Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Dashing up Van Dine: The Kidnap Murder Case (1936), by S. S. Van Dine

"I'm telling you, you outrageous fop, that this a dammed serious situation...."

--District Attorney John Markham to swanky man-about-town Philo Vance in S. S. Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case

"I'm frightfully sorry, Markham," he said, "but I fear I have made you a bit of trouble"..."The fact is," he added carelessly, "I killed three men."

--Philo Vance to DA Markham in S. S. Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case 

By 1936, the reputation of S. S. Van Dine, who for a brief time (about 1926-30) strode mightily over the American mystery fiction world like some Regie-smoking colossus, was on the wane.  Once bestsellers, the Philo Vance mysteries, while they still did well by mystery fiction standards, no longer sold like they once had, nor were the lucrative film adaptations of them quite what they had been, during the glory days of William Powell playing Philo.

Other American mystery writers, like Dashiell Hammett, Mignon Eberhart, Rex Stout and Erle Stanly Gardner were on the rise, with popular detectives with films of their own (Sam Spade, Nick Charles, Sarah Keate, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason).  Having grown used to an extremely lavish lifestyle, Van Dine desperately needed the cash which the mysteries, magazine serializations and film adaptations provided, so dutifully he reeled off yet another Philo Vance detective novel, his tenth, in 1936.  Originally intended to be titled The Purple Murder Case, the manuscript was published as Van Dine's tenth detective novel under the title The Kidnap Murder Case.

1948 Bantam pb edition, where
Philo Vance (right) notably
resembles author S. S. Van Dine;
also note the purple stripe on right,
surely an homage to the novel's
original intended title.

Like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and Todd Downing's Vultures in the Sky, Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case drew on the shocking Lindbergh kidnapping affair of 1932, where the one-year-old son of renowned American aviator Charles Linbergh was abducted from his nursery for ransom, though at some point (probably the very night of the kidnapping) the child suffered  a fatal blow to the head.  

The Lindbergh kidnapping case transfixed the nation for over four years, right up through the trial and execution, on April 3, 1936, of German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann for the crime.  This last event took place about six months before the publication of The Kidnap Murder Case.  Unlike the Lindbergh case (and the Christie and Downing novels which it influenced), however, The Kidnap Murder Case concerns the abduction of a healthy adult male, not some helpless toddler.  

Van Dine's fictional affair commences at yet another one of those old brownstone mansions in New York City which Van Dine habitually used as settings for malfeasance and murder, except in this case time the mansion, oddly enough, has been painted purple.  

The Purple House, as its known, was constructed in 1880 by Karl K. Kenting, that eccentric businessman and avid Ku Kluxer.  (He originally hailed from Virginia, Philo Vance explains, and we know what Virginia was like back then.)  So committed, indeed, was Kenting to the Ku Klux Klan  that he had his original name "Carl" altered to "Karl" and added a fictitious K. as his middle initial, just to spell out "K. K. K."

Further yet, Kenting carried on the krazy "K" kick to his children, his sons Kenyon K. and Kaspar K. and his daughter (who has since died), Karen K.  This is all pretty colorful lore, granted, though ultimately it is utterly irrelevant to the story.  Had the author  meant it as an homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story "The Five Orange Pips"?  Reminiscent of Doyle, we learn that the Papa Kenting was an unscrupulous and ruthless individual ultimately done to death by his rivals, via the agency of two deadly sub-machine guns.

1994 Otto Penzler Books/
Macmillan reprint in Penzler's
Classic American Mystery Library

His younger son, ne'er-do-well man-about-town Kaspar Kenting, is an habituĂ© of gambling casinos and racetracks (which figured sucessively in Van Dine's two previous novels, The Casino and Garden Murder Cases) who lives in the Purple House with his pale and anemic-looking blonde wife, Madeleine, and her mother and neurotic weakling brother, Fraim Falloway.  (Van Dine really has a thing for alliteration in this book.)  Service is provided by a shifty butler, Weem, and his cook-housekeeper wife, Gertrude.

Truth is, the Purple House has gone rather to seed, what with Kaspar being an utter no-good who is dependent on sums doled out to him by family lawyer, Eldridge Fleel, and his broker brother, Kenyon.  I'd say "Eldridge Fleel" is the wildest name in the book, except for the fact that Kaspar also has a gambling acquaintance named Porter Quaggy and you can't really top that one, can you?

At the opening of the novel Philo has returned to his own swanky New York brownstone (where he resides as ever with his dull attorney-companion-chronicler Van, aka Van Dine, and Currie, his stately English butler), after having spent several months abroad in Egypt, recovering from events in the previous year's Garden Murder Case, wherein he just happened to fall more than a smidgen in love--with a lady, of all things.  Go figure!

Well, in fact, the Thirties was a period when mystery readers increasingly wanted their detectives to be "real" and thus sexless (or lavenderish) super-genius sleuths were no longer quite the fashion which they had been.  Given that Philo Vance was the lord-god-king of sexless, super-genius sleuths, this was, one must allow, a bit of a problem for his creator.  

In The Kidnap Murder Case S. S. Van Dine attempted the impossible task of humanizing Vance and making him seem a more believable person, partly by making him compassionate to his fellow men and women.  This moved reviewer E. R. Punshon to complain, not unreasonably, that Vance had "gone all sloppy."  

Rest assured, however, that for the most part in The Kidnap Murder Case Philo remains the same supercilious, affected twit whom we all know and love (or love to hate as the case may be).  And he's a pretty good detective too, actually, although I must allow that the case he's involved in here may not strike you as overly tricky.  

1932 Lindbergh ransom note,
allegedly composed by Bruno Hauptmann;
note the use of interlocked circles as
a symbolic signature

When Kasper Keating is kidnapped from his bedroom in the Purple House, a ladder left propped up against the window and a symbolically signed ransom note tacked to the wall demanding 50,000 smackers (about a million dollars today) for his safe return, Vance is soon capably jumping the hurdles which the author has erected, leaving the dunderhead police and worshipful chronicler Van far behind him.  (By the by, these details recall the Lindbergh kidnapping; see pics.)

Preposterously, DA Markham lets Philo run the investigation, just as he did in the previous two Vance novels as I recollect.  He's just given up by this time, poor man, though a couple of times he rouses himself to call Philo an insulting name.

That loveable racist Sergeant Heath--who here contemptuously calls a black maid "Aunt Jemima" to her face, recalling his shameful performance the last time he met a black person in The Canary Murder Case nine years earlier--knows the the score and mostly follows Vance's orders without objections.  The gruff old cop is really just a softie where Vance is concerned, don't you know.

It seems clear enough that Vance was dream projection of the author, who probably felt that the world would be a much better place if only it were by literary critics and aesthetes like himself.  It's pretty to think so, at least!  Heck, they probably couldn't do any worse.

ransom note in S. S. Van Dine's
The Kidnap Murder Case (1936);
note use of interlocking squares
as signature, imitative of the circles
in the Lindbergh case

At about 75,000 words The Kidnap Murder Case is about half again as long and a vastly more capably constructed mystery than the next one in the series, The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which was reviewed by me earlier here.  

I read Kidnap with pleasure about two decades ago and enjoyed it on the second read, which is more than you can say about a lot of mysteries. Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel, however, is that it has a decidedly more hard-boiled tone to it, with gangsters and a machine gun shooting, no less, as well as gun play in a seedy section of the Big Apple, during which Philo Vance shoots no fewer than three criminal worms dead.  

Yes, it turns out Philo is a crack shot and was awarded the Croix de Guerre during the Great War.--no sissy he, that's for sure!  

I'd call Philo Vance a classic Mary Sue character, but really that's simply not a fancy enough cognomen for the fellah, eh, what?  Maybe a Marius Suestas?

Part of the novel Vance actually spends up a tree with a handgun in his pocket waiting for a ransom pickup--thus obeying, incidentally, the exasperated injunction of every Van Dine reader who ever urged the condescending aesthete to go climb a tree.  

Philo even has his poor Van accompany him up the tree so he can chronicle the whole thing later.  Van is ludicrously out of place with all this Continental Op stuff going on around him and in truth so is Philo, but, fear not, traditional mystery mavens, The Kidnap Murder Case is still a legitimate fair play detective novel, one that in terms of the scaffolding of its plot, could have been constructed by Dashiell Hammett himself.  The fact that no film was made from the novel (an unfortunate first for the author) may indicate how Van Dine had confounded expectations.  Maybe Philo had gotten too tough for his own good.  Hence, the entry of Gracie Allen in the next book.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Buffaloed: Banking on Death (1961), by Emma Lathen

a balmy day in Buffalo

Like Athena from Zeus' head, John Putnam Thatcher sprang forth fully formed when sixty years ago this December Emma Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Matha Hennisart) published Banking on Death (1961), their first mystery novel about the canny senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust.  So too did spring forth the authors copious talents as mystery fiction writers.  

In this first one by them it's all there: the drily witty narration, the authority on business detail and the impeccable plotting.  It's probably as good as any other book in the series, although some may miss the higher satirical flights of, say, Death Shall Overcome (1966) and Murder against the Grain (1967),both of which S. S. Van Dine probably would have condemned for "literary dallying."  Even Van Dine couldn't have had a problem with Banking on Death, however; at about 70,000 words it's a lean and superb example of the classic detective novel.  I particularly liked how one clue was waved in front of my face and I still didn't see it.  Clever misdirection.

In 1994 Banking on Death was
another entry in Otto Penzler's
short-lived Classic American 
Mystery Library series, which 
also included S. S. Van Dine's
Gracie Allen Murder Case

Initially Banking on Death seems like it's going to be one of those "missing heir" cases, but things soon turn out differently when said heir turns up dead.  At the Sloan in New York City John Thatcher is cornered by Arthur Schneider, President of the Schneider Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts (makers of felts and industrial textiles), who wants to discuss the matter of his black sheep cousin, Robert, of whom the family lost slight of fifteen years ago, not long after the end of World War Two.  

With the imminent death of Arthur's Aunt Hilda, the trust will wind down, but the whereabouts and fate of Robert must be determined for the distribution to be made to the younger generation of surviving family members, which includes, besides Robert and Arthur, Arthur's sister, Grace, and Arthur's other cousin, Martin Henderson, who heads the firm's New York City sales branch.

Thatcher soon discovers Robert--he has been bludgeoned to death at his apartment in Buffalo, New York!

At his recent demise Robert was serving as vice president of the Buffalo Industrial Products Corporation.  Robert had made good, yet he was disliked by seemingly everyone, including other officers in the company and even his own estranged wife.  Even though the Schneider family trust is managed at the Sloan by young Kenneth Nicholls, the inquisitive Thatcher soon is actively involved trying to determine just who bumped off Robert and why.  (Nicholls becomes Thatcher's dogsbody.)  

It's a complicated question, to be sure, with a cast of suspects residing not only in Buffalo and Framingham but New York and Washington, D. C.  On the night Robert was murdered, Buffalo was being hit by a major snowstorm, so a most interesting question of alibis concerning planes and snow-tired automobiles is raised, one Freeman Wills Crofts surely would have adored.  

On its publication critical enthusiasm for the novel was pronounced.  In the New York Times Anthony Boucher praised the "interestingly unpleasant characters and agreeable love story [one-half of which is composed of Kenneth Nicholls"], as well as the "sound" and "well-clued" "murder puzzle," before concluding: "Miss Lathen is a find."  (I'm surprised that was never used on book blurbs.)

In the UK the frequently misogynistic Francis Iles lauded Banking on Death, though not without taking a broadside of critical obiter dicta at American women writers of what today is dubbed "domestic suspense":

[Emma Lathen's first novel] is head and shoulders above the usual rather dreary and deadly portentous American female crime-writers' syndicate. (There are some half a dozen of them but I say they must be a syndicate becaise any of their books might have been written by any one of them.)  this is a good story, well told, with a good background of banking and bug business, good characterisation, and even signs of humour.

Lathen would go on the write a total two dozen John Thatcher detective novels, finally shutting down with the untimely death of Mary Jane Latsis in 1997.  Nineteen of them appeared between 1961 and 1982, and another five, perhaps a bit antiquated by then, between 1988 and 1997.  The series never really changed to speak of (although at some point women became something other than wives, daughters and secretaries), providing readers with civilized and intelligent mystery entertainment for nearly four decades.  Certainly Emma Lathen was never drearily portentous and deadly dull.

PS: I had read this novel back in the 1990s, but I had forgotten that we learn here that John Thatcher was born in the villager of Sunapee, New Hampshire and served in the First World War.  He's widowed with a married daughter named Laura.  I don't believe we ever learn too much more about him.  Francis Iles probably approved of all this personal reticence.

See also my reviews of:

A Stitch in Time (1968)

By Hook or By Crook (1975)

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Say Good Night, Philo: The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), by S. S. Van Dine

One never rises so high as when one does not know where one is going.--Oliver Cromwell

--highfalutin' but entirely apt epigraph to S. S. Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)

On April 11, 1939 bestselling mystery author S. S. Van Dine suddenly collapsed and died at his swanky art deco apartment at 241 Central Park West, Manhattan  He was only fifty years old, but he had been suffering from heart disease (compounded by chronic drinking) and looked at least fifteen years older than his actual age.  

At his death the author left behind an early draft of a Philo Vance detective novel, The Winter Murder Case, which he had intended to serve as a film vehicle for Norwegian ice skating star Sonja Henie; and it was in this stripped form that the manuscript was published later that year in, appropriately, the winter.  Of actual novella length only, the book as published misses the usual affected Philoisms that people either love or hate and it is, all in all, a rather pallid work.  The Kansas City Star sadly deemed it a "sorry sort of farewell."

1931 art deco apartment building where 
S. S. Van Dine passed away in 1939

However as I recollect The Winter Murder Case, it's better altogether than Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case, the penultimate Philo Vance mystery, published a year before as a vehicle for the 1939 film of the same title which starred comedienne Gracie Allen, wife of her comedy partner George Burns.  It's a bizarre and not very successful novel, in my view, either as comedy or mystery, or comedy-mystery.  As a Philo completist I'm glad I finally read it, but I can't say I was impressed.

As a kid in the late 1970s I certainly knew about George Burns, whose career at nearly the age of eighty had been rejuvenated when he won an Oscar in 1976 for his charming role in the film The Sunshine Boys.  

Burns remained a familiar presence in American entertainment, finally expiring at the age of 100 in 1996. All I knew about Gracie Allen, his late wife, however, was that she was, well, his late wife.  Allen died back in 1964, before I was born, but Burns actually had played straight man to her in their comedy pieces on radio/television in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.  

In fact Gracie Allen was a very big star, though not so much on film.  Straight man Burns was then best known for imploring Allen, after listening lengthily to her daffy rambles, to "Say good night," which has generally been popularly remembered as "Say good night, Gracie."

entrance to 241 Central Park West, where S. S. Van Dine died

S. S. Van Dine, on the other hand, had made a big thing out of film with his mysteries.  Philo Vance was a famous film detective, particularly in the incarnation essayed by actor William Powell in The Canary Murder Case (1929), The Greene Murder Case (1929), The Benson Murder Case (1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933).  The latter film is considered the peak Philo Vance flick and the 1933 book of the same title upon which it is based is well-regarded as well--in fact it's often seen as the last hurrah of the Philo Vance detective novel series.

Van Dine published four more Philo Vance novels between 1933 and 1936--The Dragon Murder Case (1933), The Casino Murder Case (1934), The Garden Murder Case (1935) and The Kidnap Murder Case (1936), but these are generally seen as inferior to their predecessors, as are the films which were adapted from three of the books.  After losing William Powell as Vance--symbolically Powell eschewed Philo to become Nick Charles, the detective in Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man series of films--the remaining pictures went through a succession of Vances (Warren William in Dragon, Paul Lukas in Casino and Edmund Lowe in Garden) who never really caught on with the public.  A film was not even made of The Kidnap Murder Case, even though it should have been readily filmable.  

determinedly art deco lobby at 241 Central Park West

This was a problem for Van Dine because he and his second wife--he had rather callously discarded his first spouse--were high livers and needed the revenue from the Vance films to maintain their accustomed lifestyles.  This is how the strange mashup between Philo Vance--a stuffed shirt if ever there were one, even if the shirt was lavender with a green carnation--and zany stage "nitwit" Gracie Allen came about.  "Screwball" comedy was popular in the Thirties and humorous bits often were often incorporated into mystery films, albeit with wildly varying success.  If Van Dine--and Philo Vance--had to suffer the Gracie Allen stage persona in order to get back in film, so be it.

Gracie Allen "takes a back seat" to no one--certainly not Philo Vance-in the film version of
The Gracie Allen Murder Case

Hence The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which appeared in print in November 1938 and on film the following the year, a few months after Van Dine's untimely death.  As I understand it, the film version differs significantly from the book; and I can't say that surprises me, because in the book ditzy Gracie very much plays second fiddle to Philo, which is not how the filmmakers wanted it.  Van Dine is often condemned for prostituting his creation for film, but in the book he evidently tried to some extent to preserve Vance's integrity (and his).  The problem is, you just can't do this with Gracie Allen hanging around.

Never before in his books having evinced any real sense of humor (to the contrary, the books are, whatever you think of them, rather on the pompous and portentous side), suddenly Van Dine is doing these comic bits for Gracie Allen and trying to get us to believe that Philo Vance finds this "girl"--who in real life was 42 years of age and admitted to 36--to be this simply delightful and enchantin' wood nymph and dryad and elf and suchlike, don't you know.  Not buying it, SSVD!

Heck, I'm much more tolerant than Philo Vance ever was and even I find Gracie Allen intensely irritating, at least on paper.  You really need Gracie Allen in person, I think, to make the Gracie Allen persona bearable.  On paper it's just dire.  (George Burns appears in the book too, by the by, and is so straight a straight man you can barely see him; he's almost as invisible as Van Dine's ghostly narrator Van.)  

certainly the author died but he wasn't laughing
Gracie Allen with Philo (Warren William)

You can tell that S. S. Van Dine was not really comfortable with the Gracie Allen material.  He's more at home in the Gracie-less portions of the book, which read like a typical Van Dine detective novel, just not a good one, unfortunately.  Weirdly Van Dine has grafted Gracie and George and this perfume company they work for (the In-O-Scent Corporation) onto this rather darkish plot about gangsters and assorted fiends who habituate at the symbolically named Domdaniel nightclub in New York.  

There were gangsters in The Kidnap Murder Case as well and it's clear that Van Dine had been trying to toughen up the Philo Vance series, which had been eclipsed by Dashiell Hammett and other hard-boiled boys.  

So why drag Gracie in to tag along on Philo's cases now?  The answer obviously is the author saw a chance for some desperately needed $$$$!

Unfortunately the actual mystery doesn't work well either.  There's really not time to develop much of a puzzle plot in a novel of only around 50,000 words by my count, with much of the wordage given over to alleged Gracie Allen humor.  But here goes....

Milton Bradley even introduced a
Gracie Allen Murder Case board game to cash in on the film
even though Gracie had no "Clue" as it were

It seems that an escaped gangster, Benny the Buzzard (aka Beniamino Pellinzi) may be on his way to New York to revenge himself on Vance's pal (and longtime stooge) District Attorney Markham.  Benny is connected to the criminal coterie at Domdaniel, which is led by nightclub owner Daniel Mirche, chanteuse Dixie Del Mar and fatalistic philosophizin' crime kingpin "Owl" Owen.  

A dead body is discovered at Domdaniel, in Mirche's office no less, on the night when not only Philo and Van were there but, coincidentally, Gracie Allen, boyfriend George Burns and another swain of Gracie's, Jimmy Puttle, who is even more thinly characterized that Burns.  Earlier Vance had met Allen, apparently entirely coincidentally, out strolling along Palisades Avenue in Riverdale in the Bronx.  In fact there a lot of coincidences in this book, which would be intolerable in a straight mystery, but this thing is anything but.

these guys became important players in
Van Dine's last fully completed mysteries,  
The Kidnap Murder Case and
The Gracie Allen Murder Case

Vance solves the case only through Gracie's discoveries, all of them made accidentally, Gracie basically being what at this time they euphemistically called a "natural" in English village mysteries.  (There was another name too, much less polite.)

The murder is a sort of locked room problem, except that Van Dine resolves this puzzle through a feckless mechanism much favored by loopy American mystery writer Carolyn Wells; and there's an additional twist which, while clued, seems absurd.  

Basically the mystery is very simple, with some hot air--or overheated red herring--thrown up to obscure things.  

The laziness of it all is evident in the fact that Rosa Tofana (aka fortuneteller "Delpha") and criminal hubby Tony Tofana, two of the characters in the book--they're listed in the cast of characters at the beginning--do not actually ever appear, although they are frequently referred to by others and play an important role in the plot.  I guess that beat actually attempting to characterize them!

A contemporary reviewer of the novel in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader, publihsed under the heading "New Philo Vance Yarn Gives Critic Pain in the Neck," roasted Philo and Gracie alike, asserting that the book fell flat between two stools, being neither "goofy enough for Gracie nor good enough for Vance," and resultantly "neither entertaining as nonsense nor interesting as a mystery."  The only actual mystery in the bemused reviewer's eyes was "why the Scribners published it."

Otto Penzler's 1994 edition
of The Gracie Allen Murder Case
generously included in his
Classic American Mystery Library

Nevertheless, the book provides some vintage Philo moments for fans, like when the amateur sleuth again expresses his ardent support for vigilantism, a topical subject right now.  About the escaped convict Benny the Buzzard, Vance scoffs to proper lawman Markham:

Ah, your precious law and its prissy procedure!  How you Solons complicate the simple things of life!  Even if this red-tailed hawk with the operatic name should appear among his olden haunts and be snared in Sergeant's seine, you would still treat him kindly and caressingly under the euphemistic phrase "due process of the law."  You'd coddle him no end....

And this was uttered in 1938, before the massive criminal procedural reforms imposed by the Warren Court!  What would Vance say today?  I'm guessing his Twitter feed would really have been something, assuming he wasn't kicked off Twitter entirely.*

*(Of course with all those five dollar words--fifty dollars with inflation--Philo likes to use, he would have had a hard time limiting himself to 280 characters.)

There's one rather odd, essentially extraneous chapter, highlighted by Van Dine's biographer as I recall, where Vance philosophizes about death and the utter ennui of life with the doomed crime kingpin Owl Owen, who only has a short time left to live, afflicted as he is (like the author) with terminal heart disease.  

Although Van Dine later condemns Owen as a "diseased maniac" and a "mental, moral and spiritual leper," the high-toned crook sounds a lot like the author, who in his former, financially unsuccessful life as Willard Huntington Wright (before he reinvented himself as a detective novelist) was a prominent aesthete, critic and intellectual.  

Gracie Allen investigates! (perhaps how co-star
Kent Taylor--playing "Bill Brown," a character
not in the book-- got his mustache so thin)

"Owen began speaking now of old books, of his cultural ambitions as a youth, of his early study of music," the narrator, Van, tells us.  How are we not to connect this with the author himself, substituting painting for music?  

When Owen speaks of "the cosmic urge to play a game with life, in order to escape from the stresses and pressures of the finite," is he expressing the author's rationale for having abandoned intellectual criticism for detective fiction?  

And when he laments that "Nothing has the slightest importance--not even life itself," is he expressing the author's own despair with living and his knowledge that he too soon will be gone, mere dust in the wind, as the song says?  

In any event, what in the world is this downer of a chapter doing in the same book with kooky Gracie Allen?  It's discordant in the extreme.  Van Dine knows it, because he has "Van" self-consciously introduce Owen by saying "That night...I could not, by the most fantastic flight of my imagination, associate him in any way with the almost incredible and carefree Gracie Allen."  Indeed!  Nor could I, even when the book was over.

Despite the author's attempts at inducing chuckles--and knowing what I do of the prospect of impending death which he faced--I find The Gracie Allen Murder Case rather a sad book. 

That's why I was happy to see Van, Philo's pal and loyal chronicler (and longtime companion), on page one stating that he and the perspicacious and pretentious amateur sleuth had recalled this case together, "as we sat before the grate fire one wintry evening, long after the events."  I like to think that these two most confirmed of bachelors enjoyed a happier life together than Van Dine evidently ever did with anyone in his own restless and unsatisfied earthly existence.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Walk a Mile: Dead Man's Shoes aka Appleby Talking (1954) by Michael Innes

From its 1936 publication of Seven Suspects--the American title of Michael Innes' first detective novel Death at the President's Lodging (an apt-to-be-misleading title for American readers)--Dodd, Mead's Red Badge Detective mystery fiction imprint employed, with a few exceptions, a specific design style for Michael Innes novels, one which the publisher maintained for over four decades, up through the publication of The Gay Phoenix in 1977.  

Most of the 27 John Appleby detective novels, 3 John Appleby short story collections, and 10 non-series detective novels published in this period had jackets reflecting this design scheme, composed of a black background with minimalistic strokes in red, white and gray.  As far as I am aware this is a unique feature in long-running mystery fiction in this period.  Why the switch-over took place in 1978 I don't know, but the change stayed in place until Innes' (and, indeed, arguably the Golden Age generation's) last detective novel, Appleby and the Ospreys, was published in 1986, during which time there appeared from Innes a total of five more Appleby detective novels, including Ospreys, and three more non-series ones.  

One of the eye-catching exceptions to this rule is Dead Man's Shoes (Appleby Talking in UK), a collection of 23 pieces of John Appleby short fiction published in 1954.  Although the black/white/red/gray color scheme is adhered to, there is a more detailed design, emphasizing, appropriately, a dead man's pant's cuffs, socks and mismatched shoes.  One of the shoes in an unexceptionable black while the other is red--certainly a striking and odd color in this context.  

Sadly, in the title novelette of about 16,000 words we find that the mismatched shoes are actually black and brown, not black and red; so the jacket turns out to be misleading in this regard.  

Before reading the story I had been innocently looking forward to the explanation of why the shoe was red (like John Rhode's green hedgehog): Was it like radioactive or something?  Alas, however, the eventual explanation which the author provided did not involve any weird and woolly science.  

Happily, however, this is still a very clever, well-clued mystery, however, which I probably would have read over twenty years ago, when I was on my first Innes reading jag, had the novelette not had an espionage background, which predisposed me against it at the time (plus the copy I had then was a drab paperback edition).  

Fear not, however, "Shoes" is a "fair play" mystery in the classic mode and a very good one at that.  I loved how it opened with the time-honored gambit of the imperiled "girl on the train" who implores our young hero for help, as she has just escaped from a man in another compartment whom she believes was about to murder her.  These "girls" really should stay away from trains, don't you know.

First there was Agatha Christie's "The Girl in the Train," from 1924 and much later we had Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train from 2015 (filmed with Emily Blunt in the title role the next year), with a plentitude of other troubled train "girls" in between them, like Ruth Kettering in Christie's Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and Iris Carr in Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936), famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes.  So all you "girls" out there reading this blog post really should know by know: Beware of the trains!  Read "Dead Man's Shoes" if you still don't believe me.  

Of course trains can get men in trouble too.  See Patricia Highsmith!

A girl in trouble is a temporary thing?

The other 22 works of short fiction in the collection are much shorter--indeed, the majority of them are short-shorts of under 2000 words.  Throughout the 1950s Innes specialized in the newspaper short-short mystery and was quite adept at it, but many of these tales here, I must admit, get rather whimsical, and are even on the shaggy-doggish side. 

Typically they take the form of Appleby talking (hence the English title) about some past crime with some of his male acquaintances (the vicar, the doctor, the lawyer, etc.) in the seaside town of Sheercliff (setting of "Dead Man's Shoes," by the way).  Some of these are clever and a bit more developed, however, like poisoning tale "The Furies" and "The X-Plan," another crime story with espionage trappings, and "Appleby's First Case."  (I think I have seen "The Furies" before in an anthology.)  

J. I. M. Stewart
aka Michael Innes (1906-1994)

Then there are a few short stories proper, about 4000-6000 words long say, which are quite good indeed: "Lesson in Anatomy," "A Dog's Life," "Pokerwork," "The Key" and "Tragedy of a Handkerchief."  "Anatomy" concerns a murder which takes place when the lights go out during an anatomy lecture at Nessfield University.  (See Innes' 1943 John Appleby detective novel The Weight of the Evidence, where in the English edition it is "Nesfield," I believe.)  

This is well-devised detective story, although I must admit that the "rags" which the medical students callously perform with anatomical "specimens" (i.e., blameless human corpses) rather rankled me.  Innes always indulgently gives university students great scope for consummate assery.

Not for the first time was I struck by the obnoxiously privileged behavior of college students in Innes' books, which really hung on over the entirety of the author's fifty year mystery writing career.  The author himself--whose real name was John Innes Mackintosh Stewart--was a longtime academic and taught English literature at Oxford for 24 years, retiring at the age of 67 in 1973, when changes were really starting to roil the system.

The other four stories all involve, in one way or another, murderous consequences of illicit passions among men and women.  "A Dog's Life" oddly anticipates the tragic drowning deaths of Daniil Gagarin and Emma Monkkonen which took place just a few months ago and which, due their horrific nature, went viral on the internet.  

Of these four clever tales I particularly liked "Pokerwork," about a murder committed with one of the classic slaying weapons.  (A number of the story titles, as you will see, are puns.)  Shorn of the dazzling literary embellishments of the Innes novels (particularly the early ones), these stories make manifest just how able Innes was at the craft of clueing, a skill at which he is underrated.  In a contemporary review of Dead Man's Shoes influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher called the collection "an approximately perfect book" and he asserted that "even readers who have shied away from the long Innes novels may be charmed by these briefer samples."

Dodd, Mead's first edition of Michael Innes'
Lament for a Maker, now selling for $750

Still in my view one needs to read Innes' novels to get the full flavor of Innes.  In a review of Dead Man's Shoes at Jason Half's blog, Jason asks, "Is it fair to judge a novelist based on a set of short stories?" and answers: "The immediate answer is, of course, yes."  I would argue, however, that the answer is, to the contrary, "Heck, no!"  

Set aside the "great" novelists, to really appreciate Michael Innes (and whether you can really appreciate him) you simply must read some of the earlier books, the great detective extravaganzas like Hamlet, Revenge!, Lament for a Maker, Stop, PressThe Daffodil Affair or Appleby's End, say.  (Or you could just start with this one, which is quite good, from the author's middle period, or even this one, from his later period.) 

To do otherwise is like thinking you have done justice to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe saga by reading, say, "Murder Is Corny" (see my review), rather than Some Buried Caesar or And Be a Villain, for example.  It just won't do, sir!  Though it's actually even worse in Innes' case because the bulk of his short fiction are the merest of trifles by design.

Jason, who posted this review nearly three years ago, in December 2018, admitted then that he had not read any of Innes' novels, so his question is a pertinent one.  At the end of his review he speculates that he might owe it to the author "to sample more of his writing, to see what he can do with one novel-length story instead of 23 too brief but promising little ones."  To which I would add, I should say so!  

Anyone who likes Gladys Mitchell like Jason does should like Innes' early novels, I would think.  I haven't seen a review of a Michael Innes on his blog since then, however.  Did he ever give it another go with Innes?  I hope so.  When it comes to crime fiction, you have to walk a few miles in the dead man's shoes.