RSS

Category Archives: British

DOROTHY L. SAYERS. Clouds of Witness (1926).

In the same year that Sayers issued this work, the second full-length book to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, Agatha Christie released a modest volume titled The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The sharp contrast between these two novels from a peak year during the Golden Age of detective fiction raises a question: By what addled marketing logic did the authors of those works become yoked together as so-called Queens of Crime? Gender, of course, played a big part in the coining of that shared designation. But aside from being women who wrote about criminals and crime solvers, Christie and Sayers had little in common as creative figures. Christie, as she exultantly demonstrates in Ackroyd, excelled at devising intricate mechanisms that would enable her to misdirect and astound readers. Sayers, while she would exhibit greater ingenuity in later works, shows in Clouds of Witness that setting a complex, fair-play puzzle was an endeavor that tapped into neither her talents nor her interests. Rather than trick readers, she sought to treat them. In this instance, she treats them to a vision of good people rescued from adversity by a plucky hero. The tale that she constructs around that vision is a hearty assemblage of old-school narrative tropes, coincidence-laden plot turns, and workaday clues that Wimsey doesn’t so much discover as amble into—all of it held in place by a thick mortar of Tory sentiment.

CloudsWitness.jpg In the first Wimsey adventure (Whose Body?), Sayers thrusts her hero into a social and criminal realm that lies well beyond the genteel drawing rooms and Clubland reading rooms that he knows best. Here, in his sophomore outing, she keeps him relatively close to his home ground. In fact, the case amounts to a family affair. It starts with the discovery of a dead body at a hunting lodge in Yorkshire leased by his brother, Gerald, the Duke of Denver. The corpse belongs to Denis Cathcart, the fiancé of Denver’s (and Wimsey’s) sister, Lady Mary. Circumstances quickly evolve to a point where the police charge the duke with murder. It was Denver who stumbled upon the slain Cathcart in the wee hours of the morning, Denver who owned the gun used to shoot Cathcart, Denver who possessed the most obvious motive to eliminate Cathcart. (He had just received a letter that revealed Cathcart to be an unsuitable match for Mary.) When news of Denver’s arrest reaches Wimsey, the young lord swoops in to defend the duke’s—and his own—good name.

It’s easy to be annoyed by Wimsey, but it’s hard to dislike him. Like the prose that Sayers deploys to spin this tale, Wimsey exudes good-willed energy and high-spirited (albeit not always rigorous) intelligence. And, like the story that she builds around him, Wimsey seems to be ever on the move. He speeds from Paris to London and then, via airplane, from London to Yorkshire. He takes a jaunt to the Soviet Club, a bohemian dive in Soho. He gets shot and retreats briefly to his digs in Piccadilly Lane to recuperate from a glancing wound. He ventures to a market town near Denver’s lodge and—with his man, Bunter, in tow—scavenges for clues at a local public house. Most outlandishly, he rushes to New York City, again via airplane (and does so a year before Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic voyage), and returns just in time to deliver evidence that will exonerate Denver.

What happens in each spot where Wimsey lands never quite justifies the excitement that attends his arrival. Indeed, chapter by chapter, Clouds of Witness lurches ahead as a series of anti-climaxes. Yet what stands out amid the weak storytelling is Wimsey’s (and, by extension, Sayers’s) resolve to move forward—to carry on, if not necessarily to keep calm—even in the most trying of times. His brother is on trial for murder, his sister is reeling from the violent death of her fiancé, and his entire family is reckoning with the public exposure of its private business. For Wimsey, it’s all in a day’s work, and he approaches that work in a doggedly playful manner. In the wake of the Great War, a cataclysm whose shadow hangs over the novel like a burst of mustard gas, a fellow who could act briskly and grin bravely in the face of dire circumstances held strong appeal for millions of Britons, including (evidently) Sayers. Although she was hardly a paragon of Golden Age mystery writing, she was very much a writer of her time.

In place of a scene that would let Wimsey explain a series of masterly deductions—he performs little deductive reasoning, in the classic sense—Sayers presents a grand finale that occurs in the House of Lords, where the duke has come to be judged by his peers. This sequence allows her to go on at length about the legal bombast and regal (or, at any rate, ducal) pomp that surround the trial, and it points to the kind of thematic material that captured her imagination as a writer. Clearly Sayers revered Denver and adored Wimsey and admired the aristocratic values that they embody. For those who share her politics, Clouds of Witness offers a winning saga of the nobility at its best. For others, perhaps not so much.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on February 7, 2019 in British, Golden Age, Novel

 

JOHN DICKSON CARR. Hag’s Nook (1933).

Echoes from The Hound of the Baskervilles resound throughout the early part of this early work in the Carr canon. A gruesome curse attaches to an ancient fortune, and both the curse and the fortune are inextricably tied to a moody patch of not-so-merry Old England. In Hound, it’s a mythical fog-shrouded expanse known as the Grimpen Mire, located in the Dartmoor region of Devonshire. In this tale, it’s a death-haunted slab of earth called the Hag’s Nook, located in the Fens region of Lincolnshire. A prison figures atmospherically and practically in the events that occur in both of those precincts. Each novel opens with the arrival of a young male heir who has been living in North America—Henry Baskerville comes from Canada, Martin Starberth comes from the United States—and his transatlantic origin highlights a contrast between the bright vistas of the New World and the dark legacies of the Old World. To claim his patrimony, each heir must reckon with an obligation that derives from the misdeeds of a twisted ancestor. Looming over each novel, moreover, is the specter of a recent unexplained death: The uncle of Henry Baskerville and the father of Martin Starberth had both expired in circumstances that appeared to arise in some way from those ancestral misdeeds. HagsNook.jpg Only the intervention of a genius sleuth, as it turns out, can dispel the cruel force that binds the innocent young to a heritage of villainy. Sherlock Holmes, of course, takes on the problem that hounds the Baskervilles, whereas the Starberth clan relies on the services of Dr. Gideon Fell.

It’s fitting that Carr, who later wrote one of the first major biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, chose to borrow from the work of that illustrious predecessor when he mustered the ingredients of this début outing for Fell. All in all, the case makes for a worthy introduction to the great doctor and his world. Fell emerges in fully realized form, complete with his box cape and his slouch hat and the two canes that he uses to maneuver his vast bulk to and from the crime scene. On hand to assist him and to admire him is Tad Rampole, one of the juvenile-lead types who populate novels from the first phase of Carr’s career. Any difference between Rampole and (say) Jeff Marle, who accompanies Henri Bencolin on his adventures, is negligible. Like Carr himself during this period, these characters are impressionable Americans in Europe—innocents abroad who stand ready to witness events that will strike awe in their tender hearts.

Fell has invited Rampole to visit him at his cottage, which happens to be in Starberth country, and the main action in the piece begins on the night of the young man’s arrival. Late that evening, Martin Starberth must undertake an hour-long vigil in a rat- and ghost-infested chamber inside Chatterham Prison, a now-empty pile that rises above the Hag’s Nook. This obligation comes down from Anthony Starberth, the first governor of the prison and the first of several Starberth men to die mysteriously in the vicinity of that chamber. Fell and Rampole observe the vigil from the Fell residence, and when a light from the chamber flickers out at an untimely moment, they rush to the prison and discover that Martin has met with a violent end. Fell, seeing through the supernatural aura that hovers over the scene, determines that a human agent caused the heir’s death. Although suspects are thin on the marshy ground that surrounds the Hag’s Nook, there is plenty of investigative fodder to keep Fell and Rampole and the local police busy.

In a gripping discussion of the clue-rich site where Martin spent his last hour of life, Fell interjects a bit of literary criticism that signals the nature and scope of Carr’s ambition. The Gothic romance, with its panoply of carefully laid death traps and other grotesque improbabilities, lags “far behind the detective stories,” Fell contends. Tales of detection, he says, “may reach an improbable conclusion, but they get there on the strength of good, sound, improbable evidence that’s in plain sight.” Measured by that standard, this book succeeds: All of the clues that Fell cites to explain how he spotted the murderer and how he dissected the intricacies of the murder scheme are visible—albeit not always plainly so—within the text of the narrative. At the same time, Carr’s commitment to the fair-play ethos entails no sacrifice of his ability to deliver thrills and chills on a Gothic scale.

Carr falters somewhat in how he handles the solution and the revelation thereof. A long and occasionally jumbled denouement takes up the final one-fifth of what is otherwise an impressively crisp tale, and although the pattern of misdirection that hides the killer’s identity is clever enough, it lacks the spare elegance that distinguishes the author’s best work. GideonFell.jpg The book, moreover, closes with an extended written confession by the culprit that has the lamentable effect of stealing Fell’s thunder. (Even so, the confession stands out for the artful way that it reveals the mind of a deeply repellent figure. Carr was hardly known as a master of subtle characterization or psychological insight, but here he shows off his talents in that vein.)

Despite that flaw, which is eminently fixable, Hag’s Nook would have served as the basis of a splendid film during the 1930s heyday of silver-screen gothic horror, or indeed at any time. More so than most authors from the Golden Age of detection, Carr penned works that brim with screenplay-ready elements, and those elements are on display here—from the eerie and visually captivating location to the tight circle of easy-to-cast characters (imagine Charles Laughton in the role of Gideon Fell) to the sharp dialogue and the cliffhanger scene endings that move the plot swiftly along. Why have there been no film versions of Fell’s (or Sir Henry Merrivale’s) exploits? To be sure, there are a handful of movies (including The Man With a Cloak and Dangerous Crossing) based on tales from the periphery of Carr’s large corpus. But the absence of any cinematic or televisual treatment of his core work remains not just a mystery but also a crime.

 
10 Comments

Posted by on January 24, 2019 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

MICHAEL INNES. One Man Show (1952).

In the world of visual art, the detective novelist finds a milieu rife with potential intrigue and rich in deceptive possibility. Artists, to keep from starving, must beguile or placate obtuse patrons, arrogant critics, and other figures whose whims will shape their cultural reputation—and their market value. They operate in a realm of pure subjectivity; their worth and that of their work lie in the eye of one fickle beholder after another. Among all but the most elite practitioners, competitive jousting and jealous backbiting are thus the order of the day. What’s more, the products of an artist’s labor are highly susceptible to forgery and fakery: The essence of painting, after all, is to deploy flat daubs of oil to conjure the illusion of physical substance or spiritual gravity. By using superficial means to convey depths of significance, an artist creates a ready medium for hidden messages, trompe l’oeil effects, and other forms of trickery.

Innes draws on that latent capacity for spite and connivance to build an enticing setup for this title in his long-running series devoted to John Appleby, who has now risen to the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. Appleby’s wife, Judith, entreats her somewhat philistine husband to join her at a show of works by the recently deceased painter Gavin Limbert. OneManShow.jpg She too is an artist, a sculptor who hopes to find a canvas with “strong diagonals” that might serve as a suitable backdrop to her work, and Limbert’s abstract style appears to fit the bill. The scenes that take place at the show provide Innes with an ideal opportunity to flex his satiric muscles, and they make up the best part of the novel. Light social comedy gives way to sudden drama when, practically under the noses of the assembled connoisseurs, thieves abscond with the last and most striking work to emerge from Limbert’s brush. Meanwhile, a young woman artist who lived in a flat above Limbert’s studio in Chelsea has gone missing. And, in an ostensibly separate development, two paintings of considerably more illustrious pedigree than the stolen Limbert—a Vermeer and a work by George Stubbs, a fabled painter of horses—have disappeared as well. Soon enough, Appleby is pulling the thread of a criminal scheme (or schemes) of unknown dimension. Then there is the untimely demise of Limbert, a young man of promise: He appears to have shot himself. But did he, really?

Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor labeled this novel Innes’s “masterpiece,” perhaps with punning intent but in any case with an excess of praise. After a strong opening, One Man Show devolves into a rickety, random tale in which a great many men (and one woman) scurry about London and its environs in search of missing paintings and missing people. This part of the novel borrows tropes from the police procedural and thriller genres, it reworks those tropes into a manic sequence of escapades that border on parody, and it goes on at tiresome length. First Appleby and then his wife and then his loyal lieutenant, Inspector Cadover, chase a series of leads that put them in contact with as many as four criminal gangs. For the average reader, if not for the average fictional investigator, keeping track of each gang—or indeed of how many gangs there are—is likely to be impossible.

The denouement features a striking twist that helps redeem the belabored antics that precede it. In one stolen painting, as it turns out, there is a great deal more than meets the casual eye. Appleby sees both beneath and beyond the surface of that work, and thereby unravels an entire skein of mysteries. Yet Innes, while he is fairly playful in his treatment of clues, hardly plays fair with his readers: The story that Appleby tells to explain how he solved the case depends on information and leaps of intuition that are available only to him. If this awkwardly plotted tale has a saving grace, it lies in the matchless flair that Innes brings to every stroke of his writer’s pen. With only the inert and monochromatic medium of English prose at his disposal, he renders a vibrant picture of a world filled with evocative signs and everyday wonders.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 10, 2019 in British, Novel

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Towards Zero (1944).

Murder comes late but with shocking force in this compact puzzle about a gathering, over the course of a fortnight in September, at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of Lady Camilla Tresillian. The long setup enables Christie to dwell more extensively than usual on the knotty series of relationships that bind together her principal characters. TowardsZero.jpg Among this group are Nevile Strange, a callow sportsman who seems to have all that a man could want, including a beautiful wife and no less beautiful ex-wife; Audrey Strange, the ex-wife, whose ethereal presence haunts the scene at Gull’s Point; and Thomas Royde, a tight-lipped colonial planter who has spent the long years of his Malayan exile nursing an unrequited passion for Audrey. In revealing just enough about these people to allow for the play of potentially homicidal motives—and, equally important, for the camouflaging of motive—the author puts her artistry in high relief. Yes, artistry. The rules of the detective-story game keep its practitioners from delving honestly into the minds of suspects, and that circumstance in turn keeps the genre from earning the respect that accrues to so-called serious fiction. Yet art and artifice go hand in hand, and in this instance the art takes the form of carefully blending revelation with concealment. Christie practices this kind of literary magic with an adroitness that few highbrow writers could match, even as she displays (within the limits of the whodunit form) a fine knack for the exploration of character. Who committed the brutal bludgeoning that takes place shortly after the book’s halfway point? Superintendent Battle sifts the clues, both physical and psychological, and comes to a solution that is not just clever but also meaningful.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 26, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

MARGERY ALLINGHAM. Dancers in Mourning (1937).

A fine prose style and a masterly handling of narrative mechanics will take a writer quite a long way. In the mid-1930s, Allingham gained a reputation as one of a handful of English detective novelists who were applying a welcome gloss of literary refinement to their chosen genre, and this book justifies that assessment. Take the moment when death makes its appearance at White Walls, the country estate of Jimmy Sutane, a West End dancing sensation (who bears a loose resemblance to Fred Astaire). Allingham describes the scene as Sutane and two other men, including the gentleman sleuth Albert Campion, approach the spot where trauma has struck: “They came slithering down the high bank to the road, bringing great clods of the sandy yellow earth with them. The car stood in the middle of the lane, her engine still running, while behind, ghastly in the red glare of the tail-light, was something white and quiet on the grass verge.” The all-too-quiet “something” is the lifeless body of Chloe Pye, another dancer and a self-invited weekend guest; it had tumbled from an overpass in front of Sutane’s Bentley, which then ran over it. Was her demise an accident? Was it suicide? In time, of course, it will be revealed as a case of homicide. Two other killings follow, at roughly even intervals: Allingham, in this sojourn among theater folk, does a neat job of creating a three-act structure.

Allingham also successfully enmeshes a murder investigation within a novel of manners that doubles as a bittersweet tale of romance. Campion falls hard for Linda Sutane, the matron of White Walls, and his star-crossed obsession with that married woman casts a disabling pall over his crime-solving work. DancersMourning.jpg This aspect of the narrative doesn’t always work, and it weakens the quality of detection that Campion undertakes. Yet Allingham, by dint of polished storytelling, makes his infatuation seem both real and relevant. (The trope of a genius detective bedazzled by feminine charms, by the way, goes back to the eponymous sleuth in Trent’s Last Case, or indeed to the first Sherlock Holmes short story, in which Irene Adler used her wiles to defeat the supposed Great Man.) The same general point applies to the limning of other characters. In addition to the Jimmy Sutane and his wife, the party at White Walls includes Eve Sutane, the dancer’s love-addled teenage sister; Dick Poyser, his sharp-eyed manager; “Sock” Petrie, his gangly young publicist; Benny Konrad, his predictably jealous understudy; Miss Finbrough, his nurse and all-around factotum; Squire Mercer, a self-involved composer who writes music for Sutane’s stage vehicles; and a few others. Simply to list these figures is to suggest that they are an off-the-shelf set of arty and upper-crust types. But Allingham imbues each of them with such particularity that all of them—even those who are deeply dislikable—come across as deeply sympathetic.

The core narrative, although it moves at a leisurely gait that will test the patience of modern readers, is a solid piece of work. Allingham makes each scene vivid and plausible. Indeed, a few key events are plausible precisely because she makes them so vivid. A bombing at a quiet suburban railway platform, for example, claims the life of a second victim. That’s an unusual turn for a genteel novel from this era to take, but Allingham deftly integrates it into the arc of her tale. From one act to the next, Campion’s half-hearted investigation carries the tale along, and it seems to lead generally in one direction. Then, a few pages before the book ends, comes an abrupt swerve—a surprise solution that is thinly clued yet largely satisfying. The feat of misdirection on display in Dancers in Mourning hardly rises to the level of, say, Agatha Christie’s better work, but it’s worth the price of admission. (With respect to Christie, Allingham is less a fellow Queen of Crime than a lady in waiting.) The book’s finale also draws resonance from the air of melancholy gravitas that Campion projects once the truth dawns on him. Here, again, Allingham captures the spirit of the moment perfectly:

It was a definite physical experience and was comparable to the process which takes place when an unexpected train in the underground station appears from what is apparently the wrong tunnel and the mind slips over and adjusts the phenomenon by turning the universe other side out, substituting in one kaleidoscopic second east for west.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 13, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Murder on the Links (1923).

HerculeMurderLinks.jpg 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.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 15, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

MICHAEL GILBERT. Smallbone Deceased (1950).

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. SmallboneDeceased.jpg 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.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on November 1, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle