Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Two by Barnard: Robert Barnard's A Cry from the Dark (2003) and Last Post (2008)

I've been reading some Robert Barnard works from the last decade and quite enjoying them.  A Cry from the Dark and Last Post, the two under consideration here today, have something in common with Death of an Old Goat, the debut Robert Barnard mystery I reviewed last week, namely the use of Australia as a setting--though this setting is far more important in A Cry from the Dark than in Last Post.

However, Australia aside, there is not a great deal in common between the earlier book and the later ones.  Highly satirical, Death of an Old Goat is an entertaining tale (at least if one is not Australian), yet still a 'prentice effort.  The later works, Last Post in particular, represent Robert Barnard at mature talent.  In fact, Last Post is the best modern-day, classical-style English detective novel that I have read in some time.


No Dingoes

Much of A Cry from the Dark--as its title, which borrows rather obviously from the Oscar-nominated 1988 Meryl Streep film A Cry in the Dark, suggests (though no dingoes are involved)--is set in Australia, but only in the past, in the Australia of 1938.  Half the novel takes place in the then present day of 2003, in Britain.

A Cry from the Dark tells the story of Bettina Whitelaw, an esteemed octogenarian grande dame of British literature writing the memoirs (or a fictionalized novel) of her earlier life in the outback Australian town of Bundaroo.  The narrative intercuts from modern-day events in Britain to Bettina's past life in Bundaroo in 1938, when a shocking act of violence occurred that forever altered the course of her life.

Now in 2003 it seems that Bettina is again threatened with violence.  Who is the source of this new threat?

Barnard's American publisher, Scribner, insists on calling Barnard's crime novels "novels of suspense," which I find rather an anachronistic term that fails to do them justice.  Some suspense-hungry modern day readers may find them, in fact, too slow-moving, with their emphasis on elderly characters, lack of overt sex and violence, explorations of events in the past and deliberate conversations.  Personally, I find many of Barnard's books fascinating. 

Especially interesting in A Cry from the Dark is Barnard's portrayal of Bundaroo, such a backward place that it makes the New South Wales city of Armidale--also mentioned in Cry and ridiculed by Barnard in Death of an Old Goat--look positively sophisticated by comparison.

Much of A Cry from the Dark succeeds as a sort of coming-of-age novel (indeed, I couldn't help wondering whether Barnard might not have been better off setting the entire book in the past).  In contrast with Death of an Old Goat, Barnard's portrayal of Australia in A Cry from the Dark is rather nuanced--and all the more convincing for that.

The final explanation of the twin mysteries is the sort that is bound to generate debate and disagreement, I would think, though I feel Barnard sets up the psychological path that he follows (whether one buys it or not).

Thumbs Up

Only a small section of Last Post takes place in Australia, yet like A Cry from the Dark, Last Post concerns events in the past and has a large cast of elderly characters.

After the death of her recently retired school headmistress mother, Eve McNabb, at her mother's home settling affairs, gets a letter in the post that unsettles everything she thought she knew about her parents.

Eve begins an investigation into her past, with the help of an Omkar Rani, an English cop of Indian origin.  What they find results in murder in the present day....

Last Post is one of the most "Christie-esque" novels by Robert Barnard, a modern crime writer who, in contrast with some of the big names in the field today, greatly respects Christie's contributions to the crime genre.

However, in his "Appreciation of Agatha Christie," A Talent to Deceive (recommended, by the way), Barnard writes rather dismissively of some of Christie's late novels, including By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968):

Begins rather well, with a vicious old aunt of [Tommey Beresford's] in a genteel old people's home, but declines rapidly into a welter of half-realized plots and a plethora of those conversations, all too familiar in late Christie, which meander on through irrelevancies, repetitions and inconsequentialities to end nowhere (as if she had sat at the feet of Samuel Beckett).

something wicked this way comes....
Certainly By the Pricking of My Thumbs meanders, but I find it rather an enjoyable book nonetheless. And, indeed, it would seem that Robert Barnard himself really does so as well, because Last Post is quite obviously influenced by Thumbs (I won't say it's "all Thumbs," so to speak, but it is partially so).

Besides the basic plot pattern of the investigation of mysteries from the past (which is a recurrent pattern in Barnard's work as well as Christie's), there is a vicious old lady named Aunt Ada in Barnard's book--obviously an homage--and there also is a garrulous old lady named Mrs. Lancaster (any reader of Thumbs will remember Mrs. Lancaster).  Probably not coincidentally, Last Post was published in 2008, forty years to the dot after By the Pricking of My Thumbs.

Another thing Last Post has in common with Christie's work is the uncommon finesse of the plotting.  I don't want to go into detail, but there are a couple twists--one on the last page--that show Christie-like genius in conception and execution.  Fair play and psychologically acute clueing of this order is a rare and precious thing and Barnard in my view has not been sufficiently praised for it.   

Last Post is a book that deserved more recognition, in my opinion.  I believe that it is superior to the novels P. D. James and Ruth Rendell have been writing for the last dozen years or so.  It also is the best book by Robert Barnard that I have read since his A Scandal in Belgravia (1991).

Robert Barnard
If there is a flaw in Last Post, it is in the romance that blooms all too quickly between Eve and Omkar.  I admire Barnard's verbal economy--all too rare in these days of self-important crime novels--but perhaps here he needed a bit more spaciousness for full believability.  Still, love at first sight is a classic convention of fiction, after all, and it certainly was common enough in Golden Age mysteries.

This nitpick aside, however, I found Last Post a superb crime novel.  Reviews of Barnard's last novel, A Charitable Body (2012), were not great--indeed, this work has been compared, ironically, to late Christie for being meandering and confusing--and it seems that Robert Barnard may now have retired from writing fiction.  If he has indeed done so, at least Last Post should stand as a last testament to the work of a genre master.   

Last Post delivers.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Detecting Todd Downing: A Conversation with Professor James H. Cox

James H. Cox
James H. Cox is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin.

He is the author of Muting White Noise: Native American and European Novel Traditions (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009) and The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

In two chapters of the latter work, The Red Land to the South, Professor Cox discusses the writing of Todd Downing (1902-1974), the Oklahoma Choctaw Golden Age detective novelist who published nine mysteries of his own between 1933 and 1941, in addition to reviewing several hundred mysteries in the 1930s.

Todd Downing is the subject of my own Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (Coachwhip, 2013).  Moreover, eight of Todd Downing's nine detective novels (including his highly praised The Cat Screams, 1934, and Vultures in the Sky, 1935) were reprinted by Coachwhip in 2012, and the remaining title, Murder on Tour (1933), will be reprinted this March.

For previous posts discussing Todd Downing and another Oklahoma crime writer, Jim Thompson, see A Tale of Two Citizens, Part One and Part Two.

Professor Cox was kind enough sit down with The Passing Tramp for an interview about Todd Downing.  I hope you enjoy it!

Todd Downing
Curt Evans: In The Red Land to the South, you call Todd Downing “one of the most prolific and most neglected American Indian writers of the twentieth century.

Three questions: Why do you think he is important, why do you think he has  been neglected and how did you become interested in him and his work?

James Cox: From my position as a scholar of American Indian literature, Downing is important as a writer who depicts contemporary Indigenous American people in a popular genre.

As anyone who watches television or regularly goes to the movies knows, nineteenth century American Indians are far more prevalent in popular and mass culture than contemporary Native people--particularly urban Indigenous people like the ones Downing sometimes represents. Downing's novels, though, show Indigenous people living in the modern world. It is much easier to ignore the civil and human rights of Indigenous people if you believe, (1) that they have disappeared, and/or, (2) that once they are modern they are no longer really Indigenous.

Downing's neglect in part has to do with the fact that his books went out of print so quickly. Research has become much easier now with the presence of on-line book dealers!

Downing's neglect in American Indian literary studies is curious, though. He was fairly well-known in Oklahoma. He lived into the 1970s, too, and scholars have had at least a little familiarity with him since then.

However, literary scholars have only recently--say in the last twenty years--started to think critically about popular genres like detective fiction or science fiction. Downing also didn't write about the kinds of American Indians that were interesting to many scholars: not the nineteenth century Plains Indians of so many Hollywood movies, but the activists and otherwise politically engaged Native people of the civil rights era. Downing was working against the grain of multiple trends, both popular and academic.

I became interested in his work when I started writing my second book. I had read several works by American Indian writers about Mexico and Indigenous Mexican people. I ran across a reference to The Mexican Earth, bought a copy, and read it in one sitting. 

I confess to appreciating the politics of the book, that is, his passionate defense of Indigenous Mexicans. It is a great book in other ways, though. Downing writes in a clear style. He is clever and funny and often just this side of scandalous. He is very good at depicting the Mexican landscape as well. I bought his novels, then, whenever I could find an inexpensive copy. I read Vultures in the Sky first and was completely hooked.

I enjoyed Downing's mastery of the conventions of detective fiction--classical British rather than hard-boiled American--but particularly liked the Mexican settings and, of course, the presence of Indigenous peoples and Downing's consideration of the social and political issues that shaped in part their mid-twentieth century lives (manual labor; health; the theft of remains and artifacts).

Finally, Downing is simply a fascinating person: the Indian Territory-born, fluent Choctaw speaking son of a Choctaw politician who was a Professor of Spanish, a tour guide, an employee of several East Coast advertising agencies, and a novelist.

Atoka, Oklahoma county officials and courthouse employees, c. 1910.
County Treasurer Henry Bond, a full-blood Choctaw and friend of
Sam Downing, Todd Downing's father, is seen in the center of the photograph.

Curt Evans: Downing’s sense of humor comes out in his book reviews as well.  I agree, it’s very appealing.

The Mexican settings of most of Downing’s detective novels seem to me his signature contribution to Golden Age detective fiction.  In his day especially, such intensive exploration of the culture of a foreign country—England excepted, of course!--in an American detective novel seems remarkable. 

Although many people still seem disinclined to embrace mystery literature as a serious art form, as you point out, I know you would agree with me that Downing, despite his sense of humor and modesty, felt strongly about a number of important issues and intentionally used the mystery form to explore these issues, just as writers did in mainstream literature. 

In The Red Land to the South you discuss Downing’s second published and path-breaking detective novel, The Cat Screams, at considerable length.  You argue that in this book “Downing disguises a story of indigenous resistance and revolutionary promise within a conventional story of detection.”  I think that’s very well-put.  In fact, I quote it in my own book!  Could you expand on this idea a bit here?  Without spoilers, of course!

James Cox: There is a funny but also serious scene in The Mexican Earth during which Downing stops to give a ride to two Indigenous Mexican farm workers. He describes other cars with U.S. license plates driving by the farm workers at high speeds. Inside the cars he sees startled faces. The next day at a hotel, another American says he thought Downing had been accosted by Communist agitators. Downing humanizes Indigenous Mexicans and the working class while suggesting that many Americans do not understand either Mexico or Indigenous Mexicans.

Thank you very much for the kind words about my reading of The Cat Screams! Downing does such a wonderful job in the novel describing the American colony in Taxco.

To avoid spoilers, I'll just say that the novel contains two overlapping mysteries. The first is the conventional mystery that Rennert investigates. The second is not a conventional mystery but a political, cultural, and historical mystery about Indigenous Mexican people in the modern world. The reference to a revival of Native practices and curanderas in the opening newspaper article begins this part of the narrative. The meaning of a word in Nahuatl -- or what I recently learned speakers of the language usually call Mexicanoh (thank you, Adam Coon) -- is also important. There is a jade mask of an Aztec god that is important, too.

All the references to Indigenous Mexican people form a set of clues. I propose one reading of these clues, but I'm sure other readers will have better ones!

Curt Evans: Well, I personally think you show how The Cat Screams is really an exceptionally sophisticated Golden Age detective novel. 

I found the depth of the novel quite fascinating on rereading it.  There are these two worlds, this outer one of these American tourists and expatriates and Mexicans of European lineage and then this inner world of indigenous people that eludes so many of the other characters, who are either hostile to it or simply indifferent and superior.  Hugh Rennert, of course, is interested in it, because, like Downing he is fascinated with Mexican culture and believes it has something to tell him about life.

It’s a cliché to talk about mystery novels that “transcend the genre” but I think in The Cat Screams Downing does show how you can combine a complex mystery plot with thematic depth.  Do you feel he was able to do this in other detective novels as well?  Personally, I find the one he published after The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky, another really fascinating story in its depiction of Mexico, not to mention that’s it’s simply a thrilling book, one of the most tense mysteries I have read!

James Cox: Yes, I agree, The Cat Screams is a rewarding mystery that also encourages readers to think about the colonial history of the Americas and the conflict between Europeans and Indigenous people. I can't emphasize enough, too, how unusual and important it is that Downing represents Indigenous people as maintaining their sense of who they are as Indigenous while they are also fully participating in the modern world.

the 2012 Coachwhip edition
This last observation is a good segue into Vultures in the Sky [note: see my review of this novel here--TPT], in which an Indigenous man plays a small but important part as a porter on a Pullman. Downing creates another complex -- and, yes, an exciting and tense! -- plot involving a kidnapping, rumors of a Pullman strike, and the Cristero Rebellion. 

Downing is attentive to the labor of the working classes (waitresses, cooks, and servants as well as the porter and Indigenous people selling food and small items at train stations or by the side of the road), and the Cristero Rebellion is a horrifying but in the U.S. not very well-known part of Mexican history--I don't know  how much the recent Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria film helped!

Yes, then, I would say that he writes very clever mysteries in which he embeds observations about the social and cultural worlds produced by Spanish colonialism, U.S. interventions in Mexico, and the general economic climate of the 1930s.

Murder on the Tropic is also one of my favorite Downing mysteries. Like Vultures in the Sky, Murder on the Tropic has a wonderful and diverse cast of characters, and Downing situates the plot in a precise historical moment: during the construction of the Pan American Highway in Mexico.

Downing is also almost always thinking about the U.S./Mexico border -- especially in The Last Trumpet -- in a way that resonates today. In fact, we should remember that there were mass deportations of Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans in the 1930s, when Downing was publishing these novels. His apparent sympathy for Mexico and Mexican people can be understood in that historical context.

Murder on the Tropic includes a reference to the murder of two young Mexican men in Ardmore, Oklahoma on June 8, 1931.  Downing chose not to take a tour group to Mexico that summer and, apparently, stayed home and started writing Murder on Tour. His career as an author of mystery novels, therefore, appears to have its origins in a real act of fatal racial profiling. This dark side of racial conflict within the U.S. and Mexico and between the two countries is a sub-text that runs throughout his novels.

Ardmore, Oklahoma today

Curt Evans: Yes, I think Downing was rather conflicted about Oklahoma.  In some ways he had a conservative, small-town upbringing and I think some of this “stuck”; yet he was repelled by the Ardmore killings, as you point out, and more generally by the parochialism and anti-intellectualism of Oklahoma in the 1930s.

For a while he did relocate to the Northeast, like his sister had before him, but, as you know, he came back to Atoka and spent the last twenty years of his life there, teaching at Atoka high school and later Southeastern Oklahoma University.  And he was buried beside his parents and maternal grandmother in Atoka, though today there’s no special recognition of him there, which seems a shame.

I too found Vultures in the Sky so evocative of a time and place.  When I was young, my family made several trips—not by train, sadly, but by car—to Mexico City, along a similar route to that described in Vultures.  Reading the novel really took me back.  The way Downing describes those lonely little train stations in the heat and those Indigenous street vendors (I remember the latter so well too), it’s extremely effective.

Edward Powys Mathers ("Torquemada")
All the Rennert novels were published in England and it’s interesting to see that Downing's books got excellent reviews not only in the United States but England as well, with comments from reviewers about how well-written and atmospheric they are.  The critic Edward Powys Mathers, known as “Torquemada” for his fiendish crossword puzzles, wrote that Todd Downing was “a born detective story writer” and compared him to Matthew Arnold, in terms of his technique for revealing hidden aspects of his characters’ personalities.

I’m looking right now at a review of another Downing novel that you praise—and I definitely agree with your praise--Murder on the Tropic.

This review is from a newspaper in Tasmania. 

I think everyone will agree that Mr. Downing is a good writer of good detective stories,” the reviewer starts out, then: “As a well-told crime and detective story I regard this as one of the really masterly ones.  But, as well as the plot and its unraveling, there is a remarkably vivid description of the Mexican landscape.

There’s the double praise again, for the plotting and the purely literary quality.  Yet by the late 1940s, Downing’s novels all are out of print.  They would stay out of print for some sixty years.  Now eight of them are back in print and the ninth will soon follow.

Do you think there’s a chance now that, with the reprinting of Downing’s books and reviews and your own book, Downing's name will become more familiar to people as a writer well worth reading, an entertainer who also has notable things to say in his entertainments?

Dutch edition of The Cat Screams
James Cox: I'm so glad to see you emphasize that Downing had an international reputation. His books were translated into Dutch, Finnish, Italian, and Spanish, at least. An edition of Murder on the Tropic (La Luce Gialla) was in print in Italy as late as 1958, and an edition of Vultures in the Sky (Il Terribile Viaggio) was in print in Italy, too, as late as 1977. So the Italians appear to have appreciated him more than we have!

I once found a copy of Vultures in the Sky in Spanish (Buitres in el Cielo) in Brazil. He made it to Tasmania, apparently, too. I would love to know if his reputation in these other countries endures into the early twenty-first century.

I'm optimistic that Downing will become more well-known. I sure hope so. A major problem was that his books were inaccessible, and the new editions thankfully remedy that issue and make it possible for teachers to assign his books.

Downing's novels have the potential to interest a broad audience that includes general readers as well as scholars of American literature. There is a little something (literary, cultural, historical, borderlands, transnational, American Indian, Mexican, Indigenous Mexican) for everyone in the novels.

Curt Evans: I like your optimistic assessment.  Thank you so much for the interview, Jim. By the way, this blog has a few Italian readers who have read Todd Downing, which bears out your comments.  Let's hope his readership expands all round!

James Cox: Thank you so much again for this chance to talk about Downing!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Dropped Down Under: Death of an Old Goat (1974), by Robert Barnard

In "Avoiding Academia," an article he contributed for a themed issue (Academic Mysteries) of Mystery Readers Journal in Winter 1997/97, mystery writer Robert Barnard noted that:

I taught in universities for twenty-two years, from 1961 to 1983....There's nothing that irritates me more than people who condemn whole professions....Still, I have to say that I have not greatly liked the academics I have come in contact with in the course of my life...they have seemed the most sniveling, self-important scraps of humanity you can imagine, and as windy and as whiny a bunch as ever demanded special privileges without doing anything to deserve them.

my favorite cover illustration for
Death of an Old Goat
This attitude to academia certainly comes snarling forth in Robert Barnard's first detective novel, Death of an Old Goat (1974), which is based on his experiences as a teacher from 1961 to 1966 at the University of New England, located in Armidale, Australia.  In contrast with some of Barnard's early work, Goat has been out of print for thirty years, but it is still worth reading.

Goat is the seventeenth Robert Barnard novel I have read--his books were a staple of my recreational literature diet back in the 1990s--and I would without hesitation characterize it as Barnard's most bitingly satirical fictional work.

Barnard doesn't rest content with ridiculing Australian collegiate education, he ridicules Australian...everything.

Judging by the blurbs on the 1983 Penguin edition of Goat, the novel was much praised.  "Perhaps the best academic mystery in a decade," says New Republic.  "The perfect gem, one you wouldn't want to change a word of," pronounces the Los Angeles Times.

On the other hand,academics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime, dissented from this judgment (as was their wont), despite the fact that Robert Barnard is one of the most commended modern authors in their mammoth tome.  "This early effort is thoroughly bad," pronounces ACOC.  "R. B. intended satire but it fails by excess."

the American hardcover edition
I tend to agree with B & T that the satire in Goat is excessive--and I'm not even Australian!.  After a while, one gets wearied by Barnard's contempt for all things Australian: the schools, the liquor, the teachers, the liquor, the graziers, the liquor, the police, the liquor, the railroads, the liquor, the hotels, the liquor, the restaurants, the liquor, the literature, the liq--well, you get the point!

Sometimes too Barnard has the subtlety of a cricket bat to the head ("Their clothes were well-cut, and almost hid the fact that they were fat.  Nothing could hide the fact that they were stupid.").

However, there is a lot of genuinely funny stuff in Goat, especially the first academic cocktail party:

"What I can't understand [says Mervyn Raines, Drummondale University professor of Australian literature] is why all the universities in England do American literature, and nobody seems to know that Australian literature exists."

"Yes," said Professor Belville-Smith, his eyes focused on the ceiling, his mind infinitely further off.

"But was there ever a more over-rated book than Moby Dick?  All that fuss about a bloody whale..."


"And yet there'll be a lot of people in England who've never heard of Henry Handel Richardson," said Merv.

"About ninety-nine point nine per cent," said Bill Bascomb, who was standing by the sofa.

"Yes," said Professor Belville-Smith.

Henry Handel Richardson
Hey, I was surprised as you
Bill Bascomb is a young professor just out from Oxford, who hates his job in Australia and everything else about Australia for that matter.

By Robert Barnard's own admission, Bill Bascomb is his alter ego in Goat.  Bascomb eventually solves the case himself, the Australian police inspector being, naturally enough, a gross incompetent.  Bascomb has a sort of sidekick as well, one Alice O'Brien, who is the only sympathetically portrayed Australian in the book (well, sort of).

Just who is the old goat who dies in the novel, you may be asking.  Well, that would be poor Professor Belville-Smith (see above), a doddering old visiting English professor from Oxford.

I loved this character, who seemed like he had wandered out of a Michael Innes novel, especially when he mixes up his lecture notes (unaltered since the 1930s) on Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen.

Later, at the cocktail party after too many drinks, Professor Belville-Smith starts to recount the time when he actually met Jane Austen: "Charming woman, charming.  Sick, you know, very sick, but brave.  Quite what you would expect from novels, and most witty...."

shades of Innes
The next day Belville-Smith is found dead in his hotel room, his throat slashed (there's no logical reason for this manner of murder having been chosen by the murderer, as one character observes, but apparently Barnard wanted the chance to include some Macbeth references, which are funny, admittedly).

Detection definitely takes a back seat to satire, and I spotted the culprit immediately upon this person's appearance; yet the motive, though insufficient for the crime, is well-hidden (at least if you're not British!).  Also, the last line is a real corker.

Interestingly, Barnard himself says he didn't know who the murderer would be until he was well into writing the novel, so apparently I, a mere reader, know Robert Barnard better than Robert Barnard!  Of course I have the advantage of having read so many of his books.  But I won't say anything more, so as not to spoil the book.  Except this, to reassure the Janeites:

Jane didn't do it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

It was X in the Bedroom with the Candlestick: Written in Blood (1994), by Caroline Graham

Who dotted Gerald with the candlestick?
Actually, they don't have bedrooms in Clue/Cluedo, do they?  Or bathrooms?

I suppose they must all be on the upper floor (surely the Boddy mansion has an upper floor).

Anyway!  In the book under consideration here today, Caroline Graham's Written in Blood, the victim, Gerald Hadleigh, indeed is murdered with a candlestick--at his home, Plover's Rest, not long after a meeting of the Midsomer Worthy Writers' Circle, to which he belonged.

That's about where the similarity to the game Clue ends, however.

Although Written in Blood triumphs as a puzzle (see near the end of this review), much of the interest in it lies with Graham's amusing, satirical writing and well-conveyed characters.

Written in Blood centers on the members of the aforementioned Midsomer Worthy Writers' Circle, a group of would-be (some more likely never-to-be) authors in one of those classic English villages that make such enticing settings for horrible murders.

Besides Gerald Hadleigh, the group consists of Amy Lyddiard, her sister-in-law Honoria Lyddiard, Sue Clapton, her husband Brian Clapton, Laura Hutton and Rex St. John.

These people are, along with Max Jennings, the bestselling novelist they somehow managed to get to come and speak to them, and Graham's series characters Chief Inspector Barnarby and Sergeant Troy, the key figures in the novel.
Some fans of the long-running Midsomer Murders series, which originally was directly based on Graham's short series of detective novels, have complained that Barnaby and Troy (particularly Troy) are not as likeable in the books as on television.

Midsomer Murders Barnaby and Troy
I can well see this in the case of Troy--though I've never actually seen an episode of Midsomer Murders, bar The Killings at Badger's Drift many years ago--since Troy is a boorish, sexist homophobe who cheats (or tries to) on his wife.

Does Graham endow Troy with any virtues at all?  Well, he likes his two-year-old daughter--though that doesn't stop him from cheating on her mother--and he likes dogs.  That's about it, I think!

Yet there are times when Troy actually is funny, or I think so (but then I like Joyce Porter's Dover mysteries).

Here he is with Barnaby during the questioning of a suspect:

Troy was taking advantage of the lull to despatch as many Garibaldis as he was able without appearing to push them non-stop into his mouth.  He was starving.  Parched too (down went the tea), plus, needless to say, desperate for a fag.  He caught the chief's eye and replaced morsel number five on the plate.

Garibaldi ("squashed fly") biscuits

Then there's this, when the suspect is about to suggest that Gerald Hadleigh must have been killed by a burglar:

Here we go, thought Troy, pinching the final biscuit.  Altogether now, one, two, three: break-in, break-in.  Wasn't it a break-in?

In the books, Barnaby and Troy really don't like each other much at all, and their antagonism/indifference can be kind of amusing.

I liked this terse exchange between the duo, which takes place when Barnaby and Troy visit the law firm Jocelyne, Tibbles And Delaney.  While waiting for the murdered man's lawyer finally to appear, they encounter a striped cat curled up, fast asleep, on a chair (note that one of the novel's plot strands involves Barnaby and his wife having to take care of their daughter's rambunctious kitten, Kilmowzki):

Troy nodded in [the cat's] direction.
"Must be Tibbles."
"Don't mention cats to me."
"D'you think I've got time for a ciggie?"

another classic male police duo
Graham's team of Barnaby and Troy rather reminds me television's Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis and Ruth Rendell's Wexford and Burden (granted, a less personable version, especially in the case of the underlings).

Like Wexford, Barnaby is happily married and having to diet on account of his health (though unlike Wexford, he can understand computers).

Troy also partakes, methinks, of Reginald Hill's Dalziel, although there of course the roles are reversed, Dalziel being the man in the superior position.

Although Written in Blood was published in 1994, it already seems like an eternity ago!  I was struck by the fact that in the book women are virtually non-factors in the police force.  Indeed, part of the interest of this novel, I found (somewhat to my mortification), is that it already feels like a piece of social history.

Fortunately, there are interesting women characters among the suspects: Amy and Honoria Lyddiard, Sue Clapton and Laura Hutton.  In fact Graham grants three of these women character arcs.  We read Written in Blood not just for the puzzle, but because we become concerned about what will happen to these characters.

Laura was madly in love with the murder victim and joined the writing group just to get closer to him.  She's a sensible, successful woman (an antique shop owner), who was, however, becoming an obsessed stalker.

Amy Lyddiard and Sue Clapton are saddled with horrible household burdens: Amy, her repellent sister-in-law Honoria, and Sue, her repulsive husband Brian.

Graham is at her most scathing with Honoria Lyddiard and Brian Clapton, both of whom make Sergeant Troy look like a candidate for Mr. Congeniality.  Both are unbearable class snobs, Brian of the inverted variety.

some comprehensively devastating satire

Honoria is of the old gentry, and obsessed with her lineage (she's compiling a book on the subject).  Brian is a radical leftist, ashamed of his bourgeois upbringing.  He teaches avant-garde--and absolutely hopeless--drama to toughs at a local comprehensive school.  At times, this sub-plot starts to feel like it's running away with this long (435 pages) novel, but it's very funny and, at times, rather pathetically sad (incidentally, the way Graham portrays British comprehensive education is devastating, if anywhere close to the truth).

Brian is so self-deluding ("Brian, now so relaxed he had put his slippers on, was explaining [to Barnaby and Troy] how he had rejected Cambridge as too elitist choosing instead Teacher Training College in Uttoxeter") that one is tempted to feel sorry for him, but Graham gives Brian not a single reed of redeeming personal virtue for the would-be sympathetic reader to grasp.  Instead, all one's sympathies go to his long-suffering (and genuinely talented) wife, Sue.

There's pungent satirical lines scattered all through Written in Blood.  I feel I must quote some of them:

Barnaby could imagine [Honoria] on the seashore forbidding waves their approach.

The sergeant had no time for neurotic women.  To be fair he had no time for neurotic men either.

Expensive cut-glass misery was apparently fashionable everywhere.

And the net-curtain brigade, those invariable peepers at life's rich pageant.

There was a permanent obstruction in her throat that only liquids over forty per cent proof seemed able to bypass.

On top of all this, the puzzle in Written in Blood is excellent.  There's one aspect to it that I quickly grasped, but the bigger picture eluded me.  Realistically, I think the reader should be able to pare the suspect list down to three individuals, but the true motive is splendidly, though fairly, hidden, I think.  One might quibble about the way a couple characters behaved, but overall I was really pleased with the mystery's resolution.

My one real complaint is that there is a confrontation at the end that struck me as overly melodramatic (perhaps it played better on television).  I think that as a novel Written in Blood would have been stronger if this confrontation had been dialed down several notches.

Oddly enough, in some ways Written in Blood reminded me a bit of Freeman Wills Crofts' Golden Age police detective novel, Sudden Death (1932).  Its ending went over-the-top as well, in my view.

Also, as a matter of personal taste, there are a few instances of scurrility I could have done without (a couple images I'm still having trouble getting out of my mind, ugh!).

For me, then, Written in Blood may just miss the very top mystery drawer, but it's very good indeed and heartily recommended to fans of classic satirical English village mysteries, a noble line descended from some true Golden Age classics by Agatha Christie

Five of Graham's mysteries have been reprinted by Felony & Mayhem, so check them out, if you haven't!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is It Comfy or Cosy? M. C. Beaton (Marion Chesney) on the Craft of Crime

I enjoyed this interview in the Daily Record with Marion Chesney, aka M. C. Beaton, creator of sleuths Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin.

Scotland's Secret Literary Sensation Marion Chesney

I had no idea Chesney was that popular, at least in terms of library borrowings.

I'm currently reading a Caroline Graham mystery novel for a blog piece (though at 400+ pages it's been taking me longer to finish than I thought!) and I see that Graham's books often are referred to as cosies.

Sit down and make yourself comfy!  Or cosy.
On this matter Chesney says:

"Reviewers call what I do cosy crime, a description I dislike. I prefer comfy crime."

"I pack in plenty of murders, I just don’t do blood and gore."

What do you think of this distinction between comfy and cosy?

I must confess that I never heard of this one before!  Is comfy less cosy than cosy?

And is Caroline Graham cosy (or comfy)?  The book by her that I'm reading has a blurb from Publisher's Weekly comparing her to P. D. James and Ruth Rendell and no one calls them cosy (or do they?)!

Personally, I'm rather reminded by the wickedly sardonic Graham of those Class of '36 boys, Peter Lovesey and (especially) Robert Barnard (also early Reginald Hill, who was Class of '36 too).

P. D. James: Fifty Shades of Cosy?
Read the article for yourself, but I have to quote this jewel from Chesney:

"I don’t do explicit sex scenes. I was horrified when I purchased EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, mistaking it for a PD James novel because I was wearing the wrong glasses."

Whoops!  Don't you hate it when that happens?

I must admit I only ever started one Beaton, Death of a Witch I think it was called.  I got rather bored with it and laid it aside and never got back to it.  But I have a number of Beaton books, they have such lovely, um, cosy covers.  This article reminds me I need to actually read one someday!  Any recommendations?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dark Death: Night Walk (1947), by Elizabeth Daly

In a prolific burst of creativity between 1940 and 1951 Elizabeth Daly (1878-1967) published sixteen detective novels--all with her series detective, the erudite and gentlemanly New York bibliophile Henry Gamadge--that were quite well received in her day and have maintained a loyal and not insignificant following over the decades since.

this 1963 paperback edition
updates the 1940s look of
the character Rose Jenner
Of late even paperback reprints of Daly's novels have become rather hard-to-find and pricey--there are just a handful of second-hand copies of Night Walk available on Abebooks, for example, all expensive--but fortunately over the last few years that fine press Felony and Mayhem has been reprinting her work.

The twelfth Elizabeth Daly detective novel, Night Walk (1947), is not yet back in print, but should be by this year or the next.

It is, I think, one of Daly's best efforts.  Even Jacques Barzun, who thought Daly had about a 50/50 batting average, so to speak, was an admirer of this tale.

The first four chapters of Night Walk tensely detail the sinister nocturnal perambulations of a prowler afoot in the upstate New York village of Frazer's Mills.

The prowler rattles doors and frightens people, but it seems to go no farther than that--until one longtime resident of the village is found dead, his head bloodily smashed by a log.

One of the guests at the Wakefield Inn--a transient, people in this little village keep terming him--happens to be a family friend of Henry Gamadge, the author's amateur detective, so Gamdage soon is on the scene to clear up matters.

Gamadge eventually succeeds in doing so, but not before the prowler strikes again, committing another horrid bludgeoning murder.

I found Night Walk an engrossing tale, both for its problem and for its setting.  It's often stated that Elizabeth Daly was Agatha Christie's favorite American writer, and it's easy to see why from a book like Night Walk!  Surely one can't get much more classically English in setting in an American mystery novel than Frazer's Mills.  One almost has to remind oneself that one is not, in fact, reading a Golden Age English detective novel.

Frazer's Mills is an isolated, enclosed and highly stratified village (the mills shut down long ago), dominated by a traditional squirearchy (durbars is Daly's term for these exalted personages).

"Mighty few livings earned anymore, they're all fading out on little pensions or their savings or what they're relations send 'em," explains the sheriff to Gamadge concerning the bulk of the population of Frazer's Mills.  "Scotch, English, old American stock.  Not a foreigner, not a stranger."

"It sounds rather a paradise to me," comments the well-born, old-stock Gamadge.

But the serpent of murder has invaded this lovely, rural Eden, and Gamadge must stamp it out and restore order.  This he does, on the strength of some bright intuitions that certainly passed by me.  The puzzle is thinly clued, though I think it is fair enough.  The identity of the prowler becomes, I think, pretty definitely indicated in the last third or so of the book, but the motive is what should elude many readers.

Characterization is quite good.  I particularly liked the imperious librarian and the sardonic, precocious teenager staying with his parents at the Wakefield Inn.  "She embodies in her own person the whole meaning of the theory of Conspicuous Waste," this lad pronounces of another character.  Now that's a high-toned burn!

Don't despair of getting an affordable copy of Night Walk.  Felony & Mayhem should soon come to the rescue!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Look Out, Look Out, the Pannyman: The Bughouse Affair (2013), by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

Well, here I am reviewing a new book!  That doesn't happen too much on this blog.  Still, The Bughouse Affair is a historical mystery, and it's by veterans Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, editors of 1001 Midnights, that classic comprehensive compendium of criminally good crime fiction from over the many decades (people who enjoyed Book to Die For and aren't familiar with 1001 Midnights should track it down); so it's appropriate enough for The Passing Tramp.

Set in 1890s San Francisco, The Bughouse Affair commences a new series of novels about a private investigator duo, Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon.

This is not a super-serious crime novel, but rather a lightly entertaining one in the mode, I think, of some of John Dickson Carr's wonderful historical mysteries.  Criminy, there's even a locked room problem!

The novel is interestingly constructed around two separate investigations of two separate problems conducted by Sabina and Quincannon (this is how the authors refer to them)--which of course we know will ultimately connect!

Sabina is trying to catch a pickpocket, Quincannon a housebreaker (or pannyman, to use the criminal lingo of the book).  Chapters are alternately headed Sabina and Quincannon, and we get a good sense of the two authors' distinct writing sensibilities in the chapters on "their" respective detectives.

Sabina is more empathetic and level-headed and less self-centered than Quincannon, who, nevertheless, I found to be a lot of fun (his immodest credo is that he will die in bed at the age of ninety--and not alone).

Once the first murder is discovered about a-third of the way into the novel, the pace picks up and we get an intriguing, fair play puzzle.  The second murder offers no less than a locked room problem, which is always great to see (and unexpected) in a modern crime novel.

Who is this madman?!
Something else I enjoyed in this book (I'm not giving anything here, since it's discussed on the flap) is the presence of a man claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. Quincannon thinks the man is crazy, "bughouse," since everyone knows Sherlock Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls!

The presence of this bughouse Sherlock has been criticized by a few people on Goodreads, I noticed, who have deemed him irritating.  The real Sherlock Holmes was never irritating, they cry!  Personally I was much amused with the demystifying approach to the Great Detective (a parody) that is taken in The Bughouse Affair.

Quincannon finds the bughouse Sherlock especially exasperating, because Quincannon himself likes to be the star of the show and his rival really is rather an insufferable know-all.  Not everyone is as self-effacing as Watson!

The resolution of the novel cleverly finds each detective--Quincannon, bughouse Sherlock and Sabina--making an important contribution in untangling the web of mysteries.

two authors plot a bughouse affair
Finally, I should note that I loved some of the passages in the Quincannon chapters, because they so reminded me of a certain detective who shall not be named (let's say he shall be left Nameless):

Quincannon muttered five short, colorful words, none of them remotely of a deductive nature.

[Luther Duff] was short, round, balding, fiftyish, and about as appetizing as a tainted oyster.

Quincannon grinned and added sagely, "The best-laid plans aren't always the best-planned lays."
I also enjoyed Quincannon's visit--for investigative purposes only--to the "parlor house" Fiddle Dee Dee, and I was deeply intrigued by the reference to the Hotel Nymphomania.  Maybe we will see something of the latter in the next book!

Of course, there's a will they or won't they? aspect to the relationship between Carpenter and Quincannon left unresolved at the end of The Bughouse Affair.  For the answer to that question and what will assuredly be another good mystery, I await the next novel in the series!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Death by the Lake (1971), by Leo Bruce

Leo Bruce's 29th detective novel--21st in the Carolus Deene series--was titled Death by the Lake.  It was published in 1971.  Two Carolus Deene mysteries followed in 1974. Unfortunately Death by the Lake is an extremely rare book, but presumably Academy Chicago may reprint it someday (there seems to be some indication on the internet that it actually was reprinted by AC in 2003, but I think this is an error).

At the time Leo Bruce was writing Death on the Lake, he was growing increasingly restive with the apparent inability of his publisher, W. H. Allen, to sell more copies of his mysteries.  He even contemplated bringing back his first series detective, Sergeant Beef, who had not appeared in a novel since 1952 and a short story since 1957; but his editor, after reading a copy of the classic Sergeant Beef novel Case for Three Detectives, offered the opinion that enjoyable as Beef was, he was a relic of the past who could not be successfully revived in modern England.

What happens on the lake?
So Bruce carried on with the gentlemanly Carolus Deene, but he made some changes in Death by the Lake.  When the novel opens, we learn that after twenty-five years Carolus Deene has retired from his position as a schoolmaster at Queen's School, Newminster, and moved to the village of Millgrove Water, apparently located in the Lake District.

Deene's attendant couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stick (housekeeper and handyman, respectively) come with him and we get a bit of characteristic Leo Bruce humor concerning Mrs. Stick's bourgeois aversion to murder cases (Deene's former headmaster, the splendidly pompous Mr. Gorringer, also makes a cameo appearance); but overall the book is lacking in the mirth typically associated with the Leo Bruce books.

Deene, a longtime widower, also becomes mildly romantically interested in Marie Morton, a woman involved in the murder case he starts investigating in Millgrove Water, but this romance isn't very forcefully presented (Carolus--presumably past fifty by this time--and Marie tell each other they are "fond" of each other, but they never get beyond this stage).

I don't feel the heart of Rupert Croft-Cooke, the man who was Leo Bruce, was quite in depicting a Carolus Deene romance. Be that as it may, however, he was trying to keep up with the times.  Even P. D. James' morose and introspective Adam Dalgleish, for example, had a romantic life, alluded to here and there by the author.

Many of the later Leo Bruce novels are quite short.  Death by the Lake surely is one of the shortest (my estimate is about 57,000 words, which barely gets it out of the novella class).  Personally this doesn't bother me, though it goes against the modern appetite for mammoth mystery novels.

Given the brevity of the novel and Bruce's characteristically fluid writing, Death by the Lake makes for an enjoyable quick read.  There is an interesting past murder case that Deene digs up (he first hears about it at the pub, naturally), involving the disappearance five years earlier of a village couple.  Once Deene starts investigating this past case, a new murder follows.  There is the characteristic Leo Bruce twist, although in this case, it must be admitted, I saw most of it coming.

Though not a masterpiece by any means, Death by the Lake should be read with enjoyment by classical English mystery fans in general and Leo Bruce fans in particular.  Let's hope it becomes more widely available.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Lost Stories of Leo Bruce (Rupert Croft Cooke)

Note: Those who want to read immediately about the lost Leo Bruce short stories that I have found should scroll down to paragraph twenty (by the picture of Murder in Miniature).--The Passing Tramp

Rupert Croft-Cooke
Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903-1979) is a writer who is a great favorite of mine and with whom I have considerable familiarity. I have read many of his works, including all the detective novels that Croft-Cooke published under the name Leo Bruce, and written an 18,000 word piece about his life outside of crime writing, The Man Who Was Leo Bruce.  His was quite an interesting life.

Although Croft-Cooke, an extremely prolific mainstream writer, thought his detective fiction inconsequential (he wanted to be remembered as a "serious" novelist and memoirist), today what there is of his work that remains in print is detective fiction; and it is well-regarded.

Croft-Cooke published 31 detective novels between 1936 and 1974, making him one of the more prolific quality writers of classical English mystery.  These books divide into two series: the eight Sergeant Beef mysteries (1936-1952) and the twenty-three Carolus Deene mysteries (1955-1974).

Sergeant Beef was a plain, droopily-mustached British copper, designed deliberately by Croft-Cooke to mock the eccentric Great Detectives of Golden Age British mystery fiction.

The first Sergeant Beef novel, Case with Three Detectives (1936), is a genre tour de force: a locked room mystery in which appear, under altered names, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown.*  In succession the three Great Detectives offer brilliant solutions to the murder--but they all turn out to be wrong!  It is left to Sergeant Beef to actually solve the case.

(my personal favorite of these three satirical portraits is Father Brown; Croft-Cooke had known G. K. Chesterton, who died the year Case for Three Detectives was published, having written for a time for Chesterton's  G. K.'s Weekly).

Croft-Cooke would publish seven more Sergeant Beef detective novels (in the third novel, Beef sets up in private practice as a detective).  None of these sequels attains quite the exalted heights of Case for Three Detectives, but they all are clever and witty fair play mysteries.  Beef and his chronicler Watson, a priggish gent named Townshend (who is always denigrating the subject of his chronicles), are a delightfully humorous duo.

The last Sergeant Beef novel appeared in 1952.  The next year, the fifty-year-old Croft-Cooke was arrested for assault and "gross indecency," based on claims that he had committed homosexual acts upon two strapping twenty-year-old British sailors who spent the weekend at the Ticehurst, Sussex home of Croft-Cooke and his Indian companion and secretary, Joseph Susei Mari. The twenty-five-year-old Joseph (as he is always called in Croft-Cooke's memoirs), a slight man under 5'4" in height, was arrested on the same charges as well.

David Maxwell Fyfe
scourge of English homosexuals
 in the 1950s (and flamboyant dresser)
Croft-Cooke and his companion had been caught up in a police crackdown on gay men (or allegedly gay men) that for several years in the 1950s was promoted by Tory Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe and the newly-appointed Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard, Sir John Nott-Bower.  By the end of 1954, over 1000 British men had been imprisoned for allegedly having engaged in homosexual acts.

Caught up in this net of persecution, Croft-Cooke was sentenced to nine months in prison and actually served six months.  When he and Joseph, who had been separately tried and sentenced to three months in prison, were released from state custody in 1954, they understandably resolved to leave England.

The two men would make a home in Tangier for the next fourteen years, eventually returning in the early 1970s to an England in the throes of sexual revolution.  Croft-Cooke dwelt in England, doing little writing after a severe stroke in 1974, until his death in 1979, at the age of seventy-six.

Croft-Cooke's first mystery written after his arrest and incarceration in 1953-1954 was At Death's Door (1955), the first Carolus Deene mystery.  A Sergeant Beef novel was never published after 1952.

Part of the reason for the dearth of Beef on Croft-Cooke's literary table after 1952 surely can be found in the motto, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Croft-Cooke, who had  a longstanding disdain for aristocratic privilege (though he didn't like the Communists either), had fought the good fight--so to speak--against the gentleman detective tradition in British classical mystery, but by the mid-1950s, those sorts of detectives largely stood for what was left of classical English mystery (Agatha Christie of course stood in a class by herself).  Fans of classical English mystery in the 1950s on the whole preferred reading about the oh-so gentlemanly Roderick Alleyn, Albert Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey.

one of Leo Bruce's
Carolus Deene mysteries,
reprinted in 2003
Croft-Cooke's new detective, the gentlemanly schoolmaster (with a private income) Carolus Deene, is a top-drawer sort of detective at ease in social milieu that Sergeant Beef invariably managed to scandalize with his vulgar behavior.*

*(though in contrast with Alleyn, Campion and Wimsey Deene is a sexless detective as well; his young wife, we learn, died early in their marriage and throughout most of the series there is never any suggestion of amorous attachments--heterosexual or otherwise--on his part).

But, beyond this practical economic reason for changing detectives, I believe that in 1955 Croft-Cooke, who despised the English police system after his arrest and incarceration, could not abide having a policeman as his hero after the events of 1953-1954.  Rather tellingly, I think, Croft-Cooke in At Death's Door made one of the novel's murder victims a policeman.

Sergeant Beef also appeared in ten short stories, originally published in the Evening Standard in the early 1950s and reprinted twenty years ago in Murder in Miniature: The Short Stories of Leo Bruce (edited by Barry Pike), a book that is still in print today.

Yet after the early 1950s, the Leo Bruce fans who fancied Beef had to make do with nary a scrap of the stuff--or so we've been told.

Wait! there's more
However, I've found an additional Leo Bruce Sergeant Beef story, published in 1957 in the Tatler and Bystander (complete with illustrations), that at some 4500 words is rather more substantive and interesting than any other Leo Bruce story I had previously read (the ones published in the Evening Standard are quite short, almost short shorts).

The story is called "Beef for Christmas," and it offers a classic Christmas house party murder at the country home of a profligate millionaire despised, naturally, by all his family.  It's precisely dated in 1957, making it the last Beef-Townshend mystery adventure.  Oh, yes!  Townshend is in this one, happily just as wonderfully obtuse a twit as ever.

Beef for Christmas has a clever, fairly-clued murder and a "situation" that is substantial enough in short form that one can see how it could have been expanded into a full Beef novel (in fact elements of it were used by Croft-Cooke in his next Carolus Deene detective novel, A Louse for the Hangman, 1958).  It would grace any anthology of British detective stories.  Those who have the power to make this happen should make it happen (if anyone does, please at least mention my name!).  In the little world of the Leo Bruce fan, this is like discovering an original Holmes-Watson tale!

Additionally, in my researches at the Ransom Center at UT-Austin I found three Beef stories in typescript that apparently were never published but obviously were intended to be part of the Evening Standard series.

The best of these tales is a neatly worked-out account of the murder of a prosperous "village Lear" with three daughters, three sons-in-law and an unmarried niece who keeps house for him.  So which of them fatally bashed the old gentleman on his head?!

This ingenious little story also has Detective-Inspector Thackekray, who was a constable under Sergeant Beef, way back when Beef was still on the Force.  In Murder in Miniature, Thackeray appears in the similarly excellent Beef tales "Blunt Instrument" and "I, Said the Sparrow." 

Another of these Sergeant Beef stories is pretty good as well (it also has Thackeray), but Bruce rewrote it as a Sergeant Grebe story (republished in Murder in Miniature") called "A Case for the Files" (aside from the change of detectives it's almost identical).  The third story, about the bludgeoning murder of a well-off old lady, seemingly by her wastrel nephew, is fair.

Grebe can always spot a red herring

Speaking of Sergeant Grebe, I also found at Ransom three Sergeant Grebe short stories (for the curious, a grebe is a freshwater diving bird).  Eight Sergeant Grebe stories were previously collected by Barry Pike in Murder in Miniature.

The best of the three newly-found tales is, I think, the one involving the supposed bungalow gas oven suicide of  a married woman who had been carrying on a dalliance.  Was she really murdered?  If so, was it the husband or the boyfriend who did the dark deed?

This is more a twist story than a fair play mystery (as is another of the Grebe stories, yet another one about a wife found dead in her home), but it's enjoyable. There's also one about circus lions--circuses and circus life were a specialty of Croft-Cooke's--that has a good situation, but an underwhelming resolution, I thought.

So we now know that there are actually fourteen Sergeant Beef stories (though one of these was rewritten as a Grebe) and eleven Sergeant Grebes.  And one of the Beefs, "Beef for Christmas," clearly is Leo Bruce's single most substantive short story.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if these lost Leo Bruce tales could be included in an updated Murder in Miniature?  It's time for a nice bit of Beef, with a side of Grebe.

Note: Murder in Miniature is reviewed at The Broken Bullhorn.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Lost Stories of Christopher St. John Sprigg and Eden Phillpotts on Detective Fiction

When people think of English women detectives from the Golden Age of detective fiction, they think first, I would imagine, of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, followed by Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver and Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley.

Christopher St. John Sprigg
Well, here's one you won't have heard of: Christopher St. John Sprigg's Mrs. Bird.

And for good reason.  As far as I know she appeared only in two unpublished short stories: "The Case of the Misjudged Husband" and "The Case of the Jesting Miser."

The original typed manuscripts of these two stories are found in Sprigg's papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Both are longish short stories of around 6000 words apiece.  While neither is a classic of the form, they have a certain appeal and certainly the detective in them, Mrs. Bird, is worth noting.

Although Miss Marple and Miss Silver often are referenced as prominent Golden Age female detectives, in fact most of the books about them were written by their creators after 1940.

Of the twelve Miss Marple novels, only one, The Murder at the Vicarage, was published before World War Two (Miss Marple also appeared in a short story collection, The Thirteen Problems, published in 1932).  Similarly, of the 32 Miss Silver novels published by Patricia Wentworth, only three appeared before 1940.

To be sure, both Christie and Wentworth were well-known mystery writers before 1940.  However, in the 1920s and 1930s Christie won her fame primarily as the creator of Hercule Poirot, while Wentworth was best-known for her numerous non-series mysteries and thrillers (her biggest pre-WW2 novel, a bestseller in the United States, was a thriller called Mr. Zero).

In the United States, the Oklahoma Choctaw mystery writer and reviewer Todd Downing reviewed both the pre-WW2 Miss Marple books and highly praised the "no end quick-witted spinster" Aunt Jane (who likely reminded him of his Iowa grandmother, Awilda Miller), but how many mystery readers in 1935, say, would have recalled either Miss Marple or Miss Silver, compared to readers in, say, 1960?  Many, many fewer, doubtlessly (it was at this time that Dorothy L. Sayers flatly declared that Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley was the greatest woman detective).

Interestingly, however, Christopher St. John Sprigg's seems to have been influenced by Christie's Miss Marple when he wrote his two Mrs. Bird short stories.

the inspiration to nosy amateur village detectives everywhere
To be sure, there are some differences between Miss Marple and Mrs. Bird, the most obvious being their dissimilar honorifics.   

Mrs. Bird, obviously, was married, though she is now a widow.  Mrs. Bird also once was employed outside the home, working as a nurse before her marriage.  And Mrs. Bird is a comparative youngster compared with Miss Marple, being only forty-five.

However, there is considerable similarity between the two women.  Like Miss Marple, Mrs. Bird lives in a village (Mirtleham in the latter's case).  Like Miss Marple, Mrs. Bird has insatiable curiosity, and makes it her mission in life to know the affairs of everyone in the village.  And like Miss Marple, Mrs. Bird is quite adept at solving murders.

Of Mrs. Bird's two cases, the purer detective story is "The Case of the Jesting Miser," which revolves around the strange doing of a village recluse.  I, however, preferred "The Case of the Misjudged Husband," the story of Mrs. Bird's confrontation with a professional ladykiller.  Both stories have some clever lines that I can't quote, for fear of violating the Ransom Center's policy.  But I thought it would worthwhile mentioning these stories, for we now have another instance of a woman detective from the 1930s.  Maybe someday they will be published, if only for historical sake.

marker for the English dead at Jarama
After his conversion to Communism, Christopher St. John Sprigg referred to his detective fiction as "trash" that diverted him from that which he now saw as his true work, heavy tomes of earnest Marxist philosophy, like Illusion and Reality and Romance and Realism.

Those of us who admire Sprigg's detective novels would have preferred a few more of them, but such was not to be, sadly.

Fired with revolutionary ardor, Sprigg joined the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and was tragically slain at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.

The attitude that Sprigg came to have about his genre writing can be found in other writers of detective fiction (if not so extreme and negative).

Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes because he thought he was a distraction from his "serious" work (of course he relented and brought him back again).   

R. Austin Freeman thought the significance of his Dr. Thorndyke tales paled in comparison to his supposed masterpiece, Social Decay and Regeneration, a tome on eugenics.

Lord Peter Wimsey
Dumped for Dante?
Dorothy L. Sayers left Lord Peter Wimsey for her religious radio plays and her Dante translation.
In a 1949 letter she impatiently complained of "sentimental Wimsey addicts" imploring her to write another Lord Peter mystery.

Todd Downing too, I found, had ambitions to give up detective novels for mainstream fiction, even though he genuinely loved detective fiction and continued to read it long after he stopped writing it.

I discovered another expression of this attitude recently in correspondence of the English author Eden Phillpotts.

Phillpotts was tremendously prolific writer who wrote quite a few mystery novels but was most highly-regarded for his highly serious Thomas Hardy-esque mainstream regional novels set in Dartmoor.  He is best known today, within the mystery field, for urging a certain young neighbor of his, Agatha Christie, to stick with writing.

In a letter that is undated but that probably comes from the 1920s, Phillpotts writes:

"But then I write miles of tripe...'Shockers' amuse me and rest me.  They take the place of 'golf' or other distractions.  America has no use for my serious folk books....But for murder, detectives and nonsense of that sort grown-up children are always avid."

What a disappointing attitude from someone who wrote 26 crime novels between 1921 and 1944!  But not altogether surprising (perhaps Phillpotts excepted from the category of "tripe" his 1930s Avis Bryden trilogy, quite a fine piece of work, in my estimation, from a purely literary standpoint).

Tripe!  Trash!  Do many modern mystery writers have this sort of "inferiority complex" about their mystery writing today?  What do you think?