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Category Archives: British

CARTER DICKSON. The Judas Window (1938).

In most of his adventures, Sir Henry Merrivale seeks to show that someone could have done an apparently impossible deed. In this outing, his foremost objective is to prove that someone did not commit an apparently obvious crime.

The standard locked-room mystery posits a situation in which no one (it seems) could have entered a given space at a given time. But here’s the situation that investigators confront in the murder of Amory Hume: One man and only one man (it seems) visited Hume in his study at a certain hour on a certain Saturday evening. JudasWindow.jpgThat man and only that man (it seems) was present when an arrow fired at close range struck Hume dead in that room and at that hour. The man in question—the man who, in effect, wears a bull’s-eye of guilt on his back—is James Caplon Answell. He’s an amiable young chap who plans to wed Hume’s daughter. In his telling, he walked into the study, met the victim-to-be, was knocked unconscious by a drugged serving of whiskey, and shortly thereafter awoke to find Hume’s corpse lying nearby. For Answell, the whole affair isn’t a locked-room mystery; it’s a locked-in mystery. Apart from a brief prologue, he spends the entirety of this tale in the dock at the Old Bailey, where he is on trial for murder. Court officials call him, simply and chillingly, “the prisoner.” His one bit of good fortune is that Merrivale is at the Old Bailey, too, appearing as counsel for the defense.

Despite its atypical structure—it unfolds as a courtroom drama, with most of the standard investigative action taking place off-stage or in the recent past—Judas Window contains everything that an enthusiast of the classic locked-room novel might want. It’s a mid-career work that shows its author (John Dickson Carr, writing under the least mysterious of pen names) at the height of his powers. Like all great works of this type, it combines complexity and simplicity. Information regarding the arrangement of the crime scene, the movements of each suspect, and the potential significance of each clue gels into a pattern whose intricacy is devilish or heavenly, depending on your taste for that sort of fare. Yet the solution to the core riddle is one that you could jot down on the back of a postcard.

In Carr’s masterfully structured plot, every clue becomes an arrow that might point in any number of directions. From various angles, Merrivale and other characters examine the known points of entry to the murder chamber. He and they entertain multiple theorized solutions. At each turn, the brute facts of the matter appear to reinforce the edifice of impossibility that surrounds Answell’s claim of innocence: The sole door to Hume’s study, a heavy wooden thing, was bolted from the inside at the time of the murder, while the windows were encased in iron bars that show no sign of tampering. Then, midway through the trial, Merrivale begins teasing courtroom attendees with the notion that the study contains a “judas window”—an unseen opening that might have allowed someone other than Answell to kill Hume. The notion, as Merrivale initially presents it, conjures up supernatural possibilities. In a climactic moment, however, he demonstrates to the court that the aperture in question is as prosaically real as the powdered wig on a judge’s head.

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Posted by on August 28, 2013 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Tuesday Club Murders (1933).

The British title of this story collection, Thirteen Problems, is prosaically accurate but lacks the sly poetry of its U.S. counterpart. The American title points to the animating tension that underlies the world of Miss Marple, who appears here in her second book. (Her first appearance between hard covers came in the novel Murder at the Vicarage, published in 1930. In fact, though, several entries in this collection saw publication in magazines before then.) TuesdayClub1.jpg The premise of the book is contrived but charmingly simple: A half-dozen stolid, middle-class types agree to gather on Tuesday evenings for a spot of peaceful conviviality. Instead of chatting about their gardens or gossiping about the new vicar’s wife, however, the members of this club swap accounts of hitherto unsolved mystery and vie to see which of them can crack each puzzle. Not every story in the collection contains a murder—in that regard, the Stateside title is a misnomer—but each one hinges on an episode of violence or criminal deceit. It’s not the sort of thing that usually makes for very clubbable fare. And that, of course, is the genius of the Tuesday Club conceit: These stories are suitable for polite discussion. There are thrills, and occasionally there is a bit of gore, but there is nothing that might truly threaten the order that prevails in St. Mary Mead, as Christie calls her version of Mayhem Parva.

In each of the tales on offer, Christie strives to build up to a double-twist ending. Along with delivering an unexpected solution to a crime problem, she aims to startle readers by bringing forth a least-likely sleuth. Time and again, Miss Marple emerges from her cozy, self-knitted shawl and softly utters the words that will dispel the mystery at hand. Occasionally, the quest for surprise falls short of its mark. Several of these short stories achieve their effect precisely because they’re so short: No sooner does Christie set the telltale clues in place she than lets Miss Marple spring the pivotal revelation upon her readers. Even a brief pause for a thorough dissection of those clues, or for an exploration of mood or setting or character, would give a reader time to see the childishly simple trick upon which the mystery (such as it is) turns.

TuesdayClub2.jpgBut a few entries in this compendium hold the promise of something more. “The Idol House of Astarte” takes place in and around a reputedly sacred grove where Lady Diana Ashley, an ethereal beauty who inspires a cult-like devotion in certain men, meets with death by stabbing. In “The Bloodstained Pavement,” an artist paints a charming country-town scene and finds that her brush has rendered a grisly clue to a devious murder plot. “The Blue Geranium” builds a classic domestic poisoning case around a series of quasi-Gothic elements: an ill-tempered wife who can’t leave her bed, a fortune teller who sends cryptic notes of warning, a patch of wallpaper that suddenly changes color. Each of these episodes from the Marple casebook could easily serve as the nucleus of a longer, richer tale of intrigue and misdirection. In them, as in much of her best work, Christie demonstrates a near-magic ability—shown only by small crew of writers (Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Wodehouse come to mind)—to toss off tales that simultaneously possess the solemn force of myth and the airy lightness of a comic sketch.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in British, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories

 

IAN RANKIN. Knots and Crosses (1987).

KnotsCrosses.jpgDespite his name, Detective Sergeant John Rebus of the Edinburgh Police doesn’t present himself in this début adventure as a solver of puzzles. To be sure, the apparatus of puzzling—cryptic letters to Rebus, a killer who plays games with the names of his victims—do clutter the foreground here. But Rebus fits the mold of a troubled action hero far more than he does that of a cerebral master of detection. The mood and the plot of this novel, which centers on the abduction and murder of several teenage girls, echo the serial-slayer genre that was in vogue at the time of its creation. Working in that genre, Rankin excels. His sense of pacing and characterization combines the best of both the literary and the cinematic traditions of thrill-driven storytelling, and he wields a stylish pen overall. His use of Edinburgh, a citadel of Enlightenment that contains a dark and brooding interior, is likewise apt and well done. (Rankin draws explicitly and exuberantly on the model of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that great novel of Edinburgh in which a man, er, hides a monster behind his blandly civilized front.) Yet the whole thing has an over-the-top feel. It carries all the pomp and bluster of a holiday blockbuster or a sweeps-week TV episode. For an introductory installment in a series, moreover, the novel dwells too much on the character of Rebus; the murder case revolves too much around his past and his passions. Imagine a first date on which one party skips the usual charming banter and dives straight into making explosive confessions about himself. That, in effect, is what Rankin serves up in this tale. In fiction, as in romance, it’s nice to preserve a little mystery when you’re letting someone get to know you.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2013 in British, Noir, Novel

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

It’s probably the most famous detective puzzle ever contrived, and it amply deserves all of the renown (if not all of the notoriety) that attaches to it. The clueing is both pleasantly deceptive and exorbitantly fair. As in other novels that feature Hercule Poirot, Christie makes clear through him precisely what the pivotal clues are—be they psychological cues of the kind that are her specialty or the physical details that she handles no less skillfully. MurderAckroyd.jpgA gold ring with an obscure inscription, a chair that has been moved, a lacuna in the timetable of events before and after the murder, an overheard conversation that involves the victim, a late-night telephone call: Poirot repeatedly announces to his fellow characters, and hence to the reader, that these are matters of great moment. It is central to Christie’s genius that she can flaunt her clues and yet hide what they signify, and whose guilt they point to, until a time of her choosing. And although characterization is hardly a major strength of hers, Christie peoples her fiction with recognizable types who ring true enough to be amusing, plausibly homicidal, or both. Particularly well developed here are the circumspect murderer who nonetheless becomes unforgettable; Caroline Sheppard, a village gossip who cultivates a network of spies (and who foreshadows the creation of Miss Marple); and Poirot, who blends comic oddity and intellectual mastery in one incomparable package.

[ADDENDUM: Part of this novel’s notoriety derives from Edmund WIlson’s much-cited and much-reprinted critique on the detective genre, which he titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson missed the point, I think. Most detective-story enthusiasts care less about “who” than they do about “how”—how the story of a crime unfolds, how a master sleuth sorts through various clues and arranges them into a pattern, how an author manages to pull the narrative wool over the keenest of readerly eyes. Another factor behind the notoriety of the book, of course, is its one-of-a-kind trick solution. What struck me when I reread Ackroyd, however, is that it holds up exceedingly well even after the trick has lost its element of surprise. As a pure exercise in clue manipulation and reader misdirection, it’s a tale virtually without peer.]

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2013 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

MICHAEL DIBDIN. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978).

The word “last” in the title is no mere marketing flourish; it’s an omen of genuine terminality. Something truly ends in this first novel by Dibdin, who later made a mark with his series about Italian police commissioner Aurelio Zen. At the least, what ends here is the aura of boyish innocence that lay draped like a warm, woolly Inverness cape across the imagined world of the original Holmes tales. LastSherlock.png The cozy structures of Victorian life, which had long kept evil within boundaries that the great detective could negotiate with masterly flair, are now crumbling underfoot. Inciting this affront to order are the exploits of Jack the Ripper: In the fall of 1888, an assailant slices a half-dozen prostitutes to death on the dank, narrow streets of Whitechapel, in east London. For Holmes, whose career was on the ascent at that very moment, the Ripper killings present the ultimate crime-fighting challenge. Add in the involvement of Professor Moriarty (this book’s title also plays on “The Final Problem,” the title of the adventure in which Holmes confronts that fabled nemesis), along with the motif of Holmes’s cocaine addiction, and Dibdin has the makings of a tour de force. Sherlockian purists might deem the novel to be a tour de farce, a pastiche that begins competently but then veers perversely from homage to horror. They would not be wrong. But others will appreciate Dibdin’s clever plotting, which recalls Ruth Rendell at her most ingenious and most psychologically acute. Non-purists might also see that this work is finally about Dr. Watson, who of course acts as narrator, and about the good doctor’s abiding affection for Holmes—the Holmes whom posterity knows, and whom Watson knew and loved.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle

 

C.J. SANSOM. Dissolution (2003).

Life is cheap in the England of Henry VIII—there is widespread pestilence, there is religion-fueled mayhem, there is the unpleasant matter of Anne Boleyn, executed at the Tower in 1536—but even in that death-saturated land, it’s not every day that someone lops off the head of an emissary from the king. Nonetheless, at the Monastery of St. Donatas the Ascendant of Scarnsea, in the year 1537, a royal commissioner named Robin Singleton has found himself on the wrong side of a sword blade. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s imperiously competent and much-feared vicar general, had dispatched Singleton to Scarnsea to negotiate terms of surrender with Abbot Fabian, the leader of the monastery. That move was part of Cromwell’s grand scheme to dismantle the country’s great religious establishments; his aim, in undertaking this “dissolution,” was both to further the cause of anti-papist Reform and to claim the wealth of the monasteries for the crown and its allies. Dissolution.jpgDid one of the monks at St. Donatus decide to strike a personal blow for Counter-Reformation by murdering Singleton? To find out, Cromwell calls upon the investigative talents of Matthew Shardlake, a prosperous London lawyer and a loyal Reform man, who here appears in the first book of a series that follows his journey through the treacherous world where Tudor politics and sordid crime intermingle. Shardlake also happens to be a hunchback, and that condition arguably gives him a distinct angle of view on the rampant cruelty and suffering of his time.

Dissolution owes more than a little to the model of The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Like that best-selling tome, which opened the way for countless medieval mysteries that have followed, Sansom’s novel offers a minutely observed look inside a cloistered realm that typifies its era in many respects but also stands apart as a world unto itself. In each case, the rivalries and resentments that inevitably arise within an (almost) all-male population—a population marked by an imperfect commitment to celibacy and a sometimes warped commitment to the Christian faith—serve up lots of raw material for intrigue, secrecy, and misunderstanding. Shardlake and his protégé, Mark Poer, also resemble Eco’s heroes, John of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, in seeming just modern enough to bridge the gap between the mind of the Middle Ages and the sensibility of readers today. Sansom even includes a throwaway reference to one of the main plot points in Eco’s opus. (Brother Gabriel, the monk in charge of the library at St. Donatus, takes a book from the library’s collection and says to Shardlake: “Reputedly a copy of Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy. A fake, of course, thirteenth-century Italian, but beautiful nonetheless.”)

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But Sansom‘s work is a superbly crafted whodunit with special qualities of its own. In a departure from the standard pattern, Shardlake rather that Poer narrates these proceedings, and he comes across less as a “great detective” than as a Watson-like figure: His voice, like his personality, is smart and stolid, yet oddly ingenuous. His response to the events that he witnesses is earnest and occasionally naïve—an attitude that plays an integral part in the story that Sansom aims to tell. Shardlake isn’t just a creature of his time; he’s a man formed by his time. Unlike many period mysteries, this one doesn’t treat the past as a static backdrop. Instead, readers gain a visceral sense that the English Reformation was a fluid process whose ultimate meaning and impact were far from certain. For Shardlake, a deepening of insight into that historical moment comes in tandem with an epiphany that lets him solve the murder puzzle. “This new world was no Christian commonwealth; it never would be,” he notes.

It was in truth no better than the old, no less ruled by powers and vanity. … And then I realized that blinkered thinking of another sort had blinded me to the truth of what happened at Scarnsea. I had bound myself to a web of assumptions about how the world worked, but remove one of those and it was as though a mirror of clear glass were substituted for a distorting one. My jaw dropped open. I realized who had killed Singleton and why and, that step taken, all fell into place.

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle

 

JOHN DICKSON CARR. He Who Whispers (1946).

“Steady!” It’s a phrase—an authorial tic—that recurs throughout Carr’s fiction, and it pops up a couple of times in this compact novel that features the anything-but-compact Dr. Gideon Fell. Carr typically inserts that potent little exclamation at a moment when a character needs to gather his wits or his nerves in the face of some deeply alarming turn of events. Likewise, it’s an admonition that readers should heed as they try to follow the gobsmacking sequence of events that unfolds here. He Who Whispers is a miracle-problem tale that hurtles forward at a miraculous pace. Stunningly ingenious and adroitly engineered, it represents a peak moment in Carr’s career as a master puzzle setter.

HeWhoWhispers.jpgTwo interconnected problems, separated in time by the six years that mark the Second World War, drive the novel’s rapid-fire action and its breathtaking display of literary detection. First comes the crime at Chartres. In the peacetime summer of 1939, an English industrialist who lives in that French town walks to the top of an ancient tower and falls victim to an inexplicable act of violence: He’s found with a fatal wound from a sword-cane in his back, in circumstances that seem to rule out the possibility that anyone could have come near him at the time of the assault. Then, soon after the end of the war in Europe, comes the crime at New Forest. At a country house in that idyllic region, shots ring out in the night. Miles Hammond, the owner of the house (and the leading man in this affair), rushes upstairs and finds the prostrate form of his sister, Marion; there’s a gun in her hand, and she’s nearly dead from shock. Who, or what, could have put her into that state? And who, or what, could have spurred her to fire those shots?

Linking those incidents are a strange meeting in a Soho restaurant, hosted by a group called the Murder Club, and a young woman named Fay Seton, who carries with her an aura of tragedy—and the vague intimation that she might be a vampire, of all things. Hammond attends the gathering of the Murder Club, and there he learns about the Seton woman, and about her involvement in the events at Chartres. That knowledge, though, doesn’t stop him from bringing her to his New Forest home to serve as a kind of secretary. (The series of coincidences that lead her from one crime scene to the other is the one seriously dubious element in Carr’s generally strong plotting.) The Murder Club scenes make for a great set piece, combining an otherworldly mood of pure melodrama with a gritty sketch of life in a war-weary metropolis. The Seton character and Hammond’s romantic fascination with her, meanwhile, push this traditional mystery HeWhoWhispers2.jpg tale in a notably non-traditional direction.

[ADDENDUM: Last week, in comments that followed my less-than-enthusastic post about a Robert B. Parker novel, I noted that I don’t like writing negative reviews. This week, I get to correct the balance. I loved this novel by Carr, and I greatly enjoyed writing about it. It’s one of several Dr. Fell titles that I never got around to reading during my personal golden age of reading detective fiction, which occurred back when I was a teenager. Reading it now in my middle years (I sped through it a month or two ago), I felt the same thrill—the same sense of entrancement, the same rush of wanting (and yet not wanting) to reach the end of a book—that I felt when I first came under Carr‘s spell. My taste in detective fiction has broadened as I’ve grown older; I no longer expect every book by every writer to bedazzle and bamboozle me in that way that, say, a novel by Carr can do. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve outgrown my enthusiasm for what Carr called “The Grandest Game in the World.”]

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in British, Novel, Puzzle