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Category Archives: Golden Age

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

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934).

Despite the deliberate Sherlockian echo in the title of this collection, the stories brought together here bear only a loose resemblance to those of the Great Detective. The Queen household on West 87th Street never attains the mythic presence of the fabled rooms at 221B Baker Street, and the pairing of Ellery Queen and his inspector father inspires none of the eternal fascination that the relationship between Holmes and Watson elicit to this day. Queen the author is not the builder of a densely imagined and richly peopled world. (About the scurrying figure of Djuna, the Queens’ houseboy, the less said the better.) More to the point, these chronicles from the early days of Ellery’s sleuthing career are not high-spirited “adventures” of the kind that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Instead, they are well-crafted puzzles that far exceed in ingenuity the simple plots that Doyle typically generated. Ellery may not be a great detective in the Holmes mold, in other words, but he is a master of truly great detection.

AdventuresEQ.jpgTake “The Adventure of the Bearded Lady,” in which Ellery cracks the code of a “dying message”—a special variety of clue, and one that became a trademark of the Queen canon. Such clues, at their best, evoke the image of a victim who frantically expends his last moments on a Hail Mary bid to communicate with the would-be avenger of his murder. In this case, Ellery must figure out why an amateur artist devoted his last spasm of life to shading a patch of facial hair onto a woman in a Rembrandt reproduction that he had been painting.

Or take “The Adventure of the Two-Headed Dog,” which carries a distinct narrative echo from the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. As in many of those stories, the protagonist happens into an out-of-the-way spot where strange goings-on are already in progress: Ellery stops at a roadside inn along the New England coast, and from a querulous innkeeper named Cap’n Hosey he learns about the apparent haunting of one of the small cabins that surround the inn. Three months earlier, a guest had disappeared from that cabin, and on certain nights afterward folks have heard eerie, desperate sounds emanating from the place. Later that evening, a killing occurs in the same cabin. An otherworldly mood pervades the scene, but Ellery deduces his way toward an outlandish yet fitting (and entirely non-supernatural) solution.

Or, finally, take “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party,” the longest and justly the best known of this book’s 11 tales. At a Long Island estate, a wealthy investor plans to stage a famous scene from Alice in Wonderland for his son’s birthday. Then he disappears. And then a phantom presence begins delivering assorted objects—shoes and ships, cabbages and kings—that bring to mind another work by Lewis Carroll. The puzzle in this instance is workmanlike but hardly stellar. Yet the madcap atmospherics are gripping, and they foreshadow the nursery-rhyme tropes that will become a fixture of later Queen works. Among British writers of the Victorian era, Carroll casts as least as long a shadow on the Queenian universe as Doyle did. For Queen, as for Carroll, the glories and perversities of logic provide a bottomless source of both delight and mystery.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2017 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Cards on the Table (1936).

Four murderers, four detectives, one victim. There, in brief, is the neat, stylized pattern around which Christie weaves yet another beguiling mystery for Hercule Poirot to solve. The victim, Mr. Shaitana (the name means Satan), invites to dinner four seemingly ordinary Brits, each of whom he believes to be guilty of an undetected, unpunished homicide. CardsTable.jpgAlso invited are a quartet of sleuths, including Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race of the Secret Service, and the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (she acts, in effect, as Christie’s doppelgänger), along with Poirot, he of the little gray cells. After dinner, the suspected killers retire to Shaitana’s curio-crammed living room, where they play a few rubbers of contract bridge. One of them, during a turn as “dummy,” stabs the host with an exotic dagger from the victim’s own collection. The four detectives, who had spent the evening in another room, then set about investigating the recent movements and the past exploits of the four suspects. An understanding of bridge and its rules figures in Poirot’s deductive process, but any sharp-eyed reader can glean the clues that matter most in his solution. In fact, what initially appears to be a contrived formal puzzle turns out to be a thoughtful study of varied human types. More than in most Christie novels, psychology is everything here, and bridge is merely the table (so to speak) on which the cards of character reveal themselves.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

CHRISTIANNA BRAND. Death in High Heels (1941).

Inspector Charlesworth, an up-and-comer on the Scotland Yard force, is known for having not just a keen eye for clues, but also a bright eye for the charms of women. With his latest case, though, he encounters a more concentrated dose of feminine pulchritude than he might ever have wished for. A murder has occurred at Christophe et Cie, an exclusive Regent Street dress shop, and when Charlesworth arrives there and starts looking for suspects, what awaits him is a bewitching retinue of British lovelies. DeathHighHeels.jpg The victim, a shop manager named Miss Doon, had certainly been a head-turner—that is, before a few crystals of oxalic acid sprinkled on a serving of luncheon curry sent her in fatal agony to the hospital. Among the surviving employees who might have done the sprinkling are Miss Gregory, another manager of the shop and a rival of Doon’s for the affections of Frank Bevan, owner of the establishment (Bevan is also a suspect, of course); a trio of saleswomen; and a pair of “mannequins,” otherwise known as dress models. The women of Christophe et Cie are a fetching lot, and each of them comes across as fetching in her own way. The shop also employs a dress designer, Mr. Cecil, and each of the saleswomen has a husband who figures in the plot to a greater or lesser degree. That’s a lot of people to follow, and Charlesworth falters in that area now and again. Who can blame him, distracted as he is by the winsome qualities of the women in the case?

Death in High Heals joins the noble tradition of English detective novels that exploits the array of customs, personalities, and relationships that converge inside a certain kind of workplace. These tales, which include such classics as Murder Must Advertise (by Dorothy Sayers) and Smallbone Deceased (by Michael Gilbert), are typically set in small firms within the big city that is London. Whether the scene of the crime is an advertising agency, a law office, or a vendor of women’s apparel, it will have attributes that well serve a writer who doesn’t mind working in miniature: an array of passions, both overt and covert, that might inspire a zeal to kill; a tightly circumscribed physical space in which comings and goings are easy to track; a set of work routines that provide a sleuth with plenty of investigative fodder. In this instance, the commercial setting gives Brand a nice, compact bottle in which to construct her intricate little ship of a novel.

In its early and middle sections, the novel labors under the burden of featuring too many characters. But the resulting assortment of permutations provides Brand with the material that she needs to generate a satisfying denouement that involves multiple solutions. This work, the author’s début, marks an apt launch for a career that would reach the apex of what detective fiction can offer. Despite a few rough spots at the level of execution, Brand here shows her knack for blending a formal crime puzzle with a fine-tuned exploration of social mores and individuals manners.

[ADDENDUM: Curt Evans has written a sharp, informative review of this book. He notes, for example, the spirit of unembarrassed candor—somewhat unusual for prewar popular fiction of this kind—that Brand brings to her treatment of both female sexuality and male homosexuality. Her depiction of an obviously gay character has a sniggering, mildly homophobic tone, but that flaw seems less notable than the matter-of-fact way that she recounts the details of his romantic life. All in all, High Heels has a modern feel to it that trumps the dated quality of certain plot details.]

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2014 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. Red Harvest (1929).

Hammett, according to Raymond Chandler, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” At a time when detective fiction was replete with high-society types who concocted elaborate killings and did so for obscure or highly contrived motives, Hammett introduced readers to thugs like Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Reno Starkey, and Max “Whisper” Thaler. RedHarvest.jpgThese crooks are professionals, with appropriately professional motivations to kill, and they form part of the murderer’s row that the nameless hero of this novel must confront as he strives to clean up the dirty streets of Personville, a midsized mining town in the Mountain West. It’s a relentlessly corrupt town—locals and outsiders alike call it Poisonville—and the task of defeating its many bad guys requires a deep reserve of moxie more than it does a refined intelligence. “Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to do it,” the Continental Op explains to one of the colorfully named thugs. (Nowhere in this book does the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator, refer to himself as the Contintental Op. But he’s an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, so that’s how he’s come to be known.) As Hammett’s title foretells, the “harvest” that the Op carries out assumes a grimly sanguinary hue. By the Op’s own tally, there are 19 murders that take place between the opening and the closing of this case. Indeed, he commits a few of them himself, and he does it for a reason: As he says, it’s his job.

In that way, Red Harvest differs fundamentally from a standard mystery tale. Far from chronicling the orderly pursuit of truth and justice by a sleuth who embodies the power of human reason, this début novel depicts a random and cruel world in which circumstances can push even the otherwise noble Op to become (in his words) “blood-simple.” Where order does exist, as in the bureaucratic regimen followed by the Old Man, who runs the Continental office back in San Francisco, that mode of order bears no relation to the real business of fighting crime. When bullets are flying and bodies are falling, the Old Man’s expectation that the Op will file regular reports on his activity in Personville carries a whiff of the absurd. For the Op, detection is chiefly a matter of disruption. “Plans are all right sometimes,” he says to Dinah Brand, the femme fatale in this proto-noir effort. (With her, as with the menfolk of Poisonville, the Op follows a cagy, keep-your-enemies-close strategy.) “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes out on top.”

Even as Hammett charts new fictional terrain with this book, he also annexes features from established genres. He updates the classic western saga, for example: The Op acts the part of an outsider who brings the law to a far-flung outpost where ruffians had previously held sway. RedHarvest2.jpg He contends with bootleggers rather than cattle rustlers, and he relies on a flivver instead of a horse to get from place to place; nonetheless, his every move reflects the spirit of frontier justice. Traces of the classic mystery form are evident here as well. Despite his commitment to hard-boiled naturalism, Hammett displays a penchant for abrupt plot twists that reveal unlikely suspects to be surprise killers. Red Harvest originally appeared as a four-part serial in Black Mask magazine, and several times—at what would have been a climactic moment in one of those four segments—the Op manages to pull a trick rabbit out of his snap-brim hat. In each case, the guilty party has committed murder “for a reason,” but that reason isn’t what readers are inclined to expect. With sleight-of-hand plotting of that sort, Hammett pays homage to the very tradition of classic detection that he aims to transcend.

What results is partly a tale of (new) Old West derring-do, partly a clue-laden puzzle story, and partly a study in modern existential sensibility. It is, in addition, a feat of true literary art.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2014 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Black Coffee (1930).

The thirst among publishers for titles to which they can attach the “Agatha Christie” brand remains as unquenchable as ever. To serve that thirst, a writer named Charles Osbourne took the raw material of a play that Christie wrote during her heyday and subjected it to a bit of benign violence; in other words, he novelized it.BlackCoffee.jpg The result, published in 1998, has a few charms and curiosities, but ultimately it’s devoid of the rich, world-building magic that Christie brought to her prose fiction. Try as Osbourne might to invest this treatment with light ironic touches and other writerly grace notes, he succeeds mainly in revealing the creaky, old-fashioned stagecraft that undergirds the original work. In a bid to “open up” the play, he launches his novel with a scene that features sleuth-hero Hercule Poirot in his Mayfair flat. Even so, most of the action here takes place in a single setting—the library of Sir Claud Amory, the victim of the piece. Stock characters, such as Sir Claud’s debt-ridden son and the son’s mysterious foreign-born wife, flit in and out of the room, uttering cliché-laced speeches that move the plot forward across an all-too-visible three-act structure. The murder puzzle hinges on several well-deployed clues (one of which, unfortunately, involves a bit of outdated household terminology), and Osbourne does capture some of the antic flair that marked Christie’s writing at its best. All the same, he fails to close the gap that yawns wide between a well-made play and a well-turned novel.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Thin Man (1934).

This last of Hammett’s five novels partakes of an old myth—that of the retired hero forced back into action by the flowering of an evil that only he can stamp out. The hero is Nick Charles, a onetime private detective who has escaped the fleshpots of New York and now manages his wife’s fortune in the Golden West. The evil involves the disappearance of a former client of his, a wealthy inventor named Clyde Wynant, and the murder of Julia Wolf, Wynant’s assistant-cum-mistress. ThinMan.jpgCharles, who’s back in New York on a short trip with his wife, Nora, finds time amid a regimen of cocktails and wisecracks to interview suspects and to spot the killer among them. He is a reluctant hero; Nora, who craves adventure, has to goad him into taking on the case. But he demonstrates that he hasn’t gone soft, after all, and he puts the world aright.

Or does he? Hammett tries to marry two genres, each of which marks a departure from his earlier work: the traditional whodunit, complete with clues and suspects, and the sophisticated comedy of manners. And in that attempt, he doesn’t quite succeed. His outlook was ultimately too grim for either genre—too nihilistic, too full of moral despair. Unlike his prose, his view of what motivates people wasn’t in any way clean. (The classic movie version of the novel, by contrast, succeeds winningly. In the translation of the story to the silver screen, the plot becomes at once leaner and more clever, and each character takes on the safe outlines of a satiric type.) Beneath its glossy finish, The Thin Man anticipates the seedy fictive world of Raymond Chandler: It contains intimations of incest, and it hums with contempt for a moneyed class that the author depicts as being indistinguishable from a class of criminals. These are evils that a hero might subdue but that he is powerless to dispel.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle