Thursday, February 27, 2014

"These Tales Are Highly-colored, Dramatic, and in All of Them the Characters Approach Fantastic Beings"

By Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936).
Dodd, Mead & Co.
1926. 270 pages. $2.00
Collection: 8 stories.
Online HERE.
1. "The Resurrection of Father Brown"
2. "The Arrow of Heaven"
3. "The Oracle of the Dog"
4. "The Miracle of Moon Crescent"
5. "The Curse of the Golden Cross"
6. "The Dagger with Wings"
7. "The Doom of the Darnaways"
8. "The Ghost of Gideon Wise"

Like his creator, Father Brown—or his adventures, anyway—tended to be over-the-top:
THE persistence of Father Brown seems to indicate annual reappearances after the manner of the more famous Sherlock Holmes.
Mr. Chesterton has indeed christened his first story in this third book of the exploits of his mystery-solving Catholic priest "The Resurrection of Father Brown." Snaith, the newspaper man from Kansas City, started the whole trouble. He really wanted Father Brown to disappear over a cliff—or something—"in the manner of Doctor Watson's hero" and for the purposes of world-wide publicity. Father Brown was at the time "something between a missionary and a parish priest," in a section of the northern coast of South America. And he had enemies, both in the leader of the iconoclastic party and in the leader of the more conservative side in one of those eternal factional disputes common to South America. It was to the interests of all that Father Brown should die and be resurrected, and thereby achieve a miracle which could afterward be pronounced spurious. Of course, Father Brown foiled them all, simply by possessing both common-sense and common integrity. A better type of American is introduced into the story, who pays him extravagant tribute.
There are other miracles in this book that are not, in fact, miracles. There is, for instance, "The Miracle of Moon Crescent," where laymen are shown as far more credulous and superstitious than one clear-thinking cleric with a knowledge of men and motives.
"But I thought you believed in miracles," cries one of the laymen. "Yes," answers Father Brown, "I believe in miracles. I believe in man-eating tigers, but I don't see them running about everywhere. If I want any miracles, I know where to get them."
And as well as refusing to be turned aside by red herrings of superstitious theory drawn across the trail of wholly human criminals, Father Brown is proved to have known something of animals, — of the way dogs act and why, for instance, in "The Oracle of the Dog."
Likewise "The Doom of the Darnaways" has no terrors for him, nor the black and white magic in "The Dagger with Wings," save as the wickedness in the heart of man is terrible or as monomania is a terrible thing. For Father Brown is shown throughout, as has been the case heretofore, as an undistinguished individual of simple and rooted faith who solves the apparently monstrous and strange with the common sense that is uncommon. His exploits make good reading, because his author has true inventiveness, an ability to make the preposterous seem plausible, and a mastery of tricks of story-construction that can often "spring" the unexpected climax.
These tales are highly-colored, dramatic, and in all of them the characters approach fantastic beings, as do the characters in all of Chesterton's fiction. But that does not make them less entertaining. One is intended to reach the conclusion that Father Brown is almost the only truly rational person in an aggregation of demented mystics and maniacal rationalists. But the circumstances under which he operates could only have been conceived by a Chesterton in the first place.
We shall continue to read with indulgence of Father Brown so often as he reappears, for we are fond of the dramatically fantastic, and Chesterton's pen has certainly not lost its cunning.
As a minor stricture, why is it that no Englishman, however cultivated, can ever reproduce American speech correctly? The phrasing and accent of New England are forever jumbled with that of the South and the Middle West. And to cite one instance only, out of many, Americans never speak of "flats" but of "apartments," and never, by any stretch of the imagination, would refer to an apartment-house as an hotel. — Unsigned, "Father Brown Again," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (July 24, 1926)

Category: Detective fiction

Just a Coincidence?

By F[rances] Burks McKinley.
1933. 222 pages. $2.00

You'll have to decide if it is "just a coincidence":
Cooped up in a dahabea* three of its nine white passengers are murdered on a trip up the Nile. Girl newspaper reporter traps murderer. - Authentic Egyptian background succeeds in producing unique atmosphere of terror. Plenty of clues and strange occurrences. - Verdict: Good. — THE SATURDAY REVIEW (December 2, 1933)
* "dahabeah": "A houseboat having sails and sometimes an engine, used on the Nile."
Compare that with:
. . . [Death on the] Nile [1937] has all of Christie's strengths: a tight problem, a confined setting (a boat going down the Nile), excellent detection on the part of the magnificent little Belgian, plenty of amusing characters and a staggering solution. — Nick Fuller, GAD Wiki
Also see The Passing Tramp's article HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"The Interest of a Detective Story Is Therefore Intellectual and Not Emotional"

Burton Stevenson (1872-1962), mystery author and librarian, expresses his thoughts about detective fiction. Excerpts:
IT IS not difficult to account for the steady popularity of the detective story. The pleasure to be had from a good one is of a unique and satisfying kind. The reader is invited to take part in a mathematical demonstration, in which the symbols are men and women, with just enough of the background of life to give them reality. The problem to be solved is one of human conduct, and the solution is reached when one has found X, the unknown quantity—usually the criminal. The task which the author must accomplish is to give his readers all the data of the problem, and yet to solve it before they do. ALL the data, mind you, or he is not playing the game.
The interest of a detective story is therefore intellectual and not emotional. There is no love interest—or, at most, a very slight one. For the problem is not to bring two loving hearts together, but to land the guilty man in jail. To attempt a love interest is to run every risk of failure.
So the detective story has always been held to be a man's story rather than a woman's. But times change; and women, certainly, are changing with them. They are still creatures of the emotions, and no doubt always will be, but they are coming to have their moments of intellectual detachment. Also, they no longer faint at the sight of blood. The writer has been in charge of a public library for twelve years, and one of the most interesting features of that work has been to watch the changes in the taste of the reading public. It has been full of surprises and contradictions, of almost unbelievable whims and vulgarities, but one thing can be said of it with confidence: interest in detective fiction has been steadily growing, among women even more than among men.
. . . Oh, yes, there are plenty of detective stories—but how few that one can recommend as entirely satisfying. The writer has read nearly all that have appeared during the past ten years, and yet not more than six or eight have left any abiding impression. Aside from the Sherlock Holmes stories, there are only three that provoked re-reading, and on the spur of the moment it is impossible to recall the name of the detective in any of them.
In short, among all the detectives, amateur and professional, who have appeared before the public and performed their little tricks, there are only four who are classic—C. Auguste Dupin, Tabaret, M. Lecoq, and Sherlock Holmes. These abide. Beside them, the others are mere shadows. And these four are memorable not because they never bungled, not because occasionally they struck home with a cleverness and certainty which makes us forgive their mistakes. Their supreme moments are moments to be remembered with delight.
In so far as detective work goes, Gaboriau's stories are far better than Conan Doyle's; but Gaboriau tried to do too much. He sought to add a love interest, and in that respect he failed.
Which brings one to Sherlock Holmes—whom one does not love. Indeed, it is not always easy to respect him. Wholly deplorable are those puerile "deductions" with which so many of the stories open. And in the whole series of his adventures, only three or four great moments can be recalled.
The writer has re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories recently, but did not enjoy them as much as he anticipated. They do not wear as well as Gaboriau's, and the reason probably is because they are so very British—so stolid, so heavy, so lacking in humour. — Burton Egbert Stevenson, THE BOOKMAN (March 1913)
- More about Stevenson's work is HERE.

Category: Detective fiction


By Agatha Christie.
John Lane.
1920. 296 pages. $2.00
Filmed for TV in 1990.
Available on Kindle.
This critic makes passing reference to Mrs. Christie's recent disappearance:
IS it an index of what people really like to read in their off moments that there are no mystery stories whatsoever left in my library? Someone might reply, "No, it is only an index of the sort of person who visits your house?"
By way of retort I could offer a guestbook if my wife believed in one; but she doesn't. Be that as it may, I have during the past few months spent a small fortune in the purchase of copies of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and now have spent a fortunate morning in the perusal of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Mrs. Christie of late has been much in the public prints. Just what the truth of that disappearance may be, I do not know. It does not seem to me to matter. She writes mystery stories rather better than any other woman except Mrs. Rinehart. That's enough for me.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Dodd, Mead), as I understand it, was her first novel. This is extraordinary, if so; for it is a better novel than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The method is somewhat the same, since Poirot is used as a detective foil to the hero and to Scotland Yard. However, whereas it is possible, I think, to guess who murdered Roger, the question of who murdered Mrs. Inglethorp remained inexplicable to one reader, at least, until the author chose to unravel her knots. What more is there to say of a good mystery story than this—that it is written so as not to insult the intelligence, and that it is mysterious?
I wish that you would tell me some old mystery stories that have delighted you. I think I am about to make a collection of them as insurance against the boredom of old age. There are never enough good ones in one or two seasons of book publishing to satisfy this insatiable appetite. — J. F., "The Editor Recommends: The Mysterious Mrs. Christie," THE BOOKMAN (March 1927) 
The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as 'The Styles Case' has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, in view of the world-wide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence the sensational rumours which still persist.
I will therefore briefly set down the circumstances which led to my being connected with the affair. . . . — Arthur Hastings, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

Category: Detective fiction

"A Chastened and Far More Palatable Character"

By Ellery Queen.
Frederick A. Stokes [US], Gollancz [UK].
1932. 370 pages. $2.00
Brains aren't everything, just most of it:
The peeling away of the final layers is, I think, very likely to provide quite a surprise when the guilty individual is revealed – but an honest appraisal leaves us feeling that we have not been cheated, that we should have been able to spot that individual earlier in the book. I know that I failed to do so . . . and I suspect you will too. — Les Blatt, CLASSIC MYSTERIES (February 17, 2014)
EQ's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) is notable for its four separate solutions, that gradually emerge at the four separate climaxes of the novel, one at the end of each major section. The book demonstrates how much more complex life can be than one originally figures. It also shows how ideas can grow out of each other, gradually leading to more complex ideas. The real and final solution impresses by being "deeper" than the others, containing some very startling surprises. EQ is not an absurdist. The solutions seem logical and well developed, unlike Anthony Berkeley's multiple solution novel, The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929). Berkeley seems most interested in writing an anti-detective story, showing how each situation can be twisted to express a multitude of interpretations, mocking the idea of detective stories in general, and the ability to understand anything through reason. This sort of absurdism is very far from EQ's approach. EQ is instead interested in showing how reason can go deeper and deeper in a situation, uncovering profounder and profounder ideas. — Mike Grost, A GUIDE TO CLASSIC MYSTERY AND DETECTION ("The Greek Coffin Mystery")
In one of his earliest cases, Ellery Queen confronts a murder in blue blood. America’s master of deduction, Ellery Queen, has made his name by combining dazzling feats of pure reason with the old-fashioned legwork that comes with being the son of a New York cop. Before he became the nation’s most famous sleuth, he was just an untested talent—a bookworm who thought he might put his genius to work solving crimes. Young Queen made his bones on the Khalkis case. The scion of a famous New York art-dealing family, Georg Khalkis has spent several years housebound with blindness—a misery he is relieved of when a heart attack knocks him dead on the library floor. After the funeral, his will vanishes, and an exhaustive search of home, churchyard, crypt, and mourners reveals nothing. Baffled, the police turn to a headstrong young genius named Ellery Queen. During this case, Queen develops his deductive method—and swings dramatically between failure and success. — OPEN ROAD MEDIA ("The Greek Coffin Mystery")
Ellery Queen in The Greek Coffin Mystery by throwing on all the lugs tries to be ultra intelligent and succeeds in becoming a bit soggy. Frankly, this impression is not given so much by the book itself as by a pompously ridiculous little leaflet inserted in each copy wherein the author (or authors) tells how the story should be studied, etc. Throw away this circular, destroy it utterly, and then you can enjoy the strange circumstances surrounding the death and burial of George Khalkis. Preposterous is also the word to describe Drury Lane, the trick criminal investigator who gyrates through the pages of an otherwise excellent mystery story, The Mystery [sic] of X by Barnaby Ross. It, too, runs to long words and subtle deductions but is chockful of action and has a surprising denouement which nobody under the sun will ever believe. — William C. Weber, "Thrillers", THE SATURDAY REVIEW (June 18, 1932; scroll to page 797)

Category: Detective fiction

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Note to Our Readers

Just a brief note to all loyal ONTOS readers (and you know who you are): Due to family illnesses we've been unable to do any posting since last Thursday, but we plan to rectify that soon.

ONTOS's prowl through the Internet will be resuming shortly. In the meantime, we now return you to your regularly-scheduled web surfing.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Real Detective's Opinion

A Secret Service agent offers his views on fictional detectives, with Sherlock and Dupin rating high with him. A few excerpts:
In fiction, it may always be taken for granted by the reader that the long chain of initial clues will lead to nothing. In the real work, however, many cases have been solved from early clues.
. . . readers are so used to fooling themselves (with the help of the authors) that they would be unforgivably angry both with themselves and the writers if first clues turned the trick finally on the criminals about whom they are reading. This state of affairs in detective fiction may be attributed to habit. The authors of the style of stories under discussion are afraid to break away from the established fiction way of tracing crime and, as a result, those who are fond of the detective in fiction must necessarily read, if they read at all, of the sleuth whom the author purposely keeps in acute suspense until the last page.
I should like to see an able writer of detective fiction put himself to the task of evolving a specimen of this form of literature along strictly real lines. In other words, I would like to read a detective novel with a central figure detective who solved his mystery step by step from the first clue instead of, as in so many cases in fiction, step by banister. The detective of fiction takes one step, two steps, and then usually slides back down the "suspense banister" to where he started. Of course, I am speaking generally. In a number of works of detective fiction the sleuth hero does start out ably from one of his early tracings, yet, even in these latter instances, I believe he would make more effective reading if his author did not attempt to check him by various incongruous subterfuges that are intended to add to the reader's excitement.
With most other readers of detective fiction I suppose I shall be in accord when I say that among the best is the series exploiting "Sherlock Holmes." The fluency of Conan Doyle's literary style has a great deal to do with Holmes's fascination, naturally, and yet, aside from that, the detective-hero himself has many qualities to recommend him to even his living detective critic. In the first place, Sherlock Holmes is more natural than most of his brother fiction sleuths. Inasmuch, however, as Doyle modelled him after a man in real life, this is probably to have been expected. So many fiction detectives are more like Hindoo magicians than the men we are accustomed to.
Sherlock Holmes stands forth in prominence firstly, because his creator has not muddled him up in any silly romances with women; secondly, because he works his way up faithfully from early clues; and thirdly, because he keeps his mouth closed most of the time. A great many fiction detectives are responsible for most of the "conversation" in their respective books. Sherlock Holmes's method of deduction, so called, makes interesting analysis on the part of the man whose profession is the detection of wrong-doing in one channel or another. His deduction really owes much to his standardisation. He makes standards of various clue elements, such as cigar ashes, footprints, etc., and, instead of using these as conclusions, he makes use of them only as premises from which to infer possible associations with individuals whom he has "diagnosed" from other sources of information or intuition. Sherlock Holmes uses his brain where many other detectives of fiction use their legs. He would have made as great a newspaper reporter as a detective. He could have gathered the threads of a news story and focused them with rare finesse.
. . . to be sure, it is the case rather than the detective that makes for interest. A case of deeply entangled mystery arouses tense excitement without regard to how or by whom it is being unravelled—both in and out of fiction.
It has been asserted that there are only three great detectives in fiction—Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin, Emile Gaboriau's Lecoq and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The latter I have already spoken of. Lecoq is primarily a detective for fiction purpose only. Dupin, however, is a wonderful creation, wonderful indeed, because his solutions, in the spectacular instance of The Mystery of Marie Roget, were subsequently shown to have been absolutely accurate in real life. — J. C. Cummings, "Inside Views of Fiction: Detective Stories," THE BOOKMAN (January 1910)

Category: Detective fiction

"His Revelation Is a Genuine Surprise"

By Coulson Kernahan (1858-1943).
Ward, Lock & Co.
1905. 352 pages. 6s.
Online HERE and HERE.
Here we have an unusually obliging critic:
Mr. Kernahan asks, most reasonably, that the mystery in his latest novel may not be revealed by the reviewer.
Something had gone wrong at No. 1 platform, St. Pancras Station when we open the book. The beautiful young wife of the elderly Marquis of Southborne had been spirited away, and this was but one of a series of abductions within the year; but why, or how, or with what results, we dutifully leave the reader to discover and realise by about five-and-twenty thrills—one to each chapter.
The author keeps his secret well, and in leading up to his big revelation gives so many and varied other excitements, that we cannot say he lingers over his mystery; he is simply checked by adventures at every turn, till he goes under water in the last chapter—to rise with the key to the secret.
Mr. Kernahan is wise enough to take no one into his confidence as he goes along: his revelation is a genuine surprise, and scores of apathetic readers of sensational stories will enjoy a titillation of the interest for several hours as they follow the course of "The Jackal." — "Novel Notes," THE BOOKMAN [U.K.] (June 1905)
- Kernahan also wrote SCOUNDRELS & CO. (1899), reviewed HERE [scroll to page 935], online HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"As a Detective Tale the Story Has Obvious Weaknesses"

By W. A. Mackenzie.
Chatto and Windus.
1905. 6s.
No e-book available.

We're assured it "bristles with excitement":
It is hard to say whence comes that strange delusion which makes almost every man fancy himself a born detective. Possibly it is only a symptom of that even more universal fallacy which leads the man in the street to imagine that anyone can direct a Government department except the permanent officials.
Anyhow, so long as this inscrutable instinct survives, detective stories, complicated concatenations of impossible crimes, will continue to find an enthusiastic public, and many a mute inglorious Sherlock Holmes will swell with pride as he unravels incredible complications with machine-like accuracy.
In stories of this type it is emphatically true that "the plot's the thing." Characterisation is unnecessary. The world may be divided into criminals, detectives, and the people who are the victims of both.
In the select circle of "crime-novelists" (an ambiguous term used in a wholly Pickwickian sense) Mr. Mackenzie takes a high place. He combines ingenuity with audacity, and never allows his plot to get out of hand for a moment. The problem of constructing a detective story is even more difficult than it appears, because the materials are so limited. Criminals are sadly monotonous, and the success of the heaven-born detective is scarcely less so.
Still Mr. Mackenzie contrives to make a very dexterous use of well worn material, and the idea of a burglar at Scotland Yard is certainly novelty itself. "The Drexel Dream" bristles with excitement, and ought to tickle the palate of the most jaded reader. — "Novel Notes," THE BOOKMAN [U.K.] (April 1905; scroll to page 31)
But another critic isn't too impressed:
'The Drexel Dream' is a wonderful ornament of jewels, the theft of which is the chief motif of Mr. Mackenzie's narrative.
Interwoven is a sensational history of two brothers involving the introduction of French politics; there is also a display of hypnotism, and a marvellous surgical operation.
In a word, Mr. Mackenzie has effected a combination of unusual and startling incidents which give point and raciness, if not reality, to his production.
As a detective tale the story has obvious weaknesses. The villain stands in the Green Park, his murdered brother at his feet. He wipes the blood from his poignard, regards the Chief of Scotland Yard with a Mephistophelian smile, and informs him that since the report of firearms would be heard in Piccadilly he will regretfully leave the life whole in him. Thereupon the cold-blooded wretch shows the infuriated Chief the glorious jewel he has stolen, trips him up, and escapes in the confusion.
The reader is tempted to inquire why the unwary Chief was not killed after the manner of former victims; but of course the story could not have continued in that case, for the Chief is the narrator. — THE PUBLISHER'S CIRCULAR (December 31, 1904)
Category: Detective fiction

One You'll Probably Never Get to Read

By J. B. Harris-Burland (1870-1926).
Chapman & Hall.
1910. 316 pages. 6s.
No e-book version available (or any other version, for that matter).

This author is better remembered for his fantasy and SF; and even though this reviewer denies it, s/he really does blab too much:
Mr. Harris-Burland's latest book is one of the best mystery stories we have read for some time—until we get to his explanation.
It was rather too bad of him to spirit a young lady out of a railway carriage which is occupied also by her father, her lover, two friends, and a queer stranger; then to have her body washed up by the tide on her father's property; and to permit the stranger in the railway carriage to be mysteriously murdered, and to find that he was carrying a very large sum of money in his bag—to do all this, and then to allow a large number of police and private detectives to discover that the young lady committed suicide, and that the mysterious stranger was murdered by——, but that is the real crux of the mystery.
There is no reason why we should spoil the book by giving it away altogether, for, as we have already said, the story is developed with great skill, and it will keep any reader guessing.
Mr. Harris-Burland is already in the first rank of sensational writers, and "The Torhaven Mystery" presents many of his best characteristics. — "Novel Notes," THE BOOKMAN [U.K.] (December 1910)
Category: Detective fiction

"A Nice, Neat Murder"

By A. Maynard Barbour (? - 1941).
J. B. Lippincott Co.
1900. $1.50 [$2.00 in 1926].
Online HERE and HERE.
According to Wikipedia:
A 1903 article in the The Atlantic Monthly stated that "A. Maynard Barbour has been generally hailed as the most successful of American writers of mystery."
As for this novel:
It always seems a pity to review a detective story or a story with a mystery in it, as such stories are written to entertain and to puzzle the reader and not written for the benefit of the book reviewer. However, we are moved to say something about That Mainwaring Affair, because it is especially worthy of notice.
It is a detective story, although not of the Anna Katherine Green order; in fact, it is considerably better than the usual story of Anna Katherine Green.
Mrs. Barbour has contrived to make her characters interesting while solving her mystery. She has written a novel which does not depend entirely upon detectives for its being. In all fairness to author and to reader we refrain from telling much of the story here. Let it merely be said, therefore, that there is a murder—a nice, neat murder—a lost will with millions involved, and a deep mystery connected with certain members of the Mainwaring family.
The mystery grows and grows until, for a time, one becomes indifferent as to who committed the murder. Mrs. Barbour has a trick of seeming to explain everything every little while, whereas she really explains nothing until the very last chapter.
To be sure, the dialogue is wooden in places, and the love scenes are what love scenes usually are in books of this character, but the story is entertaining reading for all that. Then there is a genuine surprise in the working out of the plot, and that is the main thing. — "Novel Notes," THE BOOKMAN (April 1901)
A quarter of a century passes, and then a jaded reviewer opines:
What object prompted the publisher to disinter the mediocre bones of this aged mystery story for reissue is beyond our conception. The tale first appeared in 1900, and the years have not improved its quality—on the contrary, their passing has lent to much of it the suggestion of unintended burlesque.
For example, one finds it difficult today reading: "Wretch!" he hissed, with an oath, "you have betrayed me, curse you!" to repress a smile. The better order of mystery story authors do not write that way any more. 
And from materials that closely parallel those which make up the Mainwaring murder and the prolonged legal fight of the deceased's relatives for possession of his estate, there have since been written countless superior variations of the too familiar theme. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (October 30, 1926; scroll to page 261, left middle)
Category: Detective fiction

"No Attempt at Ornament"

By Burton E. Stevenson.
Harper & Brothers [US].
1904. 298 pages. 3s. 6d. [UK].
Online HERE and HERE.
Stevenson was a competent mystery maven:
A readable story of a mysterious murder is written by Mr. Burton E. Stevenson, and named The Holladay Case. As is generally the case with this class of fiction, the dramatic quality of the story is of more importance than the literary finish, and Mr. Stevenson tells it straightly enough, with no attempt at ornament.
We do not wish to give away the plot, so will merely remark that the teller is an American, and that of the solicitors for the defence, one is honeymooning in the last chapter, and another is making subtly expressed proposals—which are intelligently understood. — "Notes on New Books," THE BOOKMAN [U.K.] (April 1904; scroll to page 33, bottom left).
- Two previous ONTOS articles concerning Stevenson are HERE and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"No Longer to be Considered As a Serious Type"

Let's face it: We love to read about criminals, both in real life and also especially in fiction. As early as 1900, the basic elements of detective fiction were so familiar as to be cliches:
A series of sketches which is now running in one of our magazines, and which will appear in book form in the autumn, deals with the criminal in his relations toward the police. The series is an interesting one, first of all, because it suggests the subject of the criminal in fiction and his evolution—an evolution which is very typical of all the types of fiction.
Not that the old-fashioned villain—sardonic, black-moustached—is no longer to be found in contemporary romance. Indeed, he is still a very important factor in the half-dime novel and the serials of the Fireside Companion and the Family Story Paper sort.
From time to time he changes his appearance, his station in life and his mode of dressing; but no matter in what form he shows himself, there is always the same black heart, diabolical though ultimately futile cunning, and insidious manner. Only his relegation to machine-made fiction has been so complete that he is no longer to be considered as a serious type.
The criminal of old-time fiction used poison or stiletto with perfect suavity; when he stooped to such commonplaces as forgery or bank burglarising it was considered a radical concession to realism on the part of the author. In the future, however, we may look to the novel and the short story for the romance in the life of the "second-story man," the "wire tapper," the "welcher," the "fence" and the exponent of the "gentlemen, find the little joker" game. — "Chronicle and Comment: The Criminal As Literary Copy," THE BOOKMAN (September 1900)
Category: Detective fiction

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Brief Notes on Gaboriau

Andre Gide called Emile Gaboriauthe father of all current detective fiction.

"The Works of Gaboriau":
We are stirred to these feelings every little while. Just now our exasperation is due to the fact that we have been reading a new edition of the best-known works of Emile Gaboriau. It is not so much that this translation is particularly bad, but because, from our appreciation of the high standing of the publishing house whose imprint it bears, we sat down to read it with the hope that it would prove passably good, and we found it—well—just like most translations.
Without going into details, and to give an example from a glance along the titles of the books, why is L'Affaire Lerouge called The Widow Lerouge, instead of The Lerouge Case? The distinction may be deemed hypercritical, but the fact remains that the book is the story of the Lerouge Case and not of the Widow Lerouge. — "Chronicle and Comment," THE BOOKMAN (October 1900)
"Gaboriau As a Craftsman":
Gaboriau is one of those writers who, while appealing strongly to thousands upon thousands of readers, are by the critics absolutely ignored as literary forces. He is, as a rule, passed by as a mere spinner of detective stories, a light and rather frivolous entertainer.
Now, in his case, this seems to be particularly unjust. He made no pretension to literary style or effect. His love passages, as love passages pure and simple, are of the most conventional and threadbare. It is quite true that he was only making stories; but he wrote of a certain side of life as he knew it, and for his background he drew upon the store of experience acquired by years of watching the ebb and flow of Paris.
It is said that the plots of his books were taken almost bodily from the secret archives of the Rue Jerusalem, and one may readily believe it.
There is a little touch of the Comedie Humaine to be found in his works. He knew his Balzac and his Moliere, and he made use of this knowledge. That dark under side of the criminal life of Paris with which Gaboriau deals furnished Balzac with some of his most powerful themes. — THE BOOKMAN, op. cit.
"Lecocq and Sherlock Holmes":
Justly or unjustly, Emile Gaboriau is regarded, first of all, as the creator of one powerful character. And yet we do not think that he himself ever wished to give such pre-eminence to Monsieur Lecocq, or that he even realised the dramatic qualities of the great detective.
Had he aimed to show Lecocq infallible, omniscient, would there have been a Pere Tabaret? The real Lecocq is a factor in only three books—The Mystery of Orcival, Monsieur Lecocq and File No. 113. In Other People's Money and The Lerouge Case he is a mere subordinate.
Sherlock Holmes fleered at him as a bungler, a mere practical investigator, whose only merit was his patience and his capacity for hard work. True, he was not a builder of fancy hypotheses; he did not show so well in the lime-light. But we defy any reader to take up Lecocq's arguments and evidence and be unconvinced.
And his evolving a complete theory from the chance words, "It is the Prussians who are coming," let drop by the pretended May, in the first chapter of Monsieur Lecocq, shows an imagination of a very high order. THE BOOKMAN, op. cit.
"The Making of the Detective Story" [Note: SPOILERS in the original]:
There are certain conventionalities, we take it, that the writer of detective stories can, under no circumstances, afford to ignore.
We remember reading some years ago a short tale that was a horrible example of the result of disdaining the very first law to be observed in the construction of the story of detection, which is that the real culprit, though unsuspected, must be before the reader almost from the beginning. In this story the author, after eliminating everybody within reach, fastens the crime upon a person of whom the reader has never before heard.
Of course, this arbitrary rule has certain inconveniences. For instance, in The Lerouge Case, ridiculous as it appeared on the surface, it was inevitable that [SPOILER deleted] was the assassin, simply because there was no other character of sufficient importance who was not at first an object of suspicion.
In File No. 113—one of the finest and most suggestive of all titles, summing up as it does all the mystery of the Parisian secret service—it was certain that [SPOILER deleted] was innocent, just because everything seemed to point so conclusively to his guilt. — THE BOOKMAN, op. cit.
From Wikipedia [Note: SPOILERS in the original]:
Gaboriau influenced later detective fiction writers, notably Conan Doyle, who acknowledged his debt to Gaboriau. Conan Doyle wrote, "Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own?" Conan Doyle also uses Gaboriau’s two-part structure for two of the four longer Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes’s skill in the art of disguise is equal to that of Lecoq. Liebow observes that there is a startling similarity between Holmes and Lecoq’s speech, conduct, and meditations. However, Holmes denigrates Lecoq in A Study in Scarlet, dismissing him as a "miserable bungler." Gaboriau was also an influence on John Russell Coryell, who read his works. His detective, Nick Carter, follows in Lecoq and Tabaret’s footsteps.
- A MYSTERY*FILE article by Edward D. Hoch is HERE.
- Works by Gaboriau are HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Surely You've Heard of Bernard Capes

Bernard Capes's writing career spanned both the Victorian and Edwardian eras:
Capes was a prolific Victorian author, publishing more than forty volumes—romances, mysteries [including ghost stories], poetry, history—together with many articles for the magazines of the day. . . .He finally committed to writing novels full-time, taking around four months for each novel. On several occasions he had two or three novels published in the same year—and even four in 1910. — Wikipedia
It's obvious he never fully committed to writing detective fiction; the following titles, however, appear (note that) to be of the mystery/ghost story variety:

~ THE LAKE OF WINE (1898). Reviewed HERE: "This is a prince among jewel mysteries . . ."


~ PLOTS (1902). Online HERE. Reviewed HERE: "The book, it must be confessed—or vaunted—is prolific in horrors; but they are ingenious horrors . . . ."

~ WHY DID HE DO IT? (1910). Reviewed HERE [page 56, left middle]: "Stories of fantastic plot and whimsical manner are by no means rare, but in this instance both machinery and personnel give an effect of originality hardly, perhaps, to be borne out by chill analysis."

~ GILEAD BALM (1911). Reviewed HERE: "For the series of mysterious quests, the quest of the Wax Hand, the quest of the Rose-Ring, and so on, which make up this entertaining novel, Mr. Capes has tapped in a wholesale manner that source of endless romance—the agony column of a daily newspaper."

~ THE SKELETON KEY (1920). Online HERE. Reviewed HERE [page 29, middle]: ". . . has a decidedly original denouement which will puzzle even practical mystery solvers."

Category: Detective fiction

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Defense of the "Puzzle Novel"

If you think good detective fiction is easy to write, just ask the experts. A few excerpts:
THAT popular maker of mystery stories, Louis Joseph Vance, some short time ago spoke up for the dignity of his trade. He was right to do this, but I am not sure that he did it in the proper way. Someone had asked him if the contriver of his sort of fiction had to take it seriously. Certainly, said Mr. Vance: "You can't do work of any sort that will gain a respectful hearing—and royalties—if you write with your tongue in your cheek." This is sound doctrine. Good stuff is turned out by the workman who believes in it. The cleverest imitations seldom carry far.
Here, I say, was and is the real and proper object of his devotion. At this point he begins to take his work with almost prayerful seriousness. "As a matter of fact," he says, "the construction and writing of a good mystery story is one of the most difficult and intricate forms of literary endeavor. The analysis of human character even in its psychoanalysis, and the narration of a chain of every-day events in daily affairs such as the ordinary reader will accept as not improbable is child's play compared with the labor and ingenuity and patience required to make the mystery story, so despised of the average, in any way acceptable."
The truth is, a writer of detective stories should have the tastes of a child and the mind of a chess player. That is why sex is of so little account in such stories. That it should have to be lugged in at all is one of the chief mysteries about the mystery tale. Nobody takes this "heart interest" seriously, it is about as real in this kind of fiction as it is in "The Young Visitors"—love viewed with a preoccupied infantile eye as a necessary but trivial counter in the game . . . And that is why character study is irrelevant to this kind of fiction. You add no merit to the puzzle of "Pigs in Clover" (or its current equivalent) by differentiating and analyzing—even psychoanalyzing—your pigs.
What we have to deal with in most so called mystery stories is not mystery so much as quandary and surprise. "Mechanical romance" is not a bad term for them. They are built, not created, they run by machinery of a very intricate pattern. It is certainly true that a vast deal of ingenuity and patience go to their making if they are to pass muster with their audience of experts. For the confirmed reader of this fiction is a strict judge of plots. Mechanical romance is his avocation, and he is no mean critic of machinery.
As for the mystery or puzzle novel's being "despised of the average," there is something in it. It is far enough from being rejected by the average. But there are many to love and none to praise. The mystery novel flourishes in an atmosphere of general as well as official disdain.
The great Chesterton, stepping on our shores, confides to a pressman that he reads nothing but "dead authors and detective stories"; that is, a living writer of detective stories (including G. K. C. himself, who has written some pretty bad ones) cannot be dignified with the name of author. What he produces is not a book but a straw for timely tickling.
The proud fact is that a really good detective or mystery story offers diversion and solace for a grown man without requiring him to be a snuffling or a sniggling idiot. — H. W. Boynton, "In Behalf of the Puzzle Novel," THE BOOKMAN (November 1923)
- "Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933) was an American fiction writer and creator of Michael Lanyard, 'The Lone Wolf'." — GAD Wiki
- Two previous ONTOS articles about Vance are HERE and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

"A Suspension of Disbelief Is Required"

When fiction and fact collide in detective stories, critics prefer to slam the fiction for being unrealistic—and this despite how unrealistic so-called "realistic" fiction can be. Take, for instance, this fellow, who just doesn't seem to get it. A few excerpts:
If you are plotting a murder, don't follow the scientists—they are second only to the detective novelists and Broadway playwrights as bunglers.
In a mechanized age such as this, it is believed that elaborate technical ingenuity, the employment of strange chemicals and complicated engines, make a detective story interesting. And, perhaps as a result of this fallacy, people indulge in gossip about the perfect murder, and fearfully imagine that we may soon live in constant danger of murder through some contraption invented by the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.
Does it occur to anybody that what chiefly makes crime worth reading about, either as fiction or fact, is the human element, the strange problems it presents in human conduct, the revelations it makes of the dark recesses of the human heart?
. . . consider the novels of Miss Dorothy Sayers. It seems possible that many people read every one of them, first, because in Lord Peter Wimsey the author has created the most amusing, human, and likeable detective since Sherlock Holmes; and, second, because of the background. In Gaudy Night, it was of Oxford; in The Nine Tailors, it was change ringing in a rural English church. As for the plots, they are often of the painfully involved sort, used so much in American crime plays and films. At the end, I am not sure whether A killed B, or if both were killed by Q, and if so, why? And, to be frank, I don't care. Murderer and murderee, to use the terms coined by Miss Tennyson Jesse, have become puppets. Lord Peter is delightful entertainment; but the details of the murders, their methods and causes, make you reach for the aspirin.
It is probable that the authors of detective novels will continue to write as they choose, since their ingenious scientific plots do interest many readers. It does not follow, however, that when novelists invent elaborate and abstruse methods for committing murder they are basing their work on the facts of actual contemporary crime. There is reason for believing that the direct opposite is the truth, that murders are becoming more and more simple, direct, and brutal. 
When people talk of the perfect murder they mean something more sly and sinister than these. Thanks to the efforts of the writers of detective stories, they think of delicate machinery, of mysterious poisons from South America, trained spiders from Sumatra, "death rays" wielded by mad scientists, and all the rest of the armory of weapons which have been invented by novelists.
It is hardly realized how greatly this enormous mass of fiction—some of it very entertaining—has affected the public attitude toward crime. Many people seriously try to apply some story-book clew toward the solution of every notorious murder. They forget that the creator of the greatest of all the imaginary detectives, Conan Doyle, acknowledged that when in his own person he tried to solve a local police problem and find out who had committed a burglary, he arrived at the sole conclusion (perhaps doubtful) that the offender was left-handed. But by the time the mind which evolved Sherlock Holmes had made this deduction, the village constable already had the culprit locked up.
. . . writers of fiction, in stories, novels, plays, and films, have continued to present the threadbare situation of a prisoner at the bar who is the spotless and pitiable victim of brutal police, ruthless prosecutors, and savage judges. Fiction about the criminal character—or ninety per cent of it—is designed to please emotional rather than rational folk.
A little reading in the fiction of crime, and still a little more about the facts of crime, in England and America, ought to convince anybody that the myth of the marvelous amateur detective has been built up at the expense of the ordinary and frequently honest policeman. It is amusing to have Sherlock Holmes expose Inspector Lestrade as an ass, and to see Philo Vance show up Sergeant Heath as a blustering nincompoop. But it has furnished a little bit too much ammunition to those who are over-ready to work themselves to a boiling point of indignation in behalf of any and every hoodlum and killer who has at last been run down and put where he belongs.
. . . clergymen, I have observed, are assiduous and intelligent students of crime.
Final advice to those contemplating murder would be: Don't follow the detective novelists. Avoid elaborate and "scientific" methods. Be direct and ruthless, and, instead of fearing witnesses, get as many around you as possible. The more, the luckier. — Edmund Pearson, "The Perfect Murder," SCRIBNER'S (July 1937)
The classic mystery novel has been criticized for years (e.g., by Raymond Chandler) for being unrealistic. Nobody who wrote them would ever say they were intended to be. This genre (sub-category, sub-species, whatever you want to call it) operates under rather strict rules, like the form of a sonnet or a limerick, a Racine/Moliere or classic French play, an Aesop fable, a fairy tale with elves and ogres, princesses and heroes—basically a fantasy story. One has to accept this or else go read something else. Modern versions have been updated of course to allow explicit sex, swearing, real gore and gruesome insanity, but the format remains the same. A good mystery is an escapist reading experience, not involving abdication of intelligence or critical viewpoint as with a Harlequin romance or a shoot-em-up of either the sadistic Mickey Spillane or comic-book superhero Doc Savage type, but a suspension of disbelief is required. — Wyatt James, "What Was the Golden Age of Detection?", GAD Wiki

Category: Detective fiction

Not Your Usual Carr

By John Dickson Carr.
Harpers/Hamish Hamilton.
1942 [US], 1943 [UK]. $2.00
No Merrivale, no Fell, no impossible crime, and no spooks. Can this really be a JDC novel? Oh, yes:
Death of antiquarian peer in French resort town laid at door of young English girl. Perceptive psychologist extracts her from jam. - A bang-up puzzle, good writing, interesting characters, sly humor, and soupcon of "zizi-pompom." Maestro Carr at his very best. - Verdict: Required reading. — THE SATURDAY REVIEW (November 14, 1942)
The murder of an antiquarian in a small French resort is solved by a specialist in criminal psychology although all the circumstantial evidence points to the girl engaged to the victim’s son. A very slick whodunit. THE AMERICAN MERCURY (May 1943; scroll to page 631)
The Emperor's Snuff-Box is a non-series mystery novel (1942) by mystery novelist John Dickson Carr. The detective is psychologist Dr. Dermot Kinross.
The novel takes place in France and concerns a jeweled snuff-box in the shape of a pocket watch said to have belonged to Napoleon. A pretty young Englishwoman living in France forms a romantic attachment and becomes a suspect in the murder of her fiance's father; the theft of a valuable necklace and the smashing of the snuff-box are also mysteries to be solved. The novel served as the basis for the 1957 film That Woman Opposite, for which Compton Bennett wrote the screenplay.
It is considered one of Carr's great novels and is considered the best among those with no locked room murders or impossible crimes. There's nothing supernatural in it either. — Wikipedia
Singled out by Carr himself as one of his best efforts, this is quite an anomalous title from the great writer's oeuvre, though it displays many of his greatest virtues. Constructed with his trademark cunning, the story does not feature an impossible crime and is also one of the author's comparatively few books set in contemporary times not feature either of his popular detectives Dr Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale. Indeed it is the only one of his novels from the 1940s not to feature them. Which is to say that this book is indeed a bit special—not least because it may be the closest Carr ever came to writing a murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, the entire plot based on a superbly clever psychological device rather than locked room pyrotechnics. — Sergio, TIPPING MY FEDORA (2 September 2012)
This makes for an engrossing psychological suspense story that neatly plays a tune on one of Agatha Christie's most well-used themes, the eternal triangle, which also boasts a clever, but ultimately simple, plot—whose crafty misdirection lead me away from the murderer. I think every well-read and clued-up mystery fan will guess the murderer instinctively, but a talented mystery writer can fling the solution in your face and laugh at you as you reject it and settle on a different suspect. That's exactly what Carr did here. — TomCat, BENEATH THE STAINS OF TIME (April 27, 2012)
The characters have enough depth to be convincing, and—although relatively little happens after the murder—the plot moves fast enough to keep the reader's interest. There are a couple of coincidences which seem a little strained on reflection, but Carr puts them through with gusto at the time, which is what counts—and the red herring is first-rate. — Jon, GAD Wiki
One of the best uses of misdirection and one of the most fairly clued of Carr's detective novels. A truly astute reader will catch on easily. The use of the wrongly accused motif was very Hitchcockian. Very cinematic in how the murder is accomplished . . . — J. F. Norris, GAD Wiki

Category: Detective fiction

"Carr's Other Major Masterpiece"

By Carter Dickson.
1938. 191 pages. $2.00
One of Dickson/Carr's best:
It's a minor flaw, one that takes nothing away from the ingenious murder trick. Carr himself knew he had to establish a clear motive, and wrote a fine ending that clears up all the loose ends. At the end of the day Carr's writing is triumphant. The courtroom scenes are some of the funniest things I have read in a long time. H.M. is definitely my kind of sleuth, and I'm looking forward to reading the other Merrivale books I have. — Pikkon, LAY ON THE CRIME SCENE
The Judas Window impressed me deeply when I first read it, as did many other Carr books. Traditionally, Carr's masterpiece was always considered to be The Three Coffins. That book has "The Locked Room Lecture" and some remarkable impossible crimes. However, in recent years, The Judas Window is often being cited as Carr's other major masterpiece. Carr authority Douglas G. Greene regards it as so, and author Barbara D'Amato pays homage to both works in her novel Hard Case. The storytelling in The Judas Window is especially good. It has a rich vein of comedy, and a wonderful courtroom drama. It makes a very satisfying reading experience: every plot element falls into place in the work just the way a reader would want. — Mike Grost, GAD Wiki
The plot is fiendishly clever but far from impossible to comprehend and indeed the solution is remarkably simple in its conception, though Douglas Greene is probably right to question some aspects of the mechanics and just as correct to dismiss them as not really relevant to one's enjoyment. And even when everything impossible seems to have been explained satisfactorily, even to the extent of justifying Merrivale's belief that every wall and every door in the land has its own "Judas Window," there is still a trial to be won and a killer to be unmasked! — Cavershamragu, TIPPING MY FEDORA (14 March 2011)
Young Englishman, found in locked room with murdered father-in-law-to-be, provides Henry Merrivale's knottiest, most interesting problem. - Top-notch courtroom scenes, leading to expose of most ingenious murder device in years, give reader three engrossing hours. - Verdict: First-rate.  THE SATUR-DAY  REVIEW (January 8, 1938)

Category: Detective fiction

Not Quite So Idiosyncratic

By Carter Dickson.
1940. $2.00
Dickson/Carr is back on form with this one:
This is the second Carter Dickson detective novel I have read, and I enjoyed it far more than She Died a Lady, which was published a few years later (though contemporaneously as Penguins). This book was light-hearted and rather tongue-in-cheek, but more importantly the humour was not at the expense of the main characters. While he has his idiosyncrasies, Sir Henry was not presented here as the buffoon as he was in the later book, and this made him far more entertaining with his curmudgeonly, irascible, and impatient ways, and his infuriated air at being forced to spend his time inevitably in the company of the less-perceptive. — Karyn Reeves, A PENGUIN A WEEK (25 July 2012)
Monica Stanton, the pretty and rather naive daughter of a British clergyman, is the author of a surprisingly scandalous best-seller. As a result, she has been hired as a script writer for Albion Films, working with William Cartwright, a script writer from the world of detective novels.
However, she is not going to be working on her own novel—she is helping Cartwright adapt his latest detective novel, And So to Murder. Tilly Parsons is a dumpy, bustling chain-smoking American woman in her early fifties who is the highest-paid scenario writer in the world, imported from Hollywood at great expense to adapt "punch up" the screenplay of another Albion film.
Glamorous movie star Frances Fleur, whose punctilious husband Kurt von Gagern selects all her parts, will be the star. Against the backdrop of Pineham Studios and Fleur's current movie, a series of mysterious attempts on Monica's life begin—they are exceptionally nasty and completely inexplicable, involving sulphuric acid.
When someone poisons Tilly Parsons' cigarette and nearly kills her, Sir Henry Merrivale helps Chief Inspector Masters to bring home the crimes to their unlikely perpetrator. — Wikipedia
Death in various frightful forms pursues guileless English girl writer all over film-lot, until Sir H. Merivale [sic] says, "Stop!" - Customarily excellent Dicksonian opus—not too serious in this instance—with plenty of thrills and a solution you'd never guess. - Verdict: Grade A. — THE SATURDAY REVIEW (May 11, 1940)

Category: Detective fiction