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Category Archives: Golden Age

ANTHONY BOUCHER. The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937).

Many decades after it appeared, this début work by a pivotal figure in the history of detective fiction exudes a wonderful sense of ripeness. Boucher was a mere lad of 25 years when he wrote it, and a precocious, fully formed sensibility—a clear perspective on what the detective novel could and should offer—is evident in its pages from start to finish. Implicitly and on a few occasions explicitly, he pays homage to predecessors such as Edgar Allan Poe and to peers such as John Dickson Carr. AnthonyBoucher2.jpg In doing so, he signals his allegiance to a tradition that prizes fine gamesmanship no less than it does great storytelling. He even includes a clue-finder device, complete with references to the pages on which he has smuggled in telltale facts.

Boucher also structures the book, in an earnest yet knowing fashion, around classic genre tropes—from the use of a Watson-like figure, who holds the reader’s sympathy while offering assistance to a master sleuth, to the final scene in which the sleuth marches through all of the steps (cognitive and otherwise) that led to the discovery of a culprit. The chief driver of the story is Martin Lamb, a graduate student in German at the University of California, Berkeley, and he functions more or less like the juvenile-lead types who play a supporting role in many of Carr’s novels. (Unlike a true Watson, he does not narrate the tale directly.) The master sleuth is Professor John Ashwin, a teacher of Sanskrit whose store of knowledge extends well beyond that language. Ashwin remains offstage, for the most part, but makes a strong impact in the scenes that feature him.

The setting here—UC Berkeley, during what now seem like halcyon days for that institution—poses a challenge for Boucher. The milieu that he depicts pulses with optimism, with a buoyant faith in the value of rational thought and pragmatic activity. It is not, in other words, a venue where homicidal passions and dark secrets are likely to find a natural home. And so, to add intrigue and gravitas to that sun-dappled milieu, Boucher draws on the lore of an ancient and treacherous (and wholly fictional) religious sect: the eponymous Seven of Calvary. This plot element allows him to summon the menacing specter of Old World conspiracies, and it recalls another classic trope. Indeed, one character in the book alludes to this trope explicitly by likening the Seven of Calvary back-story to “early Doyle.” (It also anticipates a common theme in recent works such as The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, as in this one, early Christian heresies resurface to animate contemporary political machinations.)

The dramatis personae present a similar quandary. Most of the key characters are denizens or associates of International House, a residential center that serves both overseas students and American students with cosmopolitan affinities. They are bright young adults, each of them so apparently full of healthful energy and honest goodwill that it’s hard to imagine that they harbor bloodthirsty emotions. SevenCalvary.jpg Boucher, therefore, must play a clever game of misdirection to hide the hole where one or more known motives for murder would typically be.

The first killing takes place in a quiet residential precinct that lies between the campus and the Berkeley Hills—a sylvan realm where Lamb and other characters go for long, romance-nurturing walks—and the victim is Dr. Hugo Schaedel, an emissary of peace from Switzerland. The second killing occurs at a dress rehearsal for a student performance of Don Juan Returns, an old Spanish play that Lamb has translated into English, and the victim is Paul Lennox, an instructor in history who was part of the International House circle. The means of killing in the first instance is an ice pick; in the second, it’s a dose of strychnine. The shift in murder methods furnishes a clue that proves to be a decisive link in the chain of reasoning that Ashwin will forge when he presents a solution to the case.

This solution, together with the twists and turns that precede it, distinguishes Seven of Calvary as a prodigious display of Golden Age plotting—as a marvel of ingenuity that bears comparison with best novels of the same era by Carr and other virtuosos of the puzzle tale. The book’s only noteworthy flaw lies in its young author’s over-eager playfulness. Boucher brings to the proceeding a jaunty and sometimes flippant mood that lessens, just slightly, the weight of this freshman achievement. Solving a murder is serious business, or at least it should be.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Murder on the Links (1923).

HerculeMurderLinks.jpg Poirot shines in this second novel to feature him and his bluff, slightly dim friend and chronicler, Captain Hastings. The situation and the setting reflect the genre norms of a time when the British detective story was fully coming into its own. A millionaire with a somewhat shady past is found dead on a golf course, not far from his seaside mansion. An exotic-looking dagger protrudes from his back, and a tidy set of suspects orbit the scene. All of the suspects belong to the bourgeois class, albeit tenuously so, and the fluctuations of status and identity lend a dark undertone to the tale. On the surface, meanwhile, Poirot’s march from clue to clue is very much a comic affair. It’s comic both in the humorous byplay that accompanies it (Christie rarely gets enough credit for the mordant wit of her dialogue) and in its life-affirming display of what human reason can achieve. Steadily and with imperial confidence, Poirot applies his vaunted “little grey cells” to a problem of acute complexity. Ostensible guilt passes from character to character until he fixes it—with what seems like sleight of hand—upon a genuinely unlikely suspect. The comic spirit then reaches its proper culmination when two pairs of star-crossed lovers each become united at last.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

PATRICK QUENTIN. A Puzzle for Fools (1936).

A strong, genial prose style, a couple of sharp late-inning plot turns, and a charmingly contrived rendition of psychiatric illness and treatment, circa 1936, help to salvage this poorly paced chronicle of murder at an asylum for the not-quite-sane. Alcoholism has led narrator and hero Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer by trade, to check himself into a bin for the moderately loony, and his fellow inmates include a kleptomaniac Boston dowager, a spacy but beautiful heiress, a narcoleptic Anglo-Indian pukka sahib, and a famous conductor who just can’t stop conducting. PuzzleFools.jpg Despite the relatively benign nature of these patients’ disorders, it becomes apparent that someone at the institution suffers from an impulse that’s anything but harmless. First a warden at the asylum turns up in a straight-jacket with his wrestler’s body contorted into the shape of a corpse. Then one of the patients, a Wall Street tycoon, falls victim to a stolen surgeon’s knife. Duluth plays detective, somewhat ineffectually: Although he unravels a few layers of the mystery, only the sage Dr. Lenz, director of the sanitarium, sees through to its core. Duluth also plays Romeo, and does so to much greater effect. Alas, his climactic departure from the drunk tank with a winsome Juliet in his arms makes this “puzzle” seem like a mere trifle.

[ADDENDUM: My hunch is that I’d like this book more today than I did back when I read it and wrote this review. I had a much higher regard for two other books in the Peter Duluth sequence that I read subsequently (A Puzzle for Puppets and Black Widow), and I’ve enjoyed a couple of that titles that Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler—the men behind the Patrick Quentin pen name—wrote under the pseudonym Jonathan Stagge. The Duluth character, in my first encounter with him, probably threw me off. Unlike most Golden Age detective heroes, but very much like their counterparts in our own era, Duluth operates not as a dispassionate observer of criminal activity but as a man who is desperately implicated in it. Nowadays, I’m readier than I used to be to welcome a sleuth who plays a “fool” within the puzzle that he bids to solve.]

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

RAOUL WHITFIELD. Death in a Bowl (1931).

An early product of the tough-guy school of crime writing, this tale of greed, ambition, and murder in Tinseltown exhibits a besetting flaw of its type: It mistakes brute action for dramatic tension, and offers mere confusion in place of genuine mystery. The basic riddle that private eye Ben Jardinn must crack—Why and how did someone shoot musical conductor Hans Reiner during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl?—has merit both in its setup and in its solution. But the path that Whitfield carves between his crisp, provocative opening and his intriguing conclusion is strewn with narrative non-sequiturs. DeathBowl.jpg In dialogue, characters throw comments at one another that are either random or opaque. At the level of plot, scenes of violence, revelation, or reversal occur with no discernible connection to the scenes that precede or follow them. (One chapter, for example, starts with Jardinn entering a hospital where a key suspect, whom readers had last seen being put under arrest, will soon die. There is no narrative preparation for this event—no explanation of how the suspect arrived in that parlous state—nor any effort to link this plot turn to the story as a whole. It just happens.)

Thematically, too, the novel makes broad leaps but lands nowhere in particular. Are women, even the best among them, duplicitous by nature? Do clients always lie? Is there something inherently problematic about having a “business partner”—a fellow who operates as neither a true colleague nor an open competitor? And if the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then how can a fellow trust anyone but himself? In this respect, as in others, Whitfield bulldozes across essentially the same terrain that Dashiell Hammett explores in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike Hammett, he charts a course that seems arbitrary rather than inevitable.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

MARTIN EDWARDS. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017).

The title of this wonderful volume is a misnomer in several respects. For one thing, the book doesn’t actually present a story. Instead, it compiles brief essays by Edwards on a wide range of crime, mystery, and detective novels (along with a handful of short-story collections) published between 1901 and 1950. Edwards groups the essays into 24 chapters that correspond to various themes, topics, and approaches—from “Murder at the Manor” to “Playing Politics,” from “Scientific Enquiries” to “Fiction from Fact”—and he introduces each chapter with an overview of how writers of the period treated that subject matter. These introductory essays buttress Edwards’s individual book selections with incisive, erudite commentary on the historical and literary context in which those books came to fruition. But, taken as a whole, the book falls short of providing any sort of narrative arc. For a story about crime writing during the early 20th century, readers must turn to an equally wonderful volume called The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story (2015), which Edwards wrote as well and to which this compilation serves as a sort of companion.

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For another thing, the phrase “of classic crime” suggests that Edwards has conducted a comprehensive tour of the field in question. In fact, his tour focuses overwhelmingly on British writers and on the decidedly British milieu in which their work emerged. Of the 24 chapters, one features American writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Ellery Queen, and one features non-English-language writers such as Georges Simenon and Jorge Borges. Although the book choices here are apt and intriguing, they also have a random quality and smack just a little of tokenism. Maybe the publisher, eager to market this title beyond the United Kingdom, urged Edwards to include a small quota of yanks and other foreigners. In any event, fully embracing the parochial nature of his project might have been a wiser option. Implicitly, the book makes a powerful case for staying close to (Edwards’s) home. This case runs as follows: The modern detective story, though invented in the United States by Edgar Allan Poe, was gloriously reinvented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by men and women who lived and wrote on the other side of the Atlantic. They took a form originally designed for deploying tricks and delivering thrills, and they remade it as a vehicle for embodying and exploring a broad slice of British social life.

For yet another thing, the claim to cover the field of classic crime “in 100 books” is far too modest. Throughout this survey, and particularly in the chapter introductions, Edwards discusses dozens of other works. Clearly, he has steeped himself in a vast literature, and that deep store of knowledge has equipped him to curate an array of books that encompasses both well-known cornerstone titles and obscure gems. The scale and scope of this effort reinforces the case for giving sustained attention to British crime writers of the classic era. These writers, Edwards demonstrates, left behind a body of work marked by great richness and variety. They took steps, and indeed they took risks, that are supposedly the exclusive province of mainstream or “literary” fiction. They plumbed the quandaries of the human psyche (by, for example, taking readers inside the minds of murderers as well as detectives). They dissected the workings of society (by, for example, probing the underside of middle-class respectability from multiple angles). They experimented with narrative structure (by, for example, producing “inverted” tales that identify a culprit upfront and then recount the discovery process that leads to his or her undoing). To be sure, they created and followed certain formulas—the unbreakable alibi, the locked-and-barred room, the closed set of suspects. Yet an impressive number of them stand out for their willingness to test and tweak such formulas.

Fittingly, the last writer featured in this compendium is Julian Symons, a novelist and critic whose most notable contribution to the genre was his authorship of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972). Symons in that book traced the ebb and flow of an entire literary tradition—its overall course and its various tributaries—and many of his summary judgments have solidified into conventional wisdom. When it came to British crime writing in the early 20th century, he argued (or at least implied) that its practitioners consisted mainly of rule-bound puzzle-setters and “humdrum” plodders. Edwards, first in Golden Age of Murder and now in this book, has deconstructed that narrow frame of understanding and replaced it with a far more expansive view.

 

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Nonfiction

 

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

 

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