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AGATHA CHRISTIE. Cards on the Table (1936).

Four murderers, four detectives, one victim. There, in brief, is the neat, stylized pattern around which Christie weaves yet another beguiling mystery for Hercule Poirot to solve. The victim, Mr. Shaitana (the name means Satan), invites to dinner four seemingly ordinary Brits, each of whom he believes to be guilty of an undetected, unpunished homicide. CardsTable.jpgAlso invited are a quartet of sleuths, including Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race of the Secret Service, and the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (she acts, in effect, as Christie’s doppelgänger), along with Poirot, he of the little gray cells. After dinner, the suspected killers retire to Shaitana’s curio-crammed living room, where they play a few rubbers of contract bridge. One of them, during a turn as “dummy,” stabs the host with an exotic dagger from the victim’s own collection. The four detectives, who had spent the evening in another room, then set about investigating the recent movements and the past exploits of the four suspects. An understanding of bridge and its rules figures in Poirot’s deductive process, but any sharp-eyed reader can glean the clues that matter most in his solution. In fact, what initially appears to be a contrived formal puzzle turns out to be a thoughtful study of varied human types. More than in most Christie novels, psychology is everything here, and bridge is merely the table (so to speak) on which the cards of character reveal themselves.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

HAROLD ADAMS. The Man Who Was Taller Than God (1992).

ManTallerGOd.jpgCarl Wilcox, an itinerant man-of-all-work and an occasional sleuth, is not so much hard-boiled as he is parched and withered. He’s been worn down by the elements—sun and wind, lust and greed—that dominate the Depression-era South Dakota in which he operates. To be sure, he retains a modicum of spirit, and it’s most evident when he’s flirting with the many lonely and attractive women who cross his path. Yet over everything that he does or says (Wilcox narrates his own adventures), there hangs an air of rueful impoverishment. Like his urban private-eye counterparts, like Spade and Marlowe and the rest, he has turned detached alienation into both an ethic and a style; unlike them, he can’t draw on the frenzied energies of a big-city environment to compensate for the bleakness within his soul. Called upon to solve the murder of a womanizing insurance salesman, Wilcox undertakes the task with little sense of urgency, and indeed with little sense of interest. It’s just another job to him, like the sign-painting gig that brought him to town in the first place. He works the case in the way of private investigators everywhere, by knocking on doors and riling people up, and in time the truth spills out. That revelation seems overly complex, given the rather minimalist quality of the narrative that precedes it, and Adams does too little too prepare readers for it. Still, it’s a conclusion that well suits the all-embracing drought of Wilcox’s time and place—a drought that was, according to Adams, spiritual as well as meteorological.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel

 

CHRISTIANNA BRAND. Death in High Heels (1941).

Inspector Charlesworth, an up-and-comer on the Scotland Yard force, is known for having not just a keen eye for clues, but also a bright eye for the charms of women. With his latest case, though, he encounters a more concentrated dose of feminine pulchritude than he might ever have wished for. A murder has occurred at Christophe et Cie, an exclusive Regent Street dress shop, and when Charlesworth arrives there and starts looking for suspects, what awaits him is a bewitching retinue of British lovelies. DeathHighHeels.jpg The victim, a shop manager named Miss Doon, had certainly been a head-turner—that is, before a few crystals of oxalic acid sprinkled on a serving of luncheon curry sent her in fatal agony to the hospital. Among the surviving employees who might have done the sprinkling are Miss Gregory, another manager of the shop and a rival of Doon’s for the affections of Frank Bevan, owner of the establishment (Bevan is also a suspect, of course); a trio of saleswomen; and a pair of “mannequins,” otherwise known as dress models. The women of Christophe et Cie are a fetching lot, and each of them comes across as fetching in her own way. The shop also employs a dress designer, Mr. Cecil, and each of the saleswomen has a husband who figures in the plot to a greater or lesser degree. That’s a lot of people to follow, and Charlesworth falters in that area now and again. Who can blame him, distracted as he is by the winsome qualities of the women in the case?

Death in High Heals joins the noble tradition of English detective novels that exploits the array of customs, personalities, and relationships that converge inside a certain kind of workplace. These tales, which include such classics as Murder Must Advertise (by Dorothy Sayers) and Smallbone Deceased (by Michael Gilbert), are typically set in small firms within the big city that is London. Whether the scene of the crime is an advertising agency, a law office, or a vendor of women’s apparel, it will have attributes that well serve a writer who doesn’t mind working in miniature: an array of passions, both overt and covert, that might inspire a zeal to kill; a tightly circumscribed physical space in which comings and goings are easy to track; a set of work routines that provide a sleuth with plenty of investigative fodder. In this instance, the commercial setting gives Brand a nice, compact bottle in which to construct her intricate little ship of a novel.

In its early and middle sections, the novel labors under the burden of featuring too many characters. But the resulting assortment of permutations provides Brand with the material that she needs to generate a satisfying denouement that involves multiple solutions. This work, the author’s début, marks an apt launch for a career that would reach the apex of what detective fiction can offer. Despite a few rough spots at the level of execution, Brand here shows her knack for blending a formal crime puzzle with a fine-tuned exploration of social mores and individuals manners.

[ADDENDUM: Curt Evans has written a sharp, informative review of this book. He notes, for example, the spirit of unembarrassed candor—somewhat unusual for prewar popular fiction of this kind—that Brand brings to her treatment of both female sexuality and male homosexuality. Her depiction of an obviously gay character has a sniggering, mildly homophobic tone, but that flaw seems less notable than the matter-of-fact way that she recounts the details of his romantic life. All in all, High Heels has a modern feel to it that trumps the dated quality of certain plot details.]

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2014 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. Red Harvest (1929).

Hammett, according to Raymond Chandler, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” At a time when detective fiction was replete with high-society types who concocted elaborate killings and did so for obscure or highly contrived motives, Hammett introduced readers to thugs like Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Reno Starkey, and Max “Whisper” Thaler. RedHarvest.jpgThese crooks are professionals, with appropriately professional motivations to kill, and they form part of the murderer’s row that the nameless hero of this novel must confront as he strives to clean up the dirty streets of Personville, a midsized mining town in the Mountain West. It’s a relentlessly corrupt town—locals and outsiders alike call it Poisonville—and the task of defeating its many bad guys requires a deep reserve of moxie more than it does a refined intelligence. “Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to do it,” the Continental Op explains to one of the colorfully named thugs. (Nowhere in this book does the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator, refer to himself as the Contintental Op. But he’s an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, so that’s how he’s come to be known.) As Hammett’s title foretells, the “harvest” that the Op carries out assumes a grimly sanguinary hue. By the Op’s own tally, there are 19 murders that take place between the opening and the closing of this case. Indeed, he commits a few of them himself, and he does it for a reason: As he says, it’s his job.

In that way, Red Harvest differs fundamentally from a standard mystery tale. Far from chronicling the orderly pursuit of truth and justice by a sleuth who embodies the power of human reason, this début novel depicts a random and cruel world in which circumstances can push even the otherwise noble Op to become (in his words) “blood-simple.” Where order does exist, as in the bureaucratic regimen followed by the Old Man, who runs the Continental office back in San Francisco, that mode of order bears no relation to the real business of fighting crime. When bullets are flying and bodies are falling, the Old Man’s expectation that the Op will file regular reports on his activity in Personville carries a whiff of the absurd. For the Op, detection is chiefly a matter of disruption. “Plans are all right sometimes,” he says to Dinah Brand, the femme fatale in this proto-noir effort. (With her, as with the menfolk of Poisonville, the Op follows a cagy, keep-your-enemies-close strategy.) “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes out on top.”

Even as Hammett charts new fictional terrain with this book, he also annexes features from established genres. He updates the classic western saga, for example: The Op acts the part of an outsider who brings the law to a far-flung outpost where ruffians had previously held sway. RedHarvest2.jpg He contends with bootleggers rather than cattle rustlers, and he relies on a flivver instead of a horse to get from place to place; nonetheless, his every move reflects the spirit of frontier justice. Traces of the classic mystery form are evident here as well. Despite his commitment to hard-boiled naturalism, Hammett displays a penchant for abrupt plot twists that reveal unlikely suspects to be surprise killers. Red Harvest originally appeared as a four-part serial in Black Mask magazine, and several times—at what would have been a climactic moment in one of those four segments—the Op manages to pull a trick rabbit out of his snap-brim hat. In each case, the guilty party has committed murder “for a reason,” but that reason isn’t what readers are inclined to expect. With sleight-of-hand plotting of that sort, Hammett pays homage to the very tradition of classic detection that he aims to transcend.

What results is partly a tale of (new) Old West derring-do, partly a clue-laden puzzle story, and partly a study in modern existential sensibility. It is, in addition, a feat of true literary art.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2014 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

L.R. WRIGHT. Prized Possessions (1993).

Where does one draw the line between the mystery novel and the work of serious fiction? In some instances, that line blurs to the point of nonexistence. Those who write about crime often work to attain—and often do attain—the depths of psychological insight and the lofty reaches of social observation that great novelists have traditionally claimed as their exclusive literary domain. Mainstream writers, meanwhile, often descend into the precincts of genre fiction, if only because a work presented as “A Mystery” will sometimes garner more readers than one marketed as “A Novel.” PrizedPossession.jpg

Somewhere between those publishing trends falls this tale. Issued as a “crime” novel, it has a good deal in common with a straight novel that came out in roughly the same era: Paris Trout, by Pete Dexter. Like that work, it traces the process by which a handful of characters converge—slowly, tortuously, inexorably—upon acts of horrific violence. At no point is there any doubt as to “who” or even as to “what.” In the fictive world that Wright has built, only the question of “how” appears to matter. How will the perpetrators find their victims (or vice versa)? How will the murderous impulses foreshadowed in the novel’s earliest scenes finally be unleashed? Nothing beyond the presence of a professional detective, one Karl Alberg of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, signals that we are reading a genre piece rather than a “literary” product.

Alberg, in fact, performs no detection. He merely goes about his business, most of it personal, while just over the horizon of his life in staid, orderly Vancouver, two stories of conflict between the sexes unfold—stories of desire thwarted and transposed into hate. In one, a drugstore clerk of subnormal intelligence, believing that a haughty college girl has snubbed him, sets forth to demand an apology from her. Not really knowing why, he takes a gun along with him. In the other, a woman has invested every resource at her disposal into being the perfect wife, only to discover that she has failed. When she goes in search of the husband who has left her, she too carries a gun. The two dramas proceed separately, in parallel fashion, for most of the novel. Then they intersect with one another, and with Alberg, in a concluding sequence that is none the less explosive for being perfectly predictable.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

ELLERY QUEEN. Cat of Many Tails (1949).

This foray into the realm of serial murder stands out for being a departure for an author who typically focused on less anonymous forms of killing. In a postwar New York that feels grittier and more prosaic than the stylized metropolis of the early Queen books, a series of people are found slain by the same method—strangulation with a cord of Indian tussah silk—over the span of just a few weeks. CatManyTails.jpgNo apparent link exists between one victim and another, and the dead hail from every corner of Manhattan and from every rank in society. Tabloid newspapers, eager to exploit popular fear, dub the murderer “the Cat” and liken each victim to a cat’s tail; the escalating number of figurative feline appendages yields a sinister image that captures and discombobulates the collective mind of the city. Gotham authorities enlist Ellery Queen to apprehend the killer and to quell the frenzy, and he succeeds on both fronts, but not before the Cat has grown its ninth tail.

For both Queen the detective and Queen the author, serial murder poses an all-too-obvious challenge: Where motive appear to be absent, as it does here, everyone is a suspect. Or no one is. The author handles that problem ably, in part by deploying well-disguised clues that ultimately point to the motive and hence the identity of the Cat. Equally important, Queen in this outing tilts the narrative emphasis away from the genteel matching of wits between reader and detective—the hallmark of most earlier tales in the Queen cycle—and toward the careful depiction of a world shadowed by the specter of total war. (It’s intriguing to pair this work with another that appeared in the same era: “Here Is New York,” E.B. White’s famous ode to the city. As Queen does in this novel, White celebrates New York in all its quotidian glory, but an acute sense of dread colors his otherwise loving portrait of the place and its people.) Like others who had lived through the 1940s, the men who wrote the Queen books reached the end of that decade with a diminished faith in human rationality. One result of that change of perspective, not just in their work but across the entire genre, was a move toward telling stories in which the mechanics of crime and crime-solving give way to the dynamics of mental and social chaos.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle

 

RICHARD ALEAS. Little Girl Lost (2004).

The Aleas name is an alias—a nice touch, that. It belongs to Charles Ardai, publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint, a line of neo-retro paperback originals. (The pseudonym is also an anagram of Ardai’s real name.) This début novel is a product of that line, but it’s hardly a vanity publication. Paying homage to the wise-guy style and grim worldview of mid-20th-century noir fiction, Ardai shrewdly updates an old noir story: A private eye, bent on avenging the murder of a former lover, plunges into a grimy underworld that slowly reveals itself to be a hall of mirrors.LittleGirlLost.jpg The setting is New York City, circa 2003, a place where the hum of cell-phone talk and cable-news chatter threatens to drown out the sweet melody of doom that provides noir characters everywhere with their theme music. In Ardai’s arrangement, though, both the hum and the melody are perfectly audible.

The PI in this rendition of the story, a fresh-faced NYU lit major named John Blake, reads in the Daily News one morning about the killing of a stripper at her place of business, an East Village joint called the Sin Factory. He recognizes her face as well as her name: Miranda Sugerman. Miranda was his high-school sweetheart, and he hasn’t seen her since she went away to college as a pre-med student about ten years ago. How, in one short decade, did she go from such an innocent start to such a squalid end? To retrace her journey, Blake delves into the silicone-inflated stripper subculture, befriends a Sin Factory “professional” who develops a soft spot for him (in a heart that might or might not be of gold), and lands a client in the form of an Armenian-American drug dealer who wants him to find $500,000 in cash that Miranda might have helped to steal. Along the way, as he asks what became of Miranda, Blake ends up wondering what has become of himself.

Sure-handed plotting, clever but not too clever writing, and a classic twist ending—hidden from view by an equally classic diversionary move—make this Hard Case title easy to like.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 
 
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