Hercule Poirot shines in this second novel to feature him and his bluff, slightly dim friend and chronicler, Captain Hastings. The situation and the setting reflect the genre norms of a time when the British detective story was fully coming into its own. A millionaire with a somewhat shady past is found dead on a golf course, not far from his seaside mansion. An exotic-looking dagger protrudes from his back, and a tidy set of suspects orbit the scene. All of the suspects belong to the bourgeois class, albeit tenuously so, and the fluctuations of status and identity lend a dark undertone to the tale. On the surface, meanwhile, Poirot’s march from clue to clue is very much a comic affair. It’s comic both in the humorous byplay that accompanies it (Christie rarely gets enough credit for the mordant wit of her dialogue) and in its life-affirming display of what human reason can achieve. Steadily and with imperial confidence, Poirot applies his vaunted “little grey cells” to a problem of acute complexity. Ostensible guilt passes from character to character until he fixes it—with what seems like sleight of hand—upon a genuinely unlikely suspect. The comic spirit then reaches its proper culmination when two pairs of star-crossed lovers each become united at last.
Category Archives: British
Could anything be duller than a novel set in a London solicitors’ office? That is, after all, a milieu in which dullness serves as a prime objective—in which, by design, one day spent conveyancing deeds of property and engrossing bills of exchange blends indistinguishably into another. A murder or two will help redeem a tale with this backdrop from the curse of tedium, but violence alone is hardly sufficient to the task. Also required are a minutely calibrated sense of character (How else can an author and his readers distinguish between suspects who embody shades of legal gray?) and a flair for satire. Gilbert possesses both of those qualities and here puts them on display to enchanting effect. He strikes a particularly mordant note in the opening sequence of the novel, when staff members of the firm Horniman Birley and Craine discover the remains of one Marcus Smallbone inside a large deed box. Chief Inspector Hazelrigg, who appears in several of Gilbert’s early efforts, handles the investigation into who caused Smallbone to become deceased, and a young solicitor named Henry Bohun plays a supporting role. (Bohun functions as an alter ego of Gilbert, who maintained a career in the law even as he produced a large volume of crime fiction.)
After beginning in a sprightly fashion, the narrative sags in the middle (as mystery novels often do) but then closes in the grand tradition: Suspicion tilts now toward this person and now toward that one, until suddenly all of the evidence points decisively in yet another direction. The author sneaks much of this evidence by the reader in broad textual daylight, and he handles physical clues with a special sureness of touch. On point after point, the basic artistry of Smallbone Deceased helps explain the high regard that the book has earned among enthusiasts of the traditional English mystery.
In the England of 1517, conspiracies unfold beneath the surface of events no less abundantly than rank sewage flows on the street of London. It’s a time of fresh possibility for the island kingdom, with a young and ambitious sovereign ruling at Westminster, but it’s also a time of dark portents and dark realities. This maiden entry in a sequence of tales about political intrigue and personal skullduggery during the reign of King Henry VIII ably evokes a period when life was cheap and truth was dear, and it packs in a generous array of mysteries both large and small. The grandest mystery involves the struggle to control the throne of Scotland—a struggle that, in this telling, has become entangled with the ongoing clash between the Tudor dynasty and advocates of the Yorkist cause, who, three decades after the Battle of Bosworth Field, may be conspiring to retake the English throne. Smaller-scale mysteries arise from a set of killings done to further these machinations.
Two of the murders present variations of the same sealed-room puzzle. The first of them is the keystone event of the whole affair. Alexander Selkirk, a physician to the recently defeated and slain King James IV of Scotland, has gone mad; he writes crackpot verses and issues cryptic utterances that suggest esoteric knowledge about the fate of his country. Forces loyal to King Henry and to James’s widowed queen, Margaret, who happens to Henry’s sister, have captured Selkirk and brought him to the Tower of London, where Margaret and her entourage have taken up residence. One night, in a locked and thoroughly guarded chamber, Selkirk succumbs to death by poisoning. How could anyone have gotten close enough to him to administer the fatal substance? (Remnants of food and drink in the room show no trace of poison.) How, too, did a white rose—a symbol of the Yorkist conspiracy—end up next to the corpse? The core trick, once revealed, proves to be rather simple, and the full solution to the puzzle borrows an oft-used device from other locked-room tales. Still, the trick works well in this context, and the process of detection that leads to its revelation is sharp and appealing.
Two characters share responsibility for unraveling that mystery, along with several other quandaries that surround Queen Margaret and her retinue. The ostensible protagonist and the narrator of adventure is Roger Shallot, a charming scalawag whose likeness to Shakespeare’s Falstaff receives an explicit reference from Shallot himself. (One conceit of the series is that Shallot is writing his memoirs at the tail end of the Elizabethan era and that he personally knew the Bard, among other luminaries of the period.) But Shallot’s friend and master, Benjamin Daunbey, handles more than half of the sleuthing work. Whereas Shallot is earthy to the core, Daunbey is lofty in spirit, and the two personae complement each other in the time-honored fashion of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. (At the same time, the byplay between Shallot and Daunbey has a blithe, loosely egalitarian quality that recalls the interaction between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their “Road” pictures.)
Doherty (who initially published the novel under his Michael Clynes pseudonym) overestimates the charm of his roguish hero: A little bit of Shallot—of his thieving and wenching, of his self-satisfied tone and his profanely flippant attitude—goes a long way. His narrative voice, which becomes disruptive as the story progresses, is the chief weakness of the book. The chief strength, meanwhile, lies in the author’s unflinching descriptions of 16th-century life. In that respect, Doherty departs from a common tendency among historical novelists (including, say, Ellis Peters in her Brother Cadfael series) to sugarcoat the period about which they write. In an account of Shallot and Daunbey’s journey into the capital, for instance, Doherty sets the scene to gripping effect: “We traveled down through Eastcheap and into Petty Wales, the area around the Tower. God save us, London is a dirty place, but after that infection [of the plague] it was reeking filthy: fleas and lice were everywhere, and the unpaved streets were coated with leavings of every kind. Mound of refuse were piled high, full of the rushes thrown out of houses and taverns, thick with dirt and stinking of spit, vomit and dog turds.”
The title of this wonderful volume is a misnomer in several respects. For one thing, the book doesn’t actually present a story. Instead, it compiles brief essays by Edwards on a wide range of crime, mystery, and detective novels (along with a handful of short-story collections) published between 1901 and 1950. Edwards groups the essays into 24 chapters that correspond to various themes, topics, and approaches—from “Murder at the Manor” to “Playing Politics,” from “Scientific Enquiries” to “Fiction from Fact”—and he introduces each chapter with an overview of how writers of the period treated that subject matter. These introductory essays buttress Edwards’s individual book selections with incisive, erudite commentary on the historical and literary context in which those books came to fruition. But, taken as a whole, the book falls short of providing any sort of narrative arc. For a story about crime writing during the early 20th century, readers must turn to an equally wonderful volume called The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story (2015), which Edwards wrote as well and to which this compilation serves as a sort of companion.
For another thing, the phrase “of classic crime” suggests that Edwards has conducted a comprehensive tour of the field in question. In fact, his tour focuses overwhelmingly on British writers and on the decidedly British milieu in which their work emerged. Of the 24 chapters, one features American writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Ellery Queen, and one features non-English-language writers such as Georges Simenon and Jorge Borges. Although the book choices here are apt and intriguing, they also have a random quality and smack just a little of tokenism. Maybe the publisher, eager to market this title beyond the United Kingdom, urged Edwards to include a small quota of yanks and other foreigners. In any event, fully embracing the parochial nature of his project might have been a wiser option. Implicitly, the book makes a powerful case for staying close to (Edwards’s) home. This case runs as follows: The modern detective story, though invented in the United States by Edgar Allan Poe, was gloriously reinvented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by men and women who lived and wrote on the other side of the Atlantic. They took a form originally designed for deploying tricks and delivering thrills, and they remade it as a vehicle for embodying and exploring a broad slice of British social life.
For yet another thing, the claim to cover the field of classic crime “in 100 books” is far too modest. Throughout this survey, and particularly in the chapter introductions, Edwards discusses dozens of other works. Clearly, he has steeped himself in a vast literature, and that deep store of knowledge has equipped him to curate an array of books that encompasses both well-known cornerstone titles and obscure gems. The scale and scope of this effort reinforces the case for giving sustained attention to British crime writers of the classic era. These writers, Edwards demonstrates, left behind a body of work marked by great richness and variety. They took steps, and indeed they took risks, that are supposedly the exclusive province of mainstream or “literary” fiction. They plumbed the quandaries of the human psyche (by, for example, taking readers inside the minds of murderers as well as detectives). They dissected the workings of society (by, for example, probing the underside of middle-class respectability from multiple angles). They experimented with narrative structure (by, for example, producing “inverted” tales that identify a culprit upfront and then recount the discovery process that leads to his or her undoing). To be sure, they created and followed certain formulas—the unbreakable alibi, the locked-and-barred room, the closed set of suspects. Yet an impressive number of them stand out for their willingness to test and tweak such formulas.
Fittingly, the last writer featured in this compendium is Julian Symons, a novelist and critic whose most notable contribution to the genre was his authorship of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972). Symons in that book traced the ebb and flow of an entire literary tradition—its overall course and its various tributaries—and many of his summary judgments have solidified into conventional wisdom. When it came to British crime writing in the early 20th century, he argued (or at least implied) that its practitioners consisted mainly of rule-bound puzzle-setters and “humdrum” plodders. Edwards, first in Golden Age of Murder and now in this book, has deconstructed that narrow frame of understanding and replaced it with a far more expansive view.
This last of Tey’s novels features her recurring sleuth, Inspector Alan Grant, but it isn’t much of a detective story. At a structural level, it resembles a mid-20th-century suspense movie, and indeed it may have drawn inspiration from certain classics of that genre. The plot unfolds like an amalgam of several Alfred Hitchcock features, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). First comes the discovery on a train of a dead man by a more or less innocent bystander. Next comes a search for the meaning of some cryptic lines of verse that the victim had penned (“The beasts that talk/The streams that stand/The stones that walk/The singing sand/ . . . /That guards the way/To Paradise”)—a search that leads literally to the Scottish Hebrides and figuratively to the deserts of Arabia. Then, in the finale, comes the exposure of a villain who embodies the awesome evil that pure vanity can engender. The villain’s identity is revealed rather than detected, and in general Tey has crafted a story that appeals more to the thrill of a chase than to the pleasure of rationally dissecting a puzzle.
Yet actual thrills are few and far between. The Singing Sands, even as it follows Grant’s obsessive quest to decipher an evocative dying message, reads mainly like a meditative study of character and incident. If Tey (or a screenwriter charged with adapting her work) were to add a few scenes that involve physical danger, the result might form the basis of an excellent film—a world-weary, postwar update of The 39 Steps (the 1935 Hitchcock version). But as it is, as an achievement of the printed word, the tale offers modest fare for a reader’s imagination.
This third of Hare’s novels came out during the final year of an era known (semi-officially, at least) as the Golden Age of detective fiction, and it bears the telltale marks of that period. It’s a loose-jointed romp that draws on familial tensions and technical points of law, as well as physical and circumstantial clues, to build a pattern of mystification around a narrow group of suspects. At a country inn full of respectable people, each of whom has something to hide, a guest dies one morning from the ingestion of poison and apparently by his own hand. Because the victim’s insurance policy bars payment in the event of suicide, a coroner’s ruling to that effect means destitution for several surviving family members. The dead man’s son and daughter, along with the daughter’s fiancé, therefore undertake to prove that the cause of death was murder. (Circumstances foreclose the possibility of an accident.) Through their adventures in amateur detection, these three would-be beneficiaries stir up clouds of suspicion—and provide a steady source of amusement for readers—but they uncover no conclusive evidence. So it falls to Inspector Mallett, an exemplar of professional calm who has been observing the trio from just off-stage, to see the case through to its final twist.
This entry in the Inspector Morse series is highly reminiscent of The Daughter of Time, the much-admired (and often over-praised) classic by Josephine Tey that casts her hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, in the role of an amateur historian. Here, too, a bedridden policeman escapes boredom by reading about a murder from the distant past. Here, too, discrepancies and oddities in the traditional account of the crime incite professional skepticism in the policeman and spur him to review the surviving documentation of the case. Here, too, the policeman enlists the aid of visiting friends and subordinates, who get swept along by his obsessive interest in opening one of the coldest of cold cases. Here, too, the policeman and his ad hoc investigative team take a version of truth that had withstood scrutiny for decades (or centuries, as in Tey’s novel) and turn that version inside-out. Here, too, an author brings the past to life by the somewhat ironic means of exploring an ancient death. Here, too, the reader encounters in an acutely distilled form the quality that distinguishes the detective story from other genres—the romance of reason, the grand game of ferreting truth out of its hiding place.
The Wench Is Dead proves to be more satisfying than its famous precursor, and the chief reason is easy to identify: Tey, in her book, labors conscientiously within the factual parameters of an actual event—the alleged murder by King Richard III of his two nephews (the fabled “princes in the Tower”)—whereas Dexter places relatively few limits on his creativity. Although he draws inspiration from the true case of a killing that took place in Staffordshire in 1839, he transfigures that event into an episode that takes place only in the space of his own devious mind: the rape and murder by drowning of a young woman named Joanna Franks. This fictional crime occurred in 1859, on or near the Oxford Canal, and in describing the social milieu of that time and that place, Dexter is able to evoke a world that teems with cryptic clues and densely layered personal relationships. (In that respect, this world resembles the late-20th-century Oxford that Morse claims as his usual stomping ground.) Dexter also improves on the Tey prototype by allowing Morse to transcend the bounds of physical confinement, first by the force of his personality and then through evidence-hunting excursions that take him away from his sickbed. More so than Grant, Morse brings a spirit of urgent action to a narrative that would otherwise consist of interior monologue and seemingly endless dialogue.