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Category Archives: Novel

RUTH RENDELL. A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970).

In the early going, at least, this novel of murder among the gentry in a Sussex village has a lot to recommend it. The outlines of the story are almost stereotypically classic: There is a great and ancient house, and a clutch of servants, and a tangle of familial tensions that suggest a range of possible motives to kill, and a hitherto-secret will that casts some of those motives in a provocative light. At the same time, this fifth work in the Inspector Wexford saga has a decidedly modern flair; it wholly lacks the cozy, complacent mood that hangs over many country-house mysteries of the prewar era. Rendell’s telling of this tale, moreover, is as brisk as the tale itself is admirably brief. GuiltyThing.jpg The author gazes on her subjects with a cold, satiric eye, but she also conveys a compassionate view of the drives that make each character no better (but also no worse) than he or she should be.

The most important character, although she is onstage for only a short time, is the victim, Elizabeth Nightingale. Elizabeth, the lady of Myfleet Manor, was a beautiful albeit slightly vain woman who devoted her days to charity and leisure. Why would anyone wish to find or join her in Cheriton Forest and there, under a midnight moon, smash her head with a blunt object? The puzzle of who Elizabeth was, and of the true nature of her relationships with other characters—including her distinguished husband, Quentin; her brother, a prickly writer named Denys Villiers; and a young gardener on her staff, Sean Lovell, whose aspirations to become a pop star she encouraged—give Wexford and his young colleague, Mike Burden, plenty of leads to investigate.

The tale comes with a mighty twist, yet that twist throws the foregoing tale perversely out of whack. The final revelation—told in the form of an extended confession—not only bears a tenuous (and minimally clued) connection to what precedes it but also banishes Wexford and Burden to the margins of their own case. Rendell thus achieves an effect that is both unsettling and unsatisfying.

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Posted by on May 19, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

THOMAS STERLING. The Evil of the Day (1955).

EvilDay2.jpg Gathered together at an old and opulent palace are the corrupt and manipulative man who makes his home there; his devious factotum; a rich harridan and her paid companion; and two men who have ostensibly come to provide succor to their ostensibly ailing host. Each of them possesses great wealth, or desperately wishes to possess it, or both. The situation not only echoes that of many classic whodunit tales but also resembles the scenario of a truly classic work: the comedy Volpone; or, the Fox (1605–1606), by Ben Jonson. Indeed, several of these characters confess that they know the play and that they mean to turn this knowledge to their advantage.

Sterling, at any rate, puts his own erudition to good use, adding to the raw material of that source work the clues and the trickery of a detective story. In doing so, he forsakes none of the original’s comic flair and sardonic worldliness, and he leavens the plot with trenchant musings on death and its relation to life that transcend the humble mystery genre. Like its Renaissance forerunner, the novel uses Venice as its metaphorically freighted locale.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

CARTER DICKSON. He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944).

The Royal Albert Zoo, an enclave located fictitiously in Kensington Gardens, provides the backdrop for most of the action in this dazzling tale from the prime of John Dickson Carr’s tale-spinning life. (The Carter Dickson pseudonym, of course, in no way obscures the unmistakable stamp of Carr’s authorship.) But in a broader sense, the backdrop is the wild kingdom that extends across the war-wracked skies over London. Set during a three-day period in early September 1940, the events in this novel of domestic murder unfold as German bombers begin their decidedly international assault on Britain’s capital. In several scenes, the haunting drone of aircraft sounds overhead. In one scene, smoke from fires in the East End wafts over the West End, offering a preview of the horrors that will come as the blitz advances over the whole city. And in a pivotal early scene, an air-raid warden on his rounds peeks through a window that should be blacked out, but isn’t, and spots a prone body on the floor.

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The body belongs to Edward Benton, director of the zoo. By all accounts, he was a harmless-enough fellow, driven primarily by an obsession with maintaining his large and exotic menagerie amid the challenges and privations of wartime. He was also a man of independent wealth, and a brother of his who might inherit that fortune hovers about the Royal Albert grounds. Otherwise, it’s hard to discern who had a motive to extinguish the zookeeper’s life. But attention here focuses less on motive than on means. Somehow, and for some obscure reason, the killer lined the edges of every point of egress in the murder chamber—from the sills of windows to the bottom of the room’s only door—with adhesive-backed paper. Benton, in other words, drew his last breath in a thoroughly (and not just metaphorically) sealed room. It’s a perfect case for Sir Henry Merrivale, who, by the serendipitous logic of Carr’s world, happens to be at the Benton residence on the evening of the crime.

As noted, the circle of suspects is almost alarmingly small: The reader must ask not just “Who committed the murder?” but “Who even might have committed it?” Despite that handicap, Carr manages to work a kind of surprise in the whodunit department. For Sir Henry, though, pinpointing a killer and proving the killer’s guilt are discrete endeavors, and in this instance court-worthy proof eludes him. So Old H.M.—a man who is largely innocent of patience—confronts the killer in the zoo’s Reptile House and forces the issue in a starkly cold-blooded way.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2017 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

JOHN DUNNING. Booked to Die (1992).

BookedDie.jpg Is ownership of certain modern first editions a cause worth killing for? The premise here is that Denver, Colorado, serves as home to a handful of people who might answer “yes” to that question. Though no less plausible than many reasons for fictional murder, this motive is more fanciful than most, and a story that hinges on it needs to have just the right tone. By writing in the voice of Cliff Janeway, a hard-boiled homicide cop with a mania for old books and a breezy way of turning a phrase, Dunning manages that difficult feat. And, despite a couple of hastily smoothed-over plot points, he turns out a neat, well-clued puzzle.

The weakest element in this biblio mystery concerns Janeway, who comes across too starkly as a creature of fantasy. Nowadays, we want our detective heroes to show a modicum of vulnerability; here and there, they should appear to struggle with a case as much as we might struggle with it. Or, if they must be idealized avengers of crime, then we expect them to battle not only the world’s evil but their own dark side as well. Janeway refers to a childhood bereft of love and stability—formative years that left him with a violent streak—and in one pivotal episode, he unleashes that violence. But he glides through most of this adventure with a facile mastery of both himself and his situation, and along the way we become largely indifferent to his fate.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Murder Is a Fox (1945).

The word Fox in the title refers to an interlocked pair of Fox families, one of whose members killed Jessica Fox by putting a poisonous dose of digitalis in a glass of grape juice that she drank one morning in 1932. According to the local keepers of the law, it was Bayard Fox, Jessica’s husband, who did the fatal deed, and when the action here commences he has served 12 years in prison. Bayard and Jessica’s son, Davy, upon his return in 1944 from heroic wartime service in China, fears that murderous blood flows through his veins. MurdererFox2.jpg That fear becomes acute after he awakens from a jealousy-infused nightmare to find his hands wrapped around the throat of his loving wife, Linda.

Enter Ellery Queen, playing the role of sleuth-cum-shrink. At the behest of Linda, Ellery travels to the scene of the crime—the Our Town–inspired community known as Wrightsville—and reopens the earlier murder case on the theory that proving the father’s innocence will expel the son’s demons. That aspect of the book, partaking of the Freudian conceit that truth about the past can set the soul free (just as clearly and unambiguously as a surgeon’s knife can remove a cancerous growth), is contrived and overdone. What redeems this tale are Ellery’s rivetingly intricate reconstruction of the crime; the author’s trenchant exploration of several big themes, including the power of a paternal legacy, the quest for knowledge, and the ironies of fate; and a splendid use of setting. Wrightsville, which Queen generally treats as the habitat of comically limned mid-century American types, emerges as a scene of subliminal tragedy, a place where the hard granite of pride and pretense is shot through with the soft clay of human weakness.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

JEB RUBENFELD. An Interpretation of Murder (2006).

The idea of casting Sigmund Freud as the sleuth in a murder story, or at any rate as a walk-on sleuthing consultant, has an “overdetermined” quality, as Freud himself might put it. Like a detective, a psychoanalyst excels at finding the thread of significance that lurks within a jumbled skein of reported events. Both figures dedicate themselves to teasing out truths that others seek to hide. And for both, the saga of Oedipus serves as a model for the unraveling of life’s most profound mysteries. Rubenfeld wrests this analogy from its inert obviousness and yokes it to a real historical puzzle: Why did Freud, following his lone visit to the United States, develop a lifelong antipathy to that country—an antipathy so extreme that he once labeled the American experiment in civilization “a great mistake”? The fictional answer, Rubenfeld suggests, is that during his 1909 excursion to the New World the good Dr. Freud witnessed goings-on that would make even the most jaded Old World gentleman cough up his cigar in amazed revulsion.

InterpretationMurder.jpg In that year, Freud traveled to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to deliver a series of lectures; on his way to New England, he stayed for a week in New York, accompanied by an entourage that included Carl Jung. On the basis of those historical facts, the author erects a complex and adroitly managed plot that hinges on transporting Freud’s famous “Dora” case from fin-de-siècle Vienna to ragtime Manhattan. That case involved a dark love quadrangle in which, behind a façade of bourgeois probity, a man prostituted his daughter (“Dora”) to another man in exchange for conjugal rights to the latter man’s wife. Here, Dora assumes the form of one Nora Acton, a nubile “new woman” who lives with her family in a Gramercy Park townhouse. After a strange incident in which Nora reports molestation as well as memory loss, a young psychiatrist named Chatham Younger subjects her to a course of Freud’s newfangled talk therapy. Younger, an authorial creation who narrates bits and pieces of the novel, conducts his psychoanalytic investigation under Freud’s supervision. Alas, he fares about as well with Nora as Freud did with Dora—that is, not very well at all. Proper sleuthing work remains the province of Jimmy Littlemore, a police detective whose blandly stolid heroism adds (um) “little more” to Rubenfeld’s teeming cast of characters.

Younger, for his part, has much better luck with efforts to interpret the mysteries of Hamlet (What did the melancholy Dane really mean when he asked his “To be or not to be” question?) and of the Oedipus complex (Do children truly harbor feelings of homicidal jealousy toward their parents?). Those moments are among the choicest slices of Rubenfeld’s dense literary layer cake. Also worthy of praise are a series of ably evoked period locations, ranging from the exalted heights of a luxury apartment house (based on the fabled Ansonia, on the Upper West Side) all the way down to the pressurized depths of an underwater “caisson,” used in the construction of the Manhattan Bridge. Down there, as in the airless bottom of the human unconscious, a man might lose not only his breath but also his very self.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2017 in American, Historical, Novel

 

HELEN EUSTIS. The Horizontal Man (1946).

In the 1940s, at the moment when the classic whodunit reached unmatched heights of intricacy and sophistication, another kind of mystery tale started to overshadow that once-popular form: the novel of psychological suspense. HorizontalMan.jpgMysteries of the mind, in short, began to usurp mysteries of fact and circumstance. Stories that feature clues perceptible to the five senses and decipherable by rational thought gave way to stories that draw generously on psychoanalysis, a mode of thought and practice that attained its peak of public awareness during this era. This novel illustrates and embodies that transition.

Set within the confines of a New England women’s college, The Horizontal Man begins and moves through its early stages in the usual Golden Age manner. An instructor of English who had served extramurally as the campus Lothario is bludgeoned to death, and an assortment of jealous women and envious men loom as worthy suspects in his killing. But no detective emerges to sift through the clues, which in any case are fairly cursory. Instead, a loose-knit trio of amateurs—a love-struck reporter, the brainy co-ed on whom he has a crush, and a stereotypically wise psychiatrist—worry over the problem until a solution practically erupts in their faces. Although Eustis foreshadows the psychosexual nature of the crime, it’s unlikely that any reader, or indeed any plausible fictional sleuth, could have detected it. The handling of the pivotal trick reflects a shrewd and confidant authorship, but it falls short of what others have accomplished in this vein (see, for instance, Beast in View, by Margaret Millar), and from a 21st-century vantage point, it seems almost naive: So often and with such deftness have others turned this kind of trick over the past half-century that it now takes more to shock us than Eustis delivers.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in American, Noir, Novel