Category Archives: Puzzle

ISAAC ASIMOV. The Naked Sun (1957).

A defining quality of good fiction, and especially good science fiction, is that it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Detective fiction goes a bit further by seeking to make significant that which is (seemingly) ordinary and to make clear that which is (temporarily) opaque. Asimov, in this sequel to another futuristic detective novel (Caves of Steel), expertly combines those feats of literary alchemy into a lively, thought-provoking entertainment.

NakedSun1Many centuries hence, a murder occurs on the Outer Worlds planet of Solaria, where crime is practically nonexistent—and so is any kind of police force. Peculiar facts about the killing raise the need for a serious inquiry. Whoever killed Rikaine Delmarre bludgeoned him at close range, but no weapon turned up in the initial search of the crime scene. Evidence supplied by robots establishes that the only other human near that scene was the victim’s wife, Gladia, yet she fell unconscious around the time of the murder and had no chance to dispose of a weapon. Faced with this quandary, the Solarian powers-that-be deign to invite a mere Earthman to work the case on their behalf. Elijah Baley, a “plainclothesman” from New York City, thus finds himself traveling millions of miles to a planet known for its “naked sun.” (In the Earth of this imagined future, people live in subterranean “caves of steel” and have no direct experience of the star that lights their galaxy.) There, Baley reunites with Daneel Olivaw, a “positronic” robot who served as his sidekick in the previous adventure. Soon after Baley and Olivaw begin their probe, someone attempts a second murder. As the two detectives communicate via holographic projection with Hannis Gruer, the planet’s head of security, they watch him suddenly lurch into convulsions after sipping from a glass of water. Clearly, the glass contains poison. But who could have administered it, and how? Like other Solarians, Gruer lives alone on a vast estate; only his robots are able to come anywhere near him, and robots are hard-wired to avoid causing harm to their human masters.

To read this book during the 2020–2021 pandemic is to experience a shock of recognition—a glimpse of the present as foreshadowed by a decades-old vision of the future. The people of Solaria, like those of plague-scarred Earth in the time of Covid-19, interact with other humans almost entirely by remote means. Asimov posits a technology that enables what Solarians call “viewing,” and his descriptions of that practice suggest a three-dimensional version of the screen-mediated forms of engagement (Zoom meetings and the like) on which people today increasingly depend. Solarians, who descend from human Earthlings, differ from present-day humans in that they prefer viewing to its in-person alternative, which they call “seeing.” In effect, Solarians have replaced the need for human contact with a reliance on legions of supremely advanced robots. That feature rings a contemporary bell, too. Denizens of Earth do not have high-functioning anthropomorphic machines to assist them during long months of pandemic isolation. But, like their counterparts on Solaria, they struggle to understand and manage the devices (smart and not-so-smart) that they have made.

The peculiar conditions of Solaria are a critical factor in the crimes of apparent impossibility that Baley must solve. These puzzles, in fact, are keenly satisfying because they arise from—and hinge on—those very conditions. Each actual or attempted murder appears to lie outside the realm of the possible because (and only because) it takes place amid a cluster of social customs and logistical circumstances that are unique to the world that Asimov has constructed. For example, the visceral aversion that Solarians (most of them, anyway) have to sharing physical space with other humans creates a situation in which the killing of Delmarre and the attack on Gruer seem to defy explanation. Likewise, the Three Laws of Robotics, which are part of a system that Asimov has built into this world, set precise limits on the kinds of violence that robots can either perpetrate or allow to happen in their vicinity. To crack the mysteries at hand, Baley must tease apart the implications of these and other features of Solarian civilization.

Asimov manages the mystery plot with high professionalism, and he deals competently with adult themes that involve matters of human intimacy and human destiny. Even so, Naked Sun displays traces of a juvenile sensibility that was fairly common in mid-20th-century science-fiction writing. NakedSun2Too often, a gee-whiz tone overtakes Asimov’s otherwise serviceable prose, and his lead character, Baley, comes across as an earnest, boringly upright fellow—less as an heir to Philip Marlowe than as a law-enforcement version of Buck Rogers. In addition, there is a subplot that concerns the threat of intergalactic war, and although Asimov handles that story line with some complexity, its presence here brings a pulpy space-opera element into what should be (and mostly is) a tightly focused tale of investigation and discovery.

Like the best science fiction of its era, the novel also explores big ideas in a big, none-too subtle way. As the tale unfolds, Asimov presents a series of conversations between the Earthman sleuth and several of the Solarian suspects, including a sociologist, a roboticist, and the erstwhile assistant of the first victim, who had been the planet’s foremost “fetal engineer.” These conversations teem with anxious speculations about parenthood and family life, about population growth and the fate of nations (or, indeed, of entire planets), about humanoid machines and the humans who create them—preoccupations that were bubbling just under the surface of American culture during the 1950s. To reach Solaria, Baley spans many lightyears in a space capsule. Asimov, meanwhile, brings something else back from his fictive journey: a time capsule.

[ADDENDUM: A recent column in The New York Times by Paul Krugman spurred me to read this book at this time. Krugman flags the somewhat uncanny way that Asimov prefigured life under semi-lockdown. Naked Sun features “a society in which people live on isolated estates, their needs provided by robots and they interact only by video,” the columnist writes. “The plot hinges on the way this lack of face-to-face contact stunts and warps their personalities.”

So my review here steals just a bit from Krugman. It also steals a bit from myself. Looking back at my piece on the prequel book, Caves of Steel, I see that that I’ve touched on some of the same themes again—the science-fiction-as-time-capsule idea, the motif of using futuristic conditions (such as “laws” that govern robot behavior) to drive an impossible-crime plot. So I’m less original in this instance than I could be. Then again, the same is true of Asimov.]


Posted by on April 2, 2021 in American, Novel, Puzzle


PHILIP MACDONALD. The Rynox Murder (1930).

“Less” is quite a bit “more” in this tidy, offbeat crime puzzle. It’s practically bereft of detectives (a few policemen do appear, albeit mainly in the form of incident reports that they submit) and wholly bereft of detection. In effect, readers must fill the crime-solving role directly, without mediation by a truth-seeking hero. MacDonald structures the tale as an inverted detective story that he has inverted yet again: It starts with an epilogue and ends with a prologue, and (roughly speaking) it depicts the unfolding of a complex criminal scheme in reverse chronological order. By dispensing with the apparatus of sleuthing and by focusing on the interplay among small group that includes a victim, a putative culprit, and a handful of the victim’s associates, MacDonald manages to pack a great deal of intrigue into a very slim volume.

RynoxMurderAmong the central players in the drama are Francis Xavier Benedik, a partner in a London investment firm; his son, Anthony Xavier Benedik, who is also a partner; a third partner, Samuel Rickworth; and Rickworth’s daughter, Petronella (“Peter”), who is Anthony’s fiancée. Supplementing the cast are assorted clerks, secretaries, and servants who work either at Rynox House, where the investment firm keeps its offices, or at the Benedik home in Mayfair. (MacDonald, in deftly sketching the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of those locations, provides an appealing sidelight of the tale’s main events.) One other character flits menacingly about the world inhabited by the Benediks and the Rickworths. He is Boswell March, a surly fellow who sports an odd-shaped hat and who harbors an oddly fierce grudge against F.X. Benedik. One night, Boswell pays a visit to the latter man’s house; then, after a fusillade of gunfire, the lifeless body of Benedik is found lying across the sill of a window in his study. The killing isn’t quite an impossible crime, but its mannered staging and intricate mechanics bear the clear stamp of Golden Age ingenuity. (Detailed floor plans and elaborate timetables further add to the novel’s appeal.)

The plot of The Rynox Murder, though well-crafted on the whole, has weaknesses: One aspect of how the assailant pulled off the killing doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and the key deception that underlies the crime will be fairly obvious to many readers. Other elements of the book, meanwhile, count as real strengths. True to its title, the novel centers much of its action on the business dealings of Rynox, a firm that has invested a large—perhaps too large—portion of its assets in a speculative venture that involves the then-new industry of synthetic rubber. MacDonald handles this otherwise uncompelling material with wit and flair, turning dry exchanges about bank loans and insurance policies into engaging narrative fodder. He also graces scene after scene with touches of sly, character-driven humor. Given its slender length and its compact plot, this novel (or is it a novella?) seems like a mere trifle. But it’s richly adorned trifle at that.


Posted by on February 6, 2021 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


HELEN McCLOY. Alias Basil Willing (1951).

A case of imposture swiftly becomes a case of murder for the eponymous hero of this mid-career novel of not-quite-middling quality. Early one evening, Dr. Basil Willing overhears his name being used by a nondescript little man who is hiring a taxi near Willing’s home on the East Side of Manhattan. Willing hires his own taxi and follows the man to a house on West 11th Street where a dinner party is under way. Playing host is one Dr. Zimmer, a psychiatrist, and the guests includes several of his patients. One odd circumstance leads to another, and before the night is out Willing has a new murder to solve. Another killing occurs soon afterward, and in both cases the victim had attended the Zimmer party and had died of a codeine overdose. AliasBasilWillingAs is typical of McCloy’s work, the list of suspects draws heavily from the cultured and monied ranks of New York society, and Willing’s investigation consists largely of observing and interviewing these characters in their native habitats.

In broad outline, the Willing series appears to fall in the same tradition of American crime writing that includes the work of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen. Stories in this British-inflected tradition feature a genteel sleuth who functions as an amateur, even if (as in Willing’s case) he enjoys an official connection to the police; a murder, or maybe a pair of murders, that seem essentially bloodless; and a closed circle of suspects who mostly hail from the upper reaches of a class hierarchy. Yet McCloy’s attitude toward her material echoes the sensibility of a different American tradition: Like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others who write in a hardboiled vein, McCloy casts an icy-cold eye on the mid-century American scene. (Perhaps not coincidentally, McCloy at the time of writing this tale was married to Davis Dresser, who spun yarns about the hard-driving private eye Michael Shayne under the name Brett Halliday.) A highlight of this book is a suite of corrosive pen portraits that introduce readers to Dr. Zimmer’s guests. There is Rosamund Yorke, a vain socialite married to an aging nightclub owner. There is Brinsley Shaw, the cowardly and craven nephew of a wealthy widow. And so on. Similarly, the plot here is replete with signs of social and spiritual corruption—from Zimmer’s practice of gestalt psychotherapy, which McCloy presents as a vaguely fraudulent operation, to the booze-drenched milieu of a suburban country club.

The resolution of this plot combines conventional fair-play aspects—aspects that a reader might divine from clues honestly presented and cleverly concealed—with elements that no reader could deduce from the events that McCloy narrates. (One such element hinges on an obscure literary reference that Willing happens to know. He mentions the work in question, but no ordinary reader will recognize its significance.) When the final twist arrives, it has a freakish quality that renders it mildly shocking, rather than genuinely (or ingeniously) surprising, and the novel ends up resembling a pulpy thriller more than it does a drawing-room puzzler. As a consequence, Alias Basil Willing fails to meet the high standard of fictional detection that its namesake established in his previous adventures.

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Posted by on January 1, 2021 in American, Novel, Puzzle


GASTON LEROUX. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907).

In the decades immediately following its release, this canonical work cast a mighty spell over the field of impossible-crime fiction. “The best detective tale ever written,” wrote John Dickson Carr, speaking through his protagonist, Dr. Gideon Fell, who issued that proclamation in the fabled “Locked Room Lecture,” published (as a chapter in The Three Coffins) in 1935. “It remains, after a generation of imitation, the most brilliant of all ‘locked room’ novels,” wrote Howard Haycraft a few years later in his magisterial genre history, Murder for Pleasure. Now, more than a century after the book’s publication, that worshipful attitude is hard to comprehend. The magic that Yellow Room was once able to work on acolytes and enthusiasts has vanished. What stands out today is the clumsy and sometimes comically antiquated way that Leroux handles a set of ingredients that are, in their own right, fairly appealing.

YellowRoomIn its setting and its setup, the novel presents a classic combination of easeful gentility and violent death. There is a garden: The action occurs chiefly at the Château du Glandier, a venerable and verdant estate on the outskirts of Paris, during the Belle Époque (in 1892, to be precise). Living there are Monsieur and Mademoiselle Stangerson, a father-daughter team of scientific geniuses who call to mind the husband-wife team of Pierre and Marie Curie. Surrounded by ostensibly loyal servants, the Stangersons devote their days to working in a laboratory located in a pavilion on the estate. (Their research involves a phenomenon that they call “the dissociation of matter.” In light of what follows, that concept will resonate in a provocative way.) And there is the introduction of a snake: One evening, after a long day of work in the lab, Mademoiselle Stangerson retires to an adjoining space called the Yellow Room. She locks the only door to that chamber. Soon afterward, gunshots ring out. Monsieur Stangerson, with three servants in tow, breaks the door open and discovers a scene of mayhem. His daughter is alive, but she has borne a wound to the head. A search of the premises shows that no one else is in the room—and that no one could have escaped after she sealed it shut.

From there, the book follows a now-standard model for structuring a locked-room novel. (Indeed, in these pages, Leroux is helping to establish that model.) An amateur sleuth, in the form of a boy-wonder journalist named Joseph Rouletabille, arrives on the scene. He reconnoiters the problem, both physically and intellectually: Footprints are located and examined. Theories of what happened in the Yellow Room are broached and critiqued. Then, just as readers’ attention might start to flag, Leroux compounds the original mystery by introducing new apparent impossibilities. One night at the château, for example, a figure disappears from a hallway—a space that Leroux (or his translator) amusingly calls the “inexplicable gallery”—even as witnesses guard every point of egress. Leroux builds further interest by setting rival sleuths in conflict with each other. Throughout the investigation, Rouletabille jousts with an array of officials, including Frederic Larsan, a detective from the Sûreté who functions as a half-serious, half-comic foil (somewhat in the tradition of Inspector Lestrade).

These features of the tale work well enough. Unfortunately, they tumble forth in a style that is lumbering yet frenetic. Leroux’s prose is a creaking mass of Edwardian-era tics and travesties—a bundle of melodramatic phrases and orotund flourishes. (Again, the translator may bear part of the blame; perhaps the style falls on the ear more softly in the original French.) At the same time, the storyline jumps about constantly; like Leroux’s juvenile protagonist, it displays more energy than intentionality. But the inelegant storytelling would be largely forgivable (at least to many impossible-crime mavens) if the story itself didn’t suffer from glaring flaws.

Leroux botches the main puzzle (the one that originates in the Yellow Room) by attaching too many extraneous elements to it. Deep within the puzzle, one can discern a key inspiration for the wondrous trickery—the quasi-magical use of narrative technique to bend time and space—that successors like Carr would exhibit with greater artistry. YellowRoom2Solving this conundrum requires both painstaking analysis and bold intuition. (“We have to take hold of our reason by the right end,” Rouletabille notes.) But Leroux, having contrived this feat of deception, proceeds to swaddle it in layers of over-embroidered, shoddily sewn story material. As a result, when the time comes to explain this sleight of hand, what should be an adroit revelation becomes a labored and almost impossible-to-follow disquisition.  

More egregiously, Leroux doesn’t play fair in the construction of his plot. Although he doles out clues that point toward some aspects of the solution, he also withholds several pieces of data that illuminate either the motive or the mechanics of the Yellow Room episode. Only when Rouletabille disgorges this information in a final, disordered rush of exposition do critical parts of the story come into view. And yet Haycraft, in his write-up on Leroux, claimed that the author “played religiously fair with his readers.” Arguably, Leroux’s neatest trick was his ability to beguile readers (some of them, anyway) on that front.


Posted by on October 7, 2020 in International, Novel, Puzzle


CYRIL HARE. An English Murder (1951)

To the extent that circumspection and reserve are English traits, the setup of this novel certainly matches the spirit of its title. Not until about one-third of its pages have passed does the identity of the first murder victim become known. Before then, Hare conducts a leisurely survey of his dramatis personae and the stereotypically English situation in which he has placed them. Lord Warbeck, aged and sickly, has invited a small set of actual and honorary family members to join him for a Christmas house party at Warbeck Hall, a venerable edifice in the (fictional) county of Markshire. The party may be the last such gathering before Lord Warbeck, and with him a certain way of life, pass away. Attending the party are his son, Robert Warbeck, who leads the League of Liberty, a group loosely based on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; Sir Julius Warbeck, a cousin who serves as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the historic postwar Labour government; Lady Camilla Prendergast, a relative of the late Lady Warbeck; and a certain Mrs. Carstairs, the daughter of the local parish rector. EnglishMurderIn a sequence of early scenes, various tensions—personal, familial, and political—simmer in the interaction among these characters. As midnight approaches on Christmas Eve, they gather in the drawing room at Warbeck Hall for a traditional holiday toast. Even then, a trace of suspense lingers over the question of who will receive a dose of cyanide in his or her celebratory glass.

The matter of Englishness runs as a persistent undercurrent through the story. Another guest of the party—Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink, an historian of somewhat murky central European origin—throws that theme into high relief. Either explicitly or simply by embodying a foreign counter-example, Bottwink poses the question of what makes a given attitude or habit or turn of phrase unique to his host country. In some instances, the theme emerges in discussions of time-honored (and mostly innocuous) customs, such those associated with afternoon tea: how to prepare it, how to drink it, how to savor the eminently English experience of it. In other instances, however, the theme becomes manifest in ways that involve obdurate class distinctions and dangerously hidebound institutions. “I am well aware of the importance in this country of knowing one’s place,” Bottwink says at one point, and the statement resonates beyond its immediate context. Somewhat later, he laments that “modern England is … riddled with antiquarian anachronisms.” In one fashion or another, he and his fellow guests are reckoning with the very live issue of whether a fixture of national life such as Warbeck Hall will survive in a postwar world. That issue is highly salient for Briggs, the butler at Warbeck, and the book gives considerable attention to the mores and rituals by which Briggs organizes his life and work. Like a naturalist who avidly studies a dwindling species, Hare shows a keen interest in documenting a vocation that is fast disappearing from the English scene.

Alongside robust servings of clever social observation, An English Murder offers a slight but thoroughly satisfying puzzle. The book has just one notable defect: The ability to solve the core mystery hinges on knowing a point of English history and law that will elude even many English readers. Yet that feature, too, evokes a defining aspect of English life—a clubby sense of exclusivity, which can seem at once pleasantly cozy and forbiddingly insular. That Bottwink is the fellow who ends up cracking the puzzle adds a note of suitably English irony.


Posted by on August 25, 2020 in British, Novel, Puzzle


JOHN DICKSON CARR. Poison in Jest (1932).

“I could see another of those scenes brewing, as usual in this topsy-turvy house,” writes Jeff Marle, a young author who serves as Carr’s not-even-thinly-disguised alter ego. That line comes late in the grim affair that Marle narrates here, and it neatly conveys the defining mood of the novel. The house in question, owned by a crusty patriarch named Judge Quayle, lies forlornly amid what Marle describes as “the mountains of western Pennsylvania, blue as Vesuvius.” Carr (in Marle’s voice) paints this dreary landscape in darting, perfectly applied strokes. From the start, when Marle pays a call on the judge, the reader can practically feel and taste the soot-laden wind that seeps through the ancient walls of the Quayle homestead. Carr grew up in this part of the world, and that experience partly accounts for his flair in writing about it. But another source of inspiration may be the evocative rendition of Pennsylvania coal country that Arthur Conan Doyle delivers in The Valley of Fear, the last Sherlock Holmes novel. Given Carr’s high admiration for Doyle, it wouldn’t be surprising if that tale—in particular, the slice of dark Americana that takes up its latter half—influenced Carr in this way.

PoisonJestApart from a prologue and an epilogue, all of the action in Poison in Jest occurs at the Quayle house or on its grounds. Marle is visiting the Quayles after a decade of traveling in Europe, and he soon finds that he has ventured into a classic viper’s nest, a household in which several members could become—and do become—the object of a killer’s wrath. Denizens of the house include Judge Quayle, his bedridden wife, and four of their five adult children. The fifth offspring, a hot-tempered fellow named Tom, had fled the house a few years previously. Also resident in the home is Walter Twills, the husband of Clarissa (née Quayle) and a man of independent means. Those means, in fact, are keeping the Quayle ménage financially afloat, and a covetous attitude toward the Twills fortune appears to drive a series of poisonings that take place on the night of Marle’s visit. Not all of these homicidal efforts hit their target, but one of them does, and more violence happens in its wake. Moment by moment, the novel comes to resemble the house: It’s a closed, tension-wrought space in which an aura of dread steadily washes over a backdrop of homey comfort.

Within Carr’s body of work, this entry occupies a transitional spot. It sits chronologically—and, to some degree, tonally—between the sequence of novels about Henri Bencolin that launched his career and the pair of long series about Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale that he would inaugurate over the next two years. The horror-tinged ambience that looms over Bencolin and his world is also present at the Quayle manse, albeit in a less Grand Guignol form. (The shift to Carr’s native ground seems to elicit a more naturalistic style from Marle, who narrated the Bencolin adventures as well.) The star sleuth in this one-off tale, meanwhile, is a dashing but absent-minded Brit named Patrick Rossiter. He arrives late to the proceedings and, perhaps for that reason, makes a relatively shallow impression. Rossiter foreshadows both the down-to-earth bonhomie of Fell and the crazy-like-a-fox antics of Merrivale, yet the elements of his persona don’t come together nearly as smoothly as the pieces of the puzzle that he solves. He amounts to an amusing but failed experiment, a literary road that Carr shrewdly did not take.

The plot also marks a hiatus between one phase of Carr’s career and the next. More so than the Bencolin tales, or than most of the Fell and Merrivale tales, this book unfolds as a straight whodunit: Its chief mysteries revolve around locked hearts, not locked rooms—around impossible-to-contain hatreds, not impossible-to-commit deeds. In a subplot that concerns a “phantom” hand that haunts Judge Quayle, Carr offers a bit of medium-grade jiggery-pokery (as he would call it on other occasions). Otherwise, though, the trickery that he employs is the kind of thing that Agatha Christie would have proudly used. Viewed in that context, the novel counts as a sound piece of work. Some of the clueing hangs by rather tenuous threads. But it all does hang together, and the main feats of misdirection are well and fairly done.

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Posted by on July 27, 2020 in American, British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


ELLERY QUEEN. The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965).

Just a few flaws mar this generally appealing late work in the fabled series about mystery writer and occasional amateur sleuth Ellery Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD homicide squad. Because the plot has a scale not much larger than that of a novella, the book—though relatively short (it numbers 185 pages in one paperback edition)—includes a fair amount of padding. There are two murder trial sequences, and they both drag beyond the point of their narrative purpose. Some of the surplus text, moreover, takes the form of schmaltzy patter about American life in the mid-1960s (Did you know that television is a font on silliness?), and about New York City life in particular. The sketches of contemporary Gotham read like a bid to recapture the magic that Queen achieved with his bravura rendering of the city in Cat of Many Tails. But they fall shy of matching that high standard.

Also somewhat flawed is the novel’s rigidly stylized setup. As the title suggests, The Fourth Side of the Triangle displays all of the artifice (and artificiality) of a geometry problem. The case revolves almost entirely around four characters and one Park Avenue apartment building. Ashton McKell, a titan of industry, and his wife, Lutetia, both hail from old Knickerbocker families and embody old New York money. Their lone heir, a son named Dane, has plenty of his own money and uses it to fund a middling career as a novelist. The fourth participant in what turns out to be a dark family romance is Sheila Grey, a fashion designer who lives upstairs from Ashton and Lutetia. FourthSideGrey, a thoroughly modern woman with an air of mystery about her, beguiles both McKell men and puts herself in competition with the McKell matriarch. So, when this “other woman” succumbs to a gunshot in her penthouse apartment, the obvious suspects in her murder are a quick elevator ride away. The story relies on strong passions—or at least the idea of strong passions—to yield potential motives for the killing. Yet its main characters (and its minor ones, too) exist only in two dimensions; they are, in essence, simple shapes that happen to intersect on a plane.

What’s appealing about the novel, though, are the clever variations that Queen makes to some classic Queenian maneuvers. (“Queen” here refers to an arrangement in which Avram Davidson ghost-wrote the book from an outline provided by Frederic Dannay.) First, the artificiality of the plot has an upside as well as a downside. By deploying a narrow cast of characters and by keeping a tight focus on what happens in or around Grey’s apartment on the night of the murder, Queen creates a chamber piece that unfolds with an engaging point-counterpoint rhythm. That piece offers only a faint echo of the baroque patterns of intrigue that characterize early masterpieces like The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Tragedy of Y. Still, it works well as a streamlined update of the formal deductive problem that had long been a Queen trademark.

Second, the author delivers a twist on the dying-message trope that recurs throughout the Queen corpus. Typically, such messages involve a quick, spasmodic gesture by a victim during his or her last seconds of life. In this instance, Grey takes several minutes to craft a letter to the police (“To be opened only in the event I die of unnatural causes,” she writes), and does so before the killer strikes. The letter becomes a critical piece of the plot machinery, but its ultimate import hinges less on what it says than on how certain parties respond to it.

And third, like several of its precursors, the novel features a set of multiple solutions that nest into each other in Russian-doll fashion. Agents of the law purport to solve the case by targeting each “side” of the McKell “triangle,” and their efforts go awry each time. Eventually, Ellery presents a solution that proves to be false as well, and the revelation of his error sends him into a bout of crushing self-recrimination. “Ellery had been through many ratiocinative crises in his life, but it was doubtful if any hit him as hard as” this one, Queen writes. Throughout the affair, Ellery performs his usual share of masterful sleuthing work. But he also shows that even genius amateurs are fallible, and his stumbles give Inspector Queen—that consummate professional—a chance to shine.


Posted by on July 13, 2020 in American, Novel, Puzzle


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