Monday, November 30, 2015

"Next Time I Throw Myself on Top of You," Said a Disembodied Baritone, "The Least You Could Do Is to Struggle"

By Marilyn Todd (born 1958).
Crippen & Landru Publishers (homepage HERE).
2015. 284 text pages + 5-page checklist.
Collection: 11 stories.
Parental caution: Strong language and adult situations.
For sale HERE with author's bookpage HERE.
If you don't always like your mysteries with contemporary settings, there are a few authors who can oblige by taking the reader centuries into the past to places that once teemed with people but are now crumbling jumbles of detritus; one of the best at this approach is Marilyn Todd.

Rather than trying to ape the stilted style of speech that we've come to expect from badly-dubbed sword-and-sandal movies, Todd modernizes the proceedings in such a way as to keep her characters from sounding like a dress rehearsal for a high school production of Julius Caesar while preserving the salient attributes of the ancient cultures she places us in. The result makes for smoother reading and assists us in concentrating more on the mystery plot.

Swords, Sandals and Sirens collects eleven of Todd's historical mysteries, with settings in either ancient Greece (three stories) or, most often, Rome in the time of Augustus Caesar (seven stories, with one other set earlier, during Julius Caesar's dalliance with the Queen of the Nile). The Greek stories feature several characters: the wholly mythical Echo, as well as two more down-to-earth individuals, the Delphic Oracle and Iliona, a high priestess who has appeared in at least three novels.

The remaining Roman stories focus on Claudia Seferius, the always cash-strapped widow of a wine merchant—and a real looker. Thanks to the prevailing oppressive tax structure and the repressive patriarchal culture of the times, Claudia is often forced to skirt the law, always with the prospect of exile from Rome lurking in the back of her mind—but it seems that every time she's about to make a big score that will get her out of the red, somebody gets murdered. When that happens, the law's long arm soon appears, sometimes like a wraith from the shadows, in the person of Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, a patrician member of the Secret Police whose ambition for promotion would make squashing a minor scofflaw like Claudia the work of but a moment. Yet when these two get together to solve a murder, for some reason Marcus overlooks his duty and never does nab her. Maybe it's his respect for her smarts, maybe it's her regard for his prowess, maybe it's his concern for her welfare, maybe it's her respect for his position—and maybe, just maybe, it's because they're in love.

Here are the stories and the principal "sleuths":

(1) "Bad Day on Mount Olympus" (The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy, 2001) (Echo)
~ The usual conference-cum-orgy of the demigods is interrupted when Hercules proposes a regime change; it's up to little Echo to head off a holocaust if she can . . . can . . . can . . .

(2) "Bad Taste" (EQMM, June 2014) (Claudia Seferius)
~ They say no good deed goes unpunished, as Claudia learns when at a Roman bacchanal being held by one of Caesar's relatives someone tries to poison her; surely this is the wrong response to saving a man's life, is it not?
(3) "Cover Them with Flowers" (EQMM, November 2012) (Iliona, High Priestess of the Temple of Eurotas)
~ When nine women are murdered in the same ritualistic fashion, Iliona reluctantly joins with Lysander of the Spartan Secret Police to bring their killer down; to the high priestess, the most telling clue the murderer leaves behind is three neatly carved wooden flowers, provid-ing her with an insight into the motivation behind these atrocities.
(4) "Cupid's Arrow" (EQMM, September/October 2003) (Claudia Seferius)
~ On a sultry summer's day Claudia witnesses a brazen attempt at theft which ends badly for the thief with an arrow in the back. Claudia's next-door neighbor, a brutal man, quickly emerges, saying that the thief has just murdered his wife; Claudia, though, has good reason to believe he killed her himself. The problem, as usual, lies in proving it.

(5) "Death at Delphi" (EQMM, March/April 2007) (Cassandra, the Delphic Oracle)
~ A general of the army of a certain Greek city-state dies just after consulting the Oracle of Delphi concerning his plans to overthrow his king; while most think his death is meet punishment by the gods, the Delphic Oracle herself believes it was an assassination engineered by mortals, something that could only be accomplished by someone who works at the temple, someone who, to her sorrow, she loves very much.

(6) "Girl Talk" (Past Poisons, 1998; reprinted in EQMM, May 2000) (Claudia Seferius)
~ Claudia's inclination to operate just outside the law gets her into a very dangerous situation involving a political conspiracy, a murder with a headless body and a bodiless head—and a potentially fatal confrontation with a fanatic's arrow aimed straight at her heart.
(7) "Honey Moon" (The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits, 2003) (Claudia Seferius)
~ The State has decreed that Claudia must remarry, and not being one to overlook any opportunites at self-improvement she relentlessly pursues and weds one of the wealthiest men in Rome; on their honeymoon, however, tragedy strikes—but it strikes in a fashion that will meet even the approval of The State.
(8) "Stag Night" (The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, 2000; reprinted in EQMM, July 2002) (Claudia Seferius)
~ For some men it isn't sport unless blood is spilled. Seeing a chance to secure some wine contracts, Claudia accepts an invitation to spend time on a vast country estate owned by a man who enriches himself by giving wealthy businessmen an opportunity to hunt down wild game—but, as Claudia will learn almost too late, not all of their prey runs on four legs.

(9) "Swan Song" (EQMM, February 2006) (Claudia Seferius)
~ It's a time for celebration in Rome and Claudia is making the most of it in her continuing search for a worthy husband, but she could never have anticipated running afoul of someone consumed by a dangerous compound of hatred and ambition, someone with no qualms about bashing in a man's head, framing somebody else for it, and murdering Claudia.

(10) "The Wings of Isis" (The Mammoth Book of Egyptian Whodunnits, 2002; reprinted in EQMM, March 2003) (Cleopatra, Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt)
~ Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown (or, in Cleopatra's case, the wig), what with people whom you must rely upon dreaming up plots to depose you every chance they get—and even if they can't kill you outright, there are ways to discredit you. When one of Cleopatra's high priestesses dies in an apparent accident, the Queen's authority to rule comes into question; she will need her own wits and the investigative skills of several loyal officers to prove that this "accident" was, in fact, a carefully planned murder.
(11) "Trunk Call" (Murder Through the Ages, 2000; reprinted in EQMM, May 2001) (Claudia Seferius)
~ Not many people die from the sniffles, but an Imperial official who specializes in buying and training pachyderms for Caesar's bread-and-circuses seems to have managed to do just that. Three grieving women, all claiming to be his wife, are eloquent evidence of his peccancy, but only one has good reason to suspect he must have been murdered—and so does the man she really loves. In order to dodge official attention for a shady deal that she has just entered into with the deceased, Claudia once again will reluctantly have to assist Marcus of the Secret Police in figuring out whodunnit.
- Wikipedia's entry for Claudia Seferius is HERE, Marilyn Todd's own website is HERE, and the FictionMags listing of her short stories is HERE.

Category: Sword-and-sandal sleuthing of a high order

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"His Bullet Knocked My Hat Off My Head, and in the Excitement I Stepped on It"

"Murder Buys a Hat."
By Edward Ronns (real name: Edward Sydney Aarons, 1916-75).
First appearance: Thrilling Detective, July 1942.
Reprinted in Thrilling Detective (UK), September 1954.
Short short story (7 pages).
Online at Pulpgen HERE.
"Rookie Crown Gets the Lowdown on a 'Suicide' When Georgie Puts Her Wits to Work for Him!"
Rarely, very rarely, is "Watson" a smarter detective than "Holmes," and it's practically unheard of when "Watson" is a woman; so when rookie cop Bill Crown unravels a murder made to look like a suicide, it's a good thing he has Georgie and her inside information to help him. Of course, there's the little matter of surviving long enough to tell the tale:
. . . THE shadow seemed grotesque and misshapen, not human, until I realized it was that of a man doubled over with a burden on his back. I knew what the burden was, and my heart started pounding like a kettledrum.  . . .
- Edward Ronns later achieved fame as Edward S. Aarons with his series of spy novels, as the majority of these websites will tell you: Wikipedia HERE, the GAD Wiki HERE, Mystery*File HERE, Spy Guys and Gals HERE, and FictionMags HERE.

The bottom line: One must never set up a murder. They must happen unexpectedly, as in life.
— Alfred Hitchcock

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Plot Is Perhaps the Most Interesting in All Fiction, Because It Remains a Riddle Without an Answer—Unless, Indeed, Mr. Sherlock Holmes's Solution Proves to Be Correct"

"Sherlock Holmes Solves the Mystery of Edwin Drood."
By Harry B. Smith (1860-1936).
First appearance: Munsey's Magazine, December 1924.
Fictional nonfiction (15 pages).
Online HERE.
"IN the novel which he did not live to finish," Harry Smith tells us . . .
. . . Dickens had planned a story in which the plot should be the all-important thing, critics having found his other works lacking in plot interest. He determined to construct a novel in the style of his friend Wilkie Collins, with a plot that would keep the reader guessing. He succeeded so well that "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" has been a mystery for more than fifty years.
We are forced by necessity to limit this post to an outline of Smith's long and involved article, so that brief excerpts must suffice:


We may be thankful that Smith provides an admirably concise summary of the novel's main characters and altogether mysterious incidents:
. . . There are other mysteries [embedded in Edwin Drood], less conspicuous, but more fascinating to the reader . . .
. . . there are Dickensians far gone in Droodism who spend most of their leisure time in reading Dickens's last book. This novel becomes an obsession.  . . .
. . . the literature that has been inspired by the puzzle of Dickens's last plot would require for its accommodation at least two of the widely advertised five-foot shelves.  . . .
. . . Somewhat curiously, although the mystery has fascinated many men of letters, no professional detective has ever been consulted in the case; yet there are several well known investigators to whom it would be a simple one, compared to the baffling problems which they are sometimes called upon to solve. That the matter should be referred to an expert in criminology is no new idea of the present writer's. It was several months before the last of Sherlock Holmes's lamented deaths, as chronicled by his biographer, that I first thought of applying to that wizard of criminal investigation.  . . .

To begin with, The Great Detective is uninterested:
. . . "Watson, I don't think I should care to take the case. It is no pleasure to me to cooperate with the simpletons of the regular force, but this white-wigged amateur of yours insults my intelligence. Good God, Watson, I should think he would almost insult yours!"  . . .

. . . but Holmes finally relents, launching into a lengthy discourse which includes, among so much else, these observations, often at Watson's expense:
. . . "Dickens was writing a novel, but a writer of fiction with a modern, or even a mid-Victorian period, must keep within the bounds of probability."  . . .
. . .  "As I have often told you, doctor," Holmes resumed, "one must begin an analysis by eliminating impossibilities."  . . .
. . . "Your question is a pertinent one, doctor," replied Holmes. "Like all your questions, it would occur to any one of ordinary intelligence."  . . .
. . . "This, I believe, is one of the elements of strength and originality in Dickens's plot. The criminal sounds the alarm and starts in motion the machinery that finally convicts—himself."  . . .

For Holmes the actions of the lawyer in the plot are most telling but beyond poor Watson's ken:
. . . Watson gazed at Holmes in blank astonishment. Apparently used to that expression on his friend's face, the great detective continued . . .
. . . "Not so fast, my good Watson," said Holmes. "Admirable as your capabilities as a physician may be—I speak from hearsay only, as my own health is unimpaired—your knowledge of legal procedure is limited."  . . .

The fact of Jasper's addiction, to Holmes, is not a feeble attempt at sensationalism on Dickens's part:
. . . "I am no literary critic [Holmes says], but common sense tells me that an author does not make his villain a morphinomaniac subject to fits in moments of excitement, and does not send him on an opium spree just before he commits a crime, unless that author has a good reason for doing so . . . Why is opium in the story at all, if not for some purpose such as I have indicated? To deny that opium is in the novel for a purpose is to assert that Dickens devoted many pages to an irrelevant matter."  . . .
. . . "Dickens described to the artist just what he wanted on that pictorial cover—some of the striking scenes in the story, as he had it outlined in his mind. The tomb scene, with Jasper, lantern in hand, confronting the menacing figure, is the most important feature of the cover design. It was to be the strongest climax in the novel."  . . .

Holmes scoffs at one theory that the mysterious character of Datchery was of the feminine persuasion:
. . . "My own opinion is that if Dickens intended to present Helena to his readers as an elderly gentleman wearing a white wig and 'buttoned up in a tightish blue surtout,' his sense of humor must have been in abeyance, and he was asking his readers to have the credulity of a child hearing a fairy tale.  . . .  Mr. Dickens was writing a modern novel, in which the plot, characters, and incidents must approximate real life, must be plausible and convincing. He could hardly ask his readers to believe that all his characters are such imbeciles that they cannot tell a masquerading girl from an elderly man. What is admissible in the Forest of Arden, or any other fairyland of fancy, becomes incredible in everyday life."  . . .
. . . "The idea is essentially comic. Dickens, we know, took his plot very seriously, and the revelation of Datchery was to have been his strongest situation."  . . .

To Holmes a minor character in Edwin Drood deserves much more attention than he usually gets; when told that "Dickens often introduces characters for incidental humor, and soon allows them to drop out of the story," Holmes demurs:
. . . "But Bazzard is not one of these transient comedy characters. He is not comic. He is negative, an uninteresting person. In fact, he completely realizes the type of man referred to in Dickens's notebook—'a sort of insect to be brushed aside'."  . . .

Having solved to his own satisfaction the major mysteries present in Edwin Drood—i.e., what happened to Drood and the identity of Datchery—Holmes admits that:
". . . it contains other mysteries—enigmas that will never be satisfactorily solved, and can only be vaguely guessed."  . . .

And Holmes minimizes the importance of reports that Dickens revealed to others the outcome of his story:
. . . "I attach no importance whatever to such testimony," said Holmes. "My friend Watson states in one of his stories that I have no knowledge of literature. I don't deny the charge; but I am sure of one thing—no novelist with a complicat-ed plot in his mind is likely to go around telling it to his friends and relatives. Dickens guarded his plot jealously."  . . .
This article could be considered an example of metafiction: Since Holmes and Watson, fictional characters, analyze other fictional characters, you're safe in assuming that everything in it is really an expression of Harry Smith's ideas on the subject.

- If you would like more detailed summaries of Edwin Drood (with SPOILERS), go HERE and HERE.
- Harry B. Smith certainly wasn't as prolific as Charles Dickens as a writer (few are); he gravitated to music and the musical stage (which might explain his interest in Edwin Drood—remember that Jasper was a musician); for more about Smith go HERE (Wikipedia), HERE (FictionMags), and HERE (the IMDb).
- What we thought would be our last encounter with Edwin Drood is HERE; from there, if you have a mind to, you can backtrack to other related ONTOS posts.
- One of Smith's most famous compositions was "The Sheik of Araby"; a video performance (if that's the right word) of that tune is on YouTube HERE (2 minutes 30 seconds—at least it was there last time we checked).

The bottom line: "At night when you're asleep, into your tent I'll creep."
— Harry B. Smith

Friday, November 20, 2015

An Oppenheim Trio

"The Ninety-ninth Thread."
By E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946).
First appearance: Collier's Weekly, April 30, 1927.
Short short story (5 pages).
Online starting HERE and concluding HERE (scroll to page 40).
"Angus proves himself a detective who won't take 'Guilty' for an answer . . ."
Coulson was a killer, but was he also a murderer? From the evidence, The Honorable George Angus isn't sure:
. . . "He was a mild little inoffensive accountant's clerk, saving money every week, wonderful at his job, thought the world of by his employers—they paid for his defense, by the bye—a man whom all his neighbors liked, although the men called him rather a milksop, and he lay there, just come back from the border-land between life and death, and in perfect sincerity he told me that the only regret he had was that he hadn't been able to kill the woman with whom he'd been living for eleven years!"  . . .
Things get even more doubtful when his ex-wife and her new lover turn up dead:
. . .  "Let me get this right! You killed the woman's first lover. You went to prison. You threatened to kill her when you came out, and anyone she might be with. You've hung around their flat. You were seen to enter it last night. They are both shot dead. Your revolver is lying on the floor. You were seen to leave the flat. What chance, I ask you, has anyone got to do anything for you?"
"There must be a chance somewhere," Coulson insisted, "because I did not kill them."  . . .
Only a soiled and all but forgotten envelope will resolve matters.
"The Happy Ending."
(a.k.a. "The Disappearance of William King").
By E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946).
First appearance: Collier's Weekly, May 7, 1927.
Short short short story (4 pages).
Online commencing HERE and finishing HERE (scroll to page 44).
"Look here," he said, "I'm not a detective. I'm not connected with the law. I'm an ordinary human being, and I've been piecing your story together on my way down here. I'd like you to tell it to me."
Who or what could cause William King, an exemplar of the community, to do this?
. . . "There was never a shadow of scandal or a suggestion of loose living connected with him. His employers valued his services highly. He had appar-ently not an enemy in the world. Yet on one Friday, about two months ago, he slipped out of the world. He failed to return home at the usual hour and has never been seen or heard of since."  . . .
As mysterious in its way as the case of James Phillimore yet unlike that unsolved conundrum, thanks to some persistent sleuthing on Angus's part exactly why and 
where William King disappeared to—a watery grave and an earthly paradise—will 
become abundantly clear.

"The Actor's Romance."
(a.k.a. "Kenmar's Golden Day").
By E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946).
First appearance: Collier's Weekly, June 4, 1927.
Short short short story (4 pages).
Online starting HERE and finishing HERE (scroll to page 38).
"And all these eight years, Angus, she has lived in peril of her life. Some day or other the end will come. Perhaps no one will ever hear of it."
For Sir James Kenmar, a well-known and -respected actor-manager, life has become so stultifying that when his chance at true love comes he fights for it; Angus could never have imagined that he would also be fighting for the same thing—in his own way:
. . . Saunders turned around to meet Angus' fist in his face. Exactly as the latter had calculated, with the first sting of pain, he saw red and forgot everything else for the next few moments. There was a scream of delight from the newspaper boys and loiterers of that ilk.  . . .
The case of James Kenmar proves how right The Bard was: "To be wise and love exceeds man's might."

- Other info about our author is HERE (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection) and HERE (GAD Wiki).
- Angus explains why he has become a private detective: "I and a friend of mine have started in business—just from the love of it—as sort of amateur investigators into crime and disappearances and all that kind of thing." Altogether Oppenheim produced at least ten adventures with The Honorable George Vincent Angus and his partner Peter Bragg, all of them appearing in Collier's and being collected as The Exploits of Pudgy Pete & Co. in 1928, reproduced in Roy Glashan's Library HERE.

The bottom line: "Falling in love is not at all the most stupid thing that people do, but gravitation cannot be held responsible for it."
— Albert Einstein

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"He Was About the Last Man You'd Ever Have Connected with Organized Crime"

"The Ubiquitous Professor Karr."
By Stanton A. Coblentz (1896-1982).
First appearance: Weird Tales, July 1949.
Reprinted in Tales of the Macabre (1969) and Horror Gems, Volume Five (2013).
Short short story (9 pages).
Parental caution: Strong language.
Online HERE.
"A blameless man, the Professor . . . everybody thought!"
When he is asked about the most baffling case he ever encountered while he was on the force, Chief Finch recounts the time he busted up a robbery ring led by a man who, according to physical law, couldn't possibly have been anywhere near the crime scenes, yet was seen by dozens of witnesses:
. . . "Remembering how he'd been motioning to them just before I fired the shot, I knew he'd been their guide, their secret captain. Maybe some of them didn't see him or know anything about him, but I'm mortally sure some of them did follow him . . . He'd showed them where to find the loot; showed them how to get around our nets. And that's why, when I think things over, I'm glad I fired that shot."  . . .
- Two articles about Coblentz (a very uneven writer) are HERE and HERE; other info can be found HERE (Wikipedia), HERE (FictionMags), HERE (the SFE), and HERE (the ISFDb), with a couple of his other stories HERE (Project Gutenberg).

The bottom line: The absent are never without fault, nor the present without excuse.
— Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"A Great Deal Has Happened Since Your . . . Death"

"He Took It With Him."
By Clark Collins (real name: Mack Reynolds, 1917-83).
First appearance: Fantastic Adventures, April 1950.
Reprinted in Amazing Stories, December 1966.
Short short story (7 pages).
Online HERE.
"He could see no point in making millions, only to leave it to others when the time came to die. So he did something about it!"
If you're planning to live forever, make sure you know how you're going to spend it:
. . . "You have brought a treasure from the past that is of immense value."  . . .
- Wikipedia HERE, FictionMags HERE, the ISFDb HERE, the SFE HERE, and Project Gutenberg HERE.

The bottom line: For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
— The Bible

Late Nineteenth Century Snippets about Detective Fiction

The anonymous individual(s) who ran the "Literary Chat" department at Munsey's Magazine were forced from time to time to acknowledge the popularity of mystery fiction even if they might have disapproved of it as low art.

Our first snippet concerns Conan Doyle in the interregnum between Holmes's precipitous plunge and his miraculous reappearance, during the interval when Doyle was turning out more respectable fiction:

"Literary Chat—Dr. Doyle's New Book."
Munsey's Magazine, May 1896.
Online HERE (scroll to page 251).
. . . Since the death of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Doyle has been doing considerable jibing on the sea of literature without catching a fair breeze or sailing steadily in any one direction. The fact that Dr. Doyle despised Holmes, and that Holmes was the making of Dr. Doyle, exemplifies the old saying that an author is the worst judge of his own work. When the "Stark Munro Letters" made their appearance, it was suggested by more than one critic that to preserve his reputation, their author would be obliged to resurrect the astute detective and launch him upon a fresh career. "The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard" is a good substitute, however, and has met with a warm reception and a wide sale.  . . .
". . . a good substitute . . ."?
Our next snippet involves another very popular mystery fiction author of the era; our critic's chief complaint against him is one that has dogged detective fiction practically from its inception:

"Literary Chat—A Master of Mystery."
Munsey's Magazine, December 1896.
Online HERE (scroll to page 377).
"The Carbuncle Clue," the latest achievement of Mr. Fergus Hume, of hansom cab fame, reminds us forcibly of a dime novel in a high state of cultivation. The "cultivation" has no connection with literary style, referring rather to the publishers being reputable and the cover of the book more pretentious than that of the average volume of the "Half Dime Horror" variety. Regarding Mr. Hume's style, there is not much to be said. One realizes how defective is the English language when one looks about for an adjective to describe the diction of his books. Those familiar with Mr. Hume's work—and who is not?—will remember that it is his custom to begin with a mysterious murder and finish with the vindication of an innocent man. Familiar music is the sweetest, familiar scenery the most grateful to the eye. Mr. Hume's books enthrall and fascinate because the reader always knows exactly how they will turn out, and thus avoids the nervous strain which physicians tell us is so injurious to the heart. When the corpse and the astute detective, the villain and the circumstantial evidence, have all been marshaled in due array, together with the accused man who refuses to tell what he was doing at the time of the crime, and the beautiful damsel who trusts her lover sublimely, then Mr. Hume takes his pen in hand, dips it in blood red ink, and embellishes the first chapter with gore and mystery.  . . .
. . . In the dim past, before he solved "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab," he determined that there was a right way to write a detective story and that there was a wrong way. He proceeded to choose the latter, and with admirable consistency has clung to it ever since. His literary puppet booth boasts half a score of marionettes who have new dresses for every new play, and who never for a moment overstep the line that divides a live man and one of wood. Wonderful mysteries does the showman concoct for them, and thrilling situations; yet they always preserve their stolidity, and are dolls and nothing more.  . . .
And then there's this, what might be the first instance of product placement in detective fiction:

"Literary Chat—In Briefer Mention."
Munsey's Magazine, April 1897.
Online HERE (full text below or scroll to page 152).
In "That Affair Next Door," by Anna Katharine Green, an important piece of evidence is the pair of shoes worn by the murdered woman, for of course, the book being by Mrs. Rohlfs, there is a murdered woman to be considered. It is expressly stated, possibly by way of free advertisement, that these shoes were purchased from B. Altman & Co., a somewhat well known dry goods firm on Sixth Avenue. The crime was committed in September, 1895. We wonder if it has occurred to Mrs. Rohlfs that Altman did not sell shoes until the opening of the present season. These are small matters, but it is well to be accurate, especially in the case of circumstantial evidence.
If the shoe fits . . .
An age-old parlor game popular among critics of detective fiction involves predicting (or, in this case, heralding) the end of the mystery as then known:

"Literary Chat—The Decline of 'Detective' Literature."
Munsey's Magazine, June 1899.
Online HERE (full text below or scroll to page 474).
It frequently happens that the actor who feels his powers waning as he grows old, sinks gradually from his position in a metropolitan stock company to a minor one in a traveling combination, and is at last forced to accept an engagement at some dime museum, where he continues to act long after he has been forgotten, as one dead, by a public that was wont to applaud him in the days of his repute. In like manner we sometimes encounter in the lower literary strata characters that once enjoyed high honor at the hands of the reading public.
A case in point is the detective of romance, the combination of shrewdness, silence, honesty, and eccentricity, who once held us spellbound as he unraveled the most difficult plots, bearded criminals in their dens, and finally accomplished the glorious triumph of virtue. There was a detective of this sort in Wilkie Collins' "Moonstone," a man who united a rare skill in the detection of crime with a passion for rose growing. There was a boy detective in the same book, and the reading public of their day looked upon both with the utmost respect and confidence. There were other detectives, too, in the literature of the earlier part of the century, men who wore numerous disguises and took awful personal risks in the performance of their duties.
In fact, the detective in his time was one of the most respected, accomplished, and popular characters to be met with in the entire world of fiction; but this once honored personage has descended from his high place, and is ending his days in the pages of dime novels and cheap juvenile publications. His present stage of degradation may be inferred from the fact that the recently deceased author of the "Old Sleuth" series of lurid tales for office boys was, in private life, a commonplace, unromantic bank director, with an average output of one novel a week, and a corresponding capacity for coupon cutting.
It is true that Conan Doyle has, within very recent years, given us an ideal crime detector in the person of Sherlock Holmes, but that was a creation of his own. Holmes does his work by the well directed application of a vast fund of miscellaneous knowledge and an exceedingly sound and practical common sense, and is not to be classed with his old fashioned prototype, who usually depended for success on his different changes of whiskers. It is doubtful if the small boy of the period would accept Holmes as a hero, even in a debased five cent form. He works too quietly and uses altogether too much brain and too little brawn in the performance of his tasks to suit a taste that has been formed by perusal of the "Old Sleuth" stories.
The chief reason for the downfall of the many whiskered detective of romance may be found in such revelations as those of the Lexow examination in New York. In the slang of the day, the public is "on to" the detective, and will have no more of him as a serious character. The mere mention of his calling conjures up a vision of a political heeler who has found the reward of years of faithful and unscrupulous political service in a place "on the force," where he understands that he is privileged to make as much money as he can during his tenure of office.
It is not impossible that from the ashes of the dead and gone detective of romance there will spring up a modern type, in the person of the man who gets his share of every robbery, and forges his way to the upper ranks of his profession by virtue of his skill in collecting tribute from the different malefactors who are permitted to do business within the precincts of his authority; but this character would probably find acceptance only as a humorous one.
Another cause for the decline of the romantic detective may be the decay of crime itself as a picturesque industry. Banks are no longer robbed at midnight by skilful and daring men of the class that broke into the Manhattan Bank a quarter of a century ago, but by sleek, comfortable looking presidents and cashiers, who work in the broad light of day, and by rehypothecating securities and doctoring ledgers rather than with dark lantern and nitroglycerin. Bank robberies of the kind that these gentlemen commit are almost worthless in stories founded on dramatic incident. No detective that ever put on a disguise could detect one of them in a manner that would be satisfactory to the reading public.
Not until crime is restored to its old position of dignity among the arts, not until criminals return to their habits of midnight and mystery, will the detective regain the place he once held in high class fiction.
- Conan Doyle: Mike Grost's Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection HERE.
- Fergus Hume: Mike Grost's Guide HERE and the GAD Wiki HERE.
- Anna Katharine Green: Mike Grost's Guide HERE.
- "Old Sleuth": GAD Wiki HERE and the Kindle Megapack for sale HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Friday, November 13, 2015

"It Is a Funny Camera and No Mistake"

"The Prophetic Camera."
By Lance(lot de Giberne) Sieveking (1896-1972).
First appearance: The English Review, November 1922.
Also published in The Living Age, January 13, 1923; The Strand Magazine, February 1923; and reprinted in Strange Tales from The Strand, 1991 (HERE).
Short short story (7 pages).
Online HERE.
"I'm positive it ain't no good knowing the future unless it's pleasant."
In his wife's absence Mr. Muffle is attending their pawn shop when a "miserable-looking man" convinces him to take a decrepit camera for five shillings; when she returns, Mrs. Muffle is not pleased, expressing her feelings with a snort and a "contemptuous little laugh"—but, as we'll see, neither of them could ever have imagined just what that old camera is capable of.
Purely by coincidence, of course, an episode of The Twilight Zone featured a camera with disturbingly similar capabilities; Rod Serling tells us about it:
. . . "Object known as a camera, vintage uncertain, origin unknown. But for the greedy, the avaricious, the fleet of foot, who can run a four-minute mile so long as they're chasing a fast buck, it makes believe that it's an ally, but it isn't at all. It's a beckoning come-on for a quick walk around the block—in The Twilight Zone." — IMDb HERE
- Lance Sieveking was quite active in the halcyon days of radio; see Wikipedia HERE.
- Only one of Sieveking's stories seems to have appeared in EQMM (April 1954, online HERE), "The Bookhawker," first published somewhere in 1932.
- Other information about Sieveking for you datajunkies: FictionMags HERE, IMDb HERE, the ISFDb HERE, and the SFE HERE.

The bottom line: The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality.
— Susan Sontag

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Suddenly He Felt a Desperate Need to Prove Himself, Justify Himself in the Eyes of That Raging Madman Out There"

"Coffins to Mars."
By John Jakes (born 1932).
First appearance: Fantastic Adventures, September 1952.
Short short story (9 pages).
Online HERE.
"Gordon's invoice read: 'Ten bodies. Deliver to Mars.' But there was an eleventh coffin, and Gordon found it contained more than the dead body of a Martian."
It seemed like just another unremarkable, prosaic cargo run to Mars, but then sudden death changes everything:
. . . He raced through the lock and into the hold. The lights were on and the biers were in their racks, steely sides glinting dully in the light. Gordon's eyes swept over the room, up, then down. And suddenly he knew what the smell was. Blood.  . . .
And just about the last person Gordon would expect to encounter on his ship is a wanted criminal whose "voice was like a mixture of honey and thunder":
. . . He towered, a giant of a man, looking down on Gordon like some haughty god, aware of his own might and intelligence. With the pistol he had complete power.  . . .
Not only is he big, but he also entertains grandiose ideas, notions that make it almost certain Gordon won't survive this flight:
. . . "That German fellow had the idea, but he needed it refined by more education. Only the intellect can rule, and the intellect says kill in order to rule. You see?" He smiled again, and then the smile vanished. "I'm getting tired of you, pilot."  . . .
- John Jakes is much more famous for his historical novels, many of which have been adapted to film; see HERE (Wikipedia) and HERE (IMDb) for more.
- More bibliographical data about our author are HERE (FictionMags) and HERE (ISFDb).

The bottom line: I don't want to own anything that won't fit into my coffin.
— Fred Allen

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"There's Nothing Worse in Art Than a Bad Imitation of a Good Detective": Reviews from THE BOOKMAN II

"Nothing but the Sleuth."
By Donald Douglas.
From The Bookman, November 1927.
Online starting HERE and finishing HERE.

By the late '20s the Van Dine and Edgar Wallace branches of detective fiction were in full flower, and book reviewers like Donald Douglas were well supplied with ammunition to lob at the egregious excesses of the field's practitioners. A few of Douglas's pithier comments:
OF late years a sinister influence has come to corrupt the fine tradition of the great Sherlock Holmes who was a knight without fear and without a love interest. Now you can't get through a fine tale about battle and murder and sudden thugs without having to spend half your time with a blue-eyed heroine intent on getting into trouble so that the detective-hero can fish her out from the nets of crime.  . . .
. . . It's a proof of soft effeminacy lain like a blur of mould on the fair tapestry of the skeined plot which should stick to masterminds and villains popping in and out of every fifteenth page (cutting throats from left to right) in an orgy of thickening suspense and secret panels and a coupla chases over roofs at midnight, with a few hand-to-handcuff encounters thrown in at the last haul by the fisher of thugs.  . . .
. . . There's nothing worse in art than a bad imitation of a good detective.  . . .
. . . At times the true lover of the great tradition in detective mythology (M. Lupin and M. Lecoq and Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown of imperishable memory!) wonders whether there's not something really worse than a heroine marrying the handsome young inspector and that is a tale wherein the author insists on inventing a sleuth who makes wise cracks for three hundred pages. Let wisecracks stay with the young intellectuals where they belong. Give us all the crack of the truncheon on the splintered dome of the tough guy or the crack of a pistol shot at a bad man creeping on all fours down into the drain!  . . .
Here, with review excerpts, are the books Douglas glances at:

~ Terror Keep by Edgar Wallace (1875-1932):
. . . You can count on Edgar Wallace doing the best mystery tales of anyone now writing and then taking up at least two pages with a rapturous description of a girl's blue eyes and rose-bud mouth and other fascinations right enough in the way of a maid with a man but downright irritating in the way of a thug with a sandbag.  . . .
Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ Hardican's Hollow by J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935):
. . . a vast amount of pother over a plot of no importance.
Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ Vivanti by Sydney Horler (1888-1954):
. . . You get real blood and a vampire doctor . . .
FictionMags HERE

~ The White Mask by J. M. Walsh (1897-1952):
. . . a mysterious dispenser of oblique justice at last brought down by the coursing bloodhounds of the law.  . . .
Wikipedia HERE

~ The Joy Ride by John G. Brandon (1879-1941):
. . . can you swallow nearly three hundred pages of a novel just bent on bein' so bloomin' funny?  . . .
GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ The Mystery at Lovers' Cave by Anthony Berkeley (1893-1971):
. . .  It's an ingenious plot with a society woman thrown over a cliff and pretty girl suspected of the murder and it's pleasant reading; and yet you wish Roger [Sheringham] wouldn't give the impression of Oscar Wilde trying to wear gum-shoes.  . . .
Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ The Silver Urn by Foxhall Daingerfield (1887-1933):
. . . a plot of such incredible obviousness and dullness . . .
FictionMags HERE

~ The Castle Rock Mystery by George Gibbs (1870-1942):
. . . a writer of mystery stories finds a man murdered and is himself suspected because that very night he'd been sleep-walking . . .
Wikipedia HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ The Devil's Mantle by Frank L. Packard (1877-1942):
. . . From first to last it has a mounting thrill . . .
Wikipedia HERE - GAD Wiki HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ The Dangerous Isles by Basil Carey (Jessie Joy Baines, 1898-1942):
. . . an unending series of damned clever Chinks and young battling heroes and sweet slips of girls and boats sailing and men tussling.  . . .
FictionMags HERE

~ Rubies by Louis Moresby (L. Adams Beck, c.1862-1931):
. . . you get the steamy jungles of Burma and a great golden Buddha and Cornwall smugglers and black-hearted gentlemen singing a song of greed.  . . .
~ Silent Guests by Alfred E. Forrest (?-?):
. . .  you have a baronial mansion in the wastes [of Canada] and a gang of ex-convicts and panels that open and deliver up their spooks and other hair-raising matters.  . . .
~ Blind Corner by Dornford Yates (Cecil William Mercer, 1885-1960):
. . . the best yarn this fall . . .
Wikipedia HERE - FictionMags HERE

~ The Pallid Giant by Pierrepont B. Noyes (1870-1959):
. . . tries to mix business with Rider Haggard.  . . .
Wikipedia HERE

- Other Bookman reviews are HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism