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Category Archives: American

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

 

JONATHAN CRAIG. The Dead Darling (1955).

“This case is beginning to get to me. We’ve got more suspects than we can keep track of, and nothing solid on a single one of them. And no real clues, either. All we really know for sure is that Jean Proctor is dead.” So says Stan Rayder, a police detective who works out of the 6th Precinct in New York City, to his partner, Pete Selby. Exhausting one half-promising lead after another, Rayder and Selby (who narrates the novel and also takes a lead role in it) retrace the steps that marked the dead woman’s trouble-strewn path. Jean Proctor had been a wayward soul of just 19 years, tragically housed in a beautiful body that (as Selby and others note repeatedly) had undergone a decade’s worth of hard, big-city experience in a very short time. DeadDarling.jpg Her path starts uptown, where she had been the unhappy daughter of an Upper West Side family, and it ends downtown, where she had become an unhappy denizen of the Greenwich Village Bohemian scene. She had fled her puritanical father a couple of years earlier, and since then she had done what young women like her often do in the Village: a little modeling, a little sugar-daddy action. Along the way, there was a brief, ill-conceived marriage to a guy who’s now a Bowery bum. One morning, a former roommate named Norma Johnson goes to Proctor’s apartment and discovers her lifeless body. It’s an apparent suicide; she’s found with her head in an oven. But, quickly enough, Rayder and Selby establish that someone killed her with a blunt instrument before faking the suicide. In the time-honored way, they proceed to interview the people in her life—the married businessmen who knew her as a good-time gal, the lesbian painter who wanted to know her better, the reefer-fueled jazzman who saw another side of her. The cops investigate their way into a corner (“no real clues”) and then make their way out of it, and the case comes to a satisfying and reasonably clever finish.

The Dead Darling, the inaugural work in what became known as the 6th Precinct series, is contemporaneous with the launch of the far better-known 87th Precinct series, authored by Ed McBain. (This book, in fact, came out before the first McBain title.) The two series have a lot in common: a commitment to urban realism, a knack for finding poetry within the confines of the procedural, a vision of the big-city cop as a fellow who is two parts working stiff and one part village priest. McBain, with his ability to sustain a multi-decade saga and to manage a complex ensemble cast, was Craig’s superior as a storyteller. Yet one weak point of McBain’s otherwise massive achievement involves the decision to situate his fictional police squad in a fictional city. Steve Carella and the other boys of the 87th seem pressingly real, but that’s not true of Isola, the notional metropolis where they work. By contrast, the Manhattan on whose streets Selby and Rayder wear out their shoe leather has exactly the kind of presence—the kind of felt substantiality—that Isola keenly lacks.

[ADDENDUM: Information about Jonathan Craig or the 6th Precinct series is hard to come by. The standard reference works on the genre that I own are mostly silent about both the author and his work, and the Web also appears to include few links to meaningful data on either score. Even the fairly exhaustive directory of sleuths at the Thrilling Detective Web site lacks an entry on Selby or on the 6th Precinct. The English version of Wikipedia has no entry on Craig (although, curiously, the French Wikipedia site does have one). But John at the Pretty Sinister site has mounted a worthy effort to preserve the memory of Craig’s achievement and it is to John’s posts about the 6th Precinct tales—including his review of Dead Darling—that I owe my discovery the series. Thank, John!]

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

HAROLD ADAMS. The Man Who Was Taller Than God (1992).

ManTallerGOd.jpgCarl Wilcox, an itinerant man-of-all-work and an occasional sleuth, is not so much hard-boiled as he is parched and withered. He’s been worn down by the elements—sun and wind, lust and greed—that dominate the Depression-era South Dakota landscape in which he operates. To be sure, he retains a modicum of spirit, and it’s most evident when he’s flirting with the many lonely and attractive women who cross his path. Yet over everything that he does or says (Wilcox narrates his own adventures), there hangs an air of rueful impoverishment. Like his urban private-eye counterparts, like Spade and Marlowe and the rest, he has turned detached alienation into both an ethic and a style; unlike them, he can’t draw on the frenzied energies of a big-city environment to compensate for the bleakness in his soul. Called upon to solve the murder of a womanizing insurance salesman, Wilcox undertakes the task with little sense of urgency, and indeed with little sense of interest. It’s just another job to him, like the sign-painting gig that brought him to town in the first place. He works the case in the way of private investigators everywhere, by knocking on doors and riling people up, and in time the truth spills out. That revelation seems overly complex, given the rather minimalist quality of the narrative that precedes it, and Adams does too little too prepare readers for it. Still, it’s a conclusion that well suits the all-embracing drought of Wilcox’s time and place—a drought that was, according to Adams, spiritual as well as meteorological.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. Red Harvest (1929).

Hammett, according to Raymond Chandler, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” At a time when detective fiction was replete with high-society types who concocted elaborate killings and did so for obscure or highly contrived motives, Hammett introduced readers to thugs like Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Reno Starkey, and Max “Whisper” Thaler. RedHarvest.jpgThese crooks are professionals, with appropriately professional motivations to kill, and they form part of the murderer’s row that the nameless hero of this novel must confront as he strives to clean up the dirty streets of Personville, a midsized mining town in the Mountain West. It’s a relentlessly corrupt town—locals and outsiders alike call it Poisonville—and the task of defeating its many bad guys requires a deep reserve of moxie more than it does a refined intelligence. “Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to do it,” the Continental Op explains to one of the colorfully named thugs. (Nowhere in this book does the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator, refer to himself as the Contintental Op. But he’s an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, so that’s how he’s come to be known.) As Hammett’s title foretells, the “harvest” that the Op carries out assumes a grimly sanguinary hue. By the Op’s own tally, there are 19 murders that take place between the opening and the closing of this case. Indeed, he commits a few of them himself, and he does it for a reason: As he says, it’s his job.

In that way, Red Harvest differs fundamentally from a standard mystery tale. Far from chronicling the orderly pursuit of truth and justice by a sleuth who embodies the power of human reason, this début novel depicts a random and cruel world in which circumstances can push even the otherwise noble Op to become (in his words) “blood-simple.” Where order does exist, as in the bureaucratic regimen followed by the Old Man, who runs the Continental office back in San Francisco, that mode of order bears no relation to the real business of fighting crime. When bullets are flying and bodies are falling, the Old Man’s expectation that the Op will file regular reports on his activity in Personville carries a whiff of the absurd. For the Op, detection is chiefly a matter of disruption. “Plans are all right sometimes,” he says to Dinah Brand, the femme fatale in this proto-noir effort. (With her, as with the menfolk of Poisonville, the Op follows a cagy, keep-your-enemies-close strategy.) “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes out on top.”

Even as Hammett charts new fictional terrain with this book, he also annexes features from established genres. He updates the classic western saga, for example: The Op acts the part of an outsider who brings the law to a far-flung outpost where ruffians had previously held sway. RedHarvest2.jpg He contends with bootleggers rather than cattle rustlers, and he relies on a flivver instead of a horse to get from place to place; nonetheless, his every move reflects the spirit of frontier justice. Traces of the classic mystery form are evident here as well. Despite his commitment to hard-boiled naturalism, Hammett displays a penchant for abrupt plot twists that reveal unlikely suspects to be surprise killers. Red Harvest originally appeared as a four-part serial in Black Mask magazine, and several times—at what would have been a climactic moment in one of those four segments—the Op manages to pull a trick rabbit out of his snap-brim hat. In each case, the guilty party has committed murder “for a reason,” but that reason isn’t what readers are inclined to expect. With sleight-of-hand plotting of that sort, Hammett pays homage to the very tradition of classic detection that he aims to transcend.

What results is partly a tale of (new) Old West derring-do, partly a clue-laden puzzle story, and partly a study in modern existential sensibility. It is, in addition, a feat of true literary art.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2014 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle