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Category Archives: Novel

HOWARD BROWNE. Halo for Satan (1948).

Self-referentiality—the tendency to make knowing nods to the fictive nature of fiction—is endemic to the detective genre. The habit goes back at least as far as the gibes made by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson about the latter’s published chronicles of the former’s exploits. It can be a charming tic, now and again, but it can also test a reader’s capacity for suspending disbelief. Practitioners of the private-eye form often seem especially self-conscious about the highly constructed myth that lies beneath their works’ aura of gritty realism. Perhaps in that spirit, Browne peppers this tale about the Chicago-based shamus Paul Pine with references to other authors who specialize in mean-streets fare. At one point, he makes Pine interrupt his sleuthing chores to read a novel by William T. McGivern. A good guess here is that Browne knew McGivern from his work as editor of the pulp magazine Mammoth Detective. In any event, the shout-out comes across as a clunky bit of log-rolling. Such moves disrupt, ever so slightly, the spell of enchantment that this kind of story requires. Pine’s literary forebears knew better than to give up the game in that way: One struggles to imagine Sam Spade kicking back to peruse a copy of Black Mask while he waited for the black bird to turn up.

Browne’s novel, as it happens, follows the template that Dashiell Hammett created in The Maltese Falcon—a narrative framework that was, in turn, a clear tribute to mythic stories about knights in search of the Holy Grail. HaloSatan.jpg The quarry in this case is as fantastic as can be: a manuscript purportedly written by the hand of Jesus of Nazareth. As in the Hammett novel, the hero searches for clues and jockeys for position amid a cast of characters who all yearn for the same elusive object. The adventure starts with Pine going on a call to visit Bishop McManus, whose flock includes all of the Catholic souls in Chicago and who has an obvious professional interest in securing the manuscript. Thereafter, Pine tussles (and occasionally collaborates) with a pair of fetching women, Lola North and Constance Benbrook, either of whom might pass an audition for the femme-fatale role; with Frank Tinney, a homicide cop who is no fonder of private investigators than he should be; with Louis Antuni, a big-time mobster whose heyday was during the Prohibition era; and with a few other tough cookies. Topping off the confection is the looming presence of a mysterious master criminal named Jafar Baijan. (Both the spectral nature of the character and the ethnically indistinct name appear to prefigure Keyser Soze, the ostensibly invisible villain who haunts the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. Presumably it’s a coincidence. Or maybe the film’s creators had read this mid-century thriller.)

Although the plot borrows chiefly from Hammett, the tone and ambience of Halo for Satan point to a more profound influence: Browne, by virtue of this book and others in the Paul Pine series, was arguably the best of many would-be successors to Raymond Chandler. By transporting the Chandleresque tale and its tropes—the offbeat similes and the on-target social observation, the vision of an urban jungle in which upper-crust types mix with underworld figures—to a Midwestern metropolis, Browne shows that the formula could deliver its magic even in the absence of Southern California glamour. At the same time, he exerts tighter control over his characters and his plot than Chandler was typically able to muster. Through the sheer excellence of his craft, Browne achieves something that goes beyond mere pastiche. (It’s too bad that, instead of letting the craft speak for itself, he occasionally tries to get cute.)

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

CYRIL HARE. Suicide Excepted (1939).

SuicideExcepted.jpgThis third of Hare’s novels came out during the final year of an era known (semi-officially, at least) as the Golden Age of detective fiction, and it bears the telltale marks of that period. It’s a loose-jointed romp that draws on familial tensions and technical points of law, as well as physical and circumstantial clues, to build a pattern of mystification around a narrow group of suspects. At a country inn full of respectable people, each of whom has something to hide, a guest dies one morning from the ingestion of poison and apparently by his own hand. Because the victim’s insurance policy bars payment in the event of suicide, a coroner’s ruling to that effect means destitution for several surviving family members. The dead man’s son and daughter, along with the daughter’s fiancé, therefore undertake to prove that the cause of death was murder. (Circumstances foreclose the possibility of an accident.) Through their adventures in amateur detection, these three would-be beneficiaries stir up clouds of suspicion—and provide a steady source of amusement for readers—but they uncover no conclusive evidence. So it falls to Inspector Mallett, an exemplar of professional calm who has been observing the trio from just off-stage, to see the case through to its final twist.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. Double, Double (1950).

DoubleDouble.jpgDid Queen the author tire of Queen the detective and come to despise him, much as Arthur Conan Doyle became wearily contemptuous of Sherlock Holmes? True, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (the men behind the Queen pseudonym) never tried to do away with Ellery—unlike Doyle, who took the drastic, albeit reversible, step of killing his brainchild in print. But in several novels from late in their career, including this one, they subjected their sleuth to a fate arguably worse than death: They made him dangerously incompetent. In this outing, seven dead bodies pile up before Ellery, who narrowly misses becoming the eighth, sees the light and nabs the killer. Until then, he stumbles in the dark, unable to comprehend why anyone would commit murder to the tune of an old nursery rhyme, the one that goes (in the American version used here) “Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.” In answer to that question, Queen the author devises a plot of surpassing and largely satisfying complexity. All the same, he (or “he”) forgets that most detective novel readers are looking for more than a puzzle that they can’t hope to solve. In addition, they want to follow the exploits of a sleuth who can solve it.

[ADDENDUM: Several of my recent posts, including this one, stem from an effort to dredge up old notes on books that I read a decade or more ago. Although I’ve spruced up these notes somewhat, they stand as remnants from a time when approached reviewing detective fiction—and, indeed, reading detective fiction—differently from how I do now. For one thing, these older reviews are shorter. I drafted them before I created Only Detect and before I aspired to do more than jot down a brief “note to self.” For another thing, they reflect a single-minded focus on how an author sets and solves a puzzle. Today, I admire a fine corkscrew plot as much as ever, but I’m also inclined to celebrate other attributes that cause a detective novel to succeed or fail.]

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON. Jar City (2000).

“He thought about mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and mothers and sons and fathers and daughters and children that were born and no-one wanted and children who died in that little community, Iceland, where everyone seemed related or connected in some way.” The agent of these musings on the vagaries of paternity and maternity, and on the intricacies of the Icelandic “family,” is Erlendur Sveinsson, detective inspector on the Reykjavik police force.

Following the now-standard format for gritty procedurals, Erlendur functions less as a traditional protagonist than as a prism through which his creator can refract multiple rays of investigative, personal, and social drama. (An introductory note explains that Icelanders generally go by their first name; they don’t have surnames in the usual sense of that term.) Indradason surrounds the inspector with a cast of supporting players who function as a work family—Sigurdur Oli, an up-and-coming fellow with a degree in criminology; Elinborg, a female junior officer; Marion Briem, a crusty senior officer; and so on. On the home front, meanwhile, Erlendur faces challenges that are typical of put-upon fictional cops everywhere: He has a troubled daughter, Eva Lind, and his stumbling efforts to maintain a connection with her form a major subplot in the novel. JarCity.jpg

Erlendur is also keenly aware of his membership in a distinctive national family. Iceland has a population no bigger than that of a mid-size American city, and its people can trace their ancestry back many centuries. Consequently, the country has been able to create a database that combines information on the health and family histories of virtually all of its citizens. Affiliated with this vast genealogical undertaking is a laboratory that retains specimens of biological material from a vast assortment of Icelanders; the book’s title is a mordant reference to that facility. The scientific value of these projects derives largely from the country’s genetic homogeneity. Even so, Indradason manages to suggest that there are an infinite number of stories to be found in Jar City.

There is, for instance, the story of Holberg, a 69-year-old truck driver whose penchant for sexual vice appears to have been the only notable element of an otherwise drab existence. Acting on a neighbor’s tip, Erlundur and his team enter a seedy basement apartment in the Nordurmyri neighborhood of Reykjavik and discover that someone has bludgeoned Holberg to death. What follows is an engrossing tour through the seemingly ordinary lives of people whose fates had intersected with that of the murdered man. Attention turns before long to a set of women who were, or may have been, raped by Holberg—and to people who have familial connections with these victims. (That’s where the revelations of Jar City come into play.) Within this group, presumably, Erlendur will locate a culprit whose yearning for vengeance found an outlet in the savage murder of a sad, dirty old man.

Although Indradason suffuses the tale with an ample portion of Nordic dourness, he avoids the plodding exposition that mars some works of Scandinavian noir. Indeed, the most compelling element of this novel—the third in the Erlendur series—is the author’s careful management of suspense. From chapter to chapter, Indradason switches between one investigative lead and another, and he further varies the mix with chapters about Erlendur and Eva Lind. By braiding his narrative strands in this way, he creates a sequence of cliffhangers that are small in scale but cumulatively large in impact.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2018 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Long Goodbye (1953).

This is quite a long book, as detective novels go—longer than it needs to be, but not longer than it should be. Viewed from the perspective of narrative economy, it contains a great deal of waste. There are scenes that extend for a beat or two (or three or four) more than is necessary, and scenes that hardly seem necessary at all. It’s a loose and shaggy affair, with a generous supply of Chandleresque lyricism but without the staccato narrative drive that marks the author’s best earlier tales (and, interestingly, with fewer dazzling similes than his most devoted readers might expect). It is, of course, a lavish bid by Chandler to combine a standard private-eye caper with a straight literary novel. As a detective novel, it’s much less tightly woven than it could have been. As a study of mood, of character, of modern social life, it lacks a clear sense of focus. Unlike The Big Sleep, this work doesn’t create a template that other writers could (and did) eagerly follow. It’s a one-off accomplishment. Yet, even so, it’s a real accomplishment.

LongGoodbye.jpgAs in a traditional detective story, specific problems that involve concrete events are what drive the investigative action. What happened in the guesthouse of the Encino estate where the heiress Sylvia Lennox joined the ranks of the naked and the dead? (She was found there without clothes and with her face smashed in by a bronze statuette.) What happened in the hotel room in Otatoclán, a remote Mexican town, where Terry Lennox passed his final days? What happened in the writer’s den of the Idle Valley house where Roger Wade died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot on a lazy, lonely Southern California afternoon? Philip Marlowe arrives at answers to these questions—but only after following a convoluted series of deductions (some accurate, some not) and confessions (some true, some false),

Marlowe also explores a murkier problem: What makes people tick? And what sometimes causes a spring to snap inside them? Many scenes in the book appear to exist only to cast light—sometimes harsh and sometime mellow—on Marlowe’s relationships with the Lennoxes, the Wades, and a few others in the same upscale social set. Chandler indicates that Marlowe is 42 years old when the events here take place, but he confers on his otherwise robust hero an outlook that’s typical of late middle age. (When he wrote the book, Chandler was past 60.) The tone is one of dyspepsia and disappointment, and the perspective is that of a man who has seen the bottom of too many glasses of whiskey. For Chandler, a craving for booze is both the most predictable cause and the most telling symptom of a human spirit that has gone sour. In The Long Goodbye, he manages the rare feat of making alcoholism (a very dull subject, in the main) a convincingly integral trait of two superbly drawn characters. By implication, he sketches an effective portrait of another alcoholic man: himself.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

COLIN DEXTER. The Wench Is Dead (1989).

This entry in the Inspector Morse series is highly reminiscent of The Daughter of Time, the much-admired (and often over-praised) classic by Josephine Tey that casts her hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, in the role of an amateur historian. Here, too, a bedridden policeman escapes boredom by reading about a murder from the distant past. Here, too, discrepancies and oddities in the traditional account of the crime incite professional skepticism in the policeman and spur him to review the surviving documentation of the case. Here, too, the policeman enlists the aid of visiting friends and subordinates, who get swept along by his obsessive interest in opening one of the coldest of cold cases. WenchIsDead.jpg Here, too, the policeman and his ad hoc investigative team take a version of truth that had withstood scrutiny for decades (or centuries, as in Tey’s novel) and turn that version inside-out. Here, too, an author brings the past to life by the somewhat ironic means of exploring an ancient death. Here, too, the reader encounters in an acutely distilled form the quality that distinguishes the detective story from other genres—the romance of reason, the grand game of ferreting truth out of its hiding place.

The Wench Is Dead proves to be more satisfying than its famous precursor, and the chief reason is easy to identify: Tey, in her book, labors conscientiously within the factual parameters of an actual event—the alleged murder by King Richard III of his two nephews (the fabled “princes in the Tower”)—whereas Dexter places relatively few limits on his creativity. Although he draws inspiration from the true case of a killing that took place in Staffordshire in 1839, he transfigures that event into an episode that takes place only in the space of his own devious mind: the rape and murder by drowning of a young woman named Joanna Franks. This fictional crime occurred in 1859, on or near the Oxford Canal, and in describing the social milieu of that time and that place, Dexter is able to evoke a world that teems with cryptic clues and densely layered personal relationships. (In that respect, this world resembles the late-20th-century Oxford that Morse claims as his usual stomping ground.) Dexter also improves on the Tey prototype by allowing Morse to transcend the bounds of physical confinement, first by the force of his personality and then through evidence-hunting excursions that take him away from his sickbed. More so than Grant, Morse brings a spirit of urgent action to a narrative that would otherwise consist of interior monologue and seemingly endless dialogue.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

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