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PAUL DOHERTY. The White Rose Murders (1990).

In the England of 1517, conspiracies unfold beneath the surface of events no less abundantly than rank sewage flows on the street of London. It’s a time of fresh possibility for the island kingdom, with a young and ambitious sovereign ruling at Westminster, but it’s also a time of dark portents and dark realities. This maiden entry in a sequence of tales about political intrigue and personal skullduggery during the reign of King Henry VIII ably evokes a period when life was cheap and truth was dear, and it packs in a generous array of mysteries both large and small. The grandest mystery involves the struggle to control the throne of Scotland—a struggle that, in this telling, has become entangled with the ongoing clash between the Tudor dynasty and advocates of the Yorkist cause, who, three decades after the Battle of Bosworth Field, may be conspiring to retake the English throne. Smaller-scale mysteries arise from a set of killings done to further these machinations.

Two of the murders present variations of the same sealed-room puzzle. The first of them is the keystone event of the whole affair. Alexander Selkirk, a physician to the recently defeated and slain King James IV of Scotland, has gone mad; he writes crackpot verses and issues cryptic utterances that suggest esoteric knowledge about the fate of his country. Forces loyal to King Henry and to James’s widowed queen, Margaret, who happens to Henry’s sister, have captured Selkirk and brought him to the Tower of London, where Margaret and her entourage have taken up residence. WhiteRoseMurders.jpg One night, in a locked and thoroughly guarded chamber, Selkirk succumbs to death by poisoning. How could anyone have gotten close enough to him to administer the fatal substance? (Remnants of food and drink in the room show no trace of poison.) How, too, did a white rose—a symbol of the Yorkist conspiracy—end up next to the corpse? The core trick, once revealed, proves to be rather simple, and the full solution to the puzzle borrows an oft-used device from other locked-room tales. Still, the trick works well in this context, and the process of detection that leads to its revelation is sharp and appealing.

Two characters share responsibility for unraveling that mystery, along with several other quandaries that surround Queen Margaret and her retinue. The ostensible protagonist and the narrator of adventure is Roger Shallot, a charming scalawag whose likeness to Shakespeare’s Falstaff receives an explicit reference from Shallot himself. (One conceit of the series is that Shallot is writing his memoirs at the tail end of the Elizabethan era and that he personally knew the Bard, among other luminaries of the period.) But Shallot’s friend and master, Benjamin Daunbey, handles more than half of the sleuthing work. Whereas Shallot is earthy to the core, Daunbey is lofty in spirit, and the two personae complement each other in the time-honored fashion of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. (At the same time, the byplay between Shallot and Daunbey has a blithe, loosely egalitarian quality that recalls the interaction between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their “Road” pictures.)

Doherty (who initially published the novel under his Michael Clynes pseudonym) overestimates the charm of his roguish hero: A little bit of Shallot—of his thieving and wenching, of his self-satisfied tone and his profanely flippant attitude—goes a long way. His narrative voice, which becomes disruptive as the story progresses, is the chief weakness of the book. The chief strength, meanwhile, lies in the author’s unflinching descriptions of 16th-century life. In that respect, Doherty departs from a common tendency among historical novelists (including, say, Ellis Peters in her Brother Cadfael series) to sugarcoat the period about which they write. In an account of Shallot and Daunbey’s journey into the capital, for instance, Doherty sets the scene to gripping effect: “We traveled down through Eastcheap and into Petty Wales, the area around the Tower. God save us, London is a dirty place, but after that infection [of the plague] it was reeking filthy: fleas and lice were everywhere, and the unpaved streets were coated with leavings of every kind. Mound of refuse were piled high, full of the rushes thrown out of houses and taverns, thick with dirt and stinking of spit, vomit and dog turds.”

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2018 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle

 

RAOUL WHITFIELD. Death in a Bowl (1931).

An early product of the tough-guy school of crime writing, this tale of greed, ambition, and murder in Tinseltown exhibits a besetting flaw of its type: It mistakes brute action for dramatic tension, and offers mere confusion in place of genuine mystery. The basic riddle that private eye Ben Jardinn must crack—Why and how did someone shoot musical conductor Hans Reiner during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl?—has merit both in its setup and in its solution. But the path that Whitfield carves between his crisp, provocative opening and his intriguing conclusion is strewn with narrative non-sequiturs. DeathBowl.jpg In dialogue, characters throw comments at one another that are either random or opaque. At the level of plot, scenes of violence, revelation, or reversal occur with no discernible connection to the scenes that precede or follow them. (One chapter, for example, starts with Jardinn entering a hospital where a key suspect, whom readers had last seen being put under arrest, will soon die. There is no narrative preparation for this event—no explanation of how the suspect arrived in that parlous state—nor any effort to link this plot turn to the story as a whole. It just happens.)

Thematically, too, the novel makes broad leaps but lands nowhere in particular. Are women, even the best among them, duplicitous by nature? Do clients always lie? Is there something inherently problematic about having a “business partner”—a fellow who operates as neither a true colleague nor an open competitor? And if the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then how can a fellow trust anyone but himself? In this respect, as in others, Whitfield bulldozes across essentially the same terrain that Dashiell Hammett explores in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike Hammett, he charts a course that seems arbitrary rather than inevitable.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

MARTIN EDWARDS. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017).

The title of this wonderful volume is a misnomer in several respects. For one thing, the book doesn’t actually present a story. Instead, it compiles brief essays by Edwards on a wide range of crime, mystery, and detective novels (along with a handful of short-story collections) published between 1901 and 1950. Edwards groups the essays into 24 chapters that correspond to various themes, topics, and approaches—from “Murder at the Manor” to “Playing Politics,” from “Scientific Enquiries” to “Fiction from Fact”—and he introduces each chapter with an overview of how writers of the period treated that subject matter. These introductory essays buttress Edwards’s individual book selections with incisive, erudite commentary on the historical and literary context in which those books came to fruition. But, taken as a whole, the book falls short of providing any sort of narrative arc. For a story about crime writing during the early 20th century, readers must turn to an equally wonderful volume called The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story (2015), which Edwards wrote as well and to which this compilation serves as a sort of companion.

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For another thing, the phrase “of classic crime” suggests that Edwards has conducted a comprehensive tour of the field in question. In fact, his tour focuses overwhelmingly on British writers and on the decidedly British milieu in which their work emerged. Of the 24 chapters, one features American writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Ellery Queen, and one features non-English-language writers such as Georges Simenon and Jorge Borges. Although the book choices here are apt and intriguing, they also have a random quality and smack just a little of tokenism. Maybe the publisher, eager to market this title beyond the United Kingdom, urged Edwards to include a small quota of yanks and other foreigners. In any event, fully embracing the parochial nature of his project might have been a wiser option. Implicitly, the book makes a powerful case for staying close to (Edwards’s) home. This case runs as follows: The modern detective story, though invented in the United States by Edgar Allan Poe, was gloriously reinvented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by men and women who lived and wrote on the other side of the Atlantic. They took a form originally designed for deploying tricks and delivering thrills, and they remade it as a vehicle for embodying and exploring a broad slice of British social life.

For yet another thing, the claim to cover the field of classic crime “in 100 books” is far too modest. Throughout this survey, and particularly in the chapter introductions, Edwards discusses dozens of other works. Clearly, he has steeped himself in a vast literature, and that deep store of knowledge has equipped him to curate an array of books that encompasses both well-known cornerstone titles and obscure gems. The scale and scope of this effort reinforces the case for giving sustained attention to British crime writers of the classic era. These writers, Edwards demonstrates, left behind a body of work marked by great richness and variety. They took steps, and indeed they took risks, that are supposedly the exclusive province of mainstream or “literary” fiction. They plumbed the quandaries of the human psyche (by, for example, taking readers inside the minds of murderers as well as detectives). They dissected the workings of society (by, for example, probing the underside of middle-class respectability from multiple angles). They experimented with narrative structure (by, for example, producing “inverted” tales that identify a culprit upfront and then recount the discovery process that leads to his or her undoing). To be sure, they created and followed certain formulas—the unbreakable alibi, the locked-and-barred room, the closed set of suspects. Yet an impressive number of them stand out for their willingness to test and tweak such formulas.

Fittingly, the last writer featured in this compendium is Julian Symons, a novelist and critic whose most notable contribution to the genre was his authorship of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972). Symons in that book traced the ebb and flow of an entire literary tradition—its overall course and its various tributaries—and many of his summary judgments have solidified into conventional wisdom. When it came to British crime writing in the early 20th century, he argued (or at least implied) that its practitioners consisted mainly of rule-bound puzzle-setters and “humdrum” plodders. Edwards, first in Golden Age of Murder and now in this book, has deconstructed that narrow frame of understanding and replaced it with a far more expansive view.

 

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Nonfiction

 

WALTER MOSLEY. Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).

In his début work, Mosley embraces many of the stylistic trappings and plot devices that define the Southern California private-eye adventure. And he adds a decisive twist: His hero, Easy Rawlins, is black. The case starts when a white man named DeWitt Albright—a slippery fellow whose motives are dubious but whose cash is quite real—hires Rawlins to locate a woman named Daphne Monet. She’s a white woman, Albright explains, but she “has a predilection for the company of Negroes.” DevilBlueDress.jpg Little by little, an apparently straightforward skip-trace job draws Rawlins into a vast whirlpool of corruption, and he will need to work fast and smart in order to escape the ordeal with his life, and with a remnant of his dignity. Broadly speaking, then, Rawlins confronts practical and existential challenges that would be familiar to any number of fictional gumshoes. Yet he isn’t just another lone knight on the model of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Along with his dark skin, Rawlins bears a dark outlook that reflects his position in American society. He has meaner streets to ply than his white counterparts do, and the dangerous women who cross his path are all the more dangerous because they (most of them, at any rate) are on the other side of the color line from him. Rawlins had known violence and tasted freedom during the Second World War—the action takes place in 1948—and he has come home to find that in postwar Los Angeles violence is all too common and freedom is all too rare. By offering a stark glimpse into the mind and spirit of Rawlins as he carves out a life in that time and that place, Mosley elevates the tale above most works that follow in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald

The plot, however, exhibits the kinds of defects that often mar the hard-boiled form: It’s ridiculously complex, and it relies more on frenetic action than on thoughtful detection. As if to obscure the lack of clues that he provides, Mosley serves up a half-dozen corpses; in effect, he substitutes a process of elimination for one of investigation. As a result, in a reversal of what the best detective novels offer, the buildup proves more compelling than the payoff.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

JOSEPHINE TEY. The Singing Sands (1952).

This last of Tey’s novels features her recurring sleuth, Inspector Alan Grant, but it isn’t much of a detective story. At a structural level, it resembles a mid-20th-century suspense movie, and indeed it may have drawn inspiration from certain classics of that genre. SingingSands.jpg The plot unfolds like an amalgam of several Alfred Hitchcock features, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). First comes the discovery on a train of a dead man by a more or less innocent bystander. Next comes a search for the meaning of some cryptic lines of verse that the victim had penned (“The beasts that talk/The streams that stand/The stones that walk/The singing sand/ . . . /That guards the way/To Paradise”)—a search that leads literally to the Scottish Hebrides and figuratively to the deserts of Arabia. Then, in the finale, comes the exposure of a villain who embodies the awesome evil that pure vanity can engender. The villain’s identity is revealed rather than detected, and in general Tey has crafted a story that appeals more to the thrill of a chase than to the pleasure of rationally dissecting a puzzle.

Yet actual thrills are few and far between. The Singing Sands, even as it follows Grant’s obsessive quest to decipher an evocative dying message, reads mainly like a meditative study of character and incident. If Tey (or a screenwriter charged with adapting her work) were to add a few scenes that involve physical danger, the result might form the basis of an excellent film—a world-weary, postwar update of The 39 Steps (the 1935 Hitchcock version). But as it is, as an achievement of the printed word, the tale offers modest fare for a reader’s imagination.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2018 in British, Novel

 

HOWARD BROWNE. Halo for Satan (1948).

Self-referentiality—the tendency to make knowing nods to the fictive nature of fiction—is endemic to the detective genre. The habit goes back at least as far as the gibes made by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson about the latter’s published chronicles of the former’s exploits. It can be a charming tic, now and again, but it can also test a reader’s capacity for suspending disbelief. Practitioners of the private-eye form often seem especially self-conscious about the highly constructed myth that lies beneath their works’ aura of gritty realism. Perhaps in that spirit, Browne peppers this tale about the Chicago-based shamus Paul Pine with references to other authors who specialize in mean-streets fare. At one point, he makes Pine interrupt his sleuthing chores to read a novel by William T. McGivern. A good guess here is that Browne knew McGivern from his work as editor of the pulp magazine Mammoth Detective. In any event, the shout-out comes across as a clunky bit of log-rolling. Such moves disrupt, ever so slightly, the spell of enchantment that this kind of story requires. Pine’s literary forebears knew better than to give up the game in that way: One struggles to imagine Sam Spade kicking back to peruse a copy of Black Mask while he waited for the black bird to turn up.

Browne’s novel, as it happens, follows the template that Dashiell Hammett created in The Maltese Falcon—a narrative framework that was, in turn, a clear tribute to mythic stories about knights in search of the Holy Grail. HaloSatan.jpg The quarry in this case is as fantastic as can be: a manuscript purportedly written by the hand of Jesus of Nazareth. As in the Hammett novel, the hero searches for clues and jockeys for position amid a cast of characters who all yearn for the same elusive object. The adventure starts with Pine going on a call to visit Bishop McManus, whose flock includes all of the Catholic souls in Chicago and who has an obvious professional interest in securing the manuscript. Thereafter, Pine tussles (and occasionally collaborates) with a pair of fetching women, Lola North and Constance Benbrook, either of whom might pass an audition for the femme-fatale role; with Frank Tinney, a homicide cop who is no fonder of private investigators than he should be; with Louis Antuni, a big-time mobster whose heyday was during the Prohibition era; and with a few other tough cookies. Topping off the confection is the looming presence of a mysterious master criminal named Jafar Baijan. (Both the spectral nature of the character and the ethnically indistinct name appear to prefigure Keyser Soze, the ostensibly invisible villain who haunts the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. Presumably it’s a coincidence. Or maybe the film’s creators had read this mid-century thriller.)

Although the plot borrows chiefly from Hammett, the tone and ambience of Halo for Satan point to a more profound influence: Browne, by virtue of this book and others in the Paul Pine series, was arguably the best of many would-be successors to Raymond Chandler. By transporting the Chandleresque tale and its tropes—the offbeat similes and the on-target social observation, the vision of an urban jungle in which upper-crust types mix with underworld figures—to a Midwestern metropolis, Browne shows that the formula could deliver its magic even in the absence of Southern California glamour. At the same time, he exerts tighter control over his characters and his plot than Chandler was typically able to muster. Through the sheer excellence of his craft, Browne achieves something that goes beyond mere pastiche. (It’s too bad that, instead of letting the craft speak for itself, he occasionally tries to get cute.)

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

CYRIL HARE. Suicide Excepted (1939).

SuicideExcepted.jpgThis third of Hare’s novels came out during the final year of an era known (semi-officially, at least) as the Golden Age of detective fiction, and it bears the telltale marks of that period. It’s a loose-jointed romp that draws on familial tensions and technical points of law, as well as physical and circumstantial clues, to build a pattern of mystification around a narrow group of suspects. At a country inn full of respectable people, each of whom has something to hide, a guest dies one morning from the ingestion of poison and apparently by his own hand. Because the victim’s insurance policy bars payment in the event of suicide, a coroner’s ruling to that effect means destitution for several surviving family members. The dead man’s son and daughter, along with the daughter’s fiancé, therefore undertake to prove that the cause of death was murder. (Circumstances foreclose the possibility of an accident.) Through their adventures in amateur detection, these three would-be beneficiaries stir up clouds of suspicion—and provide a steady source of amusement for readers—but they uncover no conclusive evidence. So it falls to Inspector Mallett, an exemplar of professional calm who has been observing the trio from just off-stage, to see the case through to its final twist.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle