Sunday, September 29, 2013

You People Slay Me! Books to Die For (2012)

a landmark collection?
Modestly subtitled The World's Greatest Mystery Writers On The World's Greatest Mystery Novels, Books to Die For (2012) swept three of the four mystery awards for best critical work this year, taking the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity.  How does BTDF live up to its august reputation?

To be sure, BTDF has succeeded in providing a lot of people with what they clearly wanted: a book with lots of modern mystery writers (the front flap says 119; the BTDF website says 120) writing essays on a lot of books (I count 121).  On the jacket one finds the telling statement that the book contains "a series of personal essays that often reveal as much about their authors and their own work as they do about the books that they love."

However, if BTDF is meant to be more than a collection of personal testaments from mystery writers and to be a lasting survey of the greatest mystery novels throughout the history of the genre--and we're told on the jacket flap that it's "the most ambitious anthology of its kind yet attempted"--it falls short in some significant ways, in my view.

For a book that includes essays on so many books, its overall coverage of the mystery genre is seriously truncated, leaving gaping holes of neglect in its coverage of older books, as well as its coverage of writers, often women, working outside the hard-boiled/noir/procedural traditions.

Co-editors John Connolly and Declan Burke* write in their Introduction to BTDF that "the mystery novel has always prized character over plot, which may come as some surprise to its detractors."  Although this statement is demonstrably incorrect, it does give a good hint to the thinking of the co-editors. The mystery's "provision of entertainment is not the least of its many qualities," Connolly and Burke cautiously allow.

*(Additionally Ellen Clair Lamb is BTDF's "assistant editor."  On Lamb's twitter page she dryly notes that she is a "writer, editor, researcher" and "all-purpose minion to several authors you probably heard of").

In BTDF the modern "crime novel"--though the co-editors use the term "mystery"--is privileged over the "mere puzzle" (a term I use repeatedly in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery to portray the dismissive attitude of many modern mystery writers and critics toward puzzle-oriented detective novels).

Mysteries are defended not on the ground that they can be good tales, as the late critic Jacques Barzun long argued, but rather on the ground that they can be great literature. To quote the editors again: "those who dismiss the genre and its capacity to permit and encourage great writing, to produce great literature, are guilty not primarily of snobbery--although there may be an element of that--but of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fiction and genre's place in it."

well, he's not exactly Peter Wimsey 
Given the chary view of puzzle-oriented mysteries evinced in the Introduction--might there be an element of snobbery in it?--it should not be surprising that only two of the 121 works in BTDF come from the 1920s, the great decade of the unabashed puzzle-mystery.

And the two books that are included from the twenties are almost hilariously inapposite, at least judged by the reigning aesthetics of the mystery genre in that decade: Liam O'Flaherty's The Assassin and Erskine Caldwell's The Bastard (later on, from the 1960s, we get Truman Capote's great true crime study, In Cold Blood).

If you expect to find in this book such names as S. S. Van DineEllery Queen and John Dickson Carr (all actual detective novelists), think again.

The coverage provided in BTDF leaves something to be desired, if you are a fan of classic mystery. Let's break it down:

1841-1902 (7)
1903-1927 (0)
1928-1943 (17)
1946-1958 (14)
1960-1969 (18)
1970-1979 (16)
1980-1988 (11)
1990-1999 (28)
2000-2008 (10)

Yet the few critical reviews of BTDF on Amazon have faulted this book for including too many old books!  By "old," do they mean anything before 1990?  Probably so.  As it is, however, nearly a third (31%) of the books come from 1990 and afterward, compared to just 6% from 1841-1927 (we get nothing at all from 1903 to 1927, evidently the mystery plague years to judge from BTDF: not R. Austin Freeman, not Melville Davisson Post, not Mary Roberts Rinehart, not E. C. Bentley, not even G. K. Chesterton, surely one of the most literary writers of detection who ever lived--and there are short fiction collections by others included in BTDF).  Even from the Golden Age of detective fiction (stretched to go up to 1943) come merely 14% of the books.

I do not like thee, G. K. Chesterton?

From 1841 to 1958, a period of nearly 120 years, we get the same number of books as we do from 1990 to 2008, roughly the last twenty years.  31% of the books come from before 1960, 69% 1960 and afterwards.  Can this really be a fair representation of the mystery genre?  I am sure that it is gratifying to many modern crime writers (and their most devoted fans) to think so, but some of us may, with all due respect to the now, differ about this.

For the classical mystery fan it gets worse when one looks at the actual books included. From the Golden Age of detective fiction, we have, in addition to aforementioned The Assassin and The Bastard (not quite drawing room they!):

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key
Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase
Leslie Charteris, The Holy Terror
Paul Cain, Fast One
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks
Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
James M. Cain, Love's Lovely Counterfeit
Leo Malet, 120, Rue de la Gare

Of the seventeen books listed, all of three, I believe, could be considered classic mysteries: the Sayers, the Christie and the Stout.  Hard-boiled/Noir accounts for twelve (including O'Flaherty and Caldwell), then we have a Gothic (Rebecca) and a traditional, Golden Age thriller (the Saint collection The Holy Terror).  From the era of its greatest flowering the classical detective novel gets barely enough succor to constitute life support.

But what about the late forties and the fifties, when the classical detective novel was still hanging on pretty well?  We have, of the fourteen books included from this period:

Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop
Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair
Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar
Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke

The Franchise Affair
one of the few genuine classical
detective novels to die for?
This is really an even more paltry selection, from the classicist's perspective.

The Crispin novel is the one from the period where the ingenious yet whimsical author most set aside coherent plot in favor of madcap humor ("it is not for his plots that I love Crispin," tellingly writes Ruth Dudley Edwards, who penned this essay).

Brat Farrar is more a thriller, I would say, as is The Tiger in the Smoke (none of Allingham's wonderful true detective novels are included).  Of these titles, really only The Franchise Affair offers readers the delights of true ratiocinative detective fiction.

What do we get after 1960, in the way of classical detection?  Well, P. D. James makes a brief appearance with her debut detective novel, Cover Her Face.

Then there's Ross Macdonald's The Chill, which has a classical plot in hard-boiled (or semi-hard-boiled) dress, and Macdonald's wife, Margaret Millar, with her tricksy A Stranger in My Grave, though it was marketed as a novel of psychological suspense.

Later in the decade, we get Christie's Endless Night, also more a psychological crime novel, Ross Macdonald's The Goodbye Look and Peter Dickinson's bizarre Skin Deep.

In the 1970s, there's Colin Dexter's Last Bus to Woodstock, almost this volume's last classical gasp.  From 1992 I see Margaret Maron's Bootlegger's Daughter, from 1993 Jill McGown's Murder...Now and Then (an excellent, pro-puzzle essay by Sophie Hannah) and from 1998 Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height, which looks about it (if I missed something, let me know).

Michael GilbertH. R. F. KeatingPeter Lovesey and Robert Barnard do not appear. Ruth Rendell, one of our most accomplished modern detective novelists as well as a psychological crime novelist, is represented by A Judgment in Stone, a crime novel in which we know from the start who the murderer is, as well as the victims.

So it is no exaggeration to say that BTDF shows a bias against the classical detective story. As Michael Dirda conceded in his (favorable) review in the Washington Post:

This is not your mother's list of favorite mystery novels.  Nor is it one that acolytes of the well-constructed whodunit will much care for.  None of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes is included in Books to Die For, and few of the masters of Golden Age puzzles.  Neither are the mistresses of the modern "cozy" anywhere in evidence....Don't even think about most of the contemporary authors who regularly attend Malice Domestic.*

*(this observation from Dirda makes the BTDF's winning of the Agatha even more ironic)

But what do the few essays on classical detective novels actually have to say about the books? Let's take a look.

But first, let's start off with the barely covered Victorian and Edwardian era in BTDF, for some clues to where we are headed in the Golden Age.

one of a good number of
Golden Age mysteries with
a policeman as lead sleuth
In her enjoyable essay on Charles Dickens' Bleak House (an entry not as classifiable as a genre mystery novel as a number of works by Dickens' contemporary Mary Elizabeth Braddon, none of which are included in BTDF; but then Rita Mae Brown picks the even more inappropriate Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities!), Sara Peretsky writes:

Later crime writers, from Conan Doyle to Dorothy Sayers [Sayers wouldn't like it that her "L." was omitted!--TPT], turned professional police into stolid lower-class men who needed constant help from Holmes or Peter Wimsey to solve their cases.  It wasn't until the second half of the twentieth century, with the cops of the 87th Precinct, or police like Dalziel and Pascoe, that the skilled police detective came back into vogue.

I think Peretsky may actually be a bit unfair here to Sayers and her character Inspector Parker, but she's also unfair more broadly to the entire Golden Age, which actually did have intelligent police protagonists, such as Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn (admittedly rather hard to distinguish form Lord Peter), Henry Wade's Inspector Poole, J. J. Connington's Chief Constable Clinton Driffield, Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant, E. C. R. Lorac's Inspector Macdonald, G. D. H and Margaret Cole's Superintendent Wilson, Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French, and numerous Edgar Wallace sleuths.

In her essay on Metta Fuller Victor's The Dead Letter, which makes it into BTDF rather than anything by the more accomplished mystery writer Anna Katharine Green, Karin Slaughter (author of several number one bestsellers we are pointedly reminded) complains that Metta Fuller Victor and Anna Katharine Green have been "forgotten to history" and of "literary historians, who mostly concentrate on Edgar Allan Poe...then skip straight to Dashiell Hammett, as if fifty years of American crime writing had never existed."

Surely Slaughter means more like eighty years, but, in any event, this seems to me an unfair charge against genre historians.  Probably were it not for them, Karin Slaughter herself--along with many of us, to be sure--would never even have heard of Metta Fuller Victor as a mystery writer.

One thing academic scholars have been doing most assiduously the last fifteen years or more is resurrecting Victorian-era women mystery writers, in the U. S. and other countries.  And as for Anna Katharine Green, she was never "forgotten" in good mystery genre histories, even back in the Golden Age.

Woman Gone Missing
(at least from Books to Die For)
Slaughter continues: "The world of fiction--especially crime fiction--has a tendency to ignore the contributions of women, no matter how popular they become."

Given some of the omissions in BTDF--among older women writers no Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Mary Fortune, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Mignon Eberhart, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand, Elizabeth Ferrars, Craig Rice, Charlotte Armstrong, Ursula Curtiss, Shelley Smith, Celia Fremlin, etc.--this is an ironic charge (Slaughter herself notes the problem the BTDF editors had in finding contributors "to talk about female writers").

Certainly it is not true of the classical detective novel, as far as genre histories are concerned. The British Crime Queens get a tremendous amount of favorable attention in genre histories (certainly more so than they do in BTDF, Josephine Tey excepted).

Speaking of which, let's move on to the Golden Age (and beyond).

With her essay on Sayers' Have His Carcase, Rebecca Chance pens one of the high points of the book, in my view (under her actual name, Lauren Henderson, she also contributes an excellent essay on Christie's Endless Night).

Peter and Harriet in Have His Carcase
a good howdunit puzzle to go with the love interest

Chance praises Sayers' inclusion in the novel of "tide tables and a fiendishly complicated code (this is the type of thing for which the "Humdrum" detective novelists about whom I write were known; Sayers, incidentally, in Have His Carcase thanks John Street for helping her with all the hard parts, as she puts it).  Chance values the howdunit sort of book that Sayers tended to write as much as the pure whodunit. She also prefers the Sayers novels where "the solving of a crime has more weight than the sexual tensions between the two main characters [Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane]."  Amen to that!

In her essay on Murder on the Orient Express, Kelli Stanley writes that "the novel is far more than a logic problem" and praises Christie's psychology and darkness.  Personally, I think a far better example of Christie's "darkness" is And Then There Were None, about which Stanley also writes (though not in an independent essay); she's certainly right about this brilliant mystery novel's overlooked noirish quality. However, there's no need to apologize for Christie's amazing skill with "mere puzzles."

Or maybe there is, when BTDF includes condescending asides like this one, from Joe R. Lansdale's essay on Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, where he dismisses the "thousands of stories about dead people in the parlor where it's all solved in the end as if it were a crossword puzzle."

Louise Penny, in her essay on Tey's The Franchise Affair, similarly strains to disassociate her subject from "mere puzzles": "Like the best crime novels, it's not so much about the crime as the people involved."  Well, it is true that Tey has exceptionally good characters in this novel, but, when I read it, I was on tenterhooks wondering what the solution would be!  In part that's a function of good characterization, but it's also the function of a good plot, which "the best crime novels" should have, in my view.

In his essay on Allingham's The Tiger in the Smoke, Phil Rickman opines that "Margery Allingham was probably the first writer to outgrow the so-called Golden Age of the crime novel."

Margery Allingham
first to "outgrow" the Golden Age?
This tendentious sentence is full of error to my mind.  Most certainly Allingham was not the first writer to "outgrow" the conventions of the Golden Age (what about Anthony Berkeley Cox, for example--not that you find an essay on him in BTDF).

But what is this "outgrow" business? More of the idea that puzzle-oriented mysteries are for children, or those who think like them, I suppose.

Yet in truth super-highbrows like T. S. Eliot loved the stuff.  Also, no one claims, surely, that the 1920s and the 1930s was the Golden Age of the crime novel, but rather of the detective novel (which it indeed was).

Rickman also writes that The Tiger in the Smoke is out-of-print, yet it appears to me that in England a Vintage edition, in print since 2005, is still available, while in the United States a Felony & Mayhem edition has been in print since 2010. Marge is doing quite all right for herself, actually.

The Crime Queens collectively get a gratuitous kick, however, from Declan Hughes, in his essay on Margaret Millar (a writer I too really admire). Hughes pronounces that Millar "was the greatest female crime writer of the twentieth century" (has Hughes really read all the female crime writers of the twentieth century?).  He then pronounces that for characterization and delineation of "class, race and sexual manners" she leaves the Crime Queens "for dust."  Hughes also has this observation, which made me smile:

If Jane Austen had landed in Southern California in the 1940s, reacquainted herself with the Gothic conventions she had pastiched in Northanger Abbey, read some Freud, and tried her hand at crime fiction, she might have written like Margaret Millar.

That's a lot of ifs there, Declan!  Perhaps if Jane had had a sex change operation, married a much older woman, gotten fired from her job and developed a major drinking problem, she might have written like Raymond Chandler.  Let's just let Jane be Jane.

all well and good, but her books needed some murders
Jane Austen, the Margaret Millar of the 19th century?

In her essay on P. D. James' Cover Her Face, Deborah Crombie (a best-selling author, we once again are pointedly reminded) allows that "While a few of the Golden Age detectives were policemen, perhaps most notably Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn, they were also aristocrats...."  Well, this is true of Alleyn, but not so of other Golden Age policeman protagonists that I recall (see those listed above).  You actually cannot always generalize from the Crime Queens to all Golden Age British writers.

Crombie observes that murder is not taken lightly in James' first detective novel, "an attitude that marks a departure from most Golden Age whodunits."  I find this statement rather sweeping.  It ignores or insufficiently credits the important changes going on in the classical detective novel in the 1930s.

Crombie concludes that Cover Her Face is "a bridge between the enjoyable but workmanlike whodunits (with the exception of the Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L. Sayers) of the years between the wars, and the evolution of the British detective story into its modern incarnation, the detective novel, which can take its place with the best of today's literature."

Was Dorothy L. Sayers really the only Golden Age British mystery writer who wrote genuine literature, like modern mystery writers today (like--to throw out a name completely at random, of course--Deborah Crombie)?  Is Sayers' Whose Body? a better novel than, say, Margery Allingham's Dancers in Mourning, Nicholas Blake's The Beast Must Die or Michael Innes' Lament for a Maker? I am not persuaded by Crombie's bare assertions.

In his essay on Nicolas Freeling's Gun Before Butter, Jason Goodwin indelicately observes that Freeling "belonged to a generation [of writers] that spat out Agatha Christie and her fellows, and admired Chandler."  Although actually Freeling had some nice things to say about Sayers' fiction (and some scabrous things to say about Allingham's), those sentiments certainly are reflected in BTDF, despite the presence of two Christie books. The inclusion of a few Golden Age greats in this book feels largely likely tokenism, a slight attempt to redress a huge imbalance in favor of modern/hard-boiled/noir/procedural crime fiction.

last seen puzzling
It is of course perfectly legitimate for anyone to produce a book with this sort of (or any other) aesthetic tilt, which may well generally represent the views of a great majority of modern crime writers; and I'm sure many people have immensely enjoyed BTDF.  And, to be sure, some of the essays in the book are very good (for example, Minette Walters on Rebecca, Megan Abbott on Dorothy B. Hughes' In  a Lonely Place, John Connolly on Ross Macdonald's The Chill and Bill Pronzini on Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel, one of the longest pieces in the book and universally praised).

Nevertheless, from my perspective as a classic mystery lover, I find BTDF a disappointment because to me it represents a lost opportunity. I would have preferred what President Obama in another context calls a balanced approach.*

Many BTDF contributors may be dubious of this assertion, but it actually is possible to admire both Christie and Chandler, to think both authors are great creative artists.

As noted above, even some of the few contributors on classical detective novels in BTDF seem eager to distinguish their special gal or guy from those other "mere puzzlers." The new Poirot mystery writer, Sophie Hannah, in her interesting essay on the late Jill McGown is as bold as the book gets in defending the puzzle: "If, like me, you're a structure freak, if you believe the puzzle aspect of crime fiction matters, read her," Hannah writes, with some commendable passion, of McGown's work.

Hannah's particular preferences (and her unabashedly expressed enthusiasm) are unfortunately rather rare in BTDF, however.  When I got to Paul Charles' essay on Colin Dexter's Last Bus to Woodstock and on page 278 read the line "Dexter's books are essentially puzzles," I found myself wondering, how in the world did Dexter's detective novel ever get to be a book that is to die for?

*(And it's not just classical mystery that is neglected among the "old"--i.e., earlier than 1960--books. Besides the comparative absence of the post-WW2 psychological suspense novel associated so much with women writers, there is the invisibility of such brilliant, noirish plot constructors as Cornell Woolrich, Joel Townlsey Rogers and Fredric Brown).

Friday, September 27, 2013

Takeaway: The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998), by Robert Barnard

yes, there really is a tandoori 
It's fun to count the influences on the late Robert Barnard's retro-titled The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori.  I spotted Agatha Christie (naturally), P. D. James, Ruth Rendell and Val McDermid.

Sadly, the title is is a throwaway, because neither the Bronte tourist magnet town of Haworth nor the Tandoori, where a dead body is found in the boot of a car, plays much of a role in the novel after the opening chapters.

Barnard's series detective Charlie Peace quickly traces the corpse--which looks to be that of a young Irish street singer, Declan O'Hearn--to a very odd little community devoted to a brilliant, elderly painter, Ranulph Byatt.

The novel then shifts to detail the preceding months that Declan spent with the community, as a sort of valet-assistant to Byatt, who suffers from crippling arthritis, before it goes back again to the investigation of the murder.

the American edition by Scribner
is altogether too cutesy-poo
The study of a difficult great artist immediately reminded me of Agatha Christie's wonderful novel Five Little Pigs (1942).

Additionally, the closed circle community of rather warped individuals devoted to a charismatic, cultish leader reminded me of works by P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, particularly The Black Tower (1975) and A Fatal Inversion (1987).  But then there's also Val McDermid....

It seems the corpse, "naked except for a pair of white underpants," was physically restrained and strangled, suggesting sexual pathology in the manner of McDermid's The Mermaids Singing (1995). Barnard may have a reputation as a cozy writer, but this plot element was not cozy!

the British edition by HarperCollins
better captures the sinister aspect
of the novel's plot
Unfortunately, the actual puzzle plot of this novel is not very interesting.

There is one surprising twist (which also vitiates some of the emotional pull of the novel), but there is not much of surprise in culpritude. Most of the mystery is pretty clearly signposted by the author.

Still, Tandoori is smoothly written and it makes an interesting read.  I don't believe Robert Barnard was capable of writing drab prose.

However, I'll be reviewing what I think may be a better Charlie Peace novel this weekend: The Bones in the Attic (2001).  See you again soon!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Death of a Mystery Writer: Robert Barnard (1936-2013)

Especially sad news for me: Robert Barnard, about whom I have blogged here several times, passed away last Thursday. Martin Edwards appears to have broken the news on the internet; it doesn't seem to be in any online news sources, perhaps an indication of Barnard's somewhat diminished fame over the last dozen years or so.

When I started reading mysteries again back in the 1990s, Robert Barnard, along with Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey (with whom he shared the same birth year) and of course P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, seemed to me like one of the bigger English names in the genre, with many of his titles being reprinted in paperback by Penguin.

Barnard always enjoyed a following among Anglophile American mystery fans and his American publisher, Scribner, stayed with him for thirty-five years, from Death of a Mystery Writer (1978) (Unruly Son in England) to his last novel, A Charitable Body (2012) (in England in the last dozen years, however, he went from HarperCollins to Allison & Busby, who did not publish his last novel).

I started reading Robert Barnard in the mid-1990s and loved the wit and humor in his mysteries.  Some of my favorite books by him, besides Death of  a Mystery Writer, were A Little Local Murder (1976), Fete Fatale (The Disposal of the Living in England) (1985), classic satirical English village mysteries, Death of an Old Goat (1974), a wicked satire of academia and the entire country of Australia, Blood Brotherhood (1977), a satire of modern English religion, and such excursions into period mystery as Out of the Blackout (1984), The Skeleton in the Grass (1987) and A Scandal in Belgravia (1991).

All the above books were standalones, but I also enjoyed the Perry Trethowan series, five books published between 1981 and 1987.  The fourth of these PT novels, Bodies (about murder in the milieus of bodybuilding contests and skin mags), introduced a new series character, a black cop names Charlie Peace.  He would appear in, I believe, thirteen more novels (though no website seems to get this right):

Death and the Chaste Apprentice 1989
A Fatal Attachment 1992
A Hovering of Vultures 1993
The Bad Samaritan 1995
No Place of Safety 1997
The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori 1998
Unholy Dying 2000
The Bones in the Attic 2001
The Mistress of Alderley 2002
The Graveyard Position 2004
A Fall from Grace 2006
The Killings on Jubilee Terrace 2009
A Charitable Body (2012)

Back in the 1990s I read and enjoyed the first four novels in this series, but then fell away for some reason.  I am reacquainting myself with this series now and will have more to say about it on Friday.  Meanwhile, see my reviews of two other Barnard novels and a short story collection.

Also coming up soon, I hope, my review of a novel by Sophie Hannah, the new chronicler of Hercule Poirot.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Royal Mystery: Give a Corpse a Bad Name (1940), by Elizabeth Ferrars

Today I'll be looking at the debut detective novel by the prolific Elizabeth Ferrars (1907-1995), one of our very last Golden Age authors.  Give a Corpse a Bad Name was published at the very tail end of the Golden Age, as traditionally dated (c. 1920-1940). I've written about Elizabeth Ferrars on the blog before, here and here, but this is my first review of one of her many novels, though I have read about all of them.  Some of Ferrars' books are pedestrian, to be sure, but Corpse is first-rate.  I have read this now for a second time and quite enjoyed the rereading.

Late in her writing career, which lasted over half-a-century, Ferrars introduced two series amateur sleuths, con man Felix Freer and the elderly scientist Andrew Basnett (the latter based on her husband); yet she also started out her career with one, or rather two: the detective duo of the freelance journalist Toby Dyke and his mysterious friend George.

The first of the five novels in which they appear is a classical English village and country house mystery, set in Devonshire.  With an interesting plot, nicely etched characters and some clever writing, Corpse deserves honorary "Crime Queen" status, as it reminds one very much of Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh.

The novel begins with forty-something widow Anna Milne showing up at the police station in the village of Chovey--where she has moved, with her nineteen-year-old daughter Daphne, from South Africa--to explain to Constable Leat and Sergeant Eggbear (love that surname--has anyone ever known an Eggbear?) that she has just run down and killed a drunken man who staggered in front of her car as she maneuvered it between a pair of humpback bridges (yup, this is rural thirties England, all right).

The dialogue among these characters in the second chapter is wonderfully done and there's a brilliant little bit involving a cigarette lighter that you will just have to read for yourself (fortunately this book has been recently reprinted; see below).

Initially police seem satisfied that the death of this man--who is identified as the scapegrace, long-departed son of the Sir Joseph and Lady Maxwell, the owners of Chovey Place, the local big house--is accidental.  But then poison pen letters start appearing, and they seem to implicate Anna Milne in murder!

In a series of coincidences we come to expect in series detective novels, Toby Dyke, a freelance journalist and amateur sleuth, just happens to be vacationing in Chovey with his mysterious friend George, and, what do you know, he just happens to be a friend of Sergeant Eggbear, who naturally allows Toby to horn in on the case.

Toby Dyke is thin and dark-featured, with a black forelock that is always falling forward over his face, a beak nose, a long chin, and an impulsive nature.  George is round, blonde and cherubic-- though it's strongly suggested he's an ex-con (one of the amusing bits in the novel is that he always gives an different answer when asked his surname, always beginning with a "P"--this has a cute payoff in the final lines of the book).

Toby sticks his nose into the affairs of a number of people--including a modern writer cousin of sorts of the Maxwells, Adrian Laws; Sir Joseph's moody brother, Major Stuart Maxwell; and various colorful villagers and servants, including Anna Milne's religious enthusiast cook.  He eventually finds a solution to the perplexing events, but, in what turns this novels from a good effort into a great one, in my opinion, there is a brilliant twist, provided by the self-effacing but very clever George.

quaint but deadly?

Ferrars dropped Toby Dyke as a series detective in 1942 after just five novels, supposedly because she had gotten thoroughly tired of him already; yet through George P-??? she was already satirizing the brilliant gentleman detective tradition associated with such authors as Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. Sure, Wimsey had Bunter and Campion had Lugg, but the gents remained in the saddle as the true detectives all through the series.  In Ferrars' Toby Dyke novels, it's George who steals the sleuth show.

Besides the fun of her satirical treatment of classic detection tropes, Ferrars provides readers with some well-drawn characters and clever writing.  Best of all the characters in Give a Corpse a Bad Name is Anna Milne, a complex, modern, middle-aged woman who is really the protagonist of the novel, despite the sleuthing presence of Toby Dyke. Considered "fast" by the village (cook has given notice, mind you), Mrs. Milne in fact is a figure of greater nuance than is typical of detective fiction in this period.

As for the writing, I will quote just this one passage, concerning the amateur performance of an Edgar Wallace type crime trailer play, with a diabolical Asian villain:

The play was a thriller called The Return of Mr. Chan.  Mr. Chan, it appeared, was a suave and insinuating Chinese with a liking for inserting daggers with jeweled hilts between the shoulder-blades of public-school-educated Britons.

The sardonic touch here is great, particularly the last words, in which Ferrars dismisses Bulldog Drummond and his smug ilk.

Oddly, Give a Corpse a Bad Name was never published in the United States (the other four Toby Dykes were however), and the British Hodder & Stoughton edition is extremely rare (a good only copy without a dust jacket currently is being offered for $750).

Fortunately the novel was reprinted in paperback by Penguin in the 1950s, in hardcover by Collins in the 1980s and in the last few years in paperback by Langtail Press.  So if you like the Crime Queens and English village and country house mystery, try it out!  I think you'll like it as well.

Give a Corpse a Bad Name (1940), by Elizabeth Ferrars

Today I'll be looking at the debut detective novel by the prolific Elizabeth Ferrars (1907-1995), one of our very last Golden Age authors.  Give a Corpse a Bad Name was published at the very tail end of the Golden Age, as traditionally dated (c. 1920-1940). I've written about Elizabeth Ferrars on the blog before, here and here, but this is my first review of one of her many novels, though I have read about all of them.  Some of Ferrars' books are pedestrian, to be sure, but Corpse is first-rate.  I have read this now for a second time and quite enjoyed the rereading.

Late in her writing career, which lasted over half-a-century, Ferrars introduced two series amateur sleuths, con man Felix Freer and the elderly scientist Andrew Basnett (the latter based on her husband); yet she also started out her career with one, or rather two: the detective duo of the freelance journalist Toby Dyke and his mysterious friend George.

The first of the five novels in which they appear is a classical English village and country house mystery, set in Devonshire.  With an interesting plot, nicely etched characters and some clever writing, Corpse deserves honorary "Crime Queen" status, as it reminds one very much of Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh.

I'll be expanding this post later today.  Sorry to be running late yet again, but editing duties on the collection of mystery fiction essays in honor of Doug Greene have been keeping me busy (there are about thirty pieces).  I'll soon be able to write more as well about what this book will look like!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Give This Man a Hand: Killing Time (2007), by Joel Townsley Rogers

Belatedly, here's the full version of the review!

Small publisher Ramble House does some great work in the mystery line.

Case in point, this volume of short fiction from the 1930s and 1940s by the American crime writer Joel Townsley Rogers (1896-1984), Killing Time. This book carries huzzahs from Ed GormanBill Crider and Bill Pronzini, which should tell you something.

not a sci-fi collection, but rather
mystery stories tinged with horror
Rogers is one of those supposed "one-work" mystery writers, whose name survives today on account of a single novel, The Red Right Hand (1945), despite the fact that he wrote a small number of additional novels as well as numerous shorter tales.

The longest story in Killing Time is, in fact, the original, novella version of The Red Right Hand. Like the novel, it's a brilliant piece of work; but there are some other highly noteworthy pieces in this collection as well, including the title tale, one of the best mystery short stories (or novelettes; it's about 15,000 words by my count) that I have ever read.

Many of you likely are familiar with The Red Right Hand (the novel).  It's indeed a classic, and the novella is great too.  It's the one that details the bloody activities of a maniac tramp hitchhiker (always the tramps!) on the loose in Connecticut, which includes slaying a prospective bridgegroom and severing his right hand.  Before the tale is over there will be many more killings to explain.

The Red Right Hand is told in a marvelously eerie and surreal manner reminiscent to me of Cornell Woolrich or Fredric Brown in some of his work.  But the most amazing thing is this: that buried in the nightmarish prose and utterly outre situation is a genuine fair play mystery--and quite a good one (albeit with a lot of improbable elements).

Someday I'll have to compare the novel point-by-point with the novella, but you should certainly read one of them--or both!  Both are tours de force.

There are five other tales in Killing Time, all but one really novelettes.  The one true short story, The Crimson Vampire (1938) is so absurd that it reminded me one of the "alternative classics" from the pulps that Bill Pronzini so hilariously analyzes in his Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek (this story inspired the cover illustration of Killing Time).  Murder of the Dead Man, also from the 1930s, didn't do much for me either.  However, the other three novelettes are wonderful.

My Friend Death (1947) is a suspense tale of a mild-mannered bank clerk who retrieves a roundish parcel a man leaves behind--much to his regret!  Like in the suspense tales of Cornell Woolrich, there's a clever twist.  The Hiding Horror is a nicely-clued murder tale about the slaying of Hollywood actress Lila Lane.  There's fine suspense, as well as some good humor (not something we find in The Red Right Hand), as journalist Hapgood Bye (great name!) vies with the police to find a solution to the shocking slaying.  The Hiding Horror would make a great addition to any collection of true Golden Age detective short fiction.  There's some plotting gambits in here on par with Agatha Christie.

Joel Townsley Rogers
But my absolute favorite, aside from The Red Right Hand, is the title story.

Killing Time (1947) details the afternoon of a maimed World War II veteran (a marine) redundantly named "Tiny" Little (full name Reginald Meice Little), who is trying to make it as a pulp mystery writer.

As "Tiny" slowly thumps away at his typewriter, an extraordinary situation unfolds around him.

This tale works brilliantly on so many levels: as a clever murder story; as suspense; as knowing satire of the pulps biz; as a tribute to WWII veterans ("the greatest generation"); and simply just as good writing:

....Atom Baby said an inscription on his chest, beneath a picture of a well-developed young person, obviously of the female sex, and apparently a native of the tropics, since she had no clothes on.  Or, practically none.

The New York summer was hot.  The air in Tiny's furnished rear bedroom-and-bath was stale and windless.  The fabric of his pajama pants stuck to the varnished wooden seat of his rocking chair.  He sweated; and the Atom Baby sweated, and she jiggled when he breathed.

It seems Tiny has gotten to know a real life "Atom Baby," a beautiful but seemingly heartless young woman who lives above him.  Trouble ensues.

A really fine story on multiple levels, one I found ultimately rather moving as well.  If you've ever tried doing serious writing yourself, you should love this tale.

Ramble House has published an additional collection of Joel Townsley Roger short fiction, Night of Horror; and, based on my enjoyment of Killing Time, I have every intention of reading it quite soon.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Give This Man a Hand: Killing Time and Other Stories (2007), by Joel Townsley Rogers

Small publisher Ramble House does some great work in the mystery line.

Case in point, this volume of short stories from the 1930s and 1940s by the American crime writer Joel Townsley Rogers (1896-1984), the second such volume by him that Ramble House has done: Killing Time. This book carries huzzahs from Ed Gorman, Bill Crider and Bill Pronzini, which should tell you something.

not a sci-fi collection, but rather
mystery stories tinged with horror
Rogers is one of those "one-work" mystery writers, whose name survives today on account of a single novel, The Red Right Hand (1945), despite the fact that he wrote a small number of additional novels as well as numerous short stories.  The longest story in Killing Time is, in fact, the original, novella version of The Red Right Hand.  Like the novel, it's a brilliant piece of work, about which I shall have more to say; but there are some other noteworthy pieces in this collection as well, including the title tale, one of the best mystery short stories I have ever read.

Check in later today, I really should have this full piece up by this afternoon.  Expect to see a few more pieces in the following week, despite the fact that my editing of the collection of essays in honor of  Doug Greene is keeping me heavily occupied (more on this soon too).

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mischief in the Offing (1958), by Clifford Witting

Clifford Witting (1907-1968) was an English author who published sixteen detective novels between 1937 and 1964.  Although his books often are somewhat unorthodox by traditional standards, in them Witting, one of the youngest mystery writers of the Golden Age generation, typically offers interesting situations, appealing local color and some fine wit.  I have read twelve of the sixteen now and enjoyed most of them.  In all but two Witting novels his series cops Charlton and Bradfield appear, either together or singly.

Mischief in the Offing is Witting's first non-series offering.  It appeared after a gap of five years in his novels, the longest such of his writing career (there was another significant gap, between Measure for Murder, 1941, and Subject--Murder, 1945, but World War II, in which Witting served, accounts for this; I have no idea why there was such a long gap in the 1950s).

Mischief in the Offing starts off with a bang as a beautiful young woman, Kay Forrester, comes to the door of the Riverside Cottage, the Wilchiston, Sussex, home of writer John Denman, begging to be let in.

Once admitted to the cottage, Forrester tells Denman a tale of an attempted assault made on her her by a certain unsavory character. Denman is dubious about her story, but then someone fires a bullet through the window!

Denman goes for the police, but, when he returns with them, he chivalrously suppresses the full story of the young woman's role in the affair.  After the police, who are highly dubious about his story, leave, Denman finds that Miss Forrester has disappeared.

Now, at this point, you might be forgiven for thinking you are reading a swift-moving tale of criminal suspense, but in fact the narrative at this point becomes rather lesurely, dropping Denman and introducing a bunch of new characters: police, villagers and visitors.  Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, though admirers of Witting, complained in their mammoth A Catalogue of Crime, of excessive local color in this one.  I liked the local color myself and I didn't mind the slower pace.  For me a great deal of the appeal of the novel is in its portrayal of village English life over a half-century ago.

Alfriston, the Sussex village on which
Clifford Witting based Wilchiston

There are some appealing characters too.  I especially liked Police Constable Arrow and his mother, locally dubbed Police Sergeant Arrow, on account of the way she orders about her son.  I was much amused by this pair and wanted to see more of them throughout the novel:

"I'm a-comin with you," she informed him.  "You ain't to be trusted."
The discomfited sergeant looked at John, then back at his mother.
"But Mum, it's dangerous.  This chap's armed."
"Then it wants a woman to deal with 'im."
She unhooked her parasol and it seemed to take on the attributes of a lethal weapon.
"Look, Mum--"
"Don't nabble, Sydney.  Got yer truncheon?"
"Notebook and pencil, flashlamp, penknife?"
"Yes, Mum."
"Tape measure?"
The worm essayed a turn.
"I shan't want a--"
"Don't be daft!" she retorted, harshly scornful.  "Won't you ever learn?  Tape measure--and be sharp about it!"

This could be a Monty Python bit!  Honestly, these two should have been series characters. There's also some enjoyable bits with a television scriptwriter couple who view real life situations in terms of script scenarios.

The title is a pun, for this a boat named Mischief in the offing.  Smuggling plays a great role in the tale, with many references to Wilchiston's famous native son outlaw of the early nineteenth century, Richard Tapsell, aka "Slippery Dick."  In an author's note, Witting tells us that Wilchiston is the real life village of Alfriston and that the inn in the novel is the real life Market Cross House, or The Smugglers' Inn.  Owned by a notorious Alfriston smuggler, the house has "21 rooms, 47 doors, six staircases and secret hiding places in both cellars and roof," having been "designed to confuse Customs and prevent capture."

Alfriston--to left The Smugglers' Inn
(regrettably rechristened Ye Olde Smugglers' Inn) 

There are really two mysteries in the novel.  The solution to one is clued--albeit thinly.  The solution to the other comes as a tremendous surprise (however, I don't believe Witting bothered, really, to clue it).  There's also a nice little revelation in the last line (incredibly and idiotically revealed on the front flap of the Hodder & Stoughton dust jacket!).

I think Mischief in the Offing is quite an enjoyable story and I hope that it can be reprinted someday, along with other Witting novels (most of Witting's novels were not reprinted in the United States and are very rare today).  Clifford Witting did have a daughter and two grandchildren, so presumably there's someone out there who could help this happen.

See also the two reviews John Norris has done of Witting novels.  All in all, Witting is a noteworthy figure from the Golden Age of English detection who deserves to be better known.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Todd Downing on Nicholas Blake (and Nigel Strangeways)

Todd Downing (1902-1974)
the Choctaw Nation's contribution
to Golden Age detective fiction writing
--he also reviewed the stuff
Todd Downing reviewed Nicholas Blake's debut detective novel, A Question of Proof, in August 1935, a few months before Blake reviewed (and raved) Downing's Vultures in the Sky (see the Blake post below).  Like a commenter on this blog, he found Blake's detective, Nigel Strangeways, grating, but he liked Blake's writing very  much otherwise and recommended the tale:

....Likewise, we were tepid about the amateur sleuth, Nigel Strangeways--answered examination questions at Oxford with limericks, found the Duchess of Esk’s diamonds, likes tea and lots of bedclothes, murmurs, “Mon dieu, quel hulerberlu!" Quel, I might even say say, toho-bohu!”--although we are assured that “he is a simple soul, really.”

As frequently happens, superlatively good writing minimizes first novel defects....

Nicholas Blake/Cecil Day Lewis
prominent exponent of
classical amateur detection
The full review, along with nearly three hundred more, is found in my book Clues and Corspes: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. Todd Downing and Nicholas Blake were nearly exact contemporaries, Downing having been born two years before Blake and dying two years after him.

Of course Nigel Strangeways was Nicholas Blake's contribution to the Golden Age facetious gentleman detective breed, so popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers, S. S. Van Dine, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, among others. I like Blake's detective fiction, though I must concede that Raymond Chandler complained about Strangeways too (and Strangeways' brilliant explorer wife for that matter). Downing's primary series sleuth, Customs Agent Hugh Rennert, isn't tough like Chandler's private eye Marlowe, but he is more down-to-earth than them toffs!

Mischief in the Offing (1958), by Clifford Witting

My Friday Forgotten Book will be one by the underrated Clifford Witting, a British mystery writer who published sixteen books novels between 1937 and 1964.  Mischief in the Offing was his twelfth.  The review should be up tonight.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Speaking of Agatha...Nicholas Blake Reviews Some Crime Fiction

No doubt being the mystery fanciers that you are, you've all heard the news by now that crime writer Sophie Hannah will be publishing an authorized Hercule Poirot mystery next year.

I view this with some trepidation, but will hope for the best.  Expect to see a review from me coming soon of a Sophie Hannah novel!

Hannah, who like The Passing Tramp and I'm sure many others who read this blog, read Agatha Christie voraciously as a youngster, regards the Queen of Crime as "the greatest crime writer of all time"--putting her at odds, I suspect, with many of her fellow crime writers (including her second favorite crime writer, Ruth Rendell), who take a more condescending view.

I had been planning to post this piece anyway, oddly enough, but it may have special interest now.

It's drawn from a review article that crime writer Nicholas Blake (poet C. Day Lewis, who also wrote the well-regarded Nigel Strangeways mysteries) did back in 1936 in the Spectator.  He reviewed seven novels:

The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
Murder Isn't Easy, by Richard Hull
Scandal at School, by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole
A Word of Six Letters, by Herbert Adams
Who Killed Gatton?, by E. Charles Vivian
Vultures in the Sky, by Todd Downing
The Nursing Home Murder, by Ngaio Marsh

Here are some choice bits from Mr. Blake:

On The ABC Murders: "The characters, particularly that of the murderer, are rather too perfunctorily sketched.  Apart from this, one can have nothing but praise for The ABC Murders, which is really a little masterpiece of construction."

one of the great plots

On Murder Isn't Easy: "Mr. Hull, on the other hand, as we realised in his first book, The Murder of My Aunt, has great gift for character; and here again he gives it full scope by recording events in the first person....holds the interest throughout....

a few years later Christie countered that, actually, Murder Is Easy

On Scandal at School (The Sleeping Death in the United States): "The Coles have paid much more attention to character than in some of their earlier books.  The dialogue is consistently lifelike, the setting, too, is well done....Less convincing is the character of the victim....This weakens the motive....The plot, also, rather resembles a clockwork mouse: erratic in direction, and requiring too frequent winding-up."

leftist intellectuals like the Coles (and C. Day Lewis for that matter)
read and wrote detective fiction too

On A Word of Six Letters: "Must be criticised on the following counts: (1) Supineness of police (2) Padding: there is too much superfluous eating and drinking; this is only permissible when the author (cf. Mr. H. C. Bailey passim), and therefore the reader, gets a kick out of it (3) Title: crosswords play a very subordinate part in the plot (4) Archness: e.g., "Ramp it was.  There can be some merry doings in searching pretty girls for an elusive slipper."

over his long life Herbert Adams (1874-1958) published numerous mysteries and thrillers

On Who Killed Gatton?: "We turn from the arch to the heroic-on-stilts style....The book also contains a great deal of cap-lifting whenever England, the dead, &c, are mentioned, a magnificent 1890 vintage proposal-of-marriage scene, and a ditto never-set-foot-in-my-house-again one.  Those who, like myself, revel in this sort of thing will be rewarded as well by an exciting and cleverly worked-out tale."

On Vultures in the Sky: "I have not read The Cat Screams, but if it is as good as Mr. Downing's new book it is very good indeed.  He has that command of tempo without which a detection writer can never rise into the first class.  He avoids the American tendency to overwrite the trivial, yet he can write up to the dramatic situation when it comes.  He has the sotto-voce, ungesticulating way of leading one up to the edge of a precipice which makes a walk with Dr. M. R. James so deliciously uncomfortable.......This book puts him into the Van Dine--Ellery Queen class: I do not expect to read a better detective novel for a long time."

the third of Todd Downing's Hugh Rennert detective novels

On The Nursing Home Murder: "sound motives....a charming detective, local colour obviously put on by a professional hand, a pretty wit, and a perfectly reasonable solution...unreservedly recommended...."

While Blake certainly paid Christie and Marsh their dues, he seems to indicate his favorite of the lot (and his favorite for some time) was Todd Downing's Vultures in the Sky.  As old hands here will know, I have taken some interest in Downing, publishing the book Clues and Corpses on his life, crime fiction and crime fiction reviews.  Vultures in the Sky also is available in a very nice edition from Coachwhip.

I happen to have read six of the seven books reviewed by Blake and I would rank them as follows, in terms of personal favorites (please note that I recognize the brilliance of the plot of The ABC Murders, but it is not a book I as much enjoy rereading as Vultures, after knowing the twist):

1. Vultures in the Sky
2. The ABC Murders
3. Murder Isn't Easy
4. The Nursing Home Murder
5. Scandal at School
6. A Word of Six Letters

As for the E. Charles Vivian novel, I have no idea who killed Gatton!