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Category Archives: British

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Murder at the Vicarage (1930).

Miss Jane Marple, in her first published case, fully embodies what will become her accustomed role as the “least likely” sleuth. (For Christie, it wasn’t enough to people her work with least likely suspects.) To prove her mettle, the all-knowing spinster of St. Mary Mead works her way through one of the most finely calibrated puzzles that her creator ever devised. As with most of Christie’s best plots, the core solution is breathtakingly simple, and the essential achievement—one that defined the author’s genius—involves spinning webs of believable complication around that solution. True to the title’s promise, the instigating crime occurs in the peaceful confines of a clergyman’s home. The victim is Colonel Protheroe, the master of Old Hall and a local magistrate, a man whose wealth and power and self-righteous personality have given a wide range of his relatives and neighbors a motive for putting a bullet through his stubborn head. MurderVicarage.jpg Indeed, the tale begins charmingly with a scene in which the Rev. Leonard Clement avers that “anyone who murdered” the colonel “would be doing the world at large a service.” Clement is the vicar of St. Mary Mead, and it’s in Clement’s study that Protheroe meets his unlamented end.

Clement also serves as the book’s narrator and as a foil of sorts for Miss Marple. He is Watson to her Holmes. He is, in a cockeyed way, Wooster to her Jeeves: His bluff, everyman stolidity—he is neither more nor less than what he appears to be, an average Englishman of his class—stands in contrast to her aura of occult capability. Like Jeeves, she wears the mask of a defined social role, and the mask conceals an intellect of unplumbed depth. Miss Marple intimidates Clement just a bit (as Jeeves does Wooster), but the two of them pair up effectively to bolster the forces of order within their village. They are subtly drawn characters, and in that regard they have company among the other characters in this piece.

Murder at the Vicarage delivers a firm rebuttal to the standard critique of Christie, which is that her approach to crafting fiction was purely (and sometimes clumsily) utilitarian—that she excelled only at turning parlor tricks and lacked any kind of literary flair. She produced this book early in the prime of her writing life, and a growing mastery of her art shows on every page. Both the narration and the dialogue are crisp, and full of small grace notes. Several subplots blend seamlessly into the main tale. Above all, the writing is efficient: Few if any weavers of fiction have surpassed Christie in her ability to establish a scene and then guide readers swiftly through it. And all the while, she builds a compelling little world. In the cottages and gardens that surround the vicarage, in the High Street shops and along the country lanes of St. Mary Mead, the tide of human life ebbs and flows. On the surface, it’s a comic and, yes, cozy world, but underneath there is an abiding strain of evil that lends gravity to Miss Marple’s knack for solving mysteries.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

J.S. FLETCHER. The Middle Temple Murder (1918).

On either side of Fleet Street in London, journalists and lawyers ply trades that deal with crucial matters of life and death, of language and truth. The journalists do their work loudly and cast their product far and wide, whereas the lawyers toil quietly in cloistered chambers—yet practitioners in both groups traffic in the raw stuff of human conflict, and they excel at the arts of concealment and revelation. This ancient quarter of the ancient city, therefore, provides an apt venue for the start of a murder story.

Early one morning, as the presses begin to rumble and as a hush settles over the Inns of Court, a young scribe named Frank Spargo wanders near Middle Temple Lane and happens upon a the corpse of a well-dressed man whose pockets contain no identification. When the new day dawns, Spargo joins forces with Detective-Sergeant Rathbury of New Scotland Yard to crack the riddle of who the victim was and how he came to be bludgeoned to death. Initially, the investigation has a strong procedural cast: The newspaperman and the policeman follow trails that take them to diverse London locations—a hotel near Waterloo Station, a West End hat shop, the Houses of Parliament. MiddleTempleMurder.jpg Working from a meager supply of clues, they discover that the dead man was a visitor from Australia named John Marbury. The hunt for truth then shifts to the well-traveled path of a certain type of thriller. A curious bauble found in the victim’s luggage leads Spargo to uncover an intricate back-story that involves multiple hidden identities, multiple schemes of financial fraud, and multiple people with fraught connections to the mysterious Marbury. The question of who slew the man remains unanswered until a climactic scene that unfolds in a remote part of rural England. The ultimate locus of enlightenment, as it turns out, is a far cry from Fleet Street.

One mystery that hovers over this volume today is why Howard Haycraft placed it on his “Reader’s List of Detective Story Cornerstones,” which he published in his own cornerstone history of the genre, Murder for Pleasure (1941). (Frederic Dannay later added a number of titles to the list and famously published it as “The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective, Crime, and Mystery Fiction.”) The Middle Temple Murder is a middling work in every respect. It’s a routine tale of intrigue, lively in parts but rather plodding on the whole, and it hardly represents an original turn in the development of its form. The plot is derivative of (among other sources) those entries in the Sherlockian canon that pivot around sordid deed that took place in the distant past or in some faraway colonial outpost (or both). Nor does Fletcher display any particular brilliance in spinning out this plot; his narrative style lacks the brio that Arthur Conan Doyle brought to adventures of this kind. Although the novel showcases some of the trappings of modern life—the crackle of telegraph and telephone messages as they speed across London and spur men to action, the badinage between a cocky, ambitious reporter and a proud Scotland Yard official—it comes across mainly as a late and not especially colorful flowering of Victorian sensation fiction.

[ADDENDUM: I read this book during a recent trip to London. Having booked a room at a hotel that’s near the Inns of Court—indeed, it’s a cobblestone’s throw away from Middle Temple Lane—I decided that the time was right for dipping into this so-called cornerstone work. Although it’s disappointing as tale of detection, it makes very engaging use of its London setting. During my stay in the city, as I ambled from the hotel up to Fleet Street or over to the Temple Underground Station and beyond, it was easy to adjust my mental landscape to the landscape of Fletcher’s novel. A full century has passed, and the Guerkin and the Shard and other gleaming landmarks of Millennial London now compete with St. Paul’s to dominate the skyline, but the old city remain visible to those who yearn to see it.]

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

RUTH RENDELL. A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970).

In the early going, at least, this novel of murder among the gentry in a Sussex village has a lot to recommend it. The outlines of the story are almost stereotypically classic: There is a great and ancient house, and a clutch of servants, and a tangle of familial tensions that suggest a range of possible motives to kill, and a hitherto-secret will that casts some of those motives in a provocative light. At the same time, this fifth work in the Inspector Wexford saga has a decidedly modern flair; it wholly lacks the cozy, complacent mood that hangs over many country-house mysteries of the prewar era. Rendell’s telling of this tale, moreover, is as brisk as the tale itself is admirably brief. GuiltyThing.jpg The author gazes on her subjects with a cold, satiric eye, but she also conveys a compassionate view of the drives that make each character no better (but also no worse) than he or she should be.

The most important character, although she is onstage for only a short time, is the victim, Elizabeth Nightingale. Elizabeth, the lady of Myfleet Manor, was a beautiful albeit slightly vain woman who devoted her days to charity and leisure. Why would anyone wish to find or join her in Cheriton Forest and there, under a midnight moon, smash her head with a blunt object? The puzzle of who Elizabeth was, and of the true nature of her relationships with other characters—including her distinguished husband, Quentin; her brother, a prickly writer named Denys Villiers; and a young gardener on her staff, Sean Lovell, whose aspirations to become a pop star she encouraged—give Wexford and his young colleague, Mike Burden, plenty of leads to investigate.

The tale comes with a mighty twist, yet that twist throws the foregoing tale perversely out of whack. The final revelation—told in the form of an extended confession—not only bears a tenuous (and minimally clued) connection to what precedes it but also banishes Wexford and Burden to the margins of their own case. Rendell thus achieves an effect that is both unsettling and unsatisfying.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

CARTER DICKSON. He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944).

The Royal Albert Zoo, an enclave located fictitiously in Kensington Gardens, provides the backdrop for most of the action in this dazzling tale from the prime of John Dickson Carr’s tale-spinning life. (The Carter Dickson pseudonym, of course, in no way obscures the unmistakable stamp of Carr’s authorship.) But in a broader sense, the backdrop is the wild kingdom that extends across the war-wracked skies over London. Set during a three-day period in early September 1940, the events in this novel of domestic murder unfold as German bombers begin their decidedly international assault on Britain’s capital. In several scenes, the haunting drone of aircraft sounds overhead. In one scene, smoke from fires in the East End wafts over the West End, offering a preview of the horrors that will come as the blitz advances over the whole city. And in a pivotal early scene, an air-raid warden on his rounds peeks through a window that should be blacked out, but isn’t, and spots a prone body on the floor.

KillPatience.jpg

The body belongs to Edward Benton, director of the zoo. By all accounts, he was a harmless-enough fellow, driven primarily by an obsession with maintaining his large and exotic menagerie amid the challenges and privations of wartime. He was also a man of independent wealth, and a brother of his who might inherit that fortune hovers about the Royal Albert grounds. Otherwise, it’s hard to discern who had a motive to extinguish the zookeeper’s life. But attention here focuses less on motive than on means. Somehow, and for some obscure reason, the killer lined the edges of every point of egress in the murder chamber—from the sills of windows to the bottom of the room’s only door—with adhesive-backed paper. Benton, in other words, drew his last breath in a thoroughly (and not just metaphorically) sealed room. It’s a perfect case for Sir Henry Merrivale, who, by the serendipitous logic of Carr’s world, happens to be at the Benton residence on the evening of the crime.

As noted, the circle of suspects is almost alarmingly small: The reader must ask not just “Who committed the murder?” but “Who even might have committed it?” Despite that handicap, Carr manages to work a kind of surprise in the whodunit department. For Sir Henry, though, pinpointing a killer and proving the killer’s guilt are discrete endeavors, and in this instance court-worthy proof eludes him. So Old H.M.—a man who is largely innocent of patience—confronts the killer in the zoo’s Reptile House and forces the issue in a starkly cold-blooded way.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2017 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

GEORGETTE HEYER. Why Shoot a Butler? (1933).

More than once, the amateur sleuth Frank Amberley asserts that the murder of Dawson, the butler who had served long and honorably at Norton Manor, is the least intriguing aspect of the case at hand. He means to say that he discerns an underlying pattern of crime and connivance that poses a more scintillating problem—to his kind mind, anyway—than the shooting of Dawson per se. But Amberley also speaks for his creator: Heyer clearly views other elements of her tale as worthier of her energy and ingenuity than the humdrum business of solving a murder puzzle. What’s most compelling to her mind, it would seem, is the timeless problem of how an eligible bachelor and a nubile maiden who don’t appear to like each other will find a way to love each other. (Heyer, who produced about a dozen novels in the detective genre between 1932 and 1953, later became best known for her work as a writer of Regency romances.) WhyShootButler.jpg The bachelor is Amberley, a rising barrister whose cleverness is almost equal to his arrogance. The maiden is Shirley Brown, a prideful woman in her own right who struggles to make a life as an assistant to a lady novelist. For mysterious reasons, she has leased a cottage along with her brother in a patch of country near the village of Upper Nettlefold, which in turn is near both Norton Manor and the Greythorne estate, where Amberley’s uncle and aunt reside.

The couple’s meet-cute moment occurs over the corpse of the eponymous servant. Amberley, gliding along in his Bentley toward Greythorne, happens upon a roadside tableau that features Miss Brown, a gun that she has in her possession, and Dawson, sporting a fresh bullet wound in his chest. The suspicious young man and the suspicion-arousing young woman bicker in the time-honored style, but he decides not to divulge her presence at the crime scene to the police. Amberley isn’t inclined to entrust information to them, in any event. Even after the local authorities invite him to take part in their investigation, he treats them with genial contempt. He doesn’t trust Miss Brown very much, either. Yet he does respect her, and over the course of several tension-filled encounters, that feeling melts into something softer than respect.

There are follow-up murders that add to the body count while trimming an already short list of suspects. To specify who’s on that list as the book enters its final sequence would give the game away: At that point, it’s not a puzzle, it’s a coin flip. Establishing who shot the butler and why, moreover, isn’t an entirely fair-play proposition. Amberley, we discover during the wrap-up phase of this affair, has withheld vital facts not just from police officials but from readers as well. Which isn’t to say that Heyer neglects the puzzle element completely. Her plotting is crisp and intelligent, if not intricate. She includes just enough detection to keep the love story honest, as it were, and the wit that she brings to telling that story partly redeems any weakness in the novel’s detective component. She also writes perfectly modulated prose that throws off sparks of tart humor in almost every scene.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2017 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

COLIN DEXTER. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975).

LastBusWoodstock.jpgFor this first Inspector Morse tale, Dexter uses a scenario that was highly popular among British crime writers during the final decades of the 20th century: A women in the full, dangerous bloom of her youth is found dead, the victim presumably of a man with sex on his mind and a sick way of showing it. Other notable works that tell a similar tale include Cover Her Face (1962), by P.D. James; Death in the Morning (1978), by Sheila Radley; The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980), by Michael Gilbert; and Close Her Eyes (1984), by Dorothy Simpson. On the one hand, that scenario seems compellingly modern, tapping as it does into anxieties about what can happen to a young woman now that the restrictions and protections of Victorian patriarchy have fallen away. On the other hand, it draws on the age-old trope of an innocent maiden who falls prey (or so we presume) to a wolf in disguise.

Characterization partly compensates for this lack of narrative innovation. The personality of Morse, a prickly eccentric on the model of Sherlock Holmes, and the relationship between him and his assistant, Sergeant Lewis—which are frosty but show signs of thawing—provide much of the appeal in this procedural. The plot might have held some appeal as well, but there are major flaws that undermine it. Suspects in the case are few in number, a couple of them are plainly red herrings, and the guilt of the “least likely” among them becomes clear well before the denouement. Most important, Morse’s detection hinges too much on his own leaps of intuition and not enough on clues available to the reader.

[ADDENDUM: For a couple of years, and until a few weeks ago, I had let this site go dark. Now, as I rev it up again with the aim of posting something every week or so, I am trawling through old material that i can adapt for use here. This brief review is very old—and, indeed, very brief. In any event, I note that my cursory judgment of this book aligns with the considered view of other readers.]

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

NGAIO MARSH. A Wreath for Rivera (1949).

This mid-career opus has a pleasantly nostalgic feel. Marsh, in what reads almost like a self-pastiche, reworks some of the standard plot turns and favored tropes of her early work from the 1930s. There is a dotty peer who presides over an aristocratic household in which Edwardian-era norms still hold sway: People “dress” for dinner, for example, and afterward the menfolk and the womenfolk retire to separate rooms. There is a pair of young women who chatter, like characters out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, in the register of carefree cynicism. There is a pair of young men, one posh and one working-class, who each in his own pompous way expresses a vaguely leftist contempt for the Establishment. There is a “hot” jazz band that plies its trade at a Soho joint called the Metronome. And so on. Toward the end of the book, Marsh offhandedly describes a blitz-ravaged block of the City, and that reference comes as an abrupt reminder that a war had recently taken place that altered British society from top to bottom. On the whole, though, she has fashioned a milieu that seems decidedly prewar.

WreathRivera.jpgThe most quintessentially retro figure of all is the eponymous victim. Carlos Rivera, an oily Latin type, plays the piano-accordion in high style and also fancies himself a great ladies’ man. In describing the contents of his flat, Marsh lays it on thick: She puts erotic prints on the walls, and black sheets on the bed. Back in the twenties and thirties, actors like Roman Novarro and Cesar Romero played variations of this fellow in one B-movie after another. Much of the intrigue that Marsh uses to drive the action, meanwhile, pivots around two staples of the interwar crime story—blackmail and small-scale dope dealing. Rivera, as it turns out, supplemented his pay as a musician by practicing both of those illicit avocations, and as a result he made plenty of enemies. The circumstances of his murder have a theatrical flair that also calls to mind an earlier era. One night at the Metronome, as the Breezy Bellairs band winds down its set, there is a planned bit of business that swerves in an unplanned direction. A gun supposedly filled with blank cartridges goes off, Rivera drops his instrument and falls to the stage, and a funeral wreath is brought out to cover his “corpse.” In the ensuing chaos, it becomes evident that he’s actually dead. At the same time, someone had taken an umbrella used in the floorshow and jury-rigged it to accommodate a stiletto knife. Which of these two peculiar weapons killed Rivera? Either way, the murder technique is a straight throwback to the fantastical methods that Golden Age writers routinely used to dispatch their victims. A Wreath for Rivera isn’t a locked-room caper, but it unfolds in the same otherworldly spirit that one finds in the madcap tales that John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen (and indeed Marsh herself) penned during their antebellum heyday.

On hand at the Metronome to witness the death of Rivera is Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and although he would continue to star in Marsh’s work up through the 1970s, he too comes across as a refugee from an earlier time—a period when, at least in fiction, a genteel master sleuth always seemed to be nearby whenever an unknown villain decided to commit a puzzling homicide. Marsh, for her part, effectively refutes the notion that she’s just retelling an old tale. She writes sparkling prose, she brings real verve to the scene-by-scene construction of her plot, and she manages the narrative with noble efficiency and with little of the plodding recitation of interviews that characterizes even her best early work. (Her talent had evolved, even if her social attitudes and her storytelling habits had not.) Finally, with a practiced hand, she guides this amusing romp to an elegant conclusion.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2016 in British, Novel, Puzzle