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Category Archives: Golden Age

PHILIP MACDONALD. The Rynox Murder (1930).

“Less” is quite a bit “more” in this tidy, offbeat crime puzzle. It’s practically bereft of detectives (a few policemen do appear, albeit mainly in the form of incident reports that they submit) and wholly bereft of detection. In effect, readers must fill the crime-solving role directly, without mediation by a truth-seeking hero. MacDonald structures the tale as an inverted detective story that he has inverted yet again: It starts with an epilogue and ends with a prologue, and (roughly speaking) it depicts the unfolding of a complex criminal scheme in reverse chronological order. By dispensing with the apparatus of sleuthing and by focusing on the interplay among small group that includes a victim, a putative culprit, and a handful of the victim’s associates, MacDonald manages to pack a great deal of intrigue into a very slim volume.

RynoxMurderAmong the central players in the drama are Francis Xavier Benedik, a partner in a London investment firm; his son, Anthony Xavier Benedik, who is also a partner; a third partner, Samuel Rickworth; and Rickworth’s daughter, Petronella (“Peter”), who is Anthony’s fiancée. Supplementing the cast are assorted clerks, secretaries, and servants who work either at Rynox House, where the investment firm keeps its offices, or at the Benedik home in Mayfair. (MacDonald, in deftly sketching the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of those locations, provides an appealing sidelight of the tale’s main events.) One other character flits menacingly about the world inhabited by the Benediks and the Rickworths. He is Boswell March, a surly fellow who sports an odd-shaped hat and who harbors an oddly fierce grudge against F.X. Benedik. One night, Boswell pays a visit to the latter man’s house; then, after a fusillade of gunfire, the lifeless body of Benedik is found lying across the sill of a window in his study. The killing isn’t quite an impossible crime, but its mannered staging and intricate mechanics bear the clear stamp of Golden Age ingenuity. (Detailed floor plans and elaborate timetables further add to the novel’s appeal.)

The plot of The Rynox Murder, though well-crafted on the whole, has weaknesses: One aspect of how the assailant pulled off the killing doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and the key deception that underlies the crime will be fairly obvious to many readers. Other elements of the book, meanwhile, count as real strengths. True to its title, the novel centers much of its action on the business dealings of Rynox, a firm that has invested a large—perhaps too large—portion of its assets in a speculative venture that involves the then-new industry of synthetic rubber. MacDonald handles this otherwise uncompelling material with wit and flair, turning dry exchanges about bank loans and insurance policies into engaging narrative fodder. He also graces scene after scene with touches of sly, character-driven humor. Given its slender length and its compact plot, this novel (or is it a novella?) seems like a mere trifle. But it’s richly adorned trifle at that.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2021 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Dain Curse (1929).

Of Hammett’s five novels, this one has long had the lowest reputation—certainly in the view of the author himself, and by a fairly wide margin among most critics who celebrate his literary achievement overall. Yet the book, which Hammett churned out quickly and as a matter of financial exigency, offers plenty of vintage pulpy charm. More important, it stands as the ur-text for a prominent subgenre of detective fiction.

The story begins modestly, as if it came from one of the more desiccated leaves of a private eye’s casebook. Then it spirals manically into a strange, labyrinthine affair. The Continental Op, working on behalf of a jeweler’s insurance company, visits the San Francisco home of an inventor named Edgar Leggett. Some diamonds in Leggett’s possession have gone missing, and the Op starts chatting up people in the Leggett milieu who might know something about the whereabouts of those gems. The household includes the inventor’s wife, Alice, and his daughter, Gabrielle, and associates of the family include Eric Collinson, a suitor of Gabrielle, and Owen Fitzstephan, a writer who happens to know both the Leggett paterfamilias and the Op. A bit of poking around reveals to the Op that the apparent jewel theft is merely the tip of a highly toxic iceberg. The focus of investigative activity extends from the Leggett home to the Temple of the Holy Grail, the site of a sham religion that has drawn Gabrielle into its orbit, and then to an oceanside town called Quesada, where Gabrielle lands after a series of family tragedies. DainCurseMany corpses accumulate along the way, and the only factor that appears to link these deaths is Gabrielle. A possible explanation for all of this violence—though not one that the Op accepts—is a curse that supposedly afflicts the Dain family, from which Gabrielle and her mother descend.

Undergirding the novel is a narrative template that has more solidity than the looping (and sometimes loopy) contours of the case at hand. It’s a template that Raymond Chandler would use in part and on occasion, that Ross Macdonald would use in full and repeatedly, and that other practitioners of the California school of private eye writing would use as a birthright. Although the main venue for tales of this kind would shift from the northern part of the Golden State to the southern part, the defining elements of the template have been roughly constant: A private agent, initially brought in to resolve a fairly routine matter, becomes enmeshed in the coils of a dysfunctional family with a hidden, horrible past. His job (this detective is almost always a man) ends up requiring him to trace the accursed lineage of that family, and a question that frequently hangs over his work is whether the sins of self-indulgent parents will be visited upon their children. Common symptoms of family disarray include drug addiction, deviant sexuality, and participation in a pseudo-religious cult. (Such cults, of course, are known to find ample recruits among California’s insecurely rooted population.) In sorting through these pathologies, the detective functions less as an investigator than as a therapist; the true object of his quest is not truth or even justice, but social reparation and psychic absolution.

In a story of this type, much depends on the inclusion of a detective hero who can support the weight of a melodramatic and emotionally laden plot. The Op, a journeyman operative with the Continental Detective Agency who also appeared in Red Harvest and dozens of short works, meets that difficult test. His lack of a name in no way lessens the sense of presence that he confers on the Leggett affair—both as a professional sleuth and as the narrator of record. Indeed, the Op’s blunt, just-the-facts persona serves as an effective counterpoint to the bizarre, over-the-top sequence of events that he describes. His jaded response to the often ridiculous particulars of the case goes far in helping maintain the reader’s willing (and sometimes merely grudging) suspension of disbelief. What’s more, the Op gets a chance to display a softer, more human aspect of his hardboiled sensibility when he pauses his investigation to rescue one character from a dire personal fate. The temporary shift in his role from crimefighter to caretaker marks a surprising turn that works surprisingly well.

But the whole thing goes awry in the closing chapters, when the time comes for the Op to reveal and explain who did the murders, and how, and why. Uncharacteristically, Hammett handles this moment in a hectic and compressed manner, thus draining the denouement of both clarity and impact. This failing is all the more lamentable because Hammett manages the runup to the end quite deftly, and because he has engineered a grand twist that should carry a real wallop. Perhaps, in opting to explore the compassionate side of his knightly hero, the author had lost interest in the side of his hero that involves solving riddles and slaying dragons.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2020 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

JOHN DICKSON CARR. Poison in Jest (1932).

“I could see another of those scenes brewing, as usual in this topsy-turvy house,” writes Jeff Marle, a young author who serves as Carr’s not-even-thinly-disguised alter ego. That line comes late in the grim affair that Marle narrates here, and it neatly conveys the defining mood of the novel. The house in question, owned by a crusty patriarch named Judge Quayle, lies forlornly amid what Marle describes as “the mountains of western Pennsylvania, blue as Vesuvius.” Carr (in Marle’s voice) paints this dreary landscape in darting, perfectly applied strokes. From the start, when Marle pays a call on the judge, the reader can practically feel and taste the soot-laden wind that seeps through the ancient walls of the Quayle homestead. Carr grew up in this part of the world, and that experience partly accounts for his flair in writing about it. But another source of inspiration may be the evocative rendition of Pennsylvania coal country that Arthur Conan Doyle delivers in The Valley of Fear, the last Sherlock Holmes novel. Given Carr’s high admiration for Doyle, it wouldn’t be surprising if that tale—in particular, the slice of dark Americana that takes up its latter half—influenced Carr in this way.

PoisonJestApart from a prologue and an epilogue, all of the action in Poison in Jest occurs at the Quayle house or on its grounds. Marle is visiting the Quayles after a decade of traveling in Europe, and he soon finds that he has ventured into a classic viper’s nest, a household in which several members could become—and do become—the object of a killer’s wrath. Denizens of the house include Judge Quayle, his bedridden wife, and four of their five adult children. The fifth offspring, a hot-tempered fellow named Tom, had fled the house a few years previously. Also resident in the home is Walter Twills, the husband of Clarissa (née Quayle) and a man of independent means. Those means, in fact, are keeping the Quayle ménage financially afloat, and a covetous attitude toward the Twills fortune appears to drive a series of poisonings that take place on the night of Marle’s visit. Not all of these homicidal efforts hit their target, but one of them does, and more violence happens in its wake. Moment by moment, the novel comes to resemble the house: It’s a closed, tension-wrought space in which an aura of dread steadily washes over a backdrop of homey comfort.

Within Carr’s body of work, this entry occupies a transitional spot. It sits chronologically—and, to some degree, tonally—between the sequence of novels about Henri Bencolin that launched his career and the pair of long series about Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale that he would inaugurate over the next two years. The horror-tinged ambience that looms over Bencolin and his world is also present at the Quayle manse, albeit in a less Grand Guignol form. (The shift to Carr’s native ground seems to elicit a more naturalistic style from Marle, who narrated the Bencolin adventures as well.) The star sleuth in this one-off tale, meanwhile, is a dashing but absent-minded Brit named Patrick Rossiter. He arrives late to the proceedings and, perhaps for that reason, makes a relatively shallow impression. Rossiter foreshadows both the down-to-earth bonhomie of Fell and the crazy-like-a-fox antics of Merrivale, yet the elements of his persona don’t come together nearly as smoothly as the pieces of the puzzle that he solves. He amounts to an amusing but failed experiment, a literary road that Carr shrewdly did not take.

The plot also marks a hiatus between one phase of Carr’s career and the next. More so than the Bencolin tales, or than most of the Fell and Merrivale tales, this book unfolds as a straight whodunit: Its chief mysteries revolve around locked hearts, not locked rooms—around impossible-to-contain hatreds, not impossible-to-commit deeds. In a subplot that concerns a “phantom” hand that haunts Judge Quayle, Carr offers a bit of medium-grade jiggery-pokery (as he would call it on other occasions). Otherwise, though, the trickery that he employs is the kind of thing that Agatha Christie would have proudly used. Viewed in that context, the novel counts as a sound piece of work. Some of the clueing hangs by rather tenuous threads. But it all does hang together, and the main feats of misdirection are well and fairly done.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2020 in American, British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925).

The title of this book oversells it contents badly. Calling it “Inspector French’s Pretty Good Case” would be closer to the mark. That modest appraisal would also be closer to the spirit of the title character himself. French, a stolid embodiment of English middle-class propriety, talks straight and has no time for puffery. Clear facts and the clear-eyed analysis thereof are all that concern him. Unlike the title, moreover, the style used to narrate this first Inspector French adventure thoroughly matches the temper of its protagonist. Crofts writes in an easy-going, unassuming manner; his prose, occasionally ponderous but always on point, is marked less by scintillating wit than by steady intelligence. The novel as a whole, meanwhile, offers moments of quiet grandeur that make its lack of greatness entirely forgivable.

GreatestCaseThe tale gets off to a wholly conventional start. A bobby on his rounds in Hatton Garden, a district in London known for its concentration of diamond merchants, answers a summons to the office of Duke & Peabody. There he finds the slain body of Charles Gething, the head clerk of that firm. Near the spot where someone bludgeoned the poor soul with a poker, a safe stands open; a cache of valuable stones and £100 in notes have gone missing from it. The bobby calls in Scotland Yard, and French takes responsibility for the matter. Thus begins a long and winding inquiry that, in Crofts’s telling, reads as if it sprung in equal measure from the leaves of a policeman’s casebook and the pages of a Baedeker guide. To Switzerland and Spain, to Amsterdam and various ports on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and to multiple destinations both in London and across England, French travels in pursuit of one investigative lead after another. Again and again, those leads show promise and then come to nothing. “It was a confoundingly exasperating case” for French, Crofts reports midway through the book. “Being on it was like trying to cross a stream on stepping-stones which invariably gave way when he came to place his weight on them.”

In time, French does find his footing. Doggedness, rather than deduction, characterizes the process by which he discovers the scheme that led to murder and robbery in Hatton Garden. Indeed, that scheme—replete with disguised identities, tricked-up alibis, and lots of maneuvering via taxi, train, or boat—proves to be cleverer than the sleuthing work that exposes it. The case ends with a sharp twist that surprises French no less than it does the reader. Instead of divining that part of the solution from clues known to him, he merely stumbles upon it. In any event, proceduralism wins the day: French closes the case by marching patiently through a well-mapped field of evidence, and without resorting to bold leaps of intuition.

Although the affair lacks the puzzle-solving pyrotechnics found in other Golden Age novels, and although parts of it are slow and plodding, it’s hardly the work of a “humdrum” writer (as the critic Julian Symons famously labeled Crofts). In a lull before the storm that will come when French apprehends his quarry aboard a ship in transit, Crofts paints his hero against a background rife with drama:

French stood in front of his porthole gazing out over the heaving waters. Daylight had completely gone, but there was a clear sky and a brilliant full moon. The sea looked like a ghostly plain of jet with, leading away across it, a huge road of light, its edges sparkling with myriad flashes of silver.

Sprinkled throughout this not-so-great case are fine passages like that one—brief descriptions that confer a mood of enchantment on seemingly ordinary events. These passages exemplify a key insight offered by G.K. Chesterton in his defense of the detective genre: “[I]t is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2020 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Procedural

 

QUENTIN PATRICK. The Grindle Nightmare (1935).

This book nearly defies categorization, and for many readers it will defy all possibility of enjoyment. Is it a mystery yarn set in a rural village? Is it a clue-filled puzzle that revolves around a complex array of alibis? Is it a work of social realism that provides a gimlet-eyed view of Depression-era class relations? Is it a horror tale that traffics in images of inhuman (or, perhaps, all too human) depravity? It’s all of these things, and yet it’s not quite any one of them. What stands out amid the many threads that Patrick weaves into this unholy tapestry is a striking pattern of violence, sadism, and misanthropy. Consider a few threads in particular: the practice of vivisection for medical research, multiple instances of outright cruelty to animals, a killer with a penchant for dragging victims (in at least one case, while they’re still alive) at the rear of a car, discussions of human congenital deficiency that echo then-still-popular eugenic theories, a rendition of rural society that seems borrowed from the bleakest naturalistic tract by Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser, and depictions of sexual dysfunction that come straight out of a treatise by Krafft-Ebing. GrindleNightmare.jpg In sum, this fifth published effort by the Patrick-Quentin-Stagge consortium may be the least cozy novel produced by an author of otherwise mainstream detective fiction in the first half of the 20th century. (According to Curt Evans, a redoubtable authority on this “author,” Grindle issued from the pen of Richard Wilson Webb, with an assist from Mary Louise Aswell.) The slick, urbane style that the author applied to all of “his” work is very much on display, and Patrick even includes a telling reference to Agatha Christie. But the setting and mood of the tale owe far more to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft than to the creator of St. Mary Mead.

The village of Grindle, located in an unspecified part of New England, exists both as a tiny world unto itself and as an embodiment of the grand tradition in which authors like Lovecraft—along with precursors like Nathanael Hawthorne—envision a lush New World venue as a site of battle against ancient forces of evil. The novel’s opening scene provides an ominous glimpse of the land and people of Grindle: “There were little knots of villagers at every corner; in the woods we could hear the barking of dogs and there was an occasional gleam from a flashlight. … [Later] I could still hear shouts ringing across the valley. There was a restless, hopeless quality about them which gave me the impression that our neighbors had gone out to look for something which they knew they would not find—something of which they completely despaired.” The writer of those lines is Dr. Douglas Swanson, a young medical researcher who narrates the tale. He and another doctor, Antonio Conti, share a house in Grindle, and they commute to their laboratory at Rhodes University, which lies about 20 miles away. Although Swanson and Conti serve as emissaries from the realm of scientific modernity, their use of dead animals for research purposes adds a morbid note that resonates through the novel both practically and thematically.

As it turns out, the villagers in the introductory scene were searching for Polly Baines, a girl from a poor farm family. She and her cat have disappeared, and the prospects for finding them alive look none too good. Not long afterward, the slain corpse of Polly’s father is discovered in a pond; he had been left there to drown, with his hands manacled in a pair of animal traps. Aside from the down-on-their-luck Baineses, the key figures in this drama represent the affluent (or at least shabby-genteel) stratum of local society. At the center of that society is Seymour Alstone, a mining magnate who exerts tyrannical control over the village in general and over his feckless son, Franklin, and his mild-mannered grandson, Gerald, in particular. Other figures include a medical student named Peter Foote; the Goschens, a family of hearty sporting types; Colonel Edgar Tailford-Jones and his adulterous wife, Roberta; and Valerie Middleton, a young woman whose father committed suicide back in 1929, after undergoing a financial setback for which old man Alstone was partly responsible. GrindleMap.jpg Around these characters, Patrick builds a dense plot that encompasses a nocturnal assignation on an abandoned road, a ghostly face that looms in a window and disrupts a dinner party, an act of arson that destroys a barn and almost immolates the horses inside it, bloodstains on the wooden planks of a covered bridge, a snowstorm that hides crucial evidence, and much else.

Somehow the whole thing works. Once the novel enters its final phase, a satisfying work of classic detection comes miraculously into view. For those not entirely put off by the carnival of madness and mayhem that unfolds in the first three-quarters of the tale, the last fourth of the book presents a bravura chamber piece in which confusion and chaos give way to enlightenment and order. While the clock ticks toward an hour of reckoning—Deputy Bracegirdle, the local lawman, plans to make a decisive arrest—Patrick engineers several feats of canny misdirection and several moments of startling revelation. (Until the very end, a sense of mystery hangs over a pair of fundamental quandaries: Who counts as a suspect, and who qualifies as a detective?) Then, in one fell swoop, the pall over Grindle lifts. The truth, when it arrives in full, has the cleansing power of a bright dawn that follows a grotesquely long night. Even in the grim vale that Grindle residents call home, scattered rays of reason and sanity and even love shine through.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2019 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

GEORGES SIMENON. A Man’s Head (1931).

The man whose head is almost literally at stake in this novel—an early entry in the Inspector Maigret saga—is Joseph Heurtin, a simple-minded fellow whose ill-starred life has led him to a death-row cell at La Santé prison in Paris. Heurtin awaits execution for the murder of a wealthy American widow and her maid, and it was Maigret’s police work that helped convict him of that crime. But in a cinematically thrilling first chapter, Maigret engineers a prison break that sends Heurtin into the gloomy expanse of Paris at night. The inspector has been nursing doubts about Heurtin’s guilt, and his plan is to let the escapee trace a path that will (so he hopes) wend its way to the real killer.

This high-risk gambit launches Maigret and his men on a chase that extends to a seedy hotel along the Seine, to a derelict mansion in the Parisian suburbs, and ultimately to the American bar at La Coupule, a fabled café in Montparnasse that appears to be a focal point of the intrigue that resulted in Heurtin’s arrest (wrongful or otherwise) for a brutal double homicide. La Coupule is a microcosm of Café Society, a realm where idle wealth rubs shoulders with indigent Bohemia. Simenon excels at vividly limning all manner of specific locations, but he uses that talent to the fullest in describing the café and its denizens. Man'sHead.jpgAs the action shifts to that spot, Maigret trains his gaze on a small set of its patrons: a glamorous American couple, Mr. and Mrs. William Kirby, who might have stepped out the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel; Edna Reichberg, an inscrutable Swedish heiress who might have graced a tale by Vicki Baum; and Johann Radek, a Czech native whose early promise has curdled into bitterness—an existentialist anti-hero who might have sprung from the mind of Dostoevsky or Kafka. An unseen lattice of connections binds these characters to Heurtin, and Maigret makes it his mission to bring this pattern into view.

The plot that drives A Man’s Head is inventive but not ingenious. As in most of his exploits, Maigret doesn’t follow clues in the usual sense of that term. He follows grand intuitions that he declines to reveal until he has rounded up his quarry. The core revelation in this case arrives as a clever and satisfying reversal of what precedes it. Simenon, however, does little to prepare the narrative ground for that twist.

In that respect, this compact thriller (it’s scarcely longer than a novella) resembles a typical adventure in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The comparison is more apt than it may seem: Although Holmes and Maigret appear to embody wholly different methods of detection—Holmes practices dispassionate ratiocination, whereas Maigret favors empathic intuition—their feats of discovery are often less compelling than the sordid events that they expose. As Arthur Conan Doyle does in many of the Holmes stories, Simenon predicates the story here on dark and disturbing schemes that unfold in the hidden recesses of urban life. And like many Holmes tales, this Maigret tale functions less as a well-designed puzzle than as a parable about the desperation and depravity that can afflict (seemingly) ordinary citizens. More broadly, Simenon shares with Doyle a profound knack for weaving magic with words. In his hands, readers don’t just suspend disbelief; they eagerly believe any outlandish thing that he wants them to believe.

[ADDENDUM: Next week, I’ll be visiting Paris and doing my best impression of a not-so-young Jeff Marle. While I’m there, I plan to read one or two contemporary novels that evoke the timeless “mysteries of Paris”; reviews of those works may show up here someday. But, to whet my appetite for the trip, I partook of this bite-sized treat of a novel—a Golden Age work that takes place during what was essentially a golden age for Americans in Paris. À bientôt!]

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2019 in Golden Age, Novel

 

DOROTHY L. SAYERS. Clouds of Witness (1926).

In the same year that Sayers issued this work, the second full-length book to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, Agatha Christie released a modest volume titled The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The sharp contrast between these two novels from a peak year during the Golden Age of detective fiction raises a question: By what addled marketing logic did the authors of those works become yoked together as so-called Queens of Crime? Gender, of course, played a big part in the coining of that shared designation. But aside from being women who wrote about criminals and crime solvers, Christie and Sayers had little in common as creative figures. Christie, as she exultantly demonstrates in Ackroyd, excelled at devising intricate mechanisms that would enable her to misdirect and astound readers. Sayers, while she would exhibit greater ingenuity in later works, shows in Clouds of Witness that setting a complex, fair-play puzzle was an endeavor that tapped into neither her talents nor her interests. Rather than trick readers, she sought to treat them. In this instance, she treats them to a vision of good people rescued from adversity by a plucky hero. The tale that she constructs around that vision is a hearty assemblage of old-school narrative tropes, coincidence-laden plot turns, and workaday clues that Wimsey doesn’t so much discover as amble into—all of it held in place by a thick mortar of Tory sentiment.

CloudsWitness.jpg In the first Wimsey adventure (Whose Body?), Sayers thrusts her hero into a social and criminal realm that lies well beyond the genteel drawing rooms and Clubland reading rooms that he knows best. Here, in his sophomore outing, she keeps him relatively close to his home ground. In fact, the case amounts to a family affair. It starts with the discovery of a dead body at a hunting lodge in Yorkshire leased by his brother, Gerald, the Duke of Denver. The corpse belongs to Denis Cathcart, the fiancé of Denver’s (and Wimsey’s) sister, Lady Mary. Circumstances quickly evolve to a point where the police charge the duke with murder. It was Denver who stumbled upon the slain Cathcart in the wee hours of the morning, Denver who owned the gun used to shoot Cathcart, Denver who possessed the most obvious motive to eliminate Cathcart. (He had just received a letter that revealed Cathcart to be an unsuitable match for Mary.) When news of Denver’s arrest reaches Wimsey, the young lord swoops in to defend the duke’s—and his own—good name.

It’s easy to be annoyed by Wimsey, but it’s hard to dislike him. Like the prose that Sayers deploys to spin this tale, Wimsey exudes good-willed energy and high-spirited (albeit not always rigorous) intelligence. And, like the story that she builds around him, Wimsey seems to be ever on the move. He speeds from Paris to London and then, via airplane, from London to Yorkshire. He takes a jaunt to the Soviet Club, a bohemian dive in Soho. He gets shot and retreats briefly to his digs in Piccadilly Lane to recuperate from a glancing wound. He ventures to a market town near Denver’s lodge and—with his man, Bunter, in tow—scavenges for clues at a local public house. Most outlandishly, he rushes to New York City, again via airplane (and does so a year before Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic voyage), and returns just in time to deliver evidence that will exonerate Denver.

What happens in each spot where Wimsey lands never quite justifies the excitement that attends his arrival. Indeed, chapter by chapter, Clouds of Witness lurches ahead as a series of anti-climaxes. Yet what stands out amid the weak storytelling is Wimsey’s (and, by extension, Sayers’s) resolve to move forward—to carry on, if not necessarily to keep calm—even in the most trying of times. His brother is on trial for murder, his sister is reeling from the violent death of her fiancé, and his entire family is reckoning with the public exposure of its private business. For Wimsey, it’s all in a day’s work, and he approaches that work in a doggedly playful manner. In the wake of the Great War, a cataclysm whose shadow hangs over the novel like a burst of mustard gas, a fellow who could act briskly and grin bravely in the face of dire circumstances held strong appeal for millions of Britons, including (evidently) Sayers. Although she was hardly a paragon of Golden Age mystery writing, she was very much a writer of her time.

In place of a scene that would let Wimsey explain a series of masterly deductions—he performs little deductive reasoning, in the classic sense—Sayers presents a grand finale that occurs in the House of Lords, where the duke has come to be judged by his peers. This sequence allows her to go on at length about the legal bombast and regal (or, at any rate, ducal) pomp that surround the trial, and it points to the kind of thematic material that captured her imagination as a writer. Clearly Sayers revered Denver and adored Wimsey and admired the aristocratic values that they embody. For those who share her politics, Clouds of Witness offers a winning saga of the nobility at its best. For others, perhaps not so much.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2019 in British, Golden Age, Novel

 

JOHN DICKSON CARR. Hag’s Nook (1933).

Echoes from The Hound of the Baskervilles resound throughout the early part of this early work in the Carr canon. A gruesome curse attaches to an ancient fortune, and both the curse and the fortune are inextricably tied to a moody patch of not-so-merry Old England. In Hound, it’s a mythical fog-shrouded expanse known as the Grimpen Mire, located in the Dartmoor region of Devonshire. In this tale, it’s a death-haunted slab of earth called the Hag’s Nook, located in the Fens region of Lincolnshire. A prison figures atmospherically and practically in the events that occur in both of those precincts. Each novel opens with the arrival of a young male heir who has been living in North America—Henry Baskerville comes from Canada, Martin Starberth comes from the United States—and his transatlantic origin highlights a contrast between the bright vistas of the New World and the dark legacies of the Old World. To claim his patrimony, each heir must reckon with an obligation that derives from the misdeeds of a twisted ancestor. Looming over each novel, moreover, is the specter of a recent unexplained death: The uncle of Henry Baskerville and the father of Martin Starberth had both expired in circumstances that appeared to arise in some way from those ancestral misdeeds. HagsNook.jpg Only the intervention of a genius sleuth, as it turns out, can dispel the cruel force that binds the innocent young to a heritage of villainy. Sherlock Holmes, of course, takes on the problem that hounds the Baskervilles, whereas the Starberth clan relies on the services of Dr. Gideon Fell.

It’s fitting that Carr, who later wrote one of the first major biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, chose to borrow from the work of that illustrious predecessor when he mustered the ingredients of this début outing for Fell. All in all, the case makes for a worthy introduction to the great doctor and his world. Fell emerges in fully realized form, complete with his box cape and his slouch hat and the two canes that he uses to maneuver his vast bulk to and from the crime scene. On hand to assist him and to admire him is Tad Rampole, one of the juvenile-lead types who populate novels from the first phase of Carr’s career. Any difference between Rampole and (say) Jeff Marle, who accompanies Henri Bencolin on his adventures, is negligible. Like Carr himself during this period, these characters are impressionable Americans in Europe—innocents abroad who stand ready to witness events that will strike awe in their tender hearts.

Fell has invited Rampole to visit him at his cottage, which happens to be in Starberth country, and the main action in the piece begins on the night of the young man’s arrival. Late that evening, Martin Starberth must undertake an hour-long vigil in a rat- and ghost-infested chamber inside Chatterham Prison, a now-empty pile that rises above the Hag’s Nook. This obligation comes down from Anthony Starberth, the first governor of the prison and the first of several Starberth men to die mysteriously in the vicinity of that chamber. Fell and Rampole observe the vigil from the Fell residence, and when a light from the chamber flickers out at an untimely moment, they rush to the prison and discover that Martin has met with a violent end. Fell, seeing through the supernatural aura that hovers over the scene, determines that a human agent caused the heir’s death. Although suspects are thin on the marshy ground that surrounds the Hag’s Nook, there is plenty of investigative fodder to keep Fell and Rampole and the local police busy.

In a gripping discussion of the clue-rich site where Martin spent his last hour of life, Fell interjects a bit of literary criticism that signals the nature and scope of Carr’s ambition. The Gothic romance, with its panoply of carefully laid death traps and other grotesque improbabilities, lags “far behind the detective stories,” Fell contends. Tales of detection, he says, “may reach an improbable conclusion, but they get there on the strength of good, sound, improbable evidence that’s in plain sight.” Measured by that standard, this book succeeds: All of the clues that Fell cites to explain how he spotted the murderer and how he dissected the intricacies of the murder scheme are visible—albeit not always plainly so—within the text of the narrative. At the same time, Carr’s commitment to the fair-play ethos entails no sacrifice of his ability to deliver thrills and chills on a Gothic scale.

Carr falters somewhat in how he handles the solution and the revelation thereof. A long and occasionally jumbled denouement takes up the final one-fifth of what is otherwise an impressively crisp tale, and although the pattern of misdirection that hides the killer’s identity is clever enough, it lacks the spare elegance that distinguishes the author’s best work. GideonFell.jpg The book, moreover, closes with an extended written confession by the culprit that has the lamentable effect of stealing Fell’s thunder. (Even so, the confession stands out for the artful way that it reveals the mind of a deeply repellent figure. Carr was hardly known as a master of subtle characterization or psychological insight, but here he shows off his talents in that vein.)

Despite that flaw, which is eminently fixable, Hag’s Nook would have served as the basis of a splendid film during the 1930s heyday of silver-screen gothic horror, or indeed at any time. More so than most authors from the Golden Age of detection, Carr penned works that brim with screenplay-ready elements, and those elements are on display here—from the eerie and visually captivating location to the tight circle of easy-to-cast characters (imagine Charles Laughton in the role of Gideon Fell) to the sharp dialogue and the cliffhanger scene endings that move the plot swiftly along. Why have there been no film versions of Fell’s (or Sir Henry Merrivale’s) exploits? To be sure, there are a handful of movies (including The Man With a Cloak and Dangerous Crossing) based on tales from the periphery of Carr’s large corpus. But the absence of any cinematic or televisual treatment of his core work remains not just a mystery but also a crime.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2019 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The French Powder Mystery (1930).

As a straight-up intellectual puzzler, this sophomore effort by Queen is highly satisfying. Start with the discovery of the body, which occurs in front of a crowd of passers-by who have stopped to view an exhibition of modern furniture in a display window at French’s, a Fifth Avenue department store. FrenchPowder.jpg A demonstrator presses a button to open an automated bed, and out topples the corpse of Winifred French, wife of the store’s owner. Why, asks Ellery Queen, the foppish but brilliant son of Inspector Richard Queen, would a murderer leave his or her victim in such unlikely place? Proceed now to the investigation that follows, an elaborate sequence of crime reconstruction, alibi deconstruction, and over-the-top theory construction in which Ellery talks and talks, and then thinks, and then twirls his pince-nez, and then talks some more. The talking and the pince-nez twirling date the novel badly, and will annoy many readers today, yet behind all of the stagy chatter is a driving sense of logical momentum that feels fresh and energetic. Lastly, join Ellery for a gather-everyone-together scene in which he lays out (literally) a broad array of vintage clues—from monogrammed keys and lipstick cases to playing cards and custom-made cigarettes, from a missing razor blade to a pair of onyx bookends—and stacks them (figuratively) into a perfect edifice of reason. All the same, while Queen (the author) orchestrates physical and circumstantial data with a masterly hand, he is laughably maladroit in his treatment of human material. He pulls off a neat trick by withholding the culprit’s name until the final two words of the book, but he never gets around to making readers care about why Mrs. French lived or died.

[ADDENDUM: Despite the negative note on which I ended this review, The French Powder Mystery occupies a warm spot in my critical heart. It’s the first Queen novel that I read, and perhaps the first classic detective novel not written by Agatha Christie that I encountered. And it blew my tender teenage mind. (To be sure, my young mind was nimble and capacious enough to get blown several times during my initial explorations of the genre.) The very contrivances that I now frown upon or smile at—the pasteboard characters, the arch theatricality of the crime scene, the obsessive dissection of a few physical clues, the gimmick ending—were crucial in enlarging my perspective on what a mystery tale could be.]

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2019 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle

 

MARGERY ALLINGHAM. Dancers in Mourning (1937).

A fine prose style and a masterly handling of narrative mechanics will take a writer quite a long way. In the mid-1930s, Allingham gained a reputation as one of a handful of English detective novelists who were applying a welcome gloss of literary refinement to their chosen genre, and this book justifies that assessment. Take the moment when death makes its appearance at White Walls, the country estate of Jimmy Sutane, a West End dancing sensation (who bears a loose resemblance to Fred Astaire). Allingham describes the scene as Sutane and two other men, including the gentleman sleuth Albert Campion, approach the spot where trauma has struck: “They came slithering down the high bank to the road, bringing great clods of the sandy yellow earth with them. The car stood in the middle of the lane, her engine still running, while behind, ghastly in the red glare of the tail-light, was something white and quiet on the grass verge.” The all-too-quiet “something” is the lifeless body of Chloe Pye, another dancer and a self-invited weekend guest; it had tumbled from an overpass in front of Sutane’s Bentley, which then ran over it. Was her demise an accident? Was it suicide? In time, of course, it will be revealed as a case of homicide. Two other killings follow, at roughly even intervals: Allingham, in this sojourn among theater folk, does a neat job of creating a three-act structure.

Allingham also successfully enmeshes a murder investigation within a novel of manners that doubles as a bittersweet tale of romance. Campion falls hard for Linda Sutane, the matron of White Walls, and his star-crossed obsession with that married woman casts a disabling pall over his crime-solving work. DancersMourning.jpg This aspect of the narrative doesn’t always work, and it weakens the quality of detection that Campion undertakes. Yet Allingham, by dint of polished storytelling, makes his infatuation seem both real and relevant. (The trope of a genius detective bedazzled by feminine charms, by the way, goes back to the eponymous sleuth in Trent’s Last Case, or indeed to the first Sherlock Holmes short story, in which Irene Adler used her wiles to defeat the supposed Great Man.) The same general point applies to the limning of other characters. In addition to the Jimmy Sutane and his wife, the party at White Walls includes Eve Sutane, the dancer’s love-addled teenage sister; Dick Poyser, his sharp-eyed manager; “Sock” Petrie, his gangly young publicist; Benny Konrad, his predictably jealous understudy; Miss Finbrough, his nurse and all-around factotum; Squire Mercer, a self-involved composer who writes music for Sutane’s stage vehicles; and a few others. Simply to list these figures is to suggest that they are an off-the-shelf set of arty and upper-crust types. But Allingham imbues each of them with such particularity that all of them—even those who are deeply dislikable—come across as deeply sympathetic.

The core narrative, although it moves at a leisurely gait that will test the patience of modern readers, is a solid piece of work. Allingham makes each scene vivid and plausible. Indeed, a few key events are plausible precisely because she makes them so vivid. A bombing at a quiet suburban railway platform, for example, claims the life of a second victim. That’s an unusual turn for a genteel novel from this era to take, but Allingham deftly integrates it into the arc of her tale. From one act to the next, Campion’s half-hearted investigation carries the tale along, and it seems to lead generally in one direction. Then, a few pages before the book ends, comes an abrupt swerve—a surprise solution that is thinly clued yet largely satisfying. The feat of misdirection on display in Dancers in Mourning hardly rises to the level of, say, Agatha Christie’s better work, but it’s worth the price of admission. (With respect to Christie, Allingham is less a fellow Queen of Crime than a lady in waiting.) The book’s finale also draws resonance from the air of melancholy gravitas that Campion projects once the truth dawns on him. Here, again, Allingham captures the spirit of the moment perfectly:

It was a definite physical experience and was comparable to the process which takes place when an unexpected train in the underground station appears from what is apparently the wrong tunnel and the mind slips over and adjusts the phenomenon by turning the universe other side out, substituting in one kaleidoscopic second east for west.

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