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Category Archives: Puzzle

ELLERY QUEEN. Cat of Many Tails (1949).

This foray into the realm of serial murder stands out for being a departure for an author who typically focused on less anonymous forms of killing. In a postwar New York that feels grittier and more prosaic than the stylized metropolis of the early Queen books, a series of people are found slain by the same method—strangulation with a cord of Indian tussah silk—over the span of just a few weeks. CatManyTails.jpgNo apparent link exists between one victim and another, and the dead hail from every corner of Manhattan and from every rank in society. Tabloid newspapers, eager to exploit popular fear, dub the murderer “the Cat” and liken each victim to a cat’s tail; the escalating number of figurative feline appendages yields a sinister image that captures and discombobulates the collective mind of the city. Gotham authorities enlist Ellery Queen to apprehend the killer and to quell the frenzy, and he succeeds on both fronts, but not before the Cat has grown its ninth tail.

For both Queen the detective and Queen the author, serial murder poses an all-too-obvious challenge: Where motive appear to be absent, as it does here, everyone is a suspect. Or no one is. The author handles that problem ably, in part by deploying well-disguised clues that ultimately point to the motive and hence the identity of the Cat. Equally important, Queen in this outing tilts the narrative emphasis away from the genteel matching of wits between reader and detective—the hallmark of most earlier tales in the Queen cycle—and toward the careful depiction of a world shadowed by the specter of total war. (It’s intriguing to pair this work with another that appeared in the same era: “Here Is New York,” E.B. White’s famous ode to the city. As Queen does in this novel, White celebrates New York in all its quotidian glory, but an acute sense of dread colors his otherwise loving portrait of the place and its people.) Like others who had lived through the 1940s, the men who wrote the Queen books reached the end of that decade with a diminished faith in human rationality. One result of that change of perspective, not just in their work but across the entire genre, was a move toward telling stories in which the mechanics of crime and crime-solving give way to the dynamics of mental and social chaos.

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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle

 

RICHARD ALEAS. Little Girl Lost (2004).

The Aleas name is an alias—a nice touch, that. It belongs to Charles Ardai, publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint, a line of neo-retro paperback originals. (The pseudonym is also an anagram of Ardai’s real name.) This début novel is a product of that line, but it’s hardly a vanity publication. Paying homage to the wise-guy style and grim worldview of mid-20th-century noir fiction, Ardai shrewdly updates an old noir story: A private eye, bent on avenging the murder of a former lover, plunges into a grimy underworld that slowly reveals itself to be a hall of mirrors.LittleGirlLost.jpg The setting is New York City, circa 2003, a place where the hum of cell-phone talk and cable-news chatter threatens to drown out the sweet melody of doom that provides noir characters everywhere with their theme music. In Ardai’s arrangement, though, both the hum and the melody are perfectly audible.

The PI in this rendition of the story, a fresh-faced NYU lit major named John Blake, reads in the Daily News one morning about the killing of a stripper at her place of business, an East Village joint called the Sin Factory. He recognizes her face as well as her name: Miranda Sugerman. Miranda was his high-school sweetheart, and he hasn’t seen her since she went away to college as a pre-med student about ten years ago. How, in one short decade, did she go from such an innocent start to such a squalid end? To retrace her journey, Blake delves into the silicone-inflated stripper subculture, befriends a Sin Factory “professional” who develops a soft spot for him (in a heart that might or might not be of gold), and lands a client in the form of an Armenian-American drug dealer who wants him to find $500,000 in cash that Miranda might have helped to steal. Along the way, as he asks what became of Miranda, Blake ends up wondering what has become of himself.

Sure-handed plotting, clever but not too clever writing, and a classic twist ending—hidden from view by an equally classic diversionary move—make this Hard Case title easy to like.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

AARON MARC STEIN. Days of Misfortune (1949).

DaysMisfortune.jpgA lack of basic literary art characterizes this modestly sized but long-seeming episode from the casebook of archeologists Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt. During a pause in their excavation of Mayan ruins near the secluded town of Mérida, on the Yucatan Peninsula, the pair dig up the recently slain body of an unidentified norteamericano. Because the dig happens to be located alongside the home of their friend and pilot Pablo, and because Pablo happens to have gone missing in the meantime, Mulligan and Hunt decide to embark on a more contemporary sort of excavation. They dig into the peculiar activities of several other American visitors to the area, and buried within the hodgepodge of gringo scheming that they turn up are the rudiments of a solid mystery plot. Likewise, the Mexican scenery and the aura of ancient evil that surrounds the so-called Days of Misfortune—five accursed, monthless days that lie stranded at the end of the Mayan calendar—afford a colorful backdrop that Stein (who also wrote prolifically and somewhat more famously under the name George Bagby) uses effectively at one or two points. Overall, though, he leaves the reader to sort through shards of clumsy exposition, flat characterization, and missed narrative opportunity.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2014 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Black Coffee (1930).

The thirst among publishers for titles to which they can attach the “Agatha Christie” brand remains as unquenchable as ever. To serve that thirst, a writer named Charles Osbourne took the raw material of a play that Christie wrote during her heyday and subjected it to a bit of benign violence; in other words, he novelized it.BlackCoffee.jpg The result, published in 1998, has a few charms and curiosities, but ultimately it’s devoid of the rich, world-building magic that Christie brought to her prose fiction. Try as Osbourne might to invest this treatment with light ironic touches and other writerly grace notes, he succeeds mainly in revealing the creaky, old-fashioned stagecraft that undergirds the original work. In a bid to “open up” the play, he launches his novel with a scene that features sleuth-hero Hercule Poirot in his Mayfair flat. Even so, most of the action here takes place in a single setting—the library of Sir Claud Amory, the victim of the piece. Stock characters, such as Sir Claud’s debt-ridden son and the son’s mysterious foreign-born wife, flit in and out of the room, uttering cliché-laced speeches that move the plot forward across an all-too-visible three-act structure. The murder puzzle hinges on several well-deployed clues (one of which, unfortunately, involves a bit of outdated household terminology), and Osbourne does capture some of the antic flair that marked Christie’s writing at its best. All the same, he fails to close the gap that yawns wide between a well-made play and a well-turned novel.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

WADE MILLER. Uneasy Street (1948).

The name Max Thursday carries a whiff of satire; it seems to emanate from the same source that gave Garrison Keillor a name (Guy Noir) to call his comic radio private eye. But Thursday is the real deal, a tough and breezy operative who plies his trade in San Diego much as his fictional colleagues Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe ply their trade in those great cities to the north, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He’s a figure of pastiche, not of parody, and this sophomore outing in the Thursday series borrows competently from the twists and tropes that drive earlier classics of the P.I. genre—The Maltese Falcon, in particular. Here, as in that story, the sleuth-hero falls in with a crew of schemers who sometimes work together and sometimes work at cross-purposes. UneasyStreet2.jpg Either way, intrigue ensues, and killings ensue as well. What unites these shady characters is their quest for a certain object of desire. Uneasy Street, in fact, is a tale of two such MacGuffins. First, there is an antique music box that Thursday receives from an old woman at the start of the book. No sooner does he take custody of the item than someone comes along and stabs the woman to death. Thursday flees the scene, keenly aware that what he’s carrying is no mere trifle. Second, there is a painting by Velázquez, El Bobo de Coria (“The Fool of Coria”), which not only serves as an eminently chase-worthy “dingus” but also also nods toward a theme that underlies every tale of this type: Desire, the yearning to acquire, is folly. A subsidiary theme, of course, is that we need a wise fool—a jester who appears in the form of a detective—to reveal that truth to us.

The case unfolds over the span of less than two days and culminates early on the morning of Christmas Day. Most of the action, including two murders, occurs on Christmas Eve Day, and Miller punctuates his fast-moving narrative with references to the last-minute shopping frenzy and the holiday merry-making that occupy ordinary San Diego folk. Miller doesn’t have anything terribly new to say about life and death and love and greed, but he—or “they,” since a pair of writers lay behind the Miller pen name—delivers his wisdom with the requisite casual noir poetry. (Concerning an art collection owned by a client of Thursday’s, the author observes: “Here was no museum resulting from love of art or even precious things. It represented mere possession. The result was the same as emptying a small boy’s pockets except that the great vault laid bare an old man’s soul.”) Miller also delivers a solid trick plot; like the music box that Thursday lugs around with him throughout this adventure, it contains a seamlessly hidden secret.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

DAN BROWN. The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Conspiracies are afoot, and these aren’t run-of-the-mill conspiracies of the sort that allegedly take down mere U.S. presidents. In fact, the fate of the Western world’s dominant religion is at stake. For two millennia, two institutions have vied to claim the true legacy of Jesus Christ, and now their largely secret struggle has erupted in the form of a quadruple homicide. The Catholic Church, with the ultraconservative modern sect Opus Dei as its vanguard, looms on one side; a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which traces its origins to the medieval Knights Templar and its mission to the time of the Crucifixion, huddles on the other. DaVinciCode.jpg Caught between those mighty institutions is Robert Langdon, a professor of “symbology” at Harvard, who has come to Paris on what he had hoped would be a quiet scholarly visit. In the opening sequence of this tale, the French Judicial Police summon Langdon to the Louvre so that he can shed light on the outlandishly brutal murder of Jacques Saunière, head curator of the museum. (Three other killings occur at roughly the same time.) The scene crime is awash in blood—and in symbols. It doesn’t take a symbologist, however, to surmise that Saunière was a man who knew too much.

Might the same be true of Langdon? The Louvre episode, he quickly discerns, was one move in a grand and deadly game. Multiple parties are tangling over a fabulous quarry—the Holy Grail!—and Langdon has no choice but to join the fray. Clues to the meaning and location of that legendary object are said to appear in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, and that’s where the pseudo-discipline of symbology comes into play. With help from Sophie Neveu, a French cryptographer who happens to be the granddaughter of Saunière, Langdon follows the clues purportedly left by da Vinci (along with a welter of other puzzling signs) on a trail that leads from Paris to London and finally to a destination that may be the Grail’s final repository. The interlocking conspiracies that Langdon unearths along the way are as momentous as can be, casting doubt on the faith of billions, and they give heft to what is otherwise an old-fashioned quest saga.

Outraged critics have attacked this outrageously popular thriller for being riddled with errors and predicated on fraudulent sources. On that front, they are on firm ground: Brown claims more truth for his tale, and takes more creative license with history, than he really should. Yet many critics have also heaped scorn on Brown’s writing style, and much of that criticism is beside the point. His prose displays neither subtlety nor originality, but it’s eminently true to its purpose—which is to thrill. The standard that applies to high adventure differs from that of high literature, after all. Readers will learn little about the inner life of Robert Langdon or Sophie Neveu, and they will care even less. But those who admire raw storytelling verve will find it in these pages.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2013 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Thin Man (1934).

This last of Hammett’s five novels partakes of an old myth—that of the retired hero forced back into action by the flowering of an evil that only he can stamp out. The hero is Nick Charles, a onetime private detective who has escaped the fleshpots of New York and now manages his wife’s fortune in the Golden West. The evil involves the disappearance of a former client of his, a wealthy inventor named Clyde Wynant, and the murder of Julia Wolf, Wynant’s assistant-cum-mistress. ThinMan.jpgCharles, who’s back in New York on a short trip with his wife, Nora, finds time amid a regimen of cocktails and wisecracks to interview suspects and to spot the killer among them. He is a reluctant hero; Nora, who craves adventure, has to goad him into taking on the case. But he demonstrates that he hasn’t gone soft, after all, and he puts the world aright.

Or does he? Hammett tries to marry two genres, each of which marks a departure from his earlier work: the traditional whodunit, complete with clues and suspects, and the sophisticated comedy of manners. And in that attempt, he doesn’t quite succeed. His outlook was ultimately too grim for either genre—too nihilistic, too full of moral despair. Unlike his prose, his view of what motivates people wasn’t in any way clean. (The classic movie version of the novel, by contrast, succeeds winningly. In the translation of the story to the silver screen, the plot becomes at once leaner and more clever, and each character takes on the safe outlines of a satiric type.) Beneath its glossy finish, The Thin Man anticipates the seedy fictive world of Raymond Chandler: It contains intimations of incest, and it hums with contempt for a moneyed class that the author depicts as being indistinguishable from a class of criminals. These are evils that a hero might subdue but that he is powerless to dispel.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle