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Category Archives: Golden Age

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

 

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