Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's the Final Countdown! Best Books Blogged 2015

At least for this year.  With luck, The Passing Tramp and the world will still be around a year from now for yet another countdown of the best books blogged.  In the meantime, here's #'s 5-1. #'s 10-6 can be found here.

#5 The Night of the Fog (1930), by Anthony Gilbert (reviewed 27 July)

The best detective novel that I have read by the prolific second-string English mystery writer Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson) is this tale of murder at a moldering, candlelit manor house--enshrouded, on that fateful night, in fog.  A highly atmospheric setting, with more realistic (if glum) characters and a good mystery plot (with true detection), Fog is a real winner from the dark heart of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

#4 The Listening House (1938), by Mabel Seeley (reviewed 3 June)

More squalid realism--though urban and American in this case--is found in this intelligent and spirited updating of the old HIBK novel by Mabel Seeley, once considered one of the brightest rising stars on the horizon of mystery fiction.  Real-life events are referenced to great effect in the novel, which is set in a fictionalized St. Paul, Minnesota.  Seeley believed terror was more terrible, because more credible, if "aroused by incidents which are within the reader's possible experience."  Certainly this formulation triumphs in The Listening House, an atmospheric, eerie and well-plotted mystery with memorable characters and a compelling heroine acting as amateur sleuth.

#3 Banshee (1983), by Margaret Millar (reviewed 21 August)

Ingenious plotting coupled with insightful explorations of troubled human emotional states makes Margaret Millar one of the all-time greats in crime fiction.  Banshee is an excellent late novel by the Canadian-American author, the wife of Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald), combining a tricky plot with a moving look at modern childhood.  One hopes that Margaret Millar's inclusion in Sarah Weinman's new Library of America anthology of women suspense fiction writers will give this talented author more of the attention that she deserves.

#2 Black Money (1966), by Ross Macdonald (reviewed 18 October)

And here is Mr. Millar, with what is, I think, my favorite novel by him from the 1960s: his moving meditation on the Great Gatsby legend, something which clearly touched a deeply personal chord of memory within him.  Complexly plotted yet not nearly so reliant on the inter-generational family dysfunction plot that came to so preoccupy him (see my discussion of Macdonald's The Instant Enemy in the linked piece), Black Money represents Macdonald at the apex of his considerable abilities.

#1 The Last Talk with Lola Faye (2010), by Thomas H. Cook (reviewed 8 March)

Thomas H. Cook's novel belongs here, in the august company of the Millars, one of mystery writing's all-time "power couples."  Cook resembles the Millars in his ability to construct complex, compulsively page-turning plots that include insightful examination of the human condition in the manner of the mainstream novel.

Cook, an Alabama native, is especially fine when when he looks at the American South, as he does in Lola Faye. The sense of place in the novel, which dexterously weaves back and forth from the past to the present, is palpable, as in the best suspense novels of the late, great Ruth Rendell. Lola Faye is a superb novel from one of our finest modern crime writers, satisfying the desires of crime fiction readers for a story that is both deftly plotted and emotionally affecting, touching both the mind and the heart.

Well, there you have it.  I just noticed that this is my most temporally diverse "best" list ever, with three books from the Thirties, one from the Forties, one from the Fifties, two from the Sixties, one from the Eighties, one from the Nineties and one from the new century.  Just shows you the great riches of crime fiction over the last hundred years.  A Happy New Year to you all!  I hope to discuss many more books on the blog in 2016.

Waiting for the Countdown: Best Books Blogged in 2015

It's that time of year again, where we count down the best books blogs the past year at The Passing Tramp.  As Lindsey Buckingham sings, I've been waiting for the countdown. But then haven't we all?

Typically I count down the top twenty crime novels annually blogged here, but in past years I have reviewed over 100 such books annually on the blog, while this year, busy as I have been with other projects, I probably only achieved about half that.  Plus, 2015 is fast ebbing. So I'm doing just ten this year. So, let us begin with #'s 10-6.  I'm leaving out of consideration books I have written introductions for and discussed on the blog this year (quite a few), but they are of course recommended to vintage crime fiction fans.

#10 Meet Me at the Morgue (1953), by Ross Macdonald (reviewed 29 August)

In this, Ross Macdonald's centenary year, there has perhaps been a tendency to undervalue the author's Fifties crime writing in favor of his Sixties work. However, the author produced some excellent work in this earlier decade. Macdonald later disparaged the novel in a letter to Eudora Welty, but at the time of its publication he had seemed rather pleased with Meet Me at the Morgue, a dexterously-plotted tale that signaled an early, notable move by the author away from the Chandler-Hammett tough school of hard-boiled mystery toward a more humanistic vision.  The younger Macdonald was right to feel so.

#9 The Player on the Other Side (1963), by Ellery Queen (reviewed 10 November)

The sleuth Ellery Queen returned in novel form after a five year hiatus in The Player on the Other Side, in one of his most interesting performances.  Here the author devised a deliberately artificial tale about members of a wealthy New York family being bumped off one by one, with an ingenious variation on a favored gambit.  Here sleuth Ellery encounters, as he so fervently desires, a murderous opponent truly worthy of his mettle.

#8 The Grindle Nightmare (1935), by Q. Patrick (reviewed 28 November)

A notable Thirties fictional excursion into the dark criminal bypaths of horrific sadistic violence, The Grindle Nightmare, by Richard Wilson Webb (probably with some collaboration from his young living partner and future full time fictional collaborator, Hugh Callingham Wheeler), at times feels like a precursor to certain critically-lauded sicko suburbia novels by Patricia Highsmith.  But don't worry, fainthearted readers, the whole thing is properly intellectualized as a formal problem detective novel, in fine Golden Age tradition.

#7 Wisteria Cottage (1948), by Robert M. Coates (reviewed 11 January)

If Violence peaked out at us from behind a curtain in The Grindle Nightmare, in Robert M. Coates's Wisteria Cottage it rips away the curtain and pursues the reader with a bloody butcher's knife.  This dark novel about the descent into madness of a dangerously disturbed young man is a deeply unsettling novel, even in 2015, and it reminds us that mid-century "domestic suspense" was not entirely the demesne of women crime writers. Stir in as well some of Jim Thompson's hell's broth and you get Wisteria Cottage.

#6 A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998), by Ruth Rendell (reviewed 13 December)

The late and much missed modern mistress of psychological suspense, Ruth Rendell, produced one of her finest essays in the art of unease with A Sight for Sore Eyes. Ultimately less cold and clinically bleak than Wisteria Cottage, the novel nonetheless boasts a memorably creepy climax and is, like all the best Rendell, compulsively readable throughout its considerable length.

RIP Ruth Rendell.  Happily for Rendell's readers her fine work lives on after her, to be read and reread.

Numbers 5 to 1 are coming soon!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Really Late Christmas Number: Corpus Christmas (1989), by Margaret Maron

"Writers with something profound to say write poetry, writers with something serious to say write novels, but writers with nothing to say write genre fiction.  I shall become a mystery writer."

He handed her another wet pot.  "Don't look so sad.  I shall try to be a very good mystery writer."

Sigrid smiled.  "Tell me about your plot."

"Actually I don't have one yet," he confessed.  "That's the one drawback.  I don't want to write suspense or thrillers or, God forbid, one of those dreary down-these-mean-streets-a-man-must-go sort of social tracts.  No, I want to write classic whodunits, elegantly contrived puzzles....but that's almost impossible anymore....there are no good [murder] motives left."

These lines from Margaret Maron's first of two Christmas mysteries, Corpus Christmas, took me aback somewhat, given that I had always assumed, based on the evidence of Maron's much-praised Judge Deborah Knott series, that Maron long harbored loftier literary ambitions for her writing within the mystery genre.

To be sure, the lines quoted above were uttered in the sixth novel in Maron's lesser-known Lt. Sigrid Harald series. Maron's reputation as a mystery writer is largely based on her second series, the one about Deborah Knott, which she launched in 1992, three years after the publication of Corpus Christmas, and ended just this year, with the publication of Long upon the Land. Conversely, only two more Sigrid Harald mysteries followed Corpus Christmas (although Harald appears in a recent Knott mystery, Three-Day Town).

Concerning her decision to end the Deborah Knott series with its twentieth installment, Maron wryly explained to Mystery Scene Magazine:

Several years ago, two close friends and I made a pact. We had watched other authors keep writing about the same character over and over, hashing and rehashing the same material until they debased some of the reputation they had formed with their earlier books.  "If that happens to me," each of us told the others, "Promise that one of you will come and kill me."

Maron added that, after she had made her retirement announcement concerning Deborah Knott, she had received numerous comments from fans "bemoaning the fact that the series has ended" yet thanking her for the "years of pleasure" they had derived from the series. "Some feel as if Deborah and her kin are part of their own extended family," she observed, "and they feel as if there's been a death in the family."

I think this gets to what drives so much modern mystery, be it "cozy," as Maron's Knott series has been described, or gritty, as, say, Ian Rankin's Rebus series has been designated: not so much mystery plots, but the author's evocation of particular people and places.  Whatever we term these sorts of mysteries, they have in common that what draws people in both are the series detective as a character, the setting in which the detective acts and the colorful locals that the detective encounters.  If there's actually a good mystery plot as well, that's a bonus, but it's not a prerequisite.

Mystery readers never became attached to Lt. Sigrid Harald, a New York police detective, like they did to Deborah Knott and her North Carolina kin.  Indeed, easily the least popular novel in the Knott series, judging by reviews, is Three-Day Town (2011), the one book in the Knott series in which Harald appears. A lot of the Amazon reviewers of that novel seem to view Harald as an irksome interloper.  (I should add, however, that Three-Day Town won the Agatha for best mystery novel in 2011.)

Speaking of bling, Corpus Christmas was the only novel in the Harald series to get awards recognition, netting the author her first Agatha and Anthony nominations, yet despite this fact I can only give the novel a lukewarm review as a mostly unexceptionable Eighties American police procedural (of sorts), albeit one with a female lead sleuth.

Perhaps it's unfair to the author on my part jumping into a series midstream, but Sigrid Harald did not strike me as an especially interesting or appealing character. Perfectly okay, in short, but kind of meh.  This would not be a problem for me, were Corpus Christmas stronger as a puzzle.  Yet while the novel offers the form of a classic puzzle mystery (more on this below), it cheats readers of its substance.

On page 177 of a mystery of 182 pages, Harald's "subconscious threw up something she'd overlooked till then....The more she thought of it, the surer she became."  Harald then conducts a search of X's abode, finds the murder weapon and the problem is solved.

I'm afraid that I found this rather a unsatisfying approach, in that the mystery might just as easily have been solved on, say, page 82, shortly after the police have been called in to investigate the crime.  In retrospect the intervening 95 pages felt like the author (along with her detective) was simply spinning her wheels until the proper page count was reached.

Admittedly, the "form" of the novel is an attractive one, concerning murder at a Victorian house museum, the Breul House, during the Christmas season. Maron has some interesting back story concerning the original owners of the house, but I wish that more had been done with this. (Even as it is, this aspect of the story is much better than another present-day subplot, which feels like padding.) Additionally, the house museum is the repository of an art collection, which allows Maron to add another dimension of interest to the tale.

As far as the characters in the case are concerned, there was frustration to be found here as well. Harald's older boyfriend, Oscar Nauman, is a famous modern artist who may do a retrospective exhibition at the Breul House; and there's a bit of a love triangle introduced into the story, as Harald, who has only recently learned to use makeup apparently, encounters a dazzling former lover of Nauman's. All this seemed over-familiar to me, however. How often do we encounter in books the plainer (yet still interesting looking) woman who bests her beautiful rival at the game of love?  This story line (and its male correlative) no doubt has its appeal to readers, given that most of us are not beautiful, but it gets rather predictable.

I think the most interesting story line concerns Rick Evans, a young Louisiana-born photographer on assignment at the Breul House, and his relationship with the similarly youthful Pascal Grant, the beautiful but somewhat intellectually disabled handyman at the Breul House. (Throughout the novel Maron lays great stress on young Grant's angelic beauty.)  Yet it's given shorter shrift than it merits and is presented so circumspectly that I still wasn't certain by the end of the novel whether the two were lovers or simply, well, extremely close friends who really enjoy listening to jazz records in each other's company. (Similarly disappointingly, Harald has what I took to be a gay male housemate--the would-be mystery writer quoted at the top of this piece--who flits campily in and out of the story, but doesn't develop as anything other than a caricature.)

Was the author inhibited by the state of this sector of the genre back in 1989 (the novel was published by the Doubleday Crime Club)? Certainly the book won't come out and say, in reference to another person-to-person physical interaction in the story, blunt words like erection and ejaculate and semen, confining itself to cloying, Harlequin-like insipidities such as "the sweet liquids of youth" and "first hot rushes of manhood."

Although Corpus Christmas was published one year shy of the 1990s, already it seems dated in terms of technological references, which shows how far we have come in a quarter-century. However, there was this reference, more topical than ever this year:

"Yes, you might say Oscar Nauman's a painter.  Like Donald Trump's a carpenter or Pavarotti sings a little."  

Technology may come and go, but evidently narcissistic People coverboy tycoons are timeless.

Based on my reading of Margaret Maron, I suspect her second series sleuth definitely will outlast her first; yet maybe I should give Sigrid one more go. In the meantime, I'll be taking a look at Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott Christmas mystery novel.

Previous Christmas numbers:

26 December 2011 (Mystery in White, since reprinted by the British Library as we all know)

26 December 2012 (Murder for Christmas--not the one you may think)

Previous Margaret Maron mystery review:

26 February 2014 (Shooting at Loons, a Deborah Knott mystery)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Coming Attractions! More Ianthe Jerrold Mysteries: Let Him Lie (1940) and There May Be Danger (1948)

I would be remiss not to mention that the fabulously well-read Michael Dirda, in "Beyond the Bestsellers," his Washington Post review column from last week, included my new book The Spectrum of English Murder (2015) on his list of a dozen recommended books for the holidays, along with such diverse selections as The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories and The Poems of T. S. Eliot. (Of course readers of this blog will know that Eliot was a great fan of detective fiction.) This was so nice to see--especially as Spectrum was published by a small (though excellent) press and is not exactly what one could call a massively publicized tome!

Spectrum, about the Golden Age crime fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher (Henry Wade) and GDH and Margaret Cole, is a companion volume of sorts to my 2012 book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, about the austerely puzzle-oriented mystery writers Cecil John Charles Street (John Rhode, Miles Burton), Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart (J. J. Connington).  The six authors were all founding members of Britain's Detection Club, a social organization of many of the era's finest mystery writers. (Martin Edwards has written about the Detection Club during the Thirties in his recent popular history The Golden Age of Murder.)

Michael Dirda also mentioned my work with Dean Street Press, who has followed the British Library in reissuing quality editions of vintage English mysteries.  As readers of this blog will know, I have written introductions for DSP's reissues of detective novels by Ianthe Jerrold, another charter Detection Club member, E. R. Punshon, an early Detection Club member, and Annie Haynes and Harriet Rutland, two quite different, but both very interesting, Golden Age crime writers who book-ended the era.

With my introductions for DSP reissues of these authors' works, I've enjoyed expanding what is known about writers like Jerrold and Punshon (with the prolific Punshon I've written introductions to fifteen of his novels so far, totaling over 15, 000 words) and, in the case of Haynes and Rutland, recovering what essentially were forgotten lives.  I'm doing this all again with seven DSP reissues in January, two of them Ianthe Jerrold's forgotten mysteries written under the pseudonym "Geraldine Bridgman" (Let Him Lie and There Might Be Danger) and five of them detective novels by another almost entirely forgotten mystery writer (more on him coming soon).

In the two newly reissued Ianthe Jerrold novels, the author abandons her brilliant amateur detective, John Christmas, who appeared in her earlier books The Studio Crime and Dead Man's Quarry, in favor of intrepid women sleuths who are drawn into crime investigation out of their sense of empathy for the plights of others, especially children.

These two fine mystery novels, which reflect events from Ianthe Jerrold's own life in the 1940s (more on this later), look ahead to the modern crime novels of authors like Ann Cleeves, I would argue; and I'm very happy to see them back in print after, respectively, 75 and 67 years!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Worst. Parents. Ever. A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998), by Ruth Rendell

The awesomely prolific late crime writer Ruth Rendell (1930-2015), produced two dozen Inspector Wexford novels in the half century that spanned 1964-2013, but over her career she also published 28 non-Wexfords, mostly psychological thrillers, under her own name, as well as 14 crime novels under the pen name Barbara Vine.  Rendell's 66th and final crime novel, Dark Corners, was published posthumously late this year and has received pretty good reviews, not only from paid print reviewers, who have tended broadly to praise everything Rendell wrote, but from lay readers, who, truth be told, have been more apt to voice negative criticism of Rendell's work over the last fifteen years.

My own feeling is that Rendell's writing peaked in the 1990s, when she produced not only a series of interesting, socially engaged Wexford novels (Kissing the Gunner's Daughter, 1991, Simisola, 1994, Road Rage, 1997, Harm Done, 1999), but also some of her best Vines (Asta's Book, 1993, No Night Is Too Long, 1994, The Brimstone Wedding, 1995) and "psychological" Rendells (The Crocodile Bird, 1993, The Keys to the Street, 1996, A Sight for Sore Eyes, 1998).

Between 2000 and 2015 Rendell published an additional twenty crime novels, none of which, of the ones I have I have read, I would really rank with her best, barring perhaps The Blood Doctor, 2002). By the time of her last novel, Dark Corners, the terrain the author explored had become quite familiar, and her books were no longer the same compulsive reading for me anymore, though I made a point of never missing an extension of the author's long-running Wexford saga, where the series characters had become like old friends, the ones where you don't mind it when they ramble on a bit.

As with crime fiction generally, Rendell's novels became much longer in the 1980s and 1990s, compared with her books in the 1960s and 1970s.  From lean, classic thrillers like A Demon in My View (1975), A Judgment in Stone (1977) and The Lake of Darkness (1980), Rendell's novels by the 1990s had become sprawling monsters of 140,000 words or so.  But for me Rendell, in contrast with many other modern crime writers, often makes this length work: her best books are classic page turners, even when there are vast numbers of pages to turn.  So it is the case with A Sight for Sore Eyes, perhaps Rendell's last great psychological thriller.

Beginning with books like A Demon in My View and especially The Lake of Darkness, Rendell, like some malevolently crafty Black Widow spider, began crafting creepy crime thrillers wherein she patiently wove together various seemingly disconnected plot strands, gradually entangling her characters in her intricate web of doom.

While I admire the economy with which Rendell accomplished this in her earlier novels, I also appreciate the spaciousness of A Sight for Sore Eyes, which reminds me of some of her richly developed Barbara Vine novels.  In A Sight for Sore Eyes about 40% of the book passes before the two main characters even meet each other, but I didn't mind, because what happened before that fateful meeting was transfixing.

Like a Barbabra Vine novel, A Sight for Sore Eyes has a wide time frame, extending from 1965 to the late 1990s and introducing a large cast of characters who eventually collide with each other, often with most unhappy results for these characters.  At its heart however, Eyes is a book about the horrific consequences of rotten parenting.  The novel's male main character, Teddy Grex--for some reason Teddy Brex in the American edition of the novel--is nurtured, if that's the right word (actually it's really not), by the most horribly neglectful working class parents, while the novel's female main character, Francine Hill, is raised by a maniacally overprotective white collar professional class stepmother and an abysmally weak and inept father.

Rendell showers these parental figures with disdain and for good reason, considering how she portrays them. Her seeming distaste for the English white working (or not working, as the case may be) class, whom she portrays here as feckless, oafish and selfish, reminded me a lot of her portrayal of the same social "types" in Harm Done, the Wexford novel she published the following year. During Teddy Grex's gestation, we, the appalled readers, learn:

His mother had lived on croissants with butter, whipped-cram doughnuts, salami, streaky bacon, fried eggs, chocolate bars, sausages and chips with everything.  She had smoked about ten thousand eight hundred cigarettes and drunk many gallons of Guinness, cider, Babycham and sweet sherry. But [Teddy] was a beautiful child with smooth, peachy skin, dark-brown silky hair, the features of a baby angel in an Old Master, and perfect fingers and toes.

Unfortunately, angelic-looking Teddy Grex grows up a sociopath: a skilled craftsman with contempt for humans but adoration for beautiful objects. Meanwhile grave and lovely Francine Hill survives childhood trauma--the murder of her mother--and the overbearing and oblivious management of her stepmother, an incompetent child psychotherapist ("or as she put it, a paedopsychiatrician"), "whose qualifications were a teaching-training certificate and a diploma from a counseling crash course." Rendell, I must admit, is every bit as biting in her portrayal of Francine's awful stepmother, Julia Gregson, as she is with Teddy Grex's repulsive family.

To be sure, the author directs satire at ill-trained and something less-than-competent psychotherapists. Rendell appears dismissive of the use of doll therapy with children, writing, for example,"Julia had Francine playing with dolls. There was no escaping those dolls, Francine sometimes thought.") However, her criticism in this case seems more focused on one spectacularly obtuse and blundering woman. (Interestingly, Rendell's son is a psychiatric social worker, according to this Telegraph article.)

I don't want to say too much about the novel's plot turns after Teddy and Francine finally meet, but let me just add that there is a denouement that is one of the most disturbingly memorable things in the Rendell oeuvre. Is A Sight for Sore Eyes better than some of her early classic suspense novels? Whether it is or not, it's certainly an important part of an impressive line of crime fiction by Rendell, of which, sadly, we will never see, with her death this year, additional new examples.  Yet at least we can always console ourselves, if you will, with such unforgettably unsettling classics as A Sight for Sore Eyes.