Monday, June 23, 2014

Bringing Down the Hammer: Crack of Doom (1963), by Leo Bruce

....An ordinary, well-used very heavy hammer such as may be used for anything from breaking coal to driving in a stake.  Such a one I have kept by me for years.  No one knows I have it. It is small enough to carry with me unnoticeably and large enough to be effective....
                                                                  Crack of Doom (1963), by Leo Bruce

Rich Westwood of Past Offences suggested that crime fiction bloggers review a 1963 mystery this month.  Here is my choice: Leo Bruce's Crack of Doom.

In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the best English authors of the clued detective novel was "Leo Bruce," the pseudonym of prolific author Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903-1979).  

Rupert Croft-Cooke
Many of his Leo Bruce novels are in print today, Croft-Cooke's native Indian secretary and companion, Joseph Susei Mari, having inherited the copyrights to the Leo Bruce novels at the author's death and sold them to the publishing firm of Academy Chicago, which was absorbed by Chicago Review Press last year.

In the fall of this year, CRP will be reprinting the last Leo Bruce detective novel, Death of a Bovver Boy, which was originally published in 1974, five years before Bruce's death (Croft-Cooke suffered a debilitating stroke that year and afterwards was only able to complete one more work, his final volume of memoirs).

I have blogged about Croft-Cooke here and here, so will not go once again into a great deal of background on him, but I should note that there are two Leo Bruce novels series, one with the earthy British copper (later PI) Sergeant Beef (8 novels, published between 1936 and 1952, including the indisputable Bruce classic, Case for Three Detectives, 1936) and one with the history schoolmaster (Queen's School, Newminster) and amateur sleuth Carolus Deene (23 novels, published between 1955 and 1974).

The Beef books were conceived as satires on classical detective fiction, particularly the "gentleman sleuth" type (Beef is no gentleman), but they also simultaneously offer cleverly designed puzzles.  The Deene books are less overtly satirical (though the earlier ones especially have considerable humor), with Deene himself being a gentleman detective (private income, you see), but they also often have very good puzzles.  The Deene novels Furious Old Women (1960), A Bone and a Hank of Hair (1961) and Nothing Like Blood (1962) have especially clever plots, I think, but most of the books are quite good.

By and large the Deene mysteries are set in the same sort of provincial English milieu so often favored by Agatha Christie.  Bruce also is, like Christie, particularly adept at subtle clueing.  Personally I find him one of the English mystery writers who comes closest to Christie overall, including in sheer readability.

the English first edition
with the splendid dust jacket by Val Biro
Leo Bruce's Crack of Doom (retitled, for no compelling reason that I can see, Such is Death in the United States) inaugurated a period of lessened levity in the Deene books.  Its plot is rather grim.

The opening pages of the novel are taken from the diary of an aspiring murderer in the resort town of Selby-on-Sea. This person discloses therein that s/he is planning to commit, for the sheer thrill of it, the perfect murder: one that is without motive ("I shall simply kill the first person who comes along").

The body of the novel then commences, with a man being found dead in a shelter on the Selby-on-Sea promenade, his head battered by blows from a coal hammer, on a blustery night a few weeks before Christmas (yes, Crack of Doom is also a Christmas mystery, with events coming to a head on Christmas Day, which echoes the "Day of Judgment" idea invoked by the novel's title).

The dead man is Ernest Rafter, who, it turns out, had only recently returned to England. He had long been presumed dead, killed in Burma in the Second World War.  Investigation by the police reveals that during the war he had been a collaborator with the Japanese, and in this fact the police believe they may have found the motive for his murder.

Fearing suspicion is directed at her family--Rafter has two brothers and two sisters living in the vicinity of Selby-on-Sea--one of Rafter's sisters, a wealthy, pompous widow with a son at Queen's School in Newminster, persuades Carolus Deene to take on the case.

Bruce's regular cast of amusing supporting characters in Newminster is downplayed in Crack of Doom, but as is so often the case in the Deene books a public house plays a key role in the tale and there are two winning barmaids, Doris and Vivienne, to brighten things up a bit (when it comes to female characters, Bruce excelled at barmaids, stuffy matrons and plainspoken elderly women).

The novel offers a difficult murder problem, with some very good clues, that really tests the murder mettle of Deene and the reader (by the by, Queen's School splendid windbag headmaster Mr. Gorringer shows up for Deene's exposition at the end, as per tradition). The coal hammer as a macabre murder weapon has always stuck with me, rather like the sugar cutter in Agatha Christie's Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952).

I unhesitatingly recommended Crack of Doom to fans of classic English mystery.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Forked Plot: Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell

If you like Poirot and Miss Marple, you'll love Mrs. Bradley.

             --Publisher's Blurb on the Vintage reprint of Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell

....I think there were too many characters to keep up with in Brazen Tongue...By the end of the book I was confused as to who was the murderer.

     customer review of Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell
It is to be expected that publishers seeking to market the mysteries of Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)--now more widely available to readers around the world that at any time, including during the author's own lifetime--would hail her as another Agatha Christie; but in actuality Mitchell was very much her own woman, with a beguiling voice distinct from not only that of Christie, but also the other most publicized Golden Age Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

is a word often applied to Mitchell's sixty-six novels, published between 1929 to 1984, about the crime-solving capers of the unorthodox psychiatrist Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Exuberant is another. Inscrutable, others, less enchanted, have added. Mitchell can surpass Allingham at her most opaque.

"Mitchell's plotting style was uniquely hers," truly writes Nick Fuller in his introduction to Sleuth's Alchemy (2005), Crippen & Landru's collection of Gladys Mitchell short fiction. Occasionally, notes Nick, Mitchell's mystery "maze-building would get out of hand, and she would lose herself in the labyrinth, whereupon the critical Minotaur would gobble her up, and, like Icarus, she would come plummeting down to earth a fantastic wreck."

Even Mitchell's most coherently plotted mystery novels demand careful attention from readers--more, perhaps, than some may care to give to escape fiction.  Yet for those of us willing to make the commitment, Mitchell's best work is an absolute and abiding delight.

beware the critical Minotaur

Case in point: Brazen Tongue (1940), which Mitchell wrote in the early months of the "Phoney War" in Europe (the period in 1939-40 before the German attack on France and the low countries was launched). Like Nick Fuller, who deems this book one of Mitchell's three or four best Bradleys, I find it a superlative crime novel, with an interesting plot, sly humor, a memorable depiction of life in a provincial English town in the early days of the Second World War and the saurian Mrs. Bradley just as wonderfully outre as ever.

Although the puzzle, revolving around three suspicious but seemingly unrelated deaths occurring in the provincial town of Willington within a twelve hour period, is quite complex and somewhat non-linear in its elucidation, this is a true detective novel, with creative clueing and a relentless investigation by Mrs. Bradley.

the 2005 Minnow Press edition
While praising Brazen Tongue on his page about it at his Gladys Mitchell website, Jason Half somewhat faults what he terms the "meandering reveal" of the solution.

I think that Mitchell was going here for the Anthony Berkeley twist-style ending, seeing how many times she could shake the pieces in her crime-kaleidoscope to make a new picture of the solution.

I found it a tremendously fun, indeed bravura, performance; although others, like the Amazon reviewer quoted above, may well find it all too much (serious armchair sleuths should pay attention to the title of the book).

Half also criticizes Mitchell's brief depiction of a Jewish character, the wife of one Councillor Zacharias. Mitchell gives this character a stage lisp, a convention in English fiction going back to Charles Dickens' Fagin. Besides simply being rather silly, the exaggerated dialect  makes the character's testimony difficult to understand. In her work Mitchell had an unfortunate predilection for impenetrable dialect speech (another book where she indulges herself in this penchant to ill effect is Dead Men's Morris, with its acres and acres of "colorful" country dialect).

However, Councillor Zacharias and his wife are both portrayed quite sympathetically by Mitchell. There is no parallel here to dubious passages concerning Jews that we occasionally find in Golden Age mysteries by, for example, Christie, Sayers and Berkeley.

The fact that Mr. Zacharias is a town Councillor is indicative of the interesting social dimension to Brazen Tongue.  Despite the wild plot, the milieu depicted by Mitchell in Brazen Tongue seems more "real world" to me than that of many Golden Age mysteries of the country house and cozy village stereotype. Mitchell goes up and down the social ladder with ease, adeptly portraying people from the varied classes; and her sympathies, contra GA stereotype, often seem to lie with the less privileged (there is some feminist subtext as well). The novel makes an interesting companion piece to Henry Wade's brilliant The Dying Alderman (1930), published a decade earlier.

Happily, some of Mrs. Bradley's relatives also are on hand: niece Sally Lestrange, sister-in-law Selina Lestrange and son Sir Ferdinand Lestrange.  I always like reading about the twice--or thrice--married Mrs. Bradley's vast network of family relations (someone really should do a family tree).

We also get to see a little of Mrs. Bradley's chauffeur George and the measures he goes to, in the early days of rationing, to get petrol for his employer's investigative jaunts. Mrs. Bradley herself is as amiably highhanded as ever, and, appropriately enough, gets the novel's thought-provoking last line.

Mrs. Bradley on the case: the dust jacket of the first edition

Disappointingly for the author's Brazen fans, Gladys Mitchell in a 1976 interview with Barry Pike named Brazen Tongue as her most disliked novel, along with Printer's Error (1939). It seems odd that she chose two books published back-to-back, nearly forty years earlier. On the other hand, she named her three then most recent books, the mediocre A Javelin for Jonah (1974), Winking at the Brim (1974) and Convent on Styx (1975), as being among her favorites, so in my view this just goes to support the old adage that authors aren't necessarily the best judges of their best--or worst--work.

For years Brazen Tongue was one of the rarest Gladys Mitchell titles.  It was reprinted in an attractive hardcover edition in 2005 by Minnow Press, but this edition now is itself a collector's item. Fortunately the title now is available, like other Gladys Mitchell mysteries, in affordable formats in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It is pleasing to think that the company of devoted admirers of "the Great Gladys" has a chance of growing.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kids Are Murder! My Son, the Murderer (1954), by Patrick Quentin

For Father's Day I thought I would offer a piece on Patrick Quentin's My Son, the Murderer (1954; in UK, The Wife of Ronald Sheldon).

For many years murders were
Hugh Wheeler's meat

This was the tenth Patrick Quentin crime novel and the first under that name probably written solely by Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987), who later went on to write for films and the stage, winning Tony awards for his books for A Little Night Music, Candide and Sweeney Todd.

The previous nine PQ novels, beginning with A Puzzle for Fools, were written together by Wheeler and his then-partner Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966), between 1936 and 1952. 

All but one of them have the series character Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer and amateur sleuth. Along with his actress wife, Iris, Peter appears one last time in My Son, the Murderer, although his brother Jake plays the lead role.

Also appearing is Lieutenant Timothy Trant, a suave cop who originally surfaced in another Wheeler-Webb mystery series, written under the name "Q. Patrick."  Trant appeared in the Q. Patrick books Death for Dear Clara (1937), The File on Claudia Cragge (1938) and Death and the Maiden (1939), before crossing over to appear in the Patrick Quentin novel Black Widow (1952).  After My Son, the Murderer Trant intervened in three more Patrick Quentin novels, including the final one, Family Skeletons (1965).

It's all rather confusing and may have something to do today with Patrick Quentin's relative obscurity, despite the fact that the books were highly praised and that Wheeler, as mentioned above, went on to achieve great prominence in film and stage work.

Of the two men, Richard Webb was, as a mystery writer, the more aesthetically traditionalist of the two. The books offered solely by Hugh Wheeler are less like formal detective novels and more like psychological crime novels, with great emphasis being placed on the emotional trauma suffered by the people involved in a murder investigation, in the modern fashion.

Certainly we see this in My Son, the Murderer, the story of a father, Jake Duluth, trying to prove his estranged son did not commit murder.  Jake, who narrates the tale, is a partner in the publishing firm of Sheldon and Duluth. When the novel opens he and his son both are trying to recover from the seemingly inexplicable suicide of Felicia Duluth, the wife of Jake and mother of Bill.

Nineteen-year-old Bill is leading an especially aimless life. Now he's talking of going to Rome with an aspiring Greenwich Village writer, Sylvia Rymer. But then Jake's middle-aged publishing partner, Ronald Sheldon, returns from a trip to England with a beautiful new wife, Jean (age nineteen, just like Bill), and events take a sudden, disastrous turn.

Jean is the daughter of the unsuccessful but esteemed highbrow novelist Basil Leighton; and with his daughter's marriage to Ronald Sheldon has come, most conveniently, a lucrative book contract with Sheldon and Duluth. Basil has also accompanied Jean to the United States, along with his slavish wife Nora and his aloof "muse," Phyllis Brent, of some backwater English gentry family.  The whole odd menage is installed with Jean, Ronald and Ronald's spinster sister, Angie, in Ronald's mansion.

You may have guessed already that Bill Duluth falls in love at first sight with Jean Sheldon. Young love, it seems, can't be denied. When Ronald Sheldon is found shot dead at his home, Bill is the main suspect.  Can his father--the only person who believes Bill's insistence that he's not guilty--save him?

As befits a 1950s crime novel, in Son there is a lot of time devoted to emotional travail and psychological speculation, but at heart this is still a fairly clued detective novel, and the last portion, where the finger of suspicions shifts rapidly from person to person, is especially good.  There is also a pointed satirical look at British attitudes toward the United States--Wheeler himself, like Webb, was an Englishman by birth, although by the time of the publication of Son he had lived in the US for about twenty years--as well as at the odd personality cults of would-be Great Novelists (by the latter item I was rather reminded of Ruth Rendell's 2007 Wexford mystery, Not in the Flesh).

This is a admirable specimen of the 1950s American crime novel and should be brought back into print. Hugh Wheeler went on the write six more crime novels under the PQ name, some of the quite good, though with Son he bid adieu to the Duluth clan, witnesses through the years to so many mysterious murders.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Polishing Up: Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949), by Patricia Wentworth (Review)

"I find it very read [a detective story] not set in rural England."

                                                       --W. H. Auden, "The Guilty Vicarage" (1948)

In Masters of the Humdrum Mystery and other writings I have argued that the view of most Golden Age novels as taking place in highly socially stratified villages and country houses is exaggerated, being a construction partly of post-WW2 retrospection.

W. H. Auden's "The Guilty Vicarage" essay has influenced the development of this view, as have, I suspect, the Miss Silver novels of Patricia Wentworth (1878-1961). Although in setting and milieu they seem like what we tend to think of as classic Golden Age English mysteries, most of them were in fact published after the outbreak of the Second World War, commonly seen as the end point of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949) is the fifteenth of the 32 Miss Silver mysteries, and one in which, I find, Wentworth is clearly embracing the mythic or magical aspect of the detective story, what Auden in his essay calls the "Great Good Place."  Murder disrupts the state of order in the village, requiring the detective to expose him or her and cast him out, restoring the disrupted order.  I think Wentworth's novel is an extremely good example of this sort of mystery.

In this particular tale Miss Silver comes to stay in the village of Lenton, to which she has been invited by an old school friend.  Her appearance is providential, for a most shocking murder soon takes place, one that threatens to produce a grave miscarriage of justice.

James Lessiter, son of Mildred Lessiter, widowed mistress of the decaying Melling House, after many years away making his fortune in business has returned to the family home, his mother having passed away.  Philistine that he is, Lessiter has no respect for tradition and plans to sell: "He had no regrets. The house could go.  If he wanted a place in the country, there were more amusing spots than Melling....Something modern and labour-saving."

Vindictive and, indeed, sadistic, Lessiter is determined as well to settle some old village scores. Soon, however, someone settles him.

Rietta Cray makes an ill-timed call
Lessiter is found dead, most classically: in his study at Melling House, his head stove in by the fireplace poker. Official suspicion quickly focuses on an old flame of Lessiter's, Rietta Cray, and her tempestuous nephew and ward, Carr Robertson.

Wentworth makes clear that neither of these characters, both of whom have their own love stories, can be guilty (with Agatha Christie one can never be sure of these things), so much of the novel has the quality of a suspense tale: Will Rietta or Carr be arrested, we wonder, and how will Miss Silver get them out of their grim predicament?

A good part of the novel involves Miss Silver uncovering a fact that we, the readers, already know; yet the final portion offers some rather fine deception and detection, I think.

Throughout it all, Miss Silver, the upright and elderly governess turned sleuth, functions superbly, in her quest for truth probing to people's emotional cores while placidly knitting "a cosy coat and knickers for her niece Ethel Burkett's little Josephine."

The characters in the book note the awesome phenomenon that is Miss Silver:

"I don't quite know why she impresses one, but she does.  It's a sort of mixture of being back at school again and finding yourself wandering about in the fairy story where you meet an old woman and she gives you a hazel nut with the cloak of darkness packed inside it."
"She knows people.  All the things they hide behind--appearance, manner, the show we put up to prevent other people knowing too much about us--she sees right through them, and judges you on what's left."

Throughout the novel as well, Wentworth compellingly conveys the social strata of the village, from the seemingly inevitably decaying genteel folk, to the professional class and tradespeople, to clerks, servants and inquisitive telephone operators.  One can debate the exact realism of this setting in 1949, but it is undeniably a well-conveyed one.

Through Miss Silver Wentworth continually invokes traditional standards of decency and honor. Usually what is older is deemed better ("There was nothing that was not suitable, but the general effect was that everything was a little too new").

The ethos is undoubtedly conservative.  At one point the author refers to "this hard post-war world," as if for many the pre-war world had not presented its certain share of hardness.  Miss Silver regrets that "labour shortages and heavy taxation" has led to the reduction of "so many fine country places." She allows that now "the good things of life were being spread more evenly," yet she laments "the passing of so much that was beautiful."

" moments of stress a man
could be dreadfully in the way."
However, there are some seemingly unorthodox notes. In an era where the word cougar referred only, I presume, to a big cat, Miss Silver sees a young man's romantic interest in an attractive, designing older woman (age 43) as something quite natural.

She also strikes something of a feminist note in this clever sentence: "With every esteem for the manly virtues, and a good deal of indulgence towards the manly failings, it had often occurred to [Miss Silver] that in moments of stress a man could be dreadfully in the way."

Perhaps one manly failing throughout the decades since the advent of Miss Silver has been a failure by many male mystery readers to appreciate the many "feminine" virtues of this lady detective.

For whatever Julian Symons and Jacques Barzun (see my previous post) may have thought about it, Miss Silver indeed did come to stay upon the literary scene--and she shows no sign yet of leaving it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Polishing Up: Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949), by Patricia Wentworth (Introduction); plus a short tribute to "Peff"

In Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver Deals with Death (1943; Miss Silver Intervenes in UK), Wentworth's Inspector Ernest Lamb delivers what surely must be taken as artistic statement on the detective novel by the author:

"Human feelings are things you're bound to take into consideration.  That's where a lot of these detective novels go wrong--there aren't any human feelings in them.  They're clever the same way a game of chess is clever, or a problem in mathematics, and nobody with any more feelings than one of the chessmen or the plus and minus signs.  It isn't natural...."

This is a statement about detective fiction that surely is as "advanced" for its time as that dramatically unfurled by Raymond Chandler in his "The Simple Art of Murder" essay, published the next year. With it, Wentworth, who at this time was moving decisively in her writing from crime thrillers to detective fiction, was aligning herself with the vanguard that wanted to infuse (opponents would say dilute) the cerebral detective novel with discernibly human passions.

Girlish and trivial?
With each Wentworth I read the author strikes me more and more as a significant figure within the genre, despite the fact that she has been mostly ignored in genre studies.

In 1001 Midnights, Marcia Muller made a case for the merits of the Wentworth crime novels, yet in Bloody Murder Julian Symons--you had to know it wouldn't take me long to mention dear old Mr. Symons--lists Wentworth as one of the British mystery authors who, says he, refused "to be serious about anything except the detective and the puzzle"; while Symons's aesthetic nemesis, Jacques Barzun--a much admired individual here--for his part was similarly dismissive, writing in A Catalogue of Crime of Wentworth's novel Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949) that "it is clearly aimed at the tired and somewhat distrait reader: language and gesture and event are girlish and trivial."

Is this is a male thing, then?  Not entirely, surely.

Anthony Boucher
, most esteemed of American crime fiction critics, came to be a great fan of Wentworth by the 1950s; however, I do think the inevitably prominent romance element in the Patrica Wentworth detective novels has been a turn-off to many male readers over the years, as has been the widespread perception of Wentworth as an anodyne (to borrow from Jacques Barzun), or cozy, mystery writer.

There is no doubt in my mind that Wentworth is a notable figure in mystery genre history precisely for popularizing--indeed, I would say, playing a huge role in originating the very popular conception of--the cozy detective novel.  Beginning in 1943, when she published The Chinese Shawl and Miss Silver Deals with Death, Wentworth over fifteen years published more than two dozen Miss Silver mysteries, most of them, I believe, true detective novels and all of them "cozy," set in genteel milieus where the social order is disturbed but restored at the end (her last detective novel, The Girl in the Cellar, published the year of her death in 1961, seems almost universally considered a failure, her Postern of Fate, of you will).

To sweepingly dismiss these "cozy" novels at "girlish" and "trivial" is, I think, missing a lot of what is going in on them.  I believe Patricia Wentworth quite consciously and intelligently embraced the mythic aspect of the classical detective novel and that her Miss Silver emerges over the course of these novels as an awesome--I use this much overused word advisedly--figure, one of the true Great Detectives in English detective fiction.

The novel I will use to support my case is, yes, the one so dismissively treated by Jacques Barzun, Miss Silver Comes to Stay.  I found it the best Patricia Wentworth novel that I have read, as well as one of the best mysteries I have read this year.

Incidentally, this novel was also cover-illustrated, in its 1958 Pan paperback edition, by the late Sam Peffer (1921-2014), one of the great crime fiction artists of the 1950s and 1960s, who signed his work as "Peff."  Some fantastic example of his covers are posted below.  You can see Patricia Wentworth was in some very good--if rather fast--company.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

"Oh! You Hound!!" Sherlock Sensationalized (Paperback Novelties)

no subtlety here
The lurid, menaced woman crime fiction paperbacks of mid-twentieth-century American publishers have been much commented upon over the years. Most infamously these covers, which drew on the tropes of pulp fiction, were associated with Mickey Spillane and other hard-boiled authors, but the proven sales appeal of such art led to its being used to push as well non-hard-boiled mysteries, such as Ruth Fenisong's The Lost Caesar (1945; retitled for this Popular Library paperback, Death Is a Gold Coin--was the publisher making an allusion to Charon's obol, I wonder, or did they simply want to get death in the title).

"How Much Evil Can a Woman Endure?" pants Popular Library. I suspect that some sensation-seeking readers may have been disappointed with what was actually between the covers, however.

For some reason I had never thought to check Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels for this sort of treatment.

Well, witness now Bantam's 1949 paperback edition of Holmes' "most famous case,": The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Judging from this cover, the "hound" of the title would seem to be a man.

As I recollect this cover actually has some basis in events from the book, described at second hand. But you have to to flip to the back cover to learn about the actual hound of Baskerville legend.  Perhaps a better title to go with this cover would have been The Woman in Red.

Road Show: Having Wonderful Crime (1943), by Craig Rice

"I came here," [Malone] said loudly, "under false pretenses.  You long-distanced me yesterday afternoon and lured me into coming to New York.  You said you had a problem and you needed my help immediately.  You said I could spend a pleasant vacation in New York and have a wonderful time. He paused to drink his beer and relight his cigar. "....I caught the train.  I got here.  And what did I find?...I found some strange drunk with a murder on his hands...."
                                                          --Having Wonderful Crime (1943), Craig Rice

the IPL reprint edition from 1991
Having taken her sleuthing team of Jon J. Malone and Helene and Jake Justus from their native Chicago to small-town Wisconsin in Trial by Fury (1942), where she could draw on her childhood background, in Having Wonderful Crime she marched them off to New York City, the setting of so many American mystery novels.

It's fun to get Rice's somewhat wormy take on the Big Apple, and the mystery--involving our heroes with decapitated bodies, male escorts and Greenwich Village artistes--is certainly wacky enough.

Crime opens with a vignette dealing with a phenomenon with which Rice by this time was well-familiar from her own life: recovering from a terrific hangover.

Instead of enjoying his honeymoon in the company of his brand new bride, the wealthy but homely heiress Bertha Lutts, handsome but impecunious Dennis Morrison (formerly of an escort service), gets blind drunk at the hotel bar.  Where drinks are chances are you will find the Justuses--and that's what happens in this case. They befriend Morrison and later that day try to help him when Bertha is found beheaded in her bridal chamber. But wait!  That's not Bertha's head!

Who is the dead woman then?  And where is Bertha?  Faced with this confusion, naturally the Justuses call in their great friend, the pugnacious Chicago defense attorney John J. Malone.

This is a typical kooky, boozy and racy Rice mystery, with an amusing look at New York. Rice has some fun with the publishing business (Jake Justus is trying to write a detective novel), manifold sexual foibles (the book is rather ahead of its time in this regard), Greenwich Village intellectuals (a poetess names Wildavine Williams plays a large role) and the New York police (there's a team of three cops--O'Brien, Birnbaum and Schultz--that sounds like they are trying out for the comedy stage).

The mystery plot is involved, with Malone, Helene and Jake all contributing to the solution, though it is Malone as always who puts everything together, so to speak.  Rice does provide clues and a actual ratiocinative process for Malone, even if his explanation involves some rather considerable improbabilities!  But demanding strict realism of Rice would spoil a great deal of the fun at which the author so excels. An enjoyable mystery for those who don't mind their mysteries sloshed.

Friday, June 6, 2014

My Son, the Murderer (1954), by Patrick Quentin

Longtime readers (okay, like two years) of this blog, will know that I am quite a fan of the group of writers (mainly two men, Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler) who wrote as Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  I have reviewed here a couple Q. Patricks, as well as a Jonathan Stagge.

Soon I will be reviewing a Patrick Quentin, My Son, the Murderer (1954), written after Hugh Wheeler had taken over the series from the infirm Webb.  It's the sort of 1950s crime novel that would be labeled "domestic suspense" had it been written by a woman crime writer, I suspect.

Also I have still to get my review of Craig Rice's Having Wonderful Crime done (it was promised last week!), so look ahead to a double-barreled post this weekend. I am about to get the index for Mysteries Unlocked all wound up and will finally have some more free time for the blog (there's an essay in Mysteries Unlocked by Mauro Boncompagni on Patrick Quentin, by the way).

For now, what do you think of the Hoffman-illustrated book jacket?  I must admit that I found the yellow-lettered title a bit pushy; however the yellow does match the boards. The illustration itself is great, I think.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Stout Hearts: The Fans Confront the Critic

On November 13, 1977, Julian Symons reviewed Agatha Christie's An Autobiography and John McAleer's Rex Stout: A Biography, in a New York Times review essay titled--rather inelegantly, it must be admitted, but I'm sure Symons was not to blame for that--"Two Who Dun It" (the two Crime Titans had recently passed on, Stout in October 1975 and Christie just a few months later in January 1976).

Julian Symons

Christie expressed opinions "about life and society" that "are never original, often banal," wrote Symons bluntly.  She was "both conservative and Conservative in the most conventional way."  Yet he found Christie's An Autobiography charming and the author herself "the creator of the most cunningly deceptive fictional plots of the half-century in which she lived."

Rex Stout's work and that of his biographer, John McAleer, did not come off so well.

About Stout personally, Symons was quite favorable, dubbing Stout "a remarkable and forceful personality" and noting his "constant and time-consuming support of radical causes."  Yet "no livelier man had been the subject of a duller book," Symons found.  McAleer, in Symons' view, included vastly too much detail.  Moreover, his "own comments are almost always jejune or banal." "We learn little of Rex Stout's personality as we trudge though this forest of fact," complained Symons.

Rex Stout: promise unfulfilled?
Symons noted that at the beginning of Stout's writing career, Stout had written four psychological novels, including one that "dealt with homosexuality" ("Can there have been some truth in those stories about Nero and Archie," Symons asked archly).

Yet instead of continuing to probe such challenging subject matter, Stout had found it "easier, more comfortable and more profitable to settle for Nero and Archie...."

Symons proceeded to cut Nero Wolfe down to size, so to speak:

At the risk of outraging an accepted American myth it must be said that McAleer absurdly inflates the stories' merit....Stout was simply not in the same stylistic league with Hammett, Chandler or Ross Macdonald.  His prose is energetic and efficient, nothing more.  His plots lack the metronomic precision of Ellery Queen's.  The books survive though Nero's personality and the Nero-Archie relationship, but to say that Nero embodies the values of Western civilization, or to suggest that he is a brother under the skin to Dr. Johnson, is ludicrous.

Stout's great achievement, in Symons view, was creating an outsize "Superman detective who will be remembered as long as people create crime stories"; yet "this figure operates in the context of books that are consistently entertaining, but for the most part just as consistently forgettable."

All this carping did not sit well sit well with some New York Times readers who were devout fans of Stout; and they composed letters of protest.

Marilyn Brooks of Needham Massachusetts asserted that for Symons to "rank Stout below Ross Macdonald (who is much more repetitive) or Ellery Queen (whose unrealistic devices and pretentious speech make his novels seem much more dated than Doyle) is to completely miss the character development that has taken place in Nero Wolfe and Goodwin though the years."

Brooks recommended that Symons "sit down and read all the Wolfe stories straight see how true-to-life the characters, events and dialogue are."

The late Professor Richard H. Reis (1931-2008), who was Chair of the English Department at the university of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, could only explain "the hostility of Julian Symons' review" by concluding that Symons was jealous of Stout's success: "As a far less successful mystery writer than Stout, he splenetically attacks a biographer, when his real target is the biographer's subject."

For her part, Mrs. Albert Ortega of Prado Norte, Mexico--"a mystery fan for over 50 years"--complained about that homosexuality quip concerning Nero and Archie that Symons had made: "How dare he make snide allusions to possible perversions," she demanded.*

*(Not that I think they were, but if Nero and Archie were a couple, what would we call them? Narchie?)

The letter writers praised the quality of McAleer's biography too.

In his defense, Symons assured Marilyn Brooks that "I have what I regard as the best of Stout on my shelves, and I do reread them."  Of Professor Reis, Symons wondered why he was "so gratuitously insulting?"  And he reiterated his criticism of McAleer's biography:

There'll always be fans fascinated to know how often their hero changed his socks and what he had for dinner on a particular day, but recording such things doesn't make a biography.  As a researcher Professor John McAleer is fine: as a biographer he doesn't exist.

John J. McAleer
Whew! I recall looking over a library copy of the Rex Stout biography by the late John J. McAleer (1923-2003), a longtime professor of English literature at Boston College, back in the 1990s, but I can't recall too much about it. I admit I did not give it a detailed read, but I will simply have to read it now! The late Professor Jacques Barzun, I must note, deemed the book the "definitive account by a master biographer."

As far as Symons' motivations in publishing this tough review essay go, I think Professor Reis was unduly hasty in prescribing such pettiness to the esteemed English crime writer.

I feel sure Symons honestly believed that Stout had somewhat wasted his talent by not writing "crime novels"--i.e., psychological novels about crime--while Agatha Christie (and Ellery Queen) had lived up to what they did best in writing puzzle-oriented mysteries (I recall that Symons is far less positive about the later, more novelistic, Queen novels).

To Symons Stout was not as clever a puzzle-master as Christie or Queen (or John Dickson Carr he would have added), nor as "serious" a writer as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald; and he is accordingly downgraded.  This criticism may be true enough, but I think it still leaves room for greatness.

Perhaps Stout better fits in the manners mystery writers Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, authors whom Symons also tended to undervalue, but who in their best mysteries both plotted and wrote quite well.  Stout may have been "just" an entertainer to Julian Symons, but, as my recently posted review of And Be a Villain suggests, to me he unquestionably belongs in the pantheon of great writers of detective fiction.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

On the Hi-Spot: And Be a Villain (1948), by Rex Stout

"Those things she calls Sweeties!  Pfui!"
         --Nero Wolfe, And Be a Villain (1948)

The first installment of Rex Stout's Arnold Zeck trilogy, And Be a Villain (1948), barely has Arnold Zeck in it at all, which can be a plus or minus, depending on how one feels about the whole idea of having a master criminal in the Wolfe series. Anthony Boucher thought the Zeck affair was tiresome, as I recollect, but many others have liked it.

During the course of Wolfe's murder investigation in Villain, he finds himself nosing into one of Zeck's criminal enterprises, provoking Zeck to make Wolfe a personal phone call, warning the plus-size sleuth of potentially dire consequences.

Wolfe foreshadows the third book in the Zeck trilogy in this conversation with Archie:

"I tell you nothing because it is better for you to know nothing.  You are to forget you know his name."

"Like that."  I snapped my fingers, and grinned at him.  "What the hell?  Does he eat human flesh, preferably handsome young men?"

"No.  He does worse."  Wolfe's eyes came half open.  "I'll tell you this.  If ever, in the course of my business, I find that I am committed against him and must destroy him, I shall leave this house, find a place where I can work--and sleep and eat if there is time for it--and stay there until I have finished.  I don't want to do that, and therefore I hope I'll never have to."

Well, stay tuned!  In the meantime, Wolfe is able to arrange matters in Villain without having a real confrontation with Zeck.

How is the Zeckless part of the novel?  Pretty terrific, actually.  One of the thing I like a lot about the Wolfe series in the post-WW2 era is his portrayals of corporate America.  In Villain Stout amusingly depicts the world of corporate-sponsored radio, here in the form of Madeline Fraser's popular chat show, sponsored by the soft drink company Hi-Spot and the, to Wolfe particularly egregious, candy bar company Sweeties (it's too bad, with the popularity of the television series Madmen, that someone can't take another stab on TV at the wonderful mid-century world of New Wolfe; the Maury Chaykin-Timothy Hutton series is much missed).

Here Hi-Spot is on the spot, because one of the guests on Madelyn Fraser's show has died after sipping their soft drink during the show (during the break Fraser and her guests are all to drink Hi-Spot and comment on how wonderful and refreshing it is). This time someone flavored it with cyanide.

Poisoning, in my opinion, often brings out the best in detective novels (see Agatha Christie and John Rhode, for example), the mechanics of the poisoning often proving quite wonderfully intricate and tricky. Villain does not disappoint in this regard.

I found the narrative engrossing as well as amusing.  The whole problem really does feel like a chess game, with Wolfe probing for weaknesses in his opponent's (i.e., the murderer's) defense.  He makes a series of brilliant moves throughout the novel and wins the game.

Wolfe does battle with a bobby soxer
If chess problems boor you, there's always the byplay among the characters.  There is one rather poignant episode with one character in the book, but for me the stand-out in this novel (aside from Nero and Archie of course) has to be irrepressible, sixteen-year-old Nancylee Shepherd, enthusiastic organizer of "the biggest [Madelyn] Fraser Girls' Club in the country."

From the evidence of the novel, Stout must have had a great time depicting this forties bobby soxer.  His own daughters were, I believe, fifteen and eleven when Villain was published. The exchanges between Nero and Nancylee are priceless.

Surely And Be a Villain is one of Rex Stout's best pieces of detective fiction. My only complaint is with the Maan Meyers introduction to the Bantam Rex Stout Library edition of Villain, wherein the husband-and-wife writing team give Wolfe's frequent derisive exclamation "Pfui!" as "Phui."

To that I say, yes, pfui.  Double pfui even.