op is asked at the end of the tale, after he has rounded up the criminals (in the process of said rounding up deadpanning the immortal line, "Get up and receive company"). "Several ways," the Op answers--and then lists them.  Unlike Professor Marcus, I gather, I find that the Op's solution makes both rational and moral sense.

"Night Shots," "Who Killed Bob Teal?" and "Mike, Alec, or Rufus" (also known as "Tom, Dick, or Harry") were not included by Professor Marcus in the LOA edition of Hammett short stories, though each is a cracking good tec tale.  Fortunately all three works are found in the Coyote Canyon Press edition of Hammett detective stories as well as Vintage Books' Nightmare Town collection.


"Night Shots," which finds the Op on hand to find out who tried to kill another of Hammett's venal and ornery millionaires, offers a clever hard-boiled variant on the classical closed setting, country house mystery story:

The house was of red brick, large and square, with a green slate roof whose wide overhang gave the building an appearance of being too squat for its two stories; and it stood on a grassy hill, well away from the country road upon which it turned its back to look down on the Mokelumne River.

Mokelumne River
"Who Killed Bob Teal?"--about the murder of one of the Op's fellow ops--as the title suggests is another straightforward problem story.  At the end, the Op gives another cogent, step-by-step explanation of his deductive process.  "With all that to go on," he confidently declares, "the rest was duck soup."

"Mike, Alec, or Rufus," which concerns a robbery in an apartment building, offers something in the way of a locked room problem (just how did the thief get out). The solution would have done any classical British detective story writer proud. We also get the great sarcastic and cynical line, "This sounded too much like a movie subtitle to be very promising."

In a slightly later story, "Creeping Siamese," Hammett has a lot of fun with the "Oriental vengeance" motif from Wilkie Collins' great Victorian mystery novel The Moonstone, as the Op is presented with a dead world traveler on the Agency's doorstep.  The Op's boss, the "Old Man," turns out to be even more phlegmatic than the Op himself:

The Old Man's voice and smile were as pleasantly polite as if the corpse at his feet had been part of the pattern on the carpet.  Fifty years of sleuthing have left him with no more emotion than a pawnbroker.

The Op is skeptical of any role played in the murder by "creeping Siamese":

"Don't be too hard on him," I told O'Gar.  "Being around movies all the time has poisoned his idea of what sounds plausible."

Once again, the practical Op does some solid detection and solves the problem quite satisfactorily.

"Creeping Siamese" is more cerebral than
one might think from this cover

All the stories discussed above are extremely enjoyable both as cerebral puzzle stories and as visceral tales of crime.  Yet for my money Hammett's two greatest true detective stories are "The Scorched Face" and "The Gutting of Couffignal."  Both are tours de force of hard-boiled short crime fiction (both are available in the 2001 Library of America edition and the collection The Big Knockover, currently available from Vintage Books).


In "The Scorched Face," the Op investigates a complex case involving disappearances and suicides of wealthy society matrons and debutantes.  There's much to like in this tale: a good problem, lots of action, a quality of real pathos and an interesting situation and characters.  The hard-nosed Op comes off as surprisingly empathetic here and Hammett manages to stage a brilliant last-line revelation of near O'Henry level proportions.  Bill Pronzini, who includes "Face" in his Hard-Boiled anthology, sees this tale as one of the three or four best Op stories, in part for what he calls the "the sharp surprise stinger in its final sentence."

In his and Marcia Muller's "Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction," 1001 Midnights (1986), Pronzini also highly praises "The Gutting of Couffignal," particularly for its "terrific atmosphere of menace and suspense." This brilliantly titled story about the brutal assault by a pack of ruthless crooks on a wealthy and privileged island community (the Op is on hand guarding wedding presents) indeed is splendidly menacing and suspenseful, but the intellectual problem Hammett offers in the tale is tops as well.

At the end of the story the Op lays out no less than twelve points that led him to his stunning deduction, and the whole chain of reasoning is strong and impressive. Further, Hammett manages another kicker of a last line and the entire climax is superbly managed (more can't be said without spoiling the story).  "Couffignal" doubtless would make my personal top ten list of favorite detective stories.  It is a brilliant piece of crime literature, indicative of how a bold and talented detective fiction writer can expand the artistic boundaries of the mystery genre without collapsing the basic puzzle framework.

In Part Two of this piece I will look at how the hard-boiled mystery tale has been treated by a modern master, Bill Pronzini.

Note: My first Then and Now blog piece concerned the detectives of Freeman Wills Crofts and Ian Rankin.  See Good Cop, Bad Cop --The Passing Tramp

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Stock-taking


Time, I felt, for The Passing Tramp to do a bit of stocktaking of recent and forthcoming work:

I have written introductions to forthcoming editions by Coachwhip Publications (about which see All Hail Max! my review of Coachwhip's Ernest Bramah Max Carrados short story collection) of three J. J. Connington (Alfred Walter Stewart) Sir Clinton Driffield detective novels: Murder in the Maze (1927), The Castleford Conundrum (1932) and The Tau Cross Mystery/In Whose Dim Shadow (1935).  These are limited to American distribution.  If sales are good more titles may be made available and the distribution widened, I hope.  These titles should be available in a few weeks.

I also have a short book on another mystery author that will appear by April, I hope.  I will have more details in a few weeks.

My recent essays "J. J. Connington on Detective Fiction: The Gould-Stewart Correspondence, September 1935-December 1936" and "T. S. Eliot: Detective Fiction Critic" appear in volumes 61 and 62 respectively of CADS (Crime and Detective Stories).  These issues can be ordered from the editor, Geoff Bradley, through his email address, Geoffcads@aol.com.



My fifty-four page CADS Supplement, Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953, also can be ordered through the above email address.  I believe the individual issues and the pamphlet each cost about 10-12 U.S. dollars with air mail.  Corinne is, I believe, the longest piece ever published on England's venerable Detection Club.



Finally, May 31 is the listed publication date for my book with McFarland Press, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961.  See here for my book's McFarland page.  I plan to blog a bit more on these authors as we get nearer to the actual publication date.  In addition to the material on these three authors, there is a great deal of detail on the English detective novel in general.  Nearly ten years of research and reading when into this book, so that should give you some idea!

Happy reading!  I will be back soon with Part Two in my Then and Now series: a discussion of the short stories of past master Dashiell Hammett and modern master Bill Pronzini.  After that will be the commencement of yet another series: Crippen & Landru Cavalcade, wherein I review a different book each installment  by the exquisite mystery short story publisher, Crippen & Landru.  One of the Pronzini books I write about, in fact, was published by Crippen & Landru.  The late and great Edward D. Hoch will be the first author I discuss in this series, followed by Ross Macdonald.  Finally, there will be another in-depth exploration of the life and work of a neglected Golden Age traditionalist mystery writer, another American.

Busy weeks ahead for The Passing Tramp! I hope you enjoy the stuff I bring back from my travels.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Art of Murder: Murder in Stained Glass (1939), by Margaret Armstrong

[W]hen I think back and consider the part I played in the Ullathorne affair, I realize that if the sun had not been shining on one particular Monday morning last March, nothing that happened at Bassett's Bridge would have happened in exactly the same way, and some of it wouldn't have happened at all.  For I shouldn't have been there....If the weather hadn't cleared I wouldn't have gone to stay with Charlotte Blair; I shouldn't have been on hand with my eyes wide open when things began to happen; I shouldn't have been forced to play the part of innocent bystander--a dangerous part when bullets are flying about; and, as I should have known nothing about the case, except what I read in the newspapers, I couldn't have been of the smallest use to anybody concerned....But I did go.  I saw what no one else saw.  Or, rather, I saw it sooner....


Murder in Stained Glass is the first and best of Margaret Armstrong's trio of crime novels.  It is also the only one of them that we know was read by Agatha Christie.  One imagines that Christie enjoyed the tale, for it is in fact a very worthy enrollee in the Mary Roberts Rinehart school of crime fiction.


Although Howard Haycraft classified Margaret Armstrong as an HIBK (Had I But Known) writer, in truth of Armstrong's three genre efforts only Murder in Stained Glass conforms to the HIBK pattern.  We have

an opening premonitory passage (quoted above)

lashings of young love

narration by a Rinehart-ish wealthy, outspoken "spinster"--this one, Miss Harriet Trumbull, actually shy of fifty--who determines to meddle in a murder investigation

Yet pleasingly the novel emphasizes detection over the inducement of shudders and shivers in the reader.

Often in the HIBK tales that I have read, the spinster investigator does not really ratiocinate. To the contrary, she remains rather clueless and mystified throughout the tale, waiting for a man ultimately to solve the case.  More, I think, than any sexism of which they have been accused, this aspect of HIBK stories is what provoked the ire of such prominent male critics of HIBK as Ogden Nash and Jacques Barzun.  Certainly, only detect! could be Jacques Barzun's criminous aesthetic motto.

Happily In Murder in Stained Glass, lead character Miss Trumbull with vigor and keenness investigates the murder that occurs while she is visiting her old school chum in rural New England; and she indeed gets much of the solution right (though she is stymied by the author's double twist ending).

The murder that Miss Trumbull is investigating is that of Mr. Ullathorne, the noted stained glass artist, who recently has left New York City and set up shop in rural Bassett's Bridge, home of Charlotte Blair, the aforementioned old school chum of Miss Trumbull.  In the novel there is interesting detail about stained glass manufacture, with which the author was quite familiar, her father and a sister being noted American stained glass artists.  (see Margaret Armstrong: HIBK Patrician )

the author's father, Maitland Armstrong,
a noted American stained glass artist--
though there any resemblance to the novel's
Mr. Ullathorne probably ends

Indeed, Margaret Armstrong's's original title for Murder in Stained Glass was Red Flash, a technical term for a type of stained glass.  However this title was vetoed by her publisher, Random House, which feared that Red Flash would lead mystery readers to think that Armstrong's first murder tale was actually a dog story!

As Miss Trumbull notes at the beginning of the novel, she almost turned down her friend Charlotte's invitation to visit.  "Poor Charlotte" (as Miss Trumbull usually thinks of her) has always been tiresomely nervy and her home, in contrast with the stylish Miss Trumbull's stylish Park Avenue apartment, is a "rather gloomy" place, "one of those Greek Revival mansions our great-grandfathers admired; tall white pillars in front and tall dark spruces gathering too close all around" (this mansion sounds a lot like Margaret Armstrong's own ancestral abode).

Danskammer, the Armstrong ancestral abode
overlooking the Hudson River

Nevertheless, Miss Trumbull feels duty-bound to visit her friend and, though she finds poor Charlotte nervier than ever, she is delighted with Charlotte's young cousin and ward, Phyllis Blair ("pretty and lively and slim...bright red hair, bright blue eyes and bright pink cheeks, not enough lipstick to matter and, thank the Lord, eyebrows"), and Phyllis' romantic interest, Leo, the son of and principal male model for Mr. Ullathorne ("a beautiful creature...figure of a young Greek athlete").

the "beautful creature" Leo Ullathorone
serves as his father's male stained glass model

Leo Ullathorne is well-liked, but it is another story altogether with his Bohemian artist father.  When the latter man is found to have been murdered shortly after Miss Trumbull's arrival, there is no shortage of suspects in the village (and out of it).  "[W]hat with the [Ullathorne] funeral and all, the village is having a grand time," bluntly declares the Blair's homespun "right-hand man," Minnie Clater.  "Haven't enjoyed themselves so much since [President] McKinley was shot."

Miss Trumbull has a low estimation of Skinner, the man in charge of the murder investigation:

A man appeared in the doorway.  A short thickset man in a bright blue suit and bright yellow shoes, hat well on the back of his head, nose in the air, a bland smile creasing his broad red face.  It was Skinner, the detective....He smoothed an oily lock of hair back from his forehead with such complacence that I realized he considered himself alluring to the ladies....

Miss Trumbull is even less impressed with Skinner after he speaks:

"I got  a good brain all right....But it was luck gave me my first good case.  Arson....I got an old Polak in jail within six weeks."

"Had he set the fire?"

"The jury thought so.  And he was an old crock better off in jail than anywheres else.  Well, that was the first feather in my cap.  Luck helped me in my next case too.  Dead baby in a well.  Didn't get a conviction that time though.  Fool girl killed herself.  But my step up came just the same, of course.

I nodded.  But I had reached the limit of endurance.

Though she finds the man insufferable, Miss Trumbull is able to take advantage of his male vanity, mildly vamping him to find out what she wants to know.

Wealthy, determined and single, Miss Trumbull decides to investigate the case on her own, in New England, New York and even Beaufort, South Carolina.  The novel's Beaufort section, where Miss Trumbull takes up residence at a genteel boarding house run by a couple spinster sisters, I found particularly appealing.  The author captures this bygone time and place quite well.

antebellum Beaufort mansion

Incidentally, since I am sure you are wondering, here is the menu of boarding house meals consumed by Miss Trumbull while in Beaufort (hope you like grits!):

Supper: crabs, hominy grits and beaten biscuit
Breakfast: bacon, hominy grits and cumquat marmalade
Dinner: fried chicken, hominy grits and waffles
Supper: chicken patties, hominy grits and syllabub

In Beaufort Miss Trumbull makes a major breakthrough in the case and soon she is back in New York City, putting her life at risk in a confrontation with the killer.  Fortunately when confronted with extreme peril the resourceful woman is handy with a teapot:

"I didn't suppose any lady could aim as good as that."

"Basketball," I murmured....

"You don't say!"

All in all, Murder in Stained Glass is a grand murder story, with a fair-sized dollop of feminism in it.  Not altogether surprising from the hand of a woman who seems to have resembled her character Miss Harriet Trumbull in notable ways.  It is to be regretted that this is Miss Trumbull's sole recorded venture in crime detection.

in a hard-boiled tale disagreements may be settled with guns,
but in Murder in Stained Glass a teapot saves the day