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ISAAC ASIMOV. The Naked Sun (1957).

A defining quality of good fiction, and especially good science fiction, is that it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Detective fiction goes a bit further by seeking to make significant that which is (seemingly) ordinary and to make clear that which is (temporarily) opaque. Asimov, in this sequel to another futuristic detective novel (Caves of Steel), expertly combines those feats of literary alchemy into a lively, thought-provoking entertainment.

NakedSun1Many centuries hence, a murder occurs on the Outer Worlds planet of Solaria, where crime is practically nonexistent—and so is any kind of police force. Peculiar facts about the killing raise the need for a serious inquiry. Whoever killed Rikaine Delmarre bludgeoned him at close range, but no weapon turned up in the initial search of the crime scene. Evidence supplied by robots establishes that the only other human near that scene was the victim’s wife, Gladia, yet she fell unconscious around the time of the murder and had no chance to dispose of a weapon. Faced with this quandary, the Solarian powers-that-be deign to invite a mere Earthman to work the case on their behalf. Elijah Baley, a “plainclothesman” from New York City, thus finds himself traveling millions of miles to a planet known for its “naked sun.” (In the Earth of this imagined future, people live in subterranean “caves of steel” and have no direct experience of the star that lights their galaxy.) There, Baley reunites with Daneel Olivaw, a “positronic” robot who served as his sidekick in the previous adventure. Soon after Baley and Olivaw begin their probe, someone attempts a second murder. As the two detectives communicate via holographic projection with Hannis Gruer, the planet’s head of security, they watch him suddenly lurch into convulsions after sipping from a glass of water. Clearly, the glass contains poison. But who could have administered it, and how? Like other Solarians, Gruer lives alone on a vast estate; only his robots are able to come anywhere near him, and robots are hard-wired to avoid causing harm to their human masters.

To read this book during the 2020–2021 pandemic is to experience a shock of recognition—a glimpse of the present as foreshadowed by a decades-old vision of the future. The people of Solaria, like those of plague-scarred Earth in the time of Covid-19, interact with other humans almost entirely by remote means. Asimov posits a technology that enables what Solarians call “viewing,” and his descriptions of that practice suggest a three-dimensional version of the screen-mediated forms of engagement (Zoom meetings and the like) on which people today increasingly depend. Solarians, who descend from human Earthlings, differ from present-day humans in that they prefer viewing to its in-person alternative, which they call “seeing.” In effect, Solarians have replaced the need for human contact with a reliance on legions of supremely advanced robots. That feature rings a contemporary bell, too. Denizens of Earth do not have high-functioning anthropomorphic machines to assist them during long months of pandemic isolation. But, like their counterparts on Solaria, they struggle to understand and manage the devices (smart and not-so-smart) that they have made.

The peculiar conditions of Solaria are a critical factor in the crimes of apparent impossibility that Baley must solve. These puzzles, in fact, are keenly satisfying because they arise from—and hinge on—those very conditions. Each actual or attempted murder appears to lie outside the realm of the possible because (and only because) it takes place amid a cluster of social customs and logistical circumstances that are unique to the world that Asimov has constructed. For example, the visceral aversion that Solarians (most of them, anyway) have to sharing physical space with other humans creates a situation in which the killing of Delmarre and the attack on Gruer seem to defy explanation. Likewise, the Three Laws of Robotics, which are part of a system that Asimov has built into this world, set precise limits on the kinds of violence that robots can either perpetrate or allow to happen in their vicinity. To crack the mysteries at hand, Baley must tease apart the implications of these and other features of Solarian civilization.

Asimov manages the mystery plot with high professionalism, and he deals competently with adult themes that involve matters of human intimacy to human destiny. Even so, Naked Sun displays traces of a juvenile sensibility that was fairly common in mid-20th-century science-fiction writing. NakedSun2Too often, a gee-whiz tone overtakes Asimov’s otherwise serviceable prose, and his lead character, Baley, comes across as an earnest, boringly upright fellow—less as an heir to Philip Marlowe than as a law-enforcement version of Buck Rogers. In addition, there is a subplot that concerns the threat of intergalactic war, and although Asimov handles that story line with some complexity, its presence here brings a pulpy space-opera element into what should be (and mostly is) a tightly focused tale of investigation and discovery.

Like the best science fiction of its era, the novel also explores big ideas in a big, none-too subtle way. As the tale unfolds, Asimov presents a series of conversations between the Earthman sleuth and several of the Solarian suspects, including a sociologist, a roboticist, and the erstwhile assistant of the first victim, who had been the planet’s foremost “fetal engineer.” These conversations teem with anxious speculations about parenthood and family life, about population growth and the fate of nations (or, indeed, of entire planets), about humanoid machines and the humans who create them—preoccupations that were bubbling just under the surface of American culture during the 1950s. To reach Solaria, Baley spans many lightyears in a space capsule. Asimov, meanwhile, brings something else back from his fictive journey: a time capsule.

[ADDENDUM: A recent column in The New York Times by Paul Krugman spurred me to read this book at this time. Krugman flags the somewhat uncanny way that Asimov prefigured life under semi-lockdown. Naked Sun features “a society in which people live on isolated estates, their needs provided by robots and they interact only by video,” the columnist writes. “The plot hinges on the way this lack of face-to-face contact stunts and warps their personalities.”

So my review here steals just a bit from Krugman. It also steals a bit from myself. Looking back at my piece on the prequel book, Caves of Steel, I see that that I’ve touched on some of the same themes again—the science-fiction-as-time-capsule idea, the motif of using futuristic conditions (such as “laws” that govern robot behavior) to drive an impossible-crime plot. So I’m less original in this instance than I could be. Then again, the same is true of Asimov.]

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2021 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

PHILIP MACDONALD. The Rynox Murder (1930).

“Less” is quite a bit “more” in this tidy, offbeat crime puzzle. It’s practically bereft of detectives (a few policemen do appear, albeit mainly in the form of incident reports that they submit) and wholly bereft of detection. In effect, readers must fill the crime-solving role directly, without mediation by a truth-seeking hero. MacDonald structures the tale as an inverted detective story that he has inverted yet again: It starts with an epilogue and ends with a prologue, and (roughly speaking) it depicts the unfolding of a complex criminal scheme in reverse chronological order. By dispensing with the apparatus of sleuthing and by focusing on the interplay among small group that includes a victim, a putative culprit, and a handful of the victim’s associates, MacDonald manages to pack a great deal of intrigue into a very slim volume.

RynoxMurderAmong the central players in the drama are Francis Xavier Benedik, a partner in a London investment firm; his son, Anthony Xavier Benedik, who is also a partner; a third partner, Samuel Rickworth; and Rickworth’s daughter, Petronella (“Peter”), who is Anthony’s fiancée. Supplementing the cast are assorted clerks, secretaries, and servants who work either at Rynox House, where the investment firm keeps its offices, or at the Benedik home in Mayfair. (MacDonald, in deftly sketching the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of those locations, provides an appealing sidelight of the tale’s main events.) One other character flits menacingly about the world inhabited by the Benediks and the Rickworths. He is Boswell March, a surly fellow who sports an odd-shaped hat and who harbors an oddly fierce grudge against F.X. Benedik. One night, Boswell pays a visit to the latter man’s house; then, after a fusillade of gunfire, the lifeless body of Benedik is found lying across the sill of a window in his study. The killing isn’t quite an impossible crime, but its mannered staging and intricate mechanics bear the clear stamp of Golden Age ingenuity. (Detailed floor plans and elaborate timetables further add to the novel’s appeal.)

The plot of The Rynox Murder, though well-crafted on the whole, has weaknesses: One aspect of how the assailant pulled off the killing doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and the key deception that underlies the crime will be fairly obvious to many readers. Other elements of the book, meanwhile, count as real strengths. True to its title, the novel centers much of its action on the business dealings of Rynox, a firm that has invested a large—perhaps too large—portion of its assets in a speculative venture that involves the then-new industry of synthetic rubber. MacDonald handles this otherwise uncompelling material with wit and flair, turning dry exchanges about bank loans and insurance policies into engaging narrative fodder. He also graces scene after scene with touches of sly, character-driven humor. Given its slender length and its compact plot, this novel (or is it a novella?) seems like a mere trifle. But it’s richly adorned trifle at that.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2021 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

HELEN McCLOY. Alias Basil Willing (1951).

A case of imposture swiftly becomes a case of murder for the eponymous hero of this mid-career novel of not-quite-middling quality. Early one evening, Dr. Basil Willing overhears his name being used by a nondescript little man who is hiring a taxi near Willing’s home on the East Side of Manhattan. Willing hires his own taxi and follows the man to a house on West 11th Street where a dinner party is under way. Playing host is one Dr. Zimmer, a psychiatrist, and the guests includes several of his patients. One odd circumstance leads to another, and before the night is out Willing has a new murder to solve. Another killing occurs soon afterward, and in both cases the victim had attended the Zimmer party and had died of a codeine overdose. AliasBasilWillingAs is typical of McCloy’s work, the list of suspects draws heavily from the cultured and monied ranks of New York society, and Willing’s investigation consists largely of observing and interviewing these characters in their native habitats.

In broad outline, the Willing series appears to fall in the same tradition of American crime writing that includes the work of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen. Stories in this British-inflected tradition feature a genteel sleuth who functions as an amateur, even if (as in Willing’s case) he enjoys an official connection to the police; a murder, or maybe a pair of murders, that seem essentially bloodless; and a closed circle of suspects who mostly hail from the upper reaches of a class hierarchy. Yet McCloy’s attitude toward her material echoes the sensibility of a different American tradition: Like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others who write in a hardboiled vein, McCloy casts an icy-cold eye on the mid-century American scene. (Perhaps not coincidentally, McCloy at the time of writing this tale was married to Davis Dresser, who spun yarns about the hard-driving private eye Michael Shayne under the name Brett Halliday.) A highlight of this book is a suite of corrosive pen portraits that introduce readers to Dr. Zimmer’s guests. There is Rosamund Yorke, a vain socialite married to an aging nightclub owner. There is Brinsley Shaw, the cowardly and craven nephew of a wealthy widow. And so on. Similarly, the plot here is replete with signs of social and spiritual corruption—from Zimmer’s practice of gestalt psychotherapy, which McCloy presents as a vaguely fraudulent operation, to the booze-drenched milieu of a suburban country club.

The resolution of this plot combines conventional fair-play aspects—aspects that a reader might divine from clues honestly presented and cleverly concealed—with elements that no reader could deduce from the events that McCloy narrates. (One such element hinges on an obscure literary reference that Willing happens to know. He mentions the work in question, but no ordinary reader will recognize its significance.) When the final twist arrives, it has a freakish quality that renders it mildly shocking, rather than genuinely (or ingeniously) surprising, and the novel ends up resembling a pulpy thriller more than it does a drawing-room puzzler. As a consequence, Alias Basil Willing fails to meet the high standard of fictional detection that its namesake established in his previous adventures.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2021 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

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.

 
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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 the whereabouts of those gems. 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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.”

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