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Category Archives: Novel

TONY HILLERMAN. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973).

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Reservation Law and Order Department makes his second appearance in this book, which earned Hillerman an Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1974. The author’s deft portrayal of the Native American detective no doubt played a key role in securing that honor. Marginalized from white enforcers of the law because of his race, and to a lesser extent from his own people because of the position he holds, Leaphorn carries an air of detachment—sardonic but also compassionate—that puts him solidly in the tradition of a lonely knight-errant.DanceHallDead.jpg Like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, he exhibits an appealing world-weariness that makes him seem to do good almost in spite of himself.

In this outing, Leaphorn must locate a Navajo boy who has disappeared and who might have information about another boy, a member of the Zuni tribe and the victim of a recent brutal murder. Several clusters of human activity on or near reservation land, each of them linked in some way to the two boys’ intertribal friendship, factor into the plot. There’s an archeological dig. There’s a youth commune. There is, it seems, a drug-smuggling outfit at work in the area. There are indications that people are engaging in certain mysterious rites of the Zuni tribe. The puzzle set against this richly variegated background is by no means dazzling; it features a shallow pool of suspects and a rather pedestrian set of clues. All the same, Hillerman handles the murder motive well, and he does the same with the subdued unfolding of a tragic resolution—one that leaves his hero’s battered faith in justice intact, but just barely.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2018 in American, Novel

 

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

 

STUART PALMER. The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941).

By the time he penned this entry in the Hildegarde Withers saga, Palmer had spend a decent amount of time in the luxuriously appointed coal mines where screenwriters swung their picks during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. And here, repeatedly, he makes sport of the antic plot contrivances that Tinseltow producers would foist upon the raw material that they had plundered either from life or from literature. As the book opens, Mammoth Studios is developing a motion picture that promises to retell the Lizzie Borden story. HappyHooligan.jpg Step by step, the producer Thorwald L. Nincom pushes his writing team to remold the ax-wielding spinster from Fall River, Massachusetts, into a proper celluloid heroine: Let’s portray her as innocent! (A preponderance of evidence, as well as the nursery rhyme that made her famous, suggests that she was guilty of killing her father and stepmother.) Let’s pair her with a handsome suitor! (She had no known love interest, handsome or otherwise.)

Despite that breezy approach to the historical record, Nincom cares about getting the details right. Which is why the studio ends up hiring Miss Withers to serve as a technical advisor on the film. (She happened to be in Los Angeles on an extended vacation.) After all, she’s a teacher, and she’s from back east, and she knows a little something about murder. The studio gives her an office in the warren of rooms occupied by Nincom’s writers, and before she can settle into it, one of her officemates becomes a fresh homicide victim. Who would want to kill a journeyman scribbler like Saul Stafford? The answer is to be found amid a bewildering swirl of circumstances—including signs that point to an unsolved New York City murder case, which gives Miss Withers an excuse to call in her old friend, Inspector Piper of the NYPD. She tumbles to the right solution on her own, but only after surviving attempts to kidnap her and to kill her, among other high-jinks.

Even as Palmer mocks Hollywood tropes, he partakes of those tropes with professional aplomb, and the novel reads to some extent like the treatment for a mystery feature that he hoped a real-life mogul would order into production. Happy Hooligan was never adapted for the silver screen, alas, but Palmer’s novel survives as a well-turned entertainment from the Silver Age of both classic moviemaking and classic detection. It’s a fun romp that, in keeping with the title, gives readers plenty to puzzle over.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

J.S. FLETCHER. The Middle Temple Murder (1918).

On either side of Fleet Street in London, journalists and lawyers ply trades that deal with crucial matters of life and death, of language and truth. The journalists do their work loudly and cast their product far and wide, whereas the lawyers toil quietly in cloistered chambers—yet practitioners in both groups traffic in the raw stuff of human conflict, and they excel at the arts of concealment and revelation. This ancient quarter of the ancient city, therefore, provides an apt venue for the start of a murder story.

Early one morning, as the presses begin to rumble and as a hush settles over the Inns of Court, a young scribe named Frank Spargo wanders near Middle Temple Lane and happens upon a the corpse of a well-dressed man whose pockets contain no identification. When the new day dawns, Spargo joins forces with Detective-Sergeant Rathbury of New Scotland Yard to crack the riddle of who the victim was and how he came to be bludgeoned to death. Initially, the investigation has a strong procedural cast: The newspaperman and the policeman follow trails that take them to diverse London locations—a hotel near Waterloo Station, a West End hat shop, the Houses of Parliament. MiddleTempleMurder.jpg Working from a meager supply of clues, they discover that the dead man was a visitor from Australia named John Marbury. The hunt for truth then shifts to the well-traveled path of a certain type of thriller. A curious bauble found in the victim’s luggage leads Spargo to uncover an intricate back-story that involves multiple hidden identities, multiple schemes of financial fraud, and multiple people with fraught connections to the mysterious Marbury. The question of who slew the man remains unanswered until a climactic scene that unfolds in a remote part of rural England. The ultimate locus of enlightenment, as it turns out, is a far cry from Fleet Street.

One mystery that hovers over this volume today is why Howard Haycraft placed it on his “Reader’s List of Detective Story Cornerstones,” which he published in his own cornerstone history of the genre, Murder for Pleasure (1941). (Frederic Dannay later added a number of titles to the list and famously published it as “The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective, Crime, and Mystery Fiction.”) The Middle Temple Murder is a middling work in every respect. It’s a routine tale of intrigue, lively in parts but rather plodding on the whole, and it hardly represents an original turn in the development of its form. The plot is derivative of (among other sources) those entries in the Sherlockian canon that pivot around sordid deed that took place in the distant past or in some faraway colonial outpost (or both). Nor does Fletcher display any particular brilliance in spinning out this plot; his narrative style lacks the brio that Arthur Conan Doyle brought to adventures of this kind. Although the novel showcases some of the trappings of modern life—the crackle of telegraph and telephone messages as they speed across London and spur men to action, the badinage between a cocky, ambitious reporter and a proud Scotland Yard official—it comes across mainly as a late and not especially colorful flowering of Victorian sensation fiction.

[ADDENDUM: I read this book during a recent trip to London. Having booked a room at a hotel that’s near the Inns of Court—indeed, it’s a cobblestone’s throw away from Middle Temple Lane—I decided that the time was right for dipping into this so-called cornerstone work. Although it’s disappointing as tale of detection, it makes very engaging use of its London setting. During my stay in the city, as I ambled from the hotel up to Fleet Street or over to the Temple Underground Station and beyond, it was easy to adjust my mental landscape to the landscape of Fletcher’s novel. A full century has passed, and the Guerkin and the Shard and other gleaming landmarks of Millennial London now compete with St. Paul’s to dominate the skyline, but the old city remain visible to those who yearn to see it.]

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

ROBERT SILVERBERG. Blood on the Mink (1962).

“Vic Lowney,” the wise-guy hero of this trim thriller, is about as real as the counterfeit $5 and $10 bills that his nemesis, a Philadelphia crime boss named Henry Klaus, has begun to put into circulation. To be sure, the man himself is real enough: He’s an agent of an unspecified federal department, charged with bringing Klaus to justice and with securing the engraving plates used to print Klaus’s funny money. But for nearly the entire tale, the agent remains incognito. (We learn his first name, but only that, in the final pages of the book.) The real Vic Lowney is a high-ranking operative in an LA crime syndicate. In the opening scene, the feds kidnap this thug during a cross-country flight to the City of Brotherly Love, so that their agent can take his place in a planned negotiation to distribute Klaus’s home-made cash on the West Coast. BloodMink.jpg The agent, who narrates his adventure in the snappy manner that typifies mid-century crime fiction, dons the “Vic Lowney” guise and proceeds to improvise his way into a dark corner of the Philly underworld. He tangles violently with Klaus’s right-hand man; he tangles romantically with the Klaus’s kept woman; he tangles conspiratorially with other mobsters who want a piece of Klaus’s counterfeiting operation. The risk that someone will blow the Lowney cover looms over every scene, but the agent maintains his subterfuge just long enough to complete his mission. From start to finish, he conducts his exploits in the ersatz currency of tough talk and brute action.

Somewhat disappointingly, Silverberg doesn’t do much with the rich theme of fakery. A writer with grander ambitions for this work might have leveraged its core plot to explore the metaphysics of imposture—to evoke the quandary of a good guy who must act in bad faith, or to probe the ironies that surround a counterfeit crook who pursues counterfeit money. Instead, Silverberg plays it straight, generating a story that functions almost wholly at the level of action. According to an afterword that Silverberg penned in 2011, he wrote the novel back in 1959 for a magazine publisher that went bust before the story could appear in print. A few years later, he yanked it out of his files to meet the needs of another publication, a magazine called Trapped. “Too Much Blood on the Mink” (as that magazine titled it) was an object of mass production, pure and simple. That fact is particularly evident in Silverberg’s prose, which is awkward in some places and flat or clichéd in others. Nonetheless, the style here is equal to the substance of the narrative. Blood on the Mink (as Hard Case Crime titled its soft-cover version of the book) offers a worthy sample of the wares that a fictioneer like Silverberg could churn out during his prime, and it embodies a casual professionalism that would do “Vic Lowney” proud.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Noir, Novel

 

ARTHUR W. UPFIELD. Murder Down Under (1937).

Genre-wise, this early book in the Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series (and the first “Bony” title to appear in the United States) reads more like a Western than it does like a detective novel. It takes place in Burracoppin, a small railroad town that serves a wheat-farming community in Western Australia. Automobiles, along with a motorcycle, figure prominently in the events that unfold in Burracoppin, but the rhythms of the town are those of a pre-20th-century civilization. There’s a planting season, followed by a harvest season, and to mark the turn of those seasons, there are big shindigs that bring together folks from all walks of town life. Upfield uses a pair of such events as set pieces; they allow him both to convey vital plot points and to conjure images of a freshly settled frontier. Bony plays the classic Western-story role of the stranger who arrives in town to set things right. The rupture that he must heal concerns the disappearance of a farmer named George Loftus. Did Loftus abscond of his own will, or did someone make him vanish? To investigate the matter, Bony goes undercover as a laborer assigned to help maintain the Rabbit-Proof Fence, a vast structure built to protect the Australian wheat crop from pesky critters. That job gives him a chance to trace Loftus’s last traceable movements, and he resolves the quandary of what happened to the farmer in fairly short order: It is (as the U.S. title reveals) a simple case of murder.

MurderDownUnder.jpgThe matter of who killed Loftus isn’t much of a riddle, either. Along with scouting the hard country ground for clues, Bony focuses on getting to know the local residents—the stern boarding-house keeper Mrs. Poole and her cheerfully henpecked husband; the farmer Mr. Jelly and his daughters, Lisa and Sunflower, who befriend Bony; Eric Hurley, a young chap who has an easy smile and easy way with a motorcycle; and several others. Yet hardly any of them qualify as suspects. Bony, acting less as a sleuth than as a tracker, zeroes in on his quarry at the midpoint of this tale. Then, drawing on his fabled capacity for patience, he works to gather evidence that will prove what he already intuitively knows. (Upfield’s depiction of the detective is consistently affectionate but off-puttingly racial in its framing: Bony, the author repeatedly suggests, is a half-caste who combines the putative rationality of a white man with the more earth-bound talents of a black aborigine. He is able, supposedly as a matter of genetic endowment, to read the Australian bush as if it were the Book of Life.)

As in the archetypal Western, the action in Murder Down Under relies on a moral logic that distinguishes unforgivingly between good deeds and bad deeds—and between good people and bad people. The quest to banish evil from the land, rather than the need to dispel a mystery, is what drives the engine of this well-told tale. The book’s original title, “Mr. Jelly’s Business,” nods toward its only genuine puzzle. Why does Mr. Jelly disappear without warning for days at a time, only to return without explanation? Why, when he comes back, does he always have money in this pocket and strong drink on his breath? The secret of the old man’s peculiar excursions plainly relates in some way to the Loftus affair, but Upfield waits until the novel’s last page to reveal how the two stories dovetail.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2018 in Golden Age, Novel

 

MICKEY SPILLANE. I, the Jury (1947).

Mike Hammer made his famous, and in some quarters infamous, début in this brisk and bumptious private-eye novel. In some respects, it’s standard fare of its type. Hammer is a lone-wolf operator in New York City who, in the tradition of Sam Spade, has a loyal and fetching secretary, an adversarial relationship with local authorities, and a way of working a case that focuses less on interviewing suspects than on riling them up. From the start, however, many critics took exception to Spillane’s harder-boiled variation on themes first sounded by Hammett and Chandler. “Able if painfully derivative writing and plotting in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in Gestapo training school,” wrote Anthony Boucher in a brief notice in the San Francisco Chronicle. By the early 1950s, the Hammer series had become a cultural phenomenon that appeared to signal a big shift in what readers sought from the detective genre. At bottom, I, the Jury offers a tale not of crime and detection, but of revenge.
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The essence of the story is right there in the title: Hammer (who serves as both narrator and protagonist) sets out to deliver his own brand of justice to a killer, and he intends to relish every moment of that violent quest. A vigilante spirit was hardly new to detective fiction. Many works of the interwar period end with a scene in which the protagonist either goads a murderer into committing suicide or finds some other way to dispatch the culprit without the encumbrance of a trial. But such maneuvers are typically an afterthought, executed by a sleuth who acts more in sorrow than in anger. For Hammer, anger isn’t just a driving force; it’s a positive value. After Jack Williams, a cop and a wartime buddy of Hammer’s, turns up dead—someone had pumped a bullet into Williams’s stomach and then, it seems, cruelly watched the man’s life ebb away—Hammer launches into a soliloquy that outlines his plan and celebrates the primitive ethos behind it. “I’m alone. I can slap someone in the puss and they can’t do a damn thing … ” he says to the city detective who oversees the Williams case. “I hate hard, Pat. When I latch on to the one behind this they’re going to wish they hadn’t started it. Some day, before long, I’m going to have my rod in my mitt and the killer in front of me. I’m going to watch the killer’s face. I’m going to plunk one right in his gut, and when he’s dying on the floor I may kick his teeth out.”

Spillane’s writing ranges from “able,” as Boucher calls it, to sub-literate, yet it has a blood-simple authenticity that carries a certain charm. The killer isn’t hard to spot, at least not for anyone who has the barest exposure to stories of this kind. Spillane works up a couple of nice clues, and he shows Hammer going plausibly through the motions of drawing conclusions from them—but solving a puzzle rates as a distantly secondary concern. To Hammer, every problem is basically the same; what matters is whether he can nail his quarry.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel