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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

 

COLIN DEXTER. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975).

LastBusWoodstock.jpgFor this first Inspector Morse tale, Dexter uses a scenario that was highly popular among British crime writers during the final decades of the 20th century: A women in the full, dangerous bloom of her youth is found dead, the victim presumably of a man with sex on his mind and a sick way of showing it. Other notable works that tell a similar tale include Cover Her Face (1962), by P.D. James; Death in the Morning (1978), by Sheila Radley; The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980), by Michael Gilbert; and Close Her Eyes (1984), by Dorothy Simpson. On the one hand, that scenario seems compellingly modern, tapping as it does into anxieties about what can happen to a young woman now that the restrictions and protections of Victorian patriarchy have fallen away. On the other hand, it draws on the age-old trope of an innocent maiden who falls prey (or so we presume) to a wolf in disguise.

Characterization partly compensates for this lack of narrative innovation. The personality of Morse, a prickly eccentric on the model of Sherlock Holmes, and the relationship between him and his assistant, Sergeant Lewis—which are frosty but show signs of thawing—provide much of the appeal in this procedural. The plot might have held some appeal as well, but there are major flaws that undermine it. Suspects in the case are few in number, a couple of them are plainly red herrings, and the guilt of the “least likely” among them becomes clear well before the denouement. Most important, Morse’s detection hinges too much on his own leaps of intuition and not enough on clues available to the reader.

[ADDENDUM: For a couple of years, and until a few weeks ago, I had let this site go dark. Now, as I rev it up again with the aim of posting something every week or so, I am trawling through old material that i can adapt for use here. This brief review is very old—and, indeed, very brief. In any event, I note that my cursory judgment of this book aligns with the considered view of other readers.]

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934).

Despite the deliberate Sherlockian echo in the title of this collection, the stories brought together here bear only a loose resemblance to those of the Great Detective. The Queen household on West 87th Street never attains the mythic presence of the fabled rooms at 221B Baker Street, and the pairing of Ellery Queen and his inspector father inspires none of the eternal fascination that the relationship between Holmes and Watson elicit to this day. Queen the author is not the builder of a densely imagined and richly peopled world. (About the scurrying figure of Djuna, the Queens’ houseboy, the less said the better.) More to the point, these chronicles from the early days of Ellery’s sleuthing career are not high-spirited “adventures” of the kind that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Instead, they are well-crafted puzzles that far exceed in ingenuity the simple plots that Doyle typically generated. Ellery may not be a great detective in the Holmes mold, in other words, but he is a master of truly great detection.

AdventuresEQ.jpgTake “The Adventure of the Bearded Lady,” in which Ellery cracks the code of a “dying message”—a special variety of clue, and one that became a trademark of the Queen canon. Such clues, at their best, evoke the image of a victim who frantically expends his last moments on a Hail Mary bid to communicate with the would-be avenger of his murder. In this case, Ellery must figure out why an amateur artist devoted his last spasm of life to shading a patch of facial hair onto a woman in a Rembrandt reproduction that he had been painting.

Or take “The Adventure of the Two-Headed Dog,” which carries a distinct narrative echo from the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. As in many of those stories, the protagonist happens into an out-of-the-way spot where strange goings-on are already in progress: Ellery stops at a roadside inn along the New England coast, and from a querulous innkeeper named Cap’n Hosey he learns about the apparent haunting of one of the small cabins that surround the inn. Three months earlier, a guest had disappeared from that cabin, and on certain nights afterward folks have heard eerie, desperate sounds emanating from the place. Later that evening, a killing occurs in the same cabin. An otherworldly mood pervades the scene, but Ellery deduces his way toward an outlandish yet fitting (and entirely non-supernatural) solution.

Or, finally, take “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party,” the longest and justly the best known of this book’s 11 tales. At a Long Island estate, a wealthy investor plans to stage a famous scene from Alice in Wonderland for his son’s birthday. Then he disappears. And then a phantom presence begins delivering assorted objects—shoes and ships, cabbages and kings—that bring to mind another work by Lewis Carroll. The puzzle in this instance is workmanlike but hardly stellar. Yet the madcap atmospherics are gripping, and they foreshadow the nursery-rhyme tropes that will become a fixture of later Queen works. Among British writers of the Victorian era, Carroll casts as least as long a shadow on the Queenian universe as Doyle did. For Queen, as for Carroll, the glories and perversities of logic provide a bottomless source of both delight and mystery.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2017 in American, Golden Age, Puzzle, Short Stories

 

NGAIO MARSH. A Wreath for Rivera (1949).

This mid-career opus has a pleasantly nostalgic feel. Marsh, in what reads almost like a self-pastiche, reworks some of the standard plot turns and favored tropes of her early work from the 1930s. There is a dotty peer who presides over an aristocratic household in which Edwardian-era norms still hold sway: People “dress” for dinner, for example, and afterward the menfolk and the womenfolk retire to separate rooms. There is a pair of young women who chatter, like characters out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, in the register of carefree cynicism. There is a pair of young men, one posh and one working-class, who each in his own pompous way expresses a vaguely leftist contempt for the Establishment. There is a “hot” jazz band that plies its trade at a Soho joint called the Metronome. And so on. Toward the end of the book, Marsh offhandedly describes a blitz-ravaged block of the City, and that reference comes as an abrupt reminder that a war had recently taken place that altered British society from top to bottom. On the whole, though, she has fashioned a milieu that seems decidedly prewar.

WreathRivera.jpgThe most quintessentially retro figure of all is the eponymous victim. Carlos Rivera, an oily Latin type, plays the piano-accordion in high style and also fancies himself a great ladies’ man. In describing the contents of his flat, Marsh lays it on thick: She puts erotic prints on the walls, and black sheets on the bed. Back in the twenties and thirties, actors like Roman Novarro and Cesar Romero played variations of this fellow in one B-movie after another. Much of the intrigue that Marsh uses to drive the action, meanwhile, pivots around two staples of the interwar crime story—blackmail and small-scale dope dealing. Rivera, as it turns out, supplemented his pay as a musician by practicing both of those illicit avocations, and as a result he made plenty of enemies. The circumstances of his murder have a theatrical flair that also calls to mind an earlier era. One night at the Metronome, as the Breezy Bellairs band winds down its set, there is a planned bit of business that swerves in an unplanned direction. A gun supposedly filled with blank cartridges goes off, Rivera drops his instrument and falls to the stage, and a funeral wreath is brought out to cover his “corpse.” In the ensuing chaos, it becomes evident that he’s actually dead. At the same time, someone had taken an umbrella used in the floorshow and jury-rigged it to accommodate a stiletto knife. Which of these two peculiar weapons killed Rivera? Either way, the murder technique is a straight throwback to the fantastical methods that Golden Age writers routinely used to dispatch their victims. A Wreath for Rivera isn’t a locked-room caper, but it unfolds in the same otherworldly spirit that one finds in the madcap tales that John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen (and indeed Marsh herself) penned during their antebellum heyday.

On hand at the Metronome to witness the death of Rivera is Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and although he would continue to star in Marsh’s work up through the 1970s, he too comes across as a refugee from an earlier time—a period when, at least in fiction, a genteel master sleuth always seemed to be nearby whenever an unknown villain decided to commit a puzzling homicide. Marsh, for her part, effectively refutes the notion that she’s just retelling an old tale. She writes sparkling prose, she brings real verve to the scene-by-scene construction of her plot, and she manages the narrative with noble efficiency and with little of the plodding recitation of interviews that characterizes even her best early work. (Her talent had evolved, even if her social attitudes and her storytelling habits had not.) Finally, with a practiced hand, she guides this amusing romp to an elegant conclusion.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2016 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

JONATHAN CRAIG. The Dead Darling (1955).

“This case is beginning to get to me. We’ve got more suspects than we can keep track of, and nothing solid on a single one of them. And no real clues, either. All we really know for sure is that Jean Proctor is dead.” So says Stan Rayder, a police detective who works out of the 6th Precinct in New York City, to his partner, Pete Selby. Exhausting one half-promising lead after another, Rayder and Selby (who narrates the novel and also takes a lead role in it) retrace the steps that marked the dead woman’s trouble-strewn path. Jean Proctor had been a wayward soul of just 19 years, tragically housed in a beautiful body that (as Selby and others note repeatedly) had undergone a decade’s worth of hard, big-city experience in a very short time. DeadDarling.jpg Her path starts uptown, where she had been the unhappy daughter of an Upper West Side family, and it ends downtown, where she had become an unhappy denizen of the Greenwich Village Bohemian scene. She had fled her puritanical father a couple of years earlier, and since then she had done what young women like her often do in the Village: a little modeling, a little sugar-daddy action. Along the way, there was a brief, ill-conceived marriage to a guy who’s now a Bowery bum. One morning, a former roommate named Norma Johnson goes to Proctor’s apartment and discovers her lifeless body. It’s an apparent suicide; she’s found with her head in an oven. But, quickly enough, Rayder and Selby establish that someone killed her with a blunt instrument before faking the suicide. In the time-honored way, they proceed to interview the people in her life—the married businessmen who knew her as a good-time gal, the lesbian painter who wanted to know her better, the reefer-fueled jazzman who saw another side of her. The cops investigate their way into a corner (“no real clues”) and then make their way out of it, and the case comes to a satisfying and reasonably clever finish.

The Dead Darling, the inaugural work in what became known as the 6th Precinct series, is contemporaneous with the launch of the far better-known 87th Precinct series, authored by Ed McBain. (This book, in fact, came out before the first McBain title.) The two series have a lot in common: a commitment to urban realism, a knack for finding poetry within the confines of the procedural, a vision of the big-city cop as a fellow who is two parts working stiff and one part village priest. McBain, with his ability to sustain a multi-decade saga and to manage a complex ensemble cast, was Craig’s superior as a storyteller. Yet one weak point of McBain’s otherwise massive achievement involves the decision to situate his fictional police squad in a fictional city. Steve Carella and the other boys of the 87th seem pressingly real, but that’s not true of Isola, the notional metropolis where they work. By contrast, the Manhattan on whose streets Selby and Rayder wear out their shoe leather has exactly the kind of presence—the kind of felt substantiality—that Isola keenly lacks.

[ADDENDUM: Information about Jonathan Craig or the 6th Precinct series is hard to come by. The standard reference works on the genre that I own are mostly silent about both the author and his work, and the Web also appears to include few links to meaningful data on either score. Even the fairly exhaustive directory of sleuths at the Thrilling Detective Web site lacks an entry on Selby or on the 6th Precinct. The English version of Wikipedia has no entry on Craig (although, curiously, the French Wikipedia site does have one). But John at the Pretty Sinister site has mounted a worthy effort to preserve the memory of Craig’s achievement and it is to John’s posts about the 6th Precinct tales—including his review of Dead Darling—that I owe my discovery the series. Thank, John!]

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Cards on the Table (1936).

Four murderers, four detectives, one victim. There, in brief, is the neat, stylized pattern around which Christie weaves yet another beguiling mystery for Hercule Poirot to solve. The victim, Mr. Shaitana (the name means Satan), invites to dinner four seemingly ordinary Brits, each of whom he believes to be guilty of an undetected, unpunished homicide. CardsTable.jpgAlso invited are a quartet of sleuths, including Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race of the Secret Service, and the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (she acts, in effect, as Christie’s doppelgänger), along with Poirot, he of the little gray cells. After dinner, the suspected killers retire to Shaitana’s curio-crammed living room, where they play a few rubbers of contract bridge. One of them, during a turn as “dummy,” stabs the host with an exotic dagger from the victim’s own collection. The four detectives, who had spent the evening in another room, then set about investigating the recent movements and the past exploits of the four suspects. An understanding of bridge and its rules figures in Poirot’s deductive process, but any sharp-eyed reader can glean the clues that matter most in his solution. In fact, what initially appears to be a contrived formal puzzle turns out to be a thoughtful study of varied human types. More than in most Christie novels, psychology is everything here, and bridge is merely the table (so to speak) on which the cards of character reveal themselves.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

HAROLD ADAMS. The Man Who Was Taller Than God (1992).

ManTallerGOd.jpgCarl Wilcox, an itinerant man-of-all-work and an occasional sleuth, is not so much hard-boiled as he is parched and withered. He’s been worn down by the elements—sun and wind, lust and greed—that dominate the Depression-era South Dakota landscape in which he operates. To be sure, he retains a modicum of spirit, and it’s most evident when he’s flirting with the many lonely and attractive women who cross his path. Yet over everything that he does or says (Wilcox narrates his own adventures), there hangs an air of rueful impoverishment. Like his urban private-eye counterparts, like Spade and Marlowe and the rest, he has turned detached alienation into both an ethic and a style; unlike them, he can’t draw on the frenzied energies of a big-city environment to compensate for the bleakness in his soul. Called upon to solve the murder of a womanizing insurance salesman, Wilcox undertakes the task with little sense of urgency, and indeed with little sense of interest. It’s just another job to him, like the sign-painting gig that brought him to town in the first place. He works the case in the way of private investigators everywhere, by knocking on doors and riling people up, and in time the truth spills out. That revelation seems overly complex, given the rather minimalist quality of the narrative that precedes it, and Adams does too little too prepare readers for it. Still, it’s a conclusion that well suits the all-embracing drought of Wilcox’s time and place—a drought that was, according to Adams, spiritual as well as meteorological.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel