Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Protege (1970), by Charlotte Armstrong

Between 1942 and 1970 nearly thirty Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) novels were published.  Most of these are categorized as "tales of suspense."  I've taken a special interest in Armstrong's work ever since I found out that she lived in Glendale, California the same time as my grandmother, who was six years older than Armstrong and moved out there from Amarillo, Texas after my grandfather died.  I like to think that maybe they came across each other grocery shopping or something!

Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969)
Charlotte Armstrong is of historical importance in the crime and mystery genre as one of the women writers--along with, for example, Margaret Milllar, Ursula Curtiss, Shelley Smith and Celia Fremlin--who moved away from the traditional tale of detection to the modern thriller, or psychological suspense novel, where the interest is in the why rather than the who or how, in what will happen rather than whodunit (Jeffrey Marks writes about some of these women authors, including Armstrong, in his Atomic Renaissance, while Rick Cypert has written a critical study of Armstrong, The Virtue of Suspense.)

After writing three detective novels between 1942 and 1945, Armstrong broke this mold with The Unsuspected (1946), a suspense tale much celebrated in its day, as was Mischief (1951), which followed five years later (both of these novels were quickly adapted into films).

Sometimes Armstrong seemed to strain so hard against genre boundaries that she burst them, producing what more properly can be seen, in my view, as so-called mainstream fiction.

Her Edgar award winning novel A Dram of Poison (1956), about a bottle of poison that inadvertently gets left on a bus, can't really be called a crime novel as I see it (there is really no intended crime to speak of)--though it certainly is suspenseful (and it was marketed as "a novel of suspense").  Rather, I find it simply a marvelously humanistic tale about the foibles of men and women.

To me, Armstrong's keen insight into the follies of humankind--justly recognized in A Dram of Poison--is her most remarkable quality as a writer. This quality also is found in Armstrong's last novel, The Protege, which was posthumously published in 1970.

Armstrong's late 60s/early 70s paperback publisher, Fawcett, tried rather desperately to shoehorn The Protege into the traditional suspense novel formulation, writing breathlessly on the back cover:

Then both women watched with dawning horror as a bizarre scheme unfolded--a scheme to revive the past terror they thought they could forget....

Such purple prose notwithstanding, nothing in The Protege is lurid or even really that terrifying.  But the novel is still quite worthwhile.

There is suspense in The Protege, though readers will be clear about most of the back plot rather early on (there is one very nice twist, however--not original, but I'm pleased to admit I missed it coming).

What really makes the novel stand out, in my view, is that the reader is quite drawn into the plights of the two main characters: the old California widow, Mrs. Moffatt; and the visiting young man, the son of her former next door neighbors he says, who comes to stay in Mrs. Moffatt's old gardener's cottage.

Admittedly, I found Mrs. Moffatt's granddaughter-in-law, Zan, who provides a still requisite love interest, less interesting--was Armstrong finding highly opinionated young people tiresome at this point, near the end of her life? 

I finished Armstrong's (short) novel in one evening, not because of the horror and terror provoked by any bizarre scheme, but simply because I wanted to see how things would work out for these two compellingly presented people.  The Protege is a worthy addition to Charlotte Armstrong long line of superbly humanistic novels, call them whatever genre you will!

Note: Thirteen Charlotte Armstrong novels, including A Dram of Poison, are now available in eBook form from Mysterious Press.  See also Ed Gorman on Armstrong in 2007.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tempests: Murder on the Yacht (1932), by Rufus King

As I write this post Hurricane Isaac is making landfall in Louisiana as a minimal (75 mph) hurricane.  It's much a much weaker storm than Hurricane Katrina, but let us hope the rains it brings don't produce anything close to a repetition of Katrina's flooding in New Orleans.  I lived in Baton Rouge for some years and my thoughts are with you, Louisiana.

stormy weather
The second of Rufus King's trio of Lieutenant Valcour maritime mysteries--Murder by Latitude (1930), Murder on the Yacht (1932) and The Lesser Antilles Case (1934)--involves a hurricane.  Adding a natural disaster to a mystery seems an obvious way of increasing the suspense quotient, but Murder on the Yacht is the first case I am aware of where a mystery author does this.

The next year Ellery Queen produced in The Siamese Twin Mystery a tale of people trapped in a house on a mountain gradually being engulfed in a forest fire who just happen to have on their hands a murder case as well; while in 1934 and 1935, respectively, Todd Downing (whose favorite mystery writer was Rufus King) and Newton Gayle (an American-English duo) produced mysteries, Murder on the Tropic and Murder at 28:10, in which hurricanes played major roles in the story lines.  Since then, I suppose the device has been using many times, but these are some of the most important early instances.

Will Crusader make its destination?
In some ways, Murder on the Yacht is imitative of Murder by Latitude.  Valcour thinks a murderer is on board the yacht Crusader and he joins its voyage to try to spot the killer.  This time a smaller craft is involved, but still there is clear similarity between the two books.  Yet King succeeds in creating another fantastic mystery, full of suspense and genuine detection.  

Crusader is owned by New York millionaire Anthony Bettle.  He is on an unspecified mission to the Ragged Island of Jumento Cays, "a forgotten group of islands rimming the southern edge of the 330-mile-long great Bahama bank in a hundred mile arc."  Only Ragged Island is inhabited (by fewer than 100 people).  What is Bettle up to?  Valcour doesn't know.

Also on the ship are Bettle's wife Helen (a society matron type who married Bettle in the classic exhange of position for money); their son John; Helen's dilettantish brother Wharton Luke; Horatio Barlowe and his lovely red-haired daughter Freda; Freda's companion Miss Singlestar; Peter Moore, nephew of Bettle's attorney Waverly Hedglin; and Carlotta Balfe, famous medium and spiritual guru of sorts to Anthony Bettle.  There's also a complement of crew, several of whom are quite nicely sketched in as individuals and not the usual comic "servant" throwaways that you find all too often in Golden Age mysteries.

Waverly Hedglin was on the yacht but apparently disembarked and has since disappeared.  Valcour thinks Hedglin was murdered on the yacht.  Is he right?

many dangers fill the deep
Two-thirds of Murder on the Yacht passes before an "on-stage" murder takes place (although Hedglin's body briefly appears on a deck chair--or does it?), but this murder, of one of the passengers listed above, is a real doozy, occurring in a chapter that would have graced a first-class horror tale.

From this point on, this narrative never lets up and the suspense is something extra.  Soon the hurricane strikes and Valcour is left giving the traditional drawing room exposition in truly unique circumstances.

Characterization again is excellent, with each named person distinctive, and some quite memorable.  Dialogue is sparkling, descriptive writing evocative.

There's an interesting theme too about the hubris of the American moneyed class in the 1930s.  Rufus King himself came of money, of parents who lived in a posh Manhattan townhouse and wintered in Florida and could send him to a fine prep school and to Yale (where King most distinguished himself playing women's parts in Yale Dramat. musicals.); but in this novel, published in the early throes of the Great Depression, King takes a dim view of the mental effect that masses and masses of money can have on people:

Porpoises looped slickly at the bows, looping, looping, strange projectiles hurtling, all with incredible swiftness and grace, an amusing circus with the Gulf Stream for their rings.  But Valcour was not amused.  Sunlight sank richly with its glow and heat, jading blue water and adding soft glitter to creaming crests, but he saw no beauty in it and felt no warmth.

He thought: Just as love makes you blind so does wealth, and of the two blindnesses wealth is the worse because of the incalculable harm it is able to do to people other than yourself.  Bettle was wealth.  And Bettle was stone blind.

This is mystery genre writing of unusual sophistication, either in the Golden Age or today or any other age, in my view.  Why on earth (or sea) have Rufus King's books dropped out of the canon?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

John Dillinger, Cole Porter and Rufus King Walk Into a Bar....

What connects John Dillinger, renowned gangster, and Cole Porter, renowned songwriter, to Rufus King, once highly esteemed but now mostly forgotten mystery writer?  The Cole Porter connection is not altogether startling (Mike Grost also mentions this on  his website). However, the John Dillinger connection was totally unexpected.

Both Cole Porter, born on June 9, 1891 and Rufus King, born on January 3, 1893, were only children of wealthy parents and attended Yale University in overlapping years.  The families of both men intended that their Yalies become respectable lawyers, but it didn't quite pan out that way.

Both Porter and King took to the musical in a big way while at Yale and they became key members--and in their respective senior years, presidents--of the Yale Dramatic Association (King also was a member of the Elizabethan Club, dedicated to conversation, tea and literature, and the Pundits, the senior prank society).

When King came to Yale the precocious Porter already was writing musical plays for the YDA.  "Rufe" King, who was adept among the all-male membership at playing women's parts, became one of the YDA's star attractions (about King, another member of the YDA, Arnold Whitridge, wrote the following--no doubt envious!--couplet: "Little Rufe King couldn't teach me a thing/I'm the Queen of the Yale Dramat").

Perhaps the best known Porter play in which King starred was And Still the Villain Pursued Her (1912), a send-up of Uncle Tom's Cabin and nineteenth-century melodramas.  King's friend, the future Oscar-nominated actor Monty Woolley played the villain, while King, age nineteen, took the heroine's part.
Here's an except from Porter's song (sung by King) "The Lovely Heroine":

Oh gee! It's heaven to be the lovely heroine.
All the men woo me
And try to undo me
But that's not my line.
I live so far from New York
I faint dead away at the smell of a cork.
Why! I'm such a child I believe in the stork!
For I'm the heroine.

Wooley's lyric from "I'm the Villain" naturally was a mite more pugnacious:

Cole Porter at Yale
Oh, I'm the villain,
The dirty little villain;
I leave a pool of blood where e'er I tread,
I take delight 
In looking for a fight
And pressing little babies on the head
Till they're dead.

(see The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, p. 13-14).

Little Rufe King was much in demand for women's parts.  In other Porter musicals King sang the numbers "Oh What a Lovely Princess" (Years have I waited for someone adorable/So far my luck is deplorable) and "The Prep School Widow" (I find that school boys offer more/than many a college sophomore).

In 1914, King was planning to enroll in Columbia Law School (surely a loss to musical comedy), but instead he steered another, more unexpected, course.

Rufus King, author
King spent a couple years at sea as a shipboard wireless operator, enjoying a "romantic life of rolling ships and strange ports" (and obviously picking up a lot of maritime knowledge that would figure in many of his later novels).  He also worked a year in a Paterson, New Jersey silk mill, before serving as an artillery lieutenant in World War One.

After the war King was employed for a time in the maritime division of the New York police, before achieving success in late thirties as a mystery novelist.  All in all, surely one of your most interesting mystery author backgrounds!

Now what, oh what, does John Dillinger have to do with any of this (admittedly it's a little hard to see the notorious public enemy performing star turns in musical comedy)?

Well, in April 1934, Dillinger and his gang were holed-up at the Little Bohemia Lodge in the upstate Wisconsin village of Manitowish Waters.  The lodge owner's wife managed to get a letter to the FBI, which launched a badly botched assault on the building, in the process killing a bystanding Civilian Conservation Corps worker, but failing to capture or kill Dillinger or any members of the gang.

Little Bohemia Lodge, site of a 1934 FBI-Dillinger altercation

Evidently a good businessman, the owner of the lodge, Emil Wanatka, sought to get as much publicity out of the bloody shoot 'em up as he could.

Besides selling his story to Startling Detective Adventures ("I Was Held Captive by Dillinger and Saw Him Blast His Way to Freedom"), Wanatka proudly pointed out to visitors the bullet holes in the walls and windows of his lodge and displayed Dillinger possessions that he said he had found in the small cottage adjacent to the lodge where Dillinger had stayed during his brief but memorable visit (Wanatka also faked a photo of him and Dillinger together; see below).

Proud members of the Rufus King fan club?
These Dillinger possessions included, besides the odd gun or two, two books: John Fox. Jr.'s The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (originally published in 1903), a popular Civil War novel, and, yes--you've surely guessed it by now--a Rufus King mystery, Murder on the Yacht (1932).

So was our man Dillinger a fan of Rufus King, an author who "to millions of people" had made-- according to the enthusiastic publicity people at King's publisher Doubleday, Doran--his detective "Lieutenant Valcour a symbol of danger and excitement" (obviously Dillinger didn't get enough danger and excitement in his life already)?

It may well be so--though surely a true crime fiction addict would have dashed back to that cottage and grabbed the book before eluding the clutches of the FBI. Surely one just can't go and leave a Rufus King novel unfinished!

Dillinger must have finished reading Murder on the Yacht before the boys from the bureau started shooting.  Or maybe he waited to make his escape until he finished the last page ("Just one more page, Floyd!").

Note: Pictures One and Four are courtesy of Bill Pronzini.  Dillinger and his gang also attacked a state police arsenal in Peru, Indiana, birthplace and boyhood home of Cole Porter, oddly enough.  Did Rufus King ever visit Peru, Indiana?  I'm on the case!

Meanwhile, see my recent review of King's classic Murder by Latitude (1930) here.  A review of King's Murder on the Yacht is coming, along with reviews of Ellery Queen, Rex Stout and Max Alan Collins. TPT

Friday, August 24, 2012

Maneaters: Murder by Latitude (1930), by Rufus King

Valcour sat beside Captain Sohme at the forward end of the small lounge.  The leaden sky and air made of it a cubicle of murk which the ceiling lights, that had been turned on, scarcely affected at all, and the sea was a woman's glass with the ship a tense, unhappy atom creeping, turn by turn, along its flat insensate floor.... (Murder by Latitude, 1930)

For a short period in the early to mid 1930s there were, in the eyes of a number of mystery critics and readers of the time, two reigning monarchs of American classical detective fiction, Ellery Queen and Rufus King.  If Ellery Queen's reputation has faded (most unjustly) among the mystery masses, Rufus King's has vanished into air. I have only read a few novels by Rufus King, but in my view on the strength of his fifth mystery novel, Murder by Latitude, his name should be not merely recollected but lauded.

Certainly Murder by Latitude at least should be in print!  It's one of the major American works within the detective fiction genre from the period between the two World Wars.

a novel as stylish as its dust jacket

Murder by Latitude is one of those novels with a plot so suspenseful that one really must be careful in the name of aesthetic justice of writing too much about it.  Broadly speaking, Murder by Latitude, as the title indicates, is an ocean liner mystery, one of early vintage.  There is a very early yacht mystery, The After House (1914), by Mary Roberts Rinehart and I know Carolyn Wells did one typically mediocre effort in the 1920s called The Bronze Hand that takes place on an ocean liner. There also are a number of later examples, including several others by King himself.  One of the best known of these is John Dickson Carr's The Blind Barber (1934).  However, King's maiden effort in this sub-genre made a great splash at the time--and deservedly so.

On the ship in Murder by Latitude is a remarkably ruthless murderer.  He--or she?--has killed once already and kills again on board the liner Eastern Bay as it makes its tortured way from Bermuda to Halifax.  Indeed, the novel opens in quite an attention grabbing manner with a description of the strangling of the ship's wireless man.  This savage slaying has the effect of preventing the ship from getting messages from the New York police, who now have a description of the murderer for Lieutenant Valcour, King's series detective, who is also on board the ship, trying to catch the culprit.  Now Valcour is left groping in the dark, and the murderer has not yet completed his (her?) work....

the English edition of King's novel

Murder by Latitude is something one doesn't come across every day: a real page turner.  I read over 200 pages in one sitting, something I very rarely do these days.  It's superbly suspenseful (why are those objects disappearing?), evocatively written (you really get the sense of a ship at sea), modern in tone and well-characterized (more below) and, best of all for a 'tec fiction fiend, it boasts a really clever solution, masterfully twisted by the hand of a storytelling virtuoso. 

in the book it's the stiff that's deshabille
--though the dame indeed is a blonde
Mike Grost, who has written rather extensively on the internet about Rufus King (Grost and other bloggers who have written about King are linked below), argues that Latitude is also notable for its "gay sensibility."  I have to say I agree with Grost's assessment.

For example, the middle-aged, much married Mrs. Poole is a maneater who harpoons (Valcour's word) much younger men as husbands.  She is on board with husband number five, Ted Poole, who is constantly portrayed in an objectified manner by the author. "It was a pity he had his clothes on," thinks Mrs. Poole, as she looks over at her much younger husband "wriggling" on a deck chair.

There is also a movingly portrayed relationship between two crewmen on the ship that is, as Mike Grost has written, rather Melvilleian in tone.  Then there's that queer Frenchman, Mr. Dumarque, a remarkable epigram-tossing aesthete.  Latitude is not a "gay mystery," but it does seem as though it might have been written by a gay man.

Currently very little is known about Rufus King, even though he was a popular and prolific writer within the mystery genre for many years, publishing twenty-three mystery novels and short story collections between 1927 and 1951 and three more genre books between 1958 and 1964.  He died two years late in 1966, at the age of 73.
King graduated from Yale in 1914, then spent a few years at sea, enjoying "a romantic life of rolling ships and strange ports."  He also spent some time as a workman in a Paterson, New Jersey silk mill.  When the United States entered the Great War he served in it as an artillery lieutenant. King's first mystery novel did not appear until ten years later, when King was 34, but he quickly made a name for himself in the field.  His breakthrough detective novel, Murder by the Clock (1929), was adapted into a well-regarded film in 1931 (the other best-known Rufus King film is the Fritz Lang directed The Secret Beyond the Door, 1947).

the derelict Delaware and Hudson Railway Station at Rouse's Point, New York
where Rufus King regularly would have stopped off

During his life King annually resided part of the year at Rouse's Point, New York, located on Lake Champlain a mile south of the United States-Canada border.  He was a good friend of the Oscar-nominated gay actor Monty Wooley, a fellow New Yorker and Yalie.  I believe both his life and his books are worth exploring.

Links to other bloggers on Rufus King:

Mike Grost (detail on plots)

John Norris (Murder by the Clock)

TomCat (The Case of the Constant God)

Pietro De Palma (Murder by Latitude--SPOILERS!!) Pietro calls it a "masterpiece" and I agree!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Everything's More Mysterious in Texas: A Mammoth Murder (2006), by Bill Crider

Visitors to this blog may know I have a certain interest in American regionalist and local color mysteries. I was born in South Dakota and grew up in Alabama and perhaps on that account have always found books set in so-called Middle America especially appealing. Maybe it helps too that I have fond memories of milk shakes at Dairy Queen, the ubiquitous fast food palace of small-town America.

On this blog I have reviewed Golden Age detective novels set in rural Arkansas, rural IowaWichita, Kansas and Dallas, Texas, as well as one by Oklahoma Choctaw Indian writer Todd Downing (whose books will be reprinted this fall).  For today I want to write about a modern local color mystery author, the Anthony Award winning Bill Crider.  I focus here on this prolific writer's Sherriff Dan Rhodes series.

Bill Crider's nineteenth Dan Rhodes mystery, the enticingly titled Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen,  has just been published, but here I am reviewing the thirteenth, A Mammoth Murder (2006).  Crider's Sheriff Rhodes novels are set in Blacklin County, Texas, a quirky little place with a really rather remarkable number of murders.

Forget the butler!
Did Bigfoot do it?
A Mammoth Murder is what I would call a southern country cozy.  It does with Texas what M. C.  Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series does with Scotland or Rhys Bowen's Constable Evans series does with Wales. I give the nod to Crider, though I must admit I am partial to a mystery that includes not only a Dairy Queen but a Jolly Tamale (the only Mexican restaurant in Clearview, Sheriff Rhodes' town).

The strong sense of place and Crider's gentle sense of humor are a great part of the novel's appeal.  The sheriff's interactions with his wisecracking co-workers and his dogs Yancey and Speedo, his visits to the Dairy Queen for life-sustaining Blizzards (ice cream with broken-up Heath Bars), his fondness for Dr Pepper in glass, his dislike of cell phones--all are a delight to read about in A Mammoth Murder

Personally I like digressions like these:

Rhodes went first to the new Dr Pepper machine, which he didn't like at all.  For as long as could remember, he'd been able to get Dr Pepper in glass bottles from an old machine that, he was forced to admit, had seen better days.  But when it had broken down a month or so ago, it had been replaced by a garish new eight foot monstrosity that looked more like some kind of futuristic jukebox than a soft drink machine.

Not that Rhodes care much about its appearance.  What mattered to him was that it dispensed Dr Pepper in large plastic bottles.

They can put a man on the moon
but they can't put Dr Pepper
into a glass bottle?

The plastic bottles were better than cans, of course, and there was quite a bit more Dr Pepper in them than in a can or the old glass bottles, but the fact was that Dr Pepper just tasted better in glass.

Taste, Rhodes supposed, was relative.  He had never quite recovered from the big changeover to the use of corn syrup instead of sugar as the sweetener in his favorite drink.  A lot of years had gone by, and by now he should have adjusted.  Others may have been able to, but he hadn't.

He was sure that a spokesperson for Dr Pepper would maintain that the taste was unaffected by the change, but Rhodes knew better.  At least one bottler, in Dublin, Texas, still made Dr Pepper the old-fashioned way, and Rhodes had once ordered a case of the "real" ones and had it sent to him.  He'd parceled out the drinks out over a month or so, enjoying every sip.

Now, however, Rhodes had to settle for what could get, and that was a big clear plastic bottle, dispensed with such a clunking frenzy that it was well shaken by the time it arrived in the slot.  He had to wait a couple of minutes before opening it to be sure it didn't fizz all over his hand and the courthouse floor.

While he was waiting, he bought a package of orange crackers with peanut butter filling from another new machine.  When the crackers fell into the bin, Rhodes got them out and went to his office.

He brushed away a spiderweb that dangled from a light fixture.  He was going to have to come in more often.

Rhodes sat in his chair and put the crackers on his desk while he opened the Dr Pepper.  It fizzed, but only a little.  He took a swallow and opened the crackers, thinking that he really needed to do something about his eating habits.

I like the laconic humor and I share the nostalgia.  I recall Dr Pepper in glass bottles as a kid back in the 1970s and damn straight, they are better!  I've never been able to bring myself to try those orange crackers with peanut butter, however.  They are awfully orange!

You swine!
There actually is a fair play mystery in this novel too, let me hasten to add (and a more serious resolution than one might initially expect).

Many local color mystery writers might slough off the actual mystery part of the mystery novel, but not Bill Crider in A Mammoth Murder (the astute reader will watch those authorial digressions closely).

We are presented with an old missing persons case and two present-day murders, all centering around Big Woods, where there have been Big Foot sightings and unearthings of fossilized Mammoth teeth. 

And then there are those packs of marauding feral pigs....It's a quirky place, is Blacklin County!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Not with a Bang but a Snicker: Dover The Collected Short Stories (1995), by Joyce Porter

Dover: The Collected Short Stories (1995)--a volume which collects all the short stories, originally appearing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine between 1968 and 1995, concerning the detective deeds of Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Edward Thomas MacGregor--is still in print.  You can buy it on Amazon right now, if you want, for $19.95 in paperback (this was the original price for a hardcover edition), as well as any of the later half-dozen of the ten Dover detective novels.

the end of the "Great Detective"
not with a bang but a snicker
Is it really a forgotten book then?  Well, in sales on Amazon it's at nearly three million in rank, so it's not exactly on everyone's lips at the moment, evidently!  I think it could use a little publicity, and that it certainly  deserves such--it's a very good collection of short stories.

The odious "Wilf" Dover may represent the end of the Great Detective tradition in classical detective fiction, but the eleven stories in which the old oaf  appears are, for the most part, fine examples of the fair play mystery, filled to bursting with ribald humor.

In the hands of Joyce Porter (1922-1990), then, this is the way the Great Detective ends: Not with a bang but a snicker.

A Foul Play Press Book, published by the Countryman Press of Woodstock, Vermont (they also have published Robert Barnard and Phoebe Atwood Taylor), Dover is the definition of well-packaged book.  Included is a typically insightful foreword by Robert Barnard and a delightful and enlightening afterword on the life of Joyce Porter by Canon J. R. Porter, the author's brother.

Anyone familiar with Robert Barnard's own detective fiction will not be surprised to learn that he is a great fan of Joyce Porter.  Barnard greatly admires Porter as a satirist and farceur.  He notes that Porter's most famous fictional creation, the odious and disgusting Chief Inspector Dover, can be seen as a send-up of the English gentleman detective figure so prominent in the books of three of the British Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh and an ironic commentary on the British police from the 1960s onward (the first Dover novel was written in 1963 and published the next year).

"Even the most cautious and conservative of us, if we were reading a Dover in bed and thought we heard noises downstairs, would think twice before reaching out to dial 999," declares Barnard.

So true, that!  I would also add, however, that Dover is a the lowest possible devolution on the scale of fictional English police detectives.  Going from Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector Joseph French (1920s-1950s, decent and virtuous to the point of blandness) to Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef (1930s-1950s, a bit "common" and vulgar, but quite personable and appealing) to Joyce Porter's Inspector Dover (1960s to 1980s, thuggish, lazy and squalid) is a steep decline!

With Dover and his assistant, Sergeant MacGregor, Joyce Porter seems to me to replicate Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef-Lionel Townshend relationship.  Both Townshend and MacGregor are rather genteel but feeble English public school products who look down their noses on their partners in crime fighting (in MacGregor's case quite justly), but are themselves unable to provide an effective alternative.

a brilliant debut for a dullard detective
Of the Dover novels, I would argue that the Big Three are the first three, Dover One, Dover Two and Dover Three (1964/1965/1965), written in a great flash of inspiration in a matter of months in 1963 (rather like S. S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case, The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case).  Barnard is a great admirer of Dover and the Unkindest Cut of All (1967) too, but I think the joke in this one has lost its novelty today.  The next Dovers, Dover Goes to Pott (1968), Dover Strikes Again (1970) and It's Murder with Dover (1973) are good, but not up to the earlier standard--and Dover seems to get more disgusting with each book!  Of the last three Dover novels, I would recommend only Dead Easy with Dover (1978), which has a strong plot.

What's impressive about most of the Dover novels is that besides the humor, they usually do have good puzzle plots.  The same is true of the stories.  These are meaty tales, with substantial plots and lots of humor.

Generally, Dover and MacGregor will arrive on the scene of the murder, Dover complaining all the while, because work is anathema to him.  Dover will look for the most comfortable chair and start a snooze.  Eventually he will expect to be provided with cigarettes and drink.  He will spend a considerable time in the bathroom (bowels trouble).  Then he will start looking for small articles to nick.  After that he starts thinking about lunch.  Somehow (this must have taxed Porter's ingenuity greatly) he usually does manage to solve the crime, however!

Arguably the two best stories in the collection are the first two, "Dover Pulls a Rabbit" (1968) and "Dover Tangles with High Finance" (1970).  The first is a cottage murder, which Dover is able to solve through one of his actual areas of expertise (read the story and find out which).  The murder victim is a Miss Ebbitt, whom Dover keeps calling "Miss Rabbit"--hence the title of the tale.  Dover rarely can be troubled to remember names, dubbing suspects with such titles as "What's-his-name" and "Who's-your-father."  The second story is a clever corporate poisoning case, again solved by Dover through one of his little vices.

Joyce Porter
"Dover and the Dark Lady" (1972) is good, but has a solution that, while possibly outre and surprising then, stands out a mile today.  In "Dover Does Some Spadework" (1976) Dover has to tangle with Mrs. Dover--a fearsome antagonist.  "Dover Goes to School" (1977) and "Dover and the Smallest Room" (1979--yup, Dover's knowledge of the bathroom is very important here) also are absolutely tops.  The only dud in the lot is the last tale, "A Souvenir for Dover," (1985) which actually is a reworking of a 1981 Dover story.  Not surprisingly, Porter retired from fiction writing at this point.  She devoted her last years to researching and writing a biography of Grand Duchess Elizabeth (1854-1918)--a much more serious topic!

I would recommend the Dover stories (and most of the novels) to fans of classical detection who have strong stomachs for a "Great Detective" who isn't so great.  Oh heck, he's downright narsty!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

I've Been Flickr'ed! More on Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012)

An update on Masters of the 'Humdrum" Mystery before tomorrow's forgotten book piece on the short stories of Joyce Porter (I hope a book that's actually still in print can qualify as such!).

The word is spreading!
Humdrum is the new Hip
First, from a German reader going by the tag rauter25 who bought Masters, a nice mention (with photo) on flickr.

And here's a mention from the noted mystery critic and writer Jon L. Breen, much appreciated:

"Revisionist History" (by Jon L. Breen)

Jon says my book chips away at the modern predominant view of Golden Age detective fiction as almost exclusively the province of four Crime Queens and he calls Masters "an excellent new book."

The book's been out for a couple months and now shows up in two dozen library catalogs, including:

Notre Dame, Iowa State, University of Wisconsin, College of Charleston, University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas,Texas Tech, George Mason, Penn State, University of Pennsylvania, the Toronto Public Library, University of Maryland, Old Dominion (home of Doug Greene!), Colorado State, New York University, Harvard, University of Nevada, UCLA, and the University of Southern California, Miami University (now in the news because of Paul Ryan) and Wright State University

Let this be encouragement to other universities to get on board!  It would be nice to have Masters made accessible in as many libraries as possible.

More anon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

By the Light of the Television: Poirot, Season 1 (1989)

My theory of television series (and I think I'm hardly alone in this) is that first seasons usually are somewhat tentative, then a plateau in quality is reached for several season, before decline sets in the last season or so.  Poirot doesn't exactly follow this trend, because even though it has the all-important common denominator of David Suchet in the title role throughout the series, it abruptly transformed itself in Season 9, jettisoning the Hastings-Japp-Miss Lemon ensemble and going for a much more sombre tone.  In a way, it's as if we have had two different series.  However I think what I shall dub Poirot I (Seasons 1-8) does rather follow the pattern I have described above.

Essentially Seasons 1-5 (1989-1993) are of a piece, with short story adaptations predominating. One novel adaptation was done in Seasons 2 and 3 and Season 4 consisted solely of three novel adaptations.  Season 5 went back short stories, but was the last such season (for some reason The Labors of Hercules, the best Poirot short story collection, was not adapted at this time--sure, these stories do not have Hastings, but one presumes the adapters would have found a way to shoehorn him into them).

Season 6 in 1995 consisted of four novel adaptations, only one of which was fully successful, in my opinion (Murder on the Links).  Seasons 7 and 8, which did not follow until 2000 and 2001 (why the lag?), had lost much of the earlier magic, ranging from outright dreadful adaptations of novels (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder in Mesopotamia) to merely mediocre ones (Lord Edgware Dies and Evil Under the Sun). 

Since then we have had Seasons 9-12 (2003-2009).  This is the "Dark Poirot," eventually to wrap with one more season, culminating in Poirot's swan song, Curtain.  These have been controversial affairs, some rather brilliant, I think (Five Little Pigs, Sad Cypress), some travesties (Cards on the Table, Murder on the Orient Express).

But, all this said, let's go back to Season 1, when it all began.  On the whole I rank Season 1 a bit lower than Seasons 2, 3, and 5 (the story adaptation seasons).  It seems to me that the budget was smaller and that sometimes episodes were filmed with somewhat less flair.  The series characters also don't seem to have quite gelled.  Japp is a bit of a dull dog in Season 1 (he hasn't yet figured out that Poirot is Always Right and is rather adversarial), while Miss Lemon usually doesn't have much to do.  Hastings is IT from the get-go, yet Poirot, on the other hand, is noticeably politer and less egocentric.  He seems a bit less outsize in personality.  Is this more or less faithful to the character, I wonder?

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook *****
The series gets of to a great start with this tale of the distraught suburban matron who has lost her domestic (good cooks are so hard to find!).  The matron, Ernestine Todd (Brigit Forsyth), is a wonderful satirical character, and Katy Murphy is splendid as the maid Annie (one of the best maids in this series, surely).  Then there's Danny Webb as the uppish railway clerk (from the way he back talks Hastings you just know this man's a Red!).  It was nice espying him as a young man, after seeing him in so many roles over the years, usually as someone unlikeable and really quite snarky (his latest such character appears as one of the young Morse's foils in the film Endeavor, reviewed here).

The mystery itself in pleasingly complex, amusing and dramatic in all the right places, and another excellent corrective to those under the impression that all Golden age English mystery tales place either in country houses or quaint villages.

Poirot and Hastings: The beginning
Murder in the Mews***
Did Mrs. Allen commit suicide or was she murdered?  A clever plot, but rather dramatically inert, I thought.  Not as good as the actual longish short story.

The Adventure of Johnnie Waverley***
Poirot is hired to prevent the kidnapping of an obnoxious country squire's son.  This one has a decent plot and the manor house is suitably splendid (not art deco for once!). However, I think the motive of the culprit was altered somewhat in the adaptation.  It's not completely convincingly done either in the story or the adaptation, in my opinion.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds**
Not as bad as The Cornish Mystery or The Missing Will, but a definite meh episode.  No memorable characters and nothing especially clever about the crime.  Rather a pointless affair.

Murder comes to Whitehaven Mansions
The Third Floor Flat****
Although the solution is revealed rather early, I like this one quite a bit.  It's a clever situation and instead of Poirot coming to murder, murder comes to him--the killing takes place in his own block of flats! There's also the amusing bit of Poirot going to see the murder mystery play and not enjoying it at all.  And the matter of Hastings' car!  I say!

Triangle at Rhodes*****
Great on location shooting here (much of the year's budget must have gone into this episode) and one of Christie's classic plot devices, variants of which she used many times.  Superb story, well-adapted. 

Problem at Sea*****
Another great "tour" tale, with Poirot solving a yacht cabin murder, committed off Egypt.  The murder victim, Mrs. Clapperton, is superbly portrayed by Shelia Allen; she's one of the most memorable gorgons in the history of the series (checking imdb, I see she died just last year, at the age of 78; her last film role was as "Ministry Witch" in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005--she will be missed!).

Seasoned mystery fans should get the trick, but the dramatic content and the casting are so good that they should enjoy the episode greatly.  The unmasking of the culprit is a tour de force and the final scene, with Poirot's great line "I do not approve of murder!", is memorably done.

No problem is too great for Poirot
The Incredible Theft***
Country house espionage tale involving theft of super secret airplane plans or something like that.  Not bad, but not memorable.  The best part is Hastings complaining how he has to share a bed at the local inn with Japp.

The King of Clubs***
This one concerns the film actress on the scene at the murder of her film producer.  The film stuff is fun, but the murder is at the producer's house and involves a lot of time spent by Poirot at a rather drab next-door suburban villa. Some notable improbabilities, but not bad.  Best part: A passing tramp is suspected of the dark deed!  Perish the thought!

The Dream*****
A great finish for the season.  Murder of a classic evil factory owner (pork pies), in a locked room situation, rare for Christie.  Excellent use is made of the factory setting (it's glorious deco, though the factory owner himself seems a holdover from Victorian days), the supporting cast is uniformly good (note lovely Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave), there's a good Miss Lemon subplot and Hastings actually gets to do something useful.  Only slightly marred by no explanation being given of how Poirot arrived at a certain point.

So, although there are some mediocre episodes, Season 1 has some notable successes. Coming next month: Season 5, which has the last set of short story adaptations (until they finally get around to filming The Labors of Hercules).

Saturday, August 11, 2012

By the Light of the Television: Endeavour (2012)

Old franchises never die--they just get rebooted!  The last Inspector Morse film, starring the late John Thaw as the uniquely-named Endeavour Morse, appeared nearly a dozen years ago.  The first episode of the ongoing Lewis series, about Morse's number two, Robert Lewis (Kevin Whately), premiered in 2006.  Now we have the pilot film for the new series Endeavour, which envisions a young Endeavor Morse back in the ancient mists of time when The Passing Tramp was born: the mid-sixties!

Shaun Evans endeavors to recapture the Morse magic

One can be cynical about this sort of thing.  In today's youth-obsessed age, what's the best way of rebooting a series?  Like in the case of the recent Star Trek reboot, it seems to be reimagining your old middle-aged characters as hot young 'uns!

So I was initially skeptical about Endeavour, I must admit.  Judging from the stills of Shaun Evans (aside: no doubt an incredibly distant relative! Evans is the eighth most common name in England and the most common name in Swansea; apparently in Wales a minute won't go buy without you're stumbling over an Evans), I thought he was all wrong for the part.  Tall and rangy, rather like Laurence Fox's Sergeant Hathaway in Lewis, he seemed an odd choice for john Thaw's short and stocky--oh, let's be honest, a wee bit lumpy and dumpy--Morse.

two peas in a pod?

But I'm pleased to report I was all wet on this one!  I really enjoyed Endeavour.  While the Lewis series is workmanlike and likeable, Endeavour does something Lewis only rarely manages: capturing the moving, melancholy quality that made Morse memorable for so many viewers back in the 1990s.

In addition, there's the added interest of the swinging sixties setting (when the series opens we're thankfully in 1965, when good taste was still fashionable--I don't want to see Shaun Evans' Morse in fat ties, gold chains, unbuttoned shirts and polyester flair pants, listening to Mahler by the illumination of a lava lamp and letting the word groovy escape from his lips).

By the end of Endeavour I was totally convinced Shuan Evans was the young Morse.  Evans captures Morse's intelligence and melancholy (particularly where women and classical music are concerned), as well as his determination and brashness on a case (like Thaw's Morse he can jump to conclusions and land himself in trouble).  Physically Evans and Thaw aren't much alike, but Evans does capture Morse's mannerisms and between the two men there's also similarity about the eyes (no doubt Thaw's many women fans from the 1990s would call them rather soulful!).

Morse establishes an important new relationship

Amusingly, we get to see Morse developing two of his most important relationships: those with beer and classic cars.  It doesn't go so well with Morse and women, but when did it ever in the original series (answer: very rarely).  Of course it doesn't help that Morse is always falling for women who in the cases he is investigating are either suspects or intimately involved with suspects!

In the case at hand, Morse's love interest is Rosalind Stromming (Flora Montgomery), wife of Dr. Rowan Stromming, an Oxford professor and one of his lead suspects in the murder of a teenage girl (another way Endeavour is true to the original series is that it adds to Colin Dexter's legion of Lolitaesque, nymphettes who are always getting involved with much older men).  Roaslind is not only beautiful and a bit older (in a sexy, sophisticated woman kind of way) than the somewhat awkward and gangling Morse, but she's a retired opera diva!  Is it any wonder our Morse is besotted?

Yup, it's love!  How will it end?

Endeavour strikes many other classic notes as well.  The plot is nicely complex, involving some familiar gambits, creatively applied. Crosswords and poetry are invoked.  There's a car salesman suspect, leading Morse to eye a Jaguar.  There's beer!  Opera arias!  Oxford dons, high level corruption and lots and lots of illicit, inter-generational sex!

I noticed a few actors who were veterans of the original Morse series.  I have no doubt that this was intentional and that I probably missed a few (of course there's the obligatory Colin Dexter cameo--he shows up in Lewis too).  It was pleasing to see Patrick Malahide, now pushing seventy, playing one of his patented satyriac sleazebags (he goes all the way back to the excellent 1990 Morse episode Driven to Distraction).

But the most notable actor in Endeavour, aside from Shaun Evans, is Roger Allam, who plays the young Morse's mentor, Inspector Fred Thursday.  With his pipe and his trilby, Allam really does seem to have stepped right out of the time period.  He brings terrific gravitas to his role, as the no-nonsense, unflappable World War Two vet who gets the job done.  I will pay him the highest compliment of saying I can't envision anyone else in the role now.
Allam had what I think was rather a thankless role in what seems to me the poorest of the later Morses, Death Is Now My Neighbour (1997), so it's nice to see him with a really good part in the newer series.  As Detective Thursday he rather reminds me of Albert Finney, which surely is a good thing.

Watch out murderers! Morse and Thursday are on the beat.

I'm not surprised Endeavour was a great success and that a full series is under way. I very much look forward to how it develops, as should any old fan of Morse or any fan of good detective series television in general.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Follies, Part Two: The Bloody Tower (1938), by John Rhode

I write about John Rhode's The Bloody Tower (The Tower of Evil in the United States) in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the English Detective Novel (2012).  It's one of my favorite detective novels by the author, whose real name was John Street (John Rhode is a pun, you see!).

Wainhouse Tower
Since my book was published in June, I have come to conclude that the folly which likely inspired the titular tower of The Bloody Tower is Wainhouse Tower, built over 1871 to 1875 at the behest of John Edward Wainhouse, an Yorkshire industrialist. Wainhouse intended the structure to serve as a chimney for his Halifax, Yorkshire dye works.  By constructing it high on a hill, Wainhouse hoped to disperse smoke from the town (I can sympathize; there used to be a paper mill in my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and every time we drove past it the rotten egg smell was overwhelming).

Unfortunately, Wainhouse sold the dye works before the great chimney was completed and the new owner refused to take over the half-completed structure.  So Wainhouse turned it into a folly, an Italianate observation tower, 253 feet high with 403 steps.  It is sometimes referred to as the Tower of Spite, due to a legend that Wainhouse built it in order to spy on his neighbor Sir Henry Edwards, an opponent of industrialization.  The Calderdale website says this story is apocryphal, but it would make a good plot for  a detective novel!

Street was quite familiar with this part of Yorkshire, as his maternal grandfather's ancestral home was Storthes Hall Mansion in Kirkburton, only about a dozen miles away from Halifax. The tower in John Rhode's The Bloody Tower is described as being "not unlike a truncated factory chimney with a ball balanced on top of it."  The American dust jacket design captures this image rather well, I think.  Certainly Rhode's fictional tower variant is much less attractive than Wainhouse' actual one, but it does indeed look like a factory chimney!

Nevertheless, the tower in Rhode's novel was not built by an industrialist, spiteful or otherwise.  The Bloody Tower is a tale of agrarian squalor, being John Rhode's contribution to the "rural gloom" genre of English novels associated at this time with the works of Mary Webb and so memorably satirized in Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm (1932).  "Pretty dreary stuff," sniffed Jacques Barzun in his and Wendell Hertig Taylor's Catalogue of Crime, but this is rather the point!

The American hardcover edition of
The Bloody Tower
In The Bloody Tower, Simon and Caleb Glapthorne, father and son, live in squalor at their decaying Georgian country home, Farningcote Priory, attended by two slatternly servants.  Looming over them all is the folly built by their eccentric eighteenth-century ancestor, Thaddeus Glapthorne, founder of the now almost entirely diminished family fortune.

Caleb, who is found at the beginning of the novel with half his face blown away by a rifle shot, spent his evenings at home guzzling gin with the dipsomaniac cook, when not pursuing the neighboring farmer's daughter.  At first it seems that the shot that killed Caleb was self-inflicted, but then it comes to appear that some other person may have contrived the "accident."

Did the neighboring farmer do the deed, or was it someone else, like Caleb's younger brother Benjamin, disgraced in his father Simon's eyes because he abandoned the collapsing Glapthorne estate to become a marine engineer (Simon considered it "beneath the dignity of a Glapthorne to wipe his hands on a piece of cotton waste")?

Street neatly ties in the death of Caleb with the Glapthorne family prophecy inscribed on the tower, that so long as the tower stands, "So long shall Glapthorne dwell in Farningcote."  Rhode's police detective Jimmy Waghorn eventually solves the mystery (with considerable help from his detection mentor Dr. Priestley), but not before more deaths occur, one of which is surely something rather unique within the history of the genre.

While The Bloody Tower is nowhere near as bleak and depressing as P. D. James' The Black Tower (see here), it is not exactly a cozy story.  Street is uncompromising in portraying the decay and filth of Farningcote Priory and its denizens, which is of a piece with the generally skeptical view that Street takes of the English gentry in his John Rhode books in the 1930s.

Like James, Street also refuses to prettify death by violence. The Bloody Tower is aptly named, for the book is sometimes bloody.

Here's a description of the dead Caleb:

"The right side of his face was completely blown away, leaving nothing but naked and shattered bone.  His dark hair was matted with blood and his left eye, apparently uninjured, stared glassily toward the cobweb-hung rafters."

"Coo, wasn't there a muck of blood too," exclaims with relish the lad who found Caleb's body.  "I never seen the like since Charlie...took me into the yard to see a pig stuck!"

assertions with overconfidence?
In his book Snobbery with Violence, Colin Watson writes that violence in Golden Age detective fiction is "conformist, limited, unreal....A bullet hole almost invariably is neat (as a putt in golf, perhaps)....Blood is generally a 'spreading stain' or a 'pool,' both fastidious expressions that convey nothing of the terrible glistening mess that is made of human butchery."

Well, in the case of the death of Caleb Glapthorne, anyway, the massive head wound made by the skull shattering, brain spattering impact of the bullet can hardly be called "neat"!  Colin Watson gets the violence and the snobbery part wrong too, in relation to The Bloody Tower.

Needless to say, since this is a John Rhode novel, the plot is scrupulously fair.  You may well spot the culprit, although the exact nature of the plot and the splendid murder methods should be harder to divine.

But then you could say the same thing in this respect about P. D. James' book too!

Follies, Part One: The Black Tower (1975), by P. D. James

Follies are odd, ornamental structures, often towers, though they can even be houses (there's a house named Pitts' Folly in Uniontown, Alabama, not far from where I grew up, so named because of its massive columned portico, which overpowers the house).

Wainhouse Tower (1871-1875)
likely inspiration for the folly
The Bloody Tower (1938)
by John Rhode

Follies are an architectural art form in England and have inspired several mystery authors, including John Rhode (Dead Men at the Folly, 1932, and The Bloody Tower, 1938), Agatha Christie (Dead Man's Folly, 1956) and P. D. James (The Black Tower, 1975).  In this piece I want to compare P. D. James' The Black Tower with John Rhode's The Bloody Tower (The Tower of Evil) in the United States.  These novels have some surprising similarities.  Both portray grim worlds of rural decay and dementia, symbolized by a dark tower looming over all.

Follies by their very name seem appropriate for the classical detective novel, for is not murder the ultimate act of folly (or so the thought should run)? In mysteries these crazily eccentric towers seem to suggest not only folly and futility, but doom.

Certainly in P. D. James' The Black Tower, the tower is a potent symbol of death.  The tower in the novel was built by a great grandfather of Wilfred Anstey, current owner of the family estate, Toynton Grange, Dorset.  Great grandad, never too stable to begin with, eventually went completely off his rocker, barricading himself inside the tower, where he starved to death (a typically cheery P. D. James event).

James' cerebral police detective, Adam Dalgliesh, is in hospital recovering from sickness (he thought he was dying, but in a rare piece of good fortune in James-land, it seems the diagnosis was in error), when he receives a letter from his vicar father's old curate, Father William Baddeley, asking him to come down to Toynton Grange, a private nursing home for the incurably disabled, for a discussion about a certain matter that concerns Father Baddeley.

Of course, readers of murder mysteries that we are, we aren't surprised to learn that Father Baddeley expired shortly before Dalgliesh arrives at Toynton Grange.  A natural death--or so they say.

Clavell Tower (1830)
inspiration for The Black Tower (1975)
Dalgliesh naturally is suspicious and finds himself being drawn into snooping around, even though he has decided to retire from the force (he also has that celebrated poet gig going, remember).  The first half of the novel is rather slow (though atmospheric), but in the second half the bodies really begin to pile up, somewhat improbably though entertainingly.  There is a smash climax, though the ending itself is rather abrupt.

At the time it was published, nearly thirty years ago (the same year that Agatha Christie's rather depressing final Poirot novel, Curtain, appeared), The Black Tower was much lauded by critics for its setting in a home for incurably disabled patients. The late crime writer H. R. F. Keating chose The Black Tower as one of the 100 greatest detective novels of all time and it won the Silver Dagger from the Crime Writers Association (it lost the Gold Dagger to Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Per Cent Solution).  The novel was considered the ultimate example of James' refraining from falsely prettifying death in the manner of the classic English cozy mystery.

And, indeed, James doesn't hold back on unpleasant physical details.  Even with the people who aren't patients, we read about discolored teeth, dandruff, mole hairs, sweat, enlarged pores, etc.  James parts company with her model, Dorothy L. Sayers, here, though I do recall one Gothic short story by Sayers, "Scrawns," which gets into similar squirmy material.

Through Dalgliesh--who has always had an aversion to physical contact with other humans that borders on the phobic in my view ("Dalgliesh held out his hand and felt it imprisoned between Anstey's two palms.  It took an effort of will not to flinch from this clammy encounter of moist flesh")--James seems to be confronting her own fears of decay, disease and death.  It makes for some sometimes uncomfortable reading.

the first edition (Faber and Faber)
It's hard to see how this jacket
 could be any more symbolic!
At the same time, however, James' usual emphasis on domestic architecture and food does have a sort of comforting, cozy effect in The Black Tower (by the by, has anyone ever thought of doing a P. D. James cookbook?).  It's the people, all seemingly imprisoned in their own personal black towers of sickness, misery and depression, that make the book challenging.

Certainly James' writing is as compellingly evocative as ever, benefiting here from compression absent from her novels of the last thirty years or so, which typically sprawl closer to 500 pages.  The Black Tower is just under 350 pages, which allows James the space she needs for scenic description and character development without indulging in the tedium-inducing descriptive digressions and life stories of later novels.

James' characters in The Black Tower do tend to be her usual crew of surpassingly unhappy, extremely well-spoken middle- and upper-middle-class professionals (with the odd--and very odd he is!--servant thrown in).

Here's one gent in off-the-cuff conversation:

Basically he's kind and well-meaning, and at least he's spent his own personal fortune at Toynton Grange. In this age of noisy and self-indulgent commitment when the first principle of private or public protest is that it mustn't relate to anything for which the protestor can be held in the least responsible or involve him in the slightest personal sacrifice that, at least, in his favor.

Nice rhetoric for a formal speech or essay, yes, but are people really that eloquent off the top of their heads?  I wouldn't mention such a point normally, but P. D. James does make a great show of how putatively realistic her novels are compared with the Golden Agers!  I don't know.

Here's a one-off from another character: "I don't need a phallic symbol erected by a Victorian eccentric to remind me of the skull beneath the skin."  James so much liked that last phrase--which comes from T. S. Eliot--that she used it as the title for a 1982 Cordelia Gray detective novel.  Of course both the quoted characters are gay men and in P. D. James novels gay men customarily sound like they are auditioning for parts in Noel Coward plays.  These lads are always "on" if you know what I mean.

Despite such carping on my part, I think The Black Tower is a masterful mystery tale.  Not only is it elegantly written, emotionally moving and powerfully atmospheric, it is an authentically fair play detective novel--no small thing, even in 1975!

Coming for Friday, my forgotten novel choice, The Bloody Tower (1938) by John Rhode.

Pitts' Folly (1853), Uniontown, Alabama (photograph 1936)
you must admit this would make a great setting for a murder mystery

Friday, August 3, 2012

Death Before Jack: The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971), by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

P. D. James' one book-length excursion into true crime--The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811--has been reissued in Britain by James' English publisher, Faber and Faber, probably, one imagines, due to the resurgent popularity of English historical true crime after the surprise runaway success of Kate Summerscale's reconstruction of the Constance Kent murder case, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008).

English historical true crime is hot right now, and authors are eagerly ransacking the historical record for juicy morsels of murder for the public to savor.  Thus it is not surprising that James' four-decades-old true crime opus is getting another go (the fact that last year was the 200th anniversary of the Ratcliffe Highway murders surely didn't hurt either).

Despite the common insistence that during the Golden Age of detective fiction only chess-like, emotionally arid puzzle problems interested British crime writers, in fact mystery authors of that era were fascinated by true crime.  Dorothy L. Sayers wrote about he Julia Wallace murder case, John Street about the Constance Kent case.  Numerous other instances can be given.

the most recent edition
So James' study, co-authored with a Home Office colleague, Thomas Alan Critchley (1919-1991), was hardly the first instance of a famous mystery writer taking a whack at true crime, and it certainly was not the last.  But, P. D. James being involved, The Maul and the Pear Tree is a notable study in the literature of true crime.

Although eclipsed by the Jack the Ripper murders that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century (1888), the Ratcliffe Highway killings that took place in the beginning of the nineteenth century shocked and appalled the British nation, just as the Whitechapel horrors did nearly eight decades later.

Three hundred miles from London, a much agitated rural correspondent wrote:

We in the country here are thinking and talking of nothing but the dreadful murders, which seem to bring a stigma, not merely on the police, but on the land we live in, and even our human nature.  No circumstances which did not concern myself ever disturbed me so much.

Even before the rise of 24-hour cable television, mass murder, with the helpful hand of the penny press, had the power to transfix a nation.

But what exactly happened in the month of December, 1811?  Over a short space of time in Ratcliffe Highway two households were obliterated in savage bursts of violence (though James and Critichley don't mention it, I was rather reminded of the Manson Gang killings, which took place in California in 1969, two years before Maul was published). 

Here is an interesting look, by the way, at what has happened in modern times to the locations associated with the crimes:

Mapping the Ratcliffe Highway Murders

First draper William Marr, his wife, infant son and a teenage shop boy were killed.  Then, a dozen days later, publican John Williamson, his wife and a woman servant were slain.

The murders were extremely brutal: the victims were bloodily battered by blunt instruments (a maul, or mallet, in the first household, an iron bar in the second) and their throats slit (the killing in its crib of a three month old baby, who of course could have identified no one, further demonstrates the savagery of the crime).

James and Critchley go to great length to show how the English law enforcement system of the time was too fragmented and disorganized to cope with such crimes.

As just one example, that the maul had tell-tale initials on it was not discovered for twelve days.  Had an elementary examination been made of the murder weapon at the time of its discovery, the Williamson couple and their servant likely would not have died.

There was a great public outcry over the murders and the inefficiency and delay of authority in finding answers.  Avowed the letter writer quoted above:

I have very long felt the necessity of an improved police....The police laws cannot be too rigorous; and the usual objection that a rigorous police is inconsistent with English liberty might easily be shown to be absurd.

the investigation relied heavily on handbills
Yet there was still a great deal of resistance as well to establishing a modern police force, which many people associated with the Napoleonic tyranny of England's direst enemy, France.  A metropolitan police force would not be organized in London until 1829.

James and Critchley also note the bigotry that infected the investigation, as, in classic fashion, suspicion of the mob ("the mob" often is referred to in this book) caused foreigners to be rounded up unjustly.

In parliament, Richard Brinsley Sheridan spoke witheringly on this subject:

"'Oh, who would do it but Portuguese?' was the general cry.  Prejudice, however, did not long stand still upon the Portuguese.  The next tribe of foreigners arraigned and convicted were the Irish...and it was nothing but an Irish murder and could have been done only by Irishmen!"

After the maul finally was identified, however, the investigation, such as it was, focused on the Pear Tree public house.  The maul came from a chest of tools left there by an absent sailor (those were his initials on it).  We are now presented with a classic detective novel situation, where a limited circle of suspects might have committed the crime.  Who had access to the chest?

Far more effective as a deterrent is the spectacle
of punishment on earth....
Authority alighted on one denizen of the Pear Tree as principal suspect.  He was arrested and soon conveniently found dead, hanged, in his prison cell. Everyone was pleased to accept the man's evident suicide as evidence of his guilt and the case was closed, aside from a desultory search for possible accomplices (surely the first group of killings, at least, could not have been accomplished entirely by one person).

Having cheated the gallows, as the saying goes, the suicide nevertheless was subjected to a public ceremony of punishment, as he was carted out along Ratcliffe Highway, thousands gathered to watch, to be buried at a crossroads, a stake driven through his heart.  I kid you not.

Authority's reasoning for staging this bizarre public spectacle is analyzed in Maul, in a classic Jamesian passage:

One might suppose that the advocates of capital punishment would appreciate a man who, recognizing the justice of his sentence, and accepting that only a life can compensate for a life, saves society the trouble and expense of an official ceremony and embraces his sentence so wholeheartedly that he executes judgment on himself.  But society has seldom seen it in that light....Few people had any doubt that Williams was now receiving his just deserts in the next world.  But the punishment of God, if sure, is invisible, and the contemplation of hell fire does little to assuage a lust for revenge. Far more effective as a deterrent is the spectacle of punishment on earth.

The formal and elegant cadence of this writing is unmistakable James, and an example of why her prose (classic English prose at its finest) has so many admirers.

But wait!  As in the best classic detective novels, in Maul James and Critchley spring a surprise, and inform us that authority almost certainly Got It All Wrong.  In the final fascinating chapters, they demolish the case against the supposedly guilty party and point their accusing fingers elsewhere.

Do they get it right?  It seemed a convincing construction to me (though one matter may be pushed a bit too far--interestingly, this part reminded me of the plot of James's novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which came out the next year, in 1972).  Also, I still have trouble understanding the savagery of the crimes (why kill the baby).

For those who want more on this subject, check out Lloyd Shepherd's The English Monster (2012), a fictionalization of the case.  But don't neglect The Maul and the Pear Tree!