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Category Archives: British

PHILIP MACDONALD. The Rynox Murder (1930).

“Less” is quite a bit “more” in this tidy, offbeat crime puzzle. It’s practically bereft of detectives (a few policemen do appear, albeit mainly in the form of incident reports that they submit) and wholly bereft of detection. In effect, readers must fill the crime-solving role directly, without mediation by a truth-seeking hero. MacDonald structures the tale as an inverted detective story that he has inverted yet again: It starts with an epilogue and ends with a prologue, and (roughly speaking) it depicts the unfolding of a complex criminal scheme in reverse chronological order. By dispensing with the apparatus of sleuthing and by focusing on the interplay among small group that includes a victim, a putative culprit, and a handful of the victim’s associates, MacDonald manages to pack a great deal of intrigue into a very slim volume.

RynoxMurderAmong the central players in the drama are Francis Xavier Benedik, a partner in a London investment firm; his son, Anthony Xavier Benedik, who is also a partner; a third partner, Samuel Rickworth; and Rickworth’s daughter, Petronella (“Peter”), who is Anthony’s fiancée. Supplementing the cast are assorted clerks, secretaries, and servants who work either at Rynox House, where the investment firm keeps its offices, or at the Benedik home in Mayfair. (MacDonald, in deftly sketching the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of those locations, provides an appealing sidelight of the tale’s main events.) One other character flits menacingly about the world inhabited by the Benediks and the Rickworths. He is Boswell March, a surly fellow who sports an odd-shaped hat and who harbors an oddly fierce grudge against F.X. Benedik. One night, Boswell pays a visit to the latter man’s house; then, after a fusillade of gunfire, the lifeless body of Benedik is found lying across the sill of a window in his study. The killing isn’t quite an impossible crime, but its mannered staging and intricate mechanics bear the clear stamp of Golden Age ingenuity. (Detailed floor plans and elaborate timetables further add to the novel’s appeal.)

The plot of The Rynox Murder, though well-crafted on the whole, has weaknesses: One aspect of how the assailant pulled off the killing doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and the key deception that underlies the crime will be fairly obvious to many readers. Other elements of the book, meanwhile, count as real strengths. True to its title, the novel centers much of its action on the business dealings of Rynox, a firm that has invested a large—perhaps too large—portion of its assets in a speculative venture that involves the then-new industry of synthetic rubber. MacDonald handles this otherwise uncompelling material with wit and flair, turning dry exchanges about bank loans and insurance policies into engaging narrative fodder. He also graces scene after scene with touches of sly, character-driven humor. Given its slender length and its compact plot, this novel (or is it a novella?) seems like a mere trifle. But it’s richly adorned trifle at that.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2021 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

CYRIL HARE. An English Murder (1951)

To the extent that circumspection and reserve are English traits, the setup of this novel certainly matches the spirit of its title. Not until about one-third of its pages have passed does the identity of the first murder victim become known. Before then, Hare conducts a leisurely survey of his dramatis personae and the stereotypically English situation in which he has placed them. Lord Warbeck, aged and sickly, has invited a small set of actual and honorary family members to join him for a Christmas house party at Warbeck Hall, a venerable edifice in the (fictional) county of Markshire. The party may be the last such gathering before Lord Warbeck, and with him a certain way of life, pass away. Attending the party are his son, Robert Warbeck, who leads the League of Liberty, a group loosely based on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; Sir Julius Warbeck, a cousin who serves as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the historic postwar Labour government; Lady Camilla Prendergast, a relative of the late Lady Warbeck; and a certain Mrs. Carstairs, the daughter of the local parish rector. EnglishMurderIn a sequence of early scenes, various tensions—personal, familial, and political—simmer in the interaction among these characters. As midnight approaches on Christmas Eve, they gather in the drawing room at Warbeck Hall for a traditional holiday toast. Even then, a trace of suspense lingers over the question of who will receive a dose of cyanide in his or her celebratory glass.

The matter of Englishness runs as a persistent undercurrent through the story. Another guest of the party—Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink, an historian of somewhat murky central European origin—throws that theme into high relief. Either explicitly or simply by embodying a foreign counter-example, Bottwink poses the question of what makes a given attitude or habit or turn of phrase unique to his host country. In some instances, the theme emerges in discussions of time-honored (and mostly innocuous) customs, such those associated with afternoon tea: how to prepare it, how to drink it, how to savor the eminently English experience of it. In other instances, however, the theme becomes manifest in ways that involve obdurate class distinctions and dangerously hidebound institutions. “I am well aware of the importance in this country of knowing one’s place,” Bottwink says at one point, and the statement resonates beyond its immediate context. Somewhat later, he laments that “modern England is … riddled with antiquarian anachronisms.” In one fashion or another, he and his fellow guests are reckoning with the very live issue of whether a fixture of national life such as Warbeck Hall will survive in a postwar world. That issue is highly salient for Briggs, the butler at Warbeck, and the book gives considerable attention to the mores and rituals by which Briggs organizes his life and work. Like a naturalist who avidly studies a dwindling species, Hare shows a keen interest in documenting a vocation that is fast disappearing from the English scene.

Alongside robust servings of clever social observation, An English Murder offers a slight but thoroughly satisfying puzzle. The book has just one notable defect: The ability to solve the core mystery hinges on knowing a point of English history and law that will elude even many English readers. Yet that feature, too, evokes a defining aspect of English life—a clubby sense of exclusivity, which can seem at once pleasantly cozy and forbiddingly insular. That Bottwink is the fellow who ends up cracking the puzzle adds a note of suitably English irony.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2020 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

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

 

FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925).

The title of this book oversells it contents badly. Calling it “Inspector French’s Pretty Good Case” would be closer to the mark. That modest appraisal would also be closer to the spirit of the title character himself. French, a stolid embodiment of English middle-class propriety, talks straight and has no time for puffery. Clear facts and the clear-eyed analysis thereof are all that concern him. Unlike the title, moreover, the style used to narrate this first Inspector French adventure thoroughly matches the temper of its protagonist. Crofts writes in an easy-going, unassuming manner; his prose, occasionally ponderous but always on point, is marked less by scintillating wit than by steady intelligence. The novel as a whole, meanwhile, offers moments of quiet grandeur that make its lack of greatness entirely forgivable.

GreatestCaseThe tale gets off to a wholly conventional start. A bobby on his rounds in Hatton Garden, a district in London known for its concentration of diamond merchants, answers a summons to the office of Duke & Peabody. There he finds the slain body of Charles Gething, the head clerk of that firm. Near the spot where someone bludgeoned the poor soul with a poker, a safe stands open; a cache of valuable stones and £100 in notes have gone missing from it. The bobby calls in Scotland Yard, and French takes responsibility for the matter. Thus begins a long and winding inquiry that, in Crofts’s telling, reads as if it sprung in equal measure from the leaves of a policeman’s casebook and the pages of a Baedeker guide. To Switzerland and Spain, to Amsterdam and various ports on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and to multiple destinations both in London and across England, French travels in pursuit of one investigative lead after another. Again and again, those leads show promise and then come to nothing. “It was a confoundingly exasperating case” for French, Crofts reports midway through the book. “Being on it was like trying to cross a stream on stepping-stones which invariably gave way when he came to place his weight on them.”

In time, French does find his footing. Doggedness, rather than deduction, characterizes the process by which he discovers the scheme that led to murder and robbery in Hatton Garden. Indeed, that scheme—replete with disguised identities, tricked-up alibis, and lots of maneuvering via taxi, train, or boat—proves to be cleverer than the sleuthing work that exposes it. The case ends with a sharp twist that surprises French no less than it does the reader. Instead of divining that part of the solution from clues known to him, he merely stumbles upon it. In any event, proceduralism wins the day: French closes the case by marching patiently through a well-mapped field of evidence, and without resorting to bold leaps of intuition.

Although the affair lacks the puzzle-solving pyrotechnics found in other Golden Age novels, and although parts of it are slow and plodding, it’s hardly the work of a “humdrum” writer (as the critic Julian Symons famously labeled Crofts). In a lull before the storm that will come when French apprehends his quarry aboard a ship in transit, Crofts paints his hero against a background rife with drama:

French stood in front of his porthole gazing out over the heaving waters. Daylight had completely gone, but there was a clear sky and a brilliant full moon. The sea looked like a ghostly plain of jet with, leading away across it, a huge road of light, its edges sparkling with myriad flashes of silver.

Sprinkled throughout this not-so-great case are fine passages like that one—brief descriptions that confer a mood of enchantment on seemingly ordinary events. These passages exemplify a key insight offered by G.K. Chesterton in his defense of the detective genre: “[I]t is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2020 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Procedural

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Third Girl (1966).

“They probably look like mods or rockers or beatniks or whatever they call these chaps nowadays with the long hair and the dirty fingernails. … You never know which sex they are, which is embarrassing.” Some critics who generally admire Christie—for example, Robert Barnard in his book A Talent to Deceive—rate this effort poorly in part because, from their perspective, the author tries and fails miserably to render life as it is lived by young people in the Swinging London of 1966. On this view, for which the foregoing quotation might provide a case in point, Christie betrays a hopelessly Edwardian sensibility that undermines her bid to freshen up an otherwise standard Hercule Poirot adventure. Yet the speaker here is not Christie in her narrative voice but rather a fellow named Sir Roderick Horsefield, whom she depicts throughout the novel as a ridiculous old fool. What critics fail to see (not just in this instance but in many other instances, too) is the sly irony that Christie brought to much of her fiction. ThirdGirlIs she poking fun at the social and sartorial habits of the young? To be sure. But, at the same time, she is cocking an amused eye at the all-too-predictable bigotries of the old, among whom she no doubt would include herself. For a 76-year-old woman, she displays a remarkably zestful curiosity about the changing world around her, and that quality (though not always perfectly modulated) places this book a notch or two above par for her late work.

The phrase “third girl” refers to the practice by which young women in London share living quarters: One girl rents a flat and invites a second girl to join her, and then, to make the rent affordable, they advertise for a third tenant. In this way do the worlds of disparate young women collide in the great metropolis. The events in this tale swirl about one such flat in a building called Borodene Mansions. Living there are Claudia Reece-Holland, a crisply efficient secretary to a businessman in the City; Frances Cary, who works in a Bond Street art gallery and dabbles in making her own art; and Norma Restarick, an unkempt waif who holds some kind of job with an interior decorator. One morning, the latter woman visits Poirot (though neither he nor readers yet know who she is) and indicates that she “might” have committed a murder. Although she rejects his offer to help—he’s just “too old,” she says—he starts making inquiries that quickly reveal a welter of odd circumstances related to Norma, her family, and her hip young associates. Those circumstances involve episodes of real or apparent violence but not, until late in the day, a clear case of murder. But that day does arrive, and Poirot is ready for it.

The novel Third Girl, which effectively inaugurates the last decade of Christie’s writing life, evinces a few modest signs of the author’s loosening grip on her craft. The focus of action shifts in pell-mell fashion from Poirot to Ariadne Oliver, his scatter-brained crime-writer friend, and on occasion to some of the key players in the drama. Such narrative choices leave the impression that Christie lacks confidence both in her star detective and in her own power to keep the story on track. To generate a mystery plot, she remixes a variety—indeed, too large a variety—of motifs and stratagems from earlier, more path-breaking tales. About midway through the book, Poirot offers an implicit critique of this approach. “Enfin, it is too much!” he utters to himself. “Now we have espionage and counterespionage. All I am seeking is one perfectly simple murder.” But here, too, bemused self-mockery helps to compensate for some of the author’s diminished prowess. On the whole, moreover, the final concoction goes down pleasantly enough, and it contains enough bits of clever misdirection to summon memories of Christie’s finest moments.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2020 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

CARTER DICKSON. The Skeleton in the Clock (1948).

One evening in London, a young artist named Martin Drake has a few drinks with a young woman named Ruth Callice and a middle-aged barrister named John Stannard. They discuss two topics: Drake’s fixation on a woman named Jenny, whom he last saw three years ago, following a brief wartime encounter; and Stannard’s plan to commune with the ghosts of assorted murderers by spending a night in the execution shed at a decommissioned prison. Stannard dares Drake to join him in that affair, and Drake accepts the challenge. At this point, a series of improbable coincidences begins to pile up, with each new improbability compounding the one that preceded it.

The next day, Drake attends an auction of antiquities at Willaby’s in Mayfair (a stand-in for Sotheby’s), where he stumbles into Jenny West, his lost love. As it happens, Jenny lives at an estate in Berkshire that is near Pentecost Prison, the very spot where Stannard intends to do his ghost-hunting. As it happens, both of these locations are near Fleet House, the home of Ricky Fleet, to whom Jenny is engaged to be married. SkeletonClockMapback.jpg As it happens, Fleet House was the site of a decades-old murder case in which Stannard was a witness. As it happens, Inspector Masters of Scotland Yard and his partner in detection, Sir Henry Merrivale, are planning to reopen that case. As it happens, Merrivale is at Willaby’s that day as well, and he is there to meet Drake: Merrivale had promised to help Drake locate Jenny, and in exchange Drake had promised to advise Merrivale on the purchase of a sword. As it happens, Jenny has come to Willaby’s with her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Brayle, who intends to buy a curio whose origins link the item to the Fleet House murder. In short, every circumstance in Drake’s life is converging to send him—and everyone else in this remarkably small world—to Berkshire for a weekend of danger and discovery.

By a wondrous alchemy, the whole mélange of coincidences comes to appear not just plausible but thoroughly believable. For we have entered the realm of John Dickson Carr’s best fiction, where (whether Carr is writing under his own name or under the not-much-altered alter ego of Carter Dickson) the line between what’s improbable and what’s inevitable becomes practically invisible. When Carr (or Dickson, as we must call him here) is on his game, every looping turn of his narrative seems just right. So it is in the opening chapters of this novel. Even the slapstick escapade that punctuates Merrivale’s arrival—a bit of business that involves a sword, a shield, and the Dowager Countess of Brayle—works surprisingly well. Too often, scenes that pivot around the Old Man’s antics have a gratuitous quality; they exist mainly to fill space and to gratify Dickson’s not altogether mature sense of humor. (To be sure, Dickson uses the hurly-burly action of these scenes as a device for hiding clues. But that technique falls flat when the scenes don’t work in their own right.) In this instance, though, the clash between Merrivale and the Dowager Countess helps to evoke the class- and family-based energies that drive much of the plot.

At the center of that plot is a paradigmatic case of murder in retrospect. Back in 1927, Sir George Fleet fell to his death from the roof of Fleet House while watching the participants in a local hunt race past his estate. According to witnesses who were watching the hunt from the gabled windows of a nearby pub, no one else was in on that roof, and authorities therefore declared the death to be accidental. Now, in 1947, an anonymous informant has sent a series of postcards to Scotland Yard, the last of which reads, “Re Sir George Fleet: evidence of murder is still there.” These missives are enough to spark the interest of Masters and Merrivale. But if it was murder, then it was also an impossible (or, rather, “impossible”) crime: Somehow an unseen agent propelled the victim from his rooftop perch. To crack this riddle, Merrivale mulls over factors that include the possibility of funny business with a pair of field glasses, the report of a “pink flash” seen at the time of Sir George’s fall, lingering questions about the arrangement of furniture on the roof, and the odd matter of a grandfather clock whose mechanism has been replaced by a human skeleton.

SkeletonClock.jpg That titular object serves both as a tangible clue and as powerful metaphor. The skeleton in the clock conveys the haunting notion that the passage of time affords no escape from the past: Long-hidden secrets, in other words—those “skeletons” that proverbially linger in closets—will one day emerge to tell their tale. There’s a fine symmetry between the examination of old bones and the exhumation of old stories, and Dickson makes the most of it. The actual skeleton in the actual clock, meanwhile, eventually points Merrivale toward a satisfyingly elegant solution to the Fleet House mystery. Is the solution realistic? Well, it’s as realistic as any visitor to Carr-land has a right to expect.

One flaw is worthy of mention: In roughly the last third of the book, Dickson’s control of the narrative goes a bit slack, and his pacing loses some of its propulsive force. In the runup to the revelation of the killer’s identity, Dickson allows Merrivale’s high-jinks to occupy more actual and figurative real estate than they should. In sum, if the novel were about 10 percent shorter, it would be about 10 percent better.

Yet, even with that defect, The Skeleton in the Clock retains its considerable luster. Indeed, it’s one of the brighter ornaments in the author’s lavishly jeweled crown—a multi-faceted piece of great, and highly effective, complexity. Dickson does not stint on packing the tale with elements of intrigue and puzzlement. Alongside the main story about a 20-year-old murder, there is a nocturnal adventure at Pentecost Prison (an episode that recalls the eerie prison sequence in Hag’s Nook, the first novel in Carr’s Gideon Fell series), a new and brutal murder that occurs that same night, and an attempt to murder Drake by tossing him from the roof of Fleet House. Each of these elements comes with its own array of beguiling clues. A lesser writer might have saved a few tricks and treats for use in other work, but Dickson puts all that he’s got into honing this improbably perfect gem.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

DEREK SMITH. Whistle Up the Devil (1953).

In the setup of this double-barreled locked-room mystery, Smith offers a scenario that wins no points for originality. Everything about the tale’s two murders, and about the investigation of both crimes, might well have come from a book written in 1923 or 1933. Oft-used tropes pile up fast: A brilliant amateur detective named Algy Lawrence is summoned to Querrin House, near the village of Bristley, to prevent some elusive agent—a ghost, or maybe the devil—from killing Roger Querrin, the master of that domain. A supposed curse, traceable to a querulous ancestor, hangs over a particular room at the house, and Querrin plans to tempt fate by ensconcing himself there one night. Inside the room, a dagger hangs over a fireplace mantel. (Paging Dr. Chekov!)

True to form, the room and its immediate surroundings appear to be purpose-built for hosting an impossible crime problem: Its only points of entry are a single door with a newly keyed lock and a set of French windows that can be firmly bolted from inside. Surrounding the room and a passage that leads to it are beds of fresh soil that would show the footprints of any intruder. On the appointed evening, Lawrence and Peter Querrin, Roger’s brother, stand watch at the entrance to the passage. Sergeant Hardinge, from the local constabulary, watches from outside and has a full view of the French windows. Around midnight, a cry rings out, and Lawrence rushes toward the room and uses his gun to shoot open the door. Inside, he and his fellow watchmen find that Roger Querrin has died from a knife wound.

WhistleUpDevil.jpg Just as Lawrence begins to make sense of that killing, a second murder occurs in circumstances that seem to defy explanation. Simon Turner, an old family retainer who nurses a grudge against the Querrins, was caught prowling around the house and has been cooling his heels at the police station in Bristley. Somehow an agent of death manages to strangle him, even though all routes to his cell were under guard during the period when the killing could have taken place.

The solutions that Lawrence offers for these howdunit puzzles aren’t exactly elegant, but they are the best thing about the book. Both of them are plausible (or as plausible as such solutions can be), fairly clued, and wondrously intricate. The whodunit element is impressive, too, and it unfolds as a remarkably elaborate feat of misdirection. (The sequence in which Lawrence adduces answers to both the “who” and the “how” conundrums takes up roughly one-fifth of the novel.) Smith, who explicitly avows his debt to John Dickson Carr, delivers a plot that stands a cut or two above the average Carr tale in this vein. His handling of certain basics of storytelling, however, falls well below the Carr standard. He peoples his stock situations with stock characters who communicate mainly by exchanging stock phrases. The women of the piece, moreover, fall short of being even one-dimensional. They exist mainly to serve Smith’s own prurient interests, and his treatment of them dates the novel badly.

Near the end of Whistle Up the Devil, one ray of original insight glimmers in the dark-paneled library where Lawrence delivers his summation of the case. Smith, via Lawrence, posits the crime-solving equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: Merely by acting as an observer, an investigator may affect—with dire consequences—the outcome of what he is observing. When Lawrence agreed to stand watch outside the room in which Roger Querrin would ultimately die, he assumed that he could maintain his status as an aloof outsider. In fact, as Lawrence ruefully notes, he became complicit in the violent deed that he aimed to forestall. A sense of the tragic therefore sets this tale apart from most prewar novels of its type. Despite its generally frothy tone, the book at that brief moment echoes other works (certain Ellery Queen titles from the same era come to mind) that reflect a mood of postwar atomic dread.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

EDMUND CRISPIN. The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944).

The “gather all of the suspects” scene that closes out many a classic detective novel holds enduring appeal, despite its repeated use. Just as appealing, albeit less common, is the opening scene in which all of the suspects gather in preparation for the violent and puzzling events to come. Crispin executes the latter effect beautifully in this novel, which introduces the reading public to Professor Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. A slew of characters, traveling singly or in pairs, arrive by train in the ancient university town and bring with them an array of worries, resentments, secrets, and desires. Along with Fen, they include the chief constable of Oxford; the young journalist Nigel Blake, who serves as a sidekick to Fen (and whose name and role echo the Nigel Bathgate figure who appears in many of Ngaio Marsh’s novels about Inspector Roderick Alleyn); and group of people associated with the Oxford Repertory Theater, which will soon put on a new play titled Metromania. In a series of vignettes, Crispin profiles each character evocatively and expeditiously, and along the way he plants clear indications that every member of the theater circle has a motive to kill a particular colleague: Yseut Haskell, a self-involved actress who flaunts her sexuality offstage with greater energy than she applies to her work onstage.

The narrative stage is set (as it were) for crime. Sure enough, a couple of days after rehearsals for the play begin, Yseut takes a bullet to her forehead while she prowls around a room at St. Christopher’s College, the fictitious Oxford institution that Fen calls home. The room isn’t sealed, but the murder bears the marks of seeming impossibility. During the critical period before and after a shot had rang out from the room, a workman saw no one enter or leave the stairwell that leads to the crime scene. GildedFly.jpg Fen, whose room at the college happens to be directly above that location, was hosting a party there, and almost immediately upon hearing the shot, he and Blake swooped downstairs to discover the slain woman. In her hand was a gun that she had ostensibly used on herself. Surely there was no time for a killer to quit the scene, let alone commit any trickery with the body. So impossible does the murder scenario appear to be that the police cling to a theory of suicide. But Fen never doubts that an unseen hand fired the deadly shot.

The mood of this début work is by turns dark and breezy. Fen allows two other murders to occur before he sees fit to divulge what he knows about the killer and the initial killing. In the meantime, he deliberates at length over whether he should let the murderer remain unrevealed and unpunished. Like many other brilliant amateur sleuths of his era, he harbors a cavalier attitude toward the sanctity of life and the rule of law. In his philosophy of detection, apparently, some deeds are worse than homicide and some values are loftier than truth. Even so, the dominant mode of the narrative is comic. Crispin writes in a jaunty tone, and midway through the book he presents an interlude that evokes the power of love to triumph over death. Reprising the technique used in his opening chapter, he offers glimpses into the private musings of each suspect. But this time, in a nod to the tradition of Shakespearean comedy, he sorts his characters into romantic pairings.

As a puzzle plotter, Crispin displays notable talent here. His solution to the murder of Yseut has just enough cleverness and just enough plausibility to satisfy an impossible-crime enthusiast, and he ably points the vector of suspicion in multiple directions. Still, the mechanics of the plot break down in ways that one might expect in an apprentice piece: Fen stays mum about a couple of pivotal clues—that is, until he discloses them in his summing-up comments. In addition, the motive for the original murder is contrived and hidden from view, and Crispin handles it in a cursory fashion. The puzzle as a whole, meanwhile, borders on being too complex. Most readers, to keep their bearings, will need the diagram and the timetable that the author helpfully provides.

Crispin, as Anthony Boucher observed in his brief notice on the novel, blends the styles and storytelling methods of John Dickson Carr and Michael Innes. From Carr, he takes a flair for bold trick plotting and a preference for bold, feisty characters. From Innes, he takes a knack for over-the-top erudition and a familiarity with arty and academic settings. From both of these precursors, he derives a Chestertonian sensibility that treats the detective novel as more akin to an Arabian Nights tale than to a police report. In that spirit, he peppers this tale with in-jokes. The Nigel Blake character alludes not only to Marsh’s work but also to another precursor with a highbrow pedigree—the poet Cecil Day Lewis, who wrote novels about the detective Nigel Strangeways under the name Nicholas Blake. And Fen at one point signals that he resides in the same fictional universe as one of Carr’s heroes. (“Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy,” he says.)

Written toward the end of the Second World War, The Case of the Gilded Fly takes place in October 1940, when the Battle of Britain was still raging in the skies over the English Channel. Yet, although nightly blackout procedures factor somewhat importantly in the events that surround the death of Yseut Haskell, the titanic struggle for national survival registers as little more than a sideshow. The Oxford setting hovers on a practically timeless plane, and from start to finish Crispin stays true to the escapist promise of the detective genre. While the plot of the novel is decidely complex, its underlying message is simple: There will always be an England. And there will always be murder.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

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.

 
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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.

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