Tuesday, December 29, 2020

More from 1970: Patricia Moyes' Who Saw Her Die?/Many Deadly Returns

the British first edition 
of the novel
Patricia Moyes' Who Saw Her Die? (aka Many Deadly Returns in the US) may have followed the Golden Age of detective fiction, but it is very much of the period.  Aside from occasional mentions of mini-skirts and some examples of Seventies slang ("he's shacked up with some little broad somewhere"), the novel almost could have been written during the between-the-wars period.  Even Emmy Tibbett, the wife of Scotland Yard's Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett (newly promoted in this book) who always seems to get involved with her husband's cases to some degree, has precedents in Golden Age detective fiction. There is also a woman doctor, Sarah Massingham, subjected to sexist remarks, but women locums are not completely unknown in Golden Age detective fiction.  

The murder takes place at a house party given by Crystal Codworthy, Lady Balaclava, at her country estate, which she keeps up like a time capsule in decaying Thirties modern style.  (Her late husband, nouveau riche Charlie Codworthy, made a fortune in the toilet business.)

The murder method--Lady Balaclava appears to have been poisoned at her birthday party but no poison is detected in her system--is suitably mysterious.  The suspects--her three daughters, Violet, Primrose and Daffodil and their husbands, and her companion-help Dorothy Underwood-Threep--are sufficiently characterized, all of them distinguishable personalities in their own right.  

All in all Who Saw Her Die? is a model classic style detective novel, recalling certain works by Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and John Street, all of whom were adept fictional poisoners.  (The book resembles Christie in another way as well.)  To me this is a much stronger example of classic crime fiction than the Catherine Aird novel I reviewed in my last blog post. 

It may be as much as 40,000 words longer than the Aird, but to me it reads more smoothly and cogently.  There may be a bit too much travelogue for my taste during the side investigative trips to France, Switzerland and the Netherlands by the Tibbetts, but not nearly as much as you get from Freeman Wills Crofts.  Indeed, it's a most tidily told tale, complete with an afterword by the author explaining how she came upon the murder method.  Highly recommended to lovers of Golden Age mystery.  

American mystery critic Anthony Boucher, a great booster of Moyes since her debut in '59, would have loved this one had he lived to read it, I'm sure.  The only thing left unexplained, for me, is the British title.  I don't really see the urgency of the titular question.  I prefer the more prosaic but obviously pertinent Many Deadly Returns, since it's believed in the novel that Lady Balaclava was poisoned by one of her birthday presents from her in-laws: a marzipan cake, champagne and a bouquet of roses.  How did she die? would seem to be the more pertinent question in this novel.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Sucking in the Seventies 1: Catherine Aird's A Late Phoenix (1970)

A dangerous title, as the rock group the Rolling Stones must have known when they used it for their 1981 compilation album.  A lot of critics at the time suggested that it was in the Seventies that the Rolling Stones' remarkable musical output started to decline.  (The harshest critics argued that it began  to "suck.")  However, I'm definitely using the title, in reference to detective fiction in the vintage mold that was published during the seventies, in the sense of retrospectively assessing it, taking it all in, as it were.  How was classic-style mystery fiction from that decade?  Had it declined from the lustrous pre-war standard of the Golden Age?  We are now a half-century from the year 1970, just as in 1970 they were a half-century from 1920, the dawn of the Golden Age.  Certainly time to take a look.

I'm starting, for no particular reason (not even alphabetical), with Catherine Aird's fifth detective novel, A Late Phoenix.  Aird had debuted four years earlier in 1966 with the well-reviewed The Religious Body and followed it with A Most Contagious Game, Henrietta Who? and The Complete Steel (published under the disappointingly literal title The Stately Home Murder in the United States), all of which were well-received as well.  

American crime fiction reviewer Anthony Boucher, then terminally ill with cancer, lived long enough to review Aird's first two novels in the New York Times Book Review.  The first he praised in January 1967 in spite of some concerns he had about about its technical flaws. These concerns seem pretty damning in my eyes, yet after mentioning them Boucher sweeps them aside on account of the authenticity of the setting and charm of the author's writing:

One could easily object to Catherine Aird's first novel, The Religious Body.  The action sags badly in the middle, the ultimate explanation is quite unconvincing; and inadequate evidence is available to the reader.  But these are, really, fairly minor flaws in a genuinely attractive debut.  Miss Aird writes about a nunnery and its infinitely diverse nuns with far more insight and skill than the various mystery novelists...who have previously attempted it; and she does equally well by the Calleshire Constabulary.  We may hope that both Inspector Sloan and the Convent of St. Anselm may reappear soon--and with just a little more technical finesse.

It shows how far we had moved away from the high plotting standards of the High Golden Age when a detective novel received a good review from Anthony Boucher, dean of American mystery critics, in spite of an "ultimate explanation that is quite unconvincing" and "inadequate evidence" provided to the reader (i.e., a lack of fair play), all on account of some prettily portrayed cops and sisters. But The Religious Body provided the flavor of a vintage detective novel and even that was something in 1966.  

Incidentally, classic mystery fan Patrick Ohl had similar reservations about the novel when he reviewed it six years ago, calling it a book of "tremendous promise" that "falls completely flat."  He's a priest now, so he has interesting perspective here.

Aird's second novel, A Most Contagious Game, wherein we are presented with both a modern murder and one in the distant past, was praised by Boucher as a "charming book" that should appeal to admirers' of Josephine Tey's much praised (and in my view over-praised) historical "true crime "mystery The Daughter of Time (1951).  (In the same review column Boucher noted that PD James' Unnatural Causes showed that she was "steadily improving" and coming "very close to the level of Patricia Moyes.")  He included Game, along with Moyes' Murder Fantastical and Emma Lathen's Murder against the Grain (though not James' Unnatural Causes) in his list of the thirteen best "thrillers" of 1967, the last such list he would live to compile.

Less than five months after the publication of his review of A Most Contagious Game, Anthony Boucher succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 56.  His successor at the NYTBR, Allen Hubin, reviewed Aird's third detective novel in three years, Henrietta Who?, less than three months after Boucher's death.  Hubin found this one "shrewdly plotted" with "entrancingly crisp" narration.  For my part, I think it is the best Aird I have read, even though the title sounds distressingly like the name of a character from Dr. Seuss' children's 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, first broadcast in the U. S. as an animated Christmas special a couple of years before Henrietta Who? was published.  Was Aird, evidently a mirthful sort of person, having her own little joke?

I enjoyed as well Aird's first two detective novels, which I read, along with Henrietta Who?, back in the 1990s (though I recognized some of the problems with the first one that others did). Aird's fourth book was spoiled for me by an absolute a'hole reviewer on Amazon who reveals the murderer (Be warned: I think the review is still there),  Later Airds I read never really grabbed me because, while they all had classic-style plots, they just struck me as too chatty and desultory, with too many "colorful" characters. Having read A Late Phoenix, I'm afraid that I find it shares the same qualities, making it a slog for me, despite the fact that it is a short book, probably under 60,000 words.

In theory I should have liked it.  The affair in it arises out of a construction crew's unearthing of a human skeleton buried on a vacant lot, left cleared almost three decades previously by a Nazi bomber.  The skeleton appears to go back to around 1941, the time that the house there was leveled.  Was the woman whose skeleton it is the victim of the bombing?  It is assumed so until it is discovered that a bullet is lodged in the skeleton.  Since the bones of a fetus are discovered as well with the skeleton, it may be that some man from long ago wanted to get an inconvenient pregnant woman out of the way.  (Everyone assumes that it must have been a man in the book,)  But what man?  When another death follows, of someone connected to the property in the days of the Second World War, it appears that a murderer is still around and active, willing to kill to prevent his dirty work at the crossroads to be exposed.  

So far so good.  It's an interesting enough problem in theory, but my main problem is with the telling and the tone.  We get a hint of where things are going right off the bat, when we find that each chapter opens with a quotation from Mrs. Beeton's Cookery and Household Management, for no good reason that I can see.  Gladys Mitchell was probably the Queen of Utterly Irrelevant Chapter Quotations in British Detective Novels, but Catherine Aird may have run her a close second in this regard.  Of course no one can beat Michael Innes for egregiously excessive literary quotations throughout the text any given book, but sometimes his do actually relate somehow to the story at hand.

Like Aird several of the characters in the book are given to "amusing" chitter-chatter, particularly Superintendent Leeyes and Dr. Dabbe.  Clever names--if Leeyes is meant to make us think of lees, or dregs, that certainly describes the irrelevancies so frequently uttered by this tiresome character.  Leeyes spends the book in his office looking out of his window at "Dick's Dive" across the street and complaining about the androgynous looking men (looking rather like Mick Jagger probably) coming in and out of the place.  I was thinking maybe this would actually have something to do with the plot, but alas not.

If you like this kind of thing, there's certainly a lot of it to like here.  Personally it makes me miss the austere Humdrums of yore like Freeman Crofts and John Street, who don't go in for it and just get on with the investigation.  Happily, Aird's Inspector Sloan is very much in the classic British copper mode and he's fine.  I can even take Sergeant Crosby, whose dimness and enthusiasm for driving offers yet more comic relief.  But when there's too much comic relief, what is to relieve us from the comic relief? It seems especially jarring in a story about a murdered pregnant woman.  But no one in the novel ever sheds any tears over the victim and her unborn child, so why should we?

The suspects in the case, on the other hand, are a drab lot, whom I could hardly keep apart in my mind.  When the revelation came of which one "done it," I honestly couldn't have cared less.  I was just flipping through the last thirty pages to get to the end.  In A Catalogue of Crime, Barzun and Taylor called this book "featureless and humdrum" and they are right (though Allen Hubin liked it).  Outside of a charming chapter where Sloan and his wife Margaret reminisce about being children during World Two (like the author), I really did not enjoy reading A Late Phoenix.

Aird has some stylistic oddities as a writer that really get on my nerves as a reader, like these sort of hanging adverbs:

"Yes." Enigmatically.

And she loves single short sentences for emphasis.

Which I hate.

You know these sentences.

Like this.

And this.

And this.

And this, from the book:

Perhaps Dyson was right to take refuge in flippancy.

Sloan didn't blame him.

There was nothing pretty about Dyson's job.

Photographing the aftermath of human folly.

Maybe Aird should have written a mystery in free verse and gotten it out of her system once and for all.

It might have been interesting.

More interesting than the book she actually wrote.

Sorry for the negativity.

Chin up, though.

I have another review of a Seventies mystery coming up soon.

A positive review.

Gives us hope for the new year.

See you then.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Christmas Drear: The Inn Closes at Christmas/He Dared Not Look Behind (1947), by Cledwyn Hughes

...those that passed my front window knew nothing of what was going on behind the cozy lighted greenness, knew nothing.  Soon the streets would be empty.  It would be late.  But it did not matter.  I had the whole night in which to kill her.  

Why must we assume that there is a God part in every soul?  Does not Satan have his little hold, his little plot, too?

--The Inn Closes at Christmas (1947), by Cledwyn Hughes

This is definitely a Christmas crime novel, but it certainly won't leave you full of Christmas cheer!  It's grim indeed.

Actually I should say Christmas crime novella, because by my count the tale is about 35,000 words long.  In the United Kingdom it was published with another short work of fiction by the author, Welshman John Cledwyn Hughes (1920-1978), but in the United States it appeared as a standalone novel, under the title He Dared Not Look Behind.  (Behind what, you ask?  Behind him of course!  Alternatively the book could have been titled He Dared Not Look Over His Shoulder, but I suppose that's a bit clunky.)  

The American title of the book makes clearer its association with the crime/horror genre, yet the original British title is rather brilliant, for a reason I cannot explain here.  

Cledwyn Hughes, as the author was known, was a promising young writer of but twenty-six years of age when he wrote The Inn Closes at Christmas, a novel which makes prominent use of his background as a qualified hospital pharmacist.  It's about a dentist in Wales whose mind deteriorates after he and his wife are in a car accident, as a result of which his wife has to have one of her legs amputated and replaced with an artificial limb.  The dentist finds said limb ever more repugnant by the day and finally he concludes that he must remove his wife from this earthly life in order to get rid of her artificial leg for good.  (The protagonists in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King no doubt would have approved.) 

To carry out his mad intention the dentist devises an ingenious murder plan, reminiscent of something out of Francis Iles' bump-off-your-wife opuses Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and murderers....

Cledwyn Hughes (1920-1978)

This is a very dark tale indeed, with a particularly impressive final page, which illuminates why the book has the title it does (in the British edition).  I don't really have too much more to say about the book, as I don't want to spoil the story and also because it's such a lean and economically narrated exercise in psychological horror.  It's a book I think should be reprinted, although I recommend it for those who like their Christmas cocoa on the bitter side....

I could see critics saying that the story is either too short or too long, but some of us will find it just right.  In the United States, where as I mentioned it was published as a short standalone novel, Inn was placed in a notice in the New York Times Book Review with William Irish's (aka Cornell Woolrich) Waltz into Darkness and another book under the headline "Three New Shockers."  The reviewer praised Hughes' "limpid Welsh-English prose," concluding that the author's macabre "sonata is twice as effective because of its rigorous underplaying."

Thursday, December 10, 2020

For Stagge Hunters: Some Pictures of Hugh and Dawn Westlake

Vintage mystery writers Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler are most renowned for their Patrick Quentin detective novels, many of which were about series characters Peter and Iris Duluth, a charming murder-foiling couple, yet as Jonathan Stagge they also published nine entertaining novels and a novella, all of which detailed the sleuthing adventures of rural New England country doctor Dr. Hugh Westlake, whose irrepressible daughter Dawn frequently appears in the tales as well. 

If you ever wondered what Dr. Westlake and his daughter looked like, here is one artists' notion, taken from the serialization, eight decades ago, of the Stagge novel Turn of the Table, under the title The Table Talks.  It comes from the pages of the October 27, 1940 issue of The American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement published by William Randolph Hearst.  "Filled with scantily clad showgirls and tales of murder and suspense," The American Weekly boasted of having over fifty million readers.

In the first illustration an accusatory Dr. Westlake confronts golden-haired siblings Linette and Oliver Thorpe and their stepbrother Greg Banister.  Dawn appears in the third picture.  What do you think of the likenesses?  I threw in the back cover ad as well!

Friday, December 4, 2020

Hunt in the Dark and the Puzzles of Peter and Iris Duluth

Hunt in the Dark and Other Fatal Pursuits, the new volume of short fiction by our ever-busy boys Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, aka Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge, will soon be out with Crippen & Landru (probably next month, I'm guessing) and I'll be saying more about it then.  But let me say for now that it will have six pieces of short fiction, as follows:

The Frightened Landlady (1935 novella with Hugh Westlake)

Killed by Time (1935 short story)

The Hated Woman (1936 novelette)

Hunt in the Dark (1942 novella with Peter and Iris Duluth)

The Woman Who Waited (1945 short story)

This Way Out (1947 novelette)

the memorable pulp illustration for Q. Patrick's haunting novelette This Way Out

Excitingly for fans of series heroes Peter and Iris Duluth and Hugh Westlake, this collection includes two rediscovered novellas with these characters, respectively the title tale "Hunt in the Dark" (Peter and Iris) and "The Frightened Landlady" (Hugh Westlake).  Presumably these will be their final recovered adventures.  Neither novella was ever expanded as a novel, so these are genuine rediscoveries.  

"Hunt in the Dark" is more of a mystery adventure story in the style of the couple's previous novelettes "Death Rides the Ski-Tow" and "Murder with Flowers" (republished in 2016 in Crippen & Landru's The Puzzles of Peter Duluth with the Peter and Iris short stories "Puzzle for Poppy" and "Death and the Rising Star").   while "The Frightened Landlady" is a classic detective story, in its exploration of the darker side of human nature bearing some resemblance to the Q. Patrick novel The Grindle Nightmare."  (Hugh Westlake's daughter Dawn is absent from the grim tale, though she is mentioned by her father several times.) 

"Killed by Time" and "The Woman Who Waited" are clever non-series detective short stories, though the latter could easily have starred the authors' other series sleuth, Lieutenant Timothy Trant.  The former reminds me of a certain gruesome John Dickson Carr story.

"The Hated Woman" and "This Way Out" are notable non-series novelettes, the latter especially as one of the authors' finest essays in the noir vein.  All in all, this book represents the pulpier and often darker side of Rickie and Hugh's mystery fiction legacy, with plenty of flawed men and fatal women.  I selected the stories for this volume and wrote an introduction for it, which I revised after the two strange Fifties short crime stories by Rickie Webb, published in Weird Tales, were cut on length grounds. (As it stands now the book will run to 300 pages.)

Meanwhile I have remained at work on my joint critical biography of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler and I am now on the part where I discuss the Patrick Quentin fiction specifically, so expect to hear more about PQ in the coming days.  I thought for today you might be interested in seeing this chronology of the Peter and Iris' adventures, including not only all their novels but their novella, novelettes and short stories as well.  With "Hunt in the Dark," the total number of tales now comes to fourteen, taking place over two decades:

1. A Puzzle for Fools (1936) (novel)

2. Puzzle for Players (1938) (novel)

3. Death Rides the Ski-Tow (1941) (novelette)

4. Murder with Flowers (1941) (novelette)

5. Hunt in the Dark (1942) (novella)

6. Puzzle for Puppets (1944) (novel; expansion and revision of Murder with Flowers)

7. Puzzle for Wantons (1945) (novel)

8. Puzzle for Poppy (1946) (short story)

9. Puzzle for Fiends (1946) (novel)

10. Puzzle for Pilgrims (1947) (novel)

11. Run to Death (1948) (novel)

12. Black Widow (1952) (novel)

13. My Son, the Murderer (1954) (novel)

14. Death and the Rising Star (1955) (short story)

It was quite a run while it lasted for our glamorous if murder-ridden couple!