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Author Archives: Mike

ANTHONY BOUCHER. The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937).

Many decades after it appeared, this début work by a pivotal figure in the history of detective fiction exudes a wonderful sense of ripeness. Boucher was a mere lad of 25 years when he wrote it, and a precocious, fully formed sensibility—a clear perspective on what the detective novel could and should offer—is evident in its pages from start to finish. Implicitly and on a few occasions explicitly, he pays homage to predecessors such as Edgar Allan Poe and to peers such as John Dickson Carr. AnthonyBoucher2.jpg In doing so, he signals his allegiance to a tradition that prizes fine gamesmanship no less than it does great storytelling. He even includes a clue-finder device, complete with references to the pages on which he has smuggled in telltale facts.

Boucher also structures the book, in an earnest yet knowing fashion, around classic genre tropes—from the use of a Watson-like figure, who holds the reader’s sympathy while offering assistance to a master sleuth, to the final scene in which the sleuth marches through all of the steps (cognitive and otherwise) that led to the discovery of a culprit. The chief driver of the story is Martin Lamb, a graduate student in German at the University of California, Berkeley, and he functions more or less like the juvenile-lead types who play a supporting role in many of Carr’s novels. (Unlike a true Watson, he does not narrate the tale directly.) The master sleuth is Professor John Ashwin, a teacher of Sanskrit whose store of knowledge extends well beyond that language. Ashwin remains offstage, for the most part, but makes a strong impact in the scenes that feature him.

The setting here—UC Berkeley, during what now seem like halcyon days for that institution—poses a challenge for Boucher. The milieu that he depicts pulses with optimism, with a buoyant faith in the value of rational thought and pragmatic activity. It is not, in other words, a venue where homicidal passions and dark secrets are likely to find a natural home. And so, to add intrigue and gravitas to that sun-dappled milieu, Boucher draws on the lore of an ancient and treacherous (and wholly fictional) religious sect: the eponymous Seven of Calvary. This plot element allows him to summon the menacing specter of Old World conspiracies, and it recalls another classic trope. Indeed, one character in the book alludes to this trope explicitly by likening the Seven of Calvary back-story to “early Doyle.” (It also anticipates a common theme in recent works such as The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, as in this one, early Christian heresies resurface to animate contemporary political machinations.)

The dramatis personae present a similar quandary. Most of the key characters are denizens or associates of International House, a residential center that serves both overseas students and American students with cosmopolitan affinities. They are bright young adults, each of them so apparently full of healthful energy and honest goodwill that it’s hard to imagine that they harbor bloodthirsty emotions. SevenCalvary.jpg Boucher, therefore, must play a clever game of misdirection to hide the hole where one or more known motives for murder would typically be.

The first killing takes place in a quiet residential precinct that lies between the campus and the Berkeley Hills—a sylvan realm where Lamb and other characters go for long, romance-nurturing walks—and the victim is Dr. Hugo Schaedel, an emissary of peace from Switzerland. The second killing occurs at a dress rehearsal for a student performance of Don Juan Returns, an old Spanish play that Lamb has translated into English, and the victim is Paul Lennox, an instructor in history who was part of the International House circle. The means of killing in the first instance is an ice pick; in the second, it’s a dose of strychnine. The shift in murder methods furnishes a clue that proves to be a decisive link in the chain of reasoning that Ashwin will forge when he presents a solution to the case.

This solution, together with the twists and turns that precede it, distinguishes Seven of Calvary as a prodigious display of Golden Age plotting—as a marvel of ingenuity that bears comparison with best novels of the same era by Carr and other virtuosos of the puzzle tale. The book’s only noteworthy flaw lies in its young author’s over-eager playfulness. Boucher brings to the proceeding a jaunty and sometimes flippant mood that lessens, just slightly, the weight of this freshman achievement. Solving a murder is serious business, or at least it should be.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Murder on the Links (1923).

HerculeMurderLinks.jpg Poirot shines in this second novel to feature him and his bluff, slightly dim friend and chronicler, Captain Hastings. The situation and the setting reflect the genre norms of a time when the British detective story was fully coming into its own. A millionaire with a somewhat shady past is found dead on a golf course, not far from his seaside mansion. An exotic-looking dagger protrudes from his back, and a tidy set of suspects orbit the scene. All of the suspects belong to the bourgeois class, albeit tenuously so, and the fluctuations of status and identity lend a dark undertone to the tale. On the surface, meanwhile, Poirot’s march from clue to clue is very much a comic affair. It’s comic both in the humorous byplay that accompanies it (Christie rarely gets enough credit for the mordant wit of her dialogue) and in its life-affirming display of what human reason can achieve. Steadily and with imperial confidence, Poirot applies his vaunted “little grey cells” to a problem of acute complexity. Ostensible guilt passes from character to character until he fixes it—with what seems like sleight of hand—upon a genuinely unlikely suspect. The comic spirit then reaches its proper culmination when two pairs of star-crossed lovers each become united at last.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DENNIS LEHANE. Darkness, Take My Hand (1996).

Lehane, in this second book to feature the sleuthing duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennarro, has put the Dorchester section of Boston on the map of places that have a presence in myth that no region could ever attain in mere space. In his Dorchester, killer clowns rule the night, cruising Savin Hill Avenue in an ominous-looking white van and laying the groundwork for a vengeful murder spree that will occur twenty years later. DarknessTakeHand.jpg In his Dorchester, the sins of fathers and mothers, born of the vigilante passions that roiled white working-class Boston during the school-busing crisis of the 1970s, linger as a curse upon their progeny.

Through artful storytelling, Lehane makes us want to believe in that Dorchester—and makes us need to believe in his two homegrown heroes, who winningly demonstrate their ability to transcend the violence that marks their neighborhood. He does less well in other respects. An air of Hollywood-inspired banality clings to much of the dialogue and to some of the characterization. The byplay between Kenzie and Gennaro, which swerves from the fraternal to the sexual and back, is cutesy and obvious rather than clever. (One critic shrewdly hears in it an uninspired echo from the TV show Moonlighting.) And the plot, though powerful as a whole, does not work as smoothly as it might; it has a couple of hard-to-ignore holes, and its final sequence goes on too long. But for a novelist, it’s no small thing to transfigure a humdrum patch of earth into an arena of epic adventure. In creating a fit place for Kenzie and others to confront their demons, internal as well as external, Lehane has achieved that feat.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2018 in American, Noir, Novel

 

MICHAEL GILBERT. Smallbone Deceased (1950).

Could anything be duller than a novel set in a London solicitors’ office? That is, after all, a milieu in which dullness serves as a prime objective—in which, by design, one day spent conveyancing deeds of property and engrossing bills of exchange blends indistinguishably into another. A murder or two will help redeem a tale with this backdrop from the curse of tedium, but violence alone is hardly sufficient to the task. Also required are a minutely calibrated sense of character (How else can an author and his readers distinguish between suspects who embody shades of legal gray?) and a flair for satire. SmallboneDeceased.jpg Gilbert possesses both of those qualities and here puts them on display to enchanting effect. He strikes a particularly mordant note in the opening sequence of the novel, when staff members of the firm Horniman Birley and Craine discover the remains of one Marcus Smallbone inside a large deed box. Chief Inspector Hazelrigg, who appears in several of Gilbert’s early efforts, handles the investigation into who caused Smallbone to become deceased, and a young solicitor named Henry Bohun plays a supporting role. (Bohun functions as an alter ego of Gilbert, who maintained a career in the law even as he produced a large volume of crime fiction.)

After beginning in a sprightly fashion, the narrative sags in the middle (as mystery novels often do) but then closes in the grand tradition: Suspicion tilts now toward this person and now toward that one, until suddenly all of the evidence points decisively in yet another direction. The author sneaks much of this evidence by the reader in broad textual daylight, and he handles physical clues with a special sureness of touch. On point after point, the basic artistry of Smallbone Deceased helps explain the high regard that the book has earned among enthusiasts of the traditional English mystery.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

PATRICK QUENTIN. A Puzzle for Fools (1936).

A strong, genial prose style, a couple of sharp late-inning plot turns, and a charmingly contrived rendition of psychiatric illness and treatment, circa 1936, help to salvage this poorly paced chronicle of murder at an asylum for the not-quite-sane. Alcoholism has led narrator and hero Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer by trade, to check himself into a bin for the moderately loony, and his fellow inmates include a kleptomaniac Boston dowager, a spacy but beautiful heiress, a narcoleptic Anglo-Indian pukka sahib, and a famous conductor who just can’t stop conducting. PuzzleFools.jpg Despite the relatively benign nature of these patients’ disorders, it becomes apparent that someone at the institution suffers from an impulse that’s anything but harmless. First a warden at the asylum turns up in a straight-jacket with his wrestler’s body contorted into the shape of a corpse. Then one of the patients, a Wall Street tycoon, falls victim to a stolen surgeon’s knife. Duluth plays detective, somewhat ineffectually: Although he unravels a few layers of the mystery, only the sage Dr. Lenz, director of the sanitarium, sees through to its core. Duluth also plays Romeo, and does so to much greater effect. Alas, his climactic departure from the drunk tank with a winsome Juliet in his arms makes this “puzzle” seem like a mere trifle.

[ADDENDUM: My hunch is that I’d like this book more today than I did back when I read it and wrote this review. I had a much higher regard for two other books in the Peter Duluth sequence that I read subsequently (A Puzzle for Puppets and Black Widow), and I’ve enjoyed a couple of that titles that Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler—the men behind the Patrick Quentin pen name—wrote under the pseudonym Jonathan Stagge. The Duluth character, in my first encounter with him, probably threw me off. Unlike most Golden Age detective heroes, but very much like their counterparts in our own era, Duluth operates not as a dispassionate observer of criminal activity but as a man who is desperately implicated in it. Nowadays, I’m readier than I used to be to welcome a sleuth who plays a “fool” within the puzzle that he bids to solve.]

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

PAUL DOHERTY. The White Rose Murders (1990).

In the England of 1517, conspiracies unfold beneath the surface of events no less abundantly than rank sewage flows on the street of London. It’s a time of fresh possibility for the island kingdom, with a young and ambitious sovereign ruling at Westminster, but it’s also a time of dark portents and dark realities. This maiden entry in a sequence of tales about political intrigue and personal skullduggery during the reign of King Henry VIII ably evokes a period when life was cheap and truth was dear, and it packs in a generous array of mysteries both large and small. The grandest mystery involves the struggle to control the throne of Scotland—a struggle that, in this telling, has become entangled with the ongoing clash between the Tudor dynasty and advocates of the Yorkist cause, who, three decades after the Battle of Bosworth Field, may be conspiring to retake the English throne. Smaller-scale mysteries arise from a set of killings done to further these machinations.

Two of the murders present variations of the same sealed-room puzzle. The first of them is the keystone event of the whole affair. Alexander Selkirk, a physician to the recently defeated and slain King James IV of Scotland, has gone mad; he writes crackpot verses and issues cryptic utterances that suggest esoteric knowledge about the fate of his country. Forces loyal to King Henry and to James’s widowed queen, Margaret, who happens to Henry’s sister, have captured Selkirk and brought him to the Tower of London, where Margaret and her entourage have taken up residence. WhiteRoseMurders.jpg One night, in a locked and thoroughly guarded chamber, Selkirk succumbs to death by poisoning. How could anyone have gotten close enough to him to administer the fatal substance? (Remnants of food and drink in the room show no trace of poison.) How, too, did a white rose—a symbol of the Yorkist conspiracy—end up next to the corpse? The core trick, once revealed, proves to be rather simple, and the full solution to the puzzle borrows an oft-used device from other locked-room tales. Still, the trick works well in this context, and the process of detection that leads to its revelation is sharp and appealing.

Two characters share responsibility for unraveling that mystery, along with several other quandaries that surround Queen Margaret and her retinue. The ostensible protagonist and the narrator of adventure is Roger Shallot, a charming scalawag whose likeness to Shakespeare’s Falstaff receives an explicit reference from Shallot himself. (One conceit of the series is that Shallot is writing his memoirs at the tail end of the Elizabethan era and that he personally knew the Bard, among other luminaries of the period.) But Shallot’s friend and master, Benjamin Daunbey, handles more than half of the sleuthing work. Whereas Shallot is earthy to the core, Daunbey is lofty in spirit, and the two personae complement each other in the time-honored fashion of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. (At the same time, the byplay between Shallot and Daunbey has a blithe, loosely egalitarian quality that recalls the interaction between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their “Road” pictures.)

Doherty (who initially published the novel under his Michael Clynes pseudonym) overestimates the charm of his roguish hero: A little bit of Shallot—of his thieving and wenching, of his self-satisfied tone and his profanely flippant attitude—goes a long way. His narrative voice, which becomes disruptive as the story progresses, is the chief weakness of the book. The chief strength, meanwhile, lies in the author’s unflinching descriptions of 16th-century life. In that respect, Doherty departs from a common tendency among historical novelists (including, say, Ellis Peters in her Brother Cadfael series) to sugarcoat the period about which they write. In an account of Shallot and Daunbey’s journey into the capital, for instance, Doherty sets the scene to gripping effect: “We traveled down through Eastcheap and into Petty Wales, the area around the Tower. God save us, London is a dirty place, but after that infection [of the plague] it was reeking filthy: fleas and lice were everywhere, and the unpaved streets were coated with leavings of every kind. Mound of refuse were piled high, full of the rushes thrown out of houses and taverns, thick with dirt and stinking of spit, vomit and dog turds.”

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2018 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle

 

RAOUL WHITFIELD. Death in a Bowl (1931).

An early product of the tough-guy school of crime writing, this tale of greed, ambition, and murder in Tinseltown exhibits a besetting flaw of its type: It mistakes brute action for dramatic tension, and offers mere confusion in place of genuine mystery. The basic riddle that private eye Ben Jardinn must crack—Why and how did someone shoot musical conductor Hans Reiner during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl?—has merit both in its setup and in its solution. But the path that Whitfield carves between his crisp, provocative opening and his intriguing conclusion is strewn with narrative non-sequiturs. DeathBowl.jpg In dialogue, characters throw comments at one another that are either random or opaque. At the level of plot, scenes of violence, revelation, or reversal occur with no discernible connection to the scenes that precede or follow them. (One chapter, for example, starts with Jardinn entering a hospital where a key suspect, whom readers had last seen being put under arrest, will soon die. There is no narrative preparation for this event—no explanation of how the suspect arrived in that parlous state—nor any effort to link this plot turn to the story as a whole. It just happens.)

Thematically, too, the novel makes broad leaps but lands nowhere in particular. Are women, even the best among them, duplicitous by nature? Do clients always lie? Is there something inherently problematic about having a “business partner”—a fellow who operates as neither a true colleague nor an open competitor? And if the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then how can a fellow trust anyone but himself? In this respect, as in others, Whitfield bulldozes across essentially the same terrain that Dashiell Hammett explores in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike Hammett, he charts a course that seems arbitrary rather than inevitable.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel