GASTON LEROUX. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907).

In the decades immediately following its release, this canonical work cast a mighty spell over the field of impossible-crime fiction. “The best detective tale ever written,” wrote John Dickson Carr, speaking through his protagonist, Dr. Gideon Fell, who issued that proclamation in the fabled “Locked Room Lecture,” published (as a chapter in The Three Coffins) in 1935. “It remains, after a generation of imitation, the most brilliant of all ‘locked room’ novels,” wrote Howard Haycraft a few years later in his magisterial genre history, Murder for Pleasure. Now, more than a century after the book’s publication, that worshipful attitude is hard to comprehend. The magic that Yellow Room was once able to work on acolytes and enthusiasts has vanished. What stands out today is the clumsy and sometimes comically antiquated way that Leroux handles a set of ingredients that are, in their own right, fairly appealing.

YellowRoomIn its setting and its setup, the novel presents a classic combination of easeful gentility and violent death. There is a garden: The action occurs chiefly at the Château du Glandier, a venerable and verdant estate on the outskirts of Paris, during the Belle Époque (in 1892, to be precise). Living there are Monsieur and Mademoiselle Stangerson, a father-daughter team of scientific geniuses who call to mind the husband-wife team of Pierre and Marie Curie. Surrounded by ostensibly loyal servants, the Stangersons devote their days to working in a laboratory located in a pavilion on the estate. (Their research involves a phenomenon that they call “the dissociation of matter.” In light of what follows, that concept will resonate in a provocative way.) And there is the introduction of a snake: One evening, after a long day of work in the lab, Mademoiselle Stangerson retires to an adjoining space called the Yellow Room. She locks the only door to that chamber. Soon afterward, gunshots ring out. Monsieur Stangerson, with three servants in tow, breaks the door open and discovers a scene of mayhem. His daughter is alive, but she has borne a wound to the head. A search of the premises shows that no one else is in the room—and that no one could have escaped after she sealed it shut.

From there, the book follows a now-standard model for structuring a locked-room novel. (Indeed, in these pages, Leroux is helping to establish that model.) An amateur sleuth, in the form of a boy-wonder journalist named Joseph Rouletabille, arrives on the scene. He reconnoiters the problem, both physically and intellectually: Footprints are located and examined. Theories of what happened in the Yellow Room are broached and critiqued. Then, just as readers’ attention might start to flag, Leroux compounds the original mystery by introducing new apparent impossibilities. One night at the château, for example, a figure disappears from a hallway—a space that Leroux (or his translator) amusingly calls the “inexplicable gallery”—even as witnesses guard every point of egress. Leroux builds further interest by setting rival sleuths in conflict with each other. Throughout the investigation, Rouletabille jousts with an array of officials, including Frederic Larsan, a detective from the Sûreté who functions as a half-serious, half-comic foil (somewhat in the tradition of Inspector Lestrade).

These features of the tale work well enough. Unfortunately, they tumble forth in a style that is lumbering yet frenetic. Leroux’s prose is a creaking mass of Edwardian-era tics and travesties—a bundle of melodramatic phrases and orotund flourishes. (Again, the translator may bear part of the blame; perhaps the style falls on the ear more softly in the original French.) At the same time, the storyline jumps about constantly; like Leroux’s juvenile protagonist, it displays more energy than intentionality. But the inelegant storytelling would be largely forgivable (at least to many impossible-crime mavens) if the story itself didn’t suffer from glaring flaws.

Leroux botches the main puzzle (the one that originates in the Yellow Room) by attaching too many extraneous elements to it. Deep within the puzzle, one can discern a key inspiration for the wondrous trickery—the quasi-magical use of narrative technique to bend time and space—that successors like Carr would exhibit with greater artistry. YellowRoom2Solving this conundrum requires both painstaking analysis and bold intuition. (“We have to take hold of our reason by the right end,” Rouletabille notes.) But Leroux, having contrived this feat of deception, proceeds to swaddle it in layers of over-embroidered, shoddily sewn story material. As a result, when the time comes to explain this sleight of hand, what should be an adroit revelation becomes a labored and almost impossible-to-follow disquisition.  

More egregiously, Leroux doesn’t play fair in the construction of his plot. Although he doles out clues that point toward some aspects of the solution, he also withholds several pieces of data that illuminate either the motive or the mechanics of the Yellow Room episode. Only when Rouletabille disgorges this information in a final, disordered rush of exposition do critical parts of the story come into view. And yet Haycraft, in his write-up on Leroux, claimed that the author “played religiously fair with his readers.” Arguably, Leroux’s neatest trick was his ability to beguile readers (some of them, anyway) on that front.


Posted by on October 7, 2020 in International, Novel, Puzzle


DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Dain Curse (1929).

Of Hammett’s five novels, this one has long had the lowest reputation—certainly in the view of the author himself, and by a fairly wide margin among most critics who celebrate his literary achievement overall. Yet the book, which Hammett churned out quickly and as a matter of financial exigency, offers plenty of vintage pulpy charm. More important, it stands as the ur-text for a prominent subgenre of detective fiction.

The story begins modestly, as if it came from one of the more desiccated leaves of a private eye’s casebook. Then it spirals manically into a strange, labyrinthine affair. The Continental Op, working on behalf of a jeweler’s insurance company, visits the San Francisco home of an inventor named Edgar Leggett. Some diamonds in Leggett’s possession have gone missing, and the Op starts chatting up people in the Leggett milieu who might know something about their whereabouts. The household includes the inventor’s wife, Alice, and his daughter, Gabrielle, and associates of the family include Eric Collinson, a suitor of Gabrielle, and Owen Fitzstephan, a writer who happens to know both the Leggett paterfamilias and the Op. A bit of poking around reveals to the Op that the apparent jewel theft is merely the tip of a highly toxic iceberg. The focus of investigative activity extends from the Leggett home to the Temple of the Holy Grail, the site of a sham religion that has drawn Gabrielle into its orbit, and then to an oceanside town called Quesada, where Gabrielle lands after a series of family tragedies. DainCurseMany corpses accumulate along the way, and the only factor that appears to link these deaths is Gabrielle. A possible explanation for all of this violence—though not one that the Op accepts—is a curse that supposedly afflicts the Dain family, from which Gabrielle and her mother descend.

Undergirding the novel is a narrative template that has more solidity than the looping (and sometimes loopy) contours of the case at hand. It’s a template that Raymond Chandler would use in part and on occasion, that Ross Macdonald would use in full and repeatedly, and that other practitioners of the California school of private eye writing would use as a birthright. Although the main venue for tales of this kind would shift from the northern part of the Golden State to the southern part, the defining elements of the template have been roughly constant: A private agent, initially brought in to resolve a fairly routine matter, becomes enmeshed in the coils of a dysfunctional family with a hidden, horrible past. His job (this detective is almost always a man) ends up requiring him to trace the accursed lineage of that family, and a question that frequently hangs over his work is whether the sins of self-indulgent parents will be visited upon their children. Common symptoms of family disarray include drug addiction, deviant sexuality, and participation in a pseudo-religious cult. (Such cults, of course, are known to find ample recruits among California’s insecurely rooted population.) In sorting through these pathologies, the detective functions less as an investigator than as a therapist; the true object of his quest is not truth or even justice, but social reparation and psychic absolution.

In a story of this type, much depends on the inclusion of a detective hero who can support the weight of a melodramatic and emotionally laden plot. The Op, a journeyman operative with the Continental Detective Agency who also appeared in Red Harvest and dozens of short works, meets that difficult test. His lack of a name in no way lessens the sense of presence that he confers on the Leggett affair—both as a professional sleuth and as the narrator of record. Indeed, the Op’s blunt, just-the-facts persona serves as an effective counterpoint to the bizarre, over-the-top sequence of events that he describes. His jaded response to the often ridiculous particulars of the case goes far in helping maintain the reader’s willing (and sometimes merely grudging) suspension of disbelief. What’s more, the Op gets a chance to display a softer, more human aspect of his hardboiled sensibility when he pauses his investigation to rescue one character from a dire personal fate. The temporary shift in his role from crimefighter to caretaker marks a surprising turn that works surprisingly well.

But the whole thing goes awry in the closing chapters, when the time comes for the Op to reveal and explain who did the murders, and how, and why. Uncharacteristically, Hammett handles this moment in a hectic and compressed manner, thus draining the denouement of both clarity and impact. This failing is all the more lamentable because Hammett manages the runup to the end quite deftly, and because he has engineered a grand twist that should carry a real wallop. Perhaps, in opting to explore the compassionate side of his knightly hero, the author had lost interest in the side of his hero that involves solving riddles and slaying dragons.


Posted by on September 8, 2020 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel


CYRIL HARE. An English Murder (1951)

To the extent that circumspection and reserve are English traits, the setup of this novel certainly matches the spirit of its title. Not until about one-third of its pages have passed does the identity of the first murder victim become known. Before then, Hare conducts a leisurely survey of his dramatis personae and the stereotypically English situation in which he has placed them. Lord Warbeck, aged and sickly, has invited a small set of actual and honorary family members to join him for a Christmas house party at Warbeck Hall, a venerable edifice in the (fictional) county of Markshire. The party may be the last such gathering before Lord Warbeck, and with him a certain way of life, pass away. Attending the party are his son, Robert Warbeck, who leads the League of Liberty, a group loosely based on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; Sir Julius Warbeck, a cousin who serves as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the historic postwar Labour government; Lady Camilla Prendergast, a relative of the late Lady Warbeck; and a certain Mrs. Carstairs, the daughter of the local parish rector. EnglishMurderIn a sequence of early scenes, various tensions—personal, familial, and political—simmer in the interaction among these characters. As midnight approaches on Christmas Eve, they gather in the drawing room at Warbeck Hall for a traditional holiday toast. Even then, a trace of suspense lingers over the question of who will receive a dose of cyanide in his or her celebratory glass.

The matter of Englishness runs as a persistent undercurrent through the story. Another guest of the party—Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink, an historian of somewhat murky central European origin—throws that theme into high relief. Either explicitly or simply by embodying a foreign counter-example, Bottwink poses the question of what makes a given attitude or habit or turn of phrase unique to his host country. In some instances, the theme emerges in discussions of time-honored (and mostly innocuous) customs, such those associated with afternoon tea: how to prepare it, how to drink it, how to savor the eminently English experience of it. In other instances, however, the theme becomes manifest in ways that involve obdurate class distinctions and dangerously hidebound institutions. “I am well aware of the importance in this country of knowing one’s place,” Bottwink says at one point, and the statement resonates beyond its immediate context. Somewhat later, he laments that “modern England is … riddled with antiquarian anachronisms.” In one fashion or another, he and his fellow guests are reckoning with the very live issue of whether a fixture of national life such as Warbeck Hall will survive in a postwar world. That issue is highly salient for Briggs, the butler at Warbeck, and the book gives considerable attention to the mores and rituals by which Briggs organizes his life and work. Like a naturalist who avidly studies a dwindling species, Hare shows a keen interest in documenting a vocation that is fast disappearing from the English scene.

Alongside robust servings of clever social observation, An English Murder offers a slight but thoroughly satisfying puzzle. The book has just one notable defect: The ability to solve the core mystery hinges on knowing a point of English history and law that will elude even many English readers. Yet that feature, too, evokes a defining aspect of English life—a clubby sense of exclusivity, which can seem at once pleasantly cozy and forbiddingly insular. That Bottwink is the fellow who ends up cracking the puzzle adds a note of suitably English irony.

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Posted by on August 25, 2020 in British, Novel, Puzzle


DOROTHY B. HUGHES. The So Blue Marble (1940).

SoBlueMarble1The Montefierrow twins, the villains who drive this very offbeat début novel, appear to hail from the darker reaches of our collective unconscious. With their matching tophat-and-tails apparel, their walking sticks that contain concealed weapons, and their monogrammed (and narcotically infused) cigarettes—above all, with their preternatural air of self-possession—they embody a dream logic. Floating through an otherwise realistic Manhattan cityscape, they come across less as characters in the usual sense than as fragments of a nightmare. From the novel’s first scene, they cast a haunting pall over the heroine, Griselda Satterlee, and in doing so they push the tale halfway into the horror genre. In its overall structure, however, The So Blue Marble unfolds as an early example of the mid-century noir thriller. It’s a cat-and-mouse tale in which Griselda, a former movie actress who now works as a fashion designer, plays a reasonably sympathetic “mouse” to the twins’ demonic “cat.”

Aside from their bizarre accoutrements, the Montefierrows’ most distinguishing features are their astounding looks and charm, their apparently limitless wealth (which bestows an aura of impunity on them), and their homicidal zeal to possess a certain blue marble, which they believe Griselda either has or knows how to find. That eponymous bauble—a thing not only of great beauty and great value, but also of supposedly occult power—serves as the novel’s MacGuffin. It has a blood-soaked back-story that recalls the one that Dashiell Hammett gave to the Maltese falcon in his novel of that name, but Hughes handles this motif less deftly than Hammett did. Other parties are chasing after the marble, and among them is a government entity called X, staffed by so-called X-men and led by a quasi-mythic figure named Barjon Garth. It’s an outlandish plot element, worthy of a comic book. Equally outlandish is a string of murders that seem to attach as much to Griselda as they do to the marble; she isn’t responsible for them, but they are part of the phantasmagoria that surrounds her.

Even as the tale draws on the surreal logic of dreams, it also follows a movie logic: Hughes peoples it with vain Hollywood stars, wisecracking reporters, high-strung High Society women (including Griselda’s sisters, Ann and Missy), and dashing bachelors (including Con Satterlee, Griselda’s former husband, and “Gig” Gigland, a Columbia University professor). SoBlueMarble2In various combinations, these characters race across city streets—and back and forth to a small upstate town—in vivid, cinematically paced scenes. An actual movie adaptation, in fact, might have improved the story by wresting Hughes’ plot into a tighter, more conventional shape.

A couple of minor surprises enliven the final stretch of the novel, but ultimately it is not a work of mystery, and even its capacity for eliciting suspense—that sense of needing to know, and yet fearing, what will happen next—is fairly weak. The fantasy-like strain that runs through the piece makes it hard to believe, or care much about, Griselda’s predicament. Will the heroine elude the twins’ vendetta against anyone who might thwart their quest for the marble? Will she find not just safety but also love amid the human wreckage that ensues from their evil project? Hughes, although she displays a high level of literary craft for a first-time novelist, provides answers to those questions that are neither surprising nor compelling.


Posted by on August 10, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel


JOHN DICKSON CARR. Poison in Jest (1932).

“I could see another of those scenes brewing, as usual in this topsy-turvy house,” writes Jeff Marle, a young author who serves as Carr’s not-even-thinly-disguised alter ego. That line comes late in the grim affair that Marle narrates here, and it neatly conveys the defining mood of the novel. The house in question, owned by a crusty patriarch named Judge Quayle, lies forlornly amid what Marle describes as “the mountains of western Pennsylvania, blue as Vesuvius.” Carr (in Marle’s voice) paints this dreary landscape in darting, perfectly applied strokes. From the start, when Marle pays a call on the judge, the reader can practically feel and taste the soot-laden wind that seeps through the ancient walls of the Quayle homestead. Carr grew up in this part of the world, and that experience partly accounts for his flair in writing about it. But another source of inspiration may be the evocative rendition of Pennsylvania coal country that Arthur Conan Doyle delivers in The Valley of Fear, the last Sherlock Holmes novel. Given Carr’s high admiration for Doyle, it wouldn’t be surprising if that tale—in particular, the slice of dark Americana that takes up its latter half—influenced Carr in this way.

PoisonJestApart from a prologue and an epilogue, all of the action in Poison in Jest occurs at the Quayle house or on its grounds. Marle is visiting the Quayles after a decade of traveling in Europe, and he soon finds that he has ventured into a classic viper’s nest, a household in which several members could become—and do become—the object of a killer’s wrath. Denizens of the house include Judge Quayle, his bedridden wife, and four of their five adult children. The fifth offspring, a hot-tempered fellow named Tom, had fled the house a few years previously. Also resident in the home is Walter Twills, the husband of Clarissa (née Quayle) and a man of independent means. Those means, in fact, are keeping the Quayle ménage financially afloat, and a covetous attitude toward the Twills fortune appears to drive a series of poisonings that take place on the night of Marle’s visit. Not all of these homicidal efforts hit their target, but one of them does, and more violence happens in its wake. Moment by moment, the novel comes to resemble the house: It’s a closed, tension-wrought space in which an aura of dread steadily washes over a backdrop of homey comfort.

Within Carr’s body of work, this entry occupies a transitional spot. It sits chronologically—and, to some degree, tonally—between the sequence of novels about Henri Bencolin that launched his career and the pair of long series about Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale that he would inaugurate over the next two years. The horror-tinged ambience that looms over Bencolin and his world is also present at the Quayle manse, albeit in a less Grand Guignol form. (The shift to Carr’s native ground seems to elicit a more naturalistic style from Marle, who narrated the Bencolin adventures as well.) The star sleuth in this one-off tale, meanwhile, is a dashing but absent-minded Brit named Patrick Rossiter. He arrives late to the proceedings and, perhaps for that reason, makes a relatively shallow impression. Rossiter foreshadows both the down-to-earth bonhomie of Fell and the crazy-like-a-fox antics of Merrivale, yet the elements of his persona don’t come together nearly as smoothly as the pieces of the puzzle that he solves. He amounts to an amusing but failed experiment, a literary road that Carr shrewdly did not take.

The plot also marks a hiatus between one phase of Carr’s career and the next. More so than the Bencolin tales, or than most of the Fell and Merrivale tales, this book unfolds as a straight whodunit: Its chief mysteries revolve around locked hearts, not locked rooms—around impossible-to-contain hatreds, not impossible-to-commit deeds. In a subplot that concerns a “phantom” hand that haunts Judge Quayle, Carr offers a bit of medium-grade jiggery-pokery (as he would call it on other occasions). Otherwise, though, the trickery that he employs is the kind of thing that Agatha Christie would have proudly used. Viewed in that context, the novel counts as a sound piece of work. Some of the clueing hangs by rather tenuous threads. But it all does hang together, and the main feats of misdirection are well and fairly done.

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Posted by on July 27, 2020 in American, British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


ELLERY QUEEN. The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965).

Just a few flaws mar this generally appealing late work in the fabled series about mystery writer and occasional amateur sleuth Ellery Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD homicide squad. Because the plot has a scale not much larger than that of a novella, the book—though relatively short (it numbers 185 pages in one paperback edition)—includes a fair amount of padding. There are two murder trial sequences, and they both drag beyond the point of their narrative purpose. Some of the surplus text, moreover, takes the form of schmaltzy patter about American life in the mid-1960s (Did you know that television is a font on silliness?), and about New York City life in particular. The sketches of contemporary Gotham read like a bid to recapture the magic that Queen achieved with his bravura rendering of the city in Cat of Many Tails. But they fall shy of matching that high standard.

Also somewhat flawed is the novel’s rigidly stylized setup. As the title suggests, The Fourth Side of the Triangle displays all of the artifice (and artificiality) of a geometry problem. The case revolves almost entirely around four characters and one Park Avenue apartment building. Ashton McKell, a titan of industry, and his wife, Lutetia, both hail from old Knickerbocker families and embody old New York money. Their lone heir, a son named Dane, has plenty of his own money and uses it to fund a middling career as a novelist. The fourth participant in what turns out to be a dark family romance is Sheila Grey, a fashion designer who lives upstairs from Ashton and Lutetia. FourthSideGrey, a thoroughly modern woman with an air of mystery about her, beguiles both McKell men and puts herself in competition with the McKell matriarch. So, when this “other woman” succumbs to a gunshot in her penthouse apartment, the obvious suspects in her murder are a quick elevator ride away. The story relies on strong passions—or at least the idea of strong passions—to yield potential motives for the killing. Yet its main characters (and its minor ones, too) exist only in two dimensions; they are, in essence, simple shapes that happen to intersect on a plane.

What’s appealing about the novel, though, are the clever variations that Queen makes to some classic Queenian maneuvers. (“Queen” here refers to an arrangement in which Avram Davidson ghost-wrote the book from an outline provided by Frederic Dannay.) First, the artificiality of the plot has an upside as well as a downside. By deploying a narrow cast of characters and by keeping a tight focus on what happens in or around Grey’s apartment on the night of the murder, Queen creates a chamber piece that unfolds with an engaging point-counterpoint rhythm. That piece offers only a faint echo of the baroque patterns of intrigue that characterize early masterpieces like The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Tragedy of Y. Still, it works well as a streamlined update of the formal deductive problem that had long been a Queen trademark.

Second, the author delivers a twist on the dying-message trope that recurs throughout the Queen corpus. Typically, such messages involve a quick, spasmodic gesture by a victim during his or her last seconds of life. In this instance, Grey takes several minutes to craft a letter to the police (“To be opened only in the event I die of unnatural causes,” she writes), and does so before the killer strikes. The letter becomes a critical piece of the plot machinery, but its ultimate import hinges less on what it says than on how certain parties respond to it.

And third, like several of its precursors, the novel features a set of multiple solutions that nest into each other in Russian-doll fashion. Agents of the law purport to solve the case by targeting each “side” of the McKell “triangle,” and their efforts go awry each time. Eventually, Ellery presents a solution that proves to be false as well, and the revelation of his error sends him into a bout of crushing self-recrimination. “Ellery had been through many ratiocinative crises in his life, but it was doubtful if any hit him as hard as” this one, Queen writes. Throughout the affair, Ellery performs his usual share of masterful sleuthing work. But he also shows that even genius amateurs are fallible, and his stumbles give Inspector Queen—that consummate professional—a chance to shine.


Posted by on July 13, 2020 in American, Novel, Puzzle


FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925).

The title of this book oversells it contents badly. Calling it “Inspector French’s Pretty Good Case” would be closer to the mark. That modest appraisal would also be closer to the spirit of the title character himself. French, a stolid embodiment of English middle-class propriety, talks straight and has no time for puffery. Clear facts and the clear-eyed analysis thereof are all that concern him. Unlike the title, moreover, the style used to narrate this first Inspector French adventure thoroughly matches the temper of its protagonist. Crofts writes in an easy-going, unassuming manner; his prose, occasionally ponderous but always on point, is marked less by scintillating wit than by steady intelligence. The novel as a whole, meanwhile, offers moments of quiet grandeur that make its lack of greatness entirely forgivable.

GreatestCaseThe tale gets off to a wholly conventional start. A bobby on his rounds in Hatton Garden, a district in London known for its concentration of diamond merchants, answers a summons to the office of Duke & Peabody. There he finds the slain body of Charles Gething, the head clerk of that firm. Near the spot where someone bludgeoned the poor soul with a poker, a safe stands open; a cache of valuable stones and £100 in notes have gone missing from it. The bobby calls in Scotland Yard, and French takes responsibility for the matter. Thus begins a long and winding inquiry that, in Crofts’s telling, reads as if it sprung in equal measure from the leaves of a policeman’s casebook and the pages of a Baedeker guide. To Switzerland and Spain, to Amsterdam and various ports on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and to multiple destinations both in London and across England, French travels in pursuit of one investigative lead after another. Again and again, those leads show promise and then come to nothing. “It was a confoundingly exasperating case” for French, Crofts reports midway through the book. “Being on it was like trying to cross a stream on stepping-stones which invariably gave way when he came to place his weight on them.”

In time, French does find his footing. Doggedness, rather than deduction, characterizes the process by which he discovers the scheme that led to murder and robbery in Hatton Garden. Indeed, that scheme—replete with disguised identities, tricked-up alibis, and lots of maneuvering via taxi, train, or boat—proves to be cleverer than the sleuthing work that exposes it. The case ends with a sharp twist that surprises French no less than it does the reader. Instead of divining that part of the solution from clues known to him, he merely stumbles upon it. In any event, proceduralism wins the day: French closes the case by marching patiently through a well-mapped field of evidence, and without resorting to bold leaps of intuition.

Although the affair lacks the puzzle-solving pyrotechnics found in other Golden Age novels, and although parts of it are slow and plodding, it’s hardly the work of a “humdrum” writer (as the critic Julian Symons famously labeled Crofts). In a lull before the storm that will come when French apprehends his quarry aboard a ship in transit, Crofts paints his hero against a background rife with drama:

French stood in front of his porthole gazing out over the heaving waters. Daylight had completely gone, but there was a clear sky and a brilliant full moon. The sea looked like a ghostly plain of jet with, leading away across it, a huge road of light, its edges sparkling with myriad flashes of silver.

Sprinkled throughout this not-so-great case are fine passages like that one—brief descriptions that confer a mood of enchantment on seemingly ordinary events. These passages exemplify a key insight offered by G.K. Chesterton in his defense of the detective genre: “[I]t is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”


Posted by on July 6, 2020 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Procedural


GORE VIDAL. Thieves Fall Out (1953).

Vidal, writing under the name Cameron Kay (and doing so in the same period when he was turning out detective tales under the name Edgar Box), delivers an expertly sewn patchwork of mid-century pop-thriller tropes. Indeed, the narrative clichés on display here were already well worn by the time Vidal tried them on for size—and, one gathers, for profit. Apparent influences include every story (The Prisoner of Zenda, for example) in which a young hero gets caught up in the royal machinations of an exotic foreign country; every story (The Mummy, for example) in which the invasion of an Egyptian tomb unleashes a deadly curse; and every story (Hitchcock’s Notorious, for example) in which a woman of dubious loyalty becomes the focus of both romance and espionage. Above all, this tale of schemes and counterschemes, of love and crime in a politically fraught North African locale, owes an enormous debt to the movie Casablanca. The spirit of Rick Blaine hovers over every pivotal scene, as when one character utters this credo: “You might say that I am an adventurer corrupted by idealism.”

ThievesFallOutDespite such flashes of wit, the characters are as stock as they come. The doughty young hero is Peter Wells, an ex-soldier with a bit of experience as a wildcatting oilman. He has no distinguishing personality traits, and, when the novel begins, he has turned up in Cairo for no particular reason. In need of quick money, he ventures to Shepheard’s Hotel and chats up a central-casting British colonial type named Hastings, who in turn introduces him to the (faux) Countess Hélène de Rastignac, a woman of beguilingly indeterminate origin. During the recent war, she was a companion to a high-ranking Nazi leader. Now she and Hastings are cohorts in a sublegal business that seems to involve smuggling. Without knowing the exact nature of their enterprise, Pete agrees to take on an assignment: Accompanied by a dragoman named Osman, he will travel to Luxor to meet a certain Mr. Said, a dealer in antiquities. Said, as Pete will discover, exudes the customary amount of menace and mystery for a character of his ilk. In Cairo, Pete encounters another European expatriate—a German nightclub singer named Anna Mueller, who has a Nazi connection in her past and a connection to King Farouk of Egypt in the present. Pete falls hard for Anna, and his desire to settle down with her back in the States bolsters his eagerness to make it home alive. Before he can do so, he will need to tangle with other rough characters, including a wily, corrupt policeman named Muhammad Ali and a wily, corrupt bar owner named La Mouche.

The highlight of the book is Vidal’s prose, which drives a routine and predictable plot forward with welcome speed and offhand charm. Scenes of danger and violence, which most authors handle in a rote or clumsy way, are especially well done. These qualities turn an otherwise very dated yarn into a sporting romp and a quick, fun read. The trick to enjoying it is not to take it any more seriously than Vidal did.

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Posted by on June 29, 2020 in American, Novel


AGATHA CHRISTIE. Third Girl (1966).

“They probably look like mods or rockers or beatniks or whatever they call these chaps nowadays with the long hair and the dirty fingernails. … You never know which sex they are, which is embarrassing.” Some critics who generally admire Christie—for example, Robert Barnard in his book A Talent to Deceive—rate this effort poorly in part because, from their perspective, the author tries and fails miserably to render life as it is lived by young people in the Swinging London of 1966. On this view, for which the foregoing quotation might provide a case in point, Christie betrays a hopelessly Edwardian sensibility that undermines her bid to freshen up an otherwise standard Hercule Poirot adventure. Yet the speaker here is not Christie in her narrative voice but rather a fellow named Sir Roderick Horsefield, whom she depicts throughout the novel as a ridiculous old fool. What critics fail to see (not just in this instance but in many other instances, too) is the sly irony that Christie brought to much of her fiction. ThirdGirlIs she poking fun at the social and sartorial habits of the young? To be sure. But, at the same time, she is cocking an amused eye at the all-too-predictable bigotries of the old, among whom she no doubt would include herself. For a 76-year-old woman, she displays a remarkably zestful curiosity about the changing world around her, and that quality (though not always perfectly modulated) places this book a notch or two above par for her late work.

The phrase “third girl” refers to the practice by which young women in London share living quarters: One girl rents a flat and invites a second girl to join her, and then, to make the rent affordable, they advertise for a third tenant. In this way do the worlds of disparate young women collide in the great metropolis. The events in this tale swirl about one such flat in a building called Borodene Mansions. Living there are Claudia Reece-Holland, a crisply efficient secretary to a businessman in the City; Frances Cary, who works in a Bond Street art gallery and dabbles in making her own art; and Norma Restarick, an unkempt waif who holds some kind of job with an interior decorator. One morning, the latter woman visits Poirot (though neither he nor readers yet know who she is) and indicates that she “might” have committed a murder. Although she rejects his offer to help—he’s just “too old,” she says—he starts making inquiries that quickly reveal a welter of odd circumstances related to Norma, her family, and her hip young associates. Those circumstances involve episodes of real or apparent violence but not, until late in the day, a clear case of murder. But that day does arrive, and Poirot is ready for it.

The novel Third Girl, which effectively inaugurates the last decade of Christie’s writing life, evinces a few modest signs of the author’s loosening grip on her craft. The focus of action shifts in pell-mell fashion from Poirot to Ariadne Oliver, his scatter-brained crime-writer friend, and on occasion to some of the key players in the drama. Such narrative choices leave the impression that Christie lacks confidence both in her star detective and in her own power to keep the story on track. To generate a mystery plot, she remixes a variety—indeed, too large a variety—of motifs and stratagems from earlier, more path-breaking tales. About midway through the book, Poirot offers an implicit critique of this approach. “Enfin, it is too much!” he utters to himself. “Now we have espionage and counterespionage. All I am seeking is one perfectly simple murder.” But here, too, bemused self-mockery helps to compensate for some of the author’s diminished prowess. On the whole, moreover, the final concoction goes down pleasantly enough, and it contains enough bits of clever misdirection to summon memories of Christie’s finest moments.


Posted by on June 15, 2020 in British, Novel, Puzzle


MARGARET MILLAR. Wall of Eyes (1943).

When Millar introduces Detective-Inspector Sands of the Toronto Police Department, she notes how little about him is actually worth noting. “He had no strong sense of identity,” she writes; somewhat hyperbolically, she adds that “he lived in a vacuum.” Millar is a sly creator, however, and her creation is no less sly. As multiple suspects discover, there is far more to Sands than meets the eye. In a story that revolves around what people do or don’t see, the unobtrusive inspector sees just about everything, and he counts on others’ failing to see him in full. His very lack of definition allows him to serve a critical function for any detective hero—that of navigating the disparate sectors of a complex social landscape.

Wall of Eyes draws the strands of its plot from two very different segments of Toronto society. The main venue of action is the Heath family home, located in a part of town where old money goes to establish just how old and how moneyed it is. Denizens of the house include Kelsey Health, who is blind but has visions of unnamed people who are out to get her (she speaks of being menaced by a “wall of eyes”); Alice Heath, a tightly wound woman who is beginning to accept her impending spinsterhood; Johnny Heath, a former athlete whose youthful charm is starting to fade; and Philip James, a penniless musician who clings to his status as a family protégé. All of them live in an atmosphere of quiet gloom and steadily worsening decadence. WallEyesThe rest of the action occurs in and around a nightspot called Club Joey. Inhabitants of this locale include Mamie Rosen, a lovelorn torch singer; Tony Murillo, a small-time hoodlum who has shacked up with Rosen; Marcie Moore, a prim dancer with grand pretensions; and Stevie Jordan, a master of ceremonies who is a slave to his free-ranging fears. The mood among this crew is one of ersatz frivolity and genuine despair. The original connection point for these two realms is a car accident that occurred two years previously. Kelsey Heath and Philip James, who had become a couple, were traveling with Johnny Heath and his date, a singer at the nightclub named Geraldine Smith. Their car crashes, leaving Kelsey blind and Geraldine dead. Now, in the present, reverberations from that event lead to new anxieties—and to new spasms of violence.

The juxtaposition of these worlds, and the implication that both of them are corrupt in distinct (yet tragically complementary) ways, align this tale with the social vision around which Millar’s husband, Kenneth Millar—who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald—would famously build his cycle of hardboiled detective novels. As in Macdonald’s fictional universe, the intermingling of “high” society and it “low” counterpart operates as both a cause and an effect of spiritual malaise, and that dynamic impels certain characters to take criminally desperate measures. Indeed, hardboiled inflections are a feature in both writers’ work. Millar, because she often wrote about female protagonists and because many of her novels fall into the “domestic suspense” category, sometimes gets tagged as a “cozy” writer. But, as this early work demonstrates, she has a special talent not for giving readers a comfy feeling but for unsettling them. Again and again, Millar adopts the perspective of a given character as a means of highlighting the deceptions (of self and others) that mark the sorry, slippery nature of human life.

In blending elements that are alternately hard and soft, high and low, Millar offers a preview of more masterful work to come. The story that she tells here occasionally threatens to dissolve under the pressure of her elusive, involuted style. So subtle, so elaborate, are her renderings of various characters’ internal lives that readers are apt to lose track of the characters’ external actions. A noir-like miasma hovers over the edges of the narrative. But then, as the novel nears its finish, a twist arrives that illuminates the vital link between the milieu of the nightclub and the milieu of the Heath residence, and the tale reverts to classic detective-story form. In the aftermath of that twist, Sands explains how he elucidated the truth from a series of tangible clues—a pile of clothes borrowed from a missing man’s closet, a box of matchbooks that advertise Club Joey, a set of photographs taken after the car accident, and so forth. Like any top-grade sleuth, he is adept both at seeing what’s in front of him and at gleaning what lies beneath social appearances.


Posted by on June 8, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle