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Category Archives: American

QUENTIN PATRICK. The Grindle Nightmare (1935).

This book nearly defies categorization, and for many readers it will defy all possibility of enjoyment. Is it a mystery yarn set in a rural village? Is it a clue-filled puzzle that revolves around a complex array of alibis? Is it a work of social realism that provides a gimlet-eyed view of Depression-era class relations? Is it a horror tale that traffics in images of inhuman (or, perhaps, all too human) depravity? It’s all of these things, and yet it’s not quite any one of them. What stands out amid the many threads that Patrick weaves into this unholy tapestry is a striking pattern of violence, sadism, and misanthropy. Consider a few threads in particular: the practice of vivisection for medical research, multiple instances of outright cruelty to animals, a killer with a penchant for dragging victims (in at least one case, while they’re still alive) at the rear of a car, discussions of human congenital deficiency that echo then-still-popular eugenic theories, a rendition of rural society that seems borrowed from the bleakest naturalistic tract by Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser, and depictions of sexual dysfunction that come straight out of a treatise by Krafft-Ebing. GrindleNightmare.jpg In sum, this fifth published effort by the Patrick-Quentin-Stagge consortium may be the least cozy novel produced by an author of otherwise mainstream detective fiction in the first half of the 20th century. (According to Curt Evans, a redoubtable authority on this “author,” Grindle issued from the pen of Richard Wilson Webb, with an assist from Mary Louise Aswell.) The slick, urbane style that the author applied to all of “his” work is very much on display, and Patrick even includes a telling reference to Agatha Christie. But the setting and mood of the tale owe far more to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft than to the creator of St. Mary Mead.

The village of Grindle, located in an unspecified part of New England, exists both as a tiny world unto itself and as an embodiment of the grand tradition in which authors like Lovecraft—along with precursors like Nathanael Hawthorne—envision a lush New World venue as a site of battle against ancient forces of evil. The novel’s opening scene provides an ominous glimpse of the land and people of Grindle: “There were little knots of villagers at every corner; in the woods we could hear the barking of dogs and there was an occasional gleam from a flashlight. … [Later] I could still hear shouts ringing across the valley. There was a restless, hopeless quality about them which gave me the impression that our neighbors had gone out to look for something which they knew they would not find—something of which they completely despaired.” The writer of those lines is Dr. Douglas Swanson, a young medical researcher who narrates the tale. He and another doctor, Antonio Conti, share a house in Grindle, and they commute to their laboratory at Rhodes University, which lies about 20 miles away. Although Swanson and Conti serve as emissaries from the realm of scientific modernity, their use of dead animals for research purposes adds a morbid note that resonates through the novel both practically and thematically.

As it turns out, the villagers in the introductory scene were searching for Polly Baines, a girl from a poor farm family. She and her cat have disappeared, and the prospects for finding them alive look none too good. Not long afterward, the slain corpse of Polly’s father is discovered in a pond; he had been left there to drown, with his hands manacled in a pair of animal traps. Aside from the down-on-their-luck Baineses, the key figures in this drama represent the affluent (or at least shabby-genteel) stratum of local society. At the center of that society is Seymour Alstone, a mining magnate who exerts tyrannical control over the village in general and over his feckless son, Franklin, and his mild-mannered grandson, Gerald, in particular. Other figures include a medical student named Peter Foote; the Goschens, a family of hearty sporting types; Colonel Edgar Tailford-Jones and his adulterous wife, Roberta; and Valerie Middleton, a young woman whose father committed suicide back in 1929, after undergoing a financial setback for which old man Alstone was partly responsible. GrindleMap.jpg Around these characters, Patrick builds a dense plot that encompasses a nocturnal assignation on an abandoned road, a ghostly face that looms in a window and disrupts a dinner party, an act of arson that destroys a barn and almost immolates the horses inside it, bloodstains on the wooden planks of a covered bridge, a snowstorm that hides crucial evidence, and much else.

Somehow the whole thing works. Once the novel enters its final phase, a satisfying work of classic detection comes miraculously into view. For those not entirely put off by the carnival of madness and mayhem that unfolds in the first three-quarters of the tale, the last fourth of the book presents a bravura chamber piece in which confusion and chaos give way to enlightenment and order. While the clock ticks toward an hour of reckoning—Deputy Bracegirdle, the local lawman, plans to make a decisive arrest—Patrick engineers several feats of canny misdirection and several moments of startling revelation. (Until the very end, a sense of mystery hangs over a pair of fundamental quandaries: Who counts as a suspect, and who qualifies as a detective?) Then, in one fell swoop, the pall over Grindle lifts. The truth, when it arrives in full, has the cleansing power of a bright dawn that follows a grotesquely long night. Even in the grim vale that Grindle residents call home, scattered rays of reason and sanity and even love shine through.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2019 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

LANGE LEWIS. Murder Among Friends (1942).

By common agreement, the Golden Age of detective fiction ended when the 1940s began. From 1920 to 1939, according to this formulation, tales about feats of detection came into their own as a variety of literature with broadly shared standards of quality and with a recognized pantheon of outstanding practitioners. Arguably, however, it was in the following decade—the decade that began when the era of interwar peace ended—that the detective novel reached is pinnacle of achievement. In the early 1940s, first-time contributors and established figures in the genre started issuing minor and major masterpieces on a scale that resembled the rate of production in the munitions factories that were then kicking into high gear. For these writers, the distinction between art and entertainment, between serious fiction and playful mystification, practically disappears. Drawing on all of the resources provided by a maturing genre, they stand out for their ability to embed fair-play murder puzzles within richly conceived stories about people who lead socially realistic, emotionally complex lives. In many instances, they sound romantic or satiric themes that derive from the traditions of comedy. MurderAmongFriends.jpg But just as frequently (in novels such as Calamity Town, by Ellery Queen; Green for Danger, by Christiana Brand; and Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie), they strike a note of tragedy that resonates even after the typical reader forgets the clever solution that they have engineered.

For a prime example of this trend, one could hardly do better than to cite the work at hand. Murder Among Friends, the inaugural entry in a four-book series about Lieutenant Richard Tuck of the Los Angeles Police Department, is a classic of humane, literate detection. The friends in question are students, researchers, and employees at an unnamed medical school. (Stray references to the surrounding topography indicate that this institution is part of the University of Southern California.) Shortly before the action of the novel begins, a secretary named Garnet Dillon leaves her job at the school suddenly and without explanation. The young woman who takes her place, Kate Farr, serves as the novel’s co-equal protagonist—a point-of-view figure whose story runs parallel with that of Tuck’s investigation. On her first day as the new secretary, Kate witnesses the discovery of Garnet’s corpse in the school’s anatomy lab. An autopsy establishes poisoning by ingestion of digitalis as the cause of death, and the testimony of Garnet’s boss effectively rules out the possibility of suicide. But if it’s a case of murder, who had the wherewithal to administer a fatal dose? That question leads Tuck to focus his inquiry on the eponymous circle of friends, several of whom are young men who harbored (or may have harbored) amorous feelings for the victim.

With a light but certain touch, Lewis portrays the workings of the detective mind in its full glory. Tuck isn’t the most colorful sleuth—his main identifying trait is his extreme height—but he navigates his way through a thicket of clues and complications with easy-going intelligence. Step by step, he examines every viable permutation of means, motive, and opportunity. Lewis smoothly interweaves scenes that feature Tuck with scenes that revolve around the clutch of friends who, in the wake of Garnet’s murder, continue their struggle to build careers and lives. In witty, perfectly modulated prose, she fashions an immediately believable world around these characters and confers a sense of gravity on the murder case that looms over them. The global war that the United States had just entered when these events take place receives a single glancing mention. But the denouement alludes to the kind of life-and-death actions that the war will soon compel young people like Kate and her cohorts to make on a regular basis.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

SALLY CLINE. Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (2014).

Substantial books about Hammett’s life and work today far outnumber his own famously modest output of novels and story collections. This one beckons for attention because it’s short—the main text runs to 204 pages—and because it’s relatively recent: It holds the promise of distilling several decades’ worth of accumulated research and cumulative wisdom about a genius who essentially invented a branch of American literature. So it’s unfortunate that this unevenly written survey of a writer’s life doesn’t reward even a brief investment of reading time. Cline, to her credit, appears to have read most of the now-quite-large array of primary and secondary sources about her subject, and she makes especially thorough use of material unearthed in recent years about Hammett’s relationship with his wife and two daughters. Like other students of Hammett, she also gives close scrutiny to his protean relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman. But the biography that emerges from these scholarly endeavors offers neither a clear overview of what Hammett did and what he wrote nor a sustained argument about the meaning of his actions and achievements. It’s a helter-skelter jaunt through a life that merits careful, analytically sophisticated study.

HammettManMystery.jpg Cline’s title holds real promise, even if the book fails to deliver on it. What, after all, is the core “mystery” of this man? One conventional, and not altogether wrong, formulation of the Hammett conundrum focuses on the question of why he essentially stopped writing after producing several dozen genre-defining short tales and five landmark novels between 1922 and 1933. Why did a writer who worked so diligently to reach the pinnacle of success all but give up on creating new, published work during the nearly three decades that remained of his life? The standard explanations seem valid enough: drink, politics, the sublimation of Hammett’s own productive energies in an effort to support Hellman’s career.

Yet perhaps the more salient mystery concerns his motivation for writing works such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in the first place. Cline presents glimpses of an explanation, including this oft-quoted passage from a letter that Hammett sent in 1928 to the publisher Blanche Knopf: “I’m one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. … Some day somebody’s going to make ‘literature’ of it, … and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes.” Of course Hammett wrote for money, and for fame, and there were brief periods when he applied to literary work the same stoic professionalism that the Continental Op applied to investigative work. Deep down, though, he aspired to create fiction that would transfigure the form of his chosen genre. In fact, he did so, and did it more than once. (Each of his five novels in effect launched a major subgenre—from Red Harvest, which inspired a slew of tales about a lone hero who battles an entire corrupt town, to The Thin Man, which became the template for countless books and movies that feature a wise-cracking, crime-solving couple.) Then, once Hammett had fully stretched his talents in this way, he appears to have lost interest in using them. One gets the sense that he saw no middle ground between generating a masterwork and generating hackwork. As this biography inadvertently demonstrates, he was not so much a “man of mystery” as he was a man of supreme (and ultimately spoiled) ambition.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2019 in American, Hard-Boiled

 

REX STOUT. The Golden Spiders (1953).

The title here refers to an unusual pair of earrings worn by a victim whose murder Nero Wolfe resolves to avenge. Yet the arachnoid image could well be an oblique nod to the great detective himself. Like a spider, Wolfe sits at the center of a vast web over which he exerts iron control by engaging in subtle forms of manipulation. The web is New York City, and its strands extend in all directions from the splendid, sovereign brownstone on West 35th Street that Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin, call home. Much of the charm that attaches to the Nero Wolfe saga coalesces around that building, so it’s easy to forget that Stout uses the entire island of Manhattan to great effect. The city grid provides an expansive field on which Wolfe can pursue his brainwork and Goodwin can conduct his legwork. Ensconced in his West Side sanctuary, Wolfe—with ambulatory support from Goodwin—is able to spin filaments of detection that ensnare suspects and witnesses in all parts of town.

To construct the work at hand, Stout draws on a highly specific urban geography. The case starts in Wolfe’s neighborhood, at the intersection of 35th Street and Ninth Avenue, where a 13-year-old kid named Pete Drossos has a fateful encounter with a Cadillac driven by a woman who signals to Pete that she’s in danger. GoldenSpiders.jpg The next day, the kid dies in a hit-and-run incident at the same location. Soon the body of another hit-and-run victim turns up on a cobbled stretch of South Street, and the car that hit both victims is found on 186th Street. Amid these events, Pete’s mother comes to the brownstone, offers up the boy’s life savings ($4.30), and says that her son’s last words were a request to enlist Wolfe’s help. One thing swiftly leads to another, and soon a wealthy widow named Laura Fromm visits Wolfe and offers up a check for $10,000. (Intriguingly, she is wearing gold, spider-shaped earrings. According to Pete, the woman in the Cadillac had worn earrings that matched that description.) The next day, the dead body of Mrs. Fromm is discovered under the East Side elevated highway; she too had been run over by a car. To earn the hefty fee paid by his deceased client, Wolfe launches his operatives on an investigation that covers disparate points on the city map. There’s a visit by Goodwin to the Fromm townhouse on East 68th Street, a scheme by gumshoe Saul Panzer that involves loitering at a “a cheap hotel on First Avenue,” a rendezvous at Danny’s Bar & Grill on 55th and Ninth, a fight with hoodlums at Nunn’s Garage on 48th and Tenth, a colloquy between Goodwin and assorted NYPD officials down on Centre Street, and so on. Then it’s back to West 35th Street, where cops and suspects gather to watch Wolfe reveal the murderer in the time-honored fashion.

In many ways, this mid-series work serves as a paradigmatic Nero Wolfe adventure. Along with effectively situating Wolfe in his native habitat, the tale contains all of the ingredients that have endeared the series to fans over many decades: the cocksure patter of Goodwin’s narration; the passive-aggressive, yet also affectionate, banter through which Wolfe and Goodwin conduct their relationship; the ritualized patterns that shape domestic life at the brownstone; the well-choreographed blocking and tackling that mark every confrontation that Wolfe and Goodwin have with the forces of law and order (strikingly, these detectives seem to view cops, rather than criminals, as their main adversary); the retinue of largely interchangeable suspects, most of them drawn from the educated business and professional classes. Likewise, the plot of The Golden Spiders is par for the course. It features a couple of good clues, and the overall puzzle is neat enough, albeit rather simple—indeed, more worthy of a short story than of a novel. (The feat of deduction used to solve it doesn’t justify the repeated assertion by Goodwin and others that Wolfe is any kind of “genius.”) In sum, those who like what Stout has to offer will enjoy this rendition of it. Those who are immune to the charm of the series will be happy to give the book a miss.

[ADDENDUM: Whereas I deem this novel a “paradigmatic” example of the Wolfe canon, Armchair Reviewer at the Cross-Examining Crime site suggests that it’s a departure from the series norm (and quotes the novelist Linda Barnes, who calls it “atypical” in her introduction to the Bantam edition of the book). To some extent, I suppose, a paradigm is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve read only about a half-dozen of the Wolfe novels and a smattering of the novella-length works, so I’m hardly an authority on the subject. The Golden Spiders, however, strikes me as a tale that aligns fairly well with others in its set. (The whole series has a theme-and-variation structure: In each case, something unusual happens—here it’s the appearance, followed by the poignant death, of a 13-year-old would-be client—that breaks the glorious routine that Wolfe and Goodwin have built around themselves.) In any event, Armchair Reviewer rightly notes “an abrupt style change” that occurs in the back half of the story, “when Goodwin and his cohorts use physical pressure … to get some suspects to talk.” Like Armchair Reviewer and a couple of commenters at the site, I found this intrusion of hardboiled writing to be dull and off-putting. But Stout recovers from that lapse in quality to deliver a sound finish.]

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2019 in American, Novel

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Lady in the Lake (1943).

The search for a perfume executive’s missing wife takes Philip Marlowe away from his normal stomping ground in either seedy Hollywood or corrupt Bay City (Chandler’s stand-in for the corrupt Santa Monica of his time). The change of scene, though only temporary, does him good. As his Chrysler ascends the mountain roads that lead him north of Los Angeles and toward the lake cabin where the missing women was last seen, Marlowe feels his spirit lift as well. At one point, he stops at a rundown outpost and says, “It felt like paradise.” LadyLake.jpg This moment of unaccustomed exuberance doesn’t last: At the lake, he happens upon a dead body, and that discovery leads him inexorably back to the big, bad city. But the literally breath-taking effect of his alpine idyll lingers. Despite its improbable, cantilevered plot, the story seems subdued—relaxed, even. Similes and other narrative contrivances fly with less abandon here than in previous Marlowe tales, and both the detective and his creator display a greater-than-usual mastery of situation as they move from one burnt-out soul to another, and from one violent encounter to the next. A well-done puzzle and a sprinkling of references to the world war that is unfolding in the background heighten the book’s appeal.

[ADDENDUM: Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor identified this work as “Chandler’s masterpiece” and selected it for their “Fifty Classics of Crime 1900–1950series. They also labeled it an instance of “true detection” and argued that “Marlowe makes a greater use of physical clues and ratiocination in this exploit than in any other.” That lofty assessment aligns with my memory of The Lady in the Lake. (It’s a somewhat dim memory, to be sure: I read the book and jotted this brief review several years ago.) So I was intrigued to note that one Chandler enthusiast—Stephen Mertz, writing in The Mystery Fancier back in 1979—panned the novel in fairly blunt terms. “[F]or the most part the verve and spark of Chandler’s best work are sadly lacking,” Mertz wrote. He added: “The plotting, never Chandler’s strong point, is slipshod. … The solution itself makes not an iota of sense, raising far more questions than it answers.”

Perhaps these clashing views are not, ultimately, in contradiction. What Mertz disliked about the tale seems to match what Barzun and Taylor liked about it—namely, its use of structural elements that depart from the standard approach to plotting hardboiled private-eye stories. Michael Grost notes that The Lady in the Lake, “find[s] Chandler in Golden Age, puzzle plot territory, unraveling an intricately conceived, ingenious crime” that recalls the criminal schemes found in the work of Freeman Wills Crofts. (In his landmark essayThe Simple Art of Murder,Chandler called Crofts “the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy.”) Grost, after criticizing the way that Chandler managed the book’s puzzle plot, suggests that the author “showed a good deal of entertaining ingenuity in the attempt” and praises him for “working a vein different from much of his regular style.”]

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2019 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

HELEN McCLOY. Do Not Disturb (1943).

For her first novel that doesn’t feature the series detective Basil Willing, McCloy relies heavily on tropes used in various movie thrillers of the prewar and wartime eras. It recalls, in particular, the ur-plot of several Alfred Hitchcock films: An innocent hero, whom fateful circumstances have cast in the role of a guilty fugitive, scurries across urban and pastoral landscapes as unfamiliar threats lurk around every apparently familiar corner. Do Not Disturb also calls to mind the work of Cornell Woolrich, along with the cycle of noir-inflected novels and films that followed the angst-filled trail that Woolrich blazed. These works conjure up a world marked by freakish coincidences (or, rather, by events that seem to be coincidental). DoNotDisturb.jpg They reflect a vision of modern life in which a faceless crowd can suddenly become a swarm of people who are all “out to get you”—“you,” in this case, being a beleaguered protagonist who stands in for the everyman (or every-woman) reader.

Narrated in the cultivated but slightly neurotic voice of its heroine, a divorcée named Edith Talbot, this standalone tale begins with Talbot’s desperate nighttime search for lodging in a Manhattan where the U.S. Army has commandeered many of the local hotels for the quartering of troops. That opening sequence sets the tone for a story in which the war-skewed city becomes a strange and menacing place—a place where nothing is predictable and no one is worthy of trust. At the Hotel Majestic, where she eventually lands a room, Talbot encounters circumstances that most certainly do disturb her: She hears a man crying in the room next to hers. She meets a man in that room who identifies himself as a member of New York’s Finest. She comes back to her own room one night and stumbles upon a corpse. This sequence of inhospitable occurrences leads her to flee the hotel. But where can she go? She dare not go to the police, because the cop whom she met next-door appeared to be giving the “third degree” to the very man who later turned up dead in her room. Her frantic quest for both truth and safety propels her to rural Pennsylvania and then back to the urban jungle and finally to a (literal) cliffhanger scene in which she confronts the main villain, a fascist sympathizer whose motive for various crimes gives this thriller a contemporary political twist.

McCloy brings her usual verve to this topsy-turvy adventure, but ultimately it isn’t the kind of story that suits her talents or her sensibility. Like Willing, she possesses a confidently rational mind; she lacks the paranoid spirit that enables a writer like Woolrich to create a febrile, dreamlike atmosphere in which improbable events take on an air of inevitability. A later novel by McCloy that centers on a fearful, besieged heroine—Through a Glass, Darkly (1950)—unfolds more convincingly, partly because of Willing’s calm presence and partly because it doesn’t rely on first-person narration. McCloy has clearly put much of herself in Talbot. Both women are well bred and well educated, and each of them occupies a social position in the upper reaches of the American class system. But in reading Talbot’s account of her ordeal, one can’t shake the sense that her creator would never deign to get caught in such a predicament.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2019 in American, Noir, Novel

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The French Powder Mystery (1930).

As a straight-up intellectual puzzler, this sophomore effort by Queen is highly satisfying. Start with the discovery of the body, which occurs in front of a crowd of passers-by who have stopped to view an exhibition of modern furniture in a display window at French’s, a Fifth Avenue department store. FrenchPowder.jpg A demonstrator presses a button to open an automated bed, and out topples the corpse of Winifred French, wife of the store’s owner. Why, asks Ellery Queen, the foppish but brilliant son of Inspector Richard Queen, would a murderer leave his or her victim in such unlikely place? Proceed now to the investigation that follows, an elaborate sequence of crime reconstruction, alibi deconstruction, and over-the-top theory construction in which Ellery talks and talks, and then thinks, and then twirls his pince-nez, and then talks some more. The talking and the pince-nez twirling date the novel badly, and will annoy many readers today, yet behind all of the stagy chatter is a driving sense of logical momentum that feels fresh and energetic. Lastly, join Ellery for a gather-everyone-together scene in which he lays out (literally) a broad array of vintage clues—from monogrammed keys and lipstick cases to playing cards and custom-made cigarettes, from a missing razor blade to a pair of onyx bookends—and stacks them (figuratively) into a perfect edifice of reason. All the same, while Queen (the author) orchestrates physical and circumstantial data with a masterly hand, he is laughably maladroit in his treatment of human material. He pulls off a neat trick by withholding the culprit’s name until the final two words of the book, but he never gets around to making readers care about why Mrs. French lived or died.

[ADDENDUM: Despite the negative note on which I ended this review, The French Powder Mystery occupies a warm spot in my critical heart. It’s the first Queen novel that I read, and perhaps the first classic detective novel not written by Agatha Christie that I encountered. And it blew my tender teenage mind. (To be sure, my young mind was nimble and capacious enough to get blown several times during my initial explorations of the genre.) The very contrivances that I now frown upon or smile at—the pasteboard characters, the arch theatricality of the crime scene, the obsessive dissection of a few physical clues, the gimmick ending—were crucial in enlarging my perspective on what a mystery tale could be.]

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2019 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle