Friday, May 30, 2014

Can Murder in Real Life Have a Comic Side?

The case of Henri Désiré Landru (1869-1922), the serial killer, excited considerable commentary at the time, not all of it wholesome:
Although the crimes with which he is charged are very numerous, they have all been cut to the same pattern, and the whole list of them therefore grows rather monotonous. This is not so much because Landru is lacking in criminal imagination as because his first crime was so successful that he had no need to change his methods.
. . . what did he do with the bodies? It is easy enough to reply that he burned them—that is very probable—but what infernal cleverness had he developed in the art of incineration? There is no crematory, no matter how perfect, which can reduce a human body to an impalpable bit of cinder.
. . . Since the time of Troppmann, no such series of crimes has been heard of, and no misdeeds so cruel and methodical have been brought to trial; and yet Landru has become a kind of comic personage. Comic songs are sung about him. He is represented on the stage, and for all I know some impresario has already asked for first rights on a possible American tour if he should in the future be acquitted.
. . . the real puzzle of the Landru case is less the mentality of the criminal than the character of the popular interest taken in his deeds. — Edgar Troimaux and an anonymous Englishman, "Landru: The Comic Side of Murder," THE LIVING AGE (December 17, 1921)
AN ATROCIOUS MURDERER according to the verdict of the French courts became, during his trial, the most hilarious subject of the French Capital.
Popular places of entertainment were filled with sketches, revues, motion pictures all dealing with Landru, whom the London Outlook describes as "a dull, middle-aged, repulsive-looking, bald-headed, Assyrian-bearded man, who is believed to have killed ten women and to have deceived and swindled two hundred and seventy-three."
Here is scarcely thought, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, to be material for jokes; certainly not for universal laughter, and the incongruity leads this English weekly to a serious inquiry into the French state of mind that can make such things possible. . . . — "A British Diagram of French Macabre Humor," THE LITERARY DIGEST (January 14, 1922)
Certainly the Landru case had considerable influence, both then and even later; the Wikipedia article section "In popular culture" details just a few Landru references in literature, films, and television, including episodes of Twilight Zone and Star Trek.

Category: True crime

"Absolutely One of the Best Locked Rooms"

INTO THIN AIR.
By Horatio Winslow (1882-1972) and Leslie W. Quirk (1882-1960).
Crime Club: Doubleday, Doran & Co.
1929 [US publication]. 278 pages.
Recently a Roaring Twenties novel was translated into Italian:
Into Thin Air is for good reason a masterpiece, even if long and undeservedly forgotten: it possesses the qualities that make it a must-fiction, and also only for lovers of that sub-genre of whodunnit, that is “The Locked Room”: it was added in all the rankings of the best history of Locked Rooms.
The plot is based on the murder mystery (and definitely more mysterious disappearance of the murderer), Dr. Klotz, a caricatural figure, who, with its colorful expressions, with his quotes, jokes, also in German, and its culture encyclopedic, reminded us Dr. Gideon Fell by Carr, whose first adventure, Hag’s Nookdates back to 1933, 5 years after the release of the novel Into Thin Air.
Dr. Klotz is a criminologist (and therefore may have been, with Chesterton, the source of inspiration for the Carrian character). He is “Head of the Department of Criminology at the University of Wisconsin,” has the habit of unmasking impostors, to bother and making fun of the beautiful young women, to ridicule anyone he deems worthy of it, not caring about the resentment. — Pietro De Palma, VANISHED INTO THIN AIR (October 25, 2013)
This is an unusual combination of the scientific-psychological detective novel, with the impossible crime story. The novel, which is the sole known detective work of its authors, reflects many features of the American Scientific School of its day.
. . . Into Thin Air contains a number of experimental features, offering variations on the typical detective story construction. Such experimentation derives not from the Scientific School, but from an eclectic series of general purpose detective novels.
. . . while the later chapters of Into Thin Air contains numerous impossible situations, most are variations on one common approach, one whose "magic trick" style explanation is only moderately interesting. Most of these later chapters seem in general less creative than the opening sections, which are the best part of the work. In general, the plotting is better than the writing or characterization in this novel. — Mike Grost, GAD Wiki ("Into Thin Air")

Category: Detective fiction

"This Book Is Mere Excitement for an Hour"

THE VANISHING MEN.
By Richard Washburn Child (1881-1935).
E. P. Dutton.
1920. 324 pages.
Online HERE and HERE.
Richard Child floated through the rarified atmosphere inhabited by high-level politicians and public opinion makers; according to Wikipedia "he rates as one of the most influential American promoters of Italian fascism until his death," but in spite of that he "also wrote a number of crime stories . . . throughout his career." THE VANISHING MEN and THE VELVET BLACK would seem to fit nicely into the "crime stories" category:
[The Vanishing Men is] a mystery story, ingenious but over-melodramatic in its grisly conclusion, even if the "curse" supposed to attach to the girl whose lover and husband "vanish" is cleverly explained and the third man who ventures to seek her love is made happy.
We remember the author's "Jim Hands" as an admirable story of real life; this book is mere excitement for an hour. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (June 2, 1920)
THE VELVET BLACK.
By Richard Washburn Child (1881-1935).
E. P. Dutton.
1921. 387 pages.
Collection: 11 stories.
Online HERE.
Contents:

(1) "The Velvet Black"
(2) "Identified"
(3) "The Nightingale"
(4) "A Whiff of Heliotrope"
(5) "The Cracking Knee"
(6) "Fiber"
(7) "An Experiment in Resource"
(8) "The Avenger"
(9) "Pode"
(10) "In Dancing Shadows"
(11) "Foxed"
These short stories are almost all centered around horror, danger, and crime impending in absolute darkness. Hence the title. They are ingenious and forceful, but not always agreeable. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (May 25, 1921)
The dramatic skill to create a swift climax and a setting to emphasize the suspense, marks the eleven stories of the underworld which Richard Washburn Child has collected in "The Black Velvet" [sic].
There is a good deal of similarity in the tales, especially in regard to structure—most of them reveal some arresting quality of character upon which the situation is made to turn.
The author understands the value of unity and has the knack of giving verity to a unique circumstance by convincing portrayal of attending commonplace-ness.
The stories seem to reflect an intimate knowledge of the ways of crooks and will satisfy readers who enjoy a thriller of the better sort. — "Recent Books in Brief," THE BOOKMAN (October 1921)

Category: Detective fiction

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Where Sherlock Holmes Got His Name"

Like the origin of the term "S.O.S.", how Holmes acquired his moniker is still an unsettled matter, despite what this item asserts:
THE London Morning Post solves a question of momentous literary import. Thanks to its indefatigable researches, we know at last how Sherlock Holmes got his name.
No less a person than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the authority.
Sir Arthur did not get his hero from the spirit world. Indeed, at that time he was not greatly interested in the spirit world, or at least his interest had not become public property.
He named his detective Holmes because it was an ordinary, common name, which he used to break the Dickens tradition of names like Sharp for law officers.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, not a cricket player.
Sir Arthur got the name Sherlock from a cricket player against whose bowling he made thirty runs.
The name of this phenomenally bad bowler stuck in his memory and eventually became the Christian name of the great detective. — "Life, Letters, and the Arts: Where Sherlock Holmes Got His Name," THE LIVING AGE (December 20, 1924; see page 676, bottom right)
As far as Holmes' name, his last name may have been based on American jurist and fellow doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes and his first name may have come from Alfred Sherlock, a prominent violinist of his time. Dr. John Watson, a fellow Southsea doctor and Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society member who served time in Manchuria, received the honour of having Holmes' partner named for him. — THE SHERLOCK HOLMES SOCIETY OF LONDON
My name? It's on the tip of my mind . . .
Resource:
- See "The Name of Sherlock Holmes" HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"An Otherwise Unimportant Doctor Watson"

In his discussion of how story tellers achieve their effects, Brander Matthews (1852-1929) commends Kipling, Poe, and Conan Doyle for choosing the first person narrator; poor Watson, however, suffers in his analysis:
Kipling is more judicious in the half-dozen of his short stories which he has chosen to tell in the first person because he was a participant in the action, although never one of the leaders of it.
By so doing he is able to give us the direct and immediate impression of a spectator who was on the spot at the time and who saw the whole incident from beginning to end, perhaps even himself lending a hand to bring about the climax.
He adopts this method only when the story is itself simple, when it is a matter of action and reaction, when it is devoid of psychologic subtlety, and when he is sure that he can make his own presence as unobjectionable as that of Arthur Pendennis was obtrusive.
The same method is most skilfully employed by Poe in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the first detective story ever written and perhaps still the best; and it has been borrowed by most of those who have trod the trail blazed by Poe—notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In Poe's two tales of mystery solved, the teller is anonymous; and in Doyle's many detective stories, he is an otherwise unimportant Doctor Watson.
It is by means of this transmitting narrator, that Poe and Doyle contrive to convey clearly and sharply the impression made upon them by the swift and unerring deductions of Monsieur Dupin and of Sherlock Holmes.
Here indeed Poe displays his more consummate artistry, in that his unnamed and unidentified "I" who puts us in possession of all the facts and who describes the feats of Monsieur Dupin, is represented as at first a little doubtful of Dupin's soundness of mind, whereas Doctor Watson is always abasing himself in an attitude of adoring admiration, which tends to detract from the reader's wonder at Sherlock Holmes's ultimate triumph over an apparently insuperable difficulty. — Brander Matthews, "The Several Ways of Telling a Story," THE BOOKMAN (January 1921; see page 294, middle left)

Category: Detective fiction

"Sleep No More!"

THE MAN WHO COULDN'T SLEEP.
By Arthur Stringer.
A. L. Burt Company.
1919. 351 pages.
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Contents:
(1) "Running Out of Pay-Dirt"
(2) "The Ox-Blood Vase"
(3) "The Stolen Wheel-Code"
(4) "The Open Door"
(5) "The Man from Medicine Hat"
(6) "The Irreproachable Butler"
(7) "The Panama Gold Chests"
(8) "The Dummy-Chucker"
(9) "A Rialto Rain-Storm"
(10) "The Thumb-Tap Clue"
(11) "The Nile-Green Roadster"

Insomnia can drive people in strange directions:
Robert Louis Stevenson's "New Arabian Nights" has a lineal descendant of which it need feel no shame in Arthur Stringer's The Man Who Couldn't Sleep.
The streets of neither London nor Cairo are ahead of the New York of this group of stories in the fascination of their night life.
A writer, suffering from insomnia, is driven forth when sleep seems beyond his reach to prowl the city streets in those mystical small hours when strange creatures from the underworld creep from their holes.
It is a New York of crime and romance, with adventure lurking always just around the corner for any one brave enough to start its pursuit, and we surrender ourselves delightedly to its sinister enchantment. — "Reviews of New Books," THE LITERARY DIGEST (October 11, 1919; page 77, left column)
Resources:
- Previous ONTOS articles about Arthur Stringer are HERE and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"An Example of the Kind of Outside the Box Thinking That Made Philo Vance and Ellery Queen So Distinctive in the Realm of Amateur Sleuths"

ONE DROP OF BLOOD.
By Anne Austin.
Macmillan.
1932. 319 pages.
Reissued in 2012. For sale HERE.
Available on Kindle.
A detective novel from the Golden Age:
. . . One Drop of Blood is the penultimate detective novel by little known American writer Anne Austin. Based on this one book I'd say she was influenced by the works of Van Dine and Queen. The detective work involving the reason for the oversight of a single drop of blood is an example of the kind of outside the box thinking that made Philo Vance and Ellery Queen so distinctive in the realm of amateur sleuths.
. . . As long as you can accept the 1932 setting and forgive some of the passe, often risible, psychobabble and focus on Austin's much more impressive handling of the mystery plot you'll enjoy this forgotten writer's book. — John, PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS (January 19, 2014)
A few other short Anne Austin reviews:

~ THE BLACK PIGEON (1929): "This mystery story is unique both as to plot and execution." Reviewed HERE.

~ MURDER BACKSTAIRS (1930): "The clues are all there in plain sight, yet are so well hidden that you are bound to miss some of them at first. But the author plays absolutely fair with her reader, and you will have a great time trying to outwit her." Reviewed HERE.

~ MURDER AT BRIDGE (1931): We have no review of this one, but it is available online HERE.
~ A WICKED WOMAN (1933): "Miss Austin, highly successful with murder mysteries, now tries a different sort of murder story." Reviewed HERE.

~ MURDERED BUT NOT DEAD (1939): "Dramatic." Reviewed HERE.

Resource:
- "[Austin's] series detective is James Dundee, a special investigator for a District Attorney Sanderson. Because of his Scottish ancestry Dundee is given the nickname Bonnie by the police captain Strawn, a typically gruff smart ass cop one finds in American mysteries of this era. Austin's mystery plotting can be complex as in Murder at Bridge and One Drop of Blood and she does her best to follow the rules of the fair play detective novel." — GAD Wiki

Category: Detective fiction

Friday, May 23, 2014

Baker Street Irregularities

"Notes on Baker Street."
By Christopher Morley (1890-1957).
Article.
The Saturday Review, January 28, 1939.
Online HERE.

Christopher Morley, whom we have met before, was a founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, and whenever possible he alerted the public to their activities. In an article from 1939, Morley gives us a peek at some of their borderline-obsessive doings, such as the "gentleman in London" who was "to obtain an accurate reckoning of how much Sherlock Holmes spent on hansom cab fares in his journeys as described by the Doctor."
Click on image to enlarge.
He also details the tribulations which Mr. Greenhough Smith, at the time editor of the Strand, experienced "when his most successful feature, the first 12 of the Adventures [of Sherlock Holmes], came to an end in June '92. Anyone familiar with the anxieties of magazines must be amused and instructed by Mr. Smith's valiant efforts to fill the gap while Dr. Watson was taking a six-months' recuperation." Smith proposed to replace Holmes with "powerful detective stories by other eminent writers," but, notes Morley archly, "the powerful detective stories by other hands were not so easy to find."

Morley attaches an article by Edgar W. Smith, "Up From the Needle," detailing Holmes's "addiction to cocaine and morphine" which "has served, unfortunately, to obscure the name he more justly deserves for a sound and civilized attitude toward the venial narcotic alcohol." Over the years, says Smith, "we can feel quite certain that by the time the zenith of his [Holmes's] powers had been attained, and queen and potentate and pontiff were inclining themselves before him in suppliance for his aid, the Master had learned without remorse and without regret to reach for the gasogene instead of the needle."
Morley also mentions the pending publication of 221B, which "will have 221 pages and an additional B page, and will (I hope) be set in Baskerville type."


Category: Detective fiction

"It Is an Enduring Type of Fiction"

Here we have some pop sociology from a literary critic at the start of the Roaring Twenties, but at least he doesn't knock detective fiction as some were inclined to do. While he covers all of the usual varieties (e.g.,"the child story," "the country story," romances, and so on), only his comments about "the crook story" follow:
. . . at one time it looked as if the crook story would run it [the love story] a close second in lasting popularity. The underworld has always been a fascinating ground for the fictionist. Low life appeals to the folk above-stairs, even as "plush" stories are eagerly devoured by the servants in the kitchen.
The crook story had a long and deserved vogue: indeed, that vogue has never quite died out. The burglar who led a double life—was a gentleman by daylight and a housebreaker when evening fell—will never lose his glamour for any of us with imagination; and the crook who gets the better of the police—who does not love him eternally?
Robberies, murders, tense situations wherein wily women defeat the law and get Bill out of a pickle to boot—these have steady and certain charm for most of us; and any series, wherein the same band of thieves moves like a cinema before us, will appeal to the editor.
It is an enduring type of fiction that is as up to date today as it was fifteen years ago; and it would be a calamity if it became unfashionable.
See the hosts of magazines that have sprung up, which make a specialty of detective yarns and adventure stories. Their name is legion; they are as thriving as the little poetry journals scattered through the land. — Charles Hanson Towne, "Fashions in Fiction," THE BOOKMAN (December 1920; Jump To page 332, left bottom)

Category: Detective fiction

Playing Dead

THE COME BACK.
By Carolyn Wells (1870-1942).
George H. Doran.
1921. 286 pages.
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Has Wells joined hands with Conan Doyle in the world of the spirits? Hardly:
Carolyn Wells makes excellent use of spiritism and the ouija board in creating an atmosphere of tense mystery, yet she does not allow her story to leave, even for a moment, the realm of things explicable by the most mortal of us.
"The Come Back" is the story of a man who disappears in the Labrador wilds. In his youth a gypsy fortune teller had prophesied that he would some day go on a long journey and die a terrible death but would, in due course of time, return to his family.
Of course, just as soon as your perceive that one of the first chapters is headed "The Prophecy", you know that the remaining chapters will be devoted to the fulfilment of that prophecy. But the explanation of the fulfilment will keep you guessing all the way through.
Miss Wells is famous for her skilful manipulation of the mystery story and she certainly lives up to her reputation in "The Come Back". — "Recent Books in Brief Review," THE BOOKMAN (September 1921; go to page 78, left bottom)

Category: Detective fiction

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"The Unraveling of the Mystery Is Done With Not a Little Ingenuity"

THE BARTON MYSTERY: A DRAMA IN THREE ACTS AND AN EPILOGUE.
By Walter Hackett (1876-1944).
1916.
Before television and radio, audiences could get their mystery thrills from stage productions. Here are excerpts from three contemporary reviews of a popular mystery play of the time:
WRITERS of detective stories, whether for the stage or in the form of a novel, would be well advised to stick to the general principle that in this type action, mental and physical, is all-important. . . . The general public has apparently made up its mind that this is an artificial genre manufactured for the express purpose of sharpening its wits. — F., "Reviews of Plays: The Barton Mystery," THE NATION (October 25, 1917)
One of the most difficult feats of juggling is, I understand, the deft tossing up and catching of a heavy weight (say a dumb-bell), a very light weight, such as a champagne cork, together with any old thing of irregular shape, a bedroom candlestick, for instance. Mr. Walter Hackett's The Barton Mystery is a most ingenious turn of this sort.
The fiancé of the sister of the wife of Richard Standish, M.P., is under sentence of death for the murder of Mr. Barton. He happens to be innocent, though he admits at the trial that he quarrelled violently with and even threatened Barton on the night of the murder, and his revolver has been found by the dead man's side. That vindictive relict, Mrs. Barton, is holding back some material evidence which could save the condemned man, or so Standish thinks, and she is adamant. Now Barton was unquestionably a bad egg, but the widow doesn't want the whole world to know it—at least not till she finds the woman. Some woman, who had incidentally written some, shall we say, very impetuous love letters, is being shielded. Who is she? Is it Standish's wife, for instance? Ah!. . . This is the dumb-bell. — From PUNCH (March 29, 1916; scroll down to more than halfway)
It is a play which gives frequent evidence of a deft touch, but it is, on the whole, so episodic and loosely knit that the effect of its mystery is constantly spending itself before it can become cumulative.  . . . The unraveling of the mystery is done with not a little ingenuity, and suspicion is rather cleverly and convincingly thrown upon the wrong person. — THE NEW YORK TIMES (October 15, 1917)
The Barton Mystery was filmed in 1920, 1932, and (in France) in 1949.
Another popular mystery play of the period is mentioned in THE NATION article, The Thirteenth Chairfilmed in 1919, 1929, 1937, 1953 and '54 (both for American TV), and 1980 (Spanish TV). The play itself is online HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"This Is an Experiment in a Branch of His Art That Mr. Mason Has Not Attempted Before"

AT THE VILLA ROSE.
By A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948).
Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.
1910. 311 pages.
Online HERE.
. . . although Mr. Mason usually employs his talents in more serious work, he quite understands the rules of the game; and while he obeys them, even to the extent of introducing the real criminal in rather close proximity to the opening page, he keeps the reader groping quite helplessly through pretty near two-thirds of the volume—and as detective stories go nowadays, this is rather ample praise. — Frederic Taber Cooper
In a profile article of A. E. W. Mason, the author announces the new direction Mason's fiction will take—into detective fiction:
. . . In his newest novel, Mr. Mason makes yet another departure.
"At the Villa Rose" is a thrilling romance of mystery and imagination such as one associates with the genius of Poe. Cunning use is made in it of a bogus spiritualistic seance to heighten the strange terror of the crime that is hidden at the heart of the mystery; and Mr. Mason draws his characters with a skill and insight that give probability and verisimilitude to his plot.
Even his astute detective is not one of the machine-made specimens of popular sensational fiction; and the reader is thrown off the scent by such a boldly original device that it is safe to say his suspicions will not fall on the guilty man till the labours of the detective have sufficiently unmasked him.
This is an experiment in a branch of his art that Mr. Mason has not attempted before, and a wholly successful experiment that without challenging comparison with either of his other books is as cleverly handled and makes in its different kind as good reading as any of them. — A. St. John Adcock, "A.E.W. Mason," THE BOOKMAN (October 1910; from page 42)
AT THE VILLA ROSE would be the first of six novels featuring Inspector Hanaud, all of which are beautifully reproduced on Project Gutenberg Australia HERE.

Resources:
- Four contemporary reviews of AT THE VILLA ROSE can be found HERE, HERE, HERE [go to page 392, middle bottom], and HERE [go to page 296, top left].
- For a different take on Mason, see Mike Grost's article HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Monday, May 19, 2014

"The Whole Sherlock Holmes Saga Is a Triumphant Illustration of Art's Supremacy Over Life"

Christopher Morley (1890-1957), Holmesian par excellence, published his own highly individualistic obituary of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), who had just passed away July 7th of that year. A few excerpts:
[Concerning all of the untold adventures to which Watson alludes] We hoped against hope for some of these stories; we can never have them now.
It is not that we take our blessed Sherlock too seriously . . . Holmes is pure anesthesia.
Rashly, in the later years, Holmes twice undertook to write stories for himself. They have not quite the same magic.
It is a kind of piety for even the least and humblest of Holmes-lovers to pay what tribute he may to this great encyclopædia of romance that has given the world so much innocent pleasure.
The character of Holmes, Doyle has told us, was at any rate partly suggested by his student memories of Dr. Joseph Bell of the Edinburgh Infirmary, who diagnostic intuitions used to startle his patients and pupils. But there was abundant evidence that the invention of the scientific detective conformed to a fundamental logic in Doyle's own temper. — Christopher Morley, "In Memoriam: Sherlock Holmes," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (August 2, 1930)


Category: Detective fiction

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"The Spectator Really Cares Very Little Whether A Was Murdered by B or by X, As Long As He Got Murdered by Somebody"

In a piece by Edmund Pearson (1880-1937), a true crime expert, published just after Philo Vance had burst upon the scene like an artillery shell (or, some would insist, a stink bomb), he expresses both favorable and unflattering ideas about detective fiction in general and Van Dine's The "Canary" Murder Case and Connington's Murder in the Maze in particular. 
A few excerpts:
THE best moment in a play, if we believe the followers of the crook drama, is when somebody, perhaps the butler, sits down at the telephone with an unusually serious face, takes the receiver from the hook, and remarks in a low, tense voice:
"Spring, Three One Hundred."
For this, as every New Yorker knows or is supposed to know, is the number of Police Headquarters.
The master has been found lying on the floor of the library, with a bullet wound through his heart and a pearl-handled revolver by his side. He had a stormy interview last night with his about-to-be-disinherited nephew; or else the handsome young man who wishes to marry his daughter and heiress, Yvonne, has been muttering threats against the old gentleman.
In the eyes of all experienced theater-goers things look very bright and fair for both these young men, for, as they very well know, the murder may have been committed by the butler himself, or by the winsome Yvonne, or even by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has been seen lurking on the neighboring Long Island estate during the past day or two. But never, by any conceivable chance, did either of the young men do the deed, although the revolver belongs to one of them, and the finger prints of both are all over it.
. . . My objection to nine out of ten of them [mysteries] is the same for both plays and books. The writer does not take enough care to make his characters interesting; he plants too many false clues, and his plot is almost invariably too complicated.
. . . As the victim turns out to be a scoundrel, the spectator really cares very little whether A was murdered by B or by X, as long as he got murdered by somebody. Nobody on the stage behaves like a human being for three minutes together, and if at the final curtain any one in the audience has discovered what has emerged from this welter, he is far cleverer than I am.
. . . With the novelists the situation is much the same [as with the playwrights]. There are too many suspicious characters, inserted merely to confuse the reader; too great a complication of plot and an over-emphasis on mechanical tricks and appliances. The mysterious and baffling murders of real life have been simple in plot and personnel. The boldness of the perpetrator, and his ability to keep his own counsel, are what have usually made them mysterious and interesting.
. . . at the end of the book many novelists weaken . . . and let him [the murderer] commit suicide or otherwise cheat the hangman. Mr. Chesterton, in his stories about Father Brown, is perhaps the worst in this respect, since his homicidal ruffians seem to escape with no punishment other than a long talk with the reverend Father. This is treating murder as if it were an offense about on a par with being late to school.
[Philo] Vance is very nearly the most insufferable ass whom I have ever met in the pages of a novel. Any man who met him in a club would instantly get up and seek refuge in another room.
He is a diletantte, a flaneur, a poseur, a viveur, and if you can think of any other foreign terms, he is all of them to boot. He talks like a high school girl during her first year in studying French.
. . . The irritating personality of Vance is almost the only weak point in the book [The "Canary" Murder Case]. Its strength lies in the fact that it combines the deductive methods of Dupin or Holmes, with the actual methods which are used by the police everywhere.
 . . . Murder in the Maze is as typically English as the other [The "Canary" Murder Case] is American. It is a rural-English-countryside-garden crime, instead of one reeking of Broadway and the Roaring Forties.
A double murder in a maze or labyrinth is a good beginning, and the method of these murders is novel without being so impossible as to be denounced by Mr. Connington's compatriots as a bit thick. There is in this story no amateur detective making monkeys out of the regular police, but instead the Chief Constable himself from Scotland Yard, playing a lone hand with no amateur reasoner as his rival. — Edmund Pearson, "Spring, Three One Hundred," THE OUTLOOK (August 3, 1927)
Resources:
- THE "CANARY" MURDER CASE is online HERE.
- Patrick has a review of MURDER IN THE MAZE on his weblog HERE, as does Les Blatt HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Case of the Navel-gazing Detectives

Sherlock, Monk, and House have more than just an interest in detection in common. Excerpts:
. . . No, making a character immature and beset by personality problems hardly distinguishes a crime drama today. Creating a mature and sensible protagonist would be the truly trailblazing course today.
In this respect, the Holmes of Elementary is very unlike the original. Doyle's Holmes was not self-absorbed or immature. He was intensely interested in others, if only as sometimes rather abstract pieces in the grand puzzle that is the world of human relations. His withdrawal into himself on regular occasions was in the service of concentrating his faculties on the problems before him—it was in service of others, then. The self-absorption of the Holmes in Elementary, by contrast, is of the common contemporary type: modern adolescent narcissism. — S. T. Karnick, THE AMERICAN CULTURE (November 1, 2012)


Category: Detective fiction

"The Detective Story Is Only a Game"

G. K. Chesterton once wrote an article called "How to Write a Detective Story" (1925); along the way, GKC over-modestly denies he ever wrote detective stories.

It was reprinted in BESTSELLER MYSTERY MAGAZINE (March 1960), from which come these brief excerpts:
For the detective story is only a game; and in that game the reader is not really wrestling with the criminal but with the author.
Now some literary detectives make the solution more complicated than the mystery, and the crime almost more complicated than the solution. The explanation is something like this: "The vicar's first curate did indeed intend to murder him and loaded and then lost his pistol, which was picked up by the second curate and placed on a particular shelf in the vestry to incriminate the third curate, who had a long and lingering love affair with the niece of the organist, who is not really the niece of the organist but the long-lost daughter of the vicar; the organist, being in love with his ward, transfers the pistol to the coat pocket of the second curate, but the coat is accidentally put on by the first curate, who pulls out the pistol in mistake for a pocket handkerchief, and the vicar mistaking him for the real owner of the coat (who had done him a deep and complicated injury twenty years ago in Port Said) rushes furiously upon him (the pronouns are getting mixed like everything else) so that the holder of the pistol (whoever he may be by this time) is forced to fire in self-defense and the vicar falls dead."
A great part of the craft of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime.
. . . in the classification of the arts, mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes.
Resources:
- A short essay, "Chesterton on Detective Fiction," is HERE.
- A previous ONTOS article concerning GKC's ideas about mysteries is HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Art and Commerce

Art and commerce are not irreconcilable, they are inextricably intertwined. — Nicholas Meyer
When you're hot, as they say, you're hot; for the cousins better known as "Ellery Queen," being at the time a household word brought cash as well as fame. Here they are usually sharing space with other mystery writers in several back issues of LIFE magazine:

~ In a feature article, November 22, 1943, beginning on page 70 [WARNING: SPOILERS].

~ In a Detective Book Club ad, October 29, 1945, on page 5.

~ In a Dollar Mystery Guild ad, January 3, 1949, on page 11.

~ Another Dollar Mystery Guild ad, August 8, 1949, on page 3.

~ And in a beer ad, April 14, 1952, on pages 62-63.

Category: Detective fiction

Friday, May 9, 2014

"An Engaging If Curious Genre Hybrid"

SPACEWAYS.
Hammer Films/Lippert Pictures.
1953. 74 minutes.
"Is this the perfect crime?"
Murder on the Final Frontier:
An engaging if curious genre hybrid, this is a patchwork movie combining Cold War espionage, a murder mystery and two love triangles in a science fiction setting—and all on the tightest of budgets. Unpretentious and fun . . .  — Sergio, TIPPING MY FEDORA (2 October 2012)
Howard Duff plays an American scientist involved with the British space program (they actually had one of those, once). His wife is having an affair with another scientist (Andrew Osborn) who is also a spy. When both wife and lover disappear, an investigator (Alan Wheatley) suspects Duff of murdering them and disposing of the bodies by placing them in a new satellite which is sent into orbit!
There's only one way Duff can clear himself: blast off in a rocket, retrieve the satellite, and bring it back for inspection. He takes Eva Bartok (heroine of The Crimson Pirate) with him.
I won't divulge the ending, but it is a twist. The film's slow pace lessens the tension, and the special effects consist largely of stock footage and a few scenes cribbed from Rocketship X-M. Definitely a case of the poster being far better than the movie—but what a poster! — Bruce Cook, IMDb

Category: Science fiction, Spy fiction, Detective fiction

"Literary Fads and Fashions Pass—The Detective Story Is a Constant"

A most entertaining sally by Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943), a litterateur who, like so many of his breed, had a taste for the guilty pleasures of detective fiction. A few excerpts:
WHENEVER the body of Herman Overcoat, the prominent millionaire, is discovered in the hermetically sealed chamber with a mysterious eggbeater through its œsophagus, or a single shot rings out above the merriment of the English house party and Lady Diana Milkshake turns light mauve as the butler announces with horror in his tones that something strange must 'ave 'appened to the Master, life begins to take on a livelier and brighter tinge for most of us. Even literary critics are perfectly willing to put the latest Siamese masterpiece back in the refrigerator for a while until the mystery of who secreted the star sapphires in the old family retainer has been satisfactorily solved. It was not always thus.
As in the case of the more baneful drugs, the confirmed [detective story] addict can recognize a fellow addict almost at a glance—and when, out of a large and noisy party, two highly incompatible people sit for hours engrossed in quiet talk, oblivious of the revelry, it is quite probable that they are by no means discussing what you think they are but merely swapping conclusions as to whether Mrs. Rinehart's The Red Lamp has quite the same fine frenzy as The Man in Lower Ten or—eternal question—whether Holmes will ever return to Baker Street.
There is not only a body of the reading public which reads detective stories constantly—there is a considerable body which seems to read nothing else.
Literary fads and fashions pass—the detective story is a constant.
That is one of the refreshing things about the detective story—it does not make for conversational bunk. And, as far as detective stories are concerned, that pest of the world, the lackadaisical reader, does not exist.
There were good detective stories before Holmes, there have been good detective stories after him—but it seems only just to say that no single character so completely dominates a subsection of literature. I revere Dupin and admire Lecoq—Nick Carter, Rouletabille, Randolph Mason, Lord Peter Wimsey, Max Carrados, Inspector Furneaux, have their several places in my affection—but Holmes is the master, after all, and the assiduous attempts of various other detective story writers to make their sleuths as unlike Holmes as possible have only succeeded, in general, in making them rather more like him than ever, except in the region of the intelligence. Of course there are exceptions—Father Brown is one—but then almost any character of Mr. Chesterton's should be an exception to practically any rule.
I am merely offering the suggestion that the average reader sometimes has a certain appetite for plot, physical excitement, and definite villainy not entirely satisfied by the best of the modern novels and that, in the detective story, he finds all these things in full measure.
. . . in the average detective story an ingenious complication will carry a deal of crude writing as long as the narrative thread is direct and clear.
Elaborate descriptions of nature, tenuous states of thought, involved psychological processes, love scenes (except of the briefest and most conventional description), are not for him [the average detective story author]. Ingenuity, adroitness, deception, the ability to tell an exciting, straightforward tale—these are his tools.
Father Brown is one of the few modern detectives who never remind one of Holmes, and there is at least one moment in his adventures quite as good as the discovery of the footprints of the hound in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
[Milne's The Red House Mystery is] a freak exhibit—strictly speaking, the detective story should not be sullied with humor . . .
The days of uncertainty and dubiety for the [detective story] industry are over—the detective story is as firmly established in our national consciousness as toothpaste, B.V.D.'s, and the Spirit of Rotary.
. . . when all is said and done, murder is the backbone of the detective story. Kidnaping, stolen jewels, arson, piracy, mayhem—they are all very well in their way, but there is something about a good satisfactory murder that makes them seem trifling. For preference an English murder (though again, I am not particular). — Stephen Vincent Benét, "Bigger and Better Murders," THE BOOKMAN (May 1926)
Benét notes that there are a few "unnecessary excrescences" in mystery stories, and he concludes his article with "an avowedly personal list of pet abhorrences too often present in [my] favorite literary pablum."

Category: Detective fiction

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"We Always Arrest the Butler, Mr. Kent. They Expect It"

Here are snippets from a hair-raising tale of detective derring-do:
"Now, then," continued Kent, "what about tracks, foot-marks? Had you thought of them?"
"Yes, first thing. The whole lawn is covered with them, all stamped down. Look at these, for instance. These are the tracks of a man with a wooden leg"—Kent nodded—"in all probability a sailor, newly landed from Java, carrying a Singapore walking-stick, and with a tin-whistle tied round his belt."
"Yes, I see that," said Kent thoughtfully. "The weight of the whistle weighs him down a little on the right side."
"Do you think, Mr. Kent, a sailor from Java with a wooden leg would commit a murder like this?" asked the Inspector eagerly. "Would he do it?"
"He would," said the Investigator. "They generally do—as soon as they land."
If your interest has been aroused (if not your suspicions), then read the whole yarn HERE and about the author HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"A Factor in Bringing about the Depression Era Renaissance of the Mystery Story"

THE OMNIBUS OF CRIME.
Edited by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957).
Payson & Clarke.
1929. 1177 pages. $3.00
Anthology: 62 stories.
Two contemporary and one not-so-contemporary reviews:
It has always been our belief that the reviewer should read the books he criticizes, if only for the purpose of avoiding being himself severely criticized by author and publisher.
But we admit frankly that we haven't read all the 1200 pages of this tome. Here are 62 short and long-short stories—half of them tales of detection and mystery, half of mystery and horror—selected by Dorothy L. Sayers—who is herself a most competent writer of the same.
She writes also an interesting introduction, showing the why and how of this form of fiction, which, if you are an addict, should provide you with a well reasoned apology. If you feel the need of one. Personally we don't. We have read and enjoyed mystery and horror for years, and the faint air of apology with which people show the title of a detective story when asked what they are reading seems to us an affectation, and a confession of the most poisonous form of pseudo-intellectual snobbism.
Personally, if the old "What single book for a desert isle" question was asked us at this moment, we should promptly choose this one. It's not only the best selection we've ever seen; it is, we believe, the best selection possible. — Walter R. Brooks, "The Week's Reading," THE OUTLOOK (September 11, 1929; Jump To page 70, center)
There are sixty-two detective stories here, representing every form of the art. Among the authors included are Poe, Conan Doyle, Eden Phillpotts, G. K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, Mrs. Oliphant, Charles Dickens, Robert Hichens, Arthur Machen, Sax Rohmer, Ambrose Bierce, Jerome K. Jerome, R. L. Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, May Sinclair, Walter de la Mare, Edward Lucas White and H. G. Wells. The introduction by the editor is a brief survey of the history of detective fiction. — "Checklist of New Books," THE AMERICAN MERCURY (October 1929; Jump To page 96, top left)
The book was reissued about thirty years later:

THE OMNIBUS OF CRIME.
Edited by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) .
Harcourt, Brace & World.
1961. 920 pages. $4.95
Anthology: 62 stories.
First issued in 1929, this jumbo of an anthology (920 pp.) was a factor in bringing about the Depression era renaissance of the mystery story; contents run from the Apocrypha to H. G. Wells; editor's introduction is fine historical survey of field. Welcome back! — Sergeant Cuff, "Criminal Brief," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (May 27, 1961)
Resources:
- Sayers's famous introduction to THE OMNIBUS has been reproduced (rather poorly) as a PDF HERE.
- Her introduction to THE SECOND OMNIBUS OF CRIME is HERE [Jump To page 5].
- Mike Ripley assesses Sayers as a detective fiction critic HERE.
- Sayers's story "The Man Who Knew How" is HERE.

Category: Detective fiction