Friday, May 31, 2013

Death Decoded: The Bletchley Circle (2012)

You may recall how I complained about the unlikely revisionist feminist rewrite in the most recent film adaptation of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.  Well, here is a far superior film mystery series that does something rather more plausible with a period feminist slant, The Bletchley Circle.

The film series is about four women, all of whom were involved with English code-breaking during World War 2 at the government's Bletchley Park complex.  Now it's 1952, and life is much different (duller!) for them.

hail, hail, the gang's all here

The brilliant Susan (played by the always compelling Anna Maxwell Martin, of Bleak House and South Riding), personally unfulfilled with her domesticated life as a 1950s wife and mother, has taken to tracking the activities of a serial killer of women who has baffled police. After her initial advice to police doesn't pan out, they ignore her (Susan's rather patronizing husband, Timothy, who is clearly insecure about himself and less intelligent than Susan, wasn't all that supportive in the first place). 

Susan: wartime codebreaker, peacetime homemaker

So Susan reunites her old Bletchley colleagues--the thoroughly modern (and been around the block a few times) Millie, played by Rachel Stirling (as the fans may know, she played Caroline Crale in the television adaptation of Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs); their somewhat forbidding former boss at Bletchley, Jean, now a library administrator (Julie Graham); and the young and mousy Lucy (Sophie Rundle), who has computer-like recall--to help her track and catch the serial killer (who is not only a murderer of women, it seems, but also a necrophiliac).

The acting by these four leads is great, as are the period details (desaturated photography catches the austerity hanging on in 1952).  I thought the first part of this three-part series was especially good, as the women use their deductive abilities to find a geographical pattern for the killer.  This part was actually much more like a Freeman Wills Crofts detective novel--say The Hog's Back Mystery (1933)--than an Agatha Christie.

Millie: mapping out a killer's course

Part Two and Part Three felt a bit more cliched.  In Part Two, the Circle attempts to bait the killer.  I was sure I knew how this would go and I was right.  By Part Three the Circle knows the identity of the killer, who sets up a denouement involving Susan that seemed to me unlikely in the extreme.

Also, a problem I had with Susan (or maybe I should say the script) is that what she's doing is quite dangerous, obviously, but she repeatedly misleads her (admittedly kind of wet) husband about it, even though by the last part of the film she has put their young children in potential danger (and brilliant person though she is, Susan seems not to realize this until very late in the game).

To be honest, I didn't like Timothy all that much (though he becomes somewhat more sympathetic over time) and thought surely Susan could have done better in a spouse, but I wasn't comfortable with Susan's deceptions either, not when she had gotten in so far.  This had gone way beyond being an academic sort of puzzle mystery, like the crosswords Susan loves to solve. What would Susan have said to Timothy if their children had been killed by the criminal maniac that she and her friends had been so avidly--and so covertly--pursuing?

Timothy ("Dim Tim") gets suspicious

This may be an issue inherent in the amateur detective sort of mystery The Bletchley Circle represents, when it's combined with a strong dose of realism (the other women in the Circle, by the way, all are, like the classical woman amateur detective Miss Marple, childless; one is married, but to a total creep whose feelings need not concern anyone).

Here we have the classical element of the amateur detective blended with a horrific plot involving a necrophiliac serial killer, no less--something old, something new--and perhaps it doesn't always completely gel (think Tommy and Tuppence versus Hannibal Lecter).

Some reviewers (men!) have complained that the men in this series are all either morons or monsters.  I didn't think it was quite that bad.  Timothy has some potential for an evolving gender consciousness, I believe. Let's hope Susan and he are able to work out a more honest and mutually fulfilling relationship with each other, because otherwise I don't see much of a chance for this marriage! And their two children seem to be adorable (not to mention I love their house).

This carping notwithstanding, I found the film series quite enjoyable and was pleased to learn that another season is to be filmed.  This could be a real winner for English mystery fans, for this initial outing shows a lot of promise.

Bletchley House, where the circle formed

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dying High: Death Rides the Air Line (1934), by William Sutherland

William Sutherland's Death Rides the Air Line, published by Claude Kendall in 1934, is something of an experimental Golden Age mystery. 

Probably what will most immediately strike a lot people is its resemblance to a 1935 Agatha Christie detective novel, Death in the Clouds/Death in the Air.  In both novels, there is a murder of a passenger on an airplane.  Did Christie read Sutherland's novel, which was published in England, or was this just a coincidence (or did she read Freeman Wills Crofts' The 12.30 from Croydon, also published in 1934)?

a very fragile copy of the Death Rides the Air Line dust jacket (Claude Kendall)
note the advertisement for the controversial Twisted Clay on the back panel

Aside from the initial setting, however, there is not much resemblance between the novels.  Christie's tale is a classic puzzle mystery from the 1930s, with a fiendishly clever plot and clueing.  Sutherland's book moves the emphasis elsewhere.

As Sutherland writes in his preface: "I have endeavored, moreover, by the use of a somewhat unusual structural design, to help the reader see the people concerned in it as they really were, rather than as the conventional, puppet-like characters of works of fiction."

After only fifty-three pages--in which Sutherland assembles the crew and passengers on a plane taking off from Boston, murders one of the passengers over New York (stabbing), and brings Detective-Inspector Grady in to investigate--Sutherland leaves the present in order give us flashbacks into the lives of the murder victim, ruthless newspaper publisher Walter Schlaf, and four passengers: Russell DeWitt, New York judge, Marguerite Rose, good time gal, Timothy Cowley, gangster, and August Jensen, pilot.

These flashbacks provide motives for the passengers, but are mostly designed to give the novel greater character interest.  The flashbacks for Schlaf, Rose and Cowley I thought were especially engrossing (Judge DeWitt's was more hackneyed).

the English edition
has a stylish jacket too
In his introduction Sutherland notes that the events depicted in the novel occur "during the final days of Prohibition" and he hopes that this fact will "add some special interest, as well as throw some more light on the conditions which that unfortunate law produced in America."  The Rose and Cowley sections take particular advantage of this setting.

Marguerite Rose is like a character out of the musical Chicago (which doesn't necessarily mean she "done it," mind you, though you can definitely imagine her breaking out into her own personal rendition of "He Had It Coming").  This is one hard-boiled dame!

At sixteen or seventeen, evidently, Rose sidles up to her teenage soda jerk boyfriend, Freddy, and tells him she needs fifty dollars:

"What do you want it for?"
"Well, I'm going to have a baby, and it'll take fifty dollars to get rid of it."
"What?  you don't mean--"
"Yeah.  You're the proud father.  That time at the cottage."

Marguerite eventually ends up as a burlesque performer in New York.  In one of her acts she appears as the Statue of Liberty:

The latter production was raided by the police, who seemed to think that the torch, the only thing she had on, gave too much light to the scene.  The legal proceedings lasted long enough to enable Joe Biggum to parade his whole chorus in the court-room.  Then he agreed to give Marguerite a smaller torch, and the case was dropped.  After that the theatre was full every night.

title page (Claude Kendall edition)
I think an entire novel devoted to Marguerite Rose, with or without her torch, might have been interesting.

After the flashbacks the last seventy pages are again devoted to the present, in which Inspector Grady providentially finds one material clue that lets him solve the case.

As a mystery, Death Rides the Air Line is hardly one of the classics, but there is more character interest than one often finds in books from this period, and the Prohibition setting is well done.  The flashbacks actually left me wanting more, however.

So I would say that Air Line something of a neither-fish-nor-fowl book, though it is not without appeal.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Magic Flute Mystery: A Hard-boiled Tale

With the opera (or singspielThe Magic Flute (1791) did a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder originate hard-boiled mystery?

Let's think about this.  In The Magic Flute we have this woman who calls herself the Queen of the Night (you can't get much more noir than that), who comes to the hero, Tamino, to tell him that she has a job she wants him to do for her.

the Queen of the Night
you don't wanna mess around with this dame

It seems that her daughter, Pamina, has fallen in with a bad lot, led by some sort of big crime boss, Sarastro.  She tasks Tamino (a real prince of a guy, by the way) with extricating Pamina from the evil clutches of Sarastro and his criminal gang.  Could they be dope merchants?  White slavers?

it seems that Pamina has fallen into the clutches of
Boss Sarastro and his criminal gang 


But, wait, it turns out that the Queen of the Night's story is a pack of lies!  It's all a set-up.

Like the classic hard-boiled femme fatale, this double-dealing dame has duped our Tamino. The more he investigates and interviews people, the more falsehoods he discovers that he's been told.


But Tamino will keep at it, getting to the truth whatever mean streets he must go down, because he's a tough customer, see?  He's also packing a piece that has a way of persuading people.

Yup, he's got a magic flute. And you don't want to be on the business end of that flute, let me tell you.  Tamino doesn't talk much, but he lets the flute do the talking for him, and what it says goes, got me?

Tamino: on the job, packing a flute

Although this bit comes more from classical detection, Tamino even has a sidekick, a "Watson" if you will. His name is Papageno and he's none too bright!  He provides some needed comic relief in this dark tale of deceit, treachery and high-level corruption.

Papageno: birdbrained?

So there you have it!  Step aside, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and let's give three cheers for Wolfgang Mozart, master of hard-boiled mystery.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Mystery of The Mystery of The Multiplying Mules

No that's not a typo in the title!  Willoughby Sharp was scheduled to produce a third detective novel in 1935, The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules.  It would have been the second Sharp novel, after Murder of the Honest Broker, to feature Inspector Bullock.  A short description of the book was actually given in promotional material.

Here is the description:

Inspector Bullock is called in by the Logans not because something has been stolen, but because something has been added to their household.  On three successive Friday mornings they have found in their locked barn, mingling with their own animals, two strange mules.  Before the reason for the multiplying mules is found, three deaths follow in rapid order.

Maybe we'll get lucky and this will turn up somewhere.  It's odd that it was never published, when they got this far with it.  Interestingly, Kirke Mechem, whose 1936 novel The Strawstack Murder Case (A Frame for Murder) was reprinted by Coachwhip recently, also has a "lost" mystery novel, one that was turned down by his publisher, Dodd, Mead, his son, the composer Kirke Mechem, tells me, because it dealt with "miscegenation" and was then shelved by the author.

Here's hoping those mules turn up again!

Puzzling Behavior: Jigsaw (1970), by Ed McBain

One of the interesting aspects for me about the novels in Ed McBain's long-running 87th Precinct series is the glimpse they provide of the transformation of American society over several decades.  Just in the seven years from Ten Plus One (1963) to Jigsaw (1970), we see tremendous changes, which echo real-life events from that time.  Ten Plus One feels more like a fifties McBain, but with Jigsaw we are in the modern era (with one big exception; see below).

Can you put the solution together?
Jigsaw is a short novel (even by McBain's standards at the time) that is devoted to a treasure hunt.  Yes, it's the old plot about some lost loot from a heist for which a number of people are searching.  Some of these people are willing to kill to get what they're after.  And, oh boy, they sure do!

Characteristic of McBain, Jigsaw is smoothly told and generally quite entertaining.  There are clues to the location of the loot in the form of the torn pieces of a photograph (the jigsaw of the title), and one of the clever things McBain does is to show us the pieces of the photo as the police discover them and try to fit them together. This is like something you would find in an Ellery Queen mystery. (I did find myself wondering, however, why no one was consulting a photography expert).

The comedy team of Monoghan and Monroe appears in the beginning and we see that, in an attempt at attaining groovy seventies high style, Monroe is growing a mustache (or attempting to).  Or perhaps I should say pornstache.  McBain is very funny about this.

Sadly, for me the book undergoes something of a collapse in the last chapter, of just a dozen pages. Catching a certain criminal depends on the breaking of an alibi.  In a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts (The Cask, say), this would be very cleverly done.  In Jigsaw it's done through police intimidation, played for laughs (contrast this with McBain's painful and scathing depiction of police brutality in Ten Plus One).

It's also done as a way of allowing McBain to denounce racism.  In Jigsaw black police detective Arthur Brown is the lead character (with Steve Carella in support).  "Detective Arthur Brown did not like being called black," McBain announces in the first sentence of the novel, and then proceeds to show how various people in the case respond to Brown's skin color.

In an interesting aside on changing fashions in racial nomenclature, McBain writes that Brown "considered the word [black] derogatory, no matter how many civil rights leaders endorsed it."  Of course calling his "black" character "Brown" is another one of McBain's little jokes.

Racism mostly comes in the form of three women in the novel: hot dish Geraldine Ferguson, who may have a piece of the photo and crudely taunts Brown with sexual come-ons; an aging, blowsy hooker who announces bluntly when she sees Brown at her door, "I don't suck no n-----s" (yes, McBain's writing had gotten much more explicit by 1970); and an alibi-providing girlfriend.  Carella comes up with a plan to break this latter woman, based entirely on the fact that she comes from Georgia.

Everyone in the precinct knows, you see, that all whites from Georgia are racists who believe all the crudest invidious stereotypes about African-Americans, even if they decided voluntarily to move to New York and have been living in the state for the last five years or so.  So, Carella reasons, why don't we have Detective Brown go to this Georgia woman's apartment late at night and threaten her with rape (in plantation dialect) if she doesn't tell the truth about that inconvenient alibi.  Of course, no actual rape is intended, it's just pretend, to shake her up, don't you know.

So while in Jigsaw McBain commendably attempts to address the problem of racism, he falls down flat, in my view, in his handling of sexism (he doesn't even seem to be aware this might be an issue).  I suppose how we're supposed to see this is, she's from Georgia, see, so she's ipso facto racist, and it's okay to pull this stunt with an ipso facto racist from Georgia.  But this highlights another problem for me: everyone just assumes she's a racist because she's from Georgia (even though, as I said, she moved to New York and has lived there for about five years).

Maybe I'm sensitive about this because I grew up in the South (though I was born in South Dakota, let me hasten to add!).

Of course I know this was over forty years ago, and one has to consider the times in which the book was written.  Back in 1968, two years before Jigsaw was published, my parents moved to Alabama (when I was two), my father having accepted a teaching position at the University of Alabama.  My mother, who was from Pennsylvania, didn't want to make the move, because when people thought of Alabama, they (quite understandably) saw awful visions of water cannons and cross burnings and vicious German shepherds and nightstick-wielding cops and crude drawling sheriffs and church bombings and car shootings and--well, you get the point, surely.

But, still, there had to be a better way for McBain to take on the problem of racism than a comic vignette about a policeman, one of McBain's good guys, threatening a woman with (pretend) rape.  Not to mention that I don't believe the woman's admission, when obtained in this manner, ever would have stood up in court.  Nor should it have, frankly, I don't care whether she was a racist or not.

So, forgive the sermonette here, but I in discussing this book I felt I had to explain why McBain completely lost me in the last twelve pages.  If you have a different take on these final pages, you will probably give the book a higher grade, because up until this last chapter it's quite enjoyable.

And, let me reiterate, I still find Ed McBain one of the most purely entertaining series crime writers in the history of the genre, even if, sometimes, one of his jokes misfires. 

For those who are interested in the "big issues" see this academic take on the race question in McBain's 87th Precinct. And here's another blog review of Jigsaw.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Murder Spree: Thirteen Men (1930), by Tiffany Thayer

"A Tale of Murder which is neither a Mystery nor a Detective Story"

As promised, here is the posting on Tiffany Thayer's 1930 bestseller, published by Claude Kendall, Inc., Thirteen Men (John Norris of the Pretty Sinister Books blog is posting on Thayer's Thirteen Women).  By the way, Thayer was a man, baby (yes, I'm doing Austin Powers).  His full name was Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer (1902-1959).

This is an unusual book, and I haven't completed it yet, to be honest, so the full review piece will be coming later!  I've nearly finished a 6000+word piece on Willoughby Sharp, which will serve as the introduction to the the forthcoming new editions of his two detective novels, Murder in Bermuda (1933) and Murder of the Honest Broker (1934).

But back to Mr. Thayer's first novel!  Surprisingly, given Thayer's popularity in the 1930s (which provoked the ire of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker), not a great deal seems to be available about him on the net.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
termed Tiffany Thayer's
books "slime"

The frontispiece to Thirteen Men suggests one source of Thayer's popularity: there is some salacious (by 1930s standards, anyway) sexual detail. There are other sources too, however.

Some of his work has criminous elements that put it at least on the borderland of crime fiction.  Thirteen Men somewhat resembles the classic jury mystery subgenre: you know, the type of mystery that takes place during a murder trial and focuses on the deliberations of the jury.

Raymond Postgate's Verdict of Twelve (1940) is probably the best known of this type of book from the Golden Age today, though in fact that were two other novels, both titled The Jury, by Eden Phillpotts and Gerald Bullett, that preceded it (published in 1927 and 1935, respectively; both are recommended).

The thirteen men of Thayer's book are a confessed serial murderer (he has admitted to shooting 39 people in several different cities) and the twelve people serving on the jury at his trial.  A chapter is devoted to each man, plus there's an opening chapter detailing the horrible events in the killer's crime wave.  The murders, which include the slayings of some children, are really rather grisly.

The chapters devoted to the jurors are character studies, each ending with the particular man getting the summons to jury duty.  These so far are well done, but I'm wondering where it all leads.  Are there any surprises in the final chapter?  What was the killer's motive?  Is he really the killer?  Is he found guilty?  I'm looking forward to finding out!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

80 Years Ago Sunday: The Week in Todd Downing Mystery Reviews

On March 26, 1933 the Oklahoma detective novelist Todd Downing reviewed four mysteries for the Daily Oklahoman newspaper:

The Tuesday Club Murders (The Thirteen Problems), by Agatha Christie
The Hanging Captain, by Henry Wade
Red Warning, by Virgil Markham
Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap (The Motor Rally Mystery), by John Rhode

Short excepts:

The Tuesday Club Murders: Downing applauds the reappearance of "Aunt Jane"--that "no end quick-witted spinster of The Murder at the Vicarage"--in this short story collection.

The Hanging Captain: Downing praises Henry Wade's "eminently sane yarn written in the King's English."

Red Warning: There's "creeping horror" in this tale, Downing notes.  "For shudder addicts."

Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap: "Add and subtract with Dr. Priestley," writes a something less than enthralled Downing.  "For mechanically-minded folk."

Note the stylistic similarities to The Tuesday Club Murders--
Both books were published by Dodd, Mead,
one of the premier American publishers of mystery fiction.

There's much more on Todd Downing--his life, his detective fiction and his mystery review--in my 2013 book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.

Personally, I've read all four of these books and I liked them all!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

And here's Willoughby Sharp!

William Willoughby Sharp (1900-1956)
Chad Ament of Coachwhip sent me two attachments of interest on Willoughby Sharp:

(1) a photo of the author (looking quite dapper, I must say)

(2) a photo of the front panel and spine of the dust jacket for Murder of the Honest Broker.

I thought people would like to see these, since I have been rattling on at some length about Mr. Sharp.  As far as I know this is the only photo on the net of William Willoughby Sharp II.*

*(of course there are many photos of his artist son, William Willoughby Sharp III)

on the floor of the Stock Exchange
something more than share prices
have dropped
And here on the left is the dust jacket from which the photo came. Yup, another dead body on the jacket this time, only it's located not in Bermuda but on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

"What's more welcome these days [as a corpse in a detective novel]," asked Todd Downing in his 1934 review of Murder of the Honest Broker, "than a nice, well-fed financier?"

Probably a lot of Depression-era mystery readers were thinking the same thing.  Willoughby Sharp, himself retired from stockbroking after a half-dozen years, generously provided detective fiction fans with not one, but two stockbroker corpses.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Murder of the Honest Broker (1934), by Willoughby Sharp

After the appearance in print of Murder in Bermuda (1933), Willoughby Sharp published one additional detective novel,  Murder of the Honest Broker (1934).  This is another good one, and makes one regret that it was Sharp's last published mystery tale (however, it may not have been the last one he wrote; see below).

ticker tape
Evidently unable to imagine creating yet another fictional crime wave in the rather pacific Bermuda, Sharp for his second novel shifted his setting in his second book to a locale much more used to murder: New York.

In Murder of the Honest Broker, Sharp also introduced an interesting new lead detective, Inspector Bullock.

An acerbic, tough guy cop, Bullock is endowed by his creator with an abiding hatred for the cloud of fictional super detectives, such as Philo Vance (naturally, don't you know) and Drury Lane, who plague New York, snapping up clever clues like hungry locusts and making fools of the police in the process:

"I'd like to run up against one of those mincing, namby-pamby, know-it-alls just once....Detectives!  Bah!  They and their Egyptian mummies and their stuffed fish and their underground passages and their Chinese hatchet men.  They give me a great big pain and I'll give you one guess where!"

The "honest broker" of the title is stockbroker Philip Torrent.  He dies on the floor of the Stock Exchange, from, evidently, some form of poisoning.  Unfortunately, Philo Vance is not available to solve what turns out to be a bookish crime indeed.

Classically, Sharp spends the entire first chapter providing some half-dozen people with motives to kill Torrent.  We have:

1. the brokerage partner, Temple Hastings, who has been defrauding Torrent
2. the unfaithful wife, Mary Torrent, who has been carrying on an affair with
3. the stockbroker Jack McDonald, who is madly in love with Mary
4. the debauched nephew, Howard Torrent, who wants the money his uncle holds in trust
5. the discarded mistress, Lucy Luverne, who is vowing vengeance upon Torrent
6. the partner in a dying speakeasy, Chipo Marinelli, who can't return Torrent's funds

Not only Philip Torrent meets his death by curare that day, however.  Bizarrely, another broker, Sandy Harrison, expires from the same cause as well.  Who had motives for slaying both men?  It's a thorny problem.

Inspector Bullock is, shall we say, short of sympathy for slain stockbrokers:

"Two members of the Stock Exchange have been poisoned."
"Whee!" whistled the Inspector.  "Ain't that what they call the perfect crime?  Somebody beat me to it!  I've had my eye on that job myself ever since the time I lost five hundred dollars in Anaconda Copper back in '29."*

*(this refers to a real life stock market debacle involving the Anaconda Cooper Mining Company and share pushing by Percy Avery Rockefeller)

 Bullock's hostile attitude spills over into his questioning of an Exchange assistant secretary, Mr. Barton:

an honest-to-goodness material clue
 "Will the head waiter be there [at the Luncheon Club] now?" asked Bullock.  "It's five o'clock."
"Yes," smiled Barton.  "It's another one of the blessings of Repeal [of Prohibition].  This time two years ago the club was deserted after three o'clock but now the members like to linger in our new bar and lately they've even taken to ordering dinners there."
"That's a funny thing," said Inspector Bullock.  "The exact same thing happened in my club, the McGillogolly Social Association of Brooklyn.  Lately we've has to throw the boys out on their pants at the closing hour."
Mr. Barton's face lost its affable smile.  "Oh, yes, quite," he finally managed to reply.

Inspector Bullock also is dubious about a case involving poisoning by curare:

"Don't tell me it's a strange, oriental poison known only to the high priests of an obscure tribe in the upper Himalayas.  Don't tell me that, 'cause I'm way behind on my Fu-Manchu stories."

Inspector Bullock is blunt in his injunctions to his underlings:

"That you, Mulligan?  Your troubles aren't over.  Go back to the Alden Apartments, sit downstairs in the lobby and if that girl goes out tonight you stick to her tighter than a chorus girl's brassiere."*

*(this passage is especially interesting in light of Sharp's marriage to chorus girl Muriel Manners, to whom the book is dedicated; one gathers Mr. Sharp knew his way around chorus girls every bit as much as he did the stock exchange).

Admittedly, the suspects in the novel are pretty stock (though Chipo Marinelli is that rarest of things in Anglo-American Golden Age mystery, an Italian male who doesn't spend all his time speaking in exaggerated dialect, gesticulating wildly and threatening people with death by stiletto; and the author should be duly credited in this case for eschewing an invidious Golden Age stereotype).

However, Inspector Bullock, bless his heart, is what we might term a real live one. Love him or hate him, you will remember him.

And the mystery plot is quite good too.  How the poisonings were brought about and who accomplished them are tricky questions, but the author plays fair. Bullock finally has to think like a Great Detective to solve the case!

Additionally, the setting seems authoritatively done--certainly Sharp had his experience with this milieu--and the book itself is beautifully designed (the same is true of Murder in Bermuda; see the illustrations on the left).

"Good reading and an ingenious solution," pronounced Kirkus Reviews back in 1934, of Murder of the Honest Broker.  The Saturday Review, on the other hand, inexcusably gave away a major plot point.  Avoid perusing this latter review on the internet, because--heads up!--Willoughby Sharp's two detective novels will be in print again before the end of the year.

There was supposed to be a third Willoughby Sharp detective novel in 1935, The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules, but it never appeared. What happened to this book?  Join me at my next stop at Willoughby and find out.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Murder in Bermuda (1933), by Willoughby Sharp

Both of Willoughby Sharp's detective novels, Murder in Bermuda (1933) and Murder of the Honest Broker (1934), are fine examples of the Golden Age mystery, with good fair play puzzles, swift narratives and some interesting background detail, taken from the author's own life.

In the case of Murder in Bermuda, Willoughby Sharp had been living on the island for two years when he wrote the novel, resulting in the book's interesting local color.  Bermuda had a commercial boom providing the United States with bootleg liquor during the Prohibition era, a development alluded to in the novel.

Murder in Bermuda details the investigation that occurs after Constable Simmons discovers a woman's body on Snake Road, on the morning before Easter.  The woman has been stabbed to death.  A bouquet of lilies is at her side.

The police are shocked to find that a murder has occurred on peaceful Bermuda.  "Damn it, Simmons!" cries Inspector McNear, "What's this island coming to when a girl's not safe on the highway?"

"[T]here has never been a murder in Bermuda in my time--not among our white people at least," pronounces a worried Chief of Police Masters. "I ask you to think of the most unpleasant publicity that would result if we admitted to be murder!  Think how the interests of the island would suffer!"  Here I was rather reminded of the attitude of the mayor in the film Jaws.

But murder it proves to be. And another person soon is found dead, a man, polished off by a favored 1920s poison, mercury bichloride.  "If there's another crime in Hamilton I'm going to move to Chicago," announces one local resident.*

*(How different things are today!  Between May 2009 and June 2012 there were seventeen gun murders in Bermuda, nine of them unsolved).

Murder in Bermuda actually could be designated an early police procedural, in that it depicts the whole Bermuda police force at work, with three individuals standing out: Inspector McNear, Chief of Police Masters and Superintendent Welch, who ultimately reaches the truth, after considerable peril to his life (Constable Simmons is the only black policeman we see in action; thankfully he is not used as cheap comic relief, as one might expect from a book from this period).

the notorious Lindbergh baby
kidnapping influenced additional
novels besides Agatha Christie's
Murder on the Orient Express
It quickly becomes apparent that the misdeeds in Bermuda may be connected in some way to the recent kidnapping of a child in the United States.

When introducing this subject, just a year-and-a-half after the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping (and a year before Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express), Sharp allows himself a little acid social commentary on the capricious and class-based news coverage priorities of the American press (some things don't change, do they?):

Quite typical of a rich, individualistic nation in which fifteen million men, with their wives and children, were undergoing various stages of starvation, the kidnapping of little Marcia Marsden from the Fifth Avenue home of her fabulously wealthy parents had filled the front sheets of America's daily newspapers until even the stirring foreign political news was crowded to an inside page.

Sharp's own son would be born three years later, but apparently Sharp felt that in those Depression-wracked years the travails of the rich and famous were absorbing a disproportionate share of press attention.

The Harvard Crimson gave Murder in Bermuda a great review (admittedly, Sharp was an alumnus), noting that Sharp "utilizes all the long-accepted conventions of the mystery story, but he does so with such ingenuity and creates such a  welter of involved circumstances that we are almost entirely unaware of his technical trickery."

The Crimson also noted the procedural aspect of the novel:

The pleasant variation from the general mystery story is the manner in which the various police officers working upon the case help each other and together see things through, so that in this story, instead of the one stereotyped super sleuth very nobly carrying on, we have the small group solve their problem by cooperative efforts. 

Murder in Bermuda represents a class of Golden Age detective novel largely forgotten today, because it doesn't conform to the popular stereotypes.  It's about neither a British gentleman amateur detective nor an American hard-boiled private eye, yet it's a good mystery tale nonetheless.

As the Crimson put it: "Mr. Sharp...has a good bit more to offer us than the average writer of murder stories.  He unravels his sinister tale in fine literary style and writes vividly of a background he knows very well."

A Stop at Willoughby: Murder in Bermuda (1933) and Murder of the Honest Broker (1934), by Willoughby Sharp

William Willoughby Sharp (1900-1956) came from a prominent New York family.  His father, also named William Willoughby Sharp, moved to New York from Norfolk, Virginia, where the Sharps had lived for generations (the Sharps claim descent from a certain James Sharp, who was living in Jamestown in 1621 and served in the House of Burgesses in the 1630s).

William Willoughby Sharp I was the senior partner in a brokerage firm when he was struck by a taxicab while crossing a street and killed.  A year before his father's death in 1926, William Willoughby Sharp II, a marine in the Great War and a Harvard graduate, formed his own brokerage firm, the forbiddingly named Harde & Sharp.  However, only three years later Sharp retired from business and moved to Bermuda, where he lived until 1935, when he returned to New York.

Muriel Manners Sharp
see Sharpville
Sharp married Muriel Manners, a Ziegfeld chorus girl, and the couple settled in Sands Point, Long Island, the wealthy enclave that inspired the setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby.

In 1936, the Sharps had a son, predictably named William Willoughby Sharp.  The third Sharp became a conceptual art guru in the 1960s and 1970s.  When he died in 2008, he received a sizable obituary in the New York Times.

William Willoughby Sharp II is rarely mentioned today (even accounts of his son's eventful and quirky life show much more interest in Muriel Manners Sharp's chorus girl background), but he was an interesting individual in his own right.

What concerns us most here, of course, is Sharp's brief venture into publishing and mystery writing.  For two years he was in partnership with publisher Claude Kendall, the man, much discussed here lately, who published Sharp's two detective novels, Murder in Bermuda (1933) and Murder of the Honest Broker (1934).

I will have full reviews of these two excellent detective novels up on the blog later today.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Controversies of Claude Kendall, Publisher

No further word on the seemingly unsolved murder of Claude Kendall, but I thought I would write some on Kendall's career as a publisher, pending a Friday piece on the two Willoughby Sharp detective novels Kendall published, in 1933 and 1934.

Claude Kendall's first published book
a scathing critique of American culture
From the beginning Claude Kendall seems to have been something of a controversialist, looking for books to publish that might create a stir.  Kendall's first published book was Kanhayalal Gauba's Uncle Sham: The Strange Tale of a Civilization Run Amok (1929), a scathingly critical study of the United States, written in response to Katherine Mayo's scathingly critical study of India, Mother India (1927).  When review copies of Uncle Sham were sent to the United States from India, where it was originally published, the United States Customs Service seized the copies, having deemed the book obscene (Gauba spends much time disparaging American sexual mores).

After Kendall successfully published an American edition of Uncle Sham (the obscenity determination didn't stick), it was announced the next year that Aaron Sussman, an ad man and book designer, had gone into partnership with Kendall (though the title of the firm remained Claude Kendall, Inc).

The first book the two men published was Freak Show, a collection of short stories by Russian writer Andre Sobol.  The next book was Tiffany Thayer's Thirteen Men, a titillating tale about the trial of a mass murderer. It was a tremendous commercial success, seeing thirteen printings between May 1930 and June 1931.

Altogether Claude Kendall published four Tiffany Thayer novels, Thirteen Men, Call Her Savage, Thirteen Women and An American Girl.  The first three of these novels had sold over 387,000 copies by February 1933, but, unfortunately for Kendall, Thayer left him for greener publishing pastures.

Incidentally, I am going to be reviewing Thirteen Men next week, and John Norris of the Prettysinister blog will be reviewing Thirteen Women.

Kendall had other strings to his bow besides Mr. Thayer's works, however.  In 1931 he published the first American edition of Octave Mirbeau's classic Decadent Movement "exposition of sadism and masochism," Torture Garden ("Tiffany Thayer's Call Her Savage is good enough, if you like them savage," quipped the Virginia Quarterly Review, "and Octave Mirbeau's Torture Garden is for those who want to be tortured"). 

The same year, Kendall unsuccessfully attempted to secure the American and Canadian rights to James Joyce's Ulysses, anticipating the overturning of its proscription on obscenity grounds (this occurred in 1934). 

Other controversial novels published by Kendall in the early 1930s include G. Sheila Denisthorpe's Loveliest of Friends, a lesbian novel, and Frank Walford's Twisted Clay (Take a good look at the illustrations of Twisted Clay.  Needless to say the jacket design is eye-catching, but also note the fine decorative motifs on the book itself).

Twisted Clay, which Kendall pointedly announced in the New York press had been banned in Canada, sounds fascinatingly lurid.  The protagonist, Jean Deslines, has been described as a psychopath "whose downward spiral goes from premarital sex and lesbian tendencies to patricide, prostitution, serial murder, drug running, and eventual suicide."  It was banned not only in Canada, but in Australia, Walford's native country, for three decades!

Then there's Cecil De Lenoir's The Hundredth Man: Confessions of a Drug Addict, which was called "an excellent piece of journalistic writing," in the New York Times Book Review.

With classic publisher ballyhoo, Kendall called Lenoir a modern day Thomas De Quincey (see Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).

Kendall did find time to publish some less sensationalistic mystery novels (some of them even Simon Pure detective tales), about which I will be posting in more detail tomorrow!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Murder of the Publisher: Who Killed Claude Kendall?

Death on the Eighth Floor
a grim murder mystery
at the Madison Hotel
On Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1937, former publisher Claude H. Kendall (1890-1937) was found beaten to death in his room on the eighth floor of the Madison Hotel, at 21 East 27th Street, near Madison Avenue (this is the narrow, mansard-roofed structure on the left side of the photograph to the right).

Around 11:00 a.m. a maid discovered Kendall dead on the floor, a bed sheet wrapped loosely around his neck. Kendall had a black eye, lacerations on the lips, a swollen jaw, hemorrhages on the head and body and lacerations below the knees, the latter probably caused from kicking.

An inebriated Kendall had been put to bed in his room by two friends shortly after midnight.

However, Kendall later emerged from his room and went down to the hotel restaurant, where he joined "a slightly built youthful white man." This other man was "a familiar figure in the Madison Square district where Kendall lived."

Kendall returned with this man to his, Kendall's, room around 3:30 a.m., according to the hotel elevator operator.  About a half-hour later, a tenant on the floor above, a writer, heard noises in Kendall's room like thumping on a heating pipe.  These thumps continued at intervals for half an hour.

When he was found dead later that day, Kendall, apparently a lifelong bachelor whom other tenants described as "a quiet man," had no money in his room.

This is all I have discovered about this real-life murder so far.  Two days after the murder, the New York police predicted a quick arrest, but I have not yet found a news report of one.

Claude Kendall was born in 1890 in Watertown, New York, located in the northwestern part of the state near Lake Ontario.  Kendall's brother Clarence was business manager of the Watertown Daily Times, still in circulation today.  Claude Kendall had left Watertown for New York City around 1910, joining an investment firm.  He also studied for two years at New York University before serving in the navy during the Great War. 

In 1929 he started a publishing firm, Claude Kendall, Inc. Between 1934 and 1936, he went into publishing partnership with William Willoughby Sharp (1900-1955), a former stockbroker, and the firm's name was changed to Claude Kendall and Willoughby Sharp, Inc.  In 1936, the wealthy Sharp seems to have left the firm, and it went bankrupt.  After he was murdered the next year, Kendall was reported to have been employed in the last year of his life a "salesman in a publishing house."

Claude Kendall had a sad fate, but at least he enjoyed some notable years as an independent publisher.  Probably his firm is best known for publishing two popular crime novels of a sort by Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer (1902-1959), Thirteen Men and, naturally enough, Thirteen Women (the latter book was made into a film thriller starring Myrna Loy).  He also published a small number of detective novels, including two written by his publishing partner Willoughby Sharp.  I will be talking about some of these books over the next few weeks.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Milk Didn't Do This Body Good: Pure Poison (1966), by Hillary Waugh

Ed McBain's older 87th Precinct novels all are back in print, but the novels by another important American pioneer of the police procedural, Hillary Waugh (1920-2008), are not.  Even Waugh's Last Seen Wearing (1952), an acknowledged police procedural cornerstone, is out-of-print, not to mention Waugh's series of eleven novels about the investigative exploits of small-town Connecticut police chief Fred C. Fellows, which spanned the years from 1959 to 1968.

Waugh's 1966 mystery Pure Poison was the penultimate entry in the series.  As is to be expected from Waugh, this novel offers readers a solid murder problem, realistically investigated.

In Pure Poison, Roger Chapman, Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Stockford, Connecticut, dies as a result of eating a single creamed onion while at dinner with his wife.  The milk Betty Chapman used in preparing the creamed onions was loaded with strychnine. Mrs. Chapman, who tasted only a speck of the creamed onions after her husband complained of the flavor, becomes quite sick, but recovers.

So Police Chief Fellows and his men (his men indeed are all men) are presented with a classic poisoning problem.  There are certain similarities to John Rhode's brilliant 1940s detective novel, Vegetable Duck, though Rhode's book has a more involved and ingenious problem.

Waugh offers readers a more streamlined puzzle, though it is not without interest.  There is painstaking police investigation of what seems to be a motiveless crime (I was reminded here of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery, 1933) and some good intuitive work by Chief Fellows near the end of the tale.

Basically Pure Poison struck me as an updated Golden Age "Humdrum" mystery, given a police procedural gloss.  As the author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I naturally find this sort of problem-focused novel congenial; yet I must admit that Pure Poison lacks the rapid pace and smooth narrative flow and character appeal of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct tales, which probably helps explain why Waugh's books are no longer in print and McBain's are (Waugh also stopped publishing fiction twenty years before his death, though he was only 68).

Still, if you are interested in a good police procedural problem novel, Pure Poison is a solid choice.  It encouraged me to read more titles in this Waugh series.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ten Plus One (1963) , by Ed McBain (Part Two)

Ed McBain's Ten Plus One is a serial killer novel about a sniper picking off victims over a few weeks in April and May in Isola, a thinly-veiled New York City.  Some reviews of this novel, including the recent one in Books To Die For and the fifty-year-old one in Kirkus Reviews, reveal the thread connecting the sniper's victims, but since McBain keeps this secret for 60% of the novel, I feel I should do so as well.  Read the novel and find out for yourself, just like I did.

a sniper on a rampage
By today's standards Ten Plus One is quite a short novel (217 pages in its current edition), and McBain is a master of the short form.  One can finish this book in an evening, and one definitely will be tempted to do just that.  The narrative is smooth, the suspense level high and the characters lightly sketched but memorable.

There is real pathos--McBain acquaints us with most of the victims before their deaths--but some terrific humor as well, such as the visit to the station by a blonde bombshell seeking police protection ("I really enjoyed having him," the bombshell confides, when thanking lead character Detective Steve Carella for the patrolman he provided her) and the extended comedic riff a cop makes on a witness' name, Stan Quentin (some of these cops really should have gone on tour).

There's also rumination on ethnic relations and satire directed at politicians, the press and Freudian psychiatry, as well as an entire chapter devoted to describing some very bad deeds by a pair of very bad cops.  This chapter could have been deleted without affecting the plot, but McBain clearly wanted to Make A Point about the potential for police abuse of power in 1963, and he does.

the bodies pile up
I like this period of the 87th Precinct books a lot (late 50s/early60s), in part because it offers fascinating social detail from a period before I was born (in Ten Plus One I found McBain's discussion of snipers eerie in light of the fact that the Kennedy assassination occurred later that year).*

*(in Ten Plus One McBain classifies homosexuals--men "who have watched their manhood die, and who live a desperate dying life in the shadow of the law"--with junkies, thieves, burglars, muggers, con men, pimps, whores and street gang members.  He seems to write from a standpoint of empathy for those he sees as having thrown away their lives.  This short section of the book may rankle, but keep in mind that it was composed half a century ago.)

There is no way one can deduce the culprit of the crimes until late in the book, but at that point one does have the chance to beat the cops to the solution (and one should).  The final revelations are deftly handled--as is, really, everything in this novel, which throughout reveals the hand of a consummate master of series crime fiction. This is a mystery tale that seems to me almost impossible not to enjoy.

Note: For Part One of this piece, see here.  And by all means see Sergio's more (but not too) detailed review over at Tipping My Fedora, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Score! Ten Plus One (1963), by Ed McBain (Part One)

Among many other things, Ed McBain (1926-2005) is known as one of the key figures in the development of the police procedural subgenre of crime fiction, where emphasis is on the realistic depiction of crime investigation by police. 

The 1950s was a great decade for police procedurals.  In England, there was John Creasey (1908-1973), who under the pseudonym J. J. Marric introduced his Superintendent Gideon series in 1955.  In the United States, Ed McBain launched his long-running 87th Precinct series the next year, with Cop Hater (1956).  The series ran for a half century, only ending when its creator passed away in 2005.

If it's hardly true that before the 1950s "the classic British mystery seemed to take place entirely in the drawing room of a stately country manor and the classic American one involved a hard-boiled private eye working entirely on his own" (it only seems this way if one has shuttered vision and erroneously limits the definition of classic), certainly the police procedural sub-genre received tremendous impetus in the 1950s from the skilled and restless hands of Ed McBain.

So many people already have blogged about McBain's work (perhaps most notably, there is an ongoing series devoted to his 87th Precinct books at Tipping My Fedora). 

However,  since I saw that a McBain 87th Precinct novel, Ten Plus One (1963), was included in the recent much-lauded Books To Die For: The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels, I thought I would write about this book (a review of Books to Die For--or half of it anyway--will follow next week).

Coincidentally, this is the first Ed McBain novel that I read, many, many years after Deon Meyer, who writes about Ten Plus One in Books To Die For ("I bought it at Don's Book Exchange for seventy cents in 1976, when I was eighteen years old," recalls Meyer, "a Pan paperback, now falling apart").

Of Ten Plus One Deon Meyer writes: "It is my favorite crime novel of all time."  While I wouldn't go that far in my own case, I did find Ten Plus One a superlative example of a series crime novel.  I will be going into more detail, in Part Two, tomorrow, so by all means check back.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Up Hill and Down Dale: A Review of Kenneth Ashley's Death of a Curate (1932)

you'll have to search
high and low for this one
Kenneth Herbert Ashley's (1887-) is an obscure literary figure from the Golden Age of the detective novel. He has a Wikipedia entry, but it is quite brief, stating that Ashley "was an English poet, novelist, journalist, and farmer" who in the 1920s published the poetry collection Up Hill and Down Dale (1924) and the novel Creighton the Admirable (1925) and poems in The London Mercury, The Spectator and The Nation and Athenaeum.

Ashley's sole detective novel--apparently his last substantive published work of any kind--was published in 1932 by The Bodley Head (a firm whose great distinction was publishing the first detective novels of Agatha Christie, though they were too parsimonious to keep her with them).

At this time, Ashley was 45 years old.  What happened to him after that, I have no idea.

I managed to find an inscribed copy of Up Hill and Down Dale, which Ashley with charming self-deprecation dedicated to

who will read this book

Tell me about it, brother!  If only you'd written poems about vampires rather than farmers, you might have hit the big time.

In his dedication Ashley was quite modest, because as I mentioned previouslyJ. B. Priestley was one individual who owned and read Up Hill and Down Dale. The prominent English poet and novelist L. A. G. Strong also took note of Ashley, including Ashley's poem "Rudkin" in his collection of the best poems of 1923.  "Rudkin" is a beautifully composed rustic portrait:

Rudkin was one who cattle sold,
Laughed loud, talked bold;
Children got, drank at inns,
Nor thought much of his sins.

This goes on for two dozen more lines, all delightfully evocative of the man.

Ashley was much concerned with the decline of rural England in the 1920s and the plight of the jobless (farm hands and colliers alike), as we saw in a previous post, wherein I quoted Ashley's poem "Out of Work."

There's powerful sense of authenticity in Ashley's poetry, and this sense comes through as well in his sole detective novel, Death of a Curate.  The novel details the investigation into the death of young Wilfrid Ernest Whatmough, curate at the northern England village of Church Linton, who is found, fatally bludgeoned, one morning just outside the door of his modest cottage.

Ashley stages a substantive murder investigation, which eventually narrows the field of suspicion to three individuals, but what is most interesting about the novel is the setting and the characters. People looking for country houses and brilliant, aristocratic amateur detectives will be disappointeded with Death of this Curate.

Instead of the privileged and the posh we get a raft of more humble, and also more believable, characters:

D. I. Dawes and P. C. Robinson, nicely nuanced English cops; the village "natural" (i.e., feebleminded) Tom Bentley; the hard-pressed Farmer Ashworth ("Charlie Ashworth, though a farmer, was no bucolic figure; at least his thin, rather undersized physicality and hatchet face would not have met the requirements of such superficial characterisation fifty or so years ago.  Yet he was typical enough of many farmers today."); Nelly, Ashworth's current housekeeper and bed partner ("If he'd ha' married every lass he ought to ha' married, he'd ha' had as many wives as King Solomon by now."); Inspector Dawes' Aunt Sarah, the village postmistress with a keen nose for news (a splendid Miss Marple type character, though not she is not of Miss Marple's social class, having been in service once upon a time); and others.

With the descriptive skill of an able poet and a fine ear for dialect speech, Ashley makes his settings and characters in Death of a Curate superbly real.  I don't believe I have read a Golden Age detective novel with such carefully calibrated dialect speech and there also are some memorable lines from the author ("It is so much easier, in these bureaucratic days, to draw a salary than make a living").  With an engrossing plot as well, Death of a Curate is a real winner from the 1930s.  Unfortunately, it's just the sort of novel that has gotten written out of histories of the British Golden Age of detection, which so intently focus on the country house strain.  Yet the period was much more varied than these genre histories suggest, a fact to which Curate attests.

Currently Death of a Curate cannot be reprinted, because apparently no one knows anything about Kenneth Ashley after 1932 (oh! the vagaries of copyright law).  Let's hope this changes, allowing this extremely rare book to become available again, after more than eighty years, to devoted fans of classic English mystery.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The 2013 Coachwhip Edition of The Strawstack Murder Case (1936)

Coachwhip Publications has completed the design for the new edition of the 1936 American detective novel The Strawstack Murder Case, for which I contributed a 6000 word introduction on the book and its author, Kirke Field Mechem (1889-1985). The introduction is titled "Philo on the Plains"--a reference to S. S. Van Dine's once-influential Great Detective, who seems clearly to have been a model for Mechem's brilliant amateur sleuth Steven Steele (though Steele is vastly less affected than Vance).

One of Mechem's sons, the composer Kirke (Lewis) Mechem, was a big help with this project.  There are also a nice illustrations of Kirke Field Mechem and the dust jacket of the first edition, published by Doubleday, Doran's august Crime Club under the title A Frame for Murder (the author had wanted the title The Strawstack Murder Case, which has been duly restored).

I think the new edition Coachwhip did has a nice design, redolent of the Great Plains, which is appropriate enough since the book is set in Wichita, Kansas and its environs. This is the first reprint project after Todd Downing that I have taken up with Coachwhip.  I hope to work with Chad Arment on several more of these over the next few months.

And, yes, that is a monkey on the back, by the blurb from Bill Pronzini.  Poe's Rue Morgue is mentioned in the novel....

The new edition of The Strawstack Murder Case will be available within the next couple weeks.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Up Hill And Down Dale: Death of a Curate (1932), by Kennth Ashley

In his book How to Get Rich, publisher (and very rich person) Felix Dennis mentions that years ago he purchased a portion of the library of the writer J. B. Priestley (who occasionally, it will be recalled, dabbled in mystery).  One of the books Dennis bought was Up Hill and Down Dale (1924), a poetry collection "by a virtually unknown poet," Kenneth Ashley

With a slip of paper, notes Green, "Priestley had marked a particular poem" in the slim volume:

"Out of Work"

Alone at the shut of the day was I,
With a star or two in a frost clear sky,
And the byre smell in the air.

I'd tramped the length and breadth o' the fen;
But never a farmer wanted men;
Naught doing anywhere.

A great calm moon rose back o' the mill,
And I told myself it was God's will
Who went hungry and who was fed.

I tried to whistle; I tried to be brave;
But the new plowed fields smelt dank as the grave;
And I wished I were dead.

....and the byre smell in the air.
In Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes  that unpleasant subjects like unemployment "were ignored in almost all the detective stories of the Golden Age" of detective fiction (traditionally dated between roughly 1920 and 1940).  "[W]hen sympathy was expressed for the poor it was not for the unemployed but for those struggling along on a fixed inherited income."

So many detective stories were published during the Golden Age of detective fiction (more than any one person ever could read) that it might give one pause in saying what "almost all" of them did or did not do, though I think it's fair to say that the exposure of social ills was less of a concern in the Golden Age, when one prominent school of thought urged the view that "realism" did not belong in the mystery tale.

However, poet Kenneth Ashley wrote a single detective novel, Death of a Curate (1932), in which  unemployment is addressed, in a rural north England setting, with nary a country house party in sight.  It's a very good book and definitely off the beaten Golden Age track, at least in my experience.  Find out more when I give my full review this weekend.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"There is no smart-aleck and omniscient detective"

Publishers are in the business of selling books, so what they say about the books on dust jackets tells us something, surely, about how publishers perceive the buying trends of readers.  Today I'm posting a scan of Random House's blurb for Dorothy Cameron Disney's HIBK mystery novel Strawstack, along with the front panel of the dust jacket. Both items happened to be pasted in and thus preserved in my copy of the book.

2011 George N. Dove Award winner Catherine Ross Nickerson (whom I've been mentioning a bit in blog posts lately), sees the Golden Age, female-authored HIBK (or romantic suspense) novel as the primary alternative style within the mystery genre to American hard-boiled and British classical detection (she sees American classical detective novels as mere knock-offs of the British variety, which I think greatly slights the American tradition of classical detection; the recent Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction that she edited does not mention, for example, Melville Davisson Post or Ellery Queen).

Certainly the Random House blurb positions Strawstack as an alternative to classical, intensely puzzle-oriented detective fiction:

"Miss Disney has cleverly avoided the annoying devices that spoil the fun in so many murder stories nowadays.  There is no smart-aleck and omniscient detective, no boring and repetitious interviews with servants and finger-print experts, and, best of all, no complicated and confusing house and room plans that the reader is expected to paste inside his hat."

They've just dismissed a slew of things I love in mysteries!  Gosh darn those "complicated and confusing" house plans (ironically, there's a great one in the HIBK Urtext, Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, by the way, not to mention one in Mabel Seeley's HIBK The Chuckling Fingers, just reviewed here).

Clearly, though, Random House was trying to appeal to an audience that was perceived to be wearied with heavily puzzle-focused mysteries and more interested in depictions of emotional tension.

See how two modern readers reacted to Strawstack ("a murder story"), here and here.