Category Archives: Novel

GORE VIDAL. Thieves Fall Out (1953).

Vidal, writing under the name Cameron Kay (and doing so in the same period when he was turning out detective tales under the name Edgar Box), delivers an expertly sewn patchwork of mid-century pop-thriller tropes. Indeed, the narrative clichés on display here were already well worn by the time Vidal tried them on for size—and, one gathers, for profit. Apparent influences include every story (The Prisoner of Zenda, for example) in which a young hero gets caught up in the royal machinations of an exotic foreign country; every story (The Mummy, for example) in which the invasion of an Egyptian tomb unleashes a deadly curse; and every story (Hitchcock’s Notorious, for example) in which a woman of dubious loyalty becomes the focus of both romance and espionage. Above all, this tale of schemes and counterschemes, of love and crime in a politically fraught North African locale, owes an enormous debt to the movie Casablanca. The spirit of Rick Blaine hovers over every pivotal scene, as when one character utters this credo: “You might say that I am an adventurer corrupted by idealism.”

ThievesFallOutDespite such flashes of wit, the characters are as stock as they come. The doughty young hero is Peter Wells, an ex-soldier with a bit of experience as a wildcatting oilman. He has no distinguishing personality traits, and, when the novel begins, he has turned up in Cairo for no particular reason. In need of quick money, he ventures to Shepheard’s Hotel and chats up a central-casting British colonial type named Hastings, who in turn introduces him to the (faux) Countess Hélène de Rastignac, a woman of beguilingly indeterminate origin. During the recent war, she was a companion to a high-ranking Nazi leader. Now she and Hastings are cohorts in a sublegal business that seems to involve smuggling. Without knowing the exact nature of their enterprise, Pete agrees to take on an assignment: Accompanied by a dragoman named Osman, he will travel to Luxor to meet a certain Mr. Said, a dealer in antiquities. Said, as Pete will discover, exudes the customary amount of menace and mystery for a character of his ilk. In Cairo, Pete encounters another European expatriate—a German nightclub singer named Anna Mueller, who has a Nazi connection in her past and a connection to King Farouk of Egypt in the present. Pete falls hard for Anna, and his desire to settle down with her back in the States bolsters his eagerness to make it home alive. Before he can do so, he will need to tangle with other rough characters, including a wily, corrupt policeman named Muhammad Ali and a wily, corrupt bar owner named La Mouche.

The highlight of the book is Vidal’s prose, which drives a routine and predictable plot forward with welcome speed and offhand charm. Scenes of danger and violence, which most authors handle in a rote or clumsy way, are especially well done. These qualities turn an otherwise very dated yarn into a sporting romp and a quick, fun read. The trick to enjoying it is not to take it any more seriously than Vidal did.

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Posted by on June 29, 2020 in American, Novel


AGATHA CHRISTIE. Third Girl (1966).

“They probably look like mods or rockers or beatniks or whatever they call these chaps nowadays with the long hair and the dirty fingernails. … You never know which sex they are, which is embarrassing.” Some critics who generally admire Christie—for example, Robert Barnard in his book A Talent to Deceive—rate this effort poorly in part because, from their perspective, the author tries and fails miserably to render life as it is lived by young people in the Swinging London of 1966. On this view, for which the foregoing quotation might provide a case in point, Christie betrays a hopelessly Edwardian sensibility that undermines her bid to freshen up an otherwise standard Hercule Poirot adventure. Yet the speaker here is not Christie in her narrative voice but rather a fellow named Sir Roderick Horsefield, whom she depicts throughout the novel as a ridiculous old fool. What critics fail to see (not just in this instance but in many other instances, too) is the sly irony that Christie brought to much of her fiction. ThirdGirlIs she poking fun at the social and sartorial habits of the young? To be sure. But, at the same time, she is cocking an amused eye at the all-too-predictable bigotries of the old, among whom she no doubt would include herself. For a 76-year-old woman, she displays a remarkably zestful curiosity about the changing world around her, and that quality (though not always perfectly modulated) places this book a notch or two above par for her late work.

The phrase “third girl” refers to the practice by which young women in London share living quarters: One girl rents a flat and invites a second girl to join her, and then, to make the rent affordable, they advertise for a third tenant. In this way do the worlds of disparate young women collide in the great metropolis. The events in this tale swirl about one such flat in a building called Borodene Mansions. Living there are Claudia Reece-Holland, a crisply efficient secretary to a businessman in the City; Frances Cary, who works in a Bond Street art gallery and dabbles in making her own art; and Norma Restarick, an unkempt waif who holds some kind of job with an interior decorator. One morning, the latter woman visits Poirot (though neither he nor readers yet know who she is) and indicates that she “might” have committed a murder. Although she rejects his offer to help—he’s just “too old,” she says—he starts making inquiries that quickly reveal a welter of odd circumstances related to Norma, her family, and her hip young associates. Those circumstances involve episodes of real or apparent violence but not, until late in the day, a clear case of murder. But that day does arrive, and Poirot is ready for it.

The novel Third Girl, which effectively inaugurates the last decade of Christie’s writing life, evinces a few modest signs of the author’s loosening grip on her craft. The focus of action shifts in pell-mell fashion from Poirot to Ariadne Oliver, his scatter-brained crime-writer friend, and on occasion to some of the key players in the drama. Such narrative choices leave the impression that Christie lacks confidence both in her star detective and in her own power to keep the story on track. To generate a mystery plot, she remixes a variety—indeed, too large a variety—of motifs and stratagems from earlier, more path-breaking tales. About midway through the book, Poirot offers an implicit critique of this approach. “Enfin, it is too much!” he utters to himself. “Now we have espionage and counterespionage. All I am seeking is one perfectly simple murder.” But here, too, bemused self-mockery helps to compensate for some of the author’s diminished prowess. On the whole, moreover, the final concoction goes down pleasantly enough, and it contains enough bits of clever misdirection to summon memories of Christie’s finest moments.


Posted by on June 15, 2020 in British, Novel, Puzzle


MARGARET MILLAR. Wall of Eyes (1943).

When Millar introduces Detective-Inspector Sands of the Toronto Police Department, she notes how little about him is actually worth noting. “He had no strong sense of identity,” she writes; somewhat hyperbolically, she adds that “he lived in a vacuum.” Millar is a sly creator, however, and her creation is no less sly. As multiple suspects discover, there is far more to Sands than meets the eye. In a story that revolves around what people do or don’t see, the unobtrusive inspector sees just about everything, and he counts on others’ failing to see him in full. His very lack of definition allows him to serve a critical function for any detective hero—that of navigating the disparate sectors of a complex social landscape.

Wall of Eyes draws the strands of its plot from two very different segments of Toronto society. The main venue of action is the Heath family home, located in a part of town where old money goes to establish just how old and how moneyed it is. Denizens of the house include Kelsey Health, who is blind but has visions of unnamed people who are out to get her (she speaks of being menaced by a “wall of eyes”); Alice Heath, a tightly wound woman who is beginning to accept her impending spinsterhood; Johnny Heath, a former athlete whose youthful charm is starting to fade; and Philip James, a penniless musician who clings to his status as a family protégé. All of them live in an atmosphere of quiet gloom and steadily worsening decadence. WallEyesThe rest of the action occurs in and around a nightspot called Club Joey. Inhabitants of this locale include Mamie Rosen, a lovelorn torch singer; Tony Murillo, a small-time hoodlum who has shacked up with Rosen; Marcie Moore, a prim dancer with grand pretensions; and Stevie Jordan, a master of ceremonies who is a slave to his free-ranging fears. The mood among this crew is one of ersatz frivolity and genuine despair. The original connection point for these two realms is a car accident that occurred two years previously. Kelsey Heath and Philip James, who had become a couple, were traveling with Johnny Heath and his date, a singer at the nightclub named Geraldine Smith. Their car crashes, leaving Kelsey blind and Geraldine dead. Now, in the present, reverberations from that event lead to new anxieties—and to new spasms of violence.

The juxtaposition of these worlds, and the implication that both of them are corrupt in distinct (yet tragically complementary) ways, align this tale with the social vision around which Millar’s husband, Kenneth Millar—who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald—would famously build his cycle of hardboiled detective novels. As in Macdonald’s fictional universe, the intermingling of “high” society and it “low” counterpart operates as both a cause and an effect of spiritual malaise, and that dynamic impels certain characters to take criminally desperate measures. Indeed, hardboiled inflections are a feature in both writers’ work. Millar, because she often wrote about female protagonists and because many of her novels fall into the “domestic suspense” category, sometimes gets tagged as a “cozy” writer. But, as this early work demonstrates, she has a special talent not for giving readers a comfy feeling but for unsettling them. Again and again, Millar adopts the perspective of a given character as a means of highlighting the deceptions (of self and others) that mark the sorry, slippery nature of human life.

In blending elements that are alternately hard and soft, high and low, Millar offers a preview of more masterful work to come. The story that she tells here occasionally threatens to dissolve under the pressure of her elusive, involuted style. So subtle, so elaborate, are her renderings of various characters’ internal lives that readers are apt to lose track of the characters’ external actions. A noir-like miasma hovers over the edges of the narrative. But then, as the novel nears its finish, a twist arrives that illuminates the vital link between the milieu of the nightclub and the milieu of the Heath residence, and the tale reverts to classic detective-story form. In the aftermath of that twist, Sands explains how he elucidated the truth from a series of tangible clues—a pile of clothes borrowed from a missing man’s closet, a box of matchbooks that advertise Club Joey, a set of photographs taken after the car accident, and so forth. Like any top-grade sleuth, he is adept both at seeing what’s in front of him and at gleaning what lies beneath social appearances.


Posted by on June 8, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle


CARTER DICKSON. The Skeleton in the Clock (1948).

One evening in London, a young artist named Martin Drake has a few drinks with a young woman named Ruth Callice and a middle-aged barrister named John Stannard. They discuss two topics: Drake’s fixation on a woman named Jenny, whom he last saw three years ago, following a brief wartime encounter; and Stannard’s plan to commune with the ghosts of assorted murderers by spending a night in the execution shed at a decommissioned prison. Stannard dares Drake to join him in that affair, and Drake accepts the challenge. At this point, a series of improbable coincidences begins to pile up, with each new improbability compounding the one that preceded it.

The next day, Drake attends an auction of antiquities at Willaby’s in Mayfair (a stand-in for Sotheby’s), where he stumbles into Jenny West, his lost love. As it happens, Jenny lives at an estate in Berkshire that is near Pentecost Prison, the very spot where Stannard intends to do his ghost-hunting. As it happens, both of these locations are near Fleet House, the home of Ricky Fleet, to whom Jenny is engaged to be married. SkeletonClockMapback.jpg As it happens, Fleet House was the site of a decades-old murder case in which Stannard was a witness. As it happens, Inspector Masters of Scotland Yard and his partner in detection, Sir Henry Merrivale, are planning to reopen that case. As it happens, Merrivale is at Willaby’s that day as well, and he is there to meet Drake: Merrivale had promised to help Drake locate Jenny, and in exchange Drake had promised to advise Merrivale on the purchase of a sword. As it happens, Jenny has come to Willaby’s with her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Brayle, who intends to buy a curio whose origins link the item to the Fleet House murder. In short, every circumstance in Drake’s life is converging to send him—and everyone else in this remarkably small world—to Berkshire for a weekend of danger and discovery.

By a wondrous alchemy, the whole mélange of coincidences comes to appear not just plausible but thoroughly believable. For we have entered the realm of John Dickson Carr’s best fiction, where (whether Carr is writing under his own name or under the not-much-altered alter ego of Carter Dickson) the line between what’s improbable and what’s inevitable becomes practically invisible. When Carr (or Dickson, as we must call him here) is on his game, every looping turn of his narrative seems just right. So it is in the opening chapters of this novel. Even the slapstick escapade that punctuates Merrivale’s arrival—a bit of business that involves a sword, a shield, and the Dowager Countess of Brayle—works surprisingly well. Too often, scenes that pivot around the Old Man’s antics have a gratuitous quality; they exist mainly to fill space and to gratify Dickson’s not altogether mature sense of humor. (To be sure, Dickson uses the hurly-burly action of these scenes as a device for hiding clues. But that technique falls flat when the scenes don’t work in their own right.) In this instance, though, the clash between Merrivale and the Dowager Countess helps to evoke the class- and family-based energies that drive much of the plot.

At the center of that plot is a paradigmatic case of murder in retrospect. Back in 1927, Sir George Fleet fell to his death from the roof of Fleet House while watching the participants in a local hunt race past his estate. According to witnesses who were watching the hunt from the gabled windows of a nearby pub, no one else was in on that roof, and authorities therefore declared the death to be accidental. Now, in 1947, an anonymous informant has sent a series of postcards to Scotland Yard, the last of which reads, “Re Sir George Fleet: evidence of murder is still there.” These missives are enough to spark the interest of Masters and Merrivale. But if it was murder, then it was also an impossible (or, rather, “impossible”) crime: Somehow an unseen agent propelled the victim from his rooftop perch. To crack this riddle, Merrivale mulls over factors that include the possibility of funny business with a pair of field glasses, the report of a “pink flash” seen at the time of Sir George’s fall, lingering questions about the arrangement of furniture on the roof, and the odd matter of a grandfather clock whose mechanism has been replaced by a human skeleton.

SkeletonClock.jpg That titular object serves both as a tangible clue and as powerful metaphor. The skeleton in the clock conveys the haunting notion that the passage of time affords no escape from the past: Long-hidden secrets, in other words—those “skeletons” that proverbially linger in closets—will one day emerge to tell their tale. There’s a fine symmetry between the examination of old bones and the exhumation of old stories, and Dickson makes the most of it. The actual skeleton in the actual clock, meanwhile, eventually points Merrivale toward a satisfyingly elegant solution to the Fleet House mystery. Is the solution realistic? Well, it’s as realistic as any visitor to Carr-land has a right to expect.

One flaw is worthy of mention: In roughly the last third of the book, Dickson’s control of the narrative goes a bit slack, and his pacing loses some of its propulsive force. In the runup to the revelation of the killer’s identity, Dickson allows Merrivale’s high-jinks to occupy more actual and figurative real estate than they should. In sum, if the novel were about 10 percent shorter, it would be about 10 percent better.

Yet, even with that defect, The Skeleton in the Clock retains its considerable luster. Indeed, it’s one of the brighter ornaments in the author’s lavishly jeweled crown—a multi-faceted piece of great, and highly effective, complexity. Dickson does not stint on packing the tale with elements of intrigue and puzzlement. Alongside the main story about a 20-year-old murder, there is a nocturnal adventure at Pentecost Prison (an episode that recalls the eerie prison sequence in Hag’s Nook, the first novel in Carr’s Gideon Fell series), a new and brutal murder that occurs that same night, and an attempt to murder Drake by tossing him from the roof of Fleet House. Each of these elements comes with its own array of beguiling clues. A lesser writer might have saved a few tricks and treats for use in other work, but Dickson puts all that he’s got into honing this improbably perfect gem.


Posted by on October 22, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle


DAVID ALEXANDER. The Madhouse in Washington Square (1958).

The original hardcover edition of this book (pictured here, complete with an illustration by a commercial artist named Andy Warhol) carried the tagline “A Novel of Menace.” Yet the actual amount of menace to be found in its pages—pages that recount a series of events in and around a Greenwich Village alehouse—is small beer. There is a murder, and there is a bomb threat of sorts, and there are characters who exude a vague stench of decay, but the general mood of the tale is one of light satire and mildly dark comedy. The book’s first paperback edition, meanwhile, offers the promise of “A Mystery Novel.” Yet, although the novel contains plenty of small-bore mysteries, it lacks the kind of large-scale quandary that most whodunit readers expect when they see that tagline. The question of who killed Carley Dane hovers along the edges of the tale, but it’s a trifle in comparison with a question that clearly holds much greater interest for Alexander: MadhouseWashSq.jpeg How will Dane’s killing affect the motley denizens of the Old House, a bar on Washington Place that is known (not quite affectionately) as “the Madhouse”?

Dane, a onetime literary wunderkind whose life had gone sour, was a frequenter of the Madhouse, and he had done more than his share to spoil the lives of several fellow patrons. The hand that fatally struck him with a poker in his seedy Bleecker Street apartment could have belonged to any member of that sad, not-so-small group. In a marvelously grim set piece near the start of the novel, regulars of the Madhouse (along with a couple of newcomers) file into the bar at 8 a.m. to slake their thirst. They include Peter Dotter and Major Trevor, two stalwart conservatives who regarded Dane as a filthy communist; Helen Landers, an aging artist’s model whom Dane once abused and disfigured; Manley Ferguson, a failed painter whose wife had an affair with Dane; and Martha Appleby, a middle-aged woman who believes that Dane drove her husband to suicide. Unlike many authors who chronicled bohemian life in the late 1950s, Alexander gives short shrift to the beat generation. (In a brief scene, he lampoons a crew of young beatniks, rendering them as shallow posers—as little more than a soulless blur of peaked caps and bongo drums.) Instead, Alexander focuses on an older group of has-been and never-were types who have curated their despair over many years.

Seen for what it is—a neatly carved parable of fate, built upon a suite of vignettes drawn from one corner of big-city life—Madhouse makes for an entertaining read. Its virtues include sharp and occasionally lyric writing, brisk scene-by-scene pacing, and an approach to characterization that cleverly blends mockery with empathy. Its deficiencies are equally apparent. Although Alexander fields a large retinue of suspects, he makes no attempt to construct a proper murder puzzle around them. Just as the novel delivers little in the way of menace and little in the way of mystery, so it offers little in the way of detection. A certain Inspector Gold, from Manhattan West Homicide, arrives to interrogate the bar’s patrons, but he devotes more energy to bemoaning the difficulty of the case than he does to solving it, and the revelation of the murderer’s identity comes without the aid of human ingenuity. The only clue of any consequence, a watch that has gone missing from the victim’s pocket, functions not as a sign to be interpreted, but as talisman of lost time.

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Posted by on September 18, 2019 in American, Novel


FRED VARGAS. The Chalk Circle Man (1996).

The actual story in this novel—a variation on the classic serial murder case—comes swaddled in layers of narrative whimsy, psychological exegesis, and self-consciously fine writing. That’s both good and not so good. By deploying a high literary style that is alternately playful and serious, Vargas is able to work imaginative inflections on some now-standard tropes: a villain who seems to be following the dictates of a strange inner compulsion, a string of apparently disparate killings that may serve to hide the motive for one particular killing, an investigation that uses the tools of psychology to tease out the villain’s homicidal logic, a slow-building aura of suspense that arises from waiting for the next move in a campaign of terror. Vargas, in short, knows her way around the tradition of serial-killer fiction that originates in cornerstone works such as The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie, and Cat of Many Tails, by Ellery Queen. In striving to invest that tradition with a measure of sophistication, however, she runs the risk of obscuring the contours of her plot.

By and large, the plot conforms to type. All over Paris, in arrondissements far and wide, a faceless city dweller is choosing to make his mark in a most unusual fashion. In the early morning hours, before the Métro closes for the night, he (as the title indicates, and as an eyewitness vouchsafes, it is indeed a man) stops at a patch of ancient pavement and draws a neat circle in blue chalk around an ostensibly random found object. The list of encircled objects steadily grows—an orange, a piece of wire, a candle, and so on—but no pattern emerges to explain why the man has chosen these bits of flotsam and jetsam from the churning urban sea. ChalkCircleMan.jpg Then, one morning, it’s the body of a murdered woman that turns up inside a freshly sketched perimeter of chalk. Then a second corpse gets the chalk-circle treatment, and then a third. All three victims have had their throat slit. Otherwise, as far as the police can determine, there is no connection between them, and likewise there is no discernible motive for anyone to end any of their lives. Until fairly late in the novel, the only apparent method to all of this madness pertains to the geography of the Chalk Circle Man’s activity: Much of that activity clusters in either the Saint-Georges and Pigalle neighborhoods on the Right Bank or the Panthéon and Montparnasse areas on the Left Bank.

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, newly installed as commissaire of the 5th Arrondissement after spending his early life in the provinces, is just the man to solve this quintessentially Parisian crime spree. He’s a homely and unkempt fellow, and Vargas plays up his status as naïve rustic among jaded cosmopolitans. She calls him a “wild child” and celebrates him as a creature of pre- or post-rational intellect. His attunement to the subliminal vibrations that connect people with their destinies, she contends, has enabled him leap over his more plodding colleagues in the French gendarmerie. The puzzle on which Adamsberg works his magic contains a few smart twists, and while some readers may guess the correct solution to that puzzle, few of them will be able to deduce it. Vargas drops a fair number of clues along the way, but they are thin and brittle—like the fallen leaves that Adamsberg pauses to contemplate as the case winds to a finish.

The novel, the first in a series about Adamsberg and his retinue, is very much a late-modern work—and very much a French work. Vargas adopts a highly conceptual approach to what remains, at its structural core, a police procedural of the sort that Ed McBain might have written about the cops of the 87th Precinct. Although Adamsberg comes across as a taciturn and down-to-earth fellow, his creator lades her depiction of him with rambling theoretical discussions of his version of police procedure. The Chalk Circle Man contains some detection, but far more abundant in its pages are instances of meta-detection: Both the author and her principal characters chatter quite a lot about what it’s like, and what it means, to be a detective. Vargas’s emphasis on her hero’s intuitive faculties is another aspect of the tale that has an honorable French lineage. Adamsberg, like his illustrious fictional predecessor Inspector Maigret, is an inscrutable genius par excellence, and Vargas evokes the special qualities of Adamsberg’s mind with brio as well as brilliance. Yet she writes about those qualities at such wearying length that one longs for the crisp, exacting technique that Georges Simenon uses to summon Maigret into being.



Posted by on September 5, 2019 in International, Novel, Puzzle


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.


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


DEREK SMITH. Whistle Up the Devil (1953).

In the setup of this double-barreled locked-room mystery, Smith offers a scenario that wins no points for originality. Everything about the tale’s two murders, and about the investigation of both crimes, might well have come from a book written in 1923 or 1933. Oft-used tropes pile up fast: A brilliant amateur detective named Algy Lawrence is summoned to Querrin House, near the village of Bristley, to prevent some elusive agent—a ghost, or maybe the devil—from killing Roger Querrin, the master of that domain. A supposed curse, traceable to a querulous ancestor, hangs over a particular room at the house, and Querrin plans to tempt fate by ensconcing himself there one night. Inside the room, a dagger hangs over a fireplace mantel. (Paging Dr. Chekov!)

True to form, the room and its immediate surroundings appear to be purpose-built for hosting an impossible crime problem: Its only points of entry are a single door with a newly keyed lock and a set of French windows that can be firmly bolted from inside. Surrounding the room and a passage that leads to it are beds of fresh soil that would show the footprints of any intruder. On the appointed evening, Lawrence and Peter Querrin, Roger’s brother, stand watch at the entrance to the passage. Sergeant Hardinge, from the local constabulary, watches from outside and has a full view of the French windows. Around midnight, a cry rings out, and Lawrence rushes toward the room and uses his gun to shoot open the door. Inside, he and his fellow watchmen find that Roger Querrin has died from a knife wound.

WhistleUpDevil.jpg Just as Lawrence begins to make sense of that killing, a second murder occurs in circumstances that seem to defy explanation. Simon Turner, an old family retainer who nurses a grudge against the Querrins, was caught prowling around the house and has been cooling his heels at the police station in Bristley. Somehow an agent of death manages to strangle him, even though all routes to his cell were under guard during the period when the killing could have taken place.

The solutions that Lawrence offers for these howdunit puzzles aren’t exactly elegant, but they are the best thing about the book. Both of them are plausible (or as plausible as such solutions can be), fairly clued, and wondrously intricate. The whodunit element is impressive, too, and it unfolds as a remarkably elaborate feat of misdirection. (The sequence in which Lawrence adduces answers to both the “who” and the “how” conundrums takes up roughly one-fifth of the novel.) Smith, who explicitly avows his debt to John Dickson Carr, delivers a plot that stands a cut or two above the average Carr tale in this vein. His handling of certain basics of storytelling, however, falls well below the Carr standard. He peoples his stock situations with stock characters who communicate mainly by exchanging stock phrases. The women of the piece, moreover, fall short of being even one-dimensional. They exist mainly to serve Smith’s own prurient interests, and his treatment of them dates the novel badly.

Near the end of Whistle Up the Devil, one ray of original insight glimmers in the dark-paneled library where Lawrence delivers his summation of the case. Smith, via Lawrence, posits the crime-solving equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: Merely by acting as an observer, an investigator may affect—with dire consequences—the outcome of what he is observing. When Lawrence agreed to stand watch outside the room in which Roger Querrin would ultimately die, he assumed that he could maintain his status as an aloof outsider. In fact, as Lawrence ruefully notes, he became complicit in the violent deed that he aimed to forestall. A sense of the tragic therefore sets this tale apart from most prewar novels of its type. Despite its generally frothy tone, the book at that brief moment echoes other works (certain Ellery Queen titles from the same era come to mind) that reflect a mood of postwar atomic dread.


Posted by on April 24, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle


LANGE LEWIS. Murder Among Friends (1942).

By common agreement, the Golden Age of detective fiction ended when the 1940s began. From 1920 to 1939, according to this formulation, tales about feats of detection came into their own as a variety of literature with broadly shared standards of quality and with a recognized pantheon of outstanding practitioners. Arguably, however, it was in the following decade—the decade that began when the era of interwar peace ended—that the detective novel reached is pinnacle of achievement. In the early 1940s, first-time contributors and established figures in the genre started issuing minor and major masterpieces on a scale that resembled the rate of production in the munitions factories that were then kicking into high gear. For these writers, the distinction between art and entertainment, between serious fiction and playful mystification, practically disappears. Drawing on all of the resources provided by a maturing genre, they stand out for their ability to embed fair-play murder puzzles within richly conceived stories about people who lead socially realistic, emotionally complex lives. In many instances, they sound romantic or satiric themes that derive from the traditions of comedy. MurderAmongFriends.jpg But just as frequently (in novels such as Calamity Town, by Ellery Queen; Green for Danger, by Christiana Brand; and Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie), they strike a note of tragedy that resonates even after the typical reader forgets the clever solution that they have engineered.

For a prime example of this trend, one could hardly do better than to cite the work at hand. Murder Among Friends, the inaugural entry in a four-book series about Lieutenant Richard Tuck of the Los Angeles Police Department, is a classic of humane, literate detection. The friends in question are students, researchers, and employees at an unnamed medical school. (Stray references to the surrounding topography indicate that this institution is part of the University of Southern California.) Shortly before the action of the novel begins, a secretary named Garnet Dillon leaves her job at the school suddenly and without explanation. The young woman who takes her place, Kate Farr, serves as the novel’s co-equal protagonist—a point-of-view figure whose story runs parallel with that of Tuck’s investigation. On her first day as the new secretary, Kate witnesses the discovery of Garnet’s corpse in the school’s anatomy lab. An autopsy establishes poisoning by ingestion of digitalis as the cause of death, and the testimony of Garnet’s boss effectively rules out the possibility of suicide. But if it’s a case of murder, who had the wherewithal to administer a fatal dose? That question leads Tuck to focus his inquiry on the eponymous circle of friends, several of whom are young men who harbored (or may have harbored) amorous feelings for the victim.

With a light but certain touch, Lewis portrays the workings of the detective mind in its full glory. Tuck isn’t the most colorful sleuth—his main identifying trait is his extreme height—but he navigates his way through a thicket of clues and complications with easy-going intelligence. Step by step, he examines every viable permutation of means, motive, and opportunity. Lewis smoothly interweaves scenes that feature Tuck with scenes that revolve around the clutch of friends who, in the wake of Garnet’s murder, continue their struggle to build careers and lives. In witty, perfectly modulated prose, she fashions an immediately believable world around these characters and confers a sense of gravity on the murder case that looms over them. The global war that the United States had just entered when these events take place receives a single glancing mention. But the denouement alludes to the kind of life-and-death actions that the war will soon compel young people like Kate and her cohorts to make on a regular basis.


Posted by on April 10, 2019 in American, 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