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Category Archives: American

ISAAC ASIMOV. The Naked Sun (1957).

A defining quality of good fiction, and especially good science fiction, is that it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Detective fiction goes a bit further by seeking to make significant that which is (seemingly) ordinary and to make clear that which is (temporarily) opaque. Asimov, in this sequel to another futuristic detective novel (Caves of Steel), expertly combines those feats of literary alchemy into a lively, thought-provoking entertainment.

NakedSun1Many centuries hence, a murder occurs on the Outer Worlds planet of Solaria, where crime is practically nonexistent—and so is any kind of police force. Peculiar facts about the killing raise the need for a serious inquiry. Whoever killed Rikaine Delmarre bludgeoned him at close range, but no weapon turned up in the initial search of the crime scene. Evidence supplied by robots establishes that the only other human near that scene was the victim’s wife, Gladia, yet she fell unconscious around the time of the murder and had no chance to dispose of a weapon. Faced with this quandary, the Solarian powers-that-be deign to invite a mere Earthman to work the case on their behalf. Elijah Baley, a “plainclothesman” from New York City, thus finds himself traveling millions of miles to a planet known for its “naked sun.” (In the Earth of this imagined future, people live in subterranean “caves of steel” and have no direct experience of the star that lights their galaxy.) There, Baley reunites with Daneel Olivaw, a “positronic” robot who served as his sidekick in the previous adventure. Soon after Baley and Olivaw begin their probe, someone attempts a second murder. As the two detectives communicate via holographic projection with Hannis Gruer, the planet’s head of security, they watch him suddenly lurch into convulsions after sipping from a glass of water. Clearly, the glass contains poison. But who could have administered it, and how? Like other Solarians, Gruer lives alone on a vast estate; only his robots are able to come anywhere near him, and robots are hard-wired to avoid causing harm to their human masters.

To read this book during the 2020–2021 pandemic is to experience a shock of recognition—a glimpse of the present as foreshadowed by a decades-old vision of the future. The people of Solaria, like those of plague-scarred Earth in the time of Covid-19, interact with other humans almost entirely by remote means. Asimov posits a technology that enables what Solarians call “viewing,” and his descriptions of that practice suggest a three-dimensional version of the screen-mediated forms of engagement (Zoom meetings and the like) on which people today increasingly depend. Solarians, who descend from human Earthlings, differ from present-day humans in that they prefer viewing to its in-person alternative, which they call “seeing.” In effect, Solarians have replaced the need for human contact with a reliance on legions of supremely advanced robots. That feature rings a contemporary bell, too. Denizens of Earth do not have high-functioning anthropomorphic machines to assist them during long months of pandemic isolation. But, like their counterparts on Solaria, they struggle to understand and manage the devices (smart and not-so-smart) that they have made.

The peculiar conditions of Solaria are a critical factor in the crimes of apparent impossibility that Baley must solve. These puzzles, in fact, are keenly satisfying because they arise from—and hinge on—those very conditions. Each actual or attempted murder appears to lie outside the realm of the possible because (and only because) it takes place amid a cluster of social customs and logistical circumstances that are unique to the world that Asimov has constructed. For example, the visceral aversion that Solarians (most of them, anyway) have to sharing physical space with other humans creates a situation in which the killing of Delmarre and the attack on Gruer seem to defy explanation. Likewise, the Three Laws of Robotics, which are part of a system that Asimov has built into this world, set precise limits on the kinds of violence that robots can either perpetrate or allow to happen in their vicinity. To crack the mysteries at hand, Baley must tease apart the implications of these and other features of Solarian civilization.

Asimov manages the mystery plot with high professionalism, and he deals competently with adult themes that involve matters of human intimacy to human destiny. Even so, Naked Sun displays traces of a juvenile sensibility that was fairly common in mid-20th-century science-fiction writing. NakedSun2Too often, a gee-whiz tone overtakes Asimov’s otherwise serviceable prose, and his lead character, Baley, comes across as an earnest, boringly upright fellow—less as an heir to Philip Marlowe than as a law-enforcement version of Buck Rogers. In addition, there is a subplot that concerns the threat of intergalactic war, and although Asimov handles that story line with some complexity, its presence here brings a pulpy space-opera element into what should be (and mostly is) a tightly focused tale of investigation and discovery.

Like the best science fiction of its era, the novel also explores big ideas in a big, none-too subtle way. As the tale unfolds, Asimov presents a series of conversations between the Earthman sleuth and several of the Solarian suspects, including a sociologist, a roboticist, and the erstwhile assistant of the first victim, who had been the planet’s foremost “fetal engineer.” These conversations teem with anxious speculations about parenthood and family life, about population growth and the fate of nations (or, indeed, of entire planets), about humanoid machines and the humans who create them—preoccupations that were bubbling just under the surface of American culture during the 1950s. To reach Solaria, Baley spans many lightyears in a space capsule. Asimov, meanwhile, brings something else back from his fictive journey: a time capsule.

[ADDENDUM: A recent column in The New York Times by Paul Krugman spurred me to read this book at this time. Krugman flags the somewhat uncanny way that Asimov prefigured life under semi-lockdown. Naked Sun features “a society in which people live on isolated estates, their needs provided by robots and they interact only by video,” the columnist writes. “The plot hinges on the way this lack of face-to-face contact stunts and warps their personalities.”

So my review here steals just a bit from Krugman. It also steals a bit from myself. Looking back at my piece on the prequel book, Caves of Steel, I see that that I’ve touched on some of the same themes again—the science-fiction-as-time-capsule idea, the motif of using futuristic conditions (such as “laws” that govern robot behavior) to drive an impossible-crime plot. So I’m less original in this instance than I could be. Then again, the same is true of Asimov.]

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2021 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

HELEN McCLOY. Alias Basil Willing (1951).

A case of imposture swiftly becomes a case of murder for the eponymous hero of this mid-career novel of not-quite-middling quality. Early one evening, Dr. Basil Willing overhears his name being used by a nondescript little man who is hiring a taxi near Willing’s home on the East Side of Manhattan. Willing hires his own taxi and follows the man to a house on West 11th Street where a dinner party is under way. Playing host is one Dr. Zimmer, a psychiatrist, and the guests includes several of his patients. One odd circumstance leads to another, and before the night is out Willing has a new murder to solve. Another killing occurs soon afterward, and in both cases the victim had attended the Zimmer party and had died of a codeine overdose. AliasBasilWillingAs is typical of McCloy’s work, the list of suspects draws heavily from the cultured and monied ranks of New York society, and Willing’s investigation consists largely of observing and interviewing these characters in their native habitats.

In broad outline, the Willing series appears to fall in the same tradition of American crime writing that includes the work of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen. Stories in this British-inflected tradition feature a genteel sleuth who functions as an amateur, even if (as in Willing’s case) he enjoys an official connection to the police; a murder, or maybe a pair of murders, that seem essentially bloodless; and a closed circle of suspects who mostly hail from the upper reaches of a class hierarchy. Yet McCloy’s attitude toward her material echoes the sensibility of a different American tradition: Like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others who write in a hardboiled vein, McCloy casts an icy-cold eye on the mid-century American scene. (Perhaps not coincidentally, McCloy at the time of writing this tale was married to Davis Dresser, who spun yarns about the hard-driving private eye Michael Shayne under the name Brett Halliday.) A highlight of this book is a suite of corrosive pen portraits that introduce readers to Dr. Zimmer’s guests. There is Rosamund Yorke, a vain socialite married to an aging nightclub owner. There is Brinsley Shaw, the cowardly and craven nephew of a wealthy widow. And so on. Similarly, the plot here is replete with signs of social and spiritual corruption—from Zimmer’s practice of gestalt psychotherapy, which McCloy presents as a vaguely fraudulent operation, to the booze-drenched milieu of a suburban country club.

The resolution of this plot combines conventional fair-play aspects—aspects that a reader might divine from clues honestly presented and cleverly concealed—with elements that no reader could deduce from the events that McCloy narrates. (One such element hinges on an obscure literary reference that Willing happens to know. He mentions the work in question, but no ordinary reader will recognize its significance.) When the final twist arrives, it has a freakish quality that renders it mildly shocking, rather than genuinely (or ingeniously) surprising, and the novel ends up resembling a pulpy thriller more than it does a drawing-room puzzler. As a consequence, Alias Basil Willing fails to meet the high standard of fictional detection that its namesake established in his previous adventures.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2021 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Dain Curse (1929).

Of Hammett’s five novels, this one has long had the lowest reputation—certainly in the view of the author himself, and by a fairly wide margin among most critics who celebrate his literary achievement overall. Yet the book, which Hammett churned out quickly and as a matter of financial exigency, offers plenty of vintage pulpy charm. More important, it stands as the ur-text for a prominent subgenre of detective fiction.

The story begins modestly, as if it came from one of the more desiccated leaves of a private eye’s casebook. Then it spirals manically into a strange, labyrinthine affair. The Continental Op, working on behalf of a jeweler’s insurance company, visits the San Francisco home of an inventor named Edgar Leggett. Some diamonds in Leggett’s possession have gone missing, and the Op starts chatting up people in the Leggett milieu who might know something about the whereabouts of those gems. The household includes the inventor’s wife, Alice, and his daughter, Gabrielle, and associates of the family include Eric Collinson, a suitor of Gabrielle, and Owen Fitzstephan, a writer who happens to know both the Leggett paterfamilias and the Op. A bit of poking around reveals to the Op that the apparent jewel theft is merely the tip of a highly toxic iceberg. The focus of investigative activity extends from the Leggett home to the Temple of the Holy Grail, the site of a sham religion that has drawn Gabrielle into its orbit, and then to an oceanside town called Quesada, where Gabrielle lands after a series of family tragedies. DainCurseMany corpses accumulate along the way, and the only factor that appears to link these deaths is Gabrielle. A possible explanation for all of this violence—though not one that the Op accepts—is a curse that supposedly afflicts the Dain family, from which Gabrielle and her mother descend.

Undergirding the novel is a narrative template that has more solidity than the looping (and sometimes loopy) contours of the case at hand. It’s a template that Raymond Chandler would use in part and on occasion, that Ross Macdonald would use in full and repeatedly, and that other practitioners of the California school of private eye writing would use as a birthright. Although the main venue for tales of this kind would shift from the northern part of the Golden State to the southern part, the defining elements of the template have been roughly constant: A private agent, initially brought in to resolve a fairly routine matter, becomes enmeshed in the coils of a dysfunctional family with a hidden, horrible past. His job (this detective is almost always a man) ends up requiring him to trace the accursed lineage of that family, and a question that frequently hangs over his work is whether the sins of self-indulgent parents will be visited upon their children. Common symptoms of family disarray include drug addiction, deviant sexuality, and participation in a pseudo-religious cult. (Such cults, of course, are known to find ample recruits among California’s insecurely rooted population.) In sorting through these pathologies, the detective functions less as an investigator than as a therapist; the true object of his quest is not truth or even justice, but social reparation and psychic absolution.

In a story of this type, much depends on the inclusion of a detective hero who can support the weight of a melodramatic and emotionally laden plot. The Op, a journeyman operative with the Continental Detective Agency who also appeared in Red Harvest and dozens of short works, meets that difficult test. His lack of a name in no way lessens the sense of presence that he confers on the Leggett affair—both as a professional sleuth and as the narrator of record. Indeed, the Op’s blunt, just-the-facts persona serves as an effective counterpoint to the bizarre, over-the-top sequence of events that he describes. His jaded response to the often ridiculous particulars of the case goes far in helping maintain the reader’s willing (and sometimes merely grudging) suspension of disbelief. What’s more, the Op gets a chance to display a softer, more human aspect of his hardboiled sensibility when he pauses his investigation to rescue one character from a dire personal fate. The temporary shift in his role from crimefighter to caretaker marks a surprising turn that works surprisingly well.

But the whole thing goes awry in the closing chapters, when the time comes for the Op to reveal and explain who did the murders, and how, and why. Uncharacteristically, Hammett handles this moment in a hectic and compressed manner, thus draining the denouement of both clarity and impact. This failing is all the more lamentable because Hammett manages the runup to the end quite deftly, and because he has engineered a grand twist that should carry a real wallop. Perhaps, in opting to explore the compassionate side of his knightly hero, the author had lost interest in the side of his hero that involves solving riddles and slaying dragons.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2020 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

DOROTHY B. HUGHES. The So Blue Marble (1940).

SoBlueMarble1The Montefierrow twins, the villains who drive this very offbeat début novel, appear to hail from the darker reaches of our collective unconscious. With their matching tophat-and-tails apparel, their walking sticks that contain concealed weapons, and their monogrammed (and narcotically infused) cigarettes—above all, with their preternatural air of self-possession—they embody a dream logic. Floating through an otherwise realistic Manhattan cityscape, they come across less as characters in the usual sense than as fragments of a nightmare. From the novel’s first scene, they cast a haunting pall over the heroine, Griselda Satterlee, and in doing so they push the tale halfway into the horror genre. In its overall structure, however, The So Blue Marble unfolds as an early example of the mid-century noir thriller. It’s a cat-and-mouse tale in which Griselda, a former movie actress who now works as a fashion designer, plays a reasonably sympathetic “mouse” to the twins’ demonic “cat.”

Aside from their bizarre accoutrements, the Montefierrows’ most distinguishing features are their astounding looks and charm, their apparently limitless wealth (which bestows an aura of impunity on them), and their homicidal zeal to possess a certain blue marble, which they believe Griselda either has or knows how to find. That eponymous bauble—a thing not only of great beauty and great value, but also of supposedly occult power—serves as the novel’s MacGuffin. It has a blood-soaked back-story that recalls the one that Dashiell Hammett gave to the Maltese falcon in his novel of that name, but Hughes handles this motif less deftly than Hammett did. Other parties are chasing after the marble, and among them is a government entity called X, staffed by so-called X-men and led by a quasi-mythic figure named Barjon Garth. It’s an outlandish plot element, worthy of a comic book. Equally outlandish is a string of murders that seem to attach as much to Griselda as they do to the marble; she isn’t responsible for them, but they are part of the phantasmagoria that surrounds her.

Even as the tale draws on the surreal logic of dreams, it also follows a movie logic: Hughes peoples it with vain Hollywood stars, wisecracking reporters, high-strung High Society women (including Griselda’s sisters, Ann and Missy), and dashing bachelors (including Con Satterlee, Griselda’s former husband, and “Gig” Gigland, a Columbia University professor). SoBlueMarble2In various combinations, these characters race across city streets—and back and forth to a small upstate town—in vivid, cinematically paced scenes. An actual movie adaptation, in fact, might have improved the story by wresting Hughes’ plot into a tighter, more conventional shape.

A couple of minor surprises enliven the final stretch of the novel, but ultimately it is not a work of mystery, and even its capacity for eliciting suspense—that sense of needing to know, and yet fearing, what will happen next—is fairly weak. The fantasy-like strain that runs through the piece makes it hard to believe, or care much about, Griselda’s predicament. Will the heroine elude the twins’ vendetta against anyone who might thwart their quest for the marble? Will she find not just safety but also love amid the human wreckage that ensues from their evil project? Hughes, although she displays a high level of literary craft for a first-time novelist, provides answers to those questions that are neither surprising nor compelling.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel

 

JOHN DICKSON CARR. Poison in Jest (1932).

“I could see another of those scenes brewing, as usual in this topsy-turvy house,” writes Jeff Marle, a young author who serves as Carr’s not-even-thinly-disguised alter ego. That line comes late in the grim affair that Marle narrates here, and it neatly conveys the defining mood of the novel. The house in question, owned by a crusty patriarch named Judge Quayle, lies forlornly amid what Marle describes as “the mountains of western Pennsylvania, blue as Vesuvius.” Carr (in Marle’s voice) paints this dreary landscape in darting, perfectly applied strokes. From the start, when Marle pays a call on the judge, the reader can practically feel and taste the soot-laden wind that seeps through the ancient walls of the Quayle homestead. Carr grew up in this part of the world, and that experience partly accounts for his flair in writing about it. But another source of inspiration may be the evocative rendition of Pennsylvania coal country that Arthur Conan Doyle delivers in The Valley of Fear, the last Sherlock Holmes novel. Given Carr’s high admiration for Doyle, it wouldn’t be surprising if that tale—in particular, the slice of dark Americana that takes up its latter half—influenced Carr in this way.

PoisonJestApart from a prologue and an epilogue, all of the action in Poison in Jest occurs at the Quayle house or on its grounds. Marle is visiting the Quayles after a decade of traveling in Europe, and he soon finds that he has ventured into a classic viper’s nest, a household in which several members could become—and do become—the object of a killer’s wrath. Denizens of the house include Judge Quayle, his bedridden wife, and four of their five adult children. The fifth offspring, a hot-tempered fellow named Tom, had fled the house a few years previously. Also resident in the home is Walter Twills, the husband of Clarissa (née Quayle) and a man of independent means. Those means, in fact, are keeping the Quayle ménage financially afloat, and a covetous attitude toward the Twills fortune appears to drive a series of poisonings that take place on the night of Marle’s visit. Not all of these homicidal efforts hit their target, but one of them does, and more violence happens in its wake. Moment by moment, the novel comes to resemble the house: It’s a closed, tension-wrought space in which an aura of dread steadily washes over a backdrop of homey comfort.

Within Carr’s body of work, this entry occupies a transitional spot. It sits chronologically—and, to some degree, tonally—between the sequence of novels about Henri Bencolin that launched his career and the pair of long series about Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale that he would inaugurate over the next two years. The horror-tinged ambience that looms over Bencolin and his world is also present at the Quayle manse, albeit in a less Grand Guignol form. (The shift to Carr’s native ground seems to elicit a more naturalistic style from Marle, who narrated the Bencolin adventures as well.) The star sleuth in this one-off tale, meanwhile, is a dashing but absent-minded Brit named Patrick Rossiter. He arrives late to the proceedings and, perhaps for that reason, makes a relatively shallow impression. Rossiter foreshadows both the down-to-earth bonhomie of Fell and the crazy-like-a-fox antics of Merrivale, yet the elements of his persona don’t come together nearly as smoothly as the pieces of the puzzle that he solves. He amounts to an amusing but failed experiment, a literary road that Carr shrewdly did not take.

The plot also marks a hiatus between one phase of Carr’s career and the next. More so than the Bencolin tales, or than most of the Fell and Merrivale tales, this book unfolds as a straight whodunit: Its chief mysteries revolve around locked hearts, not locked rooms—around impossible-to-contain hatreds, not impossible-to-commit deeds. In a subplot that concerns a “phantom” hand that haunts Judge Quayle, Carr offers a bit of medium-grade jiggery-pokery (as he would call it on other occasions). Otherwise, though, the trickery that he employs is the kind of thing that Agatha Christie would have proudly used. Viewed in that context, the novel counts as a sound piece of work. Some of the clueing hangs by rather tenuous threads. But it all does hang together, and the main feats of misdirection are well and fairly done.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2020 in American, British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965).

Just a few flaws mar this generally appealing late work in the fabled series about mystery writer and occasional amateur sleuth Ellery Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD homicide squad. Because the plot has a scale not much larger than that of a novella, the book—though relatively short (it numbers 185 pages in one paperback edition)—includes a fair amount of padding. There are two murder trial sequences, and they both drag beyond the point of their narrative purpose. Some of the surplus text, moreover, takes the form of schmaltzy patter about American life in the mid-1960s (Did you know that television is a font on silliness?), and about New York City life in particular. The sketches of contemporary Gotham read like a bid to recapture the magic that Queen achieved with his bravura rendering of the city in Cat of Many Tails. But they fall shy of matching that high standard.

Also somewhat flawed is the novel’s rigidly stylized setup. As the title suggests, The Fourth Side of the Triangle displays all of the artifice (and artificiality) of a geometry problem. The case revolves almost entirely around four characters and one Park Avenue apartment building. Ashton McKell, a titan of industry, and his wife, Lutetia, both hail from old Knickerbocker families and embody old New York money. Their lone heir, a son named Dane, has plenty of his own money and uses it to fund a middling career as a novelist. The fourth participant in what turns out to be a dark family romance is Sheila Grey, a fashion designer who lives upstairs from Ashton and Lutetia. FourthSideGrey, a thoroughly modern woman with an air of mystery about her, beguiles both McKell men and puts herself in competition with the McKell matriarch. So, when this “other woman” succumbs to a gunshot in her penthouse apartment, the obvious suspects in her murder are a quick elevator ride away. The story relies on strong passions—or at least the idea of strong passions—to yield potential motives for the killing. Yet its main characters (and its minor ones, too) exist only in two dimensions; they are, in essence, simple shapes that happen to intersect on a plane.

What’s appealing about the novel, though, are the clever variations that Queen makes to some classic Queenian maneuvers. (“Queen” here refers to an arrangement in which Avram Davidson ghost-wrote the book from an outline provided by Frederic Dannay.) First, the artificiality of the plot has an upside as well as a downside. By deploying a narrow cast of characters and by keeping a tight focus on what happens in or around Grey’s apartment on the night of the murder, Queen creates a chamber piece that unfolds with an engaging point-counterpoint rhythm. That piece offers only a faint echo of the baroque patterns of intrigue that characterize early masterpieces like The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Tragedy of Y. Still, it works well as a streamlined update of the formal deductive problem that had long been a Queen trademark.

Second, the author delivers a twist on the dying-message trope that recurs throughout the Queen corpus. Typically, such messages involve a quick, spasmodic gesture by a victim during his or her last seconds of life. In this instance, Grey takes several minutes to craft a letter to the police (“To be opened only in the event I die of unnatural causes,” she writes), and does so before the killer strikes. The letter becomes a critical piece of the plot machinery, but its ultimate import hinges less on what it says than on how certain parties respond to it.

And third, like several of its precursors, the novel features a set of multiple solutions that nest into each other in Russian-doll fashion. Agents of the law purport to solve the case by targeting each “side” of the McKell “triangle,” and their efforts go awry each time. Eventually, Ellery presents a solution that proves to be false as well, and the revelation of his error sends him into a bout of crushing self-recrimination. “Ellery had been through many ratiocinative crises in his life, but it was doubtful if any hit him as hard as” this one, Queen writes. Throughout the affair, Ellery performs his usual share of masterful sleuthing work. But he also shows that even genius amateurs are fallible, and his stumbles give Inspector Queen—that consummate professional—a chance to shine.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2020 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

GORE VIDAL. Thieves Fall Out (1953).

Vidal, writing under the name Cameron Kay (and doing so in the same period when he was turning out detective tales under the name Edgar Box), delivers an expertly sewn patchwork of mid-century pop-thriller tropes. Indeed, the narrative clichés on display here were already well worn by the time Vidal tried them on for size—and, one gathers, for profit. Apparent influences include every story (The Prisoner of Zenda, for example) in which a young hero gets caught up in the royal machinations of an exotic foreign country; every story (The Mummy, for example) in which the invasion of an Egyptian tomb unleashes a deadly curse; and every story (Hitchcock’s Notorious, for example) in which a woman of dubious loyalty becomes the focus of both romance and espionage. Above all, this tale of schemes and counterschemes, of love and crime in a politically fraught North African locale, owes an enormous debt to the movie Casablanca. The spirit of Rick Blaine hovers over every pivotal scene, as when one character utters this credo: “You might say that I am an adventurer corrupted by idealism.”

ThievesFallOutDespite such flashes of wit, the characters are as stock as they come. The doughty young hero is Peter Wells, an ex-soldier with a bit of experience as a wildcatting oilman. He has no distinguishing personality traits, and, when the novel begins, he has turned up in Cairo for no particular reason. In need of quick money, he ventures to Shepheard’s Hotel and chats up a central-casting British colonial type named Hastings, who in turn introduces him to the (faux) Countess Hélène de Rastignac, a woman of beguilingly indeterminate origin. During the recent war, she was a companion to a high-ranking Nazi leader. Now she and Hastings are cohorts in a sublegal business that seems to involve smuggling. Without knowing the exact nature of their enterprise, Pete agrees to take on an assignment: Accompanied by a dragoman named Osman, he will travel to Luxor to meet a certain Mr. Said, a dealer in antiquities. Said, as Pete will discover, exudes the customary amount of menace and mystery for a character of his ilk. In Cairo, Pete encounters another European expatriate—a German nightclub singer named Anna Mueller, who has a Nazi connection in her past and a connection to King Farouk of Egypt in the present. Pete falls hard for Anna, and his desire to settle down with her back in the States bolsters his eagerness to make it home alive. Before he can do so, he will need to tangle with other rough characters, including a wily, corrupt policeman named Muhammad Ali and a wily, corrupt bar owner named La Mouche.

The highlight of the book is Vidal’s prose, which drives a routine and predictable plot forward with welcome speed and offhand charm. Scenes of danger and violence, which most authors handle in a rote or clumsy way, are especially well done. These qualities turn an otherwise very dated yarn into a sporting romp and a quick, fun read. The trick to enjoying it is not to take it any more seriously than Vidal did.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2020 in American, Novel

 

MARGARET MILLAR. Wall of Eyes (1943).

When Millar introduces Detective-Inspector Sands of the Toronto Police Department, she notes how little about him is actually worth noting. “He had no strong sense of identity,” she writes; somewhat hyperbolically, she adds that “he lived in a vacuum.” Millar is a sly creator, however, and her creation is no less sly. As multiple suspects discover, there is far more to Sands than meets the eye. In a story that revolves around what people do or don’t see, the unobtrusive inspector sees just about everything, and he counts on others’ failing to see him in full. His very lack of definition allows him to serve a critical function for any detective hero—that of navigating the disparate sectors of a complex social landscape.

Wall of Eyes draws the strands of its plot from two very different segments of Toronto society. The main venue of action is the Heath family home, located in a part of town where old money goes to establish just how old and how moneyed it is. Denizens of the house include Kelsey Health, who is blind but has visions of unnamed people who are out to get her (she speaks of being menaced by a “wall of eyes”); Alice Heath, a tightly wound woman who is beginning to accept her impending spinsterhood; Johnny Heath, a former athlete whose youthful charm is starting to fade; and Philip James, a penniless musician who clings to his status as a family protégé. All of them live in an atmosphere of quiet gloom and steadily worsening decadence. WallEyesThe rest of the action occurs in and around a nightspot called Club Joey. Inhabitants of this locale include Mamie Rosen, a lovelorn torch singer; Tony Murillo, a small-time hoodlum who has shacked up with Rosen; Marcie Moore, a prim dancer with grand pretensions; and Stevie Jordan, a master of ceremonies who is a slave to his free-ranging fears. The mood among this crew is one of ersatz frivolity and genuine despair. The original connection point for these two realms is a car accident that occurred two years previously. Kelsey Heath and Philip James, who had become a couple, were traveling with Johnny Heath and his date, a singer at the nightclub named Geraldine Smith. Their car crashes, leaving Kelsey blind and Geraldine dead. Now, in the present, reverberations from that event lead to new anxieties—and to new spasms of violence.

The juxtaposition of these worlds, and the implication that both of them are corrupt in distinct (yet tragically complementary) ways, align this tale with the social vision around which Millar’s husband, Kenneth Millar—who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald—would famously build his cycle of hardboiled detective novels. As in Macdonald’s fictional universe, the intermingling of “high” society and it “low” counterpart operates as both a cause and an effect of spiritual malaise, and that dynamic impels certain characters to take criminally desperate measures. Indeed, hardboiled inflections are a feature in both writers’ work. Millar, because she often wrote about female protagonists and because many of her novels fall into the “domestic suspense” category, sometimes gets tagged as a “cozy” writer. But, as this early work demonstrates, she has a special talent not for giving readers a comfy feeling but for unsettling them. Again and again, Millar adopts the perspective of a given character as a means of highlighting the deceptions (of self and others) that mark the sorry, slippery nature of human life.

In blending elements that are alternately hard and soft, high and low, Millar offers a preview of more masterful work to come. The story that she tells here occasionally threatens to dissolve under the pressure of her elusive, involuted style. So subtle, so elaborate, are her renderings of various characters’ internal lives that readers are apt to lose track of the characters’ external actions. A noir-like miasma hovers over the edges of the narrative. But then, as the novel nears its finish, a twist arrives that illuminates the vital link between the milieu of the nightclub and the milieu of the Heath residence, and the tale reverts to classic detective-story form. In the aftermath of that twist, Sands explains how he elucidated the truth from a series of tangible clues—a pile of clothes borrowed from a missing man’s closet, a box of matchbooks that advertise Club Joey, a set of photographs taken after the car accident, and so forth. Like any top-grade sleuth, he is adept both at seeing what’s in front of him and at gleaning what lies beneath social appearances.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle

 

DAVID ALEXANDER. The Madhouse in Washington Square (1958).

The original hardcover edition of this book (pictured here, complete with an illustration by a commercial artist named Andy Warhol) carried the tagline “A Novel of Menace.” Yet the actual amount of menace to be found in its pages—pages that recount a series of events in and around a Greenwich Village alehouse—is small beer. There is a murder, and there is a bomb threat of sorts, and there are characters who exude a vague stench of decay, but the general mood of the tale is one of light satire and mildly dark comedy. The book’s first paperback edition, meanwhile, offers the promise of “A Mystery Novel.” Yet, although the novel contains plenty of small-bore mysteries, it lacks the kind of large-scale quandary that most whodunit readers expect when they see that tagline. The question of who killed Carley Dane hovers along the edges of the tale, but it’s a trifle in comparison with a question that clearly holds much greater interest for Alexander: MadhouseWashSq.jpeg How will Dane’s killing affect the motley denizens of the Old House, a bar on Washington Place that is known (not quite affectionately) as “the Madhouse”?

Dane, a onetime literary wunderkind whose life had gone sour, was a frequenter of the Madhouse, and he had done more than his share to spoil the lives of several fellow patrons. The hand that fatally struck him with a poker in his seedy Bleecker Street apartment could have belonged to any member of that sad, not-so-small group. In a marvelously grim set piece near the start of the novel, regulars of the Madhouse (along with a couple of newcomers) file into the bar at 8 a.m. to slake their thirst. They include Peter Dotter and Major Trevor, two stalwart conservatives who regarded Dane as a filthy communist; Helen Landers, an aging artist’s model whom Dane once abused and disfigured; Manley Ferguson, a failed painter whose wife had an affair with Dane; and Martha Appleby, a middle-aged woman who believes that Dane drove her husband to suicide. Unlike many authors who chronicled bohemian life in the late 1950s, Alexander gives short shrift to the beat generation. (In a brief scene, he lampoons a crew of young beatniks, rendering them as shallow posers—as little more than a soulless blur of peaked caps and bongo drums.) Instead, Alexander focuses on an older group of has-been and never-were types who have curated their despair over many years.

Seen for what it is—a neatly carved parable of fate, built upon a suite of vignettes drawn from one corner of big-city life—Madhouse makes for an entertaining read. Its virtues include sharp and occasionally lyric writing, brisk scene-by-scene pacing, and an approach to characterization that cleverly blends mockery with empathy. Its deficiencies are equally apparent. Although Alexander fields a large retinue of suspects, he makes no attempt to construct a proper murder puzzle around them. Just as the novel delivers little in the way of menace and little in the way of mystery, so it offers little in the way of detection. A certain Inspector Gold, from Manhattan West Homicide, arrives to interrogate the bar’s patrons, but he devotes more energy to bemoaning the difficulty of the case than he does to solving it, and the revelation of the murderer’s identity comes without the aid of human ingenuity. The only clue of any consequence, a watch that has gone missing from the victim’s pocket, functions not as a sign to be interpreted, but as talisman of lost time.

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2019 in American, Novel

 

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