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Category Archives: American

JOHN DUNNING. Booked to Die (1992).

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

JEB RUBENFELD. An Interpretation of Murder (2006).

The idea of casting Sigmund Freud as the sleuth in a murder story, or at any rate as a walk-on sleuthing consultant, has an “overdetermined” quality, as Freud himself might put it. Like a detective, a psychoanalyst excels at finding the thread of significance that lurks within a jumbled skein of reported events. Both figures dedicate themselves to teasing out truths that others seek to hide. And for both, the saga of Oedipus serves as a model for the unraveling of life’s most profound mysteries. Rubenfeld wrests this analogy from its inert obviousness and yokes it to a real historical puzzle: Why did Freud, following his lone visit to the United States, develop a lifelong antipathy to that country—an antipathy so extreme that he once labeled the American experiment in civilization “a great mistake”? The fictional answer, Rubenfeld suggests, is that during his 1909 excursion to the New World the good Dr. Freud witnessed goings-on that would make even the most jaded Old World gentleman cough up his cigar in amazed revulsion.

InterpretationMurder.jpg In that year, Freud traveled to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to deliver a series of lectures; on his way to New England, he stayed for a week in New York, accompanied by an entourage that included Carl Jung. On the basis of those historical facts, the author erects a complex and adroitly managed plot that hinges on transporting Freud’s famous “Dora” case from fin-de-siècle Vienna to ragtime Manhattan. That case involved a dark love quadrangle in which, behind a façade of bourgeois probity, a man prostituted his daughter (“Dora”) to another man in exchange for conjugal rights to the latter man’s wife. Here, Dora assumes the form of one Nora Acton, a nubile “new woman” who lives with her family in a Gramercy Park townhouse. After a strange incident in which Nora reports molestation as well as memory loss, a young psychiatrist named Chatham Younger subjects her to a course of Freud’s newfangled talk therapy. Younger, an authorial creation who narrates bits and pieces of the novel, conducts his psychoanalytic investigation under Freud’s supervision. Alas, he fares about as well with Nora as Freud did with Dora—that is, not very well at all. Proper sleuthing work remains the province of Jimmy Littlemore, a police detective whose blandly stolid heroism adds (um) “little more” to Rubenfeld’s teeming cast of characters.

Younger, for his part, has much better luck with efforts to interpret the mysteries of Hamlet (What did the melancholy Dane really mean when he asked his “To be or not to be” question?) and of the Oedipus complex (Do children truly harbor feelings of homicidal jealousy toward their parents?). Those moments are among the choicest slices of Rubenfeld’s dense literary layer cake. Also worthy of praise are a series of ably evoked period locations, ranging from the exalted heights of a luxury apartment house (based on the fabled Ansonia, on the Upper West Side) all the way down to the pressurized depths of an underwater “caisson,” used in the construction of the Manhattan Bridge. Down there, as in the airless bottom of the human unconscious, a man might lose not only his breath but also his very self.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2017 in American, Historical, Novel

 

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

 

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

 

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