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Category Archives: British

JOSEPHINE TEY. The Singing Sands (1952).

This last of Tey’s novels features her recurring sleuth, Inspector Alan Grant, but it isn’t much of a detective story. At a structural level, it resembles a mid-20th-century suspense movie, and indeed it may have drawn inspiration from certain classics of that genre. SingingSands.jpg The plot unfolds like an amalgam of several Alfred Hitchcock features, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). First comes the discovery on a train of a dead man by a more or less innocent bystander. Next comes a search for the meaning of some cryptic lines of verse that the victim had penned (“The beasts that talk/The streams that stand/The stones that walk/The singing sand/ . . . /That guards the way/To Paradise”)—a search that leads literally to the Scottish Hebrides and figuratively to the deserts of Arabia. Then, in the finale, comes the exposure of a villain who embodies the awesome evil that pure vanity can engender. The villain’s identity is revealed rather than detected, and in general Tey has crafted a story that appeals more to the thrill of a chase than to the pleasure of rationally dissecting a puzzle.

Yet actual thrills are few and far between. The Singing Sands, even as it follows Grant’s obsessive quest to decipher an evocative dying message, reads mainly like a meditative study of character and incident. If Tey (or a screenwriter charged with adapting her work) were to add a few scenes that involve physical danger, the result might form the basis of an excellent film—a world-weary, postwar update of The 39 Steps (the 1935 Hitchcock version). But as it is, as an achievement of the printed word, the tale offers modest fare for a reader’s imagination.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2018 in British, Novel

 

CYRIL HARE. Suicide Excepted (1939).

SuicideExcepted.jpgThis third of Hare’s novels came out during the final year of an era known (semi-officially, at least) as the Golden Age of detective fiction, and it bears the telltale marks of that period. It’s a loose-jointed romp that draws on familial tensions and technical points of law, as well as physical and circumstantial clues, to build a pattern of mystification around a narrow group of suspects. At a country inn full of respectable people, each of whom has something to hide, a guest dies one morning from the ingestion of poison and apparently by his own hand. Because the victim’s insurance policy bars payment in the event of suicide, a coroner’s ruling to that effect means destitution for several surviving family members. The dead man’s son and daughter, along with the daughter’s fiancé, therefore undertake to prove that the cause of death was murder. (Circumstances foreclose the possibility of an accident.) Through their adventures in amateur detection, these three would-be beneficiaries stir up clouds of suspicion—and provide a steady source of amusement for readers—but they uncover no conclusive evidence. So it falls to Inspector Mallett, an exemplar of professional calm who has been observing the trio from just off-stage, to see the case through to its final twist.

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

 

COLIN DEXTER. The Wench Is Dead (1989).

This entry in the Inspector Morse series is highly reminiscent of The Daughter of Time, the much-admired (and often over-praised) classic by Josephine Tey that casts her hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, in the role of an amateur historian. Here, too, a bedridden policeman escapes boredom by reading about a murder from the distant past. Here, too, discrepancies and oddities in the traditional account of the crime incite professional skepticism in the policeman and spur him to review the surviving documentation of the case. Here, too, the policeman enlists the aid of visiting friends and subordinates, who get swept along by his obsessive interest in opening one of the coldest of cold cases. WenchIsDead.jpg Here, too, the policeman and his ad hoc investigative team take a version of truth that had withstood scrutiny for decades (or centuries, as in Tey’s novel) and turn that version inside-out. Here, too, an author brings the past to life by the somewhat ironic means of exploring an ancient death. Here, too, the reader encounters in an acutely distilled form the quality that distinguishes the detective story from other genres—the romance of reason, the grand game of ferreting truth out of its hiding place.

The Wench Is Dead proves to be more satisfying than its famous precursor, and the chief reason is easy to identify: Tey, in her book, labors conscientiously within the factual parameters of an actual event—the alleged murder by King Richard III of his two nephews (the fabled “princes in the Tower”)—whereas Dexter places relatively few limits on his creativity. Although he draws inspiration from the true case of a killing that took place in Staffordshire in 1839, he transfigures that event into an episode that takes place only in the space of his own devious mind: the rape and murder by drowning of a young woman named Joanna Franks. This fictional crime occurred in 1859, on or near the Oxford Canal, and in describing the social milieu of that time and that place, Dexter is able to evoke a world that teems with cryptic clues and densely layered personal relationships. (In that respect, this world resembles the late-20th-century Oxford that Morse claims as his usual stomping ground.) Dexter also improves on the Tey prototype by allowing Morse to transcend the bounds of physical confinement, first by the force of his personality and then through evidence-hunting excursions that take him away from his sickbed. More so than Grant, Morse brings a spirit of urgent action to a narrative that would otherwise consist of interior monologue and seemingly endless dialogue.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

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