Monday, April 23, 2018

Miscellaneous Monday—Number Twenty-eight

"A Very British Crime Wave: Detective Stories Captured the Imaginations of the British Middle Classes in the 20th Century."
By William D. Rubenstein.
First appearance: History Today, December 1, 2010.
Article (6 pages as a PDF).
Online at The Free Library (HERE).
(Note: SPOILERS for Chesterton's "The Invisible Man.")

As you can see from the title, our author's premise is that the huge popularity of the detective story in England during the first half of the last century, followed by its decline, can be regarded as an identifiable characteristic of Britain's middle class, and that the rise and fall of detective fiction in England parallels the rise and fall of Great Britain as both a world power and a moral force.
   "Between around 1910 and 1950 England was in the grip of a genteel crime wave; a seemingly endless output of murder mysteries, generally set among the upper and upper middle classes and usually solved by a brilliant amateur detective rather than by the police. They were read enthusiastically and with an insatiable appetite by British middle-class readers. The 'golden age' of the English detective story during this span of 40 years or so is an important and often overlooked feature of English popular culture, as significant in its way as the dance bands and the early BBC."
  As most of you know, the modern mystery was not a British invention, but it did find a home in England's fecund cultural soil:
   "Despite these American and French origins, it was to England that detective fiction migrated, took root and flourished, becoming a characteristically British genre."
  And what detective could be more "characteristically British" than the Sage of Baker Street:
   "Most of the Holmes stories are set among the higher levels of Victorian and Edwardian society, a world inhabited by professional men, retired army officers and country gentlemen as well as members of royalty and cabinet ministers. Few take place among the working classes or the very poor. This situation is the precise opposite of the actual occurrence of criminality, which is overwhelmingly fanned by poverty, alcohol, gangs and domestic violence, sometimes accompanied by examples of brutal thuggery, as subtle or mysterious as a punch in the nose."

Artwork by Natasa Ilincic
  Of course, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Conan Doyle might have had trouble trying not to gloat secretly over the sheer abundance of his imitators:
   "The generation following Holmes saw the appearance of many other landmarks in English detective fiction building on the Holmesian model: the eccentric or unusual private investigator; an extremely ingenious solution to the crime which was, normally, situated in the top levels of society; they are often accompanied by a 'Watson' as foil. . . the two decades after the First World War comprised the 'golden age' of the pure English detective novel and short story."
  At some point every movement reaches its peak of development; our author thinks he can pinpoint when it happened in British sleuth fiction:
   "The Poirot books and those centred on Christie's other famous sleuth, Miss Marple, represented the zenith of the classical English detective story, usually demonstrating such features as the unmasking of the 'least likely person' as the villain: the final set-piece when the suspects are all gathered in one room and the detective reveals the perpetrator and endless varieties of ingenious, sometimes brilliant sleight-of-hand by the criminal—although never brilliant enough to fool the master-detective."
  But then came the Second World War and its aftermath:
   "Until the 1950s explicit sex and gratuitous, sadistic violence were largely absent from detective fiction, which revolved around the ingenious solution of a fairly-presented puzzle. The villain never got away with it and was always revealed and punished, the only exception being when he committed suicide to avoid capture. The crime was also committed for a rational motive and was never the work of a psychopath. Equally, the rational solution of a puzzle, the more seemingly mysterious the better, was the detective novel's raison d'etre."
  Fame is fleeting, as the toilers in the fields of detective fiction learned to their dismay:
   "In the two or three decades following the First World War, there were literally dozens of outstanding detective writers who are today, sadly, known only to enthusiasts."
". . . known only to enthusiasts."
  But when things were going well these same writers knew they could rely on a ready and avid readership:
   "Such works formed a major component of middle-class culture in Britain at the time: for every person who read T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf, probably 50 more read Agatha Christie and double that number Conan Doyle."
  While many detective fiction writers between the world wars were leftists, socialists, or even outright communists, nevertheless . . .
   ". . . everything they wrote within the genre is almost Tory by definition, upholding a firm belief that established society would punish its evil-doers who deserved punishment regardless of their circumstances."
  For some reason—or maybe a multitude of reasons—sleuth fiction was primarily an Anglophonic affair:
   "Yet the 'classical detective story' found few real echoes outside the English-speaking world."
  James Bond and his ilk were waiting in the wings for their big chance:
   "By around 1960, the classical English detective story was in serious decline and today the genre no longer exists, at least in its old form."
   "The best-known living crime fiction writers generally eschew private detectives for police inspectors and straightforward puzzles for stories with twists at every turn. A relaxation of attitudes regarding overt depictions of sex and violence have proved too tempting to most authors. Also, detective writers simply ran out of ingenious plots and puzzles to solve."
  In conclusion:
   "Crime fiction has evolved during the past century from a demure celebration of rationality to the polar opposite position. Arguably this mirrors the transformation of British society as a whole."

Typos: "Marie Roger"; "Vincent Sterrett"; "sinister lews disappeared"; "ED. ]ames".

- A close comparison of this article with George Orwell's (1903-50) ideas about crime fiction, "Raffles and Miss Blandish" (1944; HERE; SPOILERS) and "Decline of the English Murder" (1946; HERE; SPOILERS), should prove most enlightening:
   "It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahog-any-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
   "Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder? If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public, the murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels and re-hashed over and
over again by the Sunday papers, one finds a fairly strong family resem-
blance running through the greater number of them."

Friday, April 20, 2018

"He Said He Was Sure Glad His Kid Wasn't a Detective-story Fan"

"Lone Bandit."
By Dennis Wiegand (?-?).
First appearance: Astounding Science Fiction, June 1954.
Short short story (8 pages).
Online at (HERE).

"The autopsy report shows the guy was so full of lead it must have taken four men to carry him on a stretcher out of his shack."
Is a man or a Martian responsible for these crimes? While somebody, referred to in the
press as the Lone Bandit, is knocking over banks with the greatest of ease, a large cast
of characters struggles to cope with that mind-boggling, whiz-bang piece of technology
the Bandit is using to make his "withdrawals"; in the final analysis, it's the kind of
conundrum only a kid addicted to TV space operas could solve . . .
- FictionMags credits Dennis Wiegand with only three SFF stories, the remainder being almost entirely detective fiction.

The bottom line:
   "Maximum setting. If you had fired, you'd have vaporized me."
   "It's my first ray gun."
   — Somewhere on the Final Frontier


Thursday, April 19, 2018

"I Can't Electrocute a Clew!"

"The Frame Up."
By Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916).
First appearance: Metropolitan, August 1915.
Novelette (13 pages as a PDF).
Online at Project Gutenberg (HERE).

"If their object was to lead him into a trap, of all baits they might use the promise to tell him who killed Banf was the one certain to attract him. It made their invita-tion to walk into the parlor almost too obvious."
For an acrobat, walking a wobbly tightrope isn't easy; for District Attorney Wharton—up for re-election, hamstrung by an irresponsible brother-in-law, and hounded by political enemies just waiting for a chance to discredit him—walking a tightrope would, in comparison, be a piece of cake . . .

Comment: Our author seems to be besotted with the inverted sentence; in other words, with the inverted sentence our author seems to be besotted.

Typo: "it [?] an air of peaceful inactivity" [missing a verb]; "George, the water" [waiter].

- Few school children have escaped hearing about the infamous Tammany Hall, but if you're a little hazy on the subject see Wikipedia (HERE).

- Richard Harding Davis did more than write fiction, as Wikipedia attests (HERE):
   ". . . [being] an American journalist and writer of fiction and drama, known foremost as the first American war correspondent to cover the Spanish–American War, the Second Boer War, and the First World War. His writing greatly assisted the political career of Theodore Roosevelt. He also played a major role in the evolution of the American magazine. His influence extended to the world of fashion, and he is credited with making the clean-shaven look popular among men at the turn of the 20th century."

- Davis is primarily associated with "yellow journalism"; see the PBS page (HERE).
- Project Gutenberg has fifty titles by Davis in their library beginning (HERE).
- The IMDb (HERE) lists 58 film and TV adaptations of Davis's works from 1910 to 1968.

The bottom line: "The king! I thought he was philosopher enough to allow that there was no murder in politics. In politics, my dear fellow, you know, as well as I do, there are no men, but ideas—no feelings, but interests; in politics we do not kill a man, we only remove an obstacle, that is all.”
  ― Alexandre Dumas (père)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"What’s the Proposition—You Want Somebody Knocked Off?"

"It's a Cinch!"
By Jordan Cole (?-?).
First appearance: Secret Agent X, November 1934.
Short short short story (2 pages).
Online at Pulpgen (HERE).

"He recently pulled a heavy job—about two hundred thousand dollars in cold cash, and he gave her the money to hide for him."
Two hundred G's can buy an awful lot of doublecross . . .

The conferees:
~ Malthus:

  ". . .  was handsome, without doubt; handsome in a weak sort of way, which was why the women liked him. There was a little sweat now on his well modeled face; his shifty little eyes darted around the office, awestruck."

~ Ringler:
  ". . .  massive, wide shouldered, with a huge thatch of red hair, a battered nose and a square chin, sat behind the desk and scowled . . ."

- The only other story credited to Jordan Cole by FictionMags is "Silenced Partner," Secret Agent X, December 1934, which is not to be confused with G. Fleming-Roberts's "The Silenced Partner" (1933).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"He Was Willing to Take a Risk"

"Death by Radio."
By Edward Podolsky (?-?).
First appearance: Amazing Stories, December 1932.
Short short short story (3 pages).
Online at (HERE).
(Note: Text is faded.)

"Van Sicklen evidently did not want this note-book to reveal its contents to anyone, for he had taken special pains to lock it away where it would not ordinarily be found."
A knotty problem manifests itself when a scientist, alone at the time, dies of hydrocyanic gas poisoning in what could be described as a hermetically-sealed room:
   "How had the cyanogen gained entrance to the laboratory when there had been no means of it doing so. The windows had been barred, the door did not have the conventional keyhole. The room was made sound-proof, and was almost air-tight; there were no crevices or other means by which the gas may have seeped in from the outside. There was nothing within the room, no chemical compounds, which by being mixed would react to give off any cyanogen compound. And yet this was the gas by which Van Sicklen had come to his death."

Comment: Starting out as he does with a really great locked room premise, our author could have presented us with a nicely turned out puzzler, but didn't.
- The only things we know for sure about Edward Podolsky—and that's not much—are to be found on the Internet Science Fiction Database (HERE).
- Our author could well be the Edward Podolsky, M.D., who wrote a non-fiction article for The American Mercury about "The Radio Knife" (HERE; PDF).
- Some of the science in this story has a suspicious aroma about it; even so, there could be something to the whole idea after all—see the Quora Q & A (HERE).
We have no idea what this man is doing, but it's interesting, isn't it?

Monday, April 16, 2018

Miscellaneous Monday—Number Twenty-seven

IF AFTER NINETY-TWO YEARS you still haven't read or learned about the Big Reveal in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), then we recommend you avoid Davis's article until you do; however, it won't be necessary to do that with the following posting, because we always endeavor to avoid plot spoilers.

"Playing by the Rules."
By J. Madison Davis.
First appearance: World Literature Today, May 1, 2015.
Critical article (3 pages as a PDF).
Online at The Free Library (HERE).

"All writers invent within the contexts of their genres and times, but those who cannot reach beyond them are only good for a laugh."
  If there were ever any immutable rules for writing detective fiction, you can bet they've been violated by now:
   "Writers are a classroom of rude boys, ready to chuck spitballs and erupt with razzberries as soon as the teacher turns to the blackboard. Tell them they must follow a set of instructions and they will immediately think of ways to undermine and oppose it. The number of articles and books instructing us how to write a mystery is legion, and when these proscribe one thing or another, an imaginative writer's immediate thought is of how to subvert the rule and still produce something dazzling."

  As for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:
   "The kerfuffle that resulted from this trick—not to mention her mysterious disappearance that same year—helped make Christie one of the most famous writers in the world and, ultimately, the best-selling novelist of all time. Christie was never averse to manipulating readers' expectations."

"Yes, Mr. Wilson, it is pointless. What is your point?"
  Ackroyd also served to disturb that sense of complacency into which the detective fiction "industry" had settled:
   "That there is a controversy at all, however, implies that a mutual conspiracy of publishers, authors, and readers has created a set of rules that crime novels are obligated to obey. The existence of a genre implies a set of expectations in readers. Writers, by inclination or with an eye toward economic well-being, are usually happy to accommodate it. 'If you have any comments,' Erie Stanley Gardner once told an editor, 'write them on the back of a check.'"
  Not even that formidable array of writers who comprised The Detection Club felt any strong obligation to follow their own rules, especially if the opportunity to contrive "something dazzling" should present itself:
   "Behind the mock seriousness of the rules, the masters are sniggering at inferiors who resort to any obvious, and often ludicrous, device to get them-selves out of a corner. The Detection Club, after all, was a supper club for highly talented people with a similar vocation who would share tips, perhaps offer suggestions to one another, try out ideas, and laugh about particularly hideous examples they had encountered. Writers like to hang out with writers like cops like to hang out with cops.
   "It is extraordinary, however, that Christie or one of the others was threat-en
ed with expulsion because she had violated some part of the oath or the 'Ten Commandments' composed by member Ronald Knox. Try to imagine
them giving Agatha Christie the boot!"
  Despite the passage of a turbulent century in which the hardboiled school has dominated the mystery field with an unbecoming arrogance, however, the traditional mystery is never-theless still with us, dei gratia, and enjoying something of a renaissance:
   "Much of the pleasure of the traditional mystery is that it is a game of playing 'catch me if you can' with the author. Many times it isn't really about crime or its consequences, or even about character, but rather the comfortable pattern of the form. In many ways, the genre is an improvisational game . . ."

- The GAD Wiki has info about The Detection Club (HERE); you can also find Father Knox's "Ten Commandments" on, for instance, Wikipedia (HERE).
- Our previous Miscellaneous Monday, which was about Edmund Pearson's "Vanishing Favorites," can be found (HERE), while the last time we saw J. Madison Davis was (HERE).


Friday, April 13, 2018

"None of This Plays Fair with the Reader"

Snippet from an interview with Ron Goulart (born 1933).
Amazing Stories, August 1980.
Interview with Darrell Schweitzer (born 1952) begins (HERE); relevant passage (HERE) reproduced below.

When two literary genres mix, the result can be a pleasant medley or a deplorable mess. As we've discovered since we started this weblog, science fiction and mystery are often joined (or, conversely, mashed together); in our postings, we usually leave it up to you to decide how successful such a "marriage" is. SFF pro Ron Goulart has been working both sides of that street and briefly comments on his experiences:

   Goulart: "I’m very fascinated with the mechanics of suspense and mystery, so I tend to mix them with science fiction, even though I’ve had editors annoyed with it. Asimov does that, and Fredric Brown did it in the past, producing science fiction detective stories, or mysteries with fantasy elements. Again, none of this plays fair with the reader, I guess, which
is why there is some annoyance from some circles."
   Schweitzer: "A mystery with fantasy elements should be fiendishly difficult to do, but a science fiction mystery shouldn’t be too hard, as I see it, as long as you state your premises ahead of time instead of suddenly coming into the locked room through the fourth dimension."
   Goulart: "I’ve never done anything like that. I've always followed the rules, but I get the feeling that sometimes there is a certain kind of reader who wants a mystery to be a mystery and a science fiction novel to be a science fiction novel and deliver certain ingredients."

- There's a lot of information on the Interwobblie about Ron Goulart: Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), the ISFDb (HERE), and the IMDb (HERE).
- A few years back Crippen & Landru (HERE and HERE) published Adam and Eve on a Raft (2001), a collection of Goulart's short mystery fiction.
- He's also written a detective fiction series starring Groucho Marx . . .
  1. Groucho Marx, Master Detective (1998)

  2. Groucho Marx, Private Eye (1999)
  3. Elementary, My Dear Groucho (1999)
  4. Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders (2001)
  5. Groucho Marx, Secret Agent (2002)
  6. Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle (2005)

. . . as well as the John Easy California P.I. series, about which Kevin Burton Smith admits his surprise at "how convincingly he pulls off the Chandleresque tone and the Ross Macdonald sensibility" (HERE):
  1. If Dying Was All (1971)
  2. Too Sweet to Die (1972)
  3. The Same Lie Twice (1973)
  4. One Grave Too Many (1974).

Artwork by Robert Odegnál