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Category Archives: 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

 

LAWRENCE G. BLOCHMAN. Recipe for Homicide (1952).

A tale that pivots around an apparent scheme by Communist saboteurs to poison several batches of U.S. Army soup rations just can’t date very well, and this novel fully reeks of the McCarthyist hysteria of the Korean War years. At its best, it serves up choice artifacts to include in a time capsule of that period: scenes from both the shop floor and the executive suite at the Barzac Canning Company, located in a Midwestern industrial city called Northbank; glimpses of thriving mid-century American institutions, including the stock market, the public-relations industry, and the FBI; and, yes, samplings of the addled public mood that emerged after McCarthy and his ilk had Red-scared a good many Americans out of their wits. RecipeHomicide.jpg Much less fascinating, however (yet also typical of its era), is an assembly-line mystery plot that combines a fetish for science with a bias toward random, hurly-burly action. Dr. Daniel Webster Coffee, a pathologist at the Pasteur Institute, delivers the science; readers can watch as he and his comic sidekick, Dr. Motilal Mukerji, run a Reinsch test or section the brain of a murder victim. Covering the action side, meanwhile, is Bob Gilmore, PR manager at the soup company, who gets caught both in a political crossfire and in a literal crossfire. These two protagonists—neither of them quite fits the role of detective—take turns at stirring Blochman’s weak broth.

[ADDENDUM: For a shrewdly observed and generally countervailing perspective on this book, see the review posted online by Mike Grost. Certainly, Grost gives Blochman more credit than I do. “Blochman,” he writes, “shows US daily life as the operating ground of many powerful forces, technological, scientific, economic, political. It comes across as a very interesting, dynamic place.”]

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2013 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Origin of Evil (1951).

Many years after the fact, a sunken yet imperfectly anchored misdeed floats murderously to the surface of present-day life. On that classic formula, Queen predicates a detective puzzle that’s equal to the best efforts in the Queenian canon—a novel marked by deceptively transparent clueing and by a sequence of twists that fall just barely on the near side of implausible. OriginEvil.jpgOther Queenian motifs are also present: a series of anonymous gifts that have an elusive symbolic import; a Napoleon-like figure whose charisma and power-lust implicitly raise the specter of mid-century authoritarian politics; and repeated allusions to the “origin of evil,” a malign force that lurks in the human heart and that now, amid the prospect of atomic war, casts doubt on the survival of the species. These elements swirl about an equally classic situation that involves the linked dynastic households of Leander Hill and Roger Priam. Those two patriarchs had been partners in a successful Los Angeles jewelry firm, and the tale begins with Hill having recently died of heart failure. Ellery, who has come to Hollywood to work on a novel, gets drawn into investigating whether the cause of Hill’s demise was as natural as it seems.

An atypical and unwelcome element of the book, meanwhile, is its obsessive focus on the sexuality of two major female characters: Lauren Hill, a virginal maiden who enlists Ellery’s help in cracking the mystery of her father’s death, and Delia Priam, an over-the-top temptress who entangles Ellery in family business by other, less noble-seeming means. The two men who wrote as Queen apparently believed that they had to compete with Mickey Spillane, whose patented mix of brute violence and crude sex (with a chaser of misogyny) had helped make him—at that dark moment of American cultural history—the nation’s best-selling writer.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2013 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle