Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Shot Heard Round the World Wide Web: A Shot Rang Out Selected Mystery Criticism by Jon L. Breen (2008)

A Shot Rang Out, a volume of Edgar award-winning crime fiction critic and mystery writer Jon L. Breen's selected mystery criticism published by Ramble House's Surinam Turtle Press imprint, is a highly engaging and informative collection of pieces, with much of interest for fans of the mystery genre. 

As a crime fiction critic Jon Breen has the finest of lineages, having taken over the "The Jury Box" review column from the terminally ill John Dickson Carr--you may have heard of him--all the way back in January 1977 (coincidentally, in December of that same year, I read the Sherlock Holmes stories for the first time).

At about 300 pages, A Shot Rang Out offers a wide array of Breen criticism, including a good number of his Weekly Standard pieces from the last decade (of his stint at the Weekly Standard, Breen wryly notes that it's a good thing "I wasn't asked to write about politics").

There are four sections in A Shot Rang Out:

  • fifteen longer author studies
  • short takes on 100 writers (many derived from "The Jury Box")
  • eighteen topical crime fiction essays
  • two essays on true crime books
Indeed, there's so much much here naturally one can't write about all of it, but that readers are sure to find plenty of interest, I will vouch!
Jon L. Breen

One thread running through the volume is Breen's belief that the modern crime novel has a regrettable  tendency toward prolixity, a point with which I agree.  For example, in his piece praising best-selling crime writer Michael Connelly (whose work he greatly admires), Breen notes "lots of pages" as one of the main characteristics of today crime fiction:

Though the under-200-page length common twenty or more years ago remains ideal for most mystery plots, the current market demands longer books.  This goal can be achieved by greater complexity, increased detail and depth of characterization, or (all too often) pure padding.  In Connelly's books, generally just under 400 pages, no detail or action goes undescribed, but there is seldom a sense of padding.  A recent inquirer to Connelly's website would like his books stretched to Tom Clancy-like length, but Connelly declines for the right reasons.

The hugely popular Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell does not come off nearly so well on this point as does Michael Connelly:

Henning Mankell: inflated reputation?
 The fashion in crime fiction is for long books, not a bad thing if the extra pages provide more depth of character, richness of background, and complexity of plot.  Unfortunately, what usually comes instead is recapping of the same plot points over and over, irrelevant details of the protagonist's daily activities, and extra scenes and exchanges of dialogue that add nothing necessary or useful....

[The ]exchanges between Mankell's characters are bland and flavorless, for which I don't blame the translator; given the mundane content, they could hardly be any livelier in Swedish....Mankell's inflated reputation remains a mystery.

P. D. James: interesting longeurs
P. D. James comes somewhere in between these two other crime titans.  While conceding that James' 2003 novel The Murder Room is "an effective job from a writer who is always worth reading," Breen nevertheless complains that "[i]n common with most current crime novels from major is longer than it needs to be."  Still, "James is too interesting a writer for her extraneous passages to be completely without interest."  Nicely put!

This length issue comes up again in an amusing, previously unpublished Breen piece, "Fragments from a Lost Introduction."  Breen's "Recipe for a Late-'90s Mystery Series" is so apt I would love to reproduce the whole thing, but can't of course.  I will content myself with noting some of Breen's ingredients:

2 pages of acknowledgments per book to everyone the author is grateful to...(if you're really grateful, make it three pages...

5-6 or more genuine real-life mysteries the lead character must cope with over the course of several books...(1 full-scale tragedy may be substituted for a half dozen lesser misfortunes, but it must be a severe one...and it must be dwelt upon book after book).

10 to 12 full-life histories for minor characters who appear in one scene and are never seen again.

I must say that I myself have wondered about this acknowledgements business.  I'm a historian and certainly have done them in my two published books, as is the custom in the field (for good reason, when researching alone often takes years); but the multi-page acknowledgements craze in mystery fiction seems a relatively recent phenomenon. In their many, many books, how did P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, get by all those years with only an occasional dedication?  Weren't their pets put out by this ingratitude?

Chester Himes: not too literary to plot
But this just barely scratches the surface of Breen's book.  Breen writes about past mystery masters as well as modern bestsellers: Margaret Millar, Jack Finney, Nicolas Freeling, Chester Himes and Edward D. Hoch, for example.  I liked Breen's rebuke (in an otherwise quite favorable review) of James Sallis' Chester Himes: A Life (2001) for contending that Himes "largely rejected plot."  Au contraire, declares Breen: Himes"hardly rejected plot, respecting the mystery genre, observing many of its conventions, and meeting its requirements of misdirection and surprise."  Breen compares Himes' plotting in The Real Cool Killers (1959) to that of Agatha Christie

This sort of observation cannot be made enough as far as I am concerned.  Too often, in an effort to enhance the literary reputations of the higher-browed writers associated with the mystery genre, like Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, their partisans seem to seek to downplay their heroes'/heroines' devotion to puzzle plotting, evidently out of a feeling that such devotion, if acknowledged, might diminish the standing of their work as literature.

Raymond Chandler
I have written about this myself in the case of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (happily, these have proved some of my most visited pieces on the blog). It's become an urban legend that Chandler cared nothing for plots and that his books all are plotless, incomprehensible messes (albeit with wonderful writing!), which is not true at all (though please don't ask me who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep). In truth, Chandler actually could walk and chew gum at the same time, so to speak (as could Dashiell Hammett, as I try to show in my piece on his short stories).  It is possible to write well and plot well, and the latter doesn't somehow necessarily diminish the former.

Readers will find that repeated dives into Breen's "Short Takes on 100 Writers" will yield pithy pearls of wisdom plentiful enough to string a necklace.  Here are a few:

  • Bill Crider: "One of the best and most prolific novelists to emerge from mystery fandom has proven remarkably versatile."
  • Deborah Crombie: "[O]f the three prominent American women turning out British police procedurals, she is much the best."
  • Amanda Cross: "Even liberals like your reviewer may be bothered by the author's facile assumptions about the right wing."
  • Peter Dickinson: "If I were choosing the greatest crime novelist of the past thirty years, Dickinson would be on the short list."
  • Peter Robinson: "The British-born Canadian belongs in the front rank of contemporary crime novelists."
Anyone reading this section will probably find 100 mystery books they now want to read.

Of the longer essays, the following I must mention before closing:

"Ellery Queen" (2005)--Breen's explanation for the decline in popularity of this great and hugely important Golden Age writer--as I have elsewhere noted The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction does not even deign to mention Queen--is discerning, especially his point about how the misleading bifurcation of Golden Age crime fiction into two exclusive camps, an American hard-boiled school and a British "cozy" school has lamentably led to scores of writers who don't fit into their "proper" categories falling through the cracks of history.

Dorothy B. Hughes
books with no pulp
"American Women Mystery Writers" (2004)--Breen challenges the view--taken as Gospel in much feminist mystery criticism--that earlier American women mystery writers "have been ignored or marginalized by mostly masculine historians and scholars."  Counters Breen: "Time and forgetfulness are equal-opportunity erasers."  As someone who has written about "erased" male detective novelists, I would tend to agree with Breen.  I also agree with him that there are many "unjustly neglected" writers of both sexes deserving reprinting.

Incidentally, Breen has a good discussion here of Dorothy B. Hughes, about whom, he asserts, there is a modern-day misconception in academia: that she is a pulp writer.

Academics make the mistake of assuming "pulp" is "a synonym for mass-market paperback," notes Breen.  But "pulp writer simply will not do as a description of Dorothy B. Hughes," he insists:

Her first book was a volume of poetry from Yale University Press, her novels were written for the hardcover book market from the beginning, she was inspired to fiction-writing by the very un-pulpish Eric Ambler, and she received respectful reviews from distinguished publications throughout her career.

Margaret Truman
Ghostly Mysteries?
 "The Ghost and Miss Truman" (2002)--a bitingly amusing and thoroughly enlightening essay on the publishing phenomenon of ghost-written mystery novels credited to celebrities, including, for some odd reason, children of presidents (the most famous example being Margaret Truman).  Honestly, I had no idea of the extent of this practice.  Breen asks of the "ostensible celebrity novelist": "[H]ow can you stand to see your name on a book somebody else wrote?"

Answer came there none, one imagines!  But it's a very good question nevertheless.

"British Mysteries in the Twentieth Century" (2000)--An informative thirteen-page survey on the subject so dear to me own 'eart!

Among other things, the essay includes an admirable defense indeed of the great Agatha Christie:

Nothing better demonstrates the dominance of Christie than the way later writers fall over themselves asserting how unlike her they are, dutifully saluting her plot spinning while exaggerating the flatness of her characters and underestimating the subtle charm of her style.

Also I was pleased to see Breen class John Rhode (Major John Street) as one of the "major practitioners" of the Golden Age of detective fiction and to recognize the worthy contributions of such writers as J. J. Connington (Alfred Walter Stewart) and Anthony Wynne (Robert McNair Wilson)--writers who are familiar, I'm sure, to readers of this blog!

"Don't Thrill Me" (2007)--an insightful piece on mystery/crime thrillers that includes this priceless line: "In fact, Dan Brown's novel [The DaVinci Code] works best as an old-fashioned clued detective puzzle, albeit an unusually badly-written one."

Epic fail?
I also really enjoyed Breen's two bracing essays on true crime, where he reviewed, respectively, Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed (2002) and Steve Hodel's The Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder (2003).

In "Forensic Failure," Breen rips Cornwell's book for overstating a weak case: "[I]f Cornwell's case went to court, the judge would dismiss it as without merit at the end of the prosecutor's evidence, sparing the defense the need to call any witnesses."

In "Daddy Did It" Breen deems Hodel's case (against Hodel's own father!) vastly more convincing, though he faults some of its more "fanciful speculations."

Rather witheringly Breen concludes: "Perhaps the next Dahlia book should be an objective assessment of all the competing theories by someone without a dramatic new suspect to advance.  But that approach doesn't make for bestsellers."

After decades on the field, Jon L. Breen calls 'em like he sees 'em and, whether you always agree with him or not, you find what he has to say very much worth reading.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Invitation to Kill (1937), by Gardner Low

The Hara-Kiri Murder would have been a less subtle title for this first-rate genre novel, Invitation to Kill, written under the pseudonym Gardner Low by Australian journalist Charles Rodda (1891-1976). This appears to have been a one-shot pseudonym, and Rodda was much better known for the long series of thirty-seven Edgar Wallace style thrillers he published between 1927 and 1969 under the pseudonym Gavin Holt (in the 1950s he also co-wrote three novels with the great espionage writer Eric Ambler, under yet another pseudonym).  However, Gardner Low's Invitation to Kill is not a thriller but a true detective novel--and a rather fascinating one.

Not the least of the tale's interests is a rounded Japanese artist character, Yashushi Ishimoto, who introduces the subject of hara-kiri at a New York City cocktail party at the apartment of his old friend and fellow artist, Ross Farrier--with fatal results!

The wealthy Farrier is found dead in his apartment the next day, seemingly from a self-inflicted stabbing, performed in the ceremonial Japanese manner discussed the previous night.  But is it really suicide--or murder?!

Certainly there are a number of people who had motives to kill Farrier.  The middle-aged Farrier had taken pronounced interest in a beautiful--and much younger--distant "country cousin" of his, Linda Morell.  Linda is an object of interest as well to Farrier's sculptor friend Langley--and an object of scorn for Farrier's fiancee and Langley's wife.

There also is a certain amount of mystery around Linda.  She's under the care of a psychiatrist, for what seems a psychosomatic malady of the throat.  And her relationship with her rural farmer parents seems a bit odd.  And then there's Linda's jealous former boyfriend.  And what about Ishimoto?  He does know all this stuff about hara-kiri!

Charles Rodda wrote over three dozen
books as Gavin Holt, but only one
as Gardner Low
Invitation to Kill is quite well-written and fast-paced (one might say zippy), in the best 1930s American style.  One would never guess, given the author's complete grasp of American idiom, that he was an Australian, but then it seems he migrated to New York after World War One, when he was twenty-eight years old, and had been residing in the United States for nearly two decades when the novel appeared.

Additionally, here is more depth to the characters than is often the case in this period, and the clever plot nobly adheres to the principles of fair play.

So there is much here to recommend the novel.  As a bonus, the author uses a clever narrative device.  The novel, we learn right off, is actually the manuscript of one of the "characters" portrayed in the book.  The manuscript concerns a real life crime (in slightly fictionalized form).  The author is the amateur detective who was brought in by his psychiatrist friend to solve the crime.  He is reading the manuscript to the psychiatrist for his opinion on it.

Taking full advantage of this device, Rodda interlards the narrative with witty commentary on the detective fiction genre from these two characters.

"You'd better keep an eye on that detective of yours," the psychiatrist tells the author.  "He slips into some pretty terrible Broadway British.  I can see that he's going to be a good stiff pain in the neck.  So damned superior.  Why must he be such a stuffed shirt?  Can't you make him a little human?"

And later:

"This lad [the amateur detective] has a load of culture a foot thick.  What does he do for a living?
"Do for a living?"  I laughed.  "Don't be silly!  An amateur detective working for a living!  It's like an international beauty shining her own shoes.  It simply isn't done."

Early on the psychiatrist notes that "the material is all there for a psychological novel of characterization, and not a detective story."  Sounding for all the world like modern critics of traditional detective fiction, he laments that the author has turned it all into a mere puzzle.

Well, I for one, say thank goodness!  Invitation to Kill is a very good detective story indeed, with fair play plotting, wit aplenty and a felicitous style.  This is definitely a Golden Age mystery that deserves revival.  It should not have fallen through the cracks.

Consider this an invitation to republish.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"The Artistic Superstructure of the Epoch of Labor Unionism and Socialization": Ludwig von Mises on the Detective Story

My blogger friend Patrick Ohl recently posted a piece on his At the Scene of the Crime blog on critic Edmund Wilson's famous anti detective fiction diatribe
"Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

To be sure, Edmund Wilson was of a leftist political orientation, but to demonstrate that ill-informed criticism of detective fiction knows no ideological bounds, I direct you to famous libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises' contribution to the subject, "Remarks about the Detective Stories," from "Literature under Capitalism," a chapter in his book The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (1956) (the whole piece can be found here on the Ludwig von Mises Institute website). It certainly offers a different take on the subject, but it also illustrates the pitfalls inherent in heavily theory-driven, insufficiently researched approaches to the study of detective fiction.

One suspects that Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) had little in common, but they did have this: they didn't think much of detective fiction.  Oh and this: neither man seems well-informed about detective fiction--a failing which nevertheless did not prevent them from making sweeping pronouncements about it (famous intellectuals often don't seem to have qualms about such things).

Forget revolvers and daggers,
watch out for hammers and sickles!
Typically, Golden Age detective fiction has been condemned by leftist-oriented critics like Julian Symons and Colin Watson--not to mention a number of Marxian 1970s academics--as a conservative literary genre promoting "bourgeois hegemony" (not being academics, Symons and Watson don't use that term, but it's what they mean too).

Now, Ludwig von Mises is having none of this!  None at all.

Much, much to the contrary of the Symons-Watson view, Mises sees detective fiction as an essentially  leftist literary genre crafted to undermine capitalism. "The artistic superstructure of the epoch of labor unionism and socialization," he calls it (whew!).

Ludwig unloads: detective fiction
appeals to those afflicted with a
"latent anti-bourgeois tendency"

Mises starts his discussion of detective fiction with what seems to me to be a mistaken notion: that because the Golden Age of detective fiction coincided with the rise to power of Communism and Socialism (not to mention Fascism), there must be some sort of causal relationship between detective fiction and anticapitalism.  He writes:

The age in which the radical anticapitalistic movement acquired seemingly irresistible power brought about a new literary genre, the detective story.  The same generation of Englishmen whose votes swept the Labour Party into office were enraptured by such authors as Edgar Wallace.  One of the outstanding British socialist authors, G. D. H. Cole, is no less remarkable as an author of detective stories.

I'm not sure when this piece on detective fiction was actually written by Mises (the references to Edgar Wallace, who died in 1932, and Douglas Cole, who hadn't published a detective novel since 1942, were dated in 1956, or even 1945, when Labour came to power), but there are some notable errors here:

  • Detective fiction was not a "new literary genre" in the 1920s (although it did achieve new popularity).
  • Edgar Wallace for the most part did not really write true detective fiction, but thrillers, which true detective novelists of the period believed appealed to a less intellectually sophisticated audience.
  • Many Golden Age British detective novelists (and even more so thriller writers) were politically conservative and averse to leftist ideology in their books. Moreover, they often were hostile to the Labour party when it came into power in the 1945-1951 period. The prominent Socialist G. D. H. Cole (apparently Mises did not deem it necessary to mention Douglas Cole's accomplished wife Margaret Cole) was exceptional in this regard.

Mises notes that "many historians, sociologists and psychologists have tried to explain the popularity of this strange genre [yes, Mises means detective fiction!--TPT]. For his part, Mises breezily explains that the reader of "this strange genre"

is the frustrated man who did not attain the position which his ambition impelled him to aim at....he is prepared to console himself by blaming the injustice of the capitalist system.  He failed because he is honest and law abiding.  His luckier competitors succeeded on account of their improbity; they resorted to foul tricks which he, conscientious and stainless as he is, would never have thought of.  If people only knew how crooked these arrogant upstarts are!  Unfortunately their crimes remained hidden....

Did this man inspire the
Golden Age of detective fiction?
Mises then goes on to explain what he terms the "typical course of events in a detective story."  It seems that generally the guilty party in mysteries is a successful businessman type--"an impeccable citizen"--who is revealed as a scheming, fiendish hypocrite.  Thus, the detective's motive in hunting down the criminal, according to Mises, is "a subconscious hatred of successful 'bourgeois.'"

Having established to his satisfaction this "latent anti-bourgeois tendency" in detective fiction, Mises goes on to explains that this "is why the detective story is popular with people who suffer from frustrated ambition."

Recently I did a blog piece on a mystery publisher promotional work called "Successful Men Read." Mises turns this round: it's unsuccessful, embittered men doing the reading!

Now, I won't say Mises' analysis is absolutely worthless.  Indeed, in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012) I note, for example, how after the Wall Street Crash prominent Golden Age British mystery writer Freeman Wills Crofts began portraying aggressive businessmen remarkably unsympathetically, though he was no Marxist--far from it! (indeed, Crofts' famous series detective, Inspector French, is a highly bourgeois police inspector).  And Anthony Wynne, who I last blogged about, was very dubious about modern finance capitalism, though he was a successful surgeon and no Marxist but, rather, a Christian monarchical feudalist.

Can you really imagine Miss Marple knitting
with this group of revolutionary ladies?
On the other hand, Mises' formulation seems to me an implausibly (to say the least) oversweeping generalization about a literary genre.

It's certainly interesting, even amusing, to think of such privileged fictional Golden Age 'tecs as Lord Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn, Albert Campion, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, etc., as an envious gang of anti-capitalist agents!

Typically the view of the Golden Age detective novel is that it's all about the restoration of the traditional (capitalist) order at the conclusion of the tale, after a disruptive murderer has been cast out of Eden, so to speak. Is it possible that Miss Marple was really a Madame Defarge at heart, or that Hercule Poirot was inspired by little red cells?  Mon dieu!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Death of a Banker (1934), by Anthony Wynne

Here's one for you locked room, or miracle problem, fans.  From the jacket flap description:

Dr. Eustace Hailey has an almost unsolvable problem in this new mystery by Anthony Wynne: Mr. Hall, international banker, is seen by fourteen persons to jump his big black horse over a five foot gate into a field, gallop onto the middle of the field and fall off.  They rush to his side and find a hunting knife protruding from between his shoulders.  It has pierced his heart and he is dead--murdered at that spot.  The knife couldn't have been part way in and then been knocked through his heart by the  fall for there is almost no blood on his clothes; it couldn't have been thrown for the nearest cover was too far away and Mr. Hall was in plain sight of fourteen witnesses.  And yet a man with a knife through his heart couldn't jump a gate and ride a horse at a gallop....

Hall could not have been murdered--yet he was!
Well, that's a pretty pickle of a problem, no question!  But Anthony Wynne also tackles another vexatious matter with this tale: that of international banking's proper role in the Depression-wracked world of the 1930s.  Yes, Death of a Banker essentially is an economic treatise dressed up as a miracle problem story.  It's rather like a cross between John Dickson Carr and John Maynard Keynes, with a right heaping dash of G. K. Chesterton. I actually found the novel pretty fascinating, though as a historian I plead guilty to having a particular interest in political and social detail from the 1930s.  I will readily admit that Death of a Banker may not have an equal payoff for everyone.

"Anthony Wynne" was a pseudonym of Robert McNair Wilson (1882-1963), a Scottish-born surgeon.  Under the Wynne pseudonym McNair Wilson wrote twenty-seven Dr. Eustace Hailey detective novels between 1925 and 1950.  Between 1925 and 1927 he also wrote a series of mystery short stories, some of which were collected in the 1927 collection Sinners Go Secretly. Many of these works revolve around miracle problems, impossible murders and such.  In fact McNair Wilson in his day was one of the leading exponents of the locked room mystery.

Robert McNair Wilson
aka Anthony Wynne
McNair Wilson also was deeply interested in economic and political issues of his day.  This interest not surprisingly deepened after the global economic depression plunged the world into what the English economist (and detective novelist!) G. D. H. Cole simply termed chaos in the 1930s.  Like many people of his day McNair Wilson put the blame for the dire state of world affairs on modern finance capitalism.  In other words he loathed the international banking system and with it international bankers!

In the 1930s McNair Wilson began publishing works of economic theory, such as Promise to Pay: An Inquiry into the Principles and Practice of that Latter-Day Magic Sometimes Called High Finance, which appeared in 1934, the same year as Death of a Banker.  During the thirties McNair Wilson became economic guru to the famous poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who got himself into a great deal of trouble with his embrace of Mussolini during the Second World War.  McNair Wilson and Pound kept up a quarter-century's correspondence, from 1934 to 1959.

Unlike Ezra Pound, Robert McNair Wilson never actually embraced Fascism.  Indeed, in contrast with Pound and confounding stereotypes of Golden Age English detective novelists, McNair Wilson highly praised American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Ezra Pound:
a reader of Robert McNair Wilson
if not, perhaps, Anthony Wynne

Undeniably, Robert McNair Wilson was sympathetic to strong leaders endowed with sweeping powers to combat the bankers, but he approved most of Franklin Roosevelt because the American president was a democrat (small d), not a dictator.  McNair Wilson himself was a theist who idealized feudal English society as a time of honor and reciprocal obligation between rulers and people. The modern world order, in his view, had been corrupted by rootless international bankers, knowing no loyalty to the state and the people and caring only about money.

The influence of Robert McNair Wilson's political and economic preoccupations on the writing of Banker is manifest when one reads the crime novel.

After Mr. Hall, international banker, is murdered--seemingly impossibly--during a hunt in Northumberland (a favored Wynne setting), it becomes clear to Dr. Hailey--who is always pulled into to these cases by Scotland Yard, being a Great Detective and all--that Mr. Hunt was definitely Up To No Good.  Hunt was deeply enmeshed in the politics of the Baltic kingdom of Aland, which stands badly in need of a loan.

Death of a Banker even has an abducted prince
and a dastardly, dastardly villain
Much of the novel feels more like The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) than a traditional 'tec story. To appreciate Death of a Banker you must be able to tolerate lashings of Ruritanian politics and discourses on economics.  If in John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins we get the "Locked Room Lecture," in Wynne's book we get the "International Bank Harangue."  I have a feeling I know what most fans would prefer (I prefer it myself), but I thought Wynne's approach had interest. 

Here's a taste of what you get along this rhetorical line in Death of a Banker (you can be pretty certain Dr. Hailey is an absolute stand-in for the author here):

There was a heroic quality in Dr. Hailey's mind that had made him rebel from his boyhood against the self-righteousness of the great age of Progress.  Work in one of the districts served by a teaching hospital had shown him the seamy side of financial industrialism, that system which decreed that, in the richest land on earth, women and children should lack for bread.  He had longed, in those days, for the freedom of a vanished age in which a citizen had his dignity as man and Christian.  And so, vaguely, without knowing why, he had recoiled from the achievements of applied science even while he had admired them.  Machines, it had seemed to him, were fated to make slaves of all who served them and to lay upon humanity the frightful burden of a monotony undreamed of in an earlier period.  But he had revised all these opinions as the result of his study of the banking system.  It was not the machines that were hateful but the uses to which they had been put.  The enemy was not science, but greed organized so that its strength was greater than the strength of armies.

Given events of the last few years and the rise of the Occupy movement, perhaps such passages as these might have special resonance for modern readers?  It's certainly something different from the baronets, butlers and blunt instruments of stereotypical English mystery.

But how is the actual mystery part of this mystery, you may be asking?  Well, the miracle problem is nicely done indeed.  It's something that would not shame the master, John Dickson Carr.  There's not much detection between the laying out of the problem in the beginning and the untangling of it at the end, but if you can accept the lengthy mid-course digressions on Baltic State politics and international finance, Death of a Banker is not a bad tale, all told.

Anthony Wynne has, for a mostly forgotten writer, had a surprising number of blog reviews.  Here are some:

 The Red Lady (John Norris)

The Room with the Iron Shutters (John Norris)

The Toll House Murder (Patrick Ohl)

The Green Knife (TomCat)

The Silver Scale Mystery/Murder of a Lady (TomCat)

The Case of the Gold Coins (Bill Pronzini)

Murder of a Lady/The Silver Scale Mystery (Curt Evans)

Emergency Exit (Curt Evans)

The Cyprian Bees (short story) (Arun Kumar)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

By the Light of the Television: Poirot Season 3 (1991)

Watching Poirot Season 3 on the new remastered Acorn set I was rather struck by the more serious tone of a number of the episodes. Of course, if one looks back to Season 2, in only three of the nine episodes (counting Peril at End House as one episode) is Poirot called on to solve actual murders. Conversely, in Season 3 Poirot confronts foul play in seven of the ten episodes (counting The Mysterious Affair at Styles as one one episode) and is tasked with preventing a murder from being committed in another.

In my memory I recalled most of the earlier Poirot episodes as delightful Art Deco trifles, but some of the Season 3 episodes have surprisingly dark elements.

Just as Season 2 opens with an adaptation of a full-length Christie novel, the splendid Peril at End House, so does Season 3, with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  Although Styles is an enjoyable presentation, I don't believe it matches Peril, perhaps for reasons that have more to do with the source material than with anything the adapters did or did not do.

To be sure, Styles has a lot of period appeal.  It is dated to 1917 (it was in fact Christie's first Poirot novel, written during World War One and published in 1920) and for once we are not bedazzled with the glories of Art Deco design.

Styles Court, where the Mysterious Affair occurs--will this home also be the setting of Curtain?

Rather than the Jazz Age, the film recalls the Edwardian era (technically ended with King Edward VII's death in 1910).  Despite the world conflict (we know there is a conflict because Poirot is one of a number of Belgian war refugees, Hastings has a wound of some sort and is suffering somewhat from shell shock, and the genteel ladies occasionally mention war work between bouts of lawn tennis), there seems to be ample time for the Inglethorp/Cavendish clan--mother Mary (recently remarried, to mysterious Alfred Inglethorp), sons John and Lawrence, daughter-in-law Mary (John's wife), poor relation Cynthia and companion Evie Howard--to take leisurely nibbles of seed cake as they sit at their lawn chairs, waited upon by adoring servants.  Indeed, we seem closer to the Victorian world of Anna Katherine Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878) than that of the Jazzy and modern Peril at End House (1932).

This golden Edwardian afterglow is extremely well-conveyed, and helps remind one just what an abrupt change the Jazz Age must have seemed at the time. And the mystery that develops when Mary Inglethorp is poisoned has interest too.  It's a nice, complex Christie plot guaranteed to keep the little grey cells clicking (or whatever it is that grey cells do exactly)--though the basic gambit, I would argue, works better on the page than on the screen (at least it does with this group of actors).

My biggest criticism of Styles is that it feels a bit dramatically inert, but I would say this is probably true of the book as well.  Japp doesn't get to do much of interest here, and the various suspects are rather a dull lot on the whole, I think (though I loved Michael Cronin as the sinister Alfred Inglethorp; he looked like the Fabian Socialist Sidney Webb).  All in all, this is a very traditional mystery affair, with a country house, gentry sitting around waiting to inherit from the person with all the money and order restored at the end by the Great Detective--but I thought it just a wee bit dull.

On the other hand, I think the nine short story adaptations are on the whole pretty spectacular affairs. Here are my ratings, with short commentaries.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles***
(see above)

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row
How Does Your Garden Grow*****
Who poisoned the rich old lady in her cozy country cottage?  The niece?  The niece's ne'er-do-well, tippling husband?  The mysterious Russian companion?  A great story by Christie and fine adaptation, with a delightfully over-the-top, garden-chewing denouement.  Elements of this story popped up much later in the Poirot novel Hallowe'en Party (1969).  We will see another beautiful, mysterious Russian woman later in the season!

The Million Dollar Bond Robbery*****
I have always thought this story has a nice, tricksy theft plot, and it was smartly adapted for television here.  I love the glimpses of the banking world, and the ocean liner stuff is nicely done, considering they must have never left the studio for that part!  Hilarious observations on women from Hastings at the end.

The Plymouth Express*****
This story never did much for me, though the plot is fine (Christie used it again in her novel The Mystery of the Blue Train).  I really like this adaptation, however.  It is quite impressively dark, driving home the essential squalor and depravity of murder.  Trains are always to be welcomed too, of course.

Wasps' Nest*****
A very unusual one, with Poirot not investigating a murder already committed but rather trying, he thinks, to stop one from being committed.  Another splendid small country house and garden, and a rather poignant denouement.  The "wasps nest" theme is brilliantly realized visually.  There's also a great musical theme for the glamorous model (I hadn't yet mentioned the fine scoring done in this series).

The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor******
Here we have the classic country country house setting, with a creepy ghost story as well for good measure.  What's not to like?  A clever murder with lots of clues too.  And the amusing added bit of the innkeeper who is also an aspiring mystery writer (he uses a woman's pseudonym--"they seem to sell better").  An improvement on the story, which resorts to the hackneyed word association device, as I recall.

The Double Clue****
This one introduces "The Woman"--no, not Irene Adler, but Countess Vera Rossakoff!  Poirot in love--or at least infatuated--is certainly a new wrinkle, though I'm not quite sure about the moral implications of the conclusion.

What secrets does the Spanish chest hold?
The Mystery of the Spanish Chest*****
Surely a candidate, in my view, for the best episode of the series.  One of Christie's very best murder stories, splendidly realized.  Beautifully acted (you would swear John McEnery and Pip Torrens stepped straight out of the 1930s and Caroline Langrishe is really stunning in that "English Rose" way--did anyone else think she looked like Princess Diana?).

Manages to be simultaneously brilliantly plotted and sinisterly suspenseful--a triumph from beginning to end.  Plus, some smashing fencing and Poirot dancing!

The real Farouk
The Theft of the Royal Ruby***
The weakest one of the lot, I think, but still much better than Season 2's "The Cornish Mystery," a story that, it will be recalled, has no real ratiocination whatsoever.  "Ruby" has rather a simple plot (it's a late Christie story), and the stylish but cold Art Deco house--which we saw before in Season 2, I believe-- doesn't fit the Christmas setting.

What I liked best about this episode was Tariq Alibai's performance as the real life personage Prince Farouk, the young gentleman who foolishly lost to a "tart" the precious family ruby that Poirot is tasked by the British government with retrieving (cue the Elgarian Empire theme)--though it must be admitted the actual physical resemblance is weak.  Though some might take this character as an ethnic caricature, I think the satire is narrowly targeted at the real-life Farouk, who, it seems, may have merited it (a subject for another blog).  It would have been amusing for him to have been the "Watson" in this episode (Hastings being away) and to see Poirot getting more and more exasperated.

The Affair at the Victory Ball*****
Another impressive, densly-plotted murder story.  The Harlequin theme that so fascinated Christie is splendidly realized and the BBC (including a radio murder play) is neatly worked in.  Not as dazzling as "Spanish Chest" but very good indeed.

Great performance by Nathanial Parker, well known on British television, who also made a great Harold Skimpole in the marvelous 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens' part murder story Bleak House (has it really been seven years already, yikes).

The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge****
Another nice country house murder, with a rural hunt setting and a much-hated tyrannical squire.  Guess what happens?  When Squire is shot dead, it's naturally a case for Poirot, who has caught cold and now becomes not an armchair but a sickbed detective.

This one reminded me a great deal of a Freeman Wills Crofts story, with all the emphasis on trains, alibis and suspects' movements.  The central deception is, I think, rather hard to swallow, but still it's quite an entertaining episode.

As you can see I like Season 3!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Carteret's Cure (1926), by Richard Keverne

"Richard Keverne" was the pseudonym of Clifford Hosken (1882-1950), an English journalist who under his R.K. pen name published thirteen mystery/crime novels and four collections of short stories between 1926 and 1944 (he also published three crime novels under his own name between 1930 and 1932)

Twelve of Hosken's novels appeared between 1926 and 1934--his most fertile period, when he received his greatest praise (especially in England, though he was published in the United States too).  He had good publishers, Constable in England (where he was one of the main mystery authors, along with the great Henry Wade) and Harper in the United States (though of his last four novels only one was published in the U. S.--and none of the short story volumes, which appeared between 1935 and 1941, were).

Since his World War Two, however, "Richard Keverne" has been placed in the teeming ranks of once admired but now mostly forgotten Golden Age mystery writers.  Does he deserve to be so consigned?  I would say no.  His better books retain some interest today.

The first Richard Keverne mystery, Carteret's Cure, set the mold for much of his later genre work.  It's really a thriller in the Edgar Wallace fashion, the sort of thing Agatha Christie wrote in the 1920s when she herself was imitating Wallace.  So there's romance to go along with the mystery.  And it takes place against a rural cozy village backdrop in Suffolk, Hosken's favorite setting for mysterious goings-on.

The young but brilliant barrister, Michael Carteret, never having fully recovered from the effects of the Great War, is sent by Sir Robert Sark, famed neurologist, to a quiet rest home in Suffolk for a nerves cure. Once there, of course, the last thing Carteret finds is rest!

Carteret stumbles on a smuggling operation involving the local impoverished squire and his lovely, spirited daughter.  Naturally Carteret immediately falls in love with the daughter, Molly Seymour, which places him in something of a bind, because he simply can't bear to get Molly in trouble with the law on account of her criminal shenanigans.

Clifford Hosken ("Richard Keverne")
Here we get into some interesting social history! 

Michael rationalizes not turning Molly over to police authorities because she's in the criminal scheme mostly for the madcap fun of it, it seems, and also because she's just getting her family's own back against the British government for overtaxing them after the end of World War One (I suspect the fact that Molly's pretty and charming has a bit to do with it too!).

So we have this idea that impoverished old gentry families are morally justified in engaging in "crook stuff."  This reminded me of the way Agatha Christie portrays the jewel thief Countess Vera Rossakoff (Hercule Poirot's "Woman"). As Molly puts it:

"I'm at war with your miserable Government.  And with every reason, too.  What has it done for us--daddy and me?  Robbed us of practically everything we owned and loved.  Taxed us until we had to live like peasants."

Clearly in Molly's view (and one suspects the author's), it's only peasants who should have to live like peasants, darn it!  Divine Right and all that, don't you know.

So, in other words, Carteret's Cure is a good grade specimen of your very traditional, conservative between-the-wars English thriller, the sort of book Julian Symons and Colin Watson wrote about acerbically in the 1970s, that empathizes with the country's traditional gentry class to no end.

To go along with this glorification of the landed gentry, there's a contemptuous account from daddy--i.e., the Squire--of the time when a parvenu wartime profiteer "with a Jew Nose and a German name" had the temerity to offer to buy the manor.  "What can a man do in these days of Bolshevik plunder," laments daddy.

The decline of England's landed gentry after World War I is a fascinating subject that mystery writer Henry Wade--himself a member of the landed gentry--treated with greater sophistication and sensitivity.  But if you can get past this sort of thing in lesser hands (and the Squire's sentiments are probably a fair enough representation of what a number of actual squires were saying at the time in England), Carteret's Cure is a good specimen of the Golden Age English thriller, nicely plotted and paced, with a great sense of place (those splendid Suffolk saltings).  Not surprisingly, Hosken also authored the non-fiction Tales of Old Inns, an appealing book about venerable English public houses.

The plot of Carteret's Cure seems simple enough at first, but pleasingly gets more involved as things develop.  And, in addition to upright Michael and spirited Molly (the self-pitying, reactionary Squire's rather a pill, all told, with even the author faintly suggesting such), there are some fairly colorful and memorable characters.

I would say that Carteret's Cure on the whole matches the level of the better Christie thrillers, which, it must be admitted, have their share of reactionary tosh as well-- without, seemingly, having their popularity dimmed.  The pull of those country houses and quaint village settings remains remarkably strong!

Note: my copy of Carteret's Cure (a 1929 reprint edition) was once owned by noted English crime writer Anthony Berkeley Cox.  See his name on the right.

Also see the Penguin a Week blog for a piece on the Richard Keverne short story collection Artifex Intervenes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"A Lovely Detective Story": Sinclair Lewis, Mystery Writer?

American novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)--winner of the Nobel prize for literature--is yet another famed literary personage known to have been a keen reader of mystery fiction (see my earlier posts on John Updike and William Faulkner, here and here).

Sinclair Lewis once pronounced that the "four essential mystery stories" are
  • Bleak House (1853), by Charles Dickens
  • The Lodger (1913), by Marie Belloc Lowndes
  • Malice Aforethought (1931), by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
  • The Nine Tailors (1934), by Dorothy L. Sayers

Literary Might Have Beens:
In the 1920s Sinclair Lewis
wanted to write detective stories

This list, short as it is, suggests a marked preference on the part of Lewis for what we today would call the "crime novel," rather than for the detective story ("mystery" is a much more nebulous term).

Only one of Lewis' listed novels, The Nine Tailors, is a true detective story in form. Malice Aforethought is an inverted mystery, about a man plotting murder, while The Lodger is a psychological study of a London landlady who comes to suspect that her gentleman lodger is a serial murderer (one obviously based on Jack the Ripper).  Finally, Bleak House, I would urge, is not a "mystery story" at all, but a straight, or so-called mainstream, novel, with a crime element.*

In 1943 Sinclair Lewis noted the popularity of the "crime-mystery-detective school of fiction," declaring: "A bishop or burlesque queen who does not have a crime story on the bedside table is suspect and perhaps ruined."

Lewis defended the place of the mystery genre in literature, but seemingly only in the case of those works that might be said, to use a seriously overworked modern phrase, to have transcended the genre:

"The quantity of dreary trash in this school is not surprising.  What is surprising is the quantity of authentic literature, shrewd and competent writing with that power of suggesting more than is said, of awakening the emotions and the imagination, that is the sign of literature."

"awakening the emotions and the imagination"
a still from a film version of The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Obviously, Sinclair Lewis differed from critic and man of letters Edmund Wilson, who in his notorious essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" shortly would denounce mystery novels--including specifically The Nine Tailors--as unpardonable, time-wasting, brain-rotting trash.  Yet Lewis seems only to be defending those works of mystery fiction that have, in his view, "the quantity of authentic literature": i.e., crime novels, for the most part.

It is interesting to note, however, that back in the 1920s--the heyday of true, puzzle-oriented, no literary frills detective stories--Sinclair Lewis himself wanted to write them

Another turn of the screw?
Sinclair Lewis, mystery writer
Coming off the great twin satirical successes of Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922)--the latter novel sold 240,000 copies and was the #4 bestseller of 1923--Lewis planned to write a "doctor novel,' taking on the medical world with his acerbic pen.  But then, possibly doubting, biographer Richard Lingeman speculates, "his stamina to undertake" so soon an "epic novel," Lewis shocked his publisher, Harcourt, by announcing that he wanted to write "a series of short stories with a central character, a 'public health detective' who would solve medical mysteries." 

This announcement from Lewis did not find favor with Harcourt, to say the least!

Lewis' publisher "had an awful fear that Lewis was reverting to his bad magazine habits," writes Lingeman.  Lewis was warned that a detective story series "would devastate his reputation as a serious novelist."  Moreover, Harcourt declared, when published in book form the detective story collection would, even with Lewis' name on it, have but a "a modest sale compared to a new Lewis novel in the lineage of Main Street and Babbitt."

Lewis capitualted to Harcourt's concerns and went back to the doctor novel, which was published in 1925 under the title Arrowsmith (one of Lewis' most famous books).  With Arrowsmith nearly completed, however, Lewis, overseas enjoying a season in London, again was fondly imagining spinning a detective yarn.  He wrote Harcourt that he hoped to write "either a lovely detective story I've enjoyed planning, or the big religious novel I've planned so long."  The "lovely detective story" never came to pass, but the religious novel, Elmer Gantry (1927), did.

Read any good murder yarns lately?
Thus it seems that, like many other "highbrows," Sinclair Lewis was quite immersed in the 1920s fad for true detective fiction. In company with a number of other intellectuals, Lewis eventually tired of "mere puzzles"; but in contrast with Edmund Wilson he retained an interest in mystery stories of a more purely literary nature in his view, such as the later works of Dorothy L. Sayers and the psychological crime novels of Francis Iles.

Yet had Lewis written that "lovely detective story" in 1925 or 1926, might it not have more resembled, say, Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?  And would that great scold Edmund Wilson have cared whodunit?

*Note: Discussing Sinclair Lewis' list of essential mystery stories in a Washington Post book chat, Michael Dirda opined that his list of four essential Golden Age mystery stories would be 
  • The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
  • Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes
  • The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
  • The Three Coffins, by John Dickson Carr

Friday, July 6, 2012

Man Missing (1954), by Mignon Eberhart

The English hardback edition
with a great "Randall" dust jacket
Man Missing (1954), by the prolific and once very popular American mystery writer Mignon Eberhart (1899-1996), is the last installment of the author's Nurse Sarah Keate series (and the only one not reprinted in the 1990s by Bison Books).

Mignon Eberhart's first five mysteries all chronicle the adventures of Sarah Keate, one of these people in detective novels who simply seems destined to run into murder wherever she goes. These early Sarah Keate titles are: The Patient in Room 18 (1929); While the Patient Slept (1930); The Mystery of Hunting's End (1930), From this Dark Stairway (1931); and Murder by an Aristocrat (1932).

An additional Saran Keate title, Wolf in Man's Clothing (1942), followed after a decade; then last came Man Missing, after another dozen years.

After 1932 Mignon Eberhart almost entirely abandoned Sarah Keate in favor of one-shot mysteries, typically involving women protagonists who are as preoccupied with romance as murder (of course the two elements intersect).  Scrupulous clueing is downplayed in favor of rising emotional tension.

When Sarah Keate is the protagonist of an Eberhart mystery, the romance element is downplayed somewhat because it is experienced at second-hand.  Nurse Keate, a classic peppery spinster type, does not herself get involved in romance (she's much too busy listening at doors), though young love often is present (especially in the last two Keate books).  Although I'm probably not alone, I suppose, in wishing that Nurse Keate might have linked up with Lance O'Leary, the cop who helps her out in the first four books.

Lance is nowhere in sight in sight in Man Missing; and Nurse Keate, her hair now streaked with white (like Eberhart herself at the time, Keate has to be in her fifties), is on her own as she confronts yet more murder.  The previous Keate novels all had classic closed settings--hospitals, old mansions, a snow-bound hunting lodge--and Man Missing is no exception, taking place at an isolated military base in the American desert.

The first chapter, which occurs at night in the base hospital, is classic Eberhart/Keate:

Something was wrong and I didn't know what it was. But something, somewhere, was wrong.

And, sure enough, one of the patients will soon be found murdered in his bed, his throat cut!

In his chapter on Mignon Eberhart in Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s (2003), Jeffrey Marks comments that with Man Missing it is "a nice change" to have Sarah Keate back as the protagonist, for she is "more self-reliant and observant than most of the latter-day Eberhart heroines."

I agree with this. Sarah Keate is a good character and often I find myself tiring of Eberhart's other heroines, who seem pretty much interchangeable and fret a great deal.

Nurse Keate actually solves this case herself (though things come to a head in a way that makes her solution less relevant), in contrast with the typical Eberhart heroine, who seems to exist mostly to constantly register fear and anxiety.

Although there's a decent mystery plot here, to an extent I found a bit irritating this plot hinges on one of those HIBK young women who for a not particularly convincing reason refuses to divulge essential information (she's essentially the typical Eberhart heroine in the Keateless mysteries, here reduced to second fiddle status but still prominent).

Also, truth be told, I missed the high tension level of the typical Eberhart.  To be sure, the desert base setting is inspired, but too much of the novel is devoted to talk among the characters about what the truth about the mystery might be.

Dutch edition
If there were more direct investigation of physical fact that might have sustained my interest, but Eberhart eschews such in favor of lengthy speculations, which can get somewhat tiresome. I found myself thinking "get on with it!" at times, I must admit.  This is something that should not happen in an Eberhart novel.

Still, I always enjoy reading about Sara Keate and I am sorry this was to be last rendezvous with mystery.  Further, the fact that one of the suspects is a hulking brute named "Buffalo Bill" certainly adds an odd frisson for anyone who has read/seen The Silence of the Lambs! 

Any Mignon Eberhart fan should give Man Missing a look if it's reissued.  I know you're out there, because Mysterious Press has released over a dozen of her books on Kindle and they must know something!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

By the Light of the Television: Poirot, Season 2 (1990)

Season 2 of the Poirot series--starring the inimitable David Suchet as the title character, Agatha Christie's brilliant Belgian expatriate detective--originally aired from January to March 1990, which means the episodes are now over twenty years old.  Incredibly the series is with us still, being expected, I believe, to wrap up in 2013 with productions of the four remaining never filmed Poirot novels--The Big Four, Dead Man's Folly, Elephants Can Remember and Curtain--and Christie's finest short collection, The Labors of Hercules.  How is this for longevity!

Acorn Media finally has started reissuing the early seasons of Poirot on remastered DVDs, with vastly improved sound and picture quality (and closed captioning).  This is a great gift to those of who love Agatha Christie and Poirot.

first American edition of Peril at End House
(speaking of Art Deco!)
Season 2 opened with an adaptation of the first Poirot detective novel (as opposed to a short story) to be filmed for the series, Peril at End House (1932).  With this novel Agatha Christie launched a phenomenal run of stupendous Poirot mysteries. While the clear peaks of the 1920s Poirot novels are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), there is an embarrassment of riches in the 1930s and 1940s, a mass of masterfully plotted tales.

Peril at End House is one of the best Poirots.  The Belgian detective is on holiday in Cornwall (Captain Hastings in tow), where he meets the charming young lady "Nick" Buckley, who lives at ramshackle End House on the bay.  Poirot discovers that Nick has been the victim of a series of accidents, which he decides have been murder attempts.  Poirot now has to determine not only who is trying to kill Nick, but why someone would want to kill Nick, a delightful and rather impecunious young woman.  There's also the little matter of preventing the next "accident" from being a fatal one....

Not only is Peril at End House one of the best Poirot mysteries, but the 1990 adaptation of it is one of the best in the Poirot series.  Largely faithful to the book, it's also superbly filmed.  Gothic End House and the gorgeous Art Deco Majestic Hotel are joys to behold, as are the costume and set designs. David Suchet and Hugh Fraser (as Hastings) are in top form and even Poirot's secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran) gets a notable role in this one.  Inspector Japp is less relevant, though as always Philip Jackson makes him a splendid incarnation of the between-the-wars English copper (the end scene of Japp and Poirot sitting in chairs on the beach amusingly illustrates the wonderful way he and Suchet inhabit these characters).

Poirot delivers dire news to Nick (Polly Walker)
Nick is played by Polly Walker, that memorable beauty from Enchanted April (1992) and Emma (1997) and more recently The Mayor of Casterbridge (2003) and the TV series Rome (2005-2007).  Peril at End House is one of Walker's first film appearances.  She is very good! Also memorable is Alison Sterling as Nick's best friend "Freddie" Rice (and check out Freddie's flapper wardrobe).

There are eight more Poirot episodes on the Series 2 set too. I will rate them below (Peril at End House gets  ***** by the way).

The Veiled Lady ****
Poirot comes to the aid of a blackmailed lady and finds rapidly snowballing complications. This amusing one culminates in a fine chase at the Natural History Museum (part of the British Museum in the 1920s and 1930s, I believe).  Not to mention that we see Poirot on a bicycle!  And we get the great line, "I didn't know he was one of your unnaturals, sir," when it's discovered Poirot uses--quelle horreur-- a mustache comb!

The Lost Mine ****
The highlight of this one probably is Poirot and Hastings playing Monopoly (not in the story!), but there is some good deduction by Poirot as well.  An improvement on the story.

The Cornish Mystery *
Unfortunately one of the poorest of the entire series.  I find the characters are implausible and uninteresting and, unpardonably, Poirot just brazenly guesses his way to the solution and unbelievably bulldozes the murderer into a confession.  Bah!  It was never much of  a story in the first place, however. Oh, well, at least there's nice scenery.

The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim ****
A clever story with some nice touches added in the adaptation.  One of those fantastic Art Deco millionaire's houses in this one.

the abiding glories of Art Deco are seen in "Double Sin"
Double Sin *****
My clear favorite of the story adaptations in Season 2.

A good plot (theft of miniatures on charabanc), combined with a host of amusing situations and characters (the two local coppers are hilarious) and fabulous lake district scenery (and another amazing Art Deco hotel).

Also a memorable American businessman (we know he's an American because he's obnoxious and says "goddamn" ;) ).  And the great line, delivered to Hastings, "Don't you know what it's like to love a man?!!"  Hastings' response is priceless.

The Adventure of the Cheap Flat ****
Another story that, like The Veiled Lady, was clearly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.  This one involves American gangsters, in an amusing, tongue-in-cheek way.  Also a good role for Miss Lemon, where she has to pose as a fulsome writer for a "women's magazine."  And another obnoxious American who says "goddamn" (this one is a copper who looks like Rush Limbaugh).

The Kidnapped Prime Minister ***
Although anyone familiar with Christie by now should catch the trick immediately, this one is enjoyable and unusual in bringing in a political plot.  Also a delicious, scenery-chewing performance by Lisa Harrow.  Still, I miss the humor (there is a nice bit with Miss Lemon trying to recall a name).

The Adventure of the Western Star ***
Pleasant one involving complications over missing gems.  And we get to see Poirot as a film fan (a Belgian film fan!).

I was just thinking, looking over this list, how few quaint villages and ancient country houses are depicted.  There is a village in The Cornish Mystery and country houses in Davenheim, Kidnapped Prime Minister and Western Star, but of the latter not the following: one is in ruins, another is owned by an aristocrat in dire financial circumstances and the last is an Art Deco mansion owned by a parvenu financier (End House is not really a country house; it's overlooking a very modern Art Deco hotel).

As this series constantly reveals Agatha Christie and her Poirot were modernists!