Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Mr. Thorndike makes the usual detective novel seem very thin and weak in comparison": The Slype (1927) and Herod's Peal (1931), by Russell Thorndike

After reading Russell Thorndike's contribution to Six Against the Yard, I decided that I wanted to take a closer look at Thorndike's overall body of fiction.  Well, it turns out that, in addition to the Dr. Syn series of novels for which he remains best known, the actor-author also wrote two mystery novels, The Slype (1927) and Herod's Peal (1931) (in the U. S., The Devil in the Belfry).

The Slype has been reprinted in a wonderful new edition by the excellent Valancourt Books, but Herod's Peal remains very difficult to find.  Happily, I have a copy of Herod's Peal and since it and The Slype share a setting and characters I will be reviewing both titles in succession.

"Mr Thorndike makes the usual detective novel seem very thin and weak in comparison," declared the American publisher of Herod's Peal (under the title The Devil in the Belfry), Lincoln MacVeigh's The Dial Press.  Invariably the word Dickensian was applied to these novels.  When one reads them one immediately sees why (the Dial Press jacket might remind some of a certain Dorothy L. Sayers' novel as well).

Death at the Outer Banks: Shooting at Loons (1994), by Margaret Maron

To date Margaret Maron has published 18 mysteries about her most popular series sleuth, North Carolina judge Deborah Knott.

Before launching the Knott series in 1992, Maron between 1981 and 1991 published seven novels about police detective Sigrid Harald, yet it was the Deborah Knott series that really took off (it started off with an immediate bang, the first Deborah Knott mystery, Bootlegger's Daughter, taking the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards).

The vivid local color of the Deborah Knott mysteries--almost all of them are set in Maron's native North Carolina--and the strong character of Judge Knott herself have made the series perennially popular.

In a 1998 interview, Maron commented about the problem of balancing in her work the varying expectations of mystery readers:

I know that some people wish I would concentrate more on the classic murder mystery and forget about all the other ramifications, but I just can't seem to do it.  Killer Market is probably in this series my "purest" murder mystery because it had no big social side issues; yet people liked that book the least.  I got all kind of grumbles face-to-face and in the mail about "Well this all is very well, but send her back to Colleton County.  Show us her father, show us her brothers."  You write the books you write, and I'm trying to please myself and my readers; and sometimes I'm really caught in the middle.

In Shooting at Loons (1994), the third of Maron's Judge Knott mysteries, you can see the pull of these diverse--and arguably divergent--interests.  On the one hand, the novel is a local color story, about the traditional inhabitants of North Carolina's Outer Banks (specifically Carteret County, where Beaufort is located) resisting changes brought on by increasing modernization and commercialization, while on the other it's a series character novel about Judge Knott and her kith and kin.

All this within the framework of a traditional mystery story.

the passing tramp
at Kitty Hawk, NC
So how well does the book succeed at meeting these varied reader interests?  As a local color mystery novel, Loons succeeds quite well, I think.

Likely it helps that I have been to, and have long been fascinated with, North Carolina's Outer Banks, a beautiful and historically fabled part of the United States.  Maron does a great job of making the people and the unique atmosphere of this coastal area come alive.

I also enjoyed the mystery, what there was of it.  Rather improbably, Knott stumbles on both the novel's murders, but her investigation of them (there's quite a bit of economic skulduggery) is rather desultory.

To be sure, we are long past the era of the gentleman (or gentlewoman) amateur sleuth with all the time in the world to investigate for kicks a baffling mystery. As a judge, Knott is obliged to hear cases and this takes up a bit of her time (she's in Carteret County substituting for an ailing colleague).

Still, Knott seems to find more time for lovin' than for sleuthin', during her stay on the coast enjoying amorous interludes (the first one interrupted) with two men, the one an old flame from her law school days, the other a red hot new one.  This will please mystery readers who are interested in relationship drama and who want their detectives to have eventful love lives. I, on the other hand, was wanting Maron to give readers a little more of that old time detection (it's good enough for me).

There are clues and indications to culpritude, though Knott follows the wrong trail and only realizes who the killer is when this person seems about to do her in next.  One and only one material clue ties this person to the murder, but it is a good clue.

Overall, Shooting at Loons struck me as a worthy detective novel.  If it's not a top flight modern mystery, it does occasionally take wing and soar.

For another modern southern mystery, more whimsical than Maron's but quite enjoyable, see my review of Bill Crider's A Mammoth Murder (2006).

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Everyone Hates a Critic: The Christie Caper (1991), by Carolyn Hart

When I was reading The Christie Caper, it occurred to me that the book's author, Cozy Queen Carolyn Hart (soon to be MWA Grand Master Carolyn Hart), not only shares the same first name as Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym for the Nancy Drew mystery authors, but also Carolyn Wells, who published mysteries from 1907 to 1942.

I wonder whether in any of her "Death on Demand" series novels Hart has ever mentioned Carolyn Wells (if not, Wells must be about the only writer she has never mentioned), because the two women seem to share certain affinities as crime fiction authors, most obviously a liking for murders set in "nice" surroundings, a classic cozy trope.

Hart's Death on Demand series, which she launched in 1987, has reached 23 novels as of last year.  She has two other series, together accounting for 11 novels.  I believe her fiction writing career started with 5 juvenile mysteries, the first one published before I was born (now that's old).  Between 1985 and 1987 she also published 9 non-series crime novels.  In 2003 she published another non-series book, Letter from Home, and in 2012 one of those darn cat mysteries, What the Cat Saw (is this the start of another series?).

Carolyn Hart

By my calculation, that makes an even fifty mysteries, but I see interviews with her as of last year say 51, so I must be missing something.  In any event, that many popular novels over a half-century makes Hart a significant presence in the mystery world, a fact being recognized this year by the Mystery Writers of America.  She is also someone who clearly knows and loves the classical, or as she would say, traditional, mystery, for which I salute her.

Hart's The Christie Caper is the seventh Death on Demand book, about Annie Laurance Darling and her lowcountry South Carolina mystery bookstore "Death on Demand."  By this book she's married to Max Darling, who, we're told several times, looks just like one of the Hardy Boys grown up--the blonde one, whichever one that one was (Shaun Cassidy played him in the TV series).  Max comes with a mother-in-law, Laurel Darling Roethke, a much-married comic sexpot (there's a vulgar acronym for this "type" today, but this is a family blog, of course, so I won't spell it out).  Then there's Frank Saulter, chief of police, and Brice Willard Posey, the spectacularly stupid circuit solicitor.

a critic at work
What drew me to this one is that it details murder at a mystery convention, organized by Annie, in honor of Agatha Christie's 100th birthday.  It all looks to come off brilliantly, but then it turns out there's a turd in the punchbowl, in the form of tough guy mystery critic--he has a fanzine devoted to hard-boiled mystery--Neil C. Bledsoe.

Neil seems determined to make an absolute ass out of himself, in every way possible.  Apparently, Neil thinks hard-boiled mysteries are the only acceptable form of crime writing.  He despises cozies and wants everyone at the "Christie Caper" convention to know it.

It gets really ugly when Neil declares he is publishing a book that is going to expose Christie as a scheming tart.

Now everyone at the convention is in a positive tizzy.  Next thing you know, shots are fired at Bledsoe, then a vase is is pushed off a ledge, above where he is sitting.  Is a deranged Christie fan at work???

Eventually there is a death, then another and yet another.  This all happens only in the second half of the book, which made the first half of the book rather slow going for me (I do like me murders, guvnor).

A lot of the book felt padded to me, with Christie trivia (I enjoyed this at first, but then got tired of it as it went on and on); the dotty antics of mother-in-law Laurel (I couldn't figure out why she kept insisting on talking about Poe at an Agatha Christie convention--maybe this was an inside joke about the Edgars versus the Agathas?); intervals of "love" (i.e., sex, demurely described) between Annie and Max; and, lordy!, lots of food (Hart constantly refers to one male character as "chunky," but by the end of the book I was expecting her to start describing Annie as such, with all the food she was putting away). Of course one person's padding is another person's pleasure--so to speak!

a killer cozy convention
The plot is certainly a classic style plot, although most Christie fans may be be able to deduce what's up for precisely that reason (i.e., we've all seen this one before).

The official investigators being idiots, it's left to the amateurs, Annie and Max, to pursue the culprit when murder strikes (Max, who seems to be something of a handsome layabout, has a "consulting" firm, we're told, but it's definitely not a private detective agency). They are aided by Lady Gwendolyn Tompkins, "England's reigning Crime Queen."

Lady Gwendolyn without a doubt was my favorite character in the book, enough so that I regret Hart never launched a Lady Gwendolyn "Crime Queen" series of mysteries.  Has she ever appeared in other Death on Demand novels?

The amateur investigation seems to be conducted by Max and Lady Gwendolyn mainly over the telephone (oh! the long distance bills!), with computers making barely a blip.  For her part, Annie interviews all the suspects at the convention, so that the investigation gets a bit repetitious.  Still, I think Annie reaches the solution through legitimate clues--though being  such a Christie fan she should have spotted the plot sooner!

Hart does provide a nice twist ending, about which I cannot say more without risking spoiling for those who have not read the book.  I have one other Death on Demand book on Kindle, A Little Class on Murder (#5, where, I believe, Annie teaches a class on mysteries) and probably will read it sometime this year.  However, I can't really say that The Christie Caper fired me with enthusiasm to immediately read another book in this series.

Overall, I didn't find the writing in The Christie Caper memorable, nor did I get, for the most part, a strong sense of characters and place from the book.  If you compare the Death on Demand books, set in South Carolina, with Margaret Maron's North Carolina mysteries, for example, I think you will have to admit that the Marons are stronger in these respects.

Margaret Maron

Hart keeps telling us how sexually magnetic Neil is, despite being an obnoxious, sexist, cozy-hating pig and all, but I kept thinking of the adage, show don't tell. She never convinced me that he would draw any other reaction than disgust.

Similarly, the whole thing with the convention panicking about the Christie scandal book just seemed silly. Heck, if people thought Agatha Christie actually was having it off a century ago with Eden Phillpotts that probably would only increase interest in her work!  How interesting that would be were it really true (it's not, of course; there does appear to have been a sexual scandal in Phillpotts' life I only recently found out about, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Christie).

Tuppence (Francesca Annis)
 and Tommy (James Warwick)
still the classic cozy crime couple

Nevertheless, I think I can see the appeal of The Christie Caper if you are looking for a light escapist series mystery read.

For my part, I certainly would love to be the owner of Annie's bookstore, where it seems she mostly just has to answer the phone to take all the orders that keep pouring in.  And no doubt whichever Hardy Boy he looks like, Max makes a wonderful fashion accessory (I just knew at the Agatha Christie costume party Annie and Max were going to be Tuppence and Tommy).

For me, however, the most striking thing about The Christie Caper is the animus directed against hard-boiled mysteries and the true crime genre.  Hart's characters repeatedly make comments to the effect that it is the cozies that are the realistic books, because they are about the sort of people most readers know.

This depends on the reader, of course, but I would argue that probably most people most readers know aren't involved in murder, so in this sense the genteel murder mysteries are less realistic. Still, there's no question that hard-boiled mysteries can be heavily stylized and romanticized, in their own tough way.

However, I've never been sympathetic to demands for hyper-realism, anyway.  I like the stylized approaches of the classic stuff, be it tough or "traditional."  I was pelased to find that Hart likes the novels of Raymond Chandler; apparently she's not as anti-hard-boiled as one might think from a reading of The Christie Caper.

Since I've mentioned Margaret Maron, I've decided I should review something by her next, to give a more positive appraisal of a so-called modern "cozy" writer.  I also think I'll try to take a look at Hart's non-series and Agatha-winning Letter from Home, which unlike any of her other books, I think, is set in her native Oklahoma.  It's interesting to me, given my work with the Oklahoma Choctaw mystery writer Todd Downing, who taught at the University of Oklahoma in the 1920s and 1930s, that Hart is a 1958 OU graduate. I myself have Oklahoma family connections on my father's side.

Between them Hart and Maron account for, I believe, twenty Agatha best novel nominations and seven wins, an impressive tally that no one else really challenged until the Louise Penny steamroller came along!

Friday, February 21, 2014

"A Nice, Clean, White-Collared Murder": Thoughts on Detective Fiction from Carolyn Wells' The Missing Link (1938)

For Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene I wrote an essay last year on Carolyn Wells, about whom I have written here a fair bit, in part because we needed another essay on writers who began writing mystery fiction in the gaslight era, in part because I thought we could use another essay on a woman writer and in part because, after all, Wells was a boyhood favorite of locked room mystery king John Dickson Carr and in his biography of Carr Doug has a wonderful anecdote about Carr, Fredric Dannay (of Ellery Queen) and Wells.

I recently found the following passage on page one of one of Wells' late mysteries, The Missing Link (1938).  It's not a good book (sadly, few of Wells' books after the early 1920s are any good and indeed many are, as documented by Bill Pronzini in Gun in Cheek, "alternative" classics), but this passage I thought might be of interest:

A reader of detective stories was [Leif] Murray, and of the traditional sort.  Like the oft described statesmen, members of Parliament, presidents, kings and even the clergy, he reveled in mystery yarns, if they were good ones.

His notion of  a good one was a tale whose interest depended on originality of plot and cleverness of workmanship.  One that presented a real puzzle to the intellectual reader.

He wanted no underworld characters, no gangster's work, no torture chambers or oubliettes, but rather a nice, clean, white-collared murder, with plenty of problems for a ratiocinative mind.

I do share Wells' admiration for a good puzzle (I hope I have a "ratiocinative mind"), though I don't know about that "nice, clean, white-collared murder" part.  I'm pretty certain murder isn't nice and I believe blood shows on white collars.

However, I am reading a certain cozy by Carolyn Hart and will let you know what I think. Can Hart fans guess which title I selected?  I notice some people complain about all the mystery references in her books, but, as you might guess, I rather like those!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Just Ask a Policeman: Six Against the Yard (1936), by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Russell Thorndike

Six Against the Yard, often erroneously stated to be a product of the Detection Club (five of the six contributors of stories in Six were Detection Club members) is a cleverly-presented collection of six long (about 10,000 words each on average) crime stories.

In Six, authors Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Russell Thorndike present supposed "perfect" fictional murders, which a real Scotland Yard man, the recently-retired George W. Cornish, tries to show are not so perfect after all.

When I first read this book back in the 1990s I thought it a clever exercise in crime fiction, but on rereading it I find I am perhaps more struck by how it illustrates the different fictional approaches of the various authors.  I will try to show below just what I mean.

"It Didn't Work Out," by Margery Allingham

I'm telling you all this because I want to understand why I did what I did do and where I made my mistake, my terrible mistake....

Allingham's brilliant murder story is one of three tales in the collection told in the first person by the culprit (an inverted murder).

Former music hall performer Polly Oliver (born Margaret Hawkins and writing this account, we're told, under the name "Margery Allingham") tells why and how she resorted to murder to free a woman friend from an abominable husband.

Besides boasting an ingenious murder and a murder scene that would film beautifully (there is terrific tension), Allingham's tale has great poignancy--a hallmark of much of the author's writing, I think. Among the Crime Queens she always seems to me the writer with "heart." She has a rare capacity to make the reader empathize with her characters.

Ex-Superintendent Cornish notes in his response that he had to remind himself Allingham's account "was only a story....the highest compliment I can pay to Miss Allingham's skill in the creation of character and atmosphere...."  Quite right!

"The Fallen Idol," by Ronald Knox

....was not Enrique Gamba the Inspirer of the Magnolian Commonwealth; and was not any slight put upon him apt to be regarded in the light of unpatriotic activity?...There was rejoicing, therefore, in the streets of San Taddeo, and many were the huzzas raised, and caps thrown into the air, especially among the citizens who stood nearest to the police, and had reason to suppose that the police were looking.

Knox's tale of the murder of an anticlerical Latin American strongman has some sharp sardonic writing that gives it resonance right up to today. Knox himself was a prominent English priest and the author of six detective novels, plus that classic crime story "Solved by Inspection" (see here for a review of one of his crime novels).

"Idol" frustrated me, however, because, alone among the tales in this collection, it is cast as a pure puzzle, not an inverted mystery (where we know who the murder is from the start); and Knox leaves the solution up to poor Cornish to divine.  Is Cornish right?  Who knows?  I'd like to see some keen mystery writer minds go to work on this one.

I also should note Cornish's confident assertion in his response that, unlike in Magnolia, "'third degree' methods...would never be tolerated in Britain."

"The Policeman Only Taps Once," by Anthony Berkeley

I was born in Connecticut when Connecticut was really tough.  And was it tough!  Believe you me, a guy that was born in Connecticut round about then wouldn't need any asbestos suit in the next world. Hell'd feel a sweet, cool breeze to him after Connecticut.

Berkeley's tale is one of the great Golden Age mystery satires, a take-down of what he obviously saw as the "ungentlemanly" tough school of American crime fiction (the title of the story of course is a play on James M. Cain's popular and seminal 1934 noir novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Our tough guy narrator, the aptly-named Eddie Tuffun (amusingly not from Chicago, as Berkeley knew his readers would expect, but rather Connecticut), had a "swell racket" going in the States. We never learn what it was, actually, as Eddie writes as if everyone has extensive knowledge of rackets. However, cops being what they are, Eddie had to hop it for his own good to England, where he is a bit of ye olde bullock in ye olde china shoppe.  This gives rise to such exchanges as:

"Can't you understand English?"
"Not like the way you English talk it."

Eddie hits on a new (and very old) "racket": marrying a rich English dame.  He finds one and promptly weds her, memorably declaring: "I could always size up a dame with both eyes shut."  However, things don't quite go as Eddie expected them to and he soon finds himself planning his bride's murder.

There is a twist, but most readers will probably be able to see it well ahead of time, especially if they happen to have read a certain Richard Hull novel that came out a couple years earlier.  The crime itself is probably the least interesting in the book, and Cornish in my opinion makes pretty short work of it in his response.  However, the glory of the tale is in its satire, a field in which Berkeley excelled.

I note this warning from Cornish: "Like her husband, she apparently thinks that Kate [the housemaid] is 'dumb.'  A great many people do think that about their servants, but the average domestic is by no means as stupid as her employer imagines."

"The Strange Death of Major Scallion," by Russell Thorndike

"How goes it, old man?  Very well, I see.  You've looked after Number One and no mistake.  Your memsahib's been telling me everything in the garden's a wow."

Memsahib and wow.  That such words should be used in our home.

Best known for his Doctor Syn novels, Thorndike in his contribution to Six has his murderer draw on a murder committed by Doctor Syn (nice plug!).  It is a remarkably nasty killing, like something out of one of Vincent Price's Doctor Phibes films.

Verily, Major Scallion is objectionable, but....Well, read it for yourself.  It is a compulsively-told tale, even if Cornish thinks the murderer would not have had a prayer of getting away with his crime.

"Blood Sacrifice," by Dorothy L. Sayers

And all Mr. Scales could do was to pocket the wages of sin and curse Mr Drury, who had (so pleasantly) ruined his work, destroyed his reputation, alienated his friends, exposed him to the contempt of critics and forced him to betray his own soul.

It's interesting to compare Sayers' tale in Six with Allingham's, as both are set in the world of the stage.

Although I enjoyed both tales, I have to admit I was more moved by Allingham's.

Sayers tells of a "true artist" playwright who nevertheless sells his play to a celebrated actor-manager who promptly adulterates its hard-hitting anti-war message with mawkish sentiment.  What to do? Why, murder of course!

It is easy to see the plight of the playwright, John Scales, reflecting for Sayers, who was in between her novels Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon at this time (the latter work actually began in 1936 as a stage play), her own struggle to rise above "mere puzzle" detective fiction and produce "real literature."

I get Sayers' point, but I find the problems faced by the protagonist in Allingham's story more affecting. However, Sayers does present readers with a fascinating philosophical problem with her tale's "murder": is it really murder at all?

"The Parcel," Freeman Wills Crofts

To Stewart Haslar his idea as to how Henry Blunt might be safely murdered soon became an impersonal problem like those he had dealt with when managing chain stores in Australia. Once its thrill and horror had worn off he set to work on it with his customary systematic thoroughness.

The mild-mannered and intensely religious former railway engineer Freeman Wills Crofts presents us with a Golden Age version of the methods of the Unabomber in his story.

As usual with Crofts, murder is meticulously carried out, in  a parable-like story.  His murderer, brought to this criminal pass by a fatal flaw (gambling addiction, a recurring failing in Crofts characters), plots to destroy his tormentor with a homemade bomb, sent through the mail. Will Cornish be able to dismantle Crofts' mechanically "perfect" murder? Read it and see.

Indeed, read the whole book.  It's an enticing piece of crime fiction.

Six Against the Yard once was a very rare book, but it was reprinted in Britain last year by HarperCollins, for which I commend them, though it would have been nice had they listed all six contributors on the cover.

Instead, on the cover HC lists only Allingham and Sayers and, in addition, the name of Agatha Christie is given in bigger letters than those of Allingham and Sayers.  Why is Agatha Christie's name there at all, you may ask?  Because they've added a true crime essay by Christie to the book.  Dame Agatha is everywhere these days, it seems, even on books with which she had nothing to do originally.

I would have liked to have included a photo of George Cornish, but didn't have the rights, so here is a link.  Expect to see more on him in the coming days....

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

J. J. Connington is in The Murder Room

Alfred Walter Stewart
(J. J. Connington)
Having written Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, about British Golden Age mystery writers Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart, I am pleased that Orion Books' Murder Room imprint have fifteen of Stewart's J. J. Connington detective novels out now.

The newer eBook editions have a 4600 word introduction on the Connington novels written by me especially for this series.  Of course there's much more on Connington in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, but these Murder Room reprints are a good place to start!

Three of the Connington titles, Murder in the Maze, The Castleford Conundrum and The Tau Cross Mystery (In Whose Dim Shadow) have been published in paperback editions from Coachwhip as well).  Both the Coachwhip and Murder Room editions are available from Amazon.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Todd Downing Reviews: February 18, 1934

Todd Downing
I thought you might be interested in seeing what Todd Downing's crime fiction reviews in the Daily Oklahoman were on this date eighty years ago.

Todd Downing, a Choctaw instructor at the University of Oklahoma who has has been mentioned here, oh, a time or two (there's also a great deal about Jim Thompson in that one piece), published nine praised detective novels between 1933 and 1941.

During roughly that time he also reviewed almost 300 mysteries in the Oklahoman. He was not one of those mystery writers who said, oh, I never read anyone else's mysteries, but rather was an avid fan of the stuff himself, some of his favorite writers being Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, H. C. Bailey, Ellery Queen and Rufus King.

On February 18, 1934 he reviewed three mysteries:

The Mysterious Madames, by Simone d'Erigny

Translations of French mystery yarns continue to some of the fans must like them....not to discourage those whose tastes differ, this won last year's Prix du Roman d'Aventures and certainly lacks nothing in the way of mustached detectives, taxicab dashes across Paris and women of mystery who leave behind them anonymous correspondence, whiffs of exotic perfume and other knickknacks....

Though Downing spoke five languages (English, Choctaw, Spanish, French and Italian) and taught foreign languages at OU, he disliked most (though not all) of the French crime novels he reviewed in the 1930s.  Most people today seem to think Georges Simenon was the only French-language mystery writer who was translated into English back then, but in fact there were a number of others, the vogue for French mysteries in the early 1930s being somewhat akin to that for Scandinavian mysteries today.

"Judge Lynch" of the Saturday Review did not like The Mysterious Madames either, declaring that if this novel won a French literary prize, he hoped "nobody publishes the runners-up."  Ouch!

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

The highbrows have been so enthusiastic about Mr. Hammett's latest hard-boiled melange of dialogue, liquor and murder that we suppose it will be all right if we permit ourselves a few superlatives from the mystery fan angle....

Downing loved classic mystery, yet he also gave favorable (sometimes rave) reviews to hard-boiled/noir authors like Hammett, James M. Cain and Jonathan Latimer.

Miss Temple and Mr. Cobb
Murder Day by Day, by Irvin S. Cobb

The only faults one can find with Mr. Cobb's incursion into the blood and bafflement field are on the score of lack of originality and obvious padding....

Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb (1876-1944), originally from Paducah, Kentucky, was an American journalist and author best known in his day for his prolific southern local color and humor stories, but today may be best remembered (among Lovecraftians, anyway) for his horror fiction, which is said to have influenced the great man himself, H. P. Lovecraft.* 

(for confirmation, see leading Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi's A Dreamer and a Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in His Time on Lovecraft and Cobb's stories "The Unbroken Chain" and "Fishhead"; also see here for a great podcast on "Fishhead," which is set about two hours north of where I live)

Cobb also was involved with films, as a writer and an actor, and, incidentally, hosted the 1935 Academy Awards, at which the now recently passed away Shirley Temple (1928-2014) received her famous miniature Oscar.

Murder Day by Day may be reviewed any day at this blog....

For more on the books Todd Downing assessed in his newspaper reviews and on his life and crime fiction too, see my Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.  His crime fiction has recently been reprinted in very nice editions by Coachwhip Publications and is available on Amazon as well.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Brought to Light: The Dark Room (1995), Minette Walters

There was a lot of good British crime fiction published in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was in high school, college and graduate school, by what I think of as the "Silver Age" of detective fiction generation, those who were actually born during the Golden Age of detective fiction (c. 1920-1940): P. D. James, Ruth Rendell (and Barbara Vine), Caroline Graham, Dorothy Simpson, H. R. F. Keating, Reginald Hill, Peter Lovesey, Robert Barnard and others.

A writer born after WW2 who joined the ranks of these authors in the 1990s was Minette Walters.  In rapid succession she published the much-praised trio of novels The Ice House (1992), The Sculptress (1993) and The Scold's Bridle (1994).  I had never read her next book The Dark Room (1995) and in fact did not like some of her later ones; but having mentioned her in a recent blog post I decided to take a look back at some of her work again.

In The Dark Room, we are dealing with that old chestnut, the person who wakes up in the hospital, afflicted with memory loss.

In this case, it's only the last few weeks that the woman, Jinx Kingsley (prominent photographer and millionaire's daughter, as the back of the book blurb says), has forgotten. The police believe she has twice attempted suicide in that interval, and worse news is yet to come.  It seems there has been a savage double sledgehammer murder, and Jinx and the various members of her family are implicated....

This is a smoothly written book that reads quickly despite its length, as is characteristic of the better modern crime fiction, in my view.  In her 2002 Desert Island Discs interview, Walters spoke of her work as a "clash" between Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith and I think this is a fairly apt characterization.

In many of her books, especially in the 1990s, Walters deals with the village and upper class white social milieus that are familiar from classic British crime fiction from the 1930s. Of course there is also a greater coarseness and franker depiction of "unpleasantness," with a good sprinkling of f-words and sexual material, as well as, in The Dark Room, some thuggish, misogynistic cops.

For all that, however, The Dark Room is really not so different from Christie.  Lower-class characters are practically invisible, and those that one does see tend not to be impressive specimens.  There is also a parvenu rich family that wants to marry into the landed gentry. Then there's the stage" gay character (i.e., campy as hell, with a lot of darlings! and I mean, reallys! and such) and though black people are referred to, they remain out of the picture.

Even the pathologies with which Walters deals are not unknown in what P. D. James dismissively and uncharitably refers to as "Christie-land."  Christie so rarely gets credit for the darkness of some of her books (And Then There Were None, Endless Night) or her willingness to deal with outright mania.

When I finished The Dark Room I found myself thinking, well, it's really not so different from, say, Christie's Murder Is Easy (this is not a tip-off to the identity of the culprit in The Dark Room). And of course Christie is famous for her unreliable focal characters and the reader will be wondering for much of The Dark Room just how reliable Jinx is with her recovered memories.

All in all, Walters has fashioned a suspenseful and complex narrative that is reminiscent of Christie's crime fiction, as well as Ruth Rendell's (though it's not really a fair play mystery, unfortunately).

I did feel a certain hollowness when I finished the book, however.  I doubt the characters will stay with me as they do in the best work of James and Rendell (or, dare I say, Christie). Even Caroline Graham's less obviously ambitious Written in Blood had stronger characterization, I think. In the end, Walters' book comes off mostly as an exercise in narrative cleverness, which, ironically, is precisely what a lot people say when they want to dismiss Agatha Christie.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Emma Lou Fetta and Fashionable Murder

I recently completed a 4000-word article for the forthcoming Spring issue of CADS: Crime and Detective Stories titled "Killer Fashions: The Detective Novels of Emma Lou Fetta."  Emma Lou who, you may be asking? Well, with Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club she published three enjoyable detective novels between 1939 and 1941: Murder in Style, Murder on the Face of It and Dressed to Kill.

One of the things that struck me when reading these novels is that they are such early takes on murder in the high fashion industry (especially the first one).  I imagine the best-known Golden Age book in this vein is Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), but Fetta's books are much more positive, it seems to me, in their embrace of the idea of professional careers for women.  They also offer complexly plotted murder problems and an appealing amateur sleuth in fashion designer Susan Yates.

Although Yates does sometimes go out to ill-advised, mysterious midnight rendezvous, she is emphatically not an HIBK-style character and most emphatically not one of those tiresomely helpless Mignon Eberhart limp dishrag ingenues.

Rather, Yates is part of a sleuthing couple with assistant district attorney Lyle Curtis--and rather the better half when it comes to the sleuthing.  Part of the fun of these books is following the development of Yates' relationship with Curtis, who is a most sensible male, not at all threatened by Yates' career and sleuthing capabilities.

I am pleased to say these books, out-of-print for over seventy years, will soon be out in stylish new editions.  And that issue of CADS will be out next month too.  I'll be sure to keep you informed!

P.S.  Hope to have a long book review up on Sunday!  Now that the CADS piece is done, I should be getting more reviews posted.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stranded with Phyllis, Julian and Minette

Julian Symons
We've been talking about the influence still exerted, in varying degrees, by English crime writers Julian Symons and P. D. James--authors of respectively, the crime genre studies Bloody Murder and Talking About Detective Fiction--on people's conceptions of Golden Age crime fiction, so I thought you might find these radio interviews they gave for the BBC Desert Island Discs program interesting (the conceit of the program, for those who are not familiar with it, is that guests choose the eight records/discs they would take with them to a desert island).

Symons' interview dates back to May 15, 1982.

He gets into it a little bit, in that polite British way, with the presenter when the latter seems to speak slightingly of crime fiction.  Symons' great literary cause was the have crime fiction taken more seriously.

When I listened to this, I realized that I had never heard Symons' voice before!  I love his accent.

Julian Symons (1912-1994) 15 May 1982

P. D. James' interview dates back to October 27, 2002.

There is quite a bit about James' difficult personal life.  Whatever my disagreements with James' pronouncements on crime fiction, I must say I find her such an impressive person. She overcame considerable adversity, ultimately utterly triumphing in life's battles.  I think this surely explains her pronounced need for structure and order in her books.

Her musical selections are almost entirely classical music, by the way, which I did not find surprising. When the Baroness really cuts loose, she listen to Vivaldi.

P. D. James (b. 1920) 27 October 2002

P. D. James

And here's one with Minette Walters, author of some amazing crime novels back in the 1990s, that I have only just started listening to.  Here are a few bits from the write-up on the page that I found interesting.

From the bio on Walters:

After Minette Walter' father died of injuries sustained in World War II she won a scholarship to Godolphin School, and eventually became Head Girl.  From a young age she shunned girls' story books, preferring the more gripping Biggles and later, Agatha Christie.  Her ambition was to be a writer.

Note how WW2 greatly impacted, in the most personal ways, both her life and that of P D. James.

She says of her then fairly recent book The Dark Room:

"There is virtually no comparison with Agatha Christie--it's much deeper and darker and more naturalistic, realistic, gritty.  That's why I put 'fart' in the first paragraph, because, I thought, whoever reads the first page of this book is not going to think they are reading an Agatha Christie!"

Minette Walters
A bit dismissive of Dame Agatha, I think!  But here's another definition, I suppose of "cozy" (at least according to Walters): No references to flatulence!

She calls her "claustrophobic" first crime novel The Ice House a "clash" between Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith (her favorite crime writer).  I do think she's underrating the dark elements in Agatha Christie (again, you can't get much more claustrophobic and grim than And Then There Were None--how do people like Walters so routinely ignore this book, the bestselling crime novel in history?).

Her first disc selection is Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", which rather sets her apart from P. D. James, to be sure!*

*(Walters was born three years after the late Queen front man, Freddie Mercury).

Minette Walters (b. 1949) 30 June 2002

There are also interviews with Ngaio Marsh (1968, sadly not available), Patricia Cornwell, James Ellroy, and I am sure other crime writers!  Check 'em out.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What Feels Cozy to You? More Discussion about the Cozy Mystery

Nice to see others publicly perplexed about just what really constitutes a "cozy" mystery.

Lawrence Block?

P. D. James?

Cozy or Gory?
since the publication nearly thirty
years ago of A Taste for Death
editions have stressed the
grisly killing razor and blood
as the main design motifs
P. D. James talks a lot about her love of structure and order in life and how her books offer a measure of comfort in that some form of order is restored at the end, but such an order this is!

The existing order in P. D. James novels is one where most people seem pretty miserable most of the time. I don't find misery "cozy" personally. Not to mention the murders often are horrifying, with all manner of unpleasant details.

I suppose James' later books, when she allows Dalgleish some measure of personal happiness, are cozier.  Also there are elements in the books that I see as cozy, like lots of detail about old English architecture and interior decoration; "well-bred" English people who invariably speak in long sentences of impeccable grammar; and, of course, tea (Ovaltine, even!).

I do recall a cat in one--although it was strung up by the murderer to try to lure its owner outside her (cozy) cottage to be killed as I recall.*

*(note to concerned cozyistas: I think cat and owner both survived, happily--TPT)

The pair in the youtube clip above, Jim Parsons and Craig Ferguson, both seem to agree that Agatha Christie is cozy.

Yet even there, I don't know.  Is And Then There Were None cozy (it's definitely an isolated community)? Ordeal by Innocence? Endless Night?  Even a village mystery like Murder Is Easy I wouldn't call cozy (multiple murders of nice people and then the murderer turns out to be....well, read it for yourself if you haven't). Maybe there should be a "cozy-ish" category.

Though this may be too limiting, I guess in my mind I often tend to think of "cozy" more as "cutesy," which would be something like, I think, this book by Ellery Adams.  Okay, I'm judging a book by its cover, but from that cover it's seemingly got about everything you would want in a cutesy-cozy:

Now this looks cozy!
Come in and sit a spell....
it has a playful title (not a pun, but it rhymes; for a bad pun see the previous book in the series, Pies and Prejudice)

it involves food (better yet, it's dessert; ideally there should be some recipes in the text too)

it's part of a series (a charmed pie shoppe mystery we're told--extra points are given for giving the word "shop" a ye olde English spelling--this gives readers series characters with whom they can identify in book after book)

it has an animal (I suppose ideally it should be a cat, but other animals are permissible I think, as long as they're cute as the dickens)

there is a pretty pastel cover design (I'm reminded of those M. C. Beaton Hamish Macbeth covers that always make me want to go to Britain immediately to live in a thatch-covered cottage)

It's also authored by a woman (despite the ambiguous name), which probably helps.  Do men really write real cozies, at least under their own names?  There's Dean James, who books sound genuinely cozy in the strictest sense, but he writes them as Miranda James.

I'd love to think that Ian Rankin, say, secretly writes cozies under the name Isidora Ramekin.

I'm planning on tackling a couple by Carolyn Hart books next week, so there will be more on this subject, since she is seen as sort of a modern cozy founding mother.  I've been busy this week trying to get an article on another author done for CADS, but I expect to be back on track next week.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Worsleying Around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Two: Crime Queens, Absent Kings and Ladies in Waiting

There are six short chapters by Lucy Worlsey in the Golden Age section of her book A Very British Murder

The Women Between the Wars (on the Crime Queens)
The Duchess of Death (on Agatha Christie)
A Life Less Ordinary (on Dorothy L. Sayers)
The Great Game (on the Detection Club)
Snobbery with Violence  and The Dangerous Edge of Things (on the decline of the Golden Age detective novel)

Before Worsley gets there, however, she makes this observation, in her chapter on the infamous Victorian-era Constance Kent murder case (much in vogue right now after the recent publication of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, though John Street published a book on this affair over 85 years ago):

Kate Summerscale points out the damage done to the standing of the professional policeman in the 1860s and 1870s was transferred to their image in literature as well.  All the great fictional detectives until the Second Would War--Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion--are amateurs or private investigators.

Let's unpack this passage.  First, does Worsley mean to say that there were only four "great fictional detectives" before WW2?  If so, by what means has she reached this conclusion?  And why does she omit Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn, of whom she later notes that he is "a detective from Scotland Yard who often investigates crime in upper-class circles"? Granted, it can be argued that Alleyn, especially during the Golden Age, is hard to distinguish from his aristocratic amateur counterparts, yet, nevertheless, he is a Scotland Yard tec.

Odd Sleuth Out: Roderick Alleyn (Patrick Malahyde)

In fact, there were numerous fictional police sleuth protagonists in Golden Age British detective fiction.  In my review last year of Books to Die For, I mention some of them.  I will do so again:

Henry Wade's Inspector Poole; Michael Innes' Inspector Appleby; J. J. Connington's Chief Constable Clinton Driffield; Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant; E. C. R. Lorac's Inspector Macdonald; G. D. H and Margaret Cole's Superintendent Wilson; Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French; A. Fielding's Inspector Pointer; E. R. Punshon's Inspector Carter and Sergeant Bell and later Sergeant Bobby Owen; Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef; and numerous Edgar Wallace sleuths.

Eight of these authors were members of the Detection Club, an organization to which Worsley devotes a chapter, so she should be familiar with them (she mentions "the very successful Freeman Wills Crofts" once, but only in noting that he was a railway engineer).

Freeman Wills Crofts: Creator of Inspector French

Of course there were other prominent Golden Age writers who employed amateur sleuths in their novels.  But the key point in this context is this: if the outcome of the Constance Kent case was so fatal to the portrayal of policemen in English crime fiction (in Worsley's view its impact still was felt nearly eighty years later!), wherefore these prominent police detective protagonists in Golden Age English crime fiction?

This reflects a basic problem with Worsley's approach to the Golden Age, however.  She is reluctant to look beyond a few authors, namely our usual suspects the Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

To her credit, Worsley is quite up front about this.  In "The Women Between the Wars" she writes that

One of the most distinctive features of the Golden Age is the fact that its longest lasting and best remembered writers were female.  Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh--the four Queens of Crime--came, at least in retrospect, to dominate our picture of crime-writing in the 1930s.  Why did these women come to the fore, and why are they still read today more often than their brilliantly talented male counterparts Nicholas Blake and G. K. Chesterton?

A lot to unpack here.  Is Ngaio Marsh in fact more read today than G. K. Chesterton? Was she more read than Chesterton in the 1930s?

Invisible Man? G. K. Chesterton

Ngaio Marsh published her first detective novel only in 1934, after much of the Golden Age had passed, while Allinhgam published her first mystery at about its halfway point.  It was really only in the 1940s and 1950s that the concept of four Golden Age British Crime Queens gelled.  While that historical gelling process in and of itself is interesting, the real story of what actually occurred in the Golden Age is more complex and the players on the stage more varied.

Worsley seems to concede this earlier in the passage when she refers to the four women as a group only in retrospect coming to dominate our picture of 1930s crime writing. But if in fact four "Crime Queens" did not dominate the period, why write about only them in a book on the Golden Age of detective fiction?  Isn't she perpetuating a false perception of genre history by doing so?

Worsley isn't even really saying that the Crime Queens were superior to all the other British mystery writers of the period (well, she is saying that of Sayers, I think; see below) and that they should be the only British mystery writers from the period studied, because she concedes that Blake and Chesterton, for example, were "brilliantly talented" (I assume she's referring to their crime writing as well as their other literary endeavors).

I am not trying to diminish the worth or significance of the Crime Queens, the writing of all of whom I have enjoyed over many years now (even Ngaio Marsh, who can exasperate me sometimes). However, it seems to me that in general studies of the Golden Age of detective fiction the Crime Queens should not be the only writers studied.

Nor, for that matter, should we ignore important British women writers from the Golden Age--writers we might designate "ladies in waiting"--who don't happen to be officially designated "Crime Queens," such as Gladys Mitchell ("The Great Gladys"), Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson), Josephine Bell, E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) and women who were crime writers though not detective novelists, like Ethel Lina White, Marie Belloc Lowndes and Joseph Shearing (Marjorie Bowen).

Ironically, given Worsley's coronation of the Crime Queens, she seems really only much interested in the work of Christie and Sayers, or, really, when it comes to it, merely that of Sayers.

"What impresses about the four Queens is not so much their work (though I would make the case for Dorothy L. Sayers as one of the great writers of the twentieth century) but the way in which they set about doing it," Worsley tellingly pronounces.

From Worsley we don't learn about the writing of Allingham or Marsh, just a bit about their "unconventional" lives.  It is Christie and Sayers who get full chapters to themselves. Yet the chapter on Christie is extremely superficial about Christie's work, Worsley, like P. D. James, being convinced that Christie's books are simply comforting little puzzles "where the confusion, dismay and broken relationships she had experienced are simplified into the more straightforward world of detective fiction."

As if anything in Christie's novels is "straightforward"!  What a misreading and a failure to do justice to the Queen of Crime and the type of fiction she wrote.

In her introduction Lucy Worsley revealingly confides that she grew up "believing I was Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries reborn" (paraphrasing Barbara Walters, at least as sent up by Gilda Radner, "if you were a sleuth, which sleuth would you be?"); and one can easily tell from Worsley's book that Sayers is the one Crime Queen she really admires for her actual work.

Wittily whirling through the Golden Age
Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge)

Yet even here, one suspects that Worsley's veneration mostly is for Sayers' 1935 college mystery, Gaudy Night, which she calls the "sparkling fairy on top of the tree of Sayers' work...a beautiful love story and a serious exploration of whether it was possible, in the 1930s, for women to combine work and marriage."

Worsley feels so strongly about the brilliance of that great sparkling fairy that is Gaudy Night that when she read Julian Symons' dismissive comments about the novel in Bloody Murder, she writes, she "threw Mr. Symons book on the floor and stamped on it."

Julian Symons: evidently not a believer in fairies

Personally, as novels I prefer, among Golden Age mysteries by the Crime Queens, Christie's And Then There Were None, Allingham's Dancers in Mourning and Marsh's Surfeit of Lampreys, for example; but I appreciate that Gaudy Night has a unique hold on a lot of women mystery readers, whether or not it causes them to resort to outraged book-stamping against its critics.  However, there many other glorious, shining riches to be found in Golden Age of detective fiction in addition to Gaudy Night.

In the last part of this review, I will assess Worsley's overall portrayal of the Golden Age detective fiction and her explanations for its "fall."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Worsleying Around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction: A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession (2013), by Lucy Worsley, Part One

The latest book by popular historian and British television presenter Lucy Worsley is A Very British Murder: The Story of  a National Obsession (2013), which details, in about 80, 000 words, Britain's remarkable fascination with murder in fact and fiction since around 1800 into the mid-twentieth century.  It is the companion volume to a 2013 three-part British television program.

About a-third of the book's text addresses the Golden Age of detective fiction.  This is what I shall deal with here, as this is my special area of interest in the mystery genre.

In her note on sources, Worsley particularly highlights the following works:

Judith Flanders' The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (2010); Rosalind Crone's Violent Victorians (2012); Matthew Sweet's Inventing the Victorians (2001)P. D. James' Talking about Detective Fiction (2009); and Julian Symons' Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972).

This list indicates to me why Worsley's Victorian section is better than her Golden Age section.

Julian Symons' Bloody Murder remains a valuable source on crime fiction, but it is marred, in my view, by the author's determination to drive home his thesis that Golden Age detective fiction was fatally restricted by artificial conventions (the so-called "rules"), making it inevitably inferior to the "crime fiction" of modern times, with its much-heralded psychological and social realism.  And P. D. James' Talking about Detective Fiction, a very brief book of about 45,000 words or so, is more problematic than Bloody Murder as a source for a general history, in my opinion.

James shares Symons' view that modern crime fiction is clearly superior to Golden Age detective fiction, though she is more favorable than Symons to the Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (on the other hand, Symons is more favorable to Agatha Christie).

James is always an elegant and enjoyable writer, but in Talking she does not really add to what Symons already did and sometimes gives us much less. James' discussion of American mystery writing, for example, would lead an uninformed reader to believe that virtually all American crime writers wrote hard-boiled mysteries, which is far off the mark indeed.

Relying mostly on James and Symons (Colin Watson's chestnut Snobbery with Violence, 1971 gets tapped too), Worsley has produced an account of the Golden Age that to me is often unsatisfactory.

Lucy Worsley believes that the "cozy" Golden Age mystery
was altogether too twee
to thrive in the twenty-first century

Words from Worsley's introduction sound a warning note:

In the years following the First World War, people wanted leisure reading to numb, not to stimulate, their capacity for experiencing horror.

However, by 1939 something had come to seem a little too cosy about elderly ladies solving puzzles in vicarages.  Graham Greene, with his insights into the mind of a killer, and James Bond, the swaggering spy, made them seem completely old hat.  The old-fashioned detective may dodder on in fiction today, but since the Second World War he or she has been eclipsed by nastier, more violent colleagues in the thriller section.

Yet the years following WW1 also saw the flowering of horror and supernatural literature, as well as highly visceral and lurid thrillers by Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Sax Rohmer and many others.  Then came the psychological crime novels of Anthony Berkeley Cox  and others, and the manners novels of the Crime Queens.  The Golden Age doesn't seem to have been all about artificial and superficial village cozies until the time Hitler launched the German attack on Poland.

Sapper's Bulldog Drummond (Ronald Colman) and "friend"

How many elderly ladies in vicarages solved crime puzzles in the 1930s, anyway? Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley isn't exactly what I would deem a "cozy" lady. Yes, there was Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), but this was in fact the only Miss Marple novel that appeared prior to the outbreak of WW2 (she also appeared in one collection of short stories).

Would most mystery fans in 1939 even have been able to name Miss Marple (Hercule Poirot, yes)?  It's always seemed odd to me that Miss Marple has come to symbolize the alleged coziness of the Golden Age, when in fact almost all her novels were published after the Golden Age ended.

The same point holds for Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver, probably the most famous English spinster detective after Miss Marple.  Of the 32 Miss Silver mysteries, only three appeared before 1940.  29 of them appeared on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean between 1940 and 1961, that period when, according to Worsley, Graham Greene and James Bond (one an author, one a series character) made "elderly ladies...seem completely old hat." Apparently more than a few people in the forties and fifties liked old hats.

Ian Fleming's James Bond (Sean Connery)
looking a lot like Ronald Colman's Bulldog Drummond

Speaking of James Bond, let me clarify that although Worsley makes it sound as if James Bond came along in 1939, obviously she doesn't mean that because later in the book she refers to his first appearing in 1952 (except wasn't it 1953?).  But, in any event, to what extent are Graham Greene and Ian Fleming the prime culprits in the alleged killing off of the classical English detective novel?

There are six short chapters by Worlsey in the Golden Age section of her book:

The Women Between the Wars (on the Crime Queens)
The Duchess of Death (on Agatha Christie)
A Life Less Ordinary (on Dorothy L. Sayers)
The Great Game (on the Detection Club)
Snobbery with Violence  and The Dangerous Edge of Things (on the decline of the Golden Age detective novel)

Next post I will be looking in depth at these chapters and how in my view they tend to come up short analytically.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Stock-taking 4: Of Passing Tramps and Locked Room Kings

Nice nod to The Passing Tramp (along with John Norris' Pretty Sinister) a month ago from Sarah Weinman, at her Off On a Tangent Tumblr page.  Asked for crime fiction blog recommendations, she mentions:

Pretty Sinister and The Passing Tramp - great blogs for vintage crime fiction

Sarah Weinman
I exchanged some emails with Sarah last year, when I was trying to get her for Mysteries Unlocked, the Doug Greene tribute I am editing. Sarah was too busy with promotion for her anthology of domestic suspense crime fiction, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (TDTW), which was just about to be published, to be able to participate, though I know she admires Doug's work with Crippen & Landru publishing neglected stories by such writers as Margaret Millar and Vera Caspary, both of whom have stories anthologized in TDTW.

For my part I share Sarah's admiration for mid-century women suspense writers and would have loved to have had her thoughts on the subject for the book.  But of course there's always TDTW itself.  If you haven't read this book yet, you should.  I need to do a full-length piece on TDTW, but let me just say here that it's a very worthy effort that answers a great need we've had for an anthology of domestic suspense writers, who remain unaccountably neglected by the Library of America (Patricia Highsmith, the least characteristic of the group, excepted).

Michael Dirda
Additionally, The Passing Tramp was mentioned this month by Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer and Edgar Award winning literary critic.  Michael is a great admirer of the ingenious Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr and Carr's biographer, Doug Greene, and contributed an illuminating and elegant essay on the two men for Mysteries Unlocked.

I have reviewed Michael's delightful On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling and will again recommend it on this occasion, as well as his other books on books, which often include within their wide-ranging and keenly-observed coverage, genre literature, including detective fiction.

In an interview at the mirabiledictu blog, it is stated that although Michael

does not read blogs regularly, he enjoys "specialized sites about everything from the classic ghost story (All-Hallows) to the Golden Age Mystery (The Passing Tramp)...."

It is encouraging to get these mentions.  I hope I keep the blog interesting throughout 2014, as The Passing Tramp enters its third full year.

And this is also nice to see.

So-called "Celtic Noir" crime writer Adrian McKinty in the Guardian has offered a list of his favorite locked room novels, which includes books by John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and Christianna Brand, all great favorites around here.  After my criticism of  the lack of Golden Age coverage in the award-winning tome Books to Die For (of the four authors listed above, only Christie made the cut in BTDF) I was really pleased to see McKinty's adventurous list.

Please check out Adrian McKinty's article (it's clear, by the way, he had nothing to do with the title). You'll find too that his own locked room mystery has just been published!  It will be reviewed here this upcoming week.

Adrian McKinty