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Category Archives: Golden Age

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

 

EARL DERR BIGGERS. The Chinese Parrot (1926).

This second novel to feature Charlie Chan, the famously sententious detective from the Honolulu Police Department, appears on the surface to be a work of straight middlebrow entertainment. But within its pages, there’s a wealth of material for a certain kind of highbrow literary theorist to muse upon. It’s full of elements that beg (or politely insist, as Chan might do) to be read on more than one level. ChineseParrot1.jpg Start with the title, which refers in a literal sense to a bird named Tony, a bird that someone kills because it had been reciting a line of presumably incriminating speech. Tony could talk, but his “talk” is merely imitative. In a figurative sense, meanwhile, the title refers ironically to Chan. How, after all, do many white people view Chan if not as a Chinese parrot—as an inferior Asiatic who puts on a lively show by straining to copy his betters? Yet Biggers, although he pokes fun at Chan’s less-than-perfect use of English grammar, consistently gives the Chinese detective lines of dialogue that reflect a profound and original intelligence. To complicate the matter further, Biggers requires his protagonist to spend much of the novel in disguise as an ignorant, ill-spoken cook named Ah Kim. Chan comically resents having to commit a multitude of solecisms (he must suppress his ability to pronounce the letter L, for instance), but he inhabits the role plausibly enough. In these and other ways, The Chinese Parrot amounts to a tidy pattern of signs and substitutions, a neat little system of mimicry and imposture.

The storyline of the novel is an overtly simple affair. At a high-end San Francisco jewelry store, the finance magnate P.J. Madden buys a lustrous (and illustrious) set of pearls. Chan, a friend of the family that is selling the pearls, agrees to help deliver them to Madden. Along with Bob Eden, a jeweler in training who serves here as a juvenile romantic lead, Chan ventures to a remote area in Southern California where Madden keeps a ranch home. Within a day of arriving at Madden’s compound, Chan and Eden meet with a series of peculiar or disturbing events: Tony succumbs to rat poison, there is a gun that has gone missing, and odd characters keep sprouting up on the otherwise desolate scene. A Chinese cook turns up dead (Chan, donning the identity of Ah Kim, steps in to replace him), and several clues point to the possibility that another man has been slain as well. But who might that victim be? And who counts as a suspect in this case of a murder that might or might not have happened? In pursuing one investigative lead after another, Chan proves himself to be one clever bird. He then reveals a solution that had been hiding in more or less plain sight. Alas, the plot hinges on a matter of identity that has a big structural flaw in it—an underlying criminal scheme that requires several major characters, including Chan, to be fooled in a way that’s nearly impossible to credit.

ChineseParrot2.jpgThat’s too bad. Everything else in this tale—everything that leads up to that problematic ending—exemplifies the best of what popular storytelling can offer. Along with his playful tweaking of received ideas about language, identity, and ethnicity, Biggers delivers an slew of narrative treats: fresh and genial humor, a romantic subplot that carries no trace of smarm or unearned sentimentality, sharply honed descriptions of the California terrain in both its urban and its desert forms. He also captures the core appeal of the sleuthing trade. At one point, after interviewing a witness, Eden asks Chan, “Well, what did we get out of that? Not much, if you ask me.” And Chan replies, “Trifles, mostly. But trifles sometimes blossom big. Detective business consist of one insignificant detail placed beside other of the same. Then with sudden dazzle, light begins to dawn.”

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle

 

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

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

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

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

 

A.A. FAIR. The Bigger They Come (1939).

BiggerTheyCome.jpgThis over-clever, rapid-fire tale bears the marks of the author’s tutelege both in the law and in pulp-magazine writing. It pivots around Donald Lam, a scrawny would-be lawyer who had fallen on hard times. No sooner does Lam find work as an operative in the Bertha Cool Detective Agency than he’s thrust into a rollicking adventure that culminates in his narrow escape from a homicide rap. The adventure begins innocuously enough, with an assignment from Cool—his huge and hugely eccentric boss—to serve divorce papers on the husband of a new client. But the case immediately heats up. In the process of completing his ostensibly mundane task, Lam impersonates a bellboy, falls in love, buys a stolen gun that turns up later as a murder weapon, and entangles himself with a gang of racketeers who kidnap him and give his dimunitive frame a thorough going-over. Not bad for his first day on the job. On his second and third days, he tops that set of exploits by unraveling a knotty murder problem and by then tying the police of two states in knots as he proves that it’s legally possible to get away with murder. Lam narrates the story, and Erle Stanley Gardner, the author behind the A.A. Fair pseudonym, gives him a clean and witty voice that has echoes of Archie Goodwin in it. Yet the Fair style, true to its pulp origins, is more glib than fresh. Similarly, although Gardner excels at planting ingenious clues, his plotting is complex without being tight. Like the beating that Lam receives, and from which he recovers with astounding ease, this first Lam and Cool novel comes on strong but leaves no lasting impact.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Mysterious Affairs at Styles (1920).

What’s most remarkable about this book, Christie’s first, is how clean and clever and modern it is. You can hear the rusting hinges of the Victorian world (and worldview) as they creak and moan in the distance, but the action in the foreground unfolds at a Machine Age clip. All of Christie’s core narrative strengths and many of her characteristic tricks are present here at the creation. Hercule Poirot is present, too, in more or less full-blown form. MysteriousAffairStyles.jpgThe egg-shaped head, the comically solemn reference to his “little gray cells,” the impish condescension toward would-be fellow-sleuths (including Hastings, who begins his career as a Watson-like foil and narrator), the habit of seizing exuberantly upon clues while remaining coy about their significance—it’s all on display in this tale of murder by poison at an English country house. Christie borrows freely from the Sherlockian model, but she also improves on it. Instead of depicting an imperious dash across an often-rickety narrative scaffold (as Arthur Conan Doyle tended to do), she treats us to a steady amble through a plot of near-maniacal complexity. As an example of fair-play clueing and sleight-of-hand storytelling, this work marks a great leap beyond most of the detective fiction that had come before it, and it sets a standard that few writers who came afterward have even tried to meet. Arguably, it crams in too many clues and too much mystification for a book of this size; in later efforts, Christie would muster her strengths and marshal her tricks with a less anxious hand. But why argue with a début novel that is also an enduring masterpiece?

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2013 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle