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Category Archives: American

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

 

YUNTE HUANG. Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History (2010).

Dozens of movie depictions and several decades of steady absorption into the mighty, churning ocean of American mass culture have largely reduced Charlie Chan to a shallow reflection of his original self. Like a folk hero who seems to have existed forever, he stands ready to be summoned from the murky depths of the popular imagination with the broadest of broad strokes. Draw a roly-poly figure, give him a panama hat and a goatee and an ingratiating grin, attach a speech bubble that contains a sententious quip (rendered, of course, in pidgin English), and you’re basically done. Huang, a professor of English and a Chinese-American writer with a lively personal interest in the myth and lore that surrounds Chan, attempts in this wide-ranging study to reclaim his fictional countryman as a full-bodied human creation with a complex history. In the main, he succeeds.

The Charlie Chan character traces its roots to a pair of American men whose contrasting biographies exemplify the raw diversity of America life. Earl Derr Biggers was the scion of a prosperous family that had settled in a hamlet not far from Canton, Ohio. (Huang likens the author’s birthplace, the town of Warren, to the town in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.) CharlieChanBook.jpg A bright young fellow with an impeccable pedigree, Biggers landed a spot at Harvard University, where he gained the aptitude and the attitude of a man of letters. He worked as a newspaperman in Boston, and eventually he became a playwright in New York and then a regular contributor of fiction to the Saturday Evening Post and other slick magazines. A trip to Hawaii in 1920 led him to start a mystery novel based in that island paradise, and an article that he later read in a Honolulu newspaper led him to feature a Chinese policeman in the book that was taking shape on his typewriter.

The fateful article, according to Biggers, cited a man named Chang Apana as an arresting officer in a drug bust. Huang was unable to track down that item, but he has amassed a staggering wealth of detail about Apana, a real personage who led an almost fabulistic life. Born in Hawaii to Chinese immigrants in about 1871, Apana spent time during his youth in Canton, the Chinese province from which his people came, but then returned to the island nation (the United States had not yet annexed it), where he found work as a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. From this experience, he acquired the habit of wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a bullwhip, and those accoutrements would help shape his public identity once he became a policeman. Apana’s horsemanship skills brought him to the attention of a white landowning family, the Wilders, who hired him as a stableman and later secured him an appointment as the first case officer for the Humane Society of Hawaii. In 1898, his exploits in that role won him a job with the Honolulu Police Department. Biggers might have fathered Chan as a fictional Chinese-American detective, but it was Apana who fathered the notion that such a figure could plausibly exist.

Throughout the book, Huang drops in personal vignettes about his own encounters with the Charlie Chan legacy. He tells of finding a two-volume compendium of Chan novels at an estate sale in Buffalo, New York. He describes a trip to Warren, Ohio, where Biggers grew up and where Huang has an epiphany about the allure of Charlie Chan while dining at a Chinese restaurant. (Chan, he writes, “was a whiff of Oriental mystique blown into the insular flatland.”) And he concludes with a traveler’s tale of his visit to Honolulu and in particular to the city’s Chinese Cemetery, where Apana’s remains lie beneath a modest gravestone. These first-person sections help to expel the stale academic air that might have clung to a work that largely follows the logic of a cultural studies monograph. Indeed, a more forthrightly personal approach might have made this appealing work even more so.

Huang shows little interest in the narrative content of the six novels about Chan that Biggers produced between 1925 and 1932, and even less interest in how they work as tales of detection. In a sign of his limited affinity for the mystery genre, Huang blithely divulges part of the solution to The House Without a Key, the first title in the series. Apart from a few instances when he discusses Biggers’s treatment of Chinese characters other than Chan, he ignores the stories that Biggers wove around the fictional sleuth. As a consequence, he misses an opportunity to explore a quality that Chan shares with many other paradigmatic detective heroes: Chan, like them, stands at a notable remove from the social realm in which he solves crimes. OlandChan.jpg Huang makes one intriguing foray into this kind of analysis when he compares Chan to Hercule Poirot. Chan’s creator and Poirot’s creator, Agatha Christie, “both became best-selling authors by creating a distinctively ‘foreign’ detective character in an era when wartime xenophobia was a very recent memory,” Huang writes.

With that observation, Huang signals the true source of his fascination with Charlie Chan: In the Chan figure, he finds a vehicle for exploring the dynamics of race and ethnicity as they work their way from Harvard to Honolulu, and from the Canton in Ohio to the Canton in China. In Huang’s view, the Chan character resembles a “resilient artistic flower [that] has blossomed in spite of as well as because of racism. This undeniable fact, insulting and sobering, has uniquely defined America.” His book thus unfurls in part as a saga of how white people have envisioned and—in the case of Hollywood actors such as Warner Oland, a native Swede who played Chan in more than a dozen films during the 1930s—embodied the Chinese Other.

Thanks to Huang’s diligent work of cultural excavation, Chan emerges as a powerful, many-sided trope (if not quite as a cohesive, “living” character)—as a Chinese box that keeps opening to reveal yet another truth about the dark but also redemptive story of racial representation in the United States, and beyond. In a telling episode of that irony-laced story, Huang describes a series of movies about Chan that Chinese producers made during the 1940s. He observes that, far from rejecting the white man’s version of a Chinese sleuth, the Chinese actor who played Chan in those films closely followed the Warner Oland model. “Charlie Chan might have come home, but the exact location of home—in the age of the global circulation of images, meanings, and values—remains as elusive as clues to an unsolvable murder case,” Huang writes.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2018 in American

 

ROSS MACDONALD. The Moving Target (1949).

A strong ending caps what is otherwise a diffuse and disappointing tale of misspent love, runaway greed, and multiple murder. Lew Archer, in his debut appearance, signs up to look for a missing millionaire named Ralph Sampson, and in tracking that quarry he travels through a Southern California version of Dante’s Inferno—a realm where lost souls writhe under a hot, unforgiving sun. Moving Target.jpg This world, of course, will be familiar to readers of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald’s Virgilian predecessors. Among its denizens are Sampson’s emotionally and physically crippled young wife, his alluring but aimless daughter, a cult leader who half-believes his own doggerel, an aging screen star who turns to astrology when her beauty starts to fade, a golden-boy war hero who can’t quite fit into a peacetime role, a honky-tonk piano player who can’t catch a break (and who doesn’t deserve to), and several others. The characters are incisively drawn, but there are too many of them, each with a sad and convoluted story to tell. As a result, the plot fails to yield a dense weave of meaning of the kind that would mark the later Archer novels. Macdonald’s prose misfires here as well, throwing off empty similes and leaden turns of phrase; it would improve greatly in subsequent books. In sum, The Moving Target is a rough sketch of much finer things to come.

[ADDENDUM: While scanning the Web for material on The Moving Target, I learned that J. Kingston Pierce—all-around mystery fiction maven and chief chronicler at the wonderful Rap Sheet blog—had written a brief remembrance of his initial encounter with the book. As it happens, the maiden Lew Archer adventure was the first detective novel that Pierce read, and it seems to have left him with a taste for gritty, gut-punching fare. The book stood out as being “a vigorous, thoughtful, often compassionate tale of love and greed with an ending that questioned whether anyone was truly trustworthy,” he writes. Pierce was a better, more mature young reader than I was. My introduction to the detective genre came via the adventures of Encyclopedia Brown (boy detective!) and the Three Investigators, and it was quite a few years before my reading expanded much beyond formal puzzle tales in the tradition of Agatha Christie.]

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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