RSS

Category Archives: Puzzle

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Murder at the Vicarage (1930).

Miss Jane Marple, in her first published case, fully embodies what will become her accustomed role as the “least likely” sleuth. (For Christie, it wasn’t enough to people her work with least likely suspects.) To prove her mettle, the all-knowing spinster of St. Mary Mead works her way through one of the most finely calibrated puzzles that her creator ever devised. As with most of Christie’s best plots, the core solution is breathtakingly simple, and the essential achievement—one that defined the author’s genius—involves spinning webs of believable complication around that solution. True to the title’s promise, the instigating crime occurs in the peaceful confines of a clergyman’s home. The victim is Colonel Protheroe, the master of Old Hall and a local magistrate, a man whose wealth and power and self-righteous personality have given a wide range of his relatives and neighbors a motive for putting a bullet through his stubborn head. MurderVicarage.jpg Indeed, the tale begins charmingly with a scene in which the Rev. Leonard Clement avers that “anyone who murdered” the colonel “would be doing the world at large a service.” Clement is the vicar of St. Mary Mead, and it’s in Clement’s study that Protheroe meets his unlamented end.

Clement also serves as the book’s narrator and as a foil of sorts for Miss Marple. He is Watson to her Holmes. He is, in a cockeyed way, Wooster to her Jeeves: His bluff, everyman stolidity—he is neither more nor less than what he appears to be, an average Englishman of his class—stands in contrast to her aura of occult capability. Like Jeeves, she wears the mask of a defined social role, and the mask conceals an intellect of unplumbed depth. Miss Marple intimidates Clement just a bit (as Jeeves does Wooster), but the two of them pair up effectively to bolster the forces of order within their village. They are subtly drawn characters, and in that regard they have company among the other characters in this piece.

Murder at the Vicarage delivers a firm rebuttal to the standard critique of Christie, which is that her approach to crafting fiction was purely (and sometimes clumsily) utilitarian—that she excelled only at turning parlor tricks and lacked any kind of literary flair. She produced this book early in the prime of her writing life, and a growing mastery of her art shows on every page. Both the narration and the dialogue are crisp, and full of small grace notes. Several subplots blend seamlessly into the main tale. Above all, the writing is efficient: Few if any weavers of fiction have surpassed Christie in her ability to establish a scene and then guide readers swiftly through it. And all the while, she builds a compelling little world. In the cottages and gardens that surround the vicarage, in the High Street shops and along the country lanes of St. Mary Mead, the tide of human life ebbs and flows. On the surface, it’s a comic and, yes, cozy world, but underneath there is an abiding strain of evil that lends gravity to Miss Marple’s knack for solving mysteries.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 9, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

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

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

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

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

 
Leave a comment

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 
Leave a comment

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

 

RUTH RENDELL. A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970).

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

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

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

 
Leave a comment

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

 

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

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

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

 
Leave a comment

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

 

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

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

KillPatience.jpg

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

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

 
5 Comments

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

 

JOHN DUNNING. Booked to Die (1992).

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

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

 
Leave a comment

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