Monday, December 31, 2012

All Fall Down: The Tower (1967), by P. M. Hubbard

My last review of 2012.  Happy 2013 to everyone who reads this!

Though not widely-known today, the English crime novelist/suspense writer Philip Maitland Hubbard (1910-1980) has maintained a certain devoted following for half a century now (both Anthony Boucher and Jacques Barzun, who disagreed on many things, liked Hubbard's work; also more recently see here and here and here ).

 
Orion is reprinting Hubbard's sixteen genre works (originally published between 1963-1979) in eBook form as part of its Murder Room series so if you like English crime novels from the 1960s and 1970s this is a great opportunity to acquaint yourself with one of the genre masters from that time.

Hubbard's admirers praise the author's clean, crisp prose style and powerful evocation of place, and I think they are justified in doing so.

P. M. Hubbard (1910-1980)
Hubbard's England immediately reminds me of works like The Wicker Man (made forty years ago into a memorable film with the great Christopher Lee).  His novels often seem to involve rural English villages that have never been quite "civilized," with ancient and odd folkways retaining a strong grip on people.

Anthony Boucher compared Hubbard to novelist Arthur Machen.  I'm reminded of a line from a John Street "Miles Burton" novel, Death Takes the Living (1949), where a bishop comments of the denizens of Clynde, a certain East Anglian village, that "it would not surprise me to learn that they offered sacrifices to Baal, or passed their children through the fires to Moloch."

There's nothing quite that outre in Hubbard's fine 1967 novel, The Tower, but the book definitely does offer readers a powerful sense of place, enigmatic characters and a certain creeping unease.

When traveler John Smith (yes, that's really his name) stops at an inn at a small English village, he soon finds himself growing increasingly fascinated with the village's massive church tower, in danger of collapse, the High Church vicar and two women in the village, one the stunning and mysterious local "lady," the other the winsome daughter of a village intellectual and religious skeptic.  Then events starts to interconnect in a sinister ways....

There is mystery here, though it may be too muted and deliberate for some readers.  Boucher thought The Tower the best of Hubbard's books up to the time (Boucher died only a year after The Tower was published), but a better introduction for mystery fans new to Hubbard might be A Hive of Glass (reviewed by John Norris; see my links above) or Picture of Millie or Flush as May, all now available from Orion.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Countdown Concludes

2012 has been a big year for this blog (the blog only existed in 2011 for five weeks).  I reviewed 75 works of fiction (counting one more I plan to squeeze in), 70 of them novels, half of those from the 1930s.  They spanned the years 1885 (Benjamin Farjeon's Great Porter Square) to 2007 (Ruth Rendell's Not in the Flesh). 

I hope to review at least that many in 2013, with at least some more recent books!  But, as stayed before, I'm a historian of the genre and plan to keep the focus on the past.  After all, the past keeps expanding, and there's a lot of ground to cover already.  So! On to....

The 2012 Best Blogged Books on The Passing Tramp.  So far we have:

#20 The Victorian Album (1973), by Evelyn Berckman
#19 The Confession (1917), by Mary Roberts Rinehart
#18 Maigret and the Spinster (1942), by Georges Simenon
#17 Death and Dear Clara (1937), by Q. Patrick
#16 Invitation to Kill (1937), by Gardner Low
#15 Murder in Stained Glass (1939), by Margaret Armstrong
#14 The Thirteenth Floor (1931), by J. F. W. Hannay
#13 The Third Eye (1937), by Ethel Lina White
#12 The Black Tower (1975), by P. D. James
#11 The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons
#10 The Lesser Antilles Case (1934), by Rufus King
  #9 The Bloody Tower (1938), by John Rhode
  #8 The Scarlet Circle (1943), by Jonathan Stagge
  #7 The Ferguson Affair (1960), by Ross Macdonald
  #6 The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), by Winifred Peck

Now to the Top Five:

#5 Murder of a Matriarch (1936), by Hugh Austin (reviewed December 7 )

Hugh Austin's short-lived 1930s series of Peter D. Quint mysteries was highly regarded by detection aficionados.  In the 1960s Anthony Boucher still remembered the PDQ books fondly and called for them to be reprinted (no one listened).

The third volume in this five-book series, Murder of a Matriarch concerns the killing of one of the most repellent murderees in GA mystery fiction, one of those tyrannical wealthy old people we often see in this genre who seem to make it their mission in life to thwart their families in the cruelest ways.

It takes a long time for Hortense Farcourt to be sent to her reward, but this part of the novel is still quite engrossing, because of the strength of Austin's satirical writing.  The situation is amusingly presented, but there's pathos behind it all too.

After Hortense is murdered, the novel moves into high gear, and a very clever plot unfolds.  The author dares the reader to get the solution right.  Most people who read the book won't (of course, unless the book is reprinted someday, most people will never get the chance to read it, because it's extremely rare).

#4 Murder on the Yacht (1932), by Rufus King (reviewed  August 28 )


The second installment in Rufus King's Lieutenant Valcour maritime trilogy, Murder on the Yacht has the distinction of perhaps having been read by John Dillinger shortly before a famous shoot-out with the feds (really).  It's also the great Golden Age hurricane mystery and a viscerally thrilling read (maybe even Dillinger thought so).

Have Poirot's endless drawing rumor lectures before the assembled suspects in the David Suchet Agatha Christie productions become staid and boring to you?  Well, you won't be bored with the Valcour's here, I can assure you!  It's something truly unique in genre history....

#3 Murder by Latitude (1930), by Rufus King (reviewed August 24 )


The first in the maritime trilogy and one of the genre's great ocean liner mysteries.  A seemingly unstoppable fiend is committing a series of murders on a ship as it makes its tortured, desperate way from Bermuda to Halifax. There's terrific suspense, some fascinating characters, beautiful writing and a diabolical twist.  Now, what more could you ask for than this?

#2 Vultures in the Sky (1935), by Todd Downing (reviewed June 15 )

A Crime Club Selection
The Oklahoma Choctaw mystery writer Todd Downing considered Rufus King the greatest mystery writer of the 1930s, better even than Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.  He particularly liked the two Rufus King novels listed above.  Their influence can be seen in the use of an isolated setting (a train traveling from Laredo to Mexico City), the interesting character studies and the extreme state of tension achieved by the author.

Another influence Golden Age mystery fans will discern is Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934), which Downing considered an exemplary piece of detective fiction.

Admittedly, Downing's book lacks the strikingly original solution of Christie's classic tale, but, on the other hand, it's a much more exciting read.  And it is a fairly clued, genuine detective novel.

Finally, Vultures in the Sky offers a fascinating exploration of Mexican culture, by one who knew the country and its people well.  Downing, who taught Spanish at the University of Oklahoma for ten years, also authored a highly-praised non-fictional 1940 study of the country, called The Mexican Earth.

Happily, Vultures in the Sky has been reprinted in an affordable, quality paperback edition, along with most of Todd Downing's other detective novels.

#1 Asta's Book (1993), by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) (reviewed April 6 )

In my view this Ruth Rendell novel, published under Rendell's Barbara Vine pseudonym, is a great tour de force of mystery fiction.  I generally feel a great deal of crime fiction of the last two decades has been too lengthy (more actually can be less sometimes, I think), but in this case the high page count is amply justified.

In Asta's Book, Ruth Rendell tells a complex tale of deceit, disappearance and death that spans decades, interweaving multiple story lines and mysteries with consummate artistry.  There are wonderful character studies, compelling period evocations and thoughtful insights into problems of marriage, domesticity and family relationships.

And, it must be emphasized, a fascinating puzzle plot.  Will you be able to untangle this great Crime Queen's fiendish web of mysteries?  Try and see.  Reading Asta's Book is a tremendously rewarding experience.

I do hope mystery fiction fans so inclined can track down some of these books (as well as others blogged here)!

Five of the Top 20 are currently in print, though of these only the Downing is a Golden Age work (the others in print are from the last half-century or so: the James, the Symons, the Macdonald and the Vine).  Let's hope publishers make a New Year's resolution to get some of the other books back in print in 2013!  TPT

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Countdown Continues (Part 2)

The countdown so far:

#20 The Victorian Album (1973), by Evelyn Berckman
#19 The Confession (1917), by Mary Roberts Rinehart
#18 Maigret and the Spinster (1942), by Georges Simenon
#17 Death for Dear Clara (1937), by Q. Patrick
#16 Invitation to Kill (1937), by Gardner Low
#15 Murder in Stained Glass (1939), by Margaret Armstrong
#14 The Thirteenth Floor (1931), by J. F. W. Hannay
#13 The Third Eye (1937), by Ethel Lina White
#12 The Black Tower (1975), by P. D. James
#11 The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons

Now for #10 to #5:

#10 The Lesser Antilles Case (1934), Rufus King (reviewed September 3 )


I started reading Rufus King in depth this year and found him a great discovery (I had only read one novel by him before, and was indifferent to that one).  That this once highly-regarded, sophisticated and ingenious Golden-Age mystery writer has languished out of print for, literally, my entire lifetime (and I'm not young!) is a travesty.

The third in King's 1930s Lieutenant Valcour "maritime trilogy," The Lesser Antilles Case is a fascinating tale of a shipwreck in the Caribbean, where some of the deaths may have been precipitated by a malign human hand.  Death follows the shipwreck survivors back to New York City and poisons someone's highball, before the original scene of the crime in the Lesser Antilles is revisited, in a highly tense, bravura finish involving sea diving.

#9 The Bloody Tower (1938), by John Rhode (reviewed August 9 )

American edition of The Bloody Tower
 No best blogged book list of mine would be complete without a "Humdrum" and this year's is this intricately plotted tale of rural squalor by Major Cecil John Charles Street, under his "John Rhode" pseudonym.

It's often pronounced that Golden Age British detective novels romanticized the English gentry.  Some certainly did, but not this one.  Though descended from Yorkshire landed gentry his mother's side of his family and of independent means, Major John Street was fascinated with technology and industry and at one time not only owned stock in, but was the chief electrical engineer of, a power company in Lyme Regis.

(Street's skill came in handy many years later, by the by, when the Major rigged the eye sockets of the Detection Club mascot, Eric the Skull, to glow red in the dark during darkness-shrouded Club rituals.)

When Caleb Glapthorne is found dead, half his face blown away by a rifle shot, it soon appears that his death was not an unfortunate accident but coldly calculated murder.  Eventually another murder will take place, one of the most unusual and ingeniously contrived in the literature of detection.  How does the legend about the tower on the Glapthorne family estate fit into pattern of death?  The Yard's Jimmy Waghorn investigates, but it takes the brilliant Dr. Priestley to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

John Street was considered the Golden Age's greatest master of murder means, and he does not disappoint in this novel.  Also of interest is the squalid setting of The Bloody Tower, which is like something out of a Mary Webb novel or Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm.

#8 The Scarlet Circle (1943), by Jonathan Stagge (reviewed October 5 )


Another novel, under a different pseudonym, by the very clever duo of Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb.  This one is serial killer novel set a marvelously creepy locale.  To quote from my original review it's

Cape Talisman, one of those crumbling (literally) H. P. Lovecraftian oceanside New England villages where seemingly everyone is sitting around waiting for Yog-Sothoth or some such creature to appear from another dimension.

There's a wonderfully intricate, fair play puzzle plot too (worthy of Agatha Christie), plus Dawn, the young daughter of Jonathan Stagge's amateur detective, Doctor Hugh Westlake.  Dawn will be a delight for some, a royal pain for others, but you certainly won't forget her.

#7 The Ferguson Affair (1960), by Ross Macdonald (reviewed December 14 )

Wonder of wonders!
A best blogged book actually in print
At his best, Ross Macdonald could plot on the level of the English Crime Queens, and he's at his best here.  What starts out as a seemingly relatively simple stolen property case spirals into a wonderfully complex conundrum, with several twists in an extended denouement that left me in sheer awe of this man's plotting skill.

Macdonald also manages to include some interesting glimpses of Hispanic-Anglo relations in mid-century modern California, as well as his usual sensitive studies of pathological family dysfunction (not overdone here, as it is in some of his novels, I think).

#6 The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), by Winifred Peck (reviewed January 15 )

That the famous Anglo-Catholic theologian Ronald Knox had a sister, Winifred Peck, who wrote novels too is little known today.  However, Peck's first novel, a mystery story titled The Warrielaw Jewel, in my opinion is superior to any of the half dozen that her distinguished brother produced.

Set in Scotland in the year 1909, The Warrielaw Jewel is a murder mystery, but also a rich novel of character.

Essentially it's dark tale of a decaying gentry family devastatingly impacted by murder.  It's a good corrective to the view that the Golden Age of detective fiction produced "merely" puzzles.  The Warrielaw Jewel would not shame the best modern "crime novels" in my view.  I really hope that eventually some small press sees fit to reprint this title.  I think it would find an appreciative audience.

Look out in a couple days for the Final Five.  Tomorrow I shall try to have one final new review for 2012 (this should have been Friday's forgotten book!).

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Countdown Continues....

Just to recap the count so far:

#20 The Victorian Album (1973), by Evelyn Berckman
#19 The Confession (1917), by Mary Roberts Rinehart
#18 Maigret and the Spinster (1942), by Georges Simenon
#17 Death for Dear Clara (1937), by Q. Patrick
#16 Invitation to Kill (1937), by Gardner Low

And now:

stained glass window by Maitland Armstrong
father of Margaret Armstrong
#15 Murder in Stained Glass (1939), by Margaret Armstrong (reviewed February 9 )

A member of one of New York's wealthiest patrician families and an accomplished book artist, Margaret Armstrong published three mystery novels, the best of which is this, her first and one of the finest mystery novels in the Mary Roberts Rinehart mold (middle-aged "spinster" narrator, premonitory passages, lashings of young love) that I have read.

The narrator, Miss Harriet Trumbull, is a great character, the mystery has some interesting twists and there is good detail about stained glass art (Armstrong's father was a noted stained glass artist).

#14 The Thirteenth Floor (1931), by J. F. W. Hannay (reviewed June 8 )

An unflinching look at murder in Dallas, Texas (fictionalized as Ensign, Texas).  Who horribly hurled the two victims to their deaths from the thirteenth floor of the sinister staircase of the Cotton Exchange?

Author James Frederick Wynne Hannay was a son of the noted Anglo-Irish clergyman James Owen Hannay, who wrote fiction under the name George A. Birmingham.  In the 1930s the younger Hannay wrote a small number of novels, including mysteries.  The Thirteenth Floor was his first.

Dallas Cotton Exchange
scene of two horrific murders
in The Thirteenth Floor
J. F. W. Hannay migrated to Dallas in the 1920s to join his brother, Robert, in a cotton brokerage firm.  The Thirteenth Floor benefits from its authentic, though often unpleasant, local color.  Societal racism is on full display, particularly during an amazing trial scene, where a defense attorney essentially puts the second murder victim on trial for being a Jew and a businessman (there are strong echoes of the Leo Frank case).  Even the nominal hero is not free of prejudice himself.

Not a pleasant book, but a fascinating look at the American South of eighty years ago.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hannay's novel was published only in England.  The truth can hurt.

#13 The Third Eye (1937), by Ethel Lina White (reviewed October 19 )

She was gripped again by the sensation of having invaded some strange region outside time and space, where no one cast a shadow and nothing grew but finger-nails....

Ethel Lina White's classic suspense novel makes one as squeamish as The Thirteenth Floor, due not to realism, however, but rather White's splendid ability to create creeping unease.  A conscientious games mistress crosses a malevolent older woman in a girls' school, then encounters this woman's yet more malevolent older sister.....

The Third Eye takes a while to get moving, but when it does, it will have you staying up past the midnight hour, biting your own fingernails....

Clavell Folly, inspiration for The Black Tower
#12 The Black Tower (1975), by P. D. James (reviewed August 9 )

One of the best (though not, I would argue, THE best) examples of this reigning Crime Queen's art.

This novel too promotes unease, arising from its setting at Toynton Grange, a bleak home for incurable patients on a rocky coast in Dorset, and the author's stoic refusal to gild death with consolatory trimmings.

It's a tour de force for James' convalescing detective, Adam Dalgleish, who is left badly isolated from formal investigative machinery at Toynton Grange as the dead bodies accumulate around him.  Perhaps in retrospect the culprit is a bit obvious, but the narrative is suspenseful, and the writing superb.

The Blackheath Poisonings 
classic Victorian family murder
#11 The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons (reviewed March 30 )

One of this talented author's best formal detective novels, with an interesting puzzle and a splendid exploration of seamy side of the Victorian world. 

There is also, I argue in my review, much of the author himself in the novel's protagonist, Paul Vandervant.  Paul is a marvelous portrait of a young man of artistic temperament in love, in his case with an older woman, the beautiful and enigmatic Isabel Collard.

Some characters unfortunately are more caricatures and the culprit probably is more obvious today than 35 years ago, but The Blackheath Poisonings in 2012 remains a fascinating and moving tale.

Coming soon....the top ten!

The Countdown Begins....

I should get one more book completed for the blog this year, making a total of seventy-five works of mystery genre fiction reviewed, seventy of them novels.  However, I am going ahead and selecting twenty novels for my 2012 Best Books Blogged list.  I will now get the ball rolling with numbers 16-20.

But first, the 2012 Bummer Books Blogged.

I have five contenders:

Murder for Christmas (1941), Edith Howie ( reviewed December 26 )
Death in the Night Watches (1945), George Bellairs ( reviewed September 7 )
The Vultures Gather (1945), Anne Hocking ( reviewed June 29 )
The Barbarous Coast (1956), Ross Macdonald ( reviewed February 29 )
Going Wrong (1990), Ruth Rendell ( reviewed March 14 )

Four of these books are detective novels, and the last, by Ruth Rendell, a suspense novel, or, if you want to get hoity-toity, a psychological crime novel.  Edith Howie, George Bellairs and Anne Hocking are mostly forgotten names, while Ross Macdonald and Ruth Rendell are two of the most successful and famous writers in the history of the crime and mystery genre.

Ross Macdonald's novel is easily the best of this group, I think, but it was a major disappointment, given Macdonald's usual skill.

To me, The Barbarous Coast is suggestive of writer burnout.  I think by this time, 1955/56, Macdonald had exhausted the Chandler formula he had mined for a decade or so and was ready to move on to something more his own: his great saga, beginning with The Doomsters (1958) and ending with The Blue Hammer (1976) of California family dysfunction and inter-generational misunderstanding.

Unusual for Macdonald, Coast has an unmemorable, messy plot, though it does have, naturally, some good writing.  And a great title.  But far superior was the blandly titled The Ferguson Affair (1960), which you just may be seeing again this year....

Ruth Rendell remains a hugely prolific writer even today, as she enters her eighty-third year.  Even twenty years ago, when she was in her best writing phase, she produced an occasional clunker, like Going Wrong.  It's a suspense novel about a man obsessed with a past love, but unfortunately it's not very suspenseful, the characters are instantly forgettable and the twist a fizzle.

The final three books are 1940s detective novels by mostly forgotten authors.  Anne Hocking wrote some good books (I'm a great admirer of her Six Green Bottles), but The Vultures Gather falls flat due to the author's evident lack of interest in actually providing an interesting plot and serious detection.  It's like one of those Agatha Christie family murder novels, without a scintilla of the ingenuity.

So, for that matter, is Edith Howie's book, Murder for Christmas.  It does have better detection than that found in the Hocking book, but it is cluttered in the telling and over-populated with forgettable characters.

However, George Bellairs' book, Death in the Night Watches, is the worst of the bunch.  It has the worst writing and characterization of the lot, with a plot that is if anything even more routine and dull than Hocking's.  This is just a lazy, uninspired detective novel.

Thus Bummer Book of 2012 goes to Death in the Night Watches.

Now let's get to the good ones!

#20 The Victorian Album (1973), by Evelyn Berckman (reviewed November 16 )

Evelyn Berckman's 1973 suspense novel about a woman's research into a Victorian murder that may be reaching into the present is a compelling story that demands to read in one sitting.  Like the better Ruth Rendell books (not Going Wrong!), its psychology is compelling and the narrative detail fascinating.

Evelyn Berckman is one of those fine English suspense authors from the 1950s-1970s who somehow has fallen through the cracks.  She is a strong candidate for reprinting today, it seems to me.  Let's hope we see more of Berckman in 2013.

#19 The Confession (1917), by Mary Roberts Rinehart (reviewed June 27 )

This novella by the Golden Age American grande dame of suspense was serialized in 1917, then published in book form with another Rinehart suspense tale, Sight Unseen, in 1921.  As in The Victorian Album, a middle-aged "spinster" investigates a crime in the past that is associated with her new abode, with unsettling results.  A moving and gripping story, nearly a century old.

 #18 Maigret and Spinster/Cecile Est Morte (1942), by Georges Simenon (reviewed April 23 )

It's often contended that Georges Simenon in his Inspector Maigret novels was "above" such matters as actual detection and ratiocination, but this novel has them.  Atmosphere and characterization are strong, as one would expect, but there's also a fascinating plot in a Christie-like milieu (despite the presence of prostitutes and perverts).

This is a Maigret you can actually read for the detective plot, as well as for the atmosphere and characterization.  And Maigret is as appealing a detective as ever.

#17 Death for Dear Clara (1937), by Q. Patrick (reviewed September 15 )

Under their various pseudonyms Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler wrote some of the best classical detective fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. It's a shame that much of their work is inaccessible to fans today. Clara (about a woman who is not such a dear) is a customarily clever book by these two men.  Like books by Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, for example, Clara offers a real challenge to the armchair sleuth.

#16 Invitation to Kill (1937), by Gardner Low (reviewed July 27 )

This really obscure novel was published the same year as Death for Dear Clara. It is even better in my opinion.  A delightfully "meta" book, Invitation to Kill, we are told, is actually the manuscript written by one of the "characters" in the novel, the amateur detective brought it by his psychiatrist friend to solve the crime the novels is about.  The reader gets not only the "manuscript" to read, but also the ongoing commentary about the manuscript made by the two men, who are themselves reading it.

Got that?  It's great fun, clever and engrossing.  Gardner Low was a one-shot pseudonym of Australian journalist Charles Rodda, better known by his other pseudonym, Gavin Holt, under which he wrote numerous Edgar Wallace style thrillers.  Rodda apparently was determined to do something extra as Gardner Lowe, and he succeeded!  Interestingly, like Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, Rodda emigrated to the United States and his Gardner Low book, like Death for Dear Clara, is set in New York.

So that's all for now.  Look out for #15-#10, coming soon (also my last new book review of 2012).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sometimes You Get Socks: Murder for Christmas (1941), Edith Howie

I've reached the age, to be candid, where I don't mind getting socks for Christmas (in moderation anyway), but, yeah, when one is a kid, socks as presents make downright duds.

I'm afraid this year's Christmas number (a bit late like last year's superior entry). Edith Howie's Murder for Christmas, is "socks," so to speak.

It appears that Edith Howie was born, and lived her life, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and that on the eve of publishing her first mystery novel, Murder for Tea, in 1941, she resided with her parents, William and Christy Howie, and was about forty years old (This is of some interest to me, since I was born in Vermillion, South Dakota about a quarter century later).

Murder for Tea was a runner-up in the Second Mary Roberts Rinehart Mystery Novel Prize Contest and was published with the two other runners-up in an omnibus volume, Three Prize Murders, with a (highly perfunctory) foreward by the Great Lady herself, Mary Roberts Rinehart.  The same year, Edith Howie's Murder for Christmas was likewise published by Farrar & Rinehart.

Howie's next two novels, Murder's So Permanent and Murder at Stone House (both 1942), were also published by Farrar & Rinehart, but her last three were taken up by M. S. Mill, which seems rather a come-down.  After 1946 Howie apparently published no additional novels.

New Republic declared that Murder for Christmas "has settings and people as classy as anything out of Ngaio Marsh" and Saturday Review pronounced the novel "fantastically characterized."

There certainly is a resemblance to Ngaio Marsh's Death and the Dancing Footman, which came out the next year, in the setting (snowbound country house party).  And, indeed, to carry things  a step further, there's a striking resemblance to Marsh's Tied up in Tinsel, which appeared thirty years later (in 1972), in a key plot mechanic.

Did Marsh actually read this detective novel (some of Howie's books, including Christmas, were published in England too)?  Maybe so! Be that as it may, however, Howie simply is not in Marsh's league as a mystery writer.

Howie's house party in Christmas does have a lot of arty types in attendance, including stage actors and Russian ballet stars, but they aren't memorably characterized, Saturday Review notwithstanding.  Nor is the plot, built around the murder of a wealthy, much married man, hated by all and sundry, anything special.

There's a newlywed wife of a private detective who functions as the Rinehart-ish narrator (the couple is stranded at the house by the snowstorm), but she's not memorable either. 

When this narrator, Marcia Holgate, declared of the second murder victim

But Daphne--Daphne was different.  You couldn't talk about her, think about her, in the abstract.  You couldn't!

I was thinking, well, Marcia, my dear, I could, personally.  Heck, I couldn't even remember whether Daphne had uttered a word of dialogue before her demise.

Ngaio Marsh dances rings
around Edith Howie
My favorite passage concerned Marcia Holgate's observations on the police lieutenant, Bassett, who eventually shows up at the house.  He displays "the eager friendliness of a puppy," notes Marcia (a "bassett" hound, no doubt).  We're a long way from hard-boiled here, folks!

There are also some amusing typos, all marked by a pedantic prior reader (who read this book three times in the 1940s!), like the one where Marcia mentally relives "the events of the past few years [sic]."  To be fair to Marcia, to me this book certainly did feel like it took years to read!

My favorite thing by far about Murder for Christmas is the wonderful Dali-esque book jacket by Arthur Hawkins, Jr. (1903-1985), one of the great illustrators in Golden Age mystery (and much as as well).  Here's something to look at if you have $28,500 to spare--or if you just want to learn more about a one of the greats.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012: The Blog Year in Review

I'm hoping to get in my Christmas mystery review and two other books this coming week, but in the meantime I thought I would review my first full year on the blog.

The biggest news was the appearance in June of my book, ten years in the making, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920 to 1961. With it, I hope to persuade modern mystery critics and fans that the Golden Age of the detective novel (roughly 1920 to 1940) was a more diverse period, ideologically and aesthetically, than is admitted and also that these specific authors had their merits (some critics and fans know this already, of course, but many don't).

The book has received some excellent notices, such as Jon L. Breen's in Mystery Scene, J. Kingston Pierce's at Kirkus Reviews and Geoff Bradley's in CADS.  Also a great piece by Patrick Ohl on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime.

I also contributed introductions to Coachwhip's new editions of titles by J. J. Connington and Todd Downing.  My own book on Todd Downing will be out, after a delay, in January (you'll be hearing more about this one).

All these books are available from Amazon.  Additionally, titles by Connington are being reissued in Ebook format by Orion's Murder Room.  I hope they can follow suit with John Street and Freeman Wills Crofts.  Those who control Street's literary estate have not been notably helpful to date.

Now to the books discussed this year on the blog!

Herewith is the list of the them, by year of publication:

Great Porter Square (1885), by Benjamin Farjeon

The Confession (1917), Mary Roberts Rinehart

Carteret's Cure (1926), Richard Keverne

The Copper Bottle (1929), E. J. Millward

Murder by Latitude (1930), Rufus King

Castle Skull (1931), John Dickson Carr
The Floating Admiral (1931), Various Authors
Maigret in Holland (1931), Georges Simenon
The Matilda Hunter Murder (1931), Harry Stephen Keeler
Six Dead Men (1931), Stanislas-Andree Steeman 
The Thirteenth Floor (1931), J. F. W. Hannay

Murder on the Yacht (1932), Rufus King

Red Warning (1933), Virgil Markham
The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), Winifred Peck

Cartwright is Dead, Sir! (1934), Hugh Baker
Death of a Banker (1934), Anthony Wynne 
A Girl Died Laughing (1934), Viola Paradise
Desire to Kill (1934), Alice Campbell
Give Me Death (1934), Isabel Briggs Myers
Insoluble (1934), Francis Everton
The Lesser Antilles Case (1934), Rufus King
Still Dead (1934), Ronald Knox

Crime in Corn Weather (1935), Mary Meigs Atwater
The First Time He Died (1935), Ethel Lina White
Halfway House (1935), Ellery Queen
How Strange a Thing (1935), Dorothy Bennett
Murder with Pictures (1935), George Harmon Coxe
Smoke Screen (1935), Christopher Hale
Vultures in the Sky (1935), Todd Downing

A Frame for Murder, Kirke Mechem (1936) 
Murder of a Matriarch (1936), Hugh Austin

Death for Dear Clara (1937), Q. Patrick
Invitation to Kill (1937), Gardner Low
Murder a la Richelieu (1937), Anita Blackmon
The Third Eye (1937), Ethel Lina White
Todmanhawe Grange (1937), J. S. Fletcher

Banbury Bog (1938), Phoebe Atwood Taylor
The Bloody Tower (1938), John Rhode
Double Death (1939), Various Authors

Murder in Stained Glass (1939), Margaret Armstrong

The Affair in Death Valley (1940), Clifford Knight

Maigret and the Spinster (1942), Georges Simenon

The Scarlet Circle (1943), Jonathan Stagge

Absent in the Spring (1944), Agatha Christie (as Mary Westmacott)

The Vultures Gather (1945), Anne Hocking
Death in the Night Watches (1945), George Bellairs

Museum Piece No. 13 (1946), Rufus King
Death Before Wicket (1946), Nancy Spain 

Poison for Teacher (1949), Nancy Spain
Knight's Gambit (1949), William Faulkner

The Arm of Mrs Egan (1952), William Fryer Harvey
Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Gore Vidal (as Edgar Box)
Venom House (1952), Arthur Upfield

Death Before Bedtime (1953), Gore Vidal (as Edgar Box)

Death Likes It Hot (1954), Gore Vidal (as Edgar Box)
Man Missing (1954), Mignon Eberhart

The Barbarous Coast (1956), Ross Macdonald

Licensed for Murder (1957), John Rhode

The Ferguson Affair (1960), Ross Macdonald

The Turret Room (1965), Charlotte Armstrong

The Protege (1970), Charlotte Armstrong

The Victorian Album (1973), Evelyn Berckman

The Black Tower (1975), P. D. James

The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), Julian Symons
Waxwork (1978), by Peter Lovesey

Nightshades (1984), Bill Pronzini

The Wench is Dead (1989), Colin Dexter

Going Wrong (1990), Ruth Rendell

Asta's Book (1993), Ruth Rendell (as Barbara Vine)

Dover: The Collected Short Stories (1995), Joyce Porter

More Things Impossible (2006), Edward D. Hoch
A Mammoth Murder (2006), Bill Crider

Not in the Flesh (2007), Ruth Rendell

73 books!  This is not counting four capsule John Dickson Carr reviews I reprinted here.

Will Ruth Rendell seize the crown next year?
Only four volumes of short stories, by William Faulkner, William Fryer Harvey, Joyce Porter and Edward D. Hoch, but I also did a piece on Edith Wharton's superb "A Bottle of Perrier" and one comparing the short stories of Bill Pronzini and Dashiell Hammett.  There is also an oddity, a lyrical murder mystery poem by Dorothy Bennett.

Most reviewed author: Rufus King, who died forty-six years ago.  Runner-up: Ruth Rendell, very much with us still.

So that's 68 novels, 35 of them from the 1930s.  I guess it won't surprise you to learn that I think the formal detective novel achieved a state of perfection in the thirties that has never since  been bettered.

I did mean to review more recent books, and will try to do better next year.  But there are so many blogs devoted to the newer stuff already.  I think interesting things are being done today, to be sure, but my focus will continue to remain on older works.

I also reviewed an interesting book on Ellery Queen, Joseph Goodrich's Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950, Michael Dirda's winsome and Edgar-winning On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling and Jon L. Breen's fine collection of genre essays, A Shot Rang Out.

Lately I admittedly have been reviewing a preponderance of novels by American authors, but I have become fascinated with the sheer volume of classical detection produced by Americans.

The notion that the genre in the United States was dominated during the Golden Age by hard-boiled writers could not be more wrong, it seems to me.  Aside from the so-called HIBK school of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart and other women writers (which is getting a little attention from academics now), there were numerous male writers in the classical tradition, like S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout and Rufus King.

As critic Jon L. Breen has pointed out, Queen gets shockingly little attention today (the same is true of Stout, which is especially strange when one considers that the Nero Wolfe novels have remained in print--there is really no excuse for the critical neglect here).

Anyway, with 66 novels blogged in 2012, I think I will do a top ten (or or twenty) for New Year's.  What will the Best Blogged Books of 2012 be???  Your Passing Tramp will have to do some heavy cogitation....

Friday, December 21, 2012

Murder and Smoke: Smoke Screen (1935), by Christopher Hale

A 1930s detective novel about murders that take place amid a group of people cut off from the rest of the world by a raging forest fire?  That would be The Siamese Twin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (one of my favorites mysteries)...right ?  Actually, no.

the other Golden Age forest fire mystery
In this case it's Smoke Screen, by Christopher Hale, pseudonym of Frances Moyer Ross Stevens (1895-1948), who during her lifetime published ten mystery novels, all of them, I believe, set in Michigan (a final novel, published posthumously in 1949, finds Hale's Michigan police detective, Bill French, encountering crime in Florida, where he is on vacation).

Smoke Screen was the first Christopher Hale detective novel, and while it's not in the class of The Siamese Twin Mystery--one of the great Golden Age detective novels--it has its own merit.

Like John Norris (see his comment below), I'm a great admirer of the dust jacket art on Smoke Screen, which does look like that for a Western novel, and also a WPA mural, I think.

There's also a great endpaper map of the Michigan lake peninsula (Bois Blanc Point--admittedly rather phallic-looking) where the story takes place.  Though some people today sneer at such Golden Age mystery paraphernalia as maps and plans I think we true fans of the period in fact can't get enough of them!

We're told this particular map hangs over the fireplace in the living room at Tall Timbers, the vacation home of Lewis Romney, a cousin of the young copper Bill French, who is visiting Romney and his wife Ruth when the novel begins (yes, it is odd that in 2012 I happened to read an obscure 1935 novel, set in Michigan, that has a main character named Romney).

the scene of the crime(s)

Besides Bill French and Lewis Romney, the other main character is the eighth-blood Chippewa Pete (no one bothers to assign him a last name).  These three men all are pictured on the dust jacket above.

Pete's an interesting character.  We learn that he got a law degree and was admitted to the bar, but could only get "riffraff" for clients.  Embittered, he "went native" in a little cabin on Bois Blanc Point, where he makes a living selling milk and eggs to his wealthier neighbors (as the map shows, there are eight households on the peninsula, plus the abandoned Dower Farm). Pete sometimes even indulges in Tonto-like "Indian" speak before the locals, much to their exasperation, as they know he actually is highly acculturated.

Todd Downing, the 1930s Oklahoma mystery writer who was one-eighth Native American himself, didn't like this character, but Pete is something different for the period, certainly.  And Hale makes clear that Bill French, at least, sympathizes with Pete over the discrimination he has been subjected to in his life.

here, inspiration burns brightest
In general the characterization in Smoke Screen is rather good, though more time could have been spent on it.  And the plot is pretty good as well, though narrative tension is somewhat lacking, especially compared to Ellery Queen's brilliant take on the same subject matter (deathly forest fire and simultaneous murders).  Queen's The Siamese Twin Mystery manages, in fact, to be both far more tense and densely clued mystery than Smoke Screen, which is a pretty impressive trick, but then that's Ellery Queen for you.

Too much of Smoke Screen is devoted to Bill and Lewis wandering around the peninsula on foot (frequently arguing with Pete) as the fire rages in the distance (someone has wrecked the boats and siphoned the gas).  A deadly forest fire mystery should never be lacking in tension, but somehow Smoke Screen frequently does.  We never really feel like this could be THE END for all these characters, as we do in The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Still, Smoke Screen is an interesting detective novel, with enough good stuff in it to make one wish it was even better than it is.  Knowing that this is a first novel, I am interested in reading more by Christopher Hale.

Coming (I hope!) for Christmas Eve: a special Golden Age Christmas mystery review!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Waltzing with Matilda: The Matilda Hunter Murder (1931), by Harry Stephen Keeler

In October 1931 Todd Downing, a twenty-nine-year-old University of Oklahoma Spanish instructor who had written (but not yet gotten published) his first detective novel that summer, read Harry Stephen Keeler's The Matilda Hunter Murder.

Concerning this Keeler opus Todd Downing wrote in December: "My personal opinion is that it is too long, too complicated, too scientific, for anyone but  a Robinson Crusoe."  He added discouragingly: "Everyone to whom I have loaned it, including an anthropologist, has returned it unfinished."

Z-ray of death?
In more modern times, Fender Tucker of Ramble House, the publishing entity that has done so much to spur the revival of that surpassingly odd Golden Age mystery writer, Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), has warned that The Matilda Hunter Murder is "an odyssey that only a died-in-the-wool Keelerite could handle."

So maybe Todd Downing bit off more than he could chew picking Matilda Hunter as his first Keeler.  Downing later became, it should be noted, a warm admirer of the author.  Not being able to resist a challenge, I decided, eighty-one years after Downing, to take a waltz with Matilda.

I've made it to page 104, a bit less than 15% of the novel (oh, didn't I mention that it's 741 pages of rather small print?).  So far I'm pleased to say I don't yet find the novel an unscalable precipice.  Though I have to say things have moved rather slowly (Keeler doesn't stint on such things as verbatim insurance policies and newspaper stories, and there's lots and lots of detailed conversation).

So far Keeler has introduced:

Victor Michaux, supposed inventor of the Z-ray machine, which supposedly emits what I believe are known to scientists as radioactive death ray thingummies (to use advanced technological terminology).

Jerry Evans, Chicagoan and hero of the tale, whose aunt

Matilda Hunter is killed by Michaux's Z-ray machine (supposedly), which was (supposedly) in a black satchel that she had brought to Jerry's rooms because Michaux had disappeared.  The widow Hunter was Michaux's landlady and the satchel had been left with her.  Oh, and she took out a $2500 insurance policy in nephew Jerry's favor.  This, along with her death, makes a timely windfall for Jerry, who needs $2500 to marry

Carolle Harbison, niece of the wealthy

Peter Harbison.

Interestingly Jerry has just seen Michaux leave the Harbison premises (with the black satchel).

There's also a visiting Eastern cousin of Jerry's

T. Percy deVoy, a journalist who coincidentally has written about

Cyril Burthrick, English expert on radioactive death ray thingummies.  Oh, and this gent has six fingers on each hand ("Polydactylic, you know," explains deVoy.  "Geniuses frequently are!").

Todd Downing demurred
with his first Keeler
yet came to admire the author
This may well be enough plot already for 637 more pages!  Personally, I'm enjoying the novel, but will I be able to make it for the long haul?

I will keep you posted, providing as well further tidbits about the splash this novel made back in 1931.  There's actually quite a bit of interesting background out there on this exceptionally lengthy detective novel.

And, fear not, I'll be doing at least one (I hope two) additional, non-Keeler book this week as well.

Man cannot live by Keeler alone, even at nearly 750 pages of the author's super-stupendous, patented webwork plotting.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Life without Archer: The Ferguson Affair (1960), by Ross Macdonald

Maybe choosing a Ross Macdonald mystery for a forgotten book of the week is kind of a cheat.

Or maybe sometimes life gives you hard choices and cheating is the only thing in your life you've got left.

Maybe you've just got to bite the bullet that's got your name on it in caps and pick a forgotten book of the week that isn't actually forgotten. Maybe what you do is you knock back another drink and try to forget all those people in your life who you know just have to remember the Ross Macdonald novel you've picked, or maybe you just try to convince yourself that everyone else will have forgotten they remember it too.  Maybe--Oh, to hell with it, I have a review to write and it's 3 a.m.

My rationale here is that The Ferguson Affair (1960) is one of the rare Ross Macdonald books with a lead investigator who is not Lew Archer.

Between 1949 and 1976, Ross Macdonald published eighteen detective novels with Lew Archer and only two without him, the wonderfully alliterative Meet Me at the Morgue (1953) and the extremely blandly titled The Ferguson Affair (1960).

Though these latter two novels now have been reprinted, like all the Archers, in paperback by the laudable Black Lizard, they get much less attention than the Archer books.  Just look at the sales on Amazon.   

The Moving Target, the first Archer novel, is positioned at about 73,000, while The Ferguson Affair is at about 780,000 and Morgue at 1,168,000!  Heck, the newly available Coachwhip edition of Todd Downing's The Cat Screams (fine book!) is at 668,000.

cherchez la femme
I know people like series detectives, but I've never felt Lew Archer was that interesting, considered purely as a character.

As a conduit for Ross Macdonald's words and ideas, yes, he is quite interesting, but then so is Bill Gunnarson, the defense attorney investigator in The Ferguson Affair.

Frankly, I could not tell the two men apart, really, except that Gunnarson is married, happily, to a wife about to give birth to their child when the novel begins.

Gunnarson gets involved in "the Ferguson affair" through a new client of his, a young nurse arrested for selling stolen jewelry.  Through a former--she says--boyfriend the woman seems to be linked to a burglary ring, but is she really innocent?

From this simple enough beginning Gunnarson soon finds himself enmeshed, along with the reader, in a net of criminal circumstances of impressive intricacy.

I really have to hand it to Macdonald for so beautifully managing such a complicated plot.  As things develop there are really two mysteries and you'll be clever indeed if you manage to completely solve even one of them before the author reveals all.

Black Lizard's brilliant Mad Men cover
for the new paperback edition
There are many murders (I was reminded of the title of a Dashiell Hammett story, "The Bodies Piled Up"), but comparatively little onstage violence, for a hard-boiled novel.  The cast of characters is large and uniformly well-conveyed, from the poorer Mexican-Americans to the wealthier habitues of the Foothill Club, including the mega-rich Colonel Ian Ferguson (oilman) and his much younger, ex-actress wife, the former Holly May.

The writing is up to the Ross Macdonald standard, which means many passages that linger in the memory:

"He was talking like a man in a dream, a rosy sentimental dream of the sort that burns like celluloid and leaves angry ashes in the eyes."

Angry ashes in the eyes.  Beautiful stuff there.

The Ferguson Affair is one of the best detective novels I have read this year, much better, I think, than the other Ross Macdonald I read in 2012, The Barbarous Coast.  It makes me happy I still have left to read about half Macdonald's novels.  Don't let the dull title put you off, The Ferguson Affair is a good one.  Now, where's that bottle....

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Mother of all Murders: Murder of a Matriarch (1936), by Hugh Austin

The terror-ridden story of a
tyrannical old lady who drove her family
to the verge of homicidal  mania
Hugh Austin is one of those Golden Age writers about whom very little is known, yet his short run of Golden Age detective novels about quick-thinking police detective Peter D. Quint (P. D. Q.) was much praised in its day and fondly remembered afterwards as something really rather clever, even by the gold standard of that oh so very clever era of mystery writing.

In the 1960s critical eminence Anthony Boucher called for reprinting the entire series of five novels, which ran from 1935 to 1938, but sadly no one has heeded that call even to this day.

So, what do we actually know about Hugh Austin in 2012?

Well, his full name is Hugh Austin Evans (hey, perhaps a relative!) and he lived from 1903 to 1964.  Besides his Peter Quint series novels (which all had "Murder" in the title), he also published the non-series Lilies for Madame  in 1938 and and three additional, rather odd sounding mysteries in 1948-1949 (one of these latter books is reviewed over at Mystery*file.

On the endpapers of the Peter Quint mysteries, one finds a rather gimmicky but irresistible "Note to the Reader," wherein the author assures his readers that his books play absolutely fair with them:

"In short, this mystery can be solved on the basis of the clues that are given, and the solution is the one and only possible solution.--H. A."


In the first Peter Quint novel, It Couldn't be Murder! (England, ever dignified, dropped that frantic exclamation point from the title when the book was reprinted across the pond), Quint solves the case in 24 hours.  With his second case, detailed in Murder in Triplicate, he becomes even speedier, catching the murdering fiend in but three hours!

By the time of Murder of a Matriarch, Quint has slowed down a bit (it's on day three that he makes his exposition before the gathered suspects), but it's still a very interesting case indeed.

"I don't want him arrested for trying to break my leg.  It is only the attempts to kill me that I feel I must chastise."--Murder of a Matriarch

Half of Murder of a Matriarch actually is quite leisurely, compared to the first two books in the series,  detailing events leading up to the murder of wealthy, elderly Hortense Farcourt, widow of a much henpecked chemical manufacturer.

The jacket flap of the novel calls Mrs. Farcourt "as hateful and hypocritical an old lady as you're likely to meet," and hoo boy! is this the truth.  The selfish and sanctimonious (and really rather sadistic) Hortense Farcourt is one of the most repellent characters I have ever come across in mystery fiction, and I was really glad, to be honest, when she finally went to her just reward.

the back of the jacket to
Murder of a Matriach
How many of these 1936
Crime Club novels have you read?
Before that blessed event, we meet the various members of household, who all justifiably despise the evil, old bit-, erm, lady:

Hortense's unlikable daughter Clara, who married
Dwight Irvin, who works for the Company, but was never given the position he was promised
Hal Farcourt, a nephew, an amiable tippler and something of a betting man
Willie Jeddle, Hortense's brother, in his dotage, but carrying his hatred for his sister with him to the grave
Nan Rogers, Hortense's much put-upon, twenty-year-old great niece
Jeddle Rogers, Nan's nine-year-old brother, who wants a puppy
Mrs. Scroggins, the bad-tempered cook
Bertha Jablonski. the eavesdropping maid
Nelly Wagg, the gossipy laundress

Oh, yes, there's also My Comfort, Hortense's cat (yup, he doesn't like Hortense either)

The extreme acrimony among the people of this household makes for lively reading, sometimes amusing, sometimes agonizing.

All the characters are memorable, but perhaps best of all is Jeddle Rogers.  Rarely are children portrayed in Golden Age detective fiction, and usually when they are, they come across as distinctly stagey (Gladys Mitchell is a great exception here).  However, young Jed is the real deal.  He's just a normal boy, who wants to be able to play with a water pistol and to have a puppy, but his standard-issue boyish desires are cruelly thwarted by his perpetually disapproving Great Aunt, who is constantly threatening to send him to reform school for the mildest of infractions.

There's a wonderful passage where Jeddle is subjected to morally improving readings from his Great Aunt.  Gr'aunty Hortense, it seems, is a firm admirer of "that lovely authoress for children, Priscilla Prunella Spinter," who gave the world that beloved (by certain adults) series of books about the intolerably upright Rose Girl and Billy Boy.

As a boy, Jeddle Rogers is subjected to readings from the myriad Billy Boy volumes, which include Billy Boy and His Friend and Billy Boy and His Enemy:

In Murder of a Matriach 
Hugh Austin satirizes
"improving" children's literature
like The History of the Fairchild Family
[Billy Boy and His Friend] was to Jed much less real than any story of goblins and giants.  When he became excited he could almost believe in goblins and giants; but the idea of Billy Boy having a friend was just too much for his imagination.

Jed's favorite was Billy Boy and His Enemy.  By a happy misunderstanding it was also the volume most often read to him....Like the rest of Miss Spinter's works the tale was a simple one.  For nine tenths of the book the Enemy practiced assault, battery and mayhem upon an all-forgiving Billy Boy...[Jed] dutifully identified himself with the Horrible Example and avidly lived through the delectable experience of punching Billy Boy's nose, pushing him into a mud puddle, giving him a black eye, and--Jed thought it the finest climax in literature--knocking one of Billy Boy's teeth right out of Billy Boy's head!

The sardonic and wise humor of such passages as this one reminds me of the brilliant short story writer Saki (particularly his short story "The Storyteller").

Austin also can be poignant (actually, I found the above scene poignant too, underneath the humor), when pointing out the psychic costs, to suspects and investigators alike, of murder cases.  Here's Detective Quint's mordant thoughts upon seeing at Nan Rogers after Gr'aunty is finally shot:

She looked very wan and young and pathetic in the dead black of her garb of mourning.  Quint wondered irrationally why other policemen envied the head of the Homicide Bureau.  Oh, yes.  It was the publicity.

Saki (H. H. Munro)
Austin does a great job at portraying not just the family but the servants, tradesman and cops too.  There's an exchange between a plumber and a policeman that is a fine instance of the use of American idiom in the Golden Age detective novel.  Austin also manages to depict a very credible police investigation, with numerous players and multiple ethnicities, including Italian, Jewish and Slavic (not just Irish!).

As for the puzzle, it's good!  Austin constructs a fairly clued, materially dense plot that keeps one guessing.  There's even a form of Ellery Queen's Challenge to the Reader on page 250.  My only complaint is that this is one mystery where we really did need a map of the house and grounds.

With lively characterization, pointed satire, a clever puzzle and credible police procedure, Murder of a Matriarch is a classic Golden Age family murder case.  One of the best crime books I have read this year, without  a doubt.  In fact, it's something of a crime in itself that this novel was last in print the year Franklin Roosevelt trounced Alf Landon.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Greenacres is the Place to Flee: Give Me Death (1934), by Isabel Briggs Myers

A droll title for a dead-sober book, but I was amused when I read in Isabel Briggs Myers' Give Me Death that the mansion of that doom-bedeviled family, the Darneils, is named Greenacres (also the title of a popular cornpone American sitcom from the 1960s, starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert).  To extend the parallel further, the Darneils are even an ancestrally southern family (the men always marry southern belles, don't you know).

I've had a copy of this book for some time, but was finally prompted to actually read it by John Norris' rave review of the first of Myers' two detective novels, Murder Yet to Come

One contemporary review declared of Give Me Death that the novel was "notable not only for its tense situations and its admirable character drawing, but also for a fine literary quality that sets it apart from all but the very best examples of recent mystery fiction."

I don't believe I'd go quite that far, but Give Me Death has exceptional virtues--as well as one notable failing, I would say, at least for modern readers.

the second detective novel of Isabel Briggs Myers
As alluded to above, Give Me Death concerns a series of tragic deaths that befall the the Darneils, a proud, distinguished family of southern heritage, though they have lived for generations now in New York (presumably since the ahem! War Between the States), where the menfolk are involved in the banking biz.

First there's one death, then two, then three, all suicides--OR ARE THEY???--ostensibly motivated by the discovery of some dark secret.  Will lovely Andrea Darneil, engaged to be married when the tragedies commenced, be the next to die?!

A family friend, the playwright Peter Jerningham (he solved Myers' last murder story, don't you know), is on the case, along with his faithful Watson (his male secretary); yet, a la S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, he solves it only after most of the family is wiped out, sadly for the Darneils.

Still, to be fair to "Jerry," as he is called, the ingenious convolutions in the last quarter of the novel are spectacularly confounding to reader-sleuths.  I myself certainly didn't see the final resolution coming!  For mystery fans who like most of all to be surprised (and fairly), this is good vintage stuff indeed.

In addition to pulling off some Christie-Carr level slight of hand here, Myers does a good job with the Holmes-Watson sleuthing formula.  Her more immediate pattern may be that of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance and Van, but, in my opinion, Myers is much more successful than Van Dine at creating lifelike characters (not to mention she's a far trickier plotter).

However, there is a flaw in this fine fabric of mystery.
Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980)

The horrifying secret, when it's revealed three-quarters of the way through the book, is apt to produce in the modern reader, I suspect, more irritation with than sympathy for the Darneil family.

Indeed, after learning the secret and having witnessed the ludicrously over-the-top, histrionic reactions of the family members to it, one would have to be forgiven for thinking a better title for the novel might have been Too Stupid to Live.

For my part, I was about ready to give up on the book at that point.  But the last quarter of Give Me Death is a honey of an extended coda that atones for the risible Darneil uproar over the dread secret.

For more on Isabel Briggs Myers (she of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), see The Story of Isabel Briggs Myers.  In addition to her more famous accomplishments in the field of psychology, Myers clearly was a dab hand at fictional detection.