Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"What Good Is a Mystery Yarn If in Retrospect It Is Illogical and Silly?"

Austin J. Small was best known to British readers as "Seamark"; sadly, he chose to end his career as a suicide. A persistent producer of thriller-dillers, science fiction, and adventures very much in the Jack London vein, Small sometimes attracted critical comments from his contemporaries, some of which, unfortunately, were not favorable:

Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
A. L. Burt & George H. Doran.
1924 [1926 in U.S.]. 292 pages.
[Full review] Revenge is the controlling note in this melodramatic tales of how a martyred member of the safe-cracking "Silent Six" took fatal toll of the five who wronged him.
Damon Grey, with unswerving loyalty to his confederates, serves alone a prison sentence of eighteen years for a crime of which each one of the band had been guilty. He emerges from servitude middle-aged, but hopeful and unbroken, to seek reunion with the wife from whom confinement had parted him.
When he learns that his old colleagues have betrayed him by allowing his loved one to die of want, he determines to kill all five by a singularly ingenious and undetectable means.
Preparatory to doing so, he summons them to conference, discloses what is to occur to each of them, and the next evening bags his first victim in the presence of the affrighted others.
Of course the surviving four men adopt desperate protective measures to save themselves from this vengeful monster, but relentlessly, one by one, he drops them into eternity, and when the last is gone, he [SPOILER].
There is no attempt made in the story to mystify or mislead the reader, this all-cards-on-table method adding greatly to, rather than impairing, the interest and suspense with which the tale abounds. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (July 31, 1926; page 12, left column, middle)
[Full review] Mystery and grotesque adventure swiftly told. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (August 1926; page 703, top right)
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
George H. Doran.
1925. 292 pages.
. . . a mystery novel incorporating unusual devices and Inventions into the plot. — SFE
[Full review] A galloping mystery story in which radio is the hero. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (July 1927; page 580, bottom right)
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Houghton Mifflin.
1925. 300 pages. $2.00
[Full review] This tale deals with the South Sea adventures of Laynard, a professional gentleman adventurer who has had a university education and displays it by talking as no human being, save perhaps a thoroughly drunken professor of philology, could ever talk.
The story has a few patches of diverting local color. But not even the characters of romance should speak in such a way as to render any illusion of their own reality absurd. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (August 29, 1925; page 90, 2nd column, bottom)
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
George H. Doran.
1926. 309 pages.
Reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, April 1952, online HERE.
. . . In Master Vorst (1926; a.k.a. The Death Maker) the London Secret Society's insane plan to kill off the human race by germ warfare is thwarted in the nick of time. — SFE
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Crime Club.
1928. 341 pages.
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Hodder and Stoughton.
1929. 320 pages.
Online HERE.
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Crime Club.
1929. 312 pages. $2.00
[Full review] This tale opens very nicely with a stabbed and poisoned corpse dragged from the Thames, but thereafter the excitement is kept pretty low by inexpert use of such familiar trappings as concealed apartments aboard a Chinese ship, an apparently deserted warehouse devoted to dark traffic, daggers with Chinese proverbs engraved on their blades, and a trapdoor leading to the river. A rather neat light-gun with good possibilities is wasted here.
The problem is: how are the police to prove that the Eurasian Grosman was responsible for the murder, as well as for London's being flooded with cocaine?
Everybody eavesdrops a great deal, the commissioner's daughter gets herself abducted, and finally the surviving villains are [SPOILER]. All the English characters talk Americanese. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (September 7, 1929; page 116, 4th column, near top)
[Full review] THE water-front in London, with police dragnets, cocaine peddlers, doubtful night clubs, a Chinese mandarin in the Limehouse section, and the abduction of a wealthy girl. The C.I.D. comes out top-hole after eight long chapters of keen sleuthing, which reek of horrors and murders. — "Notes on New Books," THE BOOKMAN (October 1929; Jump To page 234, top left)

Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Crime Club.
1929. 283 pages. $2.00
[Full review] This story seems to be just another murder mystery. Mr. Small is either careless or unskilful, for when we begin to check up on the solution, we find that the narrative is full of inconsistencies and false starts. Of course, these bother us chiefly after we have closed the book, because while we read, Mr. Small is usually able to hold our attention. But what good is a mystery yarn if in retrospect it is illogical and silly?
The plot is not unconventional: drug and jewelry smuggling in London; a house in lonely suburban grounds, with a good red murder in the library; a bright young man as innocent bystander, and a girl as a half-incriminated accomplice.
Probably Mr. Small hoped that if he merely went through the motions of the commonplace murder novel, he could get away with a great deal of plain foolishness. A little more perspiration would have been helpful. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (April 20, 1929; Jump To page 935, 2nd column at top)
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Crime Club.
1930. 287 pages.
. . . The Avenging Ray (1930) as by Seamark, features a Mad Scientist intent upon destroying the world, his Weapon in this case being a Death Ray comprised of two elements, an Anti-Coherer which dissolves matter, and a Degravitisor, which scatters the residue into the universe. The idea is vivid, the seven-foot-tall, immensely powerful scientist broods with almost Melmothian intensity, but the tale – published after its author's suicide – is desperately scatty. — SFE
[Review excerpt] . . . Am I revealing too much, considering the general non-availability of this particular work, to say that Small is more interested in writing science-fiction than an utterly fair detective story? Still, in spite of the frustrating nature of the incompetent investigation, and in spite of the dumb obstacles placed in the way of true love, there is a modicum of quaint naivete to go with the many pulp styled thrills and chills, thus making this sinister mystery not a complete failure.  . . . — Steve Lewis, THE MYSTERY*FILE BLOG (8 July 2008) [Note: See Comment #3 concerning Small's work habits.]
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Crime Club.
1930. 348 pages.
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Crime Club.
1930. 304 pages.
Austin J[ames] Small (a.k.a. Seamark, 1894-1929).
Hodder & Stoughton.
1937. 512 pages.
(1) DOWN RIVER (1929)
(4) THE SILENT SIX (1924)

The FictionMags Index tells us that Small had at least one criminous short story published: "The Perfect Crime," in The Strand, September 1923, which was reprinted in The Evening Standard Book of Best Short Stories (1933).

- The French edition of Wikipedia has an article about Small HERE.
- The ISFDB entry for Small is HERE.

Categories: Science fiction, Thriller fiction

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Something of an Exposure of Detective Stories"

By E. C. Bentley (1875-1956).
The Century Company.
1913. 298 pages.
Filmed several times: 1920 (IMDb), 1929 (IMDb), and 1952 (IMDb).
BETWEEN what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely? When the scheming, indomitable brain of Sigsbee Manderson was scattered by a shot from an unknown hand, that world lost nothing worth a single tear . . .
Seminal, influential, and innovative, The Woman in Black has enjoyed almost universal admiration for the past one hundred years:
[Article excerpt] . . . One of the seminal novels of the mystery genre was Trent's Last Case, written by E. C. Bentley in 1913. 
Bentley was a lawyer, journalist and literary critic whose fame rests on a very slender output. After Trent's Last Case came Trent's Own Case (written in collaboration with H. Warner Allen) in 1936 and then Elephant's Work in 1950.
He also wrote short stories, some of which were collected in Trent Intervenes in 1938. Each of these 12 stories involves puzzles and very little action. Often the crimes have little to do with reality. A man is murdered by an explosive charge in his golf club. Or there may be a poisoned lipstick. As often as not, Trent, who is interested in the game for its own sake, lets the killer off because of extenuating circumstances. It is all an elaborate hocus-pocus, and a lot of fun.  . . .  — Newgate Callendar, NEW YORK TIMES (May 3, 1981)
[Full review] Although he just fails of making Philip Trent a personality, Mr. E. C. Bentley, in The Woman in Black, has constructed a detective story of unusual originality and ingenuity. An American multi-millionaire, a power in the world's finance, is murdered on his estate on the south coast of England.
Half a dozen persons are presented to the reader as possible objects of suspicion—the dead man's young wife, the 'Woman in Black,' his American secretary, his English secretary, an elderly Englishman with whom he has had a violent quarrel, his butler, and a French maid.
Trent, a painter, who on several previous occasions has shown decided talent in solving criminal mysteries, is sent to the scene of the crime by a great London newspaper.
There is the inevitable foil in the person of Inspector Murch, of the official police, whose years of experience in the practical service of Scotland Yard avail him but little when pitted against the superior imagination of the brilliant amateur.
Trent finds the key to a greater part of the mystery in a pair of worn patent leather shoes that had belonged to the dead American multi-millionaire, and in certain finger prints.
But the story of the affair that he writes out but does not send to his newspaper lacks accuracy in one or two important points, the explanation that seems to cover everything when the book has run less than two-thirds its course is not quite complete, and it is not until the final chapter is reached that the reader is in possession of the full account of the events surrounding the death of Sigsbee Manderson.
In his use of Americanisms, Mr. Bentley is rather better than most English writers, which is not saying a great deal. — "New Books by New Writers," THE BOOKMAN (May 1913)
E. C. Bentley was a British newspaperman. He only wrote four mystery books, but he was immensely influential and prestigious in his time. His reputation peaked around 1940, when first Dorothy L. Sayers, and then Howard Haycraft, identified his Trent's Last Case as the start of the modern mystery novel.
Haycraft was particularly impressed with Bentley's naturalism, a low key approach that excluded melodrama. Sayers admired the many cultural references in Bentley, and what she regarded as his fine writing. Both critics were also impressed with Bentley's characterization. They felt Bentley brought new realism, craftsmanship and believability to the detective novel, which they asserted had been largely dominated by melodrama and purple prose before Bentley's time. — Mike Grost, GAD Wiki
[Review excerpt] . . . With its unique detective figure and complex plot, Trent’s Last Case stands the test of time--and may even change the way existing fans of Golden Age classics view their favorite novels.  . . . — Stefanie Pintoff, THE RAPSHEET BLOG (June 26, 2009)
[Excerpt] . . . Bentley wrote the book as something of an exposure of detective stories, a reaction against the artificial plots and sterile characters of his predecessors. But despite Trent’s fallibility, his detective work is skillful. The ending, with its surprise twists, is eminently satisfying.  . . . — Edward D. Hoch, MYSTERY*FILE BLOG (April 20, 2009)
[Excerpt] . . . As Edward Hoch noted in his review of Trent's Last Case, opinions on Bentley's book have been somewhat mixed, with Ellery Queen and G. K. Chesterton among those shouting hosannas to the heavens and many later reviewers not nearly so enthusiastic. I guess I'd put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack. Early on, I found myself thinking that this was one of the most readable and entertaining books I'd read for quite some time. I'm sorry to say that the center did not hold, although things did pick up again near the end.  . . . —  William I. Lengeman III, TRADITIONAL MYSTERIES (February 4, 2012)
[Excerpt] . . . As for the mystery itself, obviously I can’t tell you all that much, but I will say that it’s a good one. It’s a little convoluted and impossible for readers to guess on their own, but it’s satisfying all the same. The whodunit is supposedly solved halfway through the book, and it’s then that things get truly interesting. There are twists, turns, yet more twists, and always more to the truth that you suppose: you don’t get the full story until the very end. Best of all, Trent’s Last Case is very much a psychological mystery. More than the details of the crime, what keeps you reading is being eager to find out what motivated this or that person to do such and such – and that’s my favourite kind of crime story.  . . . — Ana S., THINGS MEAN A LOT (August 30, 2010)
- ONTOS took a look at ELEPHANT'S WORK in a post HERE and TRENT INTERVENES HERE; cover blurbs for two of Bentley's books are HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"A Tale of Mystery and Ratiocination Very Far Above the Average"

By Gaston Leroux (1868-1927).
1908. 377 pages.
Online HERE (in French).
An Italian film with the same title having nothing to do with this book was released in 1974 (IMDb).
So what did Gaston Leroux follow up with after The Mystery of the Yellow Room? This:
[Full review] The present volume is a sequel to that exceptionally clever detective story, 'The Mystery of the Yellow Room.' We presume that it is no disadvantage in a sequel, from the practical point of view, that it shall send the reader back to the pages of its predecessor.
That is what M. Leroux does in the present instance, though indirectly. Yet it would have been better to insert a frank recommendation right at the beginning that the earlier work be read as a preparation for the treat to come; for without a previous acquaintance with the two men whose deeds fill the pages of both stories, the reader will find it somewhat difficult to enter into the spirit of the latter events.
'The Perfume of the Lady in Black' can be described as inferior to the 'Mystery of the Yellow Room' and yet remain a tale of mystery and ratiocination very far above the average. Its inferiority consists in this, that the same device which was employed with simple and direct ingenuity in the earlier book, appears here in a somewhat mechanical and cumbersome setting.
Still, the highest judgment a book of this kind can aspire to is that it cannot be laid down till it is finished. That verdict can be justly pronounced in the present case. — "Current Fiction," THE NATION (March 18, 1909; scroll down to page 282, middle) [NOTE: This same review is reproduced on MYSTERY*FILE (30 July 2013), with additional bibliographical information.]
[Review excerpt] . . . The reader's suspicions are constantly being diverted from one person to another, and it is Rouletabille alone who holds the key and funishes the final explanation. Whether this explanation will be found satisfactory the present reviewer does not venture to say.  . . . — Rupert Ranney, "Seven Books of the Month," THE BOOKMAN (April 1909)
- Another of Leroux's books is discussed HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Witty, Decorously Exciting, and Brilliantly Written"

Hull's gifts of characterisation hardly matched those of later writers of psychological suspense such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, but his work offers the compensating virtue of wit, which occasionally modulates into savage irony.Martin Edwards
Richard Hull's mystery writing career spanned roughly twenty years and fifteen novels; most of his books have been regarded as above-average efforts. Hull's first novel made quite a splash, and it's the one he's most remembered for:

By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Minton, Balch.
1934. 241 pages. $2.00
. . . The fact that his [author Hull's] idea has been re-used so many times since means that it's not easy to imagine how fresh it may have seemed in 1934.  . . . — Martin Edwards, DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME? (5 April 2013)
Effete and venomous nephew endeavors to batter, burn, and poison long suffering aunt—with undreamed of results. - Villainously amusing efforts of Edward to eliminate Auntie capitally described and vastly entertaining—up to a point. - Verdict: Required Reading. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (January 19, 1935)
First published in 1935, this sui generis mystery won instant acceptance. The scene is Wales, and the narrator is a bit of a heel. — Sergeant Cuff, "Criminal Brief," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (February 22, 1969)
. . . The book is droll and witty, and I found it a charming little diversion. — Keith, IN WHICH OUR HERO (May 24, 2011)
. . . Hull successfully misdirects us by playing up comic elements, but at its heart the story is filled with a deadly intent which carries us right up to the last surprising page. And that surprise makes the whole story well worth reading. Looking for a light mystery that offers both a quick read and a clever premise? This is well worth your time. — Andrew, BLOGGING FOR A GOOD BOOK (April 28, 2011)
Two other divergent views of this book are on the GAD Wiki HERE.
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
1935. 240 pages. $2.00
Two cantankerous clubmen die suddenly. Others sicken. Another vinegary member spots wholesale slayer. - Delightful demonstration of how a joke may go too far. Witty, decorously exciting, and brilliantly written. - Verdict: None better. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (January 4, 1936)
. . . Unusual plot . . . It becomes fully Iles-ian (different from inverted) halfway through, when the murderer is revealed to the reader.  . . . — Nick Fuller, GAD Wiki
. . .  Keep It Quiet is filled with a delightfully sly humor and is a quick, breezy read at 191 pages.  . . . — Elizabeth Foxwell, THE BUNBURYIST (February 24, 2012)
The story of a sadist—an accidental death puts into his hands the opportunity to wreak some petty vengeance and to get some action out of the timorous little club secretary. His means get out of hand—and he comes a cropper, but the famous old stick-together-boys slogan saves his bacon. Not as original a story as The Murder of My Aunt. — KIRKUS REVIEWS
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
1936. 248 pages. $2.00
Mutually hateful British advt. agcy. trio reduced 2/3 by poisoned tea. Insp. Hoopington reads diaries and solves. - Excellent as satire on admen generally; sinisterly amusing; clever as to method; but translucent as to "mystery." - Verdict: A bit fragile. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (August 1, 1936)
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
1936. 245 pages. $2.00
Legacy-hoping nephews plan psychical spoof on rich, wrathy and wraith-hunting uncle. Result: 2 murders and slick sleuthing. - Impersonal yarn, with Gothic atmosphere, occasional flashing wit, and sundry shivers—but little life and less conviction. - Verdict: Take your chances. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (February 13, 1937)
. . . There are plenty of Carrian atmospherics—two murders on the top of a tower, apparently committed by the ghost; the second is essentially impossible (nobody else on top of the tower), and the method (dagger on the end of a pole) has Carrian simplicity.  . . . However, the murderer is pretty obvious . . . . — Nick Fuller, GAD Wiki
A haunted house, a rich uncle, four nephews, and a niece. A readable mystery tale. — "The Check List," THE AMERICAN MERCURY (April 1937)
. . . Hull always amuses and entertains with his odd characters. His works are well worth looking for. — William F. Deeck, MYSTERY*FILE (6 August 2014)
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
1937. 299 pages. $2.00
. . . not for the only time in his career, Hull produced a book that was definitely anti-climactic. — Martin Edwards, DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME? (10 May 2013)
Four bright young Londoners plan joke on dull young Londoner; joke goes much too far, and Yard is called in. - Good writing and characterizations insufficient to save obvious plot founded on incredible situation. - Verdict: Clever but silly. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (September 25, 1937)
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
1938. 251 pages. $2.00
Cyanide in snuff settles hash of irritating Briton. Story ingeniously combines court-room procedure and actual sleuthing. - Method should interest serious students of crime fiction. Fenby is painstaking detective, and ending has neatly ironic touch. - Verdict: For connoisseurs. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (March 1, 1941)
[SPOILERS IN REVIEW] The book doesn’t just have ‘excellent intentions’—it is excellent.  . . . The final twist is what gives the book its crowning excellence.  . . . — Nick Fuller, GAD Wiki
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Messner and Crime Club.
1939. 255/252 pages.
Local English police net a double killer after a complex hunt for motive and opportunity as a foursome of brother and sister, and their respective fiance and fiancee, becomes the centers of mysterious killings. Ingenious plotting and careful going do not bring this the Hull way to the top. — KIRKUS REVIEWS

By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
1940. 241 pages. $2.00
Debonair English killer relies on his lawyer to spirit him away. Lawyer obliges with unexpected results. Scotland Yard is interested. - Completely unprincipled, sardonically amusing, swift, and smoothly written. Denouement not great surprise but told well. - Verdict: Commendable. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (September 14, 1940)
. . . a convincing and ingenious story of intense human appeal, seasoned with a touch of humor and plenty of irony.  . . . The book is described as a "whodunit." I don't know if I agree with that . . . — Anita, GAD Wiki
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
1942. 253 pages. $2.00
Subtly administered poison starts string of crimes in British war-work plant. Scotland Yarder and check-up man share sleuthing honors. - Carefully constructed, painstakingly worked out. Some of early technicalities rather confusing but action speeds up as story progresses. - Verdict: Competently done. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (March 7, 1942)
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Crime Club.
1946. 160 pages.
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Crime Club.
1947. 192 pages.
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Crime Club.
1949. 192 pages.
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Crime Club.
1950. 192 pages.
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Crime Club.
1950. 192 pages.
By Richard Hull (Richard Henry Sampson, 1896-1973).
Crime Club.
1953. 192 pages.
Hull is also credited with a short story: "Mrs. Brierly Supples the Evidence," The (London) Evening Standard, reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1952 (The FictionMags Index).

- Martin Edwards has a retrospective about Richard Hull HERE.
- A Wikipedia article is HERE.
- Most of the illustrations in this posting came from FACSIMILE DUST JACKETS L.L.C.

Category: Detective fiction

Friday, August 8, 2014

"The Story Is Cleverly Written and Skilfully Constructed"

By Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935).
G. P. Putnam's.
1895. 131 pages. 50 cents.
[Full review] There is one thing about these stories which begin with a mysterious murder to be grateful for—they plunge into their business at once with an "end of the century" speed. You get your murder served up reeking hot in the first chapter, and every chapter thereafter keeps you on the qui vive until the murderer is trapped and all who were wrongfully detained are set at liberty. Then the story is wound up as expeditely as it began.
The detective who is responsible for the revelation of the facts concerning the mysterious murder of Mr. Hasbrouck is caught on the horns of a dilemma, when he has reason to suspect that the woman whom he deeply reverences is a link in the chain of evidence he is collecting. Yet his ferreting instinct inevitably leads him into this contretemps, and as the interest of unravelling the tangled thread of the story becomes exciting at this point it would be unjust to enlighten the reader further.
The author manages to hold the reader well in hand, and the story is cleverly written and skilfully constructed. It can be recommended to relieve ennui during the space of a couple of hours. — "Novel Notes," THE BOOKMAN (April 1895)
[Excerpt: SPOILERS IN REVIEW] . . . Inspector Ebenezer Gryce . . . is an excellent specimen of a detective who, I have no doubt, influenced fictional sleuths of the future. He is a clever and calm-headed detective who holds on to the case till he has solved it. He goes about solving Mr. Hasbrouck’s murder with precision and in the absence of clues because there aren’t any. The mystery unfolds as you read. He is described as “eccentric” though I did not find him peculiar in any way. In fact, Gryce is portrayed as sensitive and considerate, especially towards Helen for whom he has a deep admiration. He sympathises with her plight and tells her, rather quietly, that he is her friend. This is his story and he recounts it as a spectator in spite of being at the heart of the mystery.
The Doctor, His Wife, and the Clock is a superb piece of fiction by Anna Katharine Green and one of the best short novels I have read in recent times. — Prashant C. Trikannad, CHESS, COMICS, CROSSWORDS, BOOKS, MUSIC, CINEMA (July 5, 2012)

Category: Detective fiction

The International Society of Infallible Detectives

Just the other day we were discussing Carolyn Wells, an author with uncertain and variable abilities when it came to detective fiction. Wells was widely known for her involvement in humorous verse, and her sense of fun overflowed into parodies of then-popular poets; apparently she just couldn't resist taking a swipe at the most well-known detectives in prose of her era, the result being several spoofs known collectively as "The International Society of Infallible Detectives" series:
The International Society of Infallible Detectives (L-to-R): Dupin, The Thinking Machine (seated), Lecocq, Lupin (seated), Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson (seated), Luther Trant, and Raffles (seated). Drawn by R. B. Birch.
(1) "The Adventure of the Mona Lisa," The Century, January 1912.
- This one can be found online in several places: HERE, HERE, and HERE [pages 18-24] and in audio format [14 minutes 26 seconds] HERE.

(2) "Sure Way to Catch Every Criminal," Hearst Sunday newspapers, July 11, 1912.
- This one doesn't seem to be online anywhere.

(3) "The Adventure of the Clothes-Line," The Century, May 1915.
- Online HERE and HERE [pages 25-30].

(4) "Cherchez la Femme," The Green Book Magazine, February 1917.
- Not online either.

Jacques Futrelle, creator of The Thinking Machine, is credited with a story dealing with The Society of Infallible Detectives . . .

~ "The Great Suitcase Mystery," Boston American, October 5-8, 1905.

. . . but we're unsure how, or even if, it relates to Wells's stories.

- More about The Thinking Machine is HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Pages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Criminals"

Tim Prasil has devoted considerable attention to the occult detective story, i.e., mysteries in which supernatural factors come into play, either as actual manifestations of the Other World (e.g., John Silence) or to serve as red herrings that distract the reader's attention away from a more mundane explanation for events (e.g., Dr. Gideon Fell).

Prasil credits Edgar Allan Poe with "set[ting] a precedence for fictional detectives to debunk supernatural possibilities," thus paving the way for the likes of Dr. Fell. Prasil adds:
. . . in an interview for The Forum, prolific mystery writer Carolyn Wells would whine, “I have no patience with the occult, the psychic, the spiritualistic in detective stories.” — Tim Prasil, "The Bias Against Mixing Mystery Stories with the Supernatural," TIM PRASIL: INVENTOR OF PERSONS (January 12, 2014)
As if to demonstrate her impatience with the supernatural in detective fiction, Carolyn Wells wrote a series of eight novels in which the occult seems at first to be the only explanation for the mystery but is ultimately shown to be a mislead; these books are often referred to as the Pennington Wise (or "Penny" Wise and Zizi) series.

By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
George H. Doran.
1918. 283 pages. $1.40
For purchase HERE.
It had seemed an idyllic way for a group of wealthy New Yorkers to spend a summer month, researching the supernatural in a reputed haunted mansion in the depths of Vermont’s Green Mountains. That is until two of their number are mysteriously struck down at afternoon tea. Were their deaths the result of supernatural forces? Or did they meet their death due to a more human hand? This is the riddle that the famed detective Pennington Wise must unravel as he tries to discover what happened in . . . The Room with the Tassels! — RESURRECTED PRESS description
[Full review] Here, for instance, are the yarns of Miss Carolyn Wells has been so busily spinning of late. In their way they are excellent specimens of the pure mechanical romance. They abound in perplexing cross-paths and false signboards; not till we finally stumble into the centre of the maze do we see how childishly simple the real clue was. Miss Wells knows that it is only the machinery that counts, and appears to find an impish satisfaction in being, with perfect safety, as absurd as possible in everything but the naked contrivance.
Cute little Vernie's death by murder is faced by her young friends with appalling nonchalance. It is folly for the reader to look for anything like characterization or consecutive human action in this variety. It is also risky for the story-teller to pretend even for a moment that his puppets are alive. We cannot be bothered with real people: next thing we should be actually worrying over their proximity to the buzz-saw! So far as the human personnel of the affair is concerned, let us have our make-believe as open as possible. The buzz-saw's the thing. — "Tricks and Inventions," THE NATION (October 19, 1918)
[Full review] Miss Wells's book deals with murder, mystery, mediocre minds, and detectives.
Out of a conversation in which spirit-manifestation is "cussed and discust" grows a half-serious, half-humorous suggestion to have a house party in a real "ha'nted" house, and strangely enough, eight people of supposedly sound minds are found foolish enough to lend themselves to such a crazy scheme.
The frolic loses its spontaneous merriment almost immediately, and when two of the party are murdered under startling and impossible conditions all the fun disappears. Tragedy takes its place, and detectives are called in.
The story is in Carolyn Wells's usual style and will please a certain class of readers, but it is difficult to satisfy any intelligent reader with a story whose premises are impossible, whose situations are forced and foolish, whose artificiality was so plainly created to hoodwink one's intelligence, and whose conversations are so plainly calculated to place suspicion on each character in turn, except, perhaps, the guilty one.
After pages of ghosts, spirits, and criminals the solution comes on the last page and is supposed to startle and surprize every one. — "Notable Recent Fiction," THE LITERARY DIGEST (November 16, 1918; go to page 46, near top)
[Review excerpts] . . . [The two main characters Pennington "Penny" Wise and his female sidekick Zizi] are all the more interesting because they are not really detectives—they are con artists.  . . . Wise tends to be drawn to cases that involve apparent supernatural events and he fancies himself a ghost buster. Zizi plays the part of his mysterious assistant and pretends to be psychic. She dresses all in black, floats in and out of rooms as quietly as the specters they are exposing, and frightens the heck out of the suspects with her freakish behavior and insinuating accusations. They're a great duo and it is largely due to their presence that I liked this book the best.  . . . — John, PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS (December 10, 2011)
[Excerpt] . . . a mystery novel from 1918 by prolific writer Carolyn Wells which introduces her Pennington "Penny" Wise series detective character. Penny Wise does not actually appear until 2/3rds of the way into the book, as we get an elaborate set-up involving some bored rich people who, when debating the truth or falsity of spiritualism and ghosts and the like, decide to find a "real" haunted house to rent for the summer where they will conduct an investigation. It's kind of neat to see a horror trope like this being used this early (although occult detectives and the like had done it earlier) and with such a variety of viewpoints.  . . . — Shawn, GOODREADS (June 9, 2014)
[Excerpt] Occult detective and con artist Pennington Wise along with his eccentric silent movie actress sidekick, Zizi, make their debut in this witty and strange book, one of Well's more entertaining and readable novels. It's a locked room mystery but the impossibility of the crime is hardly a big mystery since it relies on Well's favorite gimmick of a secret passage. The majority of the book, an outrageous mix of the bizarre and sarcastic jibes from the detective duo, more than make up for her shortcomings in the "Ingenious Impossible Crime Department", a favorite subgenre of Wells' but one that was never her strength.  . . . — J. F. Norris, GAD Wiki
[Excerpt] . . . The novel's biggest virtue is the introduction of a new detective, Pennington Wise, and more interestingly, his female assistant Zizi, a well-developed character. Pennington Wise resembles Fleming Stone, in being a crisp, business-like detective. He is an artist, like the well-to-do artist suspect in A Chain of Evidence, in a day when artists were often respected members of the Establishment. Zizi is a lively original, and a woman with a varied and colorful background. She would make a good movie heroine, and is proof that feminist ideas about dynamic heroines were already present in the 1910's.  . . . — Mike Grost, GUIDE TO CLASSIC MYSTERY AND DETECTION ("Carolyn Wells")
By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
1919. 299 pages. $1.50
Online HERE and HERE.
For purchase HERE.
As a young lawyer is about to leave his office on the top floor of a Madison Avenue office building, he hears an argument followed by a shot from the office across the hall. But when he goes to investigate he finds no sign of either victim or assailant despite the fact that no one could have passed him without being seen. However, as is soon discovered, a murder has indeed been committed, that of the banker who owned the building. But who is the murderer? A business associate, the banker’s beautiful ward, or a mysterious woman who had been in the office earlier? And what part, if any, was played by the amnesia victim pulled from the river; a man who insists that his earliest memory is of falling through a hole in the earth? — RESURRECTED PRESS description
. . . The Man Who Fell Through the Earth (1919) opens with a simple architectural mystery. It is a bit in the tradition of Wells' earlier works, although simpler than most. Wells solves the puzzle almost immediately, and does not make it the center of her novel (Chapters 1, 3). While these ideas are a cheat by modern impossible crime standards, as are several of Wells' stories, the architecture here has its points of imagination.
Wells soon introduces a second mystery, about the near-impossible disappearance in the street of Amory Manning (Chapter 4).  . . . Wells' solution, announced by a strange sleuth-character Case Rivers (Chapter 8, 11, 18), has a paradoxical Borges-like feel. Wells had a flair for names, especially in her detectives. The best chapters of The Man Who Fell Through the Earth are very much worth reading, for their mystery ideas. It is one of Carolyn Wells' more experimental novels. — Mike Grost, op. cit.
By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
George H. Doran.
1920. 288 pages. $1.90
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
For purchase HERE.
The Campanile was a fashionable apartment building in the heart of Manhattan. It was known for its elaborate fa├žade and an ornate lobby featuring large onyx pillars. It was a perfectly respectable place with perfectly respectable well to do tenants, that is until one of them, Sir Herbert Binney, owner of the well known Binney’s Bun company is found dead in its lobby, clutching a paper on which he had scrawled “women did it.” But which women? The chorus girls of which Sir Herbert was so fond? Girls from the building’s staff with whom he had taken liberties? Or the two middle-aged women who had been feuding for twenty years, one of whom was the aunt to his nephew and heir? With a fortune involved and the secret recipe for Binney’s Buns at stake, there are more than enough suspects and clues to what happened . . . In the Onyx Lobby. — RESURRECTED PRESS description
[Full review] The singular accident by which the detectives and the readers are put on the wrong track almost to the end of the book is cleverly invented. Otherwise we cannot rank the book very highly in the constantly multiplying number of books of this class. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (October 27, 1920)
By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
George H. Doran.
1921. 286 pages.
Online HERE.
For purchase HERE.
See the ONTOS posting HERE for more.

By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
George H. Doran.
1921. 270 pages.
Online HERE.
For purchase HERE.
By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
George H. Doran.
1922. 282 pages.
Online HERE and HERE.
For purchase HERE.
Headland House, so named because it was situated on a narrow headland overlooking the scenic Maine village of Headland Harbor, was a picturesque place to spend a summer holiday. The village was something of an artist’s colony, and the house itself, though barely accessible, offered stunning views of the sea, so the Varians had been more than willing to rent the house for the summer and invite family to join them. But, when on a picnic, Betty Varian and her father return to the house for a forgotten camera the father is murdered and daughter disappears. As the rest of the party were waiting on the only path to the house, in plain sight of the front door, the crime presents a seemingly unsolvable mystery. Was it a murder or a suicide? A kidnapping? And what has happened to the girl, Betty Varian? These are the questions that confront the famed detective Pennington Wise as he attempts to solve . . . The Vanishing of Betty Varian. — RESURRECTED PRESS description
[Full review] Mysterious murder and disappearance. Rather the best of Miss Wells's recent detective webs. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (July 1922)
The Vanishing of Betty Varian (1922) is another story about getting in and out of a locked domicile: here a whole house. It has some good storytelling, especially in its opening (Chapters 1-3). Its architectural/landscape setting on the coast of Maine, also set forth in the opening, is vivid, and most suited to an impossible crime puzzle. One wonders if Ellery Queen remembered this, when he created The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935).
A later section (Chapter 7) also gives a good summary of the mystery problem as a whole. Its solution is a real disappointment: both cornball, and a cheat by modern standards (end of Chapter 17). It is like a simpler version of the same kind of solution in The White Alley.
The tale has poor mystery subplots (the will, the letter signed "Step"). The novel's core mystery is much like the famous vanishing of Mr. James Phillimore, briefly referred to by Doyle in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (1922) - and with no solution given by Doyle. Wells treats her puzzle as an Impossible Crime - a concept not actually in Doyle's brief summary. One wonders if Wells' novel had an influence on later versions of the Phillimore mystery by John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen, which also conceive of the vanishing as an Impossible Crime. — Mike Grost, op. cit.
By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
George H. Doran.
1923. 284 pages. $1.75
[Full review] A man was murdered from all four directions at once. Who did it? — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (June 1923; go to page 447 top right)
[Full review] Another murder mystery with a new twist that complicates the unraveling. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (August 1923; go to page 639, right bottom)
[Excerpts] . . . Certainly this is a very dated novel, with what we would consider psychologically implausible characters and a lot of over-writing. Still, it has its attractions.  . . . — Susan, GOODREADS (June 19, 2011)
By Carolyn Wells (1862-1942).
George H. Doran.
1923. 267 pages.
[Full review] This detective story would be rather dull with only its mystery and its detective, but fortunately there is a perfectly fascinating character in the village idiot. — "The Bookman's Guide to Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (November 1923)
[Full review] Carolyn Wells has two books on the autumn lists. The first one SPOOKY HOLLOW (Lippincott, $2.00) is very good up to about page 100, but then it collapses and goes to pieces. The other, WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS (Doran) was bad, the only interesting character (for us) being the village idiot who holds the solution of the mystery. — "Opinions About Books," THE FORUM (January 1924; page 128, left bottom)
- Yet another ONTOS article about Wells is HERE.
- Tim Prasil discusses the occult detective story HERE ("The Deep Roots of the Debunking Detective") and HERE ("The Bias Against Mixing Mystery Stories with the Supernatural").

Category: Detective fiction (occult division)