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Category Archives: 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.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

JOHN DUNNING. Booked to Die (1992).

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

GEORGETTE HEYER. Why Shoot a Butler? (1933).

More than once, the amateur sleuth Frank Amberley asserts that the murder of Dawson, the butler who had served long and honorably at Norton Manor, is the least intriguing aspect of the case at hand. He means to say that he discerns an underlying pattern of crime and connivance that poses a more scintillating problem—to his kind mind, anyway—than the shooting of Dawson per se. But Amberley also speaks for his creator: Heyer clearly views other elements of her tale as worthier of her energy and ingenuity than the humdrum business of solving a murder puzzle. What’s most compelling to her mind, it would seem, is the timeless problem of how an eligible bachelor and a nubile maiden who don’t appear to like each other will find a way to love each other. (Heyer, who produced about a dozen novels in the detective genre between 1932 and 1953, later became best known for her work as a writer of Regency romances.) WhyShootButler.jpg The bachelor is Amberley, a rising barrister whose cleverness is almost equal to his arrogance. The maiden is Shirley Brown, a prideful woman in her own right who struggles to make a life as an assistant to a lady novelist. For mysterious reasons, she has leased a cottage along with her brother in a patch of country near the village of Upper Nettlefold, which in turn is near both Norton Manor and the Greythorne estate, where Amberley’s uncle and aunt reside.

The couple’s meet-cute moment occurs over the corpse of the eponymous servant. Amberley, gliding along in his Bentley toward Greythorne, happens upon a roadside tableau that features Miss Brown, a gun that she has in her possession, and Dawson, sporting a fresh bullet wound in his chest. The suspicious young man and the suspicion-arousing young woman bicker in the time-honored style, but he decides not to divulge her presence at the crime scene to the police. Amberley isn’t inclined to entrust information to them, in any event. Even after the local authorities invite him to take part in their investigation, he treats them with genial contempt. He doesn’t trust Miss Brown very much, either. Yet he does respect her, and over the course of several tension-filled encounters, that feeling melts into something softer than respect.

There are follow-up murders that add to the body count while trimming an already short list of suspects. To specify who’s on that list as the book enters its final sequence would give the game away: At that point, it’s not a puzzle, it’s a coin flip. Establishing who shot the butler and why, moreover, isn’t an entirely fair-play proposition. Amberley, we discover during the wrap-up phase of this affair, has withheld vital facts not just from police officials but from readers as well. Which isn’t to say that Heyer neglects the puzzle element completely. Her plotting is crisp and intelligent, if not intricate. She includes just enough detection to keep the love story honest, as it were, and the wit that she brings to telling that story partly redeems any weakness in the novel’s detective component. She also writes perfectly modulated prose that throws off sparks of tart humor in almost every scene.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2017 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

KELLEY ROOS. The Frightened Stiff (1942).

Two-thirds of the way into this finely tuned puzzler, the third in a series that stars the wisecracking young couple Jeff and Haila Troy, Haila asks her husband what he plans to do next. It’s a classic moment in a detective novel that is very much in the classic mode—the moment when all of the essential clues in a case have come to light and when the hero pauses to take stock of them. Jeff says that his next move will be to “[r]ack my brains.” About what? He explains: “About a bedridden lady and her sister. About another lady who has a restaurant and a small boy. About a man named Jacob Bruhl who doesn’t get the letters you write to him. About Mike Kaufman. Furniture. A gangster named Ziggy Koehler and a landlord. A retired art dealer. Scott Carstairs and a borrowed book. … Panda bears. [D]oors opening and closing in the middle of the night. Screens with addresses on them, this and that.” (This litany of clues echoes a feature of the Dell mapback books of the 1940s. At the front of most titles in that series, the publisher included a list of “Things this mystery is about.” And, fittingly enough, Dell issued a mapback version of this novel.) Jeff leaves out what might be the most fundamental element of the case, the one that literally encompasses all of the people and most of the physical items that he enumerates. Each of those people lives (or, in the case of Mike Kaufman, the murder victim, lived) at 39 Gay Street, a brownstone apartment house tucked into a quiet byway in Greenwich Village. The furniture, the opening and closing doors, and the screens also belong to that structure. And Jeff and Haila Troy live there, too. FrightenedStiff.jpg

From the opening of the novel, when Haila takes possession of a basement unit at 39 Gay Street, to its climactic scene, in which Jeff chases a murderer across the building’s rooftop, odd and menacing occurrences cast a shadow over the place that they call home. At one level, in other words, Roos provides an urban reworking of the gothic tradition in which a fine old house becomes practically a character unto itself. Roos also draws on the common observation that New Yorkers routinely live alongside people whom they never get to know: Gotham, as many people have noted, is a place where neighbors often aren’t very neighborly.

Before the Troys can spend their first night in their new abode, they discover a naked corpse—the “frightened stiff” cited in the book’s title—in their backyard garden. Someone had killed a man in their bathtub and then moved the body to that little patch of green space. The core mystery centers on which of the residents at 39 Gay Street had a connection to the dead man: Early evidence indicates that the murder was an inside job. Indeed, on the simplistic but not unreasonable principle of guilt by proximity, Inspector Hankins of the NYPD casts a suspicious eye on the Troys. So Jeff, a photographer by trade, has a more than sporting interest in amateur clue-gathering. Roos fashions a nifty murder plot for him to unravel, and (with a little help from Haila) he does unravel it.

The Troys are bright young folk who keep their spirits up, and their marriage intact, by quaffing a steady stream of cocktails and producing a steady dose of badinage. So comparing them to Nick and Nora Charles is hard to avoid. (Jeff Troy, like Nick Charles, is both a noted sleuth-hound and a semi-reformed booze hound. In fact, much of the comedy and some of the intrigue in this tale stem from Jeff’s memories of the Prohibition-era speakeasy that once occupied his and Haila’s apartment.) Yet the Troys, even many decades later, come across as freshly realized creations in their own right. Unlike the wealthy and somewhat jaded Charles pair, they embody a kind of cosmopolitan innocence. They’re sophisticated without being cynical, and they make for good company as they march through their big-city adventure.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle