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Author Archives: Mike

HELEN EUSTIS. The Horizontal Man (1946).

In the 1940s, at the moment when the classic whodunit reached unmatched heights of intricacy and sophistication, another kind of mystery tale started to overshadow that once-popular form: the novel of psychological suspense. HorizontalMan.jpgMysteries of the mind, in short, began to usurp mysteries of fact and circumstance. Stories that feature clues perceptible to the five senses and decipherable by rational thought gave way to stories that draw generously on psychoanalysis, a mode of thought and practice that attained its peak of public awareness during this era. This novel illustrates and embodies that transition.

Set within the confines of a New England women’s college, The Horizontal Man begins and moves through its early stages in the usual Golden Age manner. An instructor of English who had served extramurally as the campus Lothario is bludgeoned to death, and an assortment of jealous women and envious men loom as worthy suspects in his killing. But no detective emerges to sift through the clues, which in any case are fairly cursory. Instead, a loose-knit trio of amateurs—a love-struck reporter, the brainy co-ed on whom he has a crush, and a stereotypically wise psychiatrist—worry over the problem until a solution practically erupts in their faces. Although Eustis foreshadows the psychosexual nature of the crime, it’s unlikely that any reader, or indeed any plausible fictional sleuth, could have detected it. The handling of the pivotal trick reflects a shrewd and confidant authorship, but it falls short of what others have accomplished in this vein (see, for instance, Beast in View, by Margaret Millar), and from a 21st-century vantage point, it seems almost naive: So often and with such deftness have others turned this kind of trick over the past half-century that it now takes more to shock us than Eustis delivers.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in American, Noir, Novel

 

GEORGETTE HEYER. Why Shoot a Butler? (1933).

More than once, the amateur sleuth Frank Amberley asserts that the murder of Dawson, the butler who had served long and honorably at Norton Manor, is the least intriguing aspect of the case at hand. He means to say that he discerns an underlying pattern of crime and connivance that poses a more scintillating problem—to his kind mind, anyway—than the shooting of Dawson per se. But Amberley also speaks for his creator: Heyer clearly views other elements of her tale as worthier of her energy and ingenuity than the humdrum business of solving a murder puzzle. What’s most compelling to her mind, it would seem, is the timeless problem of how an eligible bachelor and a nubile maiden who don’t appear to like each other will find a way to love each other. (Heyer, who produced about a dozen novels in the detective genre between 1932 and 1953, later became best known for her work as a writer of Regency romances.) WhyShootButler.jpg The bachelor is Amberley, a rising barrister whose cleverness is almost equal to his arrogance. The maiden is Shirley Brown, a prideful woman in her own right who struggles to make a life as an assistant to a lady novelist. For mysterious reasons, she has leased a cottage along with her brother in a patch of country near the village of Upper Nettlefold, which in turn is near both Norton Manor and the Greythorne estate, where Amberley’s uncle and aunt reside.

The couple’s meet-cute moment occurs over the corpse of the eponymous servant. Amberley, gliding along in his Bentley toward Greythorne, happens upon a roadside tableau that features Miss Brown, a gun that she has in her possession, and Dawson, sporting a fresh bullet wound in his chest. The suspicious young man and the suspicion-arousing young woman bicker in the time-honored style, but he decides not to divulge her presence at the crime scene to the police. Amberley isn’t inclined to entrust information to them, in any event. Even after the local authorities invite him to take part in their investigation, he treats them with genial contempt. He doesn’t trust Miss Brown very much, either. Yet he does respect her, and over the course of several tension-filled encounters, that feeling melts into something softer than respect.

There are follow-up murders that add to the body count while trimming an already short list of suspects. To specify who’s on that list as the book enters its final sequence would give the game away: At that point, it’s not a puzzle, it’s a coin flip. Establishing who shot the butler and why, moreover, isn’t an entirely fair-play proposition. Amberley, we discover during the wrap-up phase of this affair, has withheld vital facts not just from police officials but from readers as well. Which isn’t to say that Heyer neglects the puzzle element completely. Her plotting is crisp and intelligent, if not intricate. She includes just enough detection to keep the love story honest, as it were, and the wit that she brings to telling that story partly redeems any weakness in the novel’s detective component. She also writes perfectly modulated prose that throws off sparks of tart humor in almost every scene.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2017 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

ARCHER MAYOR. The Ragman’s Memory (1996).

From a bird’s nest discovered by a young girl comes the clue—a clump of purple-dyed hair—that leads Lt. Joe Gunther to uncover more mysterious deaths and potential high crimes than the small, quaint (but not as quaint as it looks) town of Brattleboro, Vermont, would seem able to contain. RagmansMemory.jpg There’s the luckless runaway teen who may have dabbled in satanism, and the homeless man who succumbs inexplicably to a case of rabies, and the local activist who disappears in the dead of night, and the hateful old woman who gets strangled in her nursing-home bed. And there is the sole witness to that woman’s death, a shell-shocked veteran (the “ragman” of the title) whose most reliable memories harken back to the Battle of the Bulge. Throw in a crooked convention-center development deal, and the result is a regular bird’s nest of a plot: It’s densely matted, composed of motley materials, and all too predictable in shape.

The Ragman’s Memory is a standard-issue police procedural, told in the even-keeled voice of Gunther. Mayor, writing in that voice, turns out pleasingly solid prose, and he excels at evoking the social nuances of Brattleboro as it uneasily negotiates the gap between its working-class past and its hippy-cum-yuppy present. Early on, the novel features a thrillingly taut example of the forensic investigator’s art, with Gunther divining from that clump of purple hair the identity of a one Shawna Davis. She’s the unfortunate teenager—a born victim whose murder Gunther pledges to avenge. As the case moves forward, though, Mayor’s tale becomes slack under the weight of too many partially developed subplots. The Vermont setting invites a return visit, and so does the characterization of Gunther and his crew. But the story as a whole takes the reader about a hundred pages beyond the point where both credulity and patience wear thin.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2017 in American, Novel, Procedural

 

KELLEY ROOS. The Frightened Stiff (1942).

Two-thirds of the way into this finely tuned puzzler, the third in a series that stars the wisecracking young couple Jeff and Haila Troy, Haila asks her husband what he plans to do next. It’s a classic moment in a detective novel that is very much in the classic mode—the moment when all of the essential clues in a case have come to light and when the hero pauses to take stock of them. Jeff says that his next move will be to “[r]ack my brains.” About what? He explains: “About a bedridden lady and her sister. About another lady who has a restaurant and a small boy. About a man named Jacob Bruhl who doesn’t get the letters you write to him. About Mike Kaufman. Furniture. A gangster named Ziggy Koehler and a landlord. A retired art dealer. Scott Carstairs and a borrowed book. … Panda bears. [D]oors opening and closing in the middle of the night. Screens with addresses on them, this and that.” (This litany of clues echoes a feature of the Dell mapback books of the 1940s. At the front of most titles in that series, the publisher included a list of “Things this mystery is about.” And, fittingly enough, Dell issued a mapback version of this novel.) Jeff leaves out what might be the most fundamental element of the case, the one that literally encompasses all of the people and most of the physical items that he enumerates. Each of those people lives (or, in the case of Mike Kaufman, the murder victim, lived) at 39 Gay Street, a brownstone apartment house tucked into a quiet byway in Greenwich Village. The furniture, the opening and closing doors, and the screens also belong to that structure. And Jeff and Haila Troy live there, too. FrightenedStiff.jpg

From the opening of the novel, when Haila takes possession of a basement unit at 39 Gay Street, to its climactic scene, in which Jeff chases a murderer across the building’s rooftop, odd and menacing occurrences cast a shadow over the place that they call home. At one level, in other words, Roos provides an urban reworking of the gothic tradition in which a fine old house becomes practically a character unto itself. Roos also draws on the common observation that New Yorkers routinely live alongside people whom they never get to know: Gotham, as many people have noted, is a place where neighbors often aren’t very neighborly.

Before the Troys can spend their first night in their new abode, they discover a naked corpse—the “frightened stiff” cited in the book’s title—in their backyard garden. Someone had killed a man in their bathtub and then moved the body to that little patch of green space. The core mystery centers on which of the residents at 39 Gay Street had a connection to the dead man: Early evidence indicates that the murder was an inside job. Indeed, on the simplistic but not unreasonable principle of guilt by proximity, Inspector Hankins of the NYPD casts a suspicious eye on the Troys. So Jeff, a photographer by trade, has a more than sporting interest in amateur clue-gathering. Roos fashions a nifty murder plot for him to unravel, and (with a little help from Haila) he does unravel it.

The Troys are bright young folk who keep their spirits up, and their marriage intact, by quaffing a steady stream of cocktails and producing a steady dose of badinage. So comparing them to Nick and Nora Charles is hard to avoid. (Jeff Troy, like Nick Charles, is both a noted sleuth-hound and a semi-reformed booze hound. In fact, much of the comedy and some of the intrigue in this tale stem from Jeff’s memories of the Prohibition-era speakeasy that once occupied his and Haila’s apartment.) Yet the Troys, even many decades later, come across as freshly realized creations in their own right. Unlike the wealthy and somewhat jaded Charles pair, they embody a kind of cosmopolitan innocence. They’re sophisticated without being cynical, and they make for good company as they march through their big-city adventure.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

COLIN DEXTER. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975).

LastBusWoodstock.jpgFor this first Inspector Morse tale, Dexter uses a scenario that was highly popular among British crime writers during the final decades of the 20th century: A women in the full, dangerous bloom of her youth is found dead, the victim presumably of a man with sex on his mind and a sick way of showing it. Other notable works that tell a similar tale include Cover Her Face (1962), by P.D. James; Death in the Morning (1978), by Sheila Radley; The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980), by Michael Gilbert; and Close Her Eyes (1984), by Dorothy Simpson. On the one hand, that scenario seems compellingly modern, tapping as it does into anxieties about what can happen to a young woman now that the restrictions and protections of Victorian patriarchy have fallen away. On the other hand, it draws on the age-old trope of an innocent maiden who falls prey (or so we presume) to a wolf in disguise.

Characterization partly compensates for this lack of narrative innovation. The personality of Morse, a prickly eccentric on the model of Sherlock Holmes, and the relationship between him and his assistant, Sergeant Lewis—which are frosty but show signs of thawing—provide much of the appeal in this procedural. The plot might have held some appeal as well, but there are major flaws that undermine it. Suspects in the case are few in number, a couple of them are plainly red herrings, and the guilt of the “least likely” among them becomes clear well before the denouement. Most important, Morse’s detection hinges too much on his own leaps of intuition and not enough on clues available to the reader.

[ADDENDUM: For a couple of years, and until a few weeks ago, I had let this site go dark. Now, as I rev it up again with the aim of posting something every week or so, I am trawling through old material that i can adapt for use here. This brief review is very old—and, indeed, very brief. In any event, I note that my cursory judgment of this book aligns with the considered view of other readers.]

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934).

Despite the deliberate Sherlockian echo in the title of this collection, the stories brought together here bear only a loose resemblance to those of the Great Detective. The Queen household on West 87th Street never attains the mythic presence of the fabled rooms at 221B Baker Street, and the pairing of Ellery Queen and his inspector father inspires none of the eternal fascination that the relationship between Holmes and Watson elicit to this day. Queen the author is not the builder of a densely imagined and richly peopled world. (About the scurrying figure of Djuna, the Queens’ houseboy, the less said the better.) More to the point, these chronicles from the early days of Ellery’s sleuthing career are not high-spirited “adventures” of the kind that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Instead, they are well-crafted puzzles that far exceed in ingenuity the simple plots that Doyle typically generated. Ellery may not be a great detective in the Holmes mold, in other words, but he is a master of truly great detection.

AdventuresEQ.jpgTake “The Adventure of the Bearded Lady,” in which Ellery cracks the code of a “dying message”—a special variety of clue, and one that became a trademark of the Queen canon. Such clues, at their best, evoke the image of a victim who frantically expends his last moments on a Hail Mary bid to communicate with the would-be avenger of his murder. In this case, Ellery must figure out why an amateur artist devoted his last spasm of life to shading a patch of facial hair onto a woman in a Rembrandt reproduction that he had been painting.

Or take “The Adventure of the Two-Headed Dog,” which carries a distinct narrative echo from the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. As in many of those stories, the protagonist happens into an out-of-the-way spot where strange goings-on are already in progress: Ellery stops at a roadside inn along the New England coast, and from a querulous innkeeper named Cap’n Hosey he learns about the apparent haunting of one of the small cabins that surround the inn. Three months earlier, a guest had disappeared from that cabin, and on certain nights afterward folks have heard eerie, desperate sounds emanating from the place. Later that evening, a killing occurs in the same cabin. An otherworldly mood pervades the scene, but Ellery deduces his way toward an outlandish yet fitting (and entirely non-supernatural) solution.

Or, finally, take “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party,” the longest and justly the best known of this book’s 11 tales. At a Long Island estate, a wealthy investor plans to stage a famous scene from Alice in Wonderland for his son’s birthday. Then he disappears. And then a phantom presence begins delivering assorted objects—shoes and ships, cabbages and kings—that bring to mind another work by Lewis Carroll. The puzzle in this instance is workmanlike but hardly stellar. Yet the madcap atmospherics are gripping, and they foreshadow the nursery-rhyme tropes that will become a fixture of later Queen works. Among British writers of the Victorian era, Carroll casts as least as long a shadow on the Queenian universe as Doyle did. For Queen, as for Carroll, the glories and perversities of logic provide a bottomless source of both delight and mystery.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2017 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories

 

NGAIO MARSH. A Wreath for Rivera (1949).

This mid-career opus has a pleasantly nostalgic feel. Marsh, in what reads almost like a self-pastiche, reworks some of the standard plot turns and favored tropes of her early work from the 1930s. There is a dotty peer who presides over an aristocratic household in which Edwardian-era norms still hold sway: People “dress” for dinner, for example, and afterward the menfolk and the womenfolk retire to separate rooms. There is a pair of young women who chatter, like characters out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, in the register of carefree cynicism. There is a pair of young men, one posh and one working-class, who each in his own pompous way expresses a vaguely leftist contempt for the Establishment. There is a “hot” jazz band that plies its trade at a Soho joint called the Metronome. And so on. Toward the end of the book, Marsh offhandedly describes a blitz-ravaged block of the City, and that reference comes as an abrupt reminder that a war had recently taken place that altered British society from top to bottom. On the whole, though, she has fashioned a milieu that seems decidedly prewar.

WreathRivera.jpgThe most quintessentially retro figure of all is the eponymous victim. Carlos Rivera, an oily Latin type, plays the piano-accordion in high style and also fancies himself a great ladies’ man. In describing the contents of his flat, Marsh lays it on thick: She puts erotic prints on the walls, and black sheets on the bed. Back in the twenties and thirties, actors like Roman Novarro and Cesar Romero played variations of this fellow in one B-movie after another. Much of the intrigue that Marsh uses to drive the action, meanwhile, pivots around two staples of the interwar crime story—blackmail and small-scale dope dealing. Rivera, as it turns out, supplemented his pay as a musician by practicing both of those illicit avocations, and as a result he made plenty of enemies. The circumstances of his murder have a theatrical flair that also calls to mind an earlier era. One night at the Metronome, as the Breezy Bellairs band winds down its set, there is a planned bit of business that swerves in an unplanned direction. A gun supposedly filled with blank cartridges goes off, Rivera drops his instrument and falls to the stage, and a funeral wreath is brought out to cover his “corpse.” In the ensuing chaos, it becomes evident that he’s actually dead. At the same time, someone had taken an umbrella used in the floorshow and jury-rigged it to accommodate a stiletto knife. Which of these two peculiar weapons killed Rivera? Either way, the murder technique is a straight throwback to the fantastical methods that Golden Age writers routinely used to dispatch their victims. A Wreath for Rivera isn’t a locked-room caper, but it unfolds in the same otherworldly spirit that one finds in the madcap tales that John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen (and indeed Marsh herself) penned during their antebellum heyday.

On hand at the Metronome to witness the death of Rivera is Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and although he would continue to star in Marsh’s work up through the 1970s, he too comes across as a refugee from an earlier time—a period when, at least in fiction, a genteel master sleuth always seemed to be nearby whenever an unknown villain decided to commit a puzzling homicide. Marsh, for her part, effectively refutes the notion that she’s just retelling an old tale. She writes sparkling prose, she brings real verve to the scene-by-scene construction of her plot, and she manages the narrative with noble efficiency and with little of the plodding recitation of interviews that characterizes even her best early work. (Her talent had evolved, even if her social attitudes and her storytelling habits had not.) Finally, with a practiced hand, she guides this amusing romp to an elegant conclusion.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2016 in British, Novel, Puzzle