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Author Archives: Mike

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON. Jar City (2000).

“He thought about mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and mothers and sons and fathers and daughters and children that were born and no-one wanted and children who died in that little community, Iceland, where everyone seemed related or connected in some way.” The agent of these musings on the vagaries of paternity and maternity, and on the intricacies of the Icelandic “family,” is Erlendur Sveinsson, detective inspector on the Reykjavik police force.

Following the now-standard format for gritty procedurals, Erlendur functions less as a traditional protagonist than as a prism through which his creator can refract multiple rays of investigative, personal, and social drama. (An introductory note explains that Icelanders generally go by their first name; they don’t have surnames in the usual sense of that term.) Indradason surrounds the inspector with a cast of supporting players who function as a work family—Sigurdur Oli, an up-and-coming fellow with a degree in criminology; Elinborg, a female junior officer; Marion Briem, a crusty senior officer; and so on. On the home front, meanwhile, Erlendur faces challenges that are typical of put-upon fictional cops everywhere: He has a troubled daughter, Eva Lind, and his stumbling efforts to maintain a connection with her form a major subplot in the novel. JarCity.jpg

Erlendur is also keenly aware of his membership in a distinctive national family. Iceland has a population no bigger than that of a mid-size American city, and its people can trace their ancestry back many centuries. Consequently, the country has been able to create a database that combines information on the health and family histories of virtually all of its citizens. Affiliated with this vast genealogical undertaking is a laboratory that retains specimens of biological material from a vast assortment of Icelanders; the book’s title is a mordant reference to that facility. The scientific value of these projects derives largely from the country’s genetic homogeneity. Even so, Indradason manages to suggest that there are an infinite number of stories to be found in Jar City.

There is, for instance, the story of Holberg, a 69-year-old truck driver whose penchant for sexual vice appears to have been the only notable element of an otherwise drab existence. Acting on a neighbor’s tip, Erlundur and his team enter a seedy basement apartment in the Nordurmyri neighborhood of Reykjavik and discover that someone has bludgeoned Holberg to death. What follows is an engrossing tour through the seemingly ordinary lives of people whose fates had intersected with that of the murdered man. Attention turns before long to a set of women who were, or may have been, raped by Holberg—and to people who have familial connections with these victims. (That’s where the revelations of Jar City come into play.) Within this group, presumably, Erlendur will locate a culprit whose yearning for vengeance found an outlet in the savage murder of a sad, dirty old man.

Although Indradason suffuses the tale with an ample portion of Nordic dourness, he avoids the plodding exposition that mars some works of Scandinavian noir. Indeed, the most compelling element of this novel—the third in the Erlendur series—is the author’s careful management of suspense. From chapter to chapter, Indradason switches between one investigative lead and another, and he further varies the mix with chapters about Erlendur and Eva Lind. By braiding his narrative strands in this way, he creates a sequence of cliffhangers that are small in scale but cumulatively large in impact.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2018 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Long Goodbye (1953).

This is quite a long book, as detective novels go—longer than it needs to be, but not longer than it should be. Viewed from the perspective of narrative economy, it contains a great deal of waste. There are scenes that extend for a beat or two (or three or four) more than is necessary, and scenes that hardly seem necessary at all. It’s a loose and shaggy affair, with a generous supply of Chandleresque lyricism but without the staccato narrative drive that marks the author’s best earlier tales (and, interestingly, with fewer dazzling similes than his most devoted readers might expect). It is, of course, a lavish bid by Chandler to combine a standard private-eye caper with a straight literary novel. As a detective novel, it’s much less tightly woven than it could have been. As a study of mood, of character, of modern social life, it lacks a clear sense of focus. Unlike The Big Sleep, this work doesn’t create a template that other writers could (and did) eagerly follow. It’s a one-off accomplishment. Yet, even so, it’s a real accomplishment.

LongGoodbye.jpgAs in a traditional detective story, specific problems that involve concrete events are what drive the investigative action. What happened in the guesthouse of the Encino estate where the heiress Sylvia Lennox joined the ranks of the naked and the dead? (She was found there without clothes and with her face smashed in by a bronze statuette.) What happened in the hotel room in Otatoclán, a remote Mexican town, where Terry Lennox passed his final days? What happened in the writer’s den of the Idle Valley house where Roger Wade died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot on a lazy, lonely Southern California afternoon? Philip Marlowe arrives at answers to these questions—but only after following a convoluted series of deductions (some accurate, some not) and confessions (some true, some false),

Marlowe also explores a murkier problem: What makes people tick? And what sometimes causes a spring to snap inside them? Many scenes in the book appear to exist only to cast light—sometimes harsh and sometime mellow—on Marlowe’s relationships with the Lennoxes, the Wades, and a few others in the same upscale social set. Chandler indicates that Marlowe is 42 years old when the events here take place, but he confers on his otherwise robust hero an outlook that’s typical of late middle age. (When he wrote the book, Chandler was past 60.) The tone is one of dyspepsia and disappointment, and the perspective is that of a man who has seen the bottom of too many glasses of whiskey. For Chandler, a craving for booze is both the most predictable cause and the most telling symptom of a human spirit that has gone sour. In The Long Goodbye, he manages the rare feat of making alcoholism (a very dull subject, in the main) a convincingly integral trait of two superbly drawn characters. By implication, he sketches an effective portrait of another alcoholic man: himself.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

COLIN DEXTER. The Wench Is Dead (1989).

This entry in the Inspector Morse series is highly reminiscent of The Daughter of Time, the much-admired (and often over-praised) classic by Josephine Tey that casts her hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, in the role of an amateur historian. Here, too, a bedridden policeman escapes boredom by reading about a murder from the distant past. Here, too, discrepancies and oddities in the traditional account of the crime incite professional skepticism in the policeman and spur him to review the surviving documentation of the case. Here, too, the policeman enlists the aid of visiting friends and subordinates, who get swept along by his obsessive interest in opening one of the coldest of cold cases. WenchIsDead.jpg Here, too, the policeman and his ad hoc investigative team take a version of truth that had withstood scrutiny for decades (or centuries, as in Tey’s novel) and turn that version inside-out. Here, too, an author brings the past to life by the somewhat ironic means of exploring an ancient death. Here, too, the reader encounters in an acutely distilled form the quality that distinguishes the detective story from other genres—the romance of reason, the grand game of ferreting truth out of its hiding place.

The Wench Is Dead proves to be more satisfying than its famous precursor, and the chief reason is easy to identify: Tey, in her book, labors conscientiously within the factual parameters of an actual event—the alleged murder by King Richard III of his two nephews (the fabled “princes in the Tower”)—whereas Dexter places relatively few limits on his creativity. Although he draws inspiration from the true case of a killing that took place in Staffordshire in 1839, he transfigures that event into an episode that takes place only in the space of his own devious mind: the rape and murder by drowning of a young woman named Joanna Franks. This fictional crime occurred in 1859, on or near the Oxford Canal, and in describing the social milieu of that time and that place, Dexter is able to evoke a world that teems with cryptic clues and densely layered personal relationships. (In that respect, this world resembles the late-20th-century Oxford that Morse claims as his usual stomping ground.) Dexter also improves on the Tey prototype by allowing Morse to transcend the bounds of physical confinement, first by the force of his personality and then through evidence-hunting excursions that take him away from his sickbed. More so than Grant, Morse brings a spirit of urgent action to a narrative that would otherwise consist of interior monologue and seemingly endless dialogue.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

TONY HILLERMAN. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973).

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Reservation Law and Order Department makes his second appearance in this book, which earned Hillerman an Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1974. The author’s deft portrayal of the Native American detective no doubt played a key role in securing that honor. Marginalized from white enforcers of the law because of his race, and to a lesser extent from his own people because of the position he holds, Leaphorn carries an air of detachment—sardonic but also compassionate—that puts him solidly in the tradition of a lonely knight-errant.DanceHallDead.jpg Like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, he exhibits an appealing world-weariness that makes him seem to do good almost in spite of himself.

In this outing, Leaphorn must locate a Navajo boy who has disappeared and who might have information about another boy, a member of the Zuni tribe and the victim of a recent brutal murder. Several clusters of human activity on or near reservation land, each of them linked in some way to the two boys’ intertribal friendship, factor into the plot. There’s an archeological dig. There’s a youth commune. There is, it seems, a drug-smuggling outfit at work in the area. There are indications that people are engaging in certain mysterious rites of the Zuni tribe. The puzzle set against this richly variegated background is by no means dazzling; it features a shallow pool of suspects and a rather pedestrian set of clues. All the same, Hillerman handles the murder motive well, and he does the same with the subdued unfolding of a tragic resolution—one that leaves his hero’s battered faith in justice intact, but just barely.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2018 in American, Novel

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Murder at the Vicarage (1930).

Miss Jane Marple, in her first published case, fully embodies what will become her accustomed role as the “least likely” sleuth. (For Christie, it wasn’t enough to people her work with least likely suspects.) To prove her mettle, the all-knowing spinster of St. Mary Mead works her way through one of the most finely calibrated puzzles that her creator ever devised. As with most of Christie’s best plots, the core solution is breathtakingly simple, and the essential achievement—one that defined the author’s genius—involves spinning webs of believable complication around that solution. True to the title’s promise, the instigating crime occurs in the peaceful confines of a clergyman’s home. The victim is Colonel Protheroe, the master of Old Hall and a local magistrate, a man whose wealth and power and self-righteous personality have given a wide range of his relatives and neighbors a motive for putting a bullet through his stubborn head. MurderVicarage.jpg Indeed, the tale begins charmingly with a scene in which the Rev. Leonard Clement avers that “anyone who murdered” the colonel “would be doing the world at large a service.” Clement is the vicar of St. Mary Mead, and it’s in Clement’s study that Protheroe meets his unlamented end.

Clement also serves as the book’s narrator and as a foil of sorts for Miss Marple. He is Watson to her Holmes. He is, in a cockeyed way, Wooster to her Jeeves: His bluff, everyman stolidity—he is neither more nor less than what he appears to be, an average Englishman of his class—stands in contrast to her aura of occult capability. Like Jeeves, she wears the mask of a defined social role, and the mask conceals an intellect of unplumbed depth. Miss Marple intimidates Clement just a bit (as Jeeves does Wooster), but the two of them pair up effectively to bolster the forces of order within their village. They are subtly drawn characters, and in that regard they have company among the other characters in this piece.

Murder at the Vicarage delivers a firm rebuttal to the standard critique of Christie, which is that her approach to crafting fiction was purely (and sometimes clumsily) utilitarian—that she excelled only at turning parlor tricks and lacked any kind of literary flair. She produced this book early in the prime of her writing life, and a growing mastery of her art shows on every page. Both the narration and the dialogue are crisp, and full of small grace notes. Several subplots blend seamlessly into the main tale. Above all, the writing is efficient: Few if any weavers of fiction have surpassed Christie in her ability to establish a scene and then guide readers swiftly through it. And all the while, she builds a compelling little world. In the cottages and gardens that surround the vicarage, in the High Street shops and along the country lanes of St. Mary Mead, the tide of human life ebbs and flows. On the surface, it’s a comic and, yes, cozy world, but underneath there is an abiding strain of evil that lends gravity to Miss Marple’s knack for solving mysteries.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

STUART PALMER. The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941).

By the time he penned this entry in the Hildegarde Withers saga, Palmer had spend a decent amount of time in the luxuriously appointed coal mines where screenwriters swung their picks during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. And here, repeatedly, he makes sport of the antic plot contrivances that Tinseltow producers would foist upon the raw material that they had plundered either from life or from literature. As the book opens, Mammoth Studios is developing a motion picture that promises to retell the Lizzie Borden story. HappyHooligan.jpg Step by step, the producer Thorwald L. Nincom pushes his writing team to remold the ax-wielding spinster from Fall River, Massachusetts, into a proper celluloid heroine: Let’s portray her as innocent! (A preponderance of evidence, as well as the nursery rhyme that made her famous, suggests that she was guilty of killing her father and stepmother.) Let’s pair her with a handsome suitor! (She had no known love interest, handsome or otherwise.)

Despite that breezy approach to the historical record, Nincom cares about getting the details right. Which is why the studio ends up hiring Miss Withers to serve as a technical advisor on the film. (She happened to be in Los Angeles on an extended vacation.) After all, she’s a teacher, and she’s from back east, and she knows a little something about murder. The studio gives her an office in the warren of rooms occupied by Nincom’s writers, and before she can settle into it, one of her officemates becomes a fresh homicide victim. Who would want to kill a journeyman scribbler like Saul Stafford? The answer is to be found amid a bewildering swirl of circumstances—including signs that point to an unsolved New York City murder case, which gives Miss Withers an excuse to call in her old friend, Inspector Piper of the NYPD. She tumbles to the right solution on her own, but only after surviving attempts to kidnap her and to kill her, among other high-jinks.

Even as Palmer mocks Hollywood tropes, he partakes of those tropes with professional aplomb, and the novel reads to some extent like the treatment for a mystery feature that he hoped a real-life mogul would order into production. Happy Hooligan was never adapted for the silver screen, alas, but Palmer’s novel survives as a well-turned entertainment from the Silver Age of both classic moviemaking and classic detection. It’s a fun romp that, in keeping with the title, gives readers plenty to puzzle over.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

J.S. FLETCHER. The Middle Temple Murder (1918).

On either side of Fleet Street in London, journalists and lawyers ply trades that deal with crucial matters of life and death, of language and truth. The journalists do their work loudly and cast their product far and wide, whereas the lawyers toil quietly in cloistered chambers—yet practitioners in both groups traffic in the raw stuff of human conflict, and they excel at the arts of concealment and revelation. This ancient quarter of the ancient city, therefore, provides an apt venue for the start of a murder story.

Early one morning, as the presses begin to rumble and as a hush settles over the Inns of Court, a young scribe named Frank Spargo wanders near Middle Temple Lane and happens upon a the corpse of a well-dressed man whose pockets contain no identification. When the new day dawns, Spargo joins forces with Detective-Sergeant Rathbury of New Scotland Yard to crack the riddle of who the victim was and how he came to be bludgeoned to death. Initially, the investigation has a strong procedural cast: The newspaperman and the policeman follow trails that take them to diverse London locations—a hotel near Waterloo Station, a West End hat shop, the Houses of Parliament. MiddleTempleMurder.jpg Working from a meager supply of clues, they discover that the dead man was a visitor from Australia named John Marbury. The hunt for truth then shifts to the well-traveled path of a certain type of thriller. A curious bauble found in the victim’s luggage leads Spargo to uncover an intricate back-story that involves multiple hidden identities, multiple schemes of financial fraud, and multiple people with fraught connections to the mysterious Marbury. The question of who slew the man remains unanswered until a climactic scene that unfolds in a remote part of rural England. The ultimate locus of enlightenment, as it turns out, is a far cry from Fleet Street.

One mystery that hovers over this volume today is why Howard Haycraft placed it on his “Reader’s List of Detective Story Cornerstones,” which he published in his own cornerstone history of the genre, Murder for Pleasure (1941). (Frederic Dannay later added a number of titles to the list and famously published it as “The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective, Crime, and Mystery Fiction.”) The Middle Temple Murder is a middling work in every respect. It’s a routine tale of intrigue, lively in parts but rather plodding on the whole, and it hardly represents an original turn in the development of its form. The plot is derivative of (among other sources) those entries in the Sherlockian canon that pivot around sordid deed that took place in the distant past or in some faraway colonial outpost (or both). Nor does Fletcher display any particular brilliance in spinning out this plot; his narrative style lacks the brio that Arthur Conan Doyle brought to adventures of this kind. Although the novel showcases some of the trappings of modern life—the crackle of telegraph and telephone messages as they speed across London and spur men to action, the badinage between a cocky, ambitious reporter and a proud Scotland Yard official—it comes across mainly as a late and not especially colorful flowering of Victorian sensation fiction.

[ADDENDUM: I read this book during a recent trip to London. Having booked a room at a hotel that’s near the Inns of Court—indeed, it’s a cobblestone’s throw away from Middle Temple Lane—I decided that the time was right for dipping into this so-called cornerstone work. Although it’s disappointing as tale of detection, it makes very engaging use of its London setting. During my stay in the city, as I ambled from the hotel up to Fleet Street or over to the Temple Underground Station and beyond, it was easy to adjust my mental landscape to the landscape of Fletcher’s novel. A full century has passed, and the Guerkin and the Shard and other gleaming landmarks of Millennial London now compete with St. Paul’s to dominate the skyline, but the old city remain visible to those who yearn to see it.]

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle