Saturday, November 30, 2013

"The Most Odious of Yarns"

When done right, "impossible crime" stories can't be beat, even when there's not much bang-bang action going on:
For me, the most satisfying mystery fiction is that of the "impossible-crime" variety. You have probably heard of the type, and perhaps even enjoyed some yourself. The corpse found in a room that was locked from the inside and watched by witnesses at the time when the murder must have happened. The body found on a snowy field, where the killing clearly took place, but there are no footprints around it. The train that disappears between two stations. An entire house that vanishes overnight, then reappears, then disappears again.
What an impossible-crime mystery is, of course, is simply the ultimate kind of puzzle. Not only do we and the police and primary detective not know whodunit, we don't even know how it was done or even how it could have been done. For those who prefer the intellectual puzzle form of mystery (as opposed to the action orientation common to police procedurals, private-eye fiction, serial-killer fare, and the like), the impossible crime is the ne plus ultra of mind-challenging aesthetic pleasure. For those who favor action mysteries, the impossible crime is among the most odious of yarns. — S. T. Karnick, "Jonathan Creek Comes to America," NRO, April 19, 2004.
The foremost practitioner of this type of story was, of course, John Dickson Carr:
The world of John Dickson Carr. A world where bodies are found alone in hermetically sealed rooms, or in houses surrounded by unmarked snow or sand; where damsels walk into country houses and vanish like smoke; where a businessman can dive into a swimming pool and disappear; where rooms, buildings, streets, even whole centuries seem to vanish. An eerie world, where ghosts, vampires, and evil magicians seem real. "Let there be a spice of terror," John Dickson Carr wrote, "of dark skies and evil things."
But in spite of the evil things, Carr did not write stories of supernatural horror. At the climax of almost every one of his books, his detective discovers that all the seeming impossibilities have been created by humans for human purposes. If the comparison is not stretched too far, Carr's detectives act almost like exorcists. They bid the demons be gone and reason is returned to the world. Or is it entirely? Sometimes the human motives are more terrifying than the supernatural . . . — Douglas G. Greene, "John Dickson Carr: Explaining the Inexplicable," MYSTERY NET [Note: Site seems to have disappeared.]
Film makers in droves have shied away from translating Carr's "seeming impossibilities" to the screen:
Carr's combination of eerie atmosphere, strong suggestions of the supernatural, young couples bickering their way to love, raucous humor, melodramatic writing style, and mind-bogglingly complex mystery puzzles has never been successfully brought to the visual media. . . Mystery puzzles as complex as Carr's are difficult to transfer to the cinema because the viewer cannot easily flip the pages back, metaphorically speaking, to review clues. That's a pity, because successful film treatments of book series typically help spur new readers to read the original tales. — Karnick, op. cit.
But movie makers have been content to present their own somewhat watered down versions of Carr. Case in point:
The impossible-crime genre is a difficult one to bring off, even in print, and Jonathan Creek does it very well. Each episode provides perceptive insights into human character and contemporary life, in addition to the fun of trying to outguess Jonathan (which is probably the most impossible thing about the show, as he is perfectly brilliant).
Of course, as in Carr's tales, the seemingly supernatural occurrences always have a rational explanation, which Jonathan divines after much investigation and deliberation. The police are quite out of their league here, of course, though typically portrayed as competent and decent. The solutions to the puzzles are always brilliantly worked out, and this is one of only a very, very few TV series that have specialized exclusively in solving impossible crimes. — Karnick, op. cit.

Category: Detective fiction

"So Many Guns Lately; So Few Brains"

By H. Beam Piper.
1953. 243 pages. $2.50
Known best for his science fiction, Piper had a fling at writing a whodunit and, by all accounts, made a good job of it:
I’m back this week again with H. Beam Piper, this time a locked room murder mystery featuring private eye “Colonel” Jefferson Davis Rand. He has a law degree, though he’d never practiced, going into the FBI instead for a few years before opening his agency. MURDER IN THE GUNROOM was published in 1953 and was his only mystery/crime novel. — Randy Johnson, NOT THE BASEBALL PITCHER (February 11, 2010)
The story rattles along entertainingly with a minimum of tough-guy posturing and romance, and the murderer remains genuinely in doubt until the final dramatic revelation. — Jon, GAD Wiki
Firearms collector plunked; Jeff Rand, expert, finds second corpse, solution. - Much skilled chatter about weapons, but yarn itself is nicely ordinary. - Verdict: Straight-forward. — Sergeant Cuff, THE SATURDAY REVIEW (April 18, 1953)
There's a comprehensive tribute site dedicated to Piper's work. MURDER IN THE GUNROOM seems to be in the public domain, available for free at PROJECT GUTENBERG, MANYBOOKS, and in a Kindle edition.

Category: Detective fiction

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Loquacious Inspector

By Michael Innes. Edited by John Cooper.
Crippen & Landru.
2010. 180 pages.
Collection: 18 short and short-short stories.
Microform Innes:
I haven’t read much by Innes, and my preference is for his short stories rather than the novels – an early sampling of the novels in my teens was a bit off-putting, though that was probably due to my lack of sophistication – but he was a major figure in the genre . . . — Martin Edwards, DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME? (9 March 2010)
Appleby was a 'new cop'—that is, a person of intelligence, tact, and intellectual interests. Some would say too much as he can be very obscure and obfuscatory. — Wyatt James, GAD Wiki
Innes mysteries frequently have a background of people in literature and the arts. In this they recall S. S. Van Dine and his followers in the United States, and such later British writers as Nicholas Blake and Margery Allingham. Innes' short stories tend to have puzzle plots that are solved through pure thinking: also in the "intuitionist" tradition embodied in the Van Dine School. — Mike Grost, A GUIDE TO CLASSIC MYSTERY AND DETECTION
Depending on 'how you like' your detectives Appleby's main character trait is either his greatest strength or weakness. The characteristic urbane and witty replies, literary flourishes and extensive quotations probably repel as many readers as they attract. — R. D. Collins, CLASSIC CRIME FICTION
Under the pseudonym of Michael Innes, Oxford don John Innes Macintosh Stewart (1906-1994) was a dominant figure in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, when the mystery story was an elegant and witty entertainment, when all the clues were given so that the reader (if quick-witted enough) could reach the solution at the same time as the detective. — CRIPPEN & LANDRU
[The stories] are clearly set in England, but in “the Town” and not “the Gown,” almost entirely in the 1950s, and nearly all of them tend to the anecdote. There are no blood and thunder, no angst, no major character development (except by inference). Since most of the stories run to five pages or so (and require about that many minutes to read), the emphasis is necessarily on the puzzle—although the reader will be hard-pressed to solve them himself due to Innes’ tendency to withhold essential facts. To appreciate these stories, simply sit back, let the author’s cleverness be revealed, and marvel at how he has compacted what lesser writers would need sixty times as much space to accomplish (indeed, some of the plots are wonderfully complicated and could easily have been attenuated to book length). — Mike Gray, THE AMERICAN CULTURE (June 16, 2010).
Story contents:

"A Small Peter Pry"
"The Author Changes His Style"
"The Perfect Murder"
"The Scattergood Emeralds"
"The Impressionist"
"The Secret in the Woodpile"
"The General's Wife is Blackmailed"
"Who Suspects the Postman?"
"A Change of Face"
"The Theft of the Downing Street Letter"
"The Tinted Diamonds"
"Jerry Does a Good Turn for the Djam"
"The Left-Handed Barber"
"The Party that Never Got Going"
"The Mystery of Paul's 'Posthumous' Portrait"
"The Inspector Feels the Draught"
"Pelly and Cullis"
"The Man Who Collected Satchels".

Category: Detective fiction

Shamrock Shamuses

By Eilís Dillon.
This author produced more than four dozen books, only six percent of which were detective novels:
Dillon was an extremely prolific author, but she only wrote three mysteries - which, based on the three that we do have seems to be a pity. There is a great deal of charm in the book, written with a great deal of warmth and humor by someone whose love of Ireland and the Irish people was quite evident in everything she wrote. — Les Blatt, CLASSIC MYSTERIES (March 8, 2010)
The Rue Morgue Press has a lengthy article about Dillon.

Other Dillon reviews:

Murder at posh Irish hostelry catering largely to elderly well-heeled gives nice local guards (cops to you) chance to do their stuff. Pleasantly exciting, with nice comic touches. — Sergeant Cuff, THE SATURDAY REVIEW (October 26, 1963)
When anonymous murder threats jolt president of Dublin university, he calls in retired Professor Daly, amateur peeper; Inspector Kenny also helpful. Pleasant academic razzle-dazzle. — Sergeant Cuff, THE SATURDAY REVIEW (June 30, 1962)

Category: Detective fiction

No Cheating Now

Take Sharon Wildwind's quiz (POE'S DEADLY DAUGHTERS, March 9, 2010). If you get just half of them right, you can call yourself a well-read Golden Age of Detection fiction expert:
We often forget is that Sherlock Holmes’ stories didn’t fill each and every issue of 'The Strand.' One of the reasons that Arthur Conan Doyle was so successful is that detective fiction, thrillers, and spy stories were immensely popular in Britain. Given below are a list of 17 authors who were as popular, or in some cases more popular than the residents of 221 B Baker Street.
How many of these authors can you match with the information given [here]?

Category: Detective fiction

Battle's Lost

By Agatha Christie.
Dodd, Mead.
1944. $2.00
For some incomprehensible reason Miss Marple solves it in the TV version (2007). Some folks liked that:
My expectations were low, but I resolved not to make too many comparisons with the original book, and in fact it proved to be an eminently watchable programme; Miss Marple fitted into it pretty well. — Martin Edwards, DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME? (16 March 2010). (Video for sale here.)
What's wrong with this picture?
With respect to Christie's original novel, here are some views excerpted from the GAD Wiki:
One of Christie's half-dozen best . . . The misdirection is superb . . . — Nicholas Fuller
The plot, brilliant as it is, is not what makes 'Towards Zero' so particular. The book's singularity lies in its construction . . . The least omniscient of Christie's detectives, Superintendent Battle's persona and methods are quite remote from Poirot's or Marple's. He is basically a pre-Golden Age figure and that part of the book reads like Christie visiting and paying tribute to her elders and betters, most notably A.E.W. Mason or even Gaboriau. — Xavier Lechard
Christie's TOWARDS ZERO is unusual in several respects, not the least being that it received two complete reviews in THE SATURDAY REVIEW. It must have been a slow mystery season:
Inspector Battle unfolds the train of events which made the death of an invalid old lady inevitable. - Some ingenious incidents but rather slow-paced. - Verdict: Not up to the author's best. (TSR, April 15, 1944)
Strange death of elderly Englishwoman with batch of tragic kin brought to watery solution by pertinacious Insp. Battle. - Worked out with characteristic Christie finesse, but plot develops very leisurely and dramatic pay-off doesn't make up for earlier chapters. - Verdict: Poirot, come home! (TSR, June 17, 1944)
Category: Detective fiction

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

They're Brilliant, but They Can Drive You Up the Wall

Before it became an object of social opprobrium to display one's intelligence, the smartest person in the room usually enjoyed some degree of respect.

Nowadays, according to screenwriters, if you're the smartest DETECTIVE in the room more than up to the task of solving what seem to be impossible crimes, you must be as obnoxious as you can get away with if you want to make yourself more "accessible" to an audience:
Oh-so-smug THOMAS BANACEK is a Boston-based Polish/American freelance insurance investigator whom insurance companies turn to when their own investigations have failed. This doesn't exactly endear him to big shot insurance executive types, since calling in Banacek meant they hadn't done their jobs. And the more tight-assed and pompous the executives are, the more Banacek delights in rubbing their faces in it. (Let's just say he's not known for his humility.) But his track record's so good they have to put up with him. Banacek specializes in solving "impossible crimes", recovering such missing loot as an armored car or a professional football player who disappeared during a game. — Anthony Wilson, THE THRILLING DETECTIVE WEBSITE
Then there's D.I. Poole (Ben Miller) on the otherwise very good (for its complex mysteries) DEATH IN PARADISE series. This reviewer nails it:
Most puzzling is why you would hire an excellent comic actor such as Ben Miller and make him the straight man–a very straight man, in fact, since his principal trait is walking stiffly in a dark suit. He conveys charisma by speaking mildly sarcastically. — Sameer Rahim, THE TELEGRAPH, 8 January 2013
Sherlock Holmes, it seems, didn't have nearly enough flaws for the producers of ELEMENTARY, who have gone out of their way to burden Holmes with full-blown addictions and repulsive personality disorders, so much so that the show has become more about the DETECTIVE than about the MYSTERIES.
And, of course, let's not overlook that basket case Mr. Monk, whose defects were often unconvincingly overplayed, straining after but usually failing to achieve either humor or audience sympathy. The only episode of MONK that came closest to a perfect balancing of the show's three primary elements—an impossible crime, Monk's emotional disorder, and humor—is "Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect" (2003). Even one of the scenes played for laughs actually becomes an important factor in unraveling the mystery. Too bad the majority of this show's episodes don't do that.
DEATH IN PARADISE: Season 1 - Season 2
ELEMENTARY: Season 1 - Season 2

Category: Detective fiction

James Anderson's Parodic Homages

Jon L. Breen ("The Case of the Golden Age Gems," MYSTERY SCENE, 2011) reminds us of several "lighthearted puzzle mysteries" that are worth your attention. Excerpts:
James Anderson’s lasting contribution to mystery fiction consists of three novels about English house-party murders, all taking place in the same country house, Lord Burford’s historic Alderley, and all investigated by the same easily-overlooked but sneakily clever policeman, Inspector Wilkins . . . .
. . . Clearly reflecting a love of the classical puzzles of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, unapologetically artificial and light-hearted, they managed both to parody and to provide genuine examples of the traditional British detective novel between World Wars.
Anderson's three novels are also available as e-books:
Wikipedia has a nicely concise article about Anderson.

Category: Detective fiction

Sherlock, Hercule, and Jane — Mental Cases All

When Freudians run free, no one is safe. Excerpts:
Holmes’s notable autistic tendencies have frequently been pointed out: in particular, his lack of social interests but remarkable concentration and eye for detail where a crime or mystery is concerned.
Indeed, Holmes seems very much the epitome of an Asperger’s savant: a relentlessly single-minded loner possessed of a “photographical” memory and described in 'A Scandal in Bohemia' as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine the world has seen.”
However, writers on autism have also pointed out that Miss Marple, another of the immortals of detective fiction, seems in every way the opposite: solving crimes by intuition rather than analytic deduction. By contrast to Holmes or Agatha Christie’s other principal detective, Hercule Poirot, you could describe Miss Marple as something of a psychotic savant. As I argued in a previous post, such people excel in mentalistic, “people skills” rather than in the mechanistic, “things-thinking” of autistic savants.
Indeed, the remarkable success and continuing fascination of detective fiction might find an explanation in the way in which it combines extremes of the two parallel modes of cognition. — Christopher Badcock, Ph.D., "The Genius of Detective Fiction," PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, January 21, 2010

Category: Detective fiction

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Just Deserts

By Dorothy L. Sayers.
The Dial Press.
1928. $2.00
Murder to get to the front of the line: a venerable detective fiction trope. Excerpt:
Golden Age mysteries and those of the Fifties and Sixties still assumed that the reader would root for the rightful heir, or at least be against the usurper. Mary Stewart’s 'The Ivy Tree' and Josephine Tey’s 'Brat Farrar' were organized around this premise. Both writers stacked the deck by making their usurpers bad guys who would kill to get what they wanted. But in each case, I find myself asking this: If the antagonist weren’t a homicidal villain, why would it be so bad for him to get the property? — Elizabeth Zelvin, POE'S DEADLY DAUGHTERS (December 10, 2009)
Among many other Golden Age authors, Dorothy Sayers used the notion in UNNATURAL DEATH.

But societal changes have pretty much relegated the murder-for-inheritance plot theme to the rubbish heap:
The classic detective story often relies on a group of people—usually relatives—being isolated together while a murder is being committed. But families are smaller today, and better communications means that isolation is very rare.
Classic detective fiction also often relies on the difficulty of divorce and the shame and social disaster of being caught in adultery—both of which are no longer significant for most people.
The servant class has virtually vanished due to economic changes, and the increasing financial independence of the young—coupled with the effects of long-term inflation—makes inheritance less of an issue than it used to be.
Thus a lot of the background and motive power behind the classical mystery is gone. In its place we find 'suburban mysteries' of the kind written by Julian Symons and Elizabeth Ferrars; but these often teem with so many characters that the reader simply can't keep track of who has done what, or why.
On another level we find an increasing preoccupation with the serial killer who murders many people for trivial reasons or for 'kicks,' making detection a routine forensic process rather than a search for motive or clues. — Jon Jermey, INTRODUCTION TO A COURSE ON GAD (recommended reading)
A contemporary review of UNNATURAL DEATH is here.

Category: Detective fiction

And You Thought Holmes Was Unrivaled

Sherlock had competition, all right, as this television series proves:
"Ah, the marvels of DVD! Just two years ago, 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' was lost to the world, an intriguing entry on the IMDB with little information available about the production. I’d long cherished Hugh Greene’s collections of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle’s contemporaries and was intrigued to see that some of them had been adapted for television. But I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to see them. Today, thanks to Acorn here in the US and Network in the UK, both seasons of Thames Television’s 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' are now available in their entirety–and what a discovery they are." — Tanner
Tanner on DOUBLE O SECTION has reviews here, here, and here. IMDb has more. If you're in a buying mood, you can get the series in two sets here and here, but—if you live in Australia, you lucky people—in one set here.

Category: Detective fiction

What's the Diff?

George Bernard Shaw notwithstanding, America and England are separated by more than just a common language, especially with respect to detective fiction. Nicholas Fuller (MYSTERICAL-E, Fall 2009) explains further:
The “murder mystery” emphasises mystery: the murderer is (hopefully) kept a secret from the reader until the end, even if there is not much actual detection. (The Americans tended to prefer suspense and atmosphere, and, indeed, many of Carr's late novels are fair play Gothic mysteries, in which the hero has adventures and falls in love, while the series detective remains in the background.) The “detective story”, on the other hand, emphasises detection, with the murderer's identity often fairly obvious.
This was the dominant form in Britain until WWII, and had been ever since the days of Sherlock Holmes, when the Victorian readers of the 'Strand' were invited to marvel at Holmes's miraculous deductions from footprints and bicycle tyre-tracks, rather than working out which of the suspects did it—rather pointless, as the criminal (seldom a murderer) was often obvious or introduced only at the very end. The Sherlock Holmes stories simply don't work as formal detective problems.

In short order, attitudes began to shift against "formal detective problems," to the extent 
that . . .
. . . we must return to the 1920s and the 1930s for the detective story—whether the brilliantly ingenious works of John Dickson Carr, with their jaw-droppingly astounding solutions, or the formal problems in deduction of Ellery Queen; or the well-crafted, intellectually satisfying work of Freeman or Rhode. Yet how we can we find them?
The problem is that the American writers and those of the 1930s are very easy to find; they have all been consistently reprinted in paperback form since the 1940s. It is very easy to find a complete set of Carr or Queen in second-hand bookshops, and almost every first-hand bookshop stocks the complete works of Agatha Christie.
Try looking for many of the traditional British writers, and it's a different story.

Category: Detective fiction

Wodehouse Tweaks Detective Fiction

Many a truth has been said in jest. P. G. Wodehouse underscores the handicaps that "thriller" writers of his day (and ours, too) imposed on themselves, using a hypothetical generic novel:
For the mystery novel SUSPICION HANDICAP, the field is limited. You know it wasn't the hero or the heroine who did the murder.
You are practically sure it couldn't have been Reggie Banks, because he is a comic character, and any vestige of humor in any character in a mystery story automatically rules him out as a potential criminal.
It can't have been Uncle Joe, because he is explicitly stated to be kind to dogs.
So you assume it must have been some totally uninteresting minor character who hardly ever appears and who is disclosed on the last page as the son of the inventor whom the murdered man swindled forty years ago.
At any rate, you know quite well it's one of them . . . .
If I were writing a mystery story I would go boldly out for the big sensation. I would not have the crime committed by anybody in the book at all . . . . — THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, May 25, 1929
Category: Detective fiction

Monday, November 25, 2013

Is This Carr's WORST Novel?

By J. Morris.
CADS Supplement 13.
2011. 54 pages.
Illustrated with diagrams, maps, and photographs.
Appendix I: Floor Plan of the Crime Scene.
Appendix II: "The London of THE THREE COFFINS" by Tony Medawar.
Previously on ONTOS, there was a posting about John Dickson Carr's immensely popular THE THREE COFFINS (a.k.a. THE HOLLOW MAN) editorially wondering out loud whether it might be his best novel.

If you're in the same crowd with Edward D. Hoch and Julian Symons who thought it was, after reading J. Morris's CADS monograph, you might change your mind.

In his introduction, Morris tells us:
There are elements of THE THREE COFFINS which I admire greatly, and these will be pointed out from time to time in what follows, and highlighted in the concluding section. However, my analysis is overall extremely critical of Carr's book. Unlike, for instance, THE CROOKED HINGE or THE JUDAS WINDOW . . . THE THREE COFFINS, in my view as against [Douglas] Greene's, can only disappoint, the more carefully it is reread. Its defects are wider and deeper than the two or three most commonly noted difficulties with the main plot construction.
Essentially, by a close reading of the text, Morris has identified over two dozen mistakes which Carr and his supposedly punctilious editors somehow overlooked when the book went to press. Typically these errors are of a factual or logical nature, given what has been established in Carr's narrative, thus threatening to unravel the author's own carefully wrought construction:
I will point out discrepancies, unexplained facts, impossibilities, implausibilities, misdirection that I consider unfair—and occasional moments of inspired mystification. In any analysis of this sort, meta-questions about fair-play conventions will necessarily arise, and I will point these out but not pursue them at great length.
As Morris notes, Carr occasionally trips himself up due to a tendency—not always indulged in—towards what Morris terms Unnecessary Webwork, imposing thematic resonances that could easily have been dispensed with.
Among the twenty-five "problems" Morris discovers in THE THREE COFFINS, he pinpoints six of them as being major flaws:
"The Problem of the Unnoticed Haze"
"The Problem of the Dying Man's Lie"
"The Problem of the Bamboozled Detective"
"The Problem of the Panicked Murderer"
"The Famous Time Problem"
"The Problem of Twenty Minutes"
To be fair to Carr, Morris also gives six good reasons why THE THREE COFFINS should not be scorned, even with all its defects.

And be forewarned: Morris tells us that A HOLLOW VICTORY? is "one huge spoiler, for obvious reasons. Those unfamiliar with THE THREE COFFINS should leave the premises."

All in all, A HOLLOW VICTORY? is a fine addition to Golden Age of Detection scholarship.

Category: Detective fiction

Monkey Business

By R. Austin Freeman.
Dodd, Mead.
1938. $2.00
Ray O'Leary revisits a novel (MYSTERY*FILE, 21 October 2009):
. . . [Freeman] also takes some amusing pot-shots at what was then Modern Art. The plot twists won’t come as much of a surprise to readers who have read a lot of classic detective stories, but it was an enjoyable re-read.
From THE SATURDAY REVIEW (February 25, 1939):
Murder and jewel theft in rural England have deadly aftermath in artistic London circles, as erudite Dr. Thorndyke discovers. - Masterly handling by G.O.M. of mystery writers of not entirely opaque problem made specially enjoyable by sly jabs at modern art. - Verdict: Perfection.
From SCRIBNER'S (March 1939, by S. S. Van Dine):
The Rhadamanthine Doctor Thorndyke is at his magisterial best in 'The Stoneware Monkey.' Although the book is made up of several narratives by different people, the sum total is satisfactory, and the puzzle is excellent.
There is considerable skulduggery afoot in its pages, with the remains of one victim turning up in the shape of a calcined finger bone and some bits of porcelain teeth salvaged from a potter's furnace.
The ultimate, and startling, discovery clears up two murders and elucidates the mystery of the hideous simian from which the story takes its name.
All details are painstakingly worked out, and though there are few pyrotechnics, the story marches.
More on the GAD Wiki. See also Mike Grost's Freeman page here.

Category: Detective fiction

Digging Up Murder

By Stanley Casson.
1938. $2.00
Casson's solo performance as a mystery writer:
Well written, quite literate, amusing in parts, informative on both archaeology and numismatics. The dialogue sometimes seems more lecture than conversation, but the lectures are interesting and thus tolerable. — William F. Deeck, MYSTERY*FILE (27 August 2009)
Another viewpoint:
'Murder by Burial' is far from a Golden Age classic in terms of plot or detection (the ‘detective’ doesn’t turn up until quite late in the day), but it is clever, informative if you have an interest in archaeology (and an attention span longer than Time Team’s regulation “only three days . . .”), very well written and, in parts, extremely funny. — Mike Ripley, GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER
From THE SATURDAY REVIEW (September 10, 1938):
Cave-in "accidentally" smothers amateur archeologist. Expert excavator scents murder and scotches clever killers. - Soberly paced, highly analytical affair, with Fascist-plot furbelows and some British—but acceptable—humor. - Verdict: Competent.
When it came to archaeology, Casson produced a good deal more; the UNZ index lists 26 items.

Category: Detective fiction

The Voice of Experience: Valentine Williams on "Shockers"

"You can have your dialogue, and you can keep your plots. Grant me only the gift of construction!"
If anybody would know how to put together a shilling shocker, it was Valentine Williams. Here are some samples of his sage advice to writers and readers:
Your tired business-man who grabs an armful of thrillers at the newsstand and leaves them in the train may not realise that the secret of the good shocker lies, first and last, in its architecture.
. . . the experience I have acquired in perpetrating thrillers myself fills me with a sort of despairing admiration for the brilliant construction which has commanded success for the classic examples of the genre.
. . . how few [thriller writers] are capable of turning out a well-tailored story, one of those yarns as snugly-fitting as a Savile Row dress coat, with a plot that neither bags nor sags nor wrinkles, a supremely skilful blend of romance, mystery, humour, suspense and surprise which, in contemporary fiction, is so hard to light upon and yet, when found, is so easily and so rapturously recognised?
[There are some mysteries with] plots so perfectly turned that in their denouement every piece slides into place as smoothly as the cogs of a Rolls-Royce changing gear.
The argument that incredible situations and amazing coincidences are the commonplaces of everyday life will not avail. Truth is stranger than fiction; but fiction dare not be as strange as truth.
. . . the writer of thrillers who takes his work seriously must spin his web within the framework of strictly ordinary occurrences and, save, perhaps, in his grand climax, must sedulously resist the temptation to go outside it.
No half-dozen chapters for him [the thriller writer] as a sort of leisurely first act for the introduction of characters and motifs. We have to start—literally, very often,—with a bang, and trust to our skill, among the breathless, crowded events of our opening to slip in the indispensable presentation of characters, environment and theme.
Speaking from personal experience I would say that of the two categories of thrillers, adventure or mystery tales and straight detective stories, the latter, as far as technique goes, are the less arduous to write.
Mystery yarns, I maintain, on the other hand, make even more exacting demands upon the writer. He must exercise enormous restraint. The mystery must be dense, but not too complicated; the reader should be fogged but never bewildered; and the veil may not be lifted too soon.
. . . the novelist must retain his sense of proportion for an excess of villainy, even as a multiplicity of villains, inclines towards the ludicrous. Personally, the celebrated Professor Moriarty, the master-mind of crime, has always left me cold, probably for the simple reason that Sherlock Holmes leaves no place for a second super-man upon the canvas.
The growing popularity of the "thriller" has induced many writers, who have made their mark in other walks of literature, to try their skill at this genus of tale. Their varying measure of success would seem to indicate that writing "shockers" is not altogether so easy as it looks.
A sharp distinction must be drawn between the two main divisions into which the "shocker" or "thriller" falls, in order to differentiate the detective story proper from the romance of adventure. People are prone to confound the two, lumping under the head of crime-fiction spy stories like "The Thirty-Nine Steps", or another which modesty forbids me to name, which are, of course, pure romance and have nothing to do with detective tales. The detective story is invariably a mystery story; not necessarily so the tale of derring-do.
In chronological order, the writers who have developed the detective story as we know it today are Vidocq, Poe, Gaboriau and Conan Doyle. If I omit Wilkie Collins from my list it is with no idea of belittling his enormous industry, rich imagination and superbly dramatic powers of characterization, but simply because I cannot find that he added anything to the technique of detective fiction, unless it were the rather wearisome device of telling the story in diary form. The real father of the detective novel was Gaboriau, who admittedly derived from Poe, who in his turn was inspired by Vidocq.
Sherlock Holmes, scrutinized in the cold light of reason, may prove to be preposterous; but to me, and all those of my generation, who watched him emerge, lean and mysterious, complete with "powerful lens" and deerstalker, hypodermic syringe and fiddle, from the pages of the old 'Strand Magazine,' he is, and always will be, a living figure . . . .
My personal feeling has always been that, of the two protagonists of the Holmes saga, the egregious Watson is the more brilliant creation. The genius of Doyle has stamped something so uncompromisingly into the moral make-up of this dull, good fellow that every reader unconsciously slips into the faithful doctor's skin and worships the great criminologist through his humble helper's eyes.
It is obvious that detective fiction differs from other kinds of fiction in that, in a crime-story, the plot is of paramount importance. More than this, the handling of the different episodes, the working-up of the suspense, the gradual disclosure of the mystery, all these are factors by which the tale stands or falls.
. . . if one has to choose, it is the murder, rather than the murderer or the murdered, that must be the author's first care.
Take it from me, there is no type of tale so apt to run to earth as the detective story. A matter of a few minutes in the time-table of the crime; the disposition of a window; the dress of a minor character; what at the outset appears to be the merest trifle may, as the plot unfolds, reveal itself as an insuperable obstacle in the smooth and natural progress to the final denouement.
Plausibility is the touchstone of good detective fiction. Plausible motives, plausible behavior, plausible people, will never fail to carry the reader with a rush through improbable situations.
Planning murders and working them out backwards is great fun. But let no one who thinks of writing a detective story start out with the idea that it is anything but real hard work. Your crime tale seldom runs as smoothly in the writing as your psychological novel or your romance of adventure . . . .
THE BOOKMAN (November 1927)
THE BOOKMAN (July 1928)

Much more about Williams is here and here.

See also Curt Evans's article on THE PASSING TRAMP.

Category: Detective fiction

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Penny for Your Thoughts

By Rupert Penny.
Collins Crime Club.
1938. 7/6

Martin Edwards evaluates a relatively unknown mystery author (DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME?, 14 August 2009):
I confess that I fell for Penny’s red herrings and got the solution wrong. The explanation for the mystery is cunning, if inevitably far-fetched . . .
Penny authored only two handfuls of mystery novels altogether:

As by "Rupert Penny":
POLICEMAN'S HOLIDAY (1937) (review)

POLICEMAN IN ARMOUR (1937) (review)
SHE HAD TO HAVE GAS (1939) (review)
SWEET POISON (1940) (review)

SEALED ROOM MURDER (1941) (review)
As by "Martin Tanner":
CUT AND RUN (1941)

Category: Detective fiction

Thirty Days Hath September . . .

By Julian Symons.
1951. 201 pages. $2.50
Excerpt from Martin Edwards's review (DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME?, 24 July 2009):
Symons was an extremely skilled plotter, but he was much more interested in the psychology of crime than many of his predecessors. Ingenuity is put to the service of delineation of character, and the creation of a brooding atmosphere.
Other opinions:
This is perhaps the book that Symons is best known for, but I didn't enjoy it as much as some of his others. 'A Three Pipe Problem' was better. — Cindy
Symons does a good job of getting into the head of a man under pressure. — Nancy
A mean-spirited book with a sour taste. — Robin Winter
A contemporary view (THE SATURDAY REVIEW, February 3, 1951):
Anderson's wife falls to death; then changing calendars, anonymous letters, and anonymous treachery haunt him while Scotland Yard sniffs at his heels. - Sharp satire on English version of advertising game; terror mixed with waspish humor to a breathless denouement. - Verdict: Superior.
For more about the book and its author go here and here.

Adapted for THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR in 1963.

Category: Detective fiction

C.D.I. Alleyn Investigates a Very Strange Piano

By Ngaio Marsh.
Lee Furman.
1939. $2.00
From Les Blatt's podcast website (CLASSIC MYSTERIES, July 20, 2009):
She [Marsh] has long been one of my favorite writers - I like her detective, the other "regulars" in the books, the mysteries themselves (always fairly plotted) and her excellent sense of humor. 'Overture to Death' also features an impossible crime situation . . . .
Another review from seventy years prior (THE SATURDAY REVIEW, June 3, 1939):
Pom! Pom! POM! went Rachmaninoff prelude, and acidulous English spinster executant toppled off piano stool dead. Insp. Roderick Alleyn elucidates. - Identity of killer not very deep secret. Otherwise superbly wrought and cleverly contrived yarn with interesting psychological overtones. - Verdict: Unexcelled.

Category: Detective fiction

Two Different Worlds, We Live in Two Different Worlds

J. D. Hobbs explores the tangential existences of Agatha Christie's two most famous sleuths—and enlists the Kevin Baconian Theory in support. Excerpts:
Many Christie readers have asked themselves why on earth (pun intended) Poirot and Marple have never met.
Perfect answer is from Agatha Christie herself (from 'An Autobiography'): "But why should they?" Christie says these two wouldn't get along at all. She says, "Hercule Poirot, the complete egoist, would not like being taught his business by an elderly spinster lady."
Christie argues that he is a professional and therefore would not have place in Marple's "world", as Christie puts it. She stated that she would never place them in the same story, unless "I feel a sudden and unexpected urge to do so."
I would have always liked it if they had met, but I do agree with Agatha Christie.
He would never have met the Beresford couple, also. Tommy and Tuppence were amateur detectives—why would they work with Poirot?

Category: Detective fiction

Whenever You've Eliminated the Impossible, You're Still Left with the . . . Improbable

By Various Hands. Edited by John Joseph Adams.
Night Shade Books.
2009. 350 pages.
More than two dozen Holmes pastiches which most reviewers seem to like. These excerpts are from Rod Lott's review (BOOKGASM, December 10, 2009):
Short of revisiting Arthur Conan Doyle’s original texts, you may not have more fun with the great detective than in Night Shade Books’ collection THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. For this anthology with a nearly all-star cast of authors, editor John Joseph Adams has rounded up 28 genre-hopping mysteries, as old as 20 years and as new as this year. A handful have never seen print before.
From pirates to spirits, IMPROBABLE covers a lot of genre-fiction tropes, yet every author hews closely to Doyle’s winning, winsome storytelling style.
Another, slightly different take (excerpt):
Some of my favorite stories in this collection are the ones that follow the traditional Doyle formula. And then there are the stories that push the boundaries, taking the reader out of his or her comfort zone and pitting Holmes and Watson against dinosaurs, aliens, demonic spirits, pirates and the like. Some of these unconventional tales are entertaining while others are just too far removed from the Doyle canon for my tastes. — John
A review of the audio book is here.

Category: Detective fiction

Friday, November 22, 2013

What's Up, Doc?

By Lillian de la Torre.
1946. $2.75
Lillian de la Torre (1902-1993) posthumously explains "How Dr. Sam: Johnson Became a Detector" (CRIMINAL BRIEF, July 20, 2009):
Such were the men, and such was the setting, that flashed into my mind that day. Soon plots of mystery and detection began to form theselves around many of the striking events, the picturesque scenes, and the eccentric personalities of that fascinating time; and Dr. Sam: Johnson as detector dominated them all.
From THE SATURDAY REVIEW (November 30, 1946):
Nine exploits of Great Lexicographer as detective in Georgian England, "narrated as from pen of James Boswell" in flavorous, authentic fashion. - Taken in judicious doses this admirably turned-out book is good hunting and good fun. At one sitting it may be cloying. - Verdict: For specialists.

Category: Detective fiction