Friday, February 21, 2014

"A Nice, Clean, White-Collared Murder": Thoughts on Detective Fiction from Carolyn Wells' The Missing Link (1938)

For Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene I wrote an essay last year on Carolyn Wells, about whom I have written here a fair bit, in part because we needed another essay on writers who began writing mystery fiction in the gaslight era, in part because I thought we could use another essay on a woman writer and in part because, after all, Wells was a boyhood favorite of locked room mystery king John Dickson Carr and in his biography of Carr Doug has a wonderful anecdote about Carr, Fredric Dannay (of Ellery Queen) and Wells.

I recently found the following passage on page one of one of Wells' late mysteries, The Missing Link (1938).  It's not a good book (sadly, few of Wells' books after the early 1920s are any good and indeed many are, as documented by Bill Pronzini in Gun in Cheek, "alternative" classics), but this passage I thought might be of interest:

A reader of detective stories was [Leif] Murray, and of the traditional sort.  Like the oft described statesmen, members of Parliament, presidents, kings and even the clergy, he reveled in mystery yarns, if they were good ones.

His notion of  a good one was a tale whose interest depended on originality of plot and cleverness of workmanship.  One that presented a real puzzle to the intellectual reader.

He wanted no underworld characters, no gangster's work, no torture chambers or oubliettes, but rather a nice, clean, white-collared murder, with plenty of problems for a ratiocinative mind.

I do share Wells' admiration for a good puzzle (I hope I have a "ratiocinative mind"), though I don't know about that "nice, clean, white-collared murder" part.  I'm pretty certain murder isn't nice and I believe blood shows on white collars.

However, I am reading a certain cozy by Carolyn Hart and will let you know what I think. Can Hart fans guess which title I selected?  I notice some people complain about all the mystery references in her books, but, as you might guess, I rather like those!


  1. Christie Caper, of course! It was published in 1990 to commemorate the 100-year-old Christie. My first cozy mystery as well. Then I bought Emily Brightwell cozy mystery books online in 2002-2003.

    I read the book in 2000 when I had to read every books that have Christie on their covers. 1998-2001 was the phase when I read every Christie,Sayers,Allingham and Marsh(I bought them from my local bookshops). Then 2002-2003, once I read Boucher's statement that the best GAD writers were Christie,Carr and Queen, I bought every Carr and Queen online. This was the phase I read Mike Grost and GAD yahoo group diligently and more GAD writers were recommended! I read SHerlock Holmes before 1998 but for some reason, Holmes didn't impress me as much as Christie although I liked(and still am) most of Holmes stories.

    I think it is very unfair to make sweeping generalization or labelling about any genre or subgenre just because we have read 10-20 bad books in that subgenre. We do know that even some GAD books are bad. And they can be forgotten. To find the great or good ones are like searching a needle in haystack. Same goes with every genre. There are bad to very bad cozy mystery where the plots seem non-existent but there are very good or even great cozy mystery where the writers have taken great care to provide great puzzles and characters,

    The 1998-2008 was the phase where I read ONLY GAD detective and classic thrillers and maybe a very few modern mystery. And my opinion on modern mystery was based on that very few books that I read. And of course it was a very sweeping generalization and labelling!

    But since I've read many modern mysteries, thrillers and suspense books from 2008 onwards, I went WOW!!! There are so many talented modern writers who can write very entertaining mysteries!!!! And GAD detective books seem pale in comparison! I don't know whether I am the only one with this sentiment but there you are.

    Enough rambling. ;)

    1. Yes, you got it in one. I don't know if that's Hart's best, but I couldn't resist the title.

      Of course depending on how one defines cozy, I may have read a great many cozies already!

      Christie was the first crime writer I read, even before Doyle and the Holmes stories. I well recall the first three Christie titles I read to this day. I didn't get to Doyle until three years later.

      After I started reading mysteries again in 1989 I went through a purist phase were I only read classical detective stories. That lasted most of the decade!

    2. Yes, I remember you told that you have rediscovered John Dickson Carr in International Polygonics paperbacks that have Douglas Greene forewords and rekindled your interest in GAD mystery once again.(1990?) when you were at the last stage/semester of your study in law(or history?).

      I think Nick F. will be in this stage once again after he finishes his Phd.(or Masters?).

      And I think Patrick is just like Nick in 1998-2005 period. Full of GAD mystery/detective spirit. He will come to my previous phase where after reading more modern mystery, GAD detective mystery seems boring or lack in substance.

      Diane who read everything in GAD detective previously has come to term that she could not stand Allingham now. In fact, she despises Allingham.

      There used to be many GAD lovers in GAD groups in 2001-2010. I enjoyed reading their (including you!) spectacular knowledge on GAD. But now, most of the old active members are no longer active. I think TC was right in saying SOME GAD lovers/fans have better knowledge on GAD detective than SOME learned experts i.e. academician of GAD.

      I think these phases come and go and once you are devotees of GAD mystery, sooner or later, you will come back again to your true favourite reading genre i.e. GAD detective.

      p/s: Good for thesis: Human behaviour or reaction towards GAD Detective throughout their lives.

      Sory for the off-topic. Just a reminiscence.

    3. You know, we have a Facebook GAD group now, though you have to be invited in by a FB friend. If people here are interested I could link to my Facebook page, they can friend me and join.

    4. I don’t think there’s much danger of my reading only modern crime. It’s true that after writing my thesis, I was heartily sick of the genre! I tried to read a couple three years ago, and was disappointed; the plots were obvious, the style plodding or arch, and the storytelling flat. I even couldn’t get through a John Dickson Carr – and if one can’t find any pleasure in The Plague Court Murders, it’s time to move on.

      Five years after writing the thesis, something’s clicked. I’ve reread several Christies and Carrs – I finished The Blind Barber this week, which was an absolute joy; I’ve been listening to the excellent Clive Merrison Holmes series – and I’ve come to my senses (or lost them, depending on how you look at it). I’ve realised that I like stories about survivors of archaeological expeditions bumped off one by one in private museums. I like stories about sinister messages left on sun-dials, about remarkable worms unknown to science which drive people stark staring mad, and about politicians caught in compromising situations with cormorants. I like stories where the great detective cries ‘Ventre-saint-gris! Saperlipopette! Thirty-seven thousand times imbecile!’, smites his forehead for being so incredibly dense, and proves that the reader committed the murder. Mon semblable, mon frère, hypocrite lecteur!

      I've been reading detective stories since I was in short pants, and they'll always be there.

      As for modern crime fiction – I’ve browsed the shelves in bookstores, and nothing catches my fancy. There are the dour policemen in Helsinki who, despite their ulcers, their teenage daughter’s pregnancy, and their teenage son’s cross-dressing, manage to catch a serial killer. There are the American pathologists who lovingly dwell over each broken bone and to whom the aroma of a rotten corpse is better than all the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la. There are the middle-aged housewives whose cats help them to solve mysteries and bake muffins. There are (and these are quite possibly the ghastliest of all) the pastiches, which tell of the murder of Lord Lickspittle in his country house, with every mod con, including hot and cold running clichés, trotted out in the belief that this is amusing. And what they all lack is a sense of fun, of excitement, of – oh dammit! Well, of adventure in the grand manner!

  2. If I might add, I think 2012-2014 is the phase where the classic mysteries/romance/fiction are being revived. I think more and more classics fictions has become available in public domain and because of the ebooks where the publishers can republished the books cheaply. Readers can read the classic fictions using their electronic devices. And I am VERY HAPPY! ;-)

    Before ebook's phenomenon, I was one of those who said that I could only read books and could not stand ebooks. There was something about books that I like, smell, touch with hands....that sort of reason. And now, I rarely read physical books except my GAD books in my collection and non-fiction( I bought your Humdrum book in physical form). And I prefer to read ebooks in my Kindle and Iphone! I can read faster, cheaper, in the dark and no hassle in finding the books in my bookcase or boxes! Too many pros than cons, I think.


    1. Yes, Lin, I agree, I'm becoming more of a Kindle user myself. That's how I'm reading The Christie Caper. I rarely buy modern crime fiction in traditional form now.

      Of course I love the quality of classic crime reprints in traditional form, like those Coachwhip and other small presses are doing, and I think it's important to support their efforts too. To be sure, there is a convenience factor with Kindle. However, I have the complete set of Coachwhip's Todd Downing reprints, for example, and they look great on the shelf. I will always love traditional books.

  3. I remember reading my way through Carolyn Wells's oeuvre in a quiet rural library one summer in my early teens, and I haven't refreshed my acquaintance since; you've made me want to do that, and as always, I thank you.

    Good luck with The Christie Caper; it was the book that caused me to renounce Carolyn Hart and her comperes for anything but professional reading. Notice how it avoids deduction and logic, and instead conflates these excellent qualities with the ability to remember the names of characters in Agatha Christie novels? I'll look forward to your review, but be warned in advance, I had a great deal of sympathy for Neil Bledsoe.

    1. I don't know where the word "comperes" came from above -- I must have meant "peers", but heaven knows what I was thinking at the time. It's not an auto-correct error, I'm pretty sure.

    2. It wouldn't be auto-correct, unless your auto-correct is in French!

      Working on the Hart piece!