Saturday, June 3, 2023

Children's Hour--Lady Bountiful in a Red Roadster: The Hidden Staircase (1930) and The Secret of Red Gate Farm (1931), by "Carolyn Keene"

My sister's bedroom in our ranch house in Northport, Alabama back in the 1970s was decorated in colors of pale yellow and blue.  In the corner, by the only window in the room, which looked down the sloping lawn, was a metal bookcase, painted yellow, where she kept her books.  Being extremely bookish from a young age, I naturally took peeks at them now and again.  She had some books my Grandmother Ada from California had bought her, like The Borrowers, Mr. Mysterious and Company,  the first two of Frank Baum's Oz novels and a number of Nancy Drew mysteries, the yellowbacks with the pictures directly on the front covers (no dust jackets).  I can still remember the ones she had from looking up the covers on the internet: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Secret at Red Gate Farm, The Clue in the Diary, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Secret in the Old Attic, The Clue in the Old Album.  (I don't recognize any others.)  

I don't know that my sister was too devoted to Nancy Drew; she wasn't a big reader in general.  I remember being intrigued by that Hidden Staircase cover with Nancy, looking rather school librarian-ish in her sensible blue blouse, skirt and shoes, intrepidly traversing that old stone staircase, that beaming flashlight in her hand.  I never read any of them, however, at least that I can recall.  

By 1974 I had started reading Agatha Christie mysteries, starting with four Pocket paperbacks that my Mom bought when we lived in Mexico City  (Easy to Kill as it was called, Ten Little Indians, as it was called, Funerals Are Fatal as it was called, and The ABC Murders).  Before Agatha my favorite book compulsion was L. Frank Baum's Oz series of fantasy children's books.  (I was the only kid in my set who knew there was more than one.)  Nancy had to wait.  As for the Hardy Boys, I had one my Mom got me, when I was in the fourth grade I think, called The Scarlet Claw.  I don't believe I ever even cracked the covers.  Oddly enough I did read a Bobbsey Twins book that had mysterious elements, but I forget the title.

When the 1990s rolled around and I was in graduate school studying history (and a great mystery reader), I bought some of the facsimile eds. of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries reissued by the publisher Applewood.  The fact that these were replicas of the actual stories from the 1920s and 1930s interested me.  Beginning in 1959, the year my sister was born, the older Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys were heavily edited and updated, in some cases essentially rewritten.  I had no interest in any of that.  A love of history and "Golden Age," between-the-wars mystery, I wanted to read those books, if I ever got around to reading them, as they originally appeared, within the true context of their times.

Finally I've gotten around to reading a couple of Nancy Drews: The Hidden Staircase (Yes!) and The Secret of Red Gate Farm, the second and sixth books in the series, originally published in 1930 and 1931 respectively, in the heart of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  

Many of you will be very familiar indeed with the plots of these beloved children's mystery novels.  Hidden Staircase may be the single most famous Nancy Drew title.  It opens when privileged, blonde, sixteen-year-old teenage do-gooder Nancy, all alone at the Drew home in River Heights (her father, big shot attorney Carson Drew, has been called out of town on a case, and the housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, has her day off), gets a visit from a repulsive, rude stranger from nearby Cliffwood, Nathan Gombet, who to Nancy accuses her father of having cheated him in a land deal.  Nathan, you see, is a miser and frankly rather off his rocker.  

After Nancy gets rid of this objectionable person, the book rather hangs fire for a bit.  The teen gets a visit from Allie Horner, one of the many people, it seems, who has benefitted from Nancy's crusading goodness.  Allie and her sister Grace had lived on a farm, where they "were undernourished and beset with financial worries," but, all due to the efforts of Nancy, "the girls had come into an inheritance and their troubles had vanished."  (All this is detailed in the debut mystery in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock.)  They discuss Nathan Gombet a bit and Allie confirms he is bad news.  Then Carson Drew gets home and they discuss Nathan some more. 

A few days late Nancy visits the cottage of Abigail Rowen, another beneficiary of Nancy's decsive intervention in the Old Clock case: "Nancy had found in her deplorable condition.  There was little food, or money with which to buy it, and Abigail had firmly refused medical attention because she could not pay for it.  It was through Nancy's instigation that she had received her inheritance from the Crowley estate...."

Ronen Mansion, Stone City, Iowa
Abigail introduces Nancy to her friend Rosemary Turnbull, "an elderly maiden lady" (she's actually no more than forty-five by my calculation) who resides in Cliffwood with her twin sister Floretta at an old stone mansion, naturally called The Mansion.  It seems that, like all the other maiden ladies mentioned above, the Turnbull sisters have a problem for Nancy Drew to solve: their house is infested with poltergeists!  

Noises all over the house, shadows on the walls and objects disappearing, even when all the doors and windows are locked.  Yes, technically this is a locked room mystery, though you will have about as much trouble answering that riddle as you would in a Carolyn Wells detective novel.

Finally, after forty pages and five chapters, Nancy gets to The Mansion, where she finds Floretta all aflutter!  She wants to move out of the house immediately!  Hey--could this be someone's clever plot to drive the Turnbull sisters out of their ancestral home, built before the Civil War?  I'll bet you a bag of Scooby snacks it could!

Nancy quickly decides that the Turnbulls are worthy objects of her benevolence and gets to work trying to find the true guise of the poltergeist.  Gazing at the family portraits that adorn The Mansion, she realizes "that once the Turnbulls had been the leading family in Cliffwood."  Although Rosemary and Floretta, the last of the local Turnbull line, are decayed gentlewomen with "an income only sufficient for their needs," they are, Nancy appreciates, "welcome in the best of society."  (Okay, this is apparently Iowa, so let's not get too carried away with pretensions.)  

As Nancy tells her father, "They come from an excellent family.  I believe The Mansion has belonged to the Turnbulls ever since it was built....It would be a tragedy if they had to sell the place now...I want so badly to help them."

Carson Drew has to go on a business trip to Chicago, but he hands daughter Nancy a revolver and tells her you go, girl, basically.  Which she does.  The gun doesn't play any real role in the novel, however, it's mostly just Nancy snooping around at the Turnbull place and later at another stone house that looks a lot like theirs.  It turns out that the pair of houses were built by two Turnbull brothers who were once close but then became enemies during the Civil War....And that wicked Nathan Gombet lives in the other house....And that he has been pressuring Rosemary and Floretta to sell their house to him cheap....

Solved the mystery yet?  Could a hidden staircase be involved somehow?  One thing you can say, at least this story has truth in advertising.  

Truth is, Nancy is no great detective here, just very determined.  But it's an enjoyable story nevertheless.  If there's one thing kids love, it's mysterious, secret passages in old houses and you sure get them in this novel.

A few books later Nancy is at it again, trying to discover The Secret of Red Gate Farm.  This time she has two pals, cousins George and Bess, whom she meant in the previous books when she was deciphering The Secret of Shadow Ranch.  George is a tomboy type and Bess is girly type of girl, with Nancy naturally being the golden (literally) mean.  (Wait for the modern adaptation where George is a lesbian of color.)  I think these two were added to the series because Nancy seemed a little lonely in Hidden Staircase.  (In that book her only friend, as opposed to charity case, who appears is Helen Corning, whom Nancy deems too gossipy to bring into the case.)  Never fear, though, George and Bess take orders from Nancy, who is very much the "Head Girl" type.  

Red Gate Farm opens with Nancy and Bess and George finishing a shopping trip in a nearby city.  They find a "quaint Oriental shop" on their way to the train station and stop in the place.  There they encounter an unpleasant Eurasian shopgirl, Yvonne Wong, and request to purchase from her a certain "Oriental scent" which pervades the shop; but the shopgirl does not want to sell it to them.  Finally, after being repeatedly badgered by the girls, she offers it to them for three dollars (about $53 today), and the girls chip in to buy it.  Of course this perfume will figure significantly into the story....

The girls head for the train station, grousing all the while complaining about the Eurasian shopkeeper.  "Snippy," pronounces George.  "I didn't like her looks.  She was too flashy or something."  On the train, however, they encounter an altogether nicer girl, Millie Burd, who will become the latest object of Nancy's benevolence.  They learn that Millie is seeking a job in the city because she and her grandmother, who live at Red Gate Farm, have to pay off the farm's mortgage and don't have the money.  Nancy accompanies Millie to her job interview and becomes suspicious that her would-be employer is a nogoodnik.  (He has "harsh features," saucy manners and wears a "bold" suit and "gaudy" necktie.)  Millie, who is rather a noodge really, doesn't get the job, and Nancy decides that she, along with Bess and George, will spend part of their summer vacation at Red Gate Farm as boarders to help out the Burds financially.  

not quite the nature cult the author had in mind
So off they all go to Red Gate Farm, where they are soon plunged in another mystery!  It seems that Grandma Burd has let part of her land (including a cave) to a weird nature cult of some sort, the Black Snake Colony, who dress up in white robes that make them resemble Ku Klux Klan members and dance about in the moonlight.  Well, of course Nancy has to get to the bottom of this!  And she does, but not until she and her chums face grave peril.  

Red Gate Farm is an enjoyable story, more eventful, than Hidden Staircase, but the whole edifice is built upon a succession of coincidences:  Nancy and her chums just happen to go into the Oriental shop and buy the bottle of perfume, which they they just happen, when a certain nogoodnik is present, to break on the train, where they just happen to encounter Millie Burd, who just happens to apply for a job at a place connected with the Black Snake Colony, which just happens to rent some land at Red Gate Farm, where Nancy and her chums just happen to board out for the summer.  Wow!  The gods surely know Nancy loves solving mysteries and are doing everything they can to help her along.  Fortune's child, that girl!

From the perspective of a Golden Age mystery fan, it's interesting to see a spurious religious cult popping up in Red Gate Farm, for these insidious organizations often are up to no good in adult mysteries of that time.  And of course there's the crooked Eurasian, with no "good" minority character to balance her.  In Hidden Staircase wicked Nathan Gombet--whom some have argued is Jewish, although I don't believe Gombet is a specifically Jewish surname--has a wicked black housekeeper accomplice, who is only ever described as "the colored woman" and has a hosts of negative descriptions: "fat," "slovenly," "surly-looking," "positively vicious," "looks as though she were an ogre."  

All the characters whom Nancy helps was well-born (by American standards), "nice" WASPish women, down on their luck.  The only minorities depicted in the book are villainous.  The other villains are obvious gangster types and are all marked by cruel faces and colorful dress.  One woman in Red Gate Farm declares that you can't tell who the criminals are these days, but I would say that so far in the Nancy Drew tales that is precisely wrong.  Villainy is openly revealed to Nancy, at least, in countenance and costume.  

Thankfully Nancy is more than capable of combating it.  Does Nancy ever actually attend high school, I had to wonder, when reading these books.  She seems to have ever so much free time.  My thought after reading these novels was Nancy is a Lady Bountiful type and sure enough when I searched those terms I came up with "American Sweethearts" Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture, an academic monograph by Ilana Nash.  She notes that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams--who for over half a century ran the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which published the Nancy Drew books, and wrote the original outlines for most of the Nancy Drew novels (many of which actually were then written by Mildred Wirt Benson)--very much believed in the Lady Bountiful ideal.  

A Wellesley College graduate and high society matron, Harriet Adams, according to Nash, adhered to a "model of female citizenship predicated on noblesse oblige, in which women influence the public sphere by uplifting the less fortunate and performing acts of philanthropy.  Adams frequently told interviewers that she used the Wellesley College motto to inform the character of Nancy Drew: "Non ministrari, sed ministrare ('Not to be ministered unto, but to minister')."  

Nash describes all this as a "vision of the ideal woman as a sort of Lady Bountiful," informed with "the ideas of first wave feminists of the turn of the century, whose vision of proper womanhood remained conservatively focused on the white privileged classes...."

I really sensed this myself reading these two Nancy Drew books and it put me off Nancy a bit, even though I enjoyed the books.  Nancy just seems so perfect and remote, almost like a Greek goddess or Amazonian princess.  She doesn't even seem ever to attend school and of course does not hold a professional job, instead devoting herself, in the classic manner, to amateur sleuthing, in order to charitably help those less fortunate than herself, these being, so far, entirely white women of good stock who through ill fortune and a certain lack of pluck have fallen on hard times.

Famously the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1959 began revising the earlier Nancy Drew titles, a task not completed until 1975, when all the novels published between 1930 and 1956 were revised.  Certainly a character like the "colored woman" from Hidden Staircase could never have survived to the present day.  That she even made it up to 1959 is striking.  Harriet Adams herself carried out the revisions of that novel.  

I'll keep looking at the Nancy Drew books, however (along with those from the rival Judy Bolton series).  These books will always take me back to my youth and my sister's little Nancy Drew collection.  Later on she began reading Seventeen, Madeisemiselle and Cosmopolitan and Seventies potboilers like Harold Robbins' The Betsy and John Jakes' The Bastard.  (I looked at those too.)  Nancy Drew and her more innocent mysteries of life had been left far behind, with George and Bess and her shiny red roadster.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Prince Albert in a Can: Out of the Dark/Child's Play (1964), by Ursula Curtiss and its film adaptation I Saw What You Did (1965)

To a great extent, children were neither seen nor heard in Golden Age detective fiction, though they certainly pop up in Dorothy L. Sayers' humorous short story Talboys, say, Margaret Cole's novel Scandal at School (1935), where the murderee is a blackmailing teenage girl, and Agatha Christie's Crooked House, where--well, I'd better not say more about that one!  

I have the impression that the depiction of children in crime fiction owes rather more to the Americans than the Brits, Americans like like Craig Rice with her classic Home Sweet Homicide and the various mid-century mistresses of domestic suspense, like Ursula Curtiss.  Indeed, Curtiss, the mother of five children, went so far as to base her 1964 crime novel Out of the Dark (Child's Play in England), on her own family.  

The book reads something like Shirley Jackson's popular domestic child-raising comedies, Life among the Savages and Raising Demons, crossed with a tale about a psychotic killer.  It's a rather weird combination, to my mind inadvertently making the case for keeping kids out of crime stories, unless they are themselves killers like the sociopathic tot in William March's The Bad Seed--tales of morbid psychology, in other words, where anything narsty goes.  

Tales about the mirthful doings of wacky kids, on the other hand, don't really mix well with murder, in my view.  But that is rather what we got here!

The basic scenario in Child's Play--the title I'm used to, and the better one I think--is clever, and it's not surprising the novel was adapted as a film by that great American impresario of horror schlock, William Castle.  In the novel a pair bored girls, "home alone" as it were, decide to make a series of prank phone calls to unsuspecting victims, and soon get in over their heads.

It's the old "Prince Albert in a can" ruse, I suppose you know that one?  It's where kids call a store asking if they have "Prince Albert in a can?,"  referring, don't you know, to the Prince Albert brand of tobacco.  If the victim unsuspectingly answers, "yes, we do" then the kids scream: "Let him out!"  Hilarity ensues.  I did this one myself, but disappointingly the person on the other end of the line anticipated me by saying, "No, we let him out.Stephen King used this bit in his horror novel It and it appeared as well in the television adaptation.  It's referenced in the Curtiss novel as well.

Let him out!
In the Curtiss novel, which is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the author's place of residence from 1960, the teen girl pranksters are Libby Mannering and her visiting friend from Chicago Kit Travers.  In the book Kit--a sort of urban sophisticate who seems older than her fourteen years (Libby is fourteen as well)--is the instigator of the phone calls, uttering to her victims, all for fun, the threatening line: "I know who you really are, and I saw what you did...."  

This lands the girls in trouble when they utter the line on the phone to a man who years ago got away with a terrible murder....

As I mentioned above, this is a classic suspense scenario and kudos to Curtiss for being the first, apparently, to use it. 

Unfortunately, however, from my perspective, Libby happens to have four younger siblings, three brothers and a baby sister, and their antics, lovingly dwelt upon by the author, undermine the suspense.  It seems that Curtiss, herself the mother of five children, based the kids in the book on her own.  She told the Albuquerque Journal that the novel "was written around the five Curtiss children, Katy, 15, John, Paul, Kieran and Mary, 8."  Based on the antics in this book I would say that the Curtiss children must have been quite the hellions!  More than a match for any mere murderer, indeed.

But the book is not a murder comedy either.  To me it's schizophrenic.  Early on there's a rather frightening depiction of the original murder that makes clear the killer is a very bad dude, a sociopathic type, and it should make us fear powerfully for the safety of the kids, but it really doesn't.  I could never really make myself believe Curtiss' brat pack was in true danger, despite the atmospherics. (The somewhat feckless Mannering parents are spending the night in Santa Fe and had gotten the kids an adult babysitter, who never shows.)  

Perhaps had Curtiss confined the cast of kiddie characters to just the two teenage girls, it might have worked better.  If three's a crowd, five is a calamity, at least as far as suspense is concerned.  The author's slightly earlier suspense novel, Hours to Kill, a superb study in terrifying isolation, is much stronger as pure suspense, I believe. 


Some reviewers voiced similar complaints about the book as mine, but on the whole the novel received boffo reviews (specially in England) and it became one of only two Curtis novels to be filmed.  The 1965 film version of Out of the Dark, entitled I Saw What You Did, is an interesting movie to thriller fans, though ultimately I think it is deeply flawed.  

It was directed by William Castle, the last film by him, I believe, that anyone ever talks about, though he would direct five more.  Its main stars were two teenage unknowns, Andi Garrett and Sara Lane, as Libby and Kit respectively.  (Lane was fifteen at filming; I'm not actually certain how old Garrett was.) 

Girls Night In

However, the main adult co-stars in the film were big movie stars then in their fifties: Joan Crawford, 58, and John Ireland, 50.  Both stars had drinking problems and if anything looked older than their ages.  It's stated a couple of times that John Ireland's character is, or looks like, around forty old, which is laughable, while Crawford, saddled with a horrendous beehive hairdo and some sort of costume jewelry collar contraption that looks like it was lifted from the Temple of Doom, is positively matronly.  (Originally Barbara Stanwyck was supposed to play the role, which would have been more plausible, though Stanwyck was only a year younger than Crawford.)  However, Joan and John still lend an air of needed seriousness to the film.  

John Ireland can't figure it out either.

Fifty-three year old actor Leif Erickson is in the film too, in the throwaway part of Libby's father, like Crawford and Ireland looking old for his age.  The only other sizeable part belongs to nine-year-old Sharyl Locke, as Tess Mannering, Libby's baby sister.  Libby's three brothers from the book, all have been expunged, surely a necessary move for cohrency's sake.  However, little Sharyl does enough mugging for all of them.  

more glamorous days
Joan Crawford and John Ireland in the 
melodrama Queen Bee, from 1955
For the film, it must be noted, is as schizophrenic as the book, if not more so.  The teenage actresses have been much criticized as terrible, but I don't know that this is such a fair charge.  Basically they are tasked with playing a pair of silly teenage girls and at that job I think they succeeded well enough.  (Andi Garrett gets a bit goofy at times though.)  

The biggest problem I had with the film is the godawful silly sitcom music on the soundtrack, which made the film seem like more like a wacky episode of the contemporary "identical cousins" sitcom, The Patty Duke Show.  The lightness of the portions with the kids doesn't blend well with the murderous goins-on among the adults, which, come to think of it, is a pretty fair translation of the book, only more so!  

In particular, the first murder--a blatant rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene from Psycho--is quite violently presented and rather off kilter with much of the rest of the film. So, what's the first murder, you ask (if you haven't seen the film already)?  Well, John Ireland, playing Steve Marak (Leonard Whelk in the book), knocks off his pretty young wife Judith (Joyce Meadows) in a rage because she is leaving him.  When he gets a call from Libby, in the sexy guise of Suzette, telling him, "I saw what you did....and I know who you are!," he goes bananas of course.  

Joan Crawford, who starred in William Castle's 1964 horror film Strait-Jacket (a much better flick), has been shoehorned into this film in the part of Amy Nelson, a seriously overdressed neighbor who has the hots for Steve and is always spying on him from her window.  Amy comes up with the brilliant idea of blackmailing Steve, with her knowledge of the murder, into marrying her, which predictably only succeeds in prompting Steve to slay Amy too.  Before Amy--okay, let's just say Joan, cause this is who Joan really is playing here--kicks the bucket, however, she has a great scene confronting Libby, who has come to get a gander at Steve (she thinks he sounds sexy on the phone), scolding and shoving her and denouncing her as a tramp.  Why, if they had gotten Joan's daughter Christina to play Libby, Joan wouldn't have had to do any acting at all!  

"Get outa here, you tramp!"
the scariest thing in the film
Apparently in real life, however, Joan got along with the teenagers just fine.  It was the adult and sexy Joyce Meadows whom she felt threatened by and banned from the set.  (Joan and John Ireland had had a fling during the filming of Queen Bee a decade earlier.)

"Amy" really wasn't much of a part for Joan, in truth, but after I Saw What You Did all she would have left to do on film was two indifferent English horror flicks, Berserk (1967) and Trog (1970).  The Oscar-nominated Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in the end proved no career-saver for Joan.  Soon we may take a look at the late career of Joan's arch-nemesis from Baby Jane (and real life), Bette Davis, and she how she fared!

Murder's nothing a nice little drinkie won't solve!

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Cozy Sundays: "Fee Fie Ho Hum!" The Blood of an Englishman (2014), by MC Beaton

At the time of its publication, The Blood of an Englishman (2014) was advertised as something of an "event" in crime writer MC Beaton's long-running Agatha Raisin mystery series, as it was the author's 25th book in the series.  Only five more Raisins from the author's hand (ostensibly) followed it before her death at age 83 on the last day of 2019.  The series has since continued under the hand of R. W. Green (a man, Rod Green), who has been described as a longtime friend of Beaton.

Personally, I suspect Mr. Green, not of having done it with the revolver in the billiard room, but of having helped in the writing of the last of the Beatons ostensibly produced by his benefactor, Beating about the Bush, published the year of her death, because to me it doesn't read quite like Beaton herself and it is a huge improvement on her previous two Raisins, The Witch's Tree (2017) and The Dead Ringer (2018), which are, to be brutally frank, two of the worst mysteries I have ever read.  Sadly, they are practically unreadable, like Agatha Christie's Postern of Fate (1973) without that novel's dotty, meandering charm.  I haven't read the two Raisins which come between Blood and Tree (Dishing the Dirt and Pushing up Daisies), but Blood comes off like a work of sheer genius compared to Tree and Ringer, though in fact Blood is very much adulterated in my view.

When The Blood of an Englishman was published in 2014, the Agatha Raisin series had been in sharp decline for some time, since approximately 2008.  The year before that, in the rather charming (if you like the series) Kissing Christmas Goodbye (2007), the eighteenth Raisin novel, Beaton had introduced Toni Gilmour, a young, beautiful  sidekick for Agatha Raisin, who had graduated from amateur village snoop to licensed private detective in the fifteenth Raisin novel, Agatha Raisin and the Deadly Dance (2004).  The first few PI Raisin books aren't bad, in my opinion, but the wheels start to come off the dead cart with A Spoonful of Poison (2008).  I don't blame Toni for this but rather structural changes that Beaton made in the books at the time.

The books start to rely much more on barking mad murderers, the body counts rise to absurd levels, the plots become disjointed and chaotic, Agatha is put in more perils of her life than Pauline and there's this weird thing where the murderers get revealed early and then the last chunk of the novel concerns the murderer plotting, futilely of course, to kill Agatha, after which there is an epilogue introducing the setup in the next, apparently already written book.  

Beaton's cast of  longtime supporting characters continue to make appearances, but these appearances feel ever more rote.  The charm of life in the Cotswolds village of Carsley, so well-depicted in the debut novel in the series Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992) and others which followed it, is lost.

Indeed, after Kissing Christmas Goodbye, the lone bright spot in the series for me has been Something Borrowed, Someone Dead (2013), which immediately preceded The Blood of an Englishman.  Although it shares the same narrative structure of the later Raisins, Borrowed benefits from a better plot and choice of murderer. But let's look in more detail at Blood below, shall we?  Following this list of the Raisin novels, provided so that you can better follow what I have been saying, along with my ratings of them.  (Imagine they are raisins rather than stars.)

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death 1992 ****

Agatha Raisin [hereafter AR] and the Vicious Vet 1993 ***

AR and the Potted Gardener 1994 ***

AR and the Walkers of Dembley 1995 ***

AR and the Murderous Marriage 1996 ***

AR and the Terrible Tourist 1997 ***

AR and the Wellspring of Death 1998 ***

AR and the Wizard of Evesham 1999 ***

AR and the Witch of Wyckhadden 1999 **

AR and the Fairies of Fryfam 2000 ****

AR and the Love from Hell 2001 ****

AR and the Day the Floods Came 2002 ***

AR and the Curious Curate 2003 ****

AR and the Haunted House 2003 ***

AR and the Deadly Dance 2004 ****

AR and the Perfect Paragon 2005 ***

Love, Lies and Liquor 2006 ***

Kissing Christmas Goodbye 2007 ***

A Spoonful of Poison 2008 **

There Goes the Bride 2009 *

The Busy Body 2010 -

As the Pig Turns 2011 *

Hiss and Hers 2012 *

Something Borrowed, Someone Dead 2013 ***

The Blood of an Englishman 2014 **

Dishing the Dirt 2015 -

Pushing up Daisies 2016 -

The Witch's Tree 2017 NONE

The Dead Ringer 2018 NONE

Beating about the Bush 2019 (with R. W. Green?) -

In Blood, Agatha attends a pantomime of Babes in the Wood (mashed up with Mother Goose, Jack and the Beanstalk and other tales) in the nearby village of Winter Parva with her saintly friend and moral mentor (to the extent this is possible with Agatha), Mrs. Bloxley, the wife of the rather less patient and forbearing vicar of Carsley, improbably named (as Agatha herself thinks) Alf.  When the man playing the ogre, bullying baker Bert Simple, is eviscerated by a metal spike when exiting the stage via a trapdoor drop, Agatha is hired by the play producer, Gareth Craven, to find the depraved culprit.  Agatha is not notably successful in this endeavor (to be fair, neither are the police), for it's not long before, after a performance of The Mikado, another actor is decapitated with the (real) sword of the Lord High Executioner.

Why do they call these books cozies again?  These are very unpleasant killings (and there's another one, which I can't divulge, which is even worse).  Even Mrs. Bloxley doesn't mince words (well, not much) in reference to the neutering of Bert Simple, commenting that the villain "plotted not only to kill him but to destroy his manhood in the process."  Nice to know that cozies can encompass emasculation and decapitation and--well, I can't mention the other thing.  With some tonal shifts this book could have been written by Jo Nesbo!

Blood has a lot of the flaws characteristic to the late Raisins, including the sidelining of a great many of the series' longtime supporting cast members and an overemphasis on Agatha's dysfunctional love life, or more accurately lust life.  Anyone reading many of these books must surely start to wonder how much MC Beaton actually liked women. So many of them, including Agatha herself, are messes, hot and cold.

Aside from the fact that Agatha Raisin, in the depiction of whom the author said she drew upon herself, repeatedly denounces feminism for ruining romantic relationships between the sexes, there's the fact that Agatha is such a basket case in her relationships with men.  In Book 5 her marriage ceremony to her handsome neighbor James Lacey, a Jane Austen hero with the stodginess and emotional repression dialed up to 99, is interrupted when her long lost (and conveniently assumed dead) husband Jimmy shows up, then in Book 11, when Agatha and James finally do marry, the union is a train wreck that lasts out only this one novel.  

There are other men whom Agatha gets interested in and even sleeps with over the course of the series, including charming if rakish aristocrat Sir Charles Fraith, but usually they turn out to be utter scoundrels.  Still over and over Agatha falls head over high heels (she hates flats) in love with any handsome man she meets.  No wonder in Blood, her friend with occasional benefits Sir Charles thinks: "It would be hopeless being married to her....He would never be able to trust her.  Agatha would always be one woman looking for an obsession."

"If I were only fifty years younger!"
MC Beaton tweeted this sentiment
 in 2017 concerning this pic of herself
and scrumptious actor Matt McCooey,
who plays cop kindhearted Bill Wong,
Agatha's first friend by her own admission, 
in the Agatha Raisin television series

When I started this series I had a notion that Agatha, she of the breakfasts of back coffee and cigarettes and the perpetual gins and tonics, was some sort of tough feminist icon, but she's really nothing of the sort, even though she's a highly successful, frequently ribald, retired PR executive.  Her neuroses. mostly over men and her appearance but also concerning her lower class social origins, pull her down constantly.  She does have her genuine feminist, girl power moments, like when she storms the woman-averse pub in Fairies of Fryfam, one of the best books in the series, but all is canceled out with her desperate man chasing and pathetic obsession with her looks.  

I recall there was a woman character in a satirical meta episode of the American sitcom Newhart, the horny middle-aged single woman neighbor, who was introduced as "Man-crazy Smitty."  Well, that's Agatha to a "T."  Despite all her professional successes she just can't get along without a man in her life.  She even goes about with her ambiguously gay "toy boy" pal from the City, Roy Silver,  when no other man is available, pale and weedy and effeminate as Roy is invariably described.

In Blood Agatha gets smitten with handsome men four (!) times, though in the one case the passion is somewhat lukewarm because the man has a weak chin, that bane of Golden Age crime fiction, at least as far as men were concerned.  (Conversely with women strong chins were problems.)  

just your typical gay shindig

In another case, the man sadly turns out to be gay, a fact to which Agatha tumbles when he invites her to a party he has thrown where the parking attendant is wearing a "hat, black leather thong and nothing else."  I'm guessing Beaton got her notion of this little shindig from watching Elton John's forty year old "I'm Still Standing" video.  

There at least is some relationship to the plot in all but one of these cases, but at this point in the series I just find Agatha's obtuseness in regard to men and her low self-esteem not sympathetic but simply exasperating.  She's like the Bill Murray character in the Nineties romantic comedy Groundhog Day, had he never learned anything whatsoever from repeating the same day over and over again.  

Was the author herself really anything like this?  If so I think I can see how she ended up handing off authorship of the series (and the Hamish Macbeth one too)not to anoither woman writer but to a ruggedly handsome male friend--no toy boy he--named Rod.  She strikes me as rather a man's woman.

Rod Green

The plot in Blood isn't bad, actually.  The climax, which occurs when a fifth of the book yet remains, is actually intriguing, though it's stolen from another, rather famous crime source.  (Let's call it an homage, since the source is actually mentioned in the book.)  

Unfortunately, everything then is dragged out as the murderer pursues Agatha, even abducting her a second time and trying to kill her by throwing her in a river while confined in a barrel.  (It really is very Perils of Pauline.)  By my count this is only a 60,000 word novel, but at least 10,000 words could have been profitably cut from it.  

Agatha's great days in book form were the fifteen years between 1992 and 2007, when you could still hold out hope that Agatha might come to her senses about men.  Really, she and Charles, who latterly carried the series on his nattily-clad, aristocratic shoulders (Mrs. Bloxby and Roy help), should have married after Love, Lies and Liquor, by which time any fan of the series should have wanted to see James Lacey get his richly deserved comeuppance. 

The popular ongoing television adaptation of the Agatha Raisin novels makes the characters more likeable generally, including Roy Silver, James Lacey and, most crucially, Agatha herself.  The TV series is genuinely warm and cozy, Sex and the City-ish gay sex jokes notwithstanding.  That the Agatha Raisin novels are "cozy" is something I have to question.  The tea has a lot of gin in it, and the saucer is littered with stubbed-out cigarettes.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

There's a Place: A Fatal Inversion (1987), by Barbara Vine (Mysteries You Have to Read)

There is a place

Where I can go

When I feel low

When I feel blue

And it's my mind....

In my mind there's no sorrow

Don't you know that it's so?

There'll be no sad tomorrow

Don't you know that it's so?  

--There's a Place (1963), The Beatles

He didn't want to remember any of this, he wanted to escape out of it to a blank screen.

--A Fatal Inversion (1987), Barbara Vine

In the third edition of his mystery genre study Bloody Murder crime writer and critic Julian Symons had the highest of praise for Barbara Vine (aka the late Ruth Rendell), or at least her first three novels, that stunning succession of A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), A Fatal Inversion (1987) and The House of Stairs (1988).  The fourth Vine, Gallowglass (1991), Symons pronounced an example of a writer "very much off form," and he had nothing at all to say about King Solomon's Carpet (1991), the fifth Vine, which would have appeared, presumably, when he was writing Bloody Murder, though, like A Fatal Inversion, it won the Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year. 

Afterward followed vine's Asta's Book (1993), No Night Is Too Long (1994) and The Brimstone Wedding (1995), the first and last of which I think measure up to her first magnificent three.  I'd have to say that those five Vine titles are about as good as anything ever produced in the crime and mystery genre that I have read.

Julian Symons judged A Fatal Inversion the best of the Barbara Vines, and he may well be right.  I may still prefer the Victorian density of Asta's Book, but Inversion is unquestionably terrific.  The novel details events which follow the discovery of the skeletal remains of a young woman and infant child interred in a pet cemetary in the wooded grounds of Wyvis Hall, a Georgian country mansion in Suffolk.  This setting is classical and the opening sentence is a nod to the Golden Age detective novel: 

"The body lay on a small square of carpet in the middle of the gun-room floor.  Alec Chipstead looked round for something to put over it. He unhooked a raincoat from one of the pegs and, covering the body, reflected too late late that he would never wear that again."  

Even the surname Chipstead recalls thriller writer Sydney Horler's gentleman hero "Bunny" Chipstead.  Would Rendell have been familiar with this forgotten crime fiction series (Sapper sapped, as it were), which produced four books between 1927 and 1940?  Probably it's just a coincidence.  

Anyway, with these opening lines Inversion opens like an vintage Alfred Hitchcock movie, but actually the body referenced in them is not a human corpse but rather the body of a euthanized pet, while Chipstead and his wife are the current dutiful, innocent owners of Wyvis Hall.  When they discover human remains in 1986 while burying their dog in the old pet cemetery, they promptly ring up the police--and the hunt is on to identify the remains and to discover just how they came to rest there.

However, Inversion is not a police procedural and legal authority appears in the novel only briefly, in snatches.  The story is told primarily though three characters, Adam, Rufus and Shiva, who were present at Wyvis Hall a decade earlier, when the bodies came to end up in the pet cemetery.  They know what happened, but it never becomes quite clear to the reader until close to the end of the novel.  

The narrative shifts from the present day in 1986 back a decade to 1976 when Adam, a nineteen-year-old college student, unexpectedly inherited Wyvis Hall.  He, his rather swaggering medical student friend Rufus, and Shiva, a desperately assimilationist Indian, along with two young women, a strange, eccentric character named Zosie and a devotee of Eastern spiritualism named Vivien, end up spending the summer of '76, one of the hottest on British record, residing in a sort of commune at Wyvis Hall, which Adam whimsically has renamed Ecalpemos ("SOMEPLACE" spelled backwards).  There they sell off the silver and other contents of the mansion to support themselves in the fine art of lotus eating.  

After the experiment at Ecalpemos abruptly ended, the commune members made a pact never to contact each other again, but the discovery of the human remains has caused Adam, in particular, to rethink this course of action.  A computer designer now married with a young daughter, Adam likens his experience a decade ago at Ecalpemos to a computer file, shut away.  He doesn't want to recall any of it.  Neither do Rufus, now a gynecologist and secret drinker, and Shiva.  But unhappy memories can't remain locked away, safely quarantined, in the face of an active police investigation--a murder investigation....

A novel of some 120,000 words, by my count, Inversion is so skillfully put together that it could be taught in writing courses purely for plot construction.  But it's also a beautifully designed novel, a meditation on crime and guilt and retributive justice, with memorable renditions of character and setting and an omnipresent sense of tragic irony, which surges like a tsunami in the final pages.  

Critics like Symons adored this novel, quite rightly, and as mentioned it won the Gold Dagger from the UK's Crime Writers Association for best crime novel of the year.  (Remarkably, Rendell won a total of four Gold Daggers and a Silver Dagger for individual crime novels, along with three Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America, two of them for short stories and the third for A Dark-Adapted Eye, the first Barbara Vine.)  It's a novel I could write much more about, but I would hate to spoilt it for those who have not read it, it's that artfully constructed.

Adverse criticism of this novel baffles me, but some people have complained that the characters are "unlikeable."  This complaint always amuses me when it's lodged against a crime novel.  Had the characters been likable, jolly people, none of the events in the book would have happened and we the readers would be the losers thereby.  Vine is actually extremely effective at catching the atmosphere of youth's all too brief summer, when life seems joyously free and clear and full of possibility, rather than circumscribed by a thousand demands, duties and impositions.

Others have complained that the novel is too slow-moving, but that is the Vine way.  Her books are often compared to Victorian sensation novels, and that is a valid comparison, but they also remind me of American author Mary Roberts Rinehart's sprawling crime novels from the Twenties into the Fifties.  Vine, I believe, is a superior crime writer to Rinehart, but there is a similarity in technique.  Rinehart is known for her teasing "Had I But Known" style of mystery writing, where the retrospective narrator offers tantalizing hints of what happened, and Vine does the same sort of thing.  It's not Had I But Known, however, but rather, Had I Done This, or Not Done This....

Vine keeps up interest with these teasing suggestions in the first half of the novel and by the second half, when events finally start getting revealed in a gathering, gloomy tide, you will not want to put down the novel, until you know all.  At least I sure didn't!  There's one surprise and then another in the final pages, this last a stunner that Julian Symons called "the most brilliantly ironic ending of any crime story known to me."  I have my differences with old Jules, as we know, but I am in full agreement with him here.  I saw it just a couple of pages ahead of time and was like, oh, shit, really?!

It's a shame that Ruth Rendell used to speak so slightingly of Agatha Christie, for both authors were brilliant plotters and Christie herself had a wicked sense of irony and the macabre.  

In early Christie stories like "Accident," "Philomel Cottage" and "Witness for the Prosecution," brilliant little shards of malevolence, and her late shocking, grim novel Endless Night, you will more than a glimmer of Ruth Rendell.  If you see Mary Roberts Rinehart in Barbara Vine, there is Christie in Rendell.

A Fatal Inversion was adapted as a three part British television series in 1992 with dishy Jeremy Northam, then on the cusp of movie stardom, Douglas Hodge and Saira Todd, but it's crying out for a feature film version (see pic above right).  It's rather like crime fiction's Brideshead Revisited.

A good review of the novel is here and another here.

My review of  Asta's Book (eleven years ago!) is here.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

They're Here! Five New Moray Dalton Titles from Dean Street Press

When my friend Rupert Heath of Dean Street Press died a month ago, he had five Moray Dalton titles in the hopper.  I had worked diligently with him on the introductions (and afterword notes in some cases) throughout December 2022 and had gone over the proofs he sent me a few days after Christmas.  This quintet of books was slated for publication in April of this year, but there had been fear that because of Rupert's tragic death they might not actually be published as planned.  However, the good news is that they have indeed made it into print as scheduled: a fitting tribute to Rupert's fine and important work over the last decade in vintage mystery publishing.  They are also fine mysteries indeed, in my opinion.  

Here follow the covers for these, the final DSP volumes, the last of my work with Rupert, which rewardingly commenced nine years ago in 2014:

The first three are Hugh Collier detective novels, while the last two are non-series mysteries set primarily in Italy.  The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman deals with highly topical Thirties issues of rearmament and the shadow of impending war with Germany and introduces Hugh Collier's love interest, Sandra Fleming, a single mother with a bookish young son named Toby.  This pair also appears in Death in the Dark, with Toby playing a particularly important role.  Death in the Forest has several chapters set in South America before settling down into a classic-style, though also highly unique, village mystery.  

The non-series The Murder of Eve and Death in the Villa are highly original crime novels, with murder mysteries yet also all sorts of exciting, terrible events.  Both would be eminently filmable, particularly Villa, which is set in Italy during the waning days of the Mussolini regime.  The second half of the novel had me desperately turning pages to find out what would happen to the characters I had really gotten attached to over the course of events.  I was rather reminded of the French wartime television series A French Village.   

All in all a terrific set of books by one of the most original and talented English crime writers of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  I had planned with Rupert to reissue another set of five Daltons later this year or early next year, including the last Hugh Colliers, followed by another set of five; but this is not to be now, alas.  I am planning other arrangements.  In the meantime, let me for your convenience list below all the Moray Dalton crime titles, identifying them definitively as series and nonseries and listing the ones which have been reprinted by DSP.  


Hugh Collier Series

1. One by One They Disappeared 1929 DSP

2. The Night of Fear 1931 DSP

3. The Belfry Murder 1933 DSP

4. The Belgrave Manor Crime 1935 DSP

5. The Strange Case of Harriet Hall 1936 DSP

6. The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman 1936 DSP

7. Death in the Dark 1938 DSP

8. Death in the Forest 1939 DSP

9. The Price of Silence 1939 planned

10. The Art School Murders 1943 DSP

11. The Longbridge Murders 1945 planned

12. The Condamine Case 1947 DSP

13. The Case of the Dark Stranger 1948 planned

14. Inquest on Miriam 1949 planned

15. Death of a Spinster 1951 planned

Non-Series Mysteries

1. The Kingsclere Mystery 1924

2. The Shadow on the Wall 1926

3. The Black Wings 1927

4. The Stretton Darkness Mystery 1927

5. The Body in the Road 1930 DSP

6. Death in the Cup 1932 DSP

7. The Wife of Baal 1932 planned

8. The Harvest of Tares 1933 planned

9. The Black Death 1934 planned

10. The Edge of Doom 1935 planned

11. The Case of Alan Copeland 1936 DSP

12. The Murder of Eve 1945 DSP

14. Death at the Villa 1946 DSP

14. The House of Fear 1951 planned

I wish you happy reading and please give Rupert and Amanda some thoughts when you peruse them.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Detections and Discursions: PD James' Devices and Desires (1989), Book the Last

"It's very satisfying to the human ego to discover the truth; ask Adam Dalgliesh.  It's even more satisfying to human vanity to imagine you can avenge the innocent, restore the past, vindicate the right.  But you can't. The dead stay dead."

"Life has always been unsatisfactory for most people for most of the time.  The world isn't designed for our satisfaction.  That's no reason for trying to pull it down about our ears."

"Can we ever break free of the devices and desires of our own hearts?"

--lines from Devices and Desires (1989), by PD James

With the Crime Queens of Golden and Silver Ages of Detection--Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, PD James and Ruth Rendell are the most mentioned, although other names pop as well, most commonly Josephine Tey--article writers occasionally found the need to ask the question why these "nice British women" felt compelled to write about murder?  Perhaps the answer is that they weren't so nice!  Or, more accurately, perhaps there were darker undercurrents in their own lives which found outlets in the writing of crime fiction.  

I'm not sure how "nice" the British crime writing men were, either, but the question never seemed to get asked why men wrote of bloody murder.  Apparently in some quarters it just wasn't considered ladylike.  Some said the same thing about the nineteenth-century sensation novel, though plenteous proper Victorian misses wrote (and read) them.  

I don't know how many crime writers of the Golden Age necessarily were "nice," really.  One I feel sure of was pious Freeman Wills Crofts, although even he had an understanding, informed by his devout Christian faith, of the sin of greed.  "For the love of money is the root of all evil," runs the mantra of many a Crofts crime novel, "which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

The true test of niceness, I suppose, is how it withstands the slings and arrows of those many sorrows. In other words, it is harder to be keep the milk of human kindness from curdling somewhat when one is miserably unhappy.  And certainly the Crime Queens all had travails to deal with in their lives.  Agatha Christie might have seemed to have  had the perfect Victorian/Edwardian upbringing, but then when the Great War commenced she married an extremely handsome man who a dozen years later with his marital unfaithfulness broke her heart and harmed her mind, leading to her infamous fugue episode, the brief disappearance which in England became a nine days' wonder (or was it ten).  Some have argued the ingenious mystery writer deliberately staged her own disappearance in a Gone Girlish act of revenge against her errant spouse.  

Margery Allingham married a handsome man, a childhood friend, who turned out to be a compulsive philanderer and is said to have been physically violent with her on occasion.  Dorothy L. Sayers fell desperately in love with free thinking Jewish writer John Cournos, who would not marry her, and, after having had an illegitimate child as a result of a rebound affair with a certain man in the motor trade (really), she instead wed yet another man who proved rather an inadequate substitute.  

A lot of people were surprised in later years to find that the increasingly girthful and androgynous-looking Sayers had ever married at all.  The chatty and indiscreet mystery writer Christianna Brand bluntly pronounced that upon meeting Sayers she had assumed the elder author was a "butch."  Ashamed of her social origins, Ngaio Marsh led a circumspect life of intense privacy (her second biographer argues that she was a closeted lesbian), as if she was afraid to deal with strong emotions.  Golden Age detective novels, as originally conceived, were well designed for such authors, who wanted to distance themselves from the all-too-real trauma of death and disordered emotions by making light of murder.  

But Sayers, who fictionalized some of her romantic travails with Cournos in her detective novel Strong Poison (1930) (the one which introduced her alter ego Harriet Vane), began preaching in the Thirties that death was not just the game that she and others had mirthfully played, and that crime fiction should reflect to some degree the emotions of real life.  Her detective novels Gaudy Night (1935) and Busman's Honeymoon (1937) were supposed to reflect this.  Both Allingham and Christie also wrote some detective novels that reflected realer, grimmer life more fully.  (Marsh not so much in my view.)  

So when PD James and Ruth Rendell began publishing putatively "realistic" English detective fiction in the 1960s, it was not as if they were treading entirely new ground.  Christie's non-series detective novel Ordeal by Innocence (1958), actually written around the same time as James' debut novel Cover Her Face, might actually be a James or Rendell novel, arguably, in terms of its darker subject matter.  Allingham's Hide My Eyes, from the same year, paints a compelling, frightening picture of the consequences of sticking one's head in the sand rather than facing up to unpleasant truths.  

I think the early Crime Queens, just like the later ones, did sometimes draw on darker events in their own lives when writing their crime fiction.    Certainly there is no question that PD James did.  

PD James looks out over the sea

Born in 1920, at the very dawn of the Golden Age of detective fiction, James was the product of an unhappy marriage, and her troubled mother was institutionalized when James was but a teenager.  Despite being an obviously brilliant person, James had to leave school at age sixteen and take on work.  Then she married just five years later, five days past her 21st birthday, to a man who would return from the war mentally damaged and himself would be institutionalized, like James' mother.  (Before this the couple had two daughters together.) He would spend the next two decades in and out of institutions, dying by his own hand in 1964.

Having two young children to care for, James entered the civil service bureaucracy after World War Two and achieved considerable distinction in this field.  She did not start writing her first detective novel until the late 1950s, when she was nearly forty, telling herself that it was now or never.  It is no wonder that as a teenager she was drawn to reading detective fiction, including her idol Dorothy L. Sayers, as a form of escape, nor is it a surprise that she was fascinated with death.  Instead of distancing herself from the disturbance of death in her fiction, however, she embraced it.  She also put a lot of herself, I am convinced, into her primary series detective, Adam Dagliesh, as well as other characters.  

I've read all but the last couple of PD James mysteries (I've started the penultimate one, The Private Patient, twice but have never finished it--not because it was bad, but just because other things came up), and there are definite common qualities to her books, reflective of the author.  Let's list some:

The primary characters tend to be unhappy high level bureaucrats or other professionals, reflecting James' own personal background.  They have replaced the landed gentry of the Golden Age.  James thought her books much more representative of British society than GA detective novels, but were they, really?  Her professionals typically are improbably eloquent, speechifying in long, perfectly composed paragraphs, and quite snobbish and intellectually arrogant.  Honestly, Agatha Christie, even with her gentry types and condescension to servants, still comes off as more of an "everywoman" than James, in terms of her portrayal of characters, especially her village types.  Interestingly, James could do "village types" quite  well, when she chose to do so.  Perhaps she shied away from the Christie comparison.  

Religious themes are prominent, especially in the later books.  There will be at least one traditionalist Anglican type character, whose faith may be lost or weakening, but who nevertheless stoically goes through the forms of faith in order to escape from falling into the bottomless pit of sheer nihilism.  There's a British stiff upper lipness to it all.  I think this was very close to James' own religious view.

Left Wing radicals are pretty much objectionable nuisances and nutcases who hector inoffensive traditionalists (like James) with their toxic mantras of "political correctness," today known as "wokeness."  This is in the books from the Eighties onward and it's very similar to the Golden Age stereotype of the Leftists of that day.  

Her "better" people are intensely private, despising the conscious airing of emotions and often disdaining even physical contact with others.  Certainly Dalgliesh is like this.  Stiff upper lip again!  I have a lot easier time imagining Lord Peter Wimsey having sex than Adam Dalgiesh.

People's worth can be identified by the interior decoration of their homes.  A worthwhile person will have lots of books and some art, preferably original work by a known artist, in their homes, usually hanging over--to use James' favorite word--"elegant" (preferably Adam) mantelpieces.  They will grind coffee beans to make coffee and never dare have instant in the house.  They will make fresh squeezed orange juice.  Women will frequently bake their own bread.  They listen to classical  music and hate rock., or pop as they call it.  Regrettably, none of these activities will actually make them happy, but still it signifies their worth as human beings.

Middle class people in trade are often looked down upon for their lack of intellectual worth, just like in many GA detective novels, although more humble country people, especially parsons, tend to be admired.  Charwomen, aka cleaners, are quirky and colorful and comic relief, just like in the Golden Age.  

Acne, or spots as the English say, is/are the stigmata of a weak character.

Near the end of the novel someone will confront the killer with the truth and the two of them will then sit down for a nice, eloquent philosophical discussion about the ethics of murder.  Earlier in the novel several characters will pompously debate some current issue, like abortion or nuclear power or church reform.

James' favorite word is "elegant," while she also loves the words egregious (as in egregiously presumptive), atavistic/atavism, carapace and exophthalmic (i.e., bulging eyes).  People in her books "go to bed" with each other or they "make love," but they never "have sex" or, God forbid, "screw" or "fuck."  Fucking is for the masses, apparently.

Adults drink Ovaltine, cocoa or some milky non-caffeinated drink before going to bed (really going to bed, not having sex).  In one book even though it's 1988 a detective inspector still takes this as a given.  

James will never split an infinitive!

Despite James' insistence that her work was much more "credible" and less snobbish than GA detective fiction, I think that there actually are quite a few similarities between her writing and that of the Golden Age generation, as much of the above indicates.  This is one of the things I want to look at in my review of James eighth Adam Dalgliesh detective novel, Devices and Desires (1989), which I will now finally commence below, after this Jamesian introductory discursion.

PD James and Adam Dalgliesh (actor Roy Marsden)

In this novel Dalgliesh takes leave from Scotland Yard and goes to rural Norfolk to tend to the estate of his recently deceased spinster aunt, Jane Dalgliesh, who appeared earlier as a murder suspect in the third novel in the series, Unnatural Causes (1967).  I like this sort of connectivity in mystery series, even if it feels a bit off here, when you think about it.  

Jane Dalgliesh lived on the Suffolk coast in Causes, but we are told she moved to Norfolk five years previous to the events in D&D, after inheriting a converted windmill.  We later find that she had a fiance who died in the Great War, which surely would make Jane in her late eighties when she died.  (The novel is explicitly set in 1988.)  So when she moved to live alone in a rural norfolk windmill, she was, what, 83?  Hardy lady!  Of course the Dalglieshes do so very much value their privacy.  James herself lived to 94 and remained pretty independent, evidently, to the end.  She passed away in her sleep, an easier quietus than her friend Ruth Rendell, a stroke victim, had sadly to bear not long afterward.  

Anyway, it just so happens that there is a serial killer, nicknamed The Whistler, who is active in the very same area!  The novel opens with the foul fiend committing his fourth fatal strangling of a woman.  It's a very effectively drawn sequence and shows that James could have written an excellent serial killer thriller, had she chosen to do so.  But she did not: Rest assured, traditionalists, that this is a traditional detective novel (though see below about the regrettable thriller subplot of another sort).  

James limns her setting quite evocatively, I must allow.  As usual with James, buildings are important.  Here we have an old Victorian rectory (the church is serviced has been pulled down), a ruined Benedictine monastery, Dalgliesh's windmill (he was sole heir to his aunt's ample fortune, lucky sod) and, more incongruously, a nuclear power plant! The main characters in the novel are, aside from AD:

PD James hits the top of the pops.

Terry Rickards, local Detective Inspector, a decent man who respects Adam Dalgliesh but resents how AD dressed him down a dozen years ago when he was in the Yard.  Currently Rickards is stressed because his pregnant wife Susie has gone home to be with his meddlesome mother,-in-law on account of the depredations of The Whistler.

Rickards' detective sergeant, Stuart Oliphant, who is rather a nasty bully.  

Alex Mair, head honcho at the nuclear power plant.

Alex's sister, Alice Mair, a noted cookbook author.  She and AD, who has recently published a new book of poetry, have the same publisher as James, Faber & Faber!

Meg Dennison, a forcibly retired, widowed schoolteacher from London who came to this corner of Norfolk to served as housekeeper for the elderly Copleys, a retired Anglican minister and his wife.  

Neil Pascoe, a graduate student on a grant who rather than working on his dissertation or what have you, has formed a local anti nuclear power group, People Against Nuclear Power, or PANUP, and thrown himself wholesale into left wing activism.  

Amy Camm, a mother with an illegitimate baby named Timmy who is living with Neil, though the two are not having, and have never had, sexual relations.  Just what is Amy up to?

Ryan Blaney, an artist with four children, the eldest of whom is fifteen-year-old Theresa, whose wife has recently died.  Since her mother's sad demise Theresa, like James after her mother was institutionalized, has been having to take care of her siblings.

Hilary Robarts, an official at the nuclear power station and, well, there's no other way to put it, an absolute bitch.  She's also Alex's lover, or mistress as everyone calls her, though Alex has tired of her.

Caroline Amphlett, Alex's beautiful, highly competent and completely impersonal personal assistant.

Jonathan Reeves, Caroline's inadequate, spotty boyfriend, who also works at the power plant.

The late Toby Gledhill, a beautiful, brilliant young nuclear scientist at the power station who deliberately took a header there to his untimely death.  Why?  

converted East Anglian windmill
So, do you have all that?  Of course hateful Hilary is the novel's main murderee and she spends the first 200 pages of the novel needlessly provoking a bunch of people to want to kill her, in the manner of her kind. There's the Blaneys, whom Hilary is threatening to throw out of their cottage, which she owns; Neil Pascoe and Amy Camm, on account of Hilary threatening to sue Neil for libel; Alex, because Hilary is demanding that he marry and give her a child (he made her abort the last one, she claims); Alice, because she is very close to her brother, with whom she lives (he stopped her father from sexually abusing her, for good and all).  And there may well be others too.  What about Tony Gledhill's suicide, for example?

It takes about 200 pages actually to get to Hilary's murder.  Many a detective novel would have begun and ended by then, but PD James has lots of backstory to get through.  There is also the matter of The Whistler, who kills a fifth woman before finally killing himself, not long before the slaying of Hilary, in the very same manner as The Whistler's victims!  

Yes, it seems that someone with a private agenda killed Hilary and tried to make it look like it was really  The Whistler.  This limits the list of suspects, seemingly, to people who attended a dinner party at the Mairs where The Whistler's MO was revealed.  (He stuffed his victims' public hair into their mouths and carved an "L" on each dead woman's forehead.)  These were the Mairs (Alice did the cooking), Meg Dennison and Miles Lessingham, along with Theresa Blaney, who assisted with the cooking.  The late Hilary was there as well, along with the great AD himself.  AD even discovers the body.  Hey, James had to give him something to do in the book, since he's not leading the investigation this time!

So from one perspective all the serial killer stuff is a colossal waste of time (we are even told his mother was to blame for the murders, which could not get more trite), but on the other hand it's a pretty neat way of limiting the circle of suspects.  But does it???

Up till this point I was pretty engaged with the story, which does have beautifully written passages, but then James unleashes this thrillerish whale of a red herring, as it were, concerning the nature of which I will say nothing though I really want to, which to me just felt like a massive waste of time. This takes up much of the novel's Books V and VI and I honestly would have preferred to have it excised.  This sort of action material, more suited to crime thrillers in my view, crops up frequently in James' later novels.  It's like she wrote them with one eye toward their inevitable television adaptations for the Dalgliesh detective series.  

Still there's one of those classic James confrontations between the murderer and the person who knows the truth, as well as a bittersweet ending which lingers in my mind.  James may insist that only in the Golden Age mysteries is order restored, but D&D's finis is pretty optimistic by James' standards, especially compared with her previous novel, A Taste for Death.  The mystery plot of D&D is far from ingenious, to my mind, but I probably would rate the novel pretty highly were it not for the implausible thrillerish subplot.  Also, aspects of the solution are not really fairly clued in my view.

D&D seems, like many of James' novels (perhaps all of them), to be about the struggle of rational human beings to get by in a fallen and increasingly faithless world.  Intelligent beings may rationalize the outrageous act of murder, but in fact it's the gravest of sins in James' eyes and in those of her fictional avatars.  There is a deep moral sense to James' work, a quality she shared with Agatha Christie, though James never gave Christie credit for this.  It lends a measure of gravitas and power to her work.

Even though James' surrogates, like Dalgliesh, often evince a distaste for humanity on a physical level they recognize the basic right to life with which each of us is instilled presumably, in James' eyes, by the Creator  Witnessing the sniveling of Neil Pascoe, AD thinks censoriously "how unattractive it was, the self-absorption of the deeply unhappy."  He reflects how he himself is "good with the words"--he is a published and lauded poet, after all--but "[w]hat he found difficult was what came so spontaneously to the truly generous at heart: the willingness to touch and be touched."  No less an entity than Jesus, we should remember, washed other people's feet.

But AD values his privacy so highly.  Late in her life James discounted the notion that anyone would dare write a biography of her.  How egregiously presumptuous an invasion of her privacy that would have been!  And nearly a decade after her death no one yet has.  Her own autobiographical fragment, Time to be in Earnest, seems to conceal as much as it reveals.

Up in his aunt's windmill (now his), AD actually incinerates Great War era photos of his aunt and her soldier fiance, who tragically did not survive the conflict.  AD thinks of his gazing at these old mementos of the dead past as "a voyeurism which in [his aunt's] life would have been repugnant to them both."  Why?  This does seem to me to represent a hypersensitive desire for privacy.  Had I been Dalgliesh I would have saved those photos for posterity.  No man is an island!

Having with Faber & Faber just published a new book of poems, A Case to Answer, to great critical acclaim and sales success (he's not just a poet, but a remunerative one!), Dalgliesh himself thinks wonderingly how "solitude was essential to him.  He couldn't tolerate twenty-four hours in which the greater part wasn't spent entirely alone.  But some change in himself, the inexorable years, success, the return of his poetry, perhaps the tentative beginnings of love, seemed to be making him sociable."  James herself was achieving great success at this time, of course, and had become fast friends with Ruth Rendell--it was probably one of her greatest friendships in a life that seems to have been for decades singularly devoid of real intimacy.

Gal Pals
PD James and Ruth Rendell around the time of the publication of Devices and Desires

Another James stand-in, the conservative churchgoing widow Meg Dennison, prizes her friendship with Alice Mair and tries to keep to her Christian faith, even though her sufferings have suffused her with doubts.  As a teacher in London she lost her post when she outraged racial militants by referring to the the "blackboard" as such, rather than calling it a "chalkboard," and by refusing to take a racial sensitivity course.  Did anything like this every really happen?  Poor Alice, a victim of PC culture!  What would James have said about "wokeness"?  

Of her salving friendship with Alice Mair, Meg thinks gratefully of "the comfort of a close, undemanding, asexual companionship with another woman."  After her schoolteacher husband's tragic death while saving a student from drowning, "she had walked in darkness like an automaton through a deep and narrow canyon of grief in which all her energies, all her physical strength, had been husbanded to get through each day....Even her Christianity was of little help.  she didn't reject it, but it had become irrelevant, its comfort only a candle which served fitfully to illume the dark."  

It is hard not to see such a character as something of a self-portrait, except that James, rather than modestly retire to housekeep obscurely in Norfolk, remained in London and became one of England's best-selling novelists.  Alice Mair is something of a self-portrait too, I suspect, capturing other aspects of James' own self.  "She's a successful professional writer," Dalgleish huffily tells Rickards when he suggests that Alice--a spinster living with her brother who "had no other outlet for her emotions"--might have killed Alex's mistress Hilary out of overmastering jealousy.  "I imagine that success provides its own form of emotional fulfillment, assuming she needs it."  Indeed!  I imagine I would find writing #1 bestselling novels quite fulfilling myself.  

When Meg tells of her husband's death to the unsentimental and atheistic Alice Mair,  the latter tartly responds: "It would be perfectly natural to hope that your husband hadn't died for someone second-rate."  Meg regretfully admits that the boy wasn't even that, but rather "a bully and rather stupid....He was spotty, too."  Then she quickly adds: "oh dear, that wasn't his fault, I don't why I even mentioned it."  Indeed, Meg: you really should know that spots are not an index of character.

But then throughout the James books acne seems to afflict the weak and (mostly) worthless.  Poor pallid, spotty Jonathan Reeves, dominated by his beautiful, confident girlfriend Caroline, comes of banal middle class trade origins (his father is a carpet salesman)--naturally the family is Chapel!  Jonathan wretchedly thinks to himself: "We can't be as ordinary, as dull as we seem."  But they are, sadly.  Hoity-toity Alex Mair sneeringly dismissed Jonathan as "an acned nonentity."  He simply can't imagine why Caroline is wasting her time on him.

People are their environments in James books, seemingly, so that a dully furnished house signifies dully souled people.  The Reeves family, Caroline and Hilary herself damningly all live in uninterestingly decorated homes, in contrast with Jane Dalgliesh's fascinating windmill, where AD has taken up abode for a time.  Poor bourgeois DI Rickards, a former Dalgleish acolyte, can't help enviously contrasting his own banally furnished home (courtesy of Susie, who won school medals for "neatness and needlework") with that damn windmill: "Dalgliesh's furniture was old, polished by centuries of use...the paintings were real oils, genuine water-colours...."

Move on, nothing erotic to see here!

Up in the windmill, Dalgliesh, filled with "gentle melancholy," listens to Edward Elgar's great cello concerto, thinking how its "plaintive notes" evoke "those long, hot Edwardian summers...the peace, the certainty, the optimism of the England into which his aunt had been born."  This is not what I get out of Elgar's cello concerto (I think of the tragic, atrocious carnage of the First World War that Edwardian pride and pomposity led Europe into); but then I like, and grew up on, Eighties rock music.  

Contrarily, when Dalgliesh turns on the tube he is utterly disgusted by a "jerking pop star...wielding his guitar...his parodic gyrations so grotesque that it was difficult to to see that even the besotted young could find them erotic."  

Take that, Morrissey!  James was old enough to be my grandmother and obviously did not want her MTV, thank you, which helps explain why her characters under thirty usually aren't that convincing.

When I read James' crime fiction, I am fascinated by what I see revealed of her own personality, her intrinsic being.  I think that her Christian faith blessedly saved her from falling into outer darkness after her myriad personal sufferings, but that, she, like many of us, had a "darker side," as it were, which she used her writing to explore.  No Patricia Highsmith was she, surely, for she was not a sociopathic type and she did not in the end identify with murderers; but possibly there was some sense of sinister sisterhood under their skins.  James understood the fatal temptation to murder.  Perhaps this is why her work veers so often toward gloom.

It's a shame in a way, because there is a lot of evidence that James had a warm and winning aspect to her personality: charm, a sense of humor, kindness, love even.  She allows some of this sunlight to filter into Devices and Desires in a long, ingratiating chapter in which Rickards and Sergeant Oliphant interview the middle class, middle aged couple who runs the local pub, George and Doris Jago.  They are refreshingly normal, happy, uncomplicated people--Christiesque village people--and it's such a relief to be in their company for a spell and away from all those the haughty, well-educated yet miserable white-collar, Oxbridge professionals.  

I have no doubt in my mind PD James could have been a true successor to Agatha Christie, had her life experiences inclined her in that direction.  But James was also responding to the temper of the time; and what many people then wanted were sprawling, nearly 200,000 word mysteries filled with morose murder melodrama.  Devices and Desires was a #1 bestseller in the United States, one week topping Dean Koontz, Thomas Pynchon, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel and Gore Vidal (see pic above right).  This is all well and good, but it my view James had done it better two decades earlier in Shroud for a Nightingale, with something like half the wordage.