RSS

ARTHUR W. UPFIELD. Murder Down Under (1937).

Genre-wise, this early book in the Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series (and the first “Bony” title to appear in the United States) reads more like a Western than it does like a detective novel. It takes place in Burracoppin, a small railroad town that serves a wheat-farming community in Western Australia. Automobiles, along with a motorcycle, figure prominently in the events that unfold in Burracoppin, but the rhythms of the town are those of a pre-20th-century civilization. There’s a planting season, followed by a harvest season, and to mark the turn of those seasons, there are big shindigs that bring together folks from all walks of town life. Upfield uses a pair of such events as set pieces; they allow him both to convey vital plot points and to conjure images of a freshly settled frontier. Bony plays the classic Western-story role of the stranger who arrives in town to set things right. The rupture that he must heal concerns the disappearance of a farmer named George Loftus. Did Loftus abscond of his own will, or did someone make him vanish? To investigate the matter, Bony goes undercover as a laborer assigned to help maintain the Rabbit-Proof Fence, a vast structure built to protect the Australian wheat crop from pesky critters. That job gives him a chance to trace Loftus’s last traceable movements, and he resolves the quandary of what happened to the farmer in fairly short order: It is (as the U.S. title reveals) a simple case of murder.

MurderDownUnder.jpgThe matter of who killed Loftus isn’t much of a riddle, either. Along with scouting the hard country ground for clues, Bony focuses on getting to know the local residents—the stern boarding-house keeper Mrs. Poole and her cheerfully henpecked husband; the farmer Mr. Jelly and his daughters, Lisa and Sunflower, who befriend Bony; Eric Hurley, a young chap who has an easy smile and easy way with a motorcycle; and several others. Yet hardly any of them qualify as suspects. Bony, acting less as a sleuth than as a tracker, zeroes in on his quarry at the midpoint of this tale. Then, drawing on his fabled capacity for patience, he works to gather evidence that will prove what he already intuitively knows. (Upfield’s depiction of the detective is consistently affectionate but off-puttingly racial in its framing: Bony, the author repeatedly suggests, is a half-caste who combines the putative rationality of a white man with the more earth-bound talents of a black aborigine. He is able, supposedly as a matter of genetic endowment, to read the Australian bush as if it were the Book of Life.)

As in the archetypal Western, the action in Murder Down Under relies on a moral logic that distinguishes unforgivingly between good deeds and bad deeds—and between good people and bad people. The quest to banish evil from the land, rather than the need to dispel a mystery, is what drives the engine of this well-told tale. The book’s original title, “Mr. Jelly’s Business,” nods toward its only genuine puzzle. Why does Mr. Jelly disappear without warning for days at a time, only to return without explanation? Why, when he comes back, does he always have money in this pocket and strong drink on his breath? The secret of the old man’s peculiar excursions plainly relates in some way to the Loftus affair, but Upfield waits until the novel’s last page to reveal how the two stories dovetail.

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 9, 2018 in Golden Age, Novel

 

MICKEY SPILLANE. I, the Jury (1947).

Mike Hammer made his famous, and in some quarters infamous, début in this brisk and bumptious private-eye novel. In some respects, it’s standard fare of its type. Hammer is a lone-wolf operator in New York City who, in the tradition of Sam Spade, has a loyal and fetching secretary, an adversarial relationship with local authorities, and a way of working a case that focuses less on interviewing suspects than on riling them up. From the start, however, many critics took exception to Spillane’s harder-boiled variation on themes first sounded by Hammett and Chandler. “Able if painfully derivative writing and plotting in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in Gestapo training school,” wrote Anthony Boucher in a brief notice in the San Francisco Chronicle. By the early 1950s, the Hammer series had become a cultural phenomenon that appeared to signal a big shift in what readers sought from the detective genre. At bottom, I, the Jury offers a tale not of crime and detection, but of revenge.
ITheJury.jpg

The essence of the story is right there in the title: Hammer (who serves as both narrator and protagonist) sets out to deliver his own brand of justice to a killer, and he intends to relish every moment of that violent quest. A vigilante spirit was hardly new to detective fiction. Many works of the interwar period end with a scene in which the protagonist either goads a murderer into committing suicide or finds some other way to dispatch the culprit without the encumbrance of a trial. But such maneuvers are typically an afterthought, executed by a sleuth who acts more in sorrow than in anger. For Hammer, anger isn’t just a driving force; it’s a positive value. After Jack Williams, a cop and a wartime buddy of Hammer’s, turns up dead—someone had pumped a bullet into Williams’s stomach and then, it seems, cruelly watched the man’s life ebb away—Hammer launches into a soliloquy that outlines his plan and celebrates the primitive ethos behind it. “I’m alone. I can slap someone in the puss and they can’t do a damn thing … ” he says to the city detective who oversees the Williams case. “I hate hard, Pat. When I latch on to the one behind this they’re going to wish they hadn’t started it. Some day, before long, I’m going to have my rod in my mitt and the killer in front of me. I’m going to watch the killer’s face. I’m going to plunk one right in his gut, and when he’s dying on the floor I may kick his teeth out.”

Spillane’s writing ranges from “able,” as Boucher calls it, to sub-literate, yet it has a blood-simple authenticity that carries a certain charm. The killer isn’t hard to spot, at least not for anyone who has the barest exposure to stories of this kind. Spillane works up a couple of nice clues, and he shows Hammer going plausibly through the motions of drawing conclusions from them—but solving a puzzle rates as a distantly secondary concern. To Hammer, every problem is basically the same; what matters is whether he can nail his quarry.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 4, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

RUTH RENDELL. A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970).

In the early going, at least, this novel of murder among the gentry in a Sussex village has a lot to recommend it. The outlines of the story are almost stereotypically classic: There is a great and ancient house, and a clutch of servants, and a tangle of familial tensions that suggest a range of possible motives to kill, and a hitherto-secret will that casts some of those motives in a provocative light. At the same time, this fifth work in the Inspector Wexford saga has a decidedly modern flair; it wholly lacks the cozy, complacent mood that hangs over many country-house mysteries of the prewar era. Rendell’s telling of this tale, moreover, is as brisk as the tale itself is admirably brief. GuiltyThing.jpg The author gazes on her subjects with a cold, satiric eye, but she also conveys a compassionate view of the drives that make each character no better (but also no worse) than he or she should be.

The most important character, although she is onstage for only a short time, is the victim, Elizabeth Nightingale. Elizabeth, the lady of Myfleet Manor, was a beautiful albeit slightly vain woman who devoted her days to charity and leisure. Why would anyone wish to find or join her in Cheriton Forest and there, under a midnight moon, smash her head with a blunt object? The puzzle of who Elizabeth was, and of the true nature of her relationships with other characters—including her distinguished husband, Quentin; her brother, a prickly writer named Denys Villiers; and a young gardener on her staff, Sean Lovell, whose aspirations to become a pop star she encouraged—give Wexford and his young colleague, Mike Burden, plenty of leads to investigate.

The tale comes with a mighty twist, yet that twist throws the foregoing tale perversely out of whack. The final revelation—told in the form of an extended confession—not only bears a tenuous (and minimally clued) connection to what precedes it but also banishes Wexford and Burden to the margins of their own case. Rendell thus achieves an effect that is both unsettling and unsatisfying.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 19, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

THOMAS STERLING. The Evil of the Day (1955).

EvilDay2.jpg Gathered together at an old and opulent palace are the corrupt and manipulative man who makes his home there; his devious factotum; a rich harridan and her paid companion; and two men who have ostensibly come to provide succor to their ostensibly ailing host. Each of them possesses great wealth, or desperately wishes to possess it, or both. The situation not only echoes that of many classic whodunit tales but also resembles the scenario of a truly classic work: the comedy Volpone; or, the Fox (1605–1606), by Ben Jonson. Indeed, several of these characters confess that they know the play and that they mean to turn this knowledge to their advantage.

Sterling, at any rate, puts his own erudition to good use, adding to the raw material of that source work the clues and the trickery of a detective story. In doing so, he forsakes none of the original’s comic flair and sardonic worldliness, and he leavens the plot with trenchant musings on death and its relation to life that transcend the humble mystery genre. Like its Renaissance forerunner, the novel uses Venice as its metaphorically freighted locale.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 19, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

CARTER DICKSON. He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944).

The Royal Albert Zoo, an enclave located fictitiously in Kensington Gardens, provides the backdrop for most of the action in this dazzling tale from the prime of John Dickson Carr’s tale-spinning life. (The Carter Dickson pseudonym, of course, in no way obscures the unmistakable stamp of Carr’s authorship.) But in a broader sense, the backdrop is the wild kingdom that extends across the war-wracked skies over London. Set during a three-day period in early September 1940, the events in this novel of domestic murder unfold as German bombers begin their decidedly international assault on Britain’s capital. In several scenes, the haunting drone of aircraft sounds overhead. In one scene, smoke from fires in the East End wafts over the West End, offering a preview of the horrors that will come as the blitz advances over the whole city. And in a pivotal early scene, an air-raid warden on his rounds peeks through a window that should be blacked out, but isn’t, and spots a prone body on the floor.

KillPatience.jpg

The body belongs to Edward Benton, director of the zoo. By all accounts, he was a harmless-enough fellow, driven primarily by an obsession with maintaining his large and exotic menagerie amid the challenges and privations of wartime. He was also a man of independent wealth, and a brother of his who might inherit that fortune hovers about the Royal Albert grounds. Otherwise, it’s hard to discern who had a motive to extinguish the zookeeper’s life. But attention here focuses less on motive than on means. Somehow, and for some obscure reason, the killer lined the edges of every point of egress in the murder chamber—from the sills of windows to the bottom of the room’s only door—with adhesive-backed paper. Benton, in other words, drew his last breath in a thoroughly (and not just metaphorically) sealed room. It’s a perfect case for Sir Henry Merrivale, who, by the serendipitous logic of Carr’s world, happens to be at the Benton residence on the evening of the crime.

As noted, the circle of suspects is almost alarmingly small: The reader must ask not just “Who committed the murder?” but “Who even might have committed it?” Despite that handicap, Carr manages to work a kind of surprise in the whodunit department. For Sir Henry, though, pinpointing a killer and proving the killer’s guilt are discrete endeavors, and in this instance court-worthy proof eludes him. So Old H.M.—a man who is largely innocent of patience—confronts the killer in the zoo’s Reptile House and forces the issue in a starkly cold-blooded way.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on November 19, 2017 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

JOHN DUNNING. Booked to Die (1992).

BookedDie.jpg Is ownership of certain modern first editions a cause worth killing for? The premise here is that Denver, Colorado, serves as home to a handful of people who might answer “yes” to that question. Though no less plausible than many reasons for fictional murder, this motive is more fanciful than most, and a story that hinges on it needs to have just the right tone. By writing in the voice of Cliff Janeway, a hard-boiled homicide cop with a mania for old books and a breezy way of turning a phrase, Dunning manages that difficult feat. And, despite a couple of hastily smoothed-over plot points, he turns out a neat, well-clued puzzle.

The weakest element in this biblio mystery concerns Janeway, who comes across too starkly as a creature of fantasy. Nowadays, we want our detective heroes to show a modicum of vulnerability; here and there, they should appear to struggle with a case as much as we might struggle with it. Or, if they must be idealized avengers of crime, then we expect them to battle not only the world’s evil but their own dark side as well. Janeway refers to a childhood bereft of love and stability—formative years that left him with a violent streak—and in one pivotal episode, he unleashes that violence. But he glides through most of this adventure with a facile mastery of both himself and his situation, and along the way we become largely indifferent to his fate.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 19, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Murder Is a Fox (1945).

The word Fox in the title refers to an interlocked pair of Fox families, one of whose members killed Jessica Fox by putting a poisonous dose of digitalis in a glass of grape juice that she drank one morning in 1932. According to the local keepers of the law, it was Bayard Fox, Jessica’s husband, who did the fatal deed, and when the action here commences he has served 12 years in prison. Bayard and Jessica’s son, Davy, upon his return in 1944 from heroic wartime service in China, fears that murderous blood flows through his veins. MurdererFox2.jpg That fear becomes acute after he awakens from a jealousy-infused nightmare to find his hands wrapped around the throat of his loving wife, Linda.

Enter Ellery Queen, playing the role of sleuth-cum-shrink. At the behest of Linda, Ellery travels to the scene of the crime—the Our Town–inspired community known as Wrightsville—and reopens the earlier murder case on the theory that proving the father’s innocence will expel the son’s demons. That aspect of the book, partaking of the Freudian conceit that truth about the past can set the soul free (just as clearly and unambiguously as a surgeon’s knife can remove a cancerous growth), is contrived and overdone. What redeems this tale are Ellery’s rivetingly intricate reconstruction of the crime; the author’s trenchant exploration of several big themes, including the power of a paternal legacy, the quest for knowledge, and the ironies of fate; and a splendid use of setting. Wrightsville, which Queen generally treats as the habitat of comically limned mid-century American types, emerges as a scene of subliminal tragedy, a place where the hard granite of pride and pretense is shot through with the soft clay of human weakness.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on April 7, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle