In The Technique of the Mystery Story it is clear Wells has a wide reading knowledge of the writers of her period and those who came before her…. With all this knowledge she still has no real understanding of how to construct and write a detective novel. She is quick to condemn the “hackneyed devices” but will use them herself. She discards useful conventions that move a story forward and invents some of her own that bog down the flow of the action. When it comes to putting it all together Carolyn Wells is more like the wannabe painter who throws buckets of paint on a canvas and sloshes around in it and then expects it to be accepted as art. Anyone else will look at it and call it a mess. But a loveable mess if you have an appreciation for her mastery of the early American alternative classic mystery.
Curtis Evans writes more favourably about her on his Passing Tramp blog. While he acknowledges she “produced a lot of extreme clunkers”, and that “most of the stuff she produced in the last twenty years of her mystery-writing career ranges from indifferent to dreadful”, he finds many of her works charming. (See, for instance, his reviews of The Diamond Pinand The Daughter of the House.)
I’ve had Wells on my list of writers to investigate for years. Back when I was writing my thesis, I spent a month or two making love to the University of Sydney’s detective fiction holdings.
(A sample list of treasures: Several signed R. Austin Freemans, and his sketch of “The Puzzle Lock”; Malice Aforethought signed by Francis Iles; She Died a Lady signed by John Dickson Carr; and Ellery Queen’s copy of The Eye of Osiris.)
They had most of Carolyn Wells’ books: handsome Edwardian books with illustrated frontispieces and art deco jackets. Critics like Will Cuppy and Isaac Anderson repeatedly praised her books. (Dashiell Hammett, of course, didn’t.)
What, then, do we make of The Clue?
It’s not bad. It’s not a classic, by any means, or even particularly good, but for much of its length, it’s a solid, straightforward, rather conventional detective story. Think of it as a more modern, livelier A.K. Green.
Beautiful young heiress Madeleine Van Norman is stabbed with a dagger (Venetian, natch) on the even of her wedding – apparently suicide.
The local doctor thinks otherwise, and so does Rob Fessenden, the best man and lawyer.
He sets out to clear the bridegroom, Schuyler Carleton, who was in love with another woman.
Along the way, Fessenden himself falls in love with a nice thing.
There are some good deductions from lead pencils and handwriting (even if we’re not given the clues to make those deductions ourselves).
What did Miss Morton burn in the fireplace? What did young Tom Willard pick up from the carpet? What did Carleton Schuyler do in the missing quarter-hour? And what is the secretary’s secret?
It breezes along quite nicely, only to plummet at the end.
Fleming Stone, Wells’ series sleuth, appears in the second-last chapter, and makes short work of the mystery.
The reader may guess the killer (I certainly did), but isn’t given any clues. (Ironic, given the title.)
Stone’s evidence is either found in the last chapter, when he’s intuited whodunnit; or depends on technical knowledge.
First published: Le Masque, Paris, 1990. English translation: The Madman’s Room, Locked Room International, 2017, trans. John Pugmire.
This is guaranteed to send the detective fiction fan into paroxysms of delight. It’s Halter’s take on the room that kills.
There’s something terrifying and invisible in Hatton Manor that makes people die of fright, or throw themselves out of windows, à la Case of the Constant Suicides.
The room in question is the sealed room of mad old great-uncle Harvey Thorne, a clairvoyant who predicted his father’s and his siblings’ deaths.
He himself died on the sill of his study in atrocious convulsions, after a fit of madness – or extreme fear. And there was a wet patch on the carpet in front of the fireplace…
Is there a connection with the brimming glass of water Harvey kept in his room?
Decades later, industrialist Harris Thorne turns Harvey’s old room into his study. He falls from the window – and there’s a damp patch on the carpet.
His wife Sarah fainted on the sill after looking into the empty room. What did she see that terrified her?
The answer, criminologist Dr. Twist suggests, is nothing at all. Make of that what you will.
Paul Halter throws punch after punch, until the reader feels groggy, and decidedly mazed.
Harris’s brother-in-law is injured in the room – and the carpet is wet. A second murder follows, and again there’s the damp patch on the floor. Another man nearly dies by fire, as Harvey predicted.
Then there’s the strange business of a dead man who won’t stay dead, a clairvoyant’s worryingly accurate predictions, and a disconcerting discovery in a coffin.
It’s a twisty case for the indefatigable Dr. Twist.
And everything comes beautifully together at the end, in a subtle, elaborate design – with no fewer than four explanations for the wet carpet.
It’s the sort of intricate construction one expects from the heir to John Dickson Carr.
Some, though, find the plot coincidence-laden to the point of contrivance.
Halter draws attention to the baroque nature of the plot: “an accumulation of events, each of which can only be explained by coincidence… It’s a succession of mysteries, each weirder than the one before… We explained each one in turn, and the links which connected them. But each time, everything hung by a thread…”
And there, my fatheads, I went and smote myself upon the forehead.
I will now explain the mystery of the fifth glass of water – which isn’t even mentioned in the book. (That’s how subtle this is!)
There is a once-famous French play, which demonstrates how little effects lead to great causes, and how events and coincidences pile together to form a design that is at once logical yet improbably intricate.
I refer to Eugène Scribe’s Verre d’eau – or, to give its English title, A Glass of Water.
And Scribe, master of the well-made play, was famous for his narrative ficelle: the thread.
A coincidence? I wonder.
I read La Chambre du fou back in 2005. After years of reading the English Orthodox School (aka “Humdrums”), I remembered why I actually enjoyed detective stories in the first place.
John Pugmire’s translation is brisk, but there’s the odd bit of Franglais: salon, mousquetaire, Medicis, Marseille; or mistranslation back into English: “Beware of the ides of March.”
First published: UK, Collins, 1938; US, Dodd Mead, 1938
You can now go into bookshops and buy John Rhode detective stories.
When I was a teenager, at the turn of the 21st century, that would have seemed incredible.
“Crime” in bookshops consisted of dreary tales about middle-aged policemen with domestic problems, hard-nosed pathologists up to their elbows in decomposing corpses, and charming fellows who keep sex dummies in the cellar.
Detective stories (outside specialist shops) were limited to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Sherlock Holmes.
So walking into a mainstream bookshop and seeing The Paddington Mystery and Invisible Weapons on the shelf still smacks of a minor miracle. Collins has reprinted those two, as well as Mystery at Olympia and Death at Breakfast.
More power to their elbow! I’d love to see all 144 of Major Street’s detective stories surface.
That said, aren’t these four, frankly, rather odd choices?
It’s one of Rhode’s rarest novels, and it’s the first detective story to feature Dr. Lancelot Priestley, the sage of Westbourne Terrace, a dry old mathematician who solves murders as a recreation from cracking the Riemann hypothesis.
I read it a decade ago, and remember almost nothing about it, except that Harold Merefield (Dr. P’s future son-in-law) finds a stiff in his bed, and the detectives measure windows.
It’s not as good as Dr. Priestley’s Quest (1926), which has plenty of action; The Ellerby Case (1927), where a drug dealer tries to bump off Dr. Priestley with a series of increasingly ingenious death-traps (including a bright green hedgehog); The Murders in Praed Street (1928), where a serial killer strikes in a seedy London suburb, and Dr. Priestley discovers he’s the next victim; The House on Tollard Ridge (1929), which combines a haunting, a sharp portrait of a strong woman in a loveless marriage, and a couple of ingenious murders; and The Davidson Case (1929), where the slaying of a syphilitic businessman, running his firm onto the rocks, raises the question of justifiable murder.
The others are decidedly rummer choices. (I haven’t read Mystery at Olympia.)
Death at Breakfast (1936) has some clever ideas, including a handy way of killing a man in the morning, but it is, Barzun and Taylor thought, “rather routine Rhode”. The usual policemen, Superintendent Hanslet and greenhorn Jimmy Waghorn, are pretty dense (is anything denser than copper?), and the murderer’s scheme takes some swallowing.
As for Invisible Weapons…
The murder of Mr. Robert Fransham while he was washing his hands at his niece’s house was one of the most amazing problems that ever confronted Scotland Yard. Especially in view of the fact that no weapon could be found and that there was a policeman in the house when the murder was actually committed. The combined efforts of Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn brought no result and the case was dropped—but not forgotten. It was only after another equally baffling murder had been committed that Dr. Priestley began his investigations. He was as good as told that he had a “bee in his bonnet”, but as the doctor so aptly remarked, it was a bee which might produce the honey of wisdom. And it did, for Dr. Priestley’s brilliant deductive powers eventually solved this extraordinary case.
By a stroke of luck, Constable Linton was waiting in Dr. Thornborough’s consulting room when it happened. But he had no sooner broken through the heavy oak door which was the only opening into that tiny room than he found that the situation was far beyond his rightful jurisdiction.
Old Mr. Fransham was stretched on the floor, an ugly square wound in his forehead, murdered…
It was not long before Jimmy Waghorn and Inspector Hanslet were investigating the possible answers to these questions, but only after Dr. Priestley made his startling discovery did they reach the true solution. John Rhode has been scrupulously fair in presenting his clues; yet it will be a clever reader who can keep pace with Dr. Priestley’s orderly and imaginative deduction.
Brad (at ahsweetmysteryblog) wondered whether “locked room mysteries are inherently masculine in their approach and appeal”.
John Rhode, thought Christianna Brand, was a man’s writer, with his railway tickets and time and tide-tables.
Invisible Weapons may, then, be the most masculine book in a masculine sub-genre.
It is refreshingly devoid of such effeminacies as characterization or style. Inspector Waghorn measures carriage-ways, and stares intently at brick walls. Dr. Priestley sends his minion Merefield to do a census of fridges; count keys; and chase vans. There are long paragraphs of exposition and recapitulation.
We recognize old plot devices as friends from other John Rhode novels. An old rip dies, before he can marry a much younger woman (Poison forOne). Suspicion falls on a chauffeur. And there’s a calf’s head (Hendon’s FirstCase).
The murderer, of course, adopts a disguise, and lays several false trails, incriminating other people. Waghorn and Hanslet each get “their” cases, which turn out to be connected. They are methodical, and very slow. They dutifully suspect the obvious culprit in one case, while the death in the other seems to be an accident. And the murderer is evident.
As a short story, rather than one of Major Street’s four detective novels a year, this may have succeeded. There’s certainly not enough meat – plot complexity – for a full-length mystery. (Compare, for instance, Death Takes a Flat.) Rhode, though, often doesn’t do sub-plots. He’s a detail man.
Nor is there enough character interest, or wit and charm to skate blithely over a thin tale. The best Rhodes, and many of the Miles Burtons, show that Street could draw vivid characters – see, if you will, Murder, M.D. – and that he had a dry sense of humour. (Could John Dickson Carr’s closest friend in the Detection Club be totally mirthless?)
Even in its day, Invisible Weapons was considered a second-tier Rhode.
“The major Rhode is still ahead,” thought Torquemada in the Observer, “and that in spite of the fact that this author has … retreated at least half way towards his best and safest ground, the problem of the scientific How. …
“As regards the two scientific Hows, the two invisible weapons: it must be confessed that Austin Freeman has given us more than one study of the second and more likely, and that the first, on the feasibility of which a reminiscence of boyhood might cast a doubt, would not have seemed mysterious to the late Thomas Hanshew, to Carolyn Wells, to Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace, or even, if my memory serves, to Martial.”
Invisible Weapons, in conclusion, is representative – without being actually good.
It’s not as good as the books on either side of it: Proceed with Caution (1937), the quintessence of the Crofts school, or the atmospheric Bloody Tower (1938), with its doomed family, cursed monument, and buried treasure.
Mr. John Rhode has no need to blacken his murderees’ characters to produce sufficient suspects to make an enthralling mystery. In Invisible Weapons he once again builds a flawless murder (indeed, he lavishly gives us two, each equally well thought out), and once again destroys his edifice by a solution that surprises the reader by its very simplicity. Each crime is a brilliant variant on the locked-room puzzle. It must, of course, be galling for Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn to find another case apparently insoluble until Dr. Priestley solves it; but their loss is the reader’s gain.
Observer (Torquemada, 10th April 1938):
The major Rhode is still ahead, and that in spite of the fact that this author has, in Invisible Weapons, retreated at least half way towards his best and safest ground, the problem of the scientific How. I do not mean that the Who, the taker-off of Robert Fransham and then of Sir Godfrey Branstock, is meant to be, or indeed is, obvious; it is left to Dr. Priestley to tell the more than usually unproductive Waghorn and Hanslet who Who is, at the same time as he draws the outline of Who’s invisible weapons; but I do not think that the reader will be unduly surprised by the identity. As regards the two scientific Hows, the two invisible weapons: it must be confessed that Austin Freeman has given us more than one study of the second and more likely, and that the first, on the feasibility of which a reminiscence of boyhood might cast a doubt, would not have seemed mysterious to the late Thomas Hanshew, to Carolyn Wells, to Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace, or even, if my memory serves, to Martial.
Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 22nd April 1938):
Puzzle. A man is struck down in a room which has a locked door and only one small window under constant observation from without. How, then, can the blow have been delivered, since no missile is to be found? No wonder that in Mr. John Rhode’s Invisible Weapons Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn are baffled. Luckily there is always Dr. Priestley to help, and, indeed, one shudders to think how many murderers Messrs. Hanslet and Waghorn would have let loose upon society but for the intervention of Dr. Priestley. A reader familiar with detective stories may have less need of Dr. Priestley’s help to guess the truth, since the method used is not entirely unfamiliar. Readers, however, who, like the two police officers concerned, happen never to have heard of it before will be able to admire both its extraordinary ingenuity and its effectiveness.
Times Literary Supplement (John Everard Gurdon, 23rd April 1938):
While Fransham was washing his hands in the house of his niece, Mrs. Thornborough, someone killed him by fracturing his skull with a cubical object. A brief investigation satisfied the police that Dr. Thornborough had committed the crime, but they were quite unable to bring a charge against him because the most scrupulous search failed to reveal any weapon or missile. Fransham’s skull, in fact, had apparently been fractured by thin air. After a time, therefore, the disgruntled authorities shelved the case, and in that condition, no doubt, the matter would have rested if the astute Dr. Priestley had not suspected a connection between Fransham’s death and a certain sad accident. The story is admirably developed and very nearly convincing.
Sydney Morning Herald (29th April 1938):
John Rhode’s otherwise excellent double murder mystery sheds some of its satisfactoriness when the time comes for him to explain two things: first, the connection between the killing of Mr. Fransham and Sir Godfrey Branstock; and, second, the way in which the former was murdered.
SPOILERAny man who remembers boyhood exploits with a catapult will also remember how difficult it is to hit a target, dead-centre, at 12 or 15 feet, even given freedom of vision and movement for aiming. But for a murderer to plan a killing by removing a brick from a wall, to sight a catapult through the hole thus made, and to smash the skull of a gentleman having a wash in a room across the driveway, would call for a degree of patient practice which would try the endurance even of a homicidal maniac. And Mr. Fransham’s executioner is no homicidal maniac. He bears no animus against his victim; has nothing to gain from his death but the opening up of the way to get rid of Sir Godfrey Branstock. By following this technique he does, of course, give Mr. Rhode something on which to base a yarn, but the procedure is one that is extremely difficult for the reader to swallow.
Even in his choice of a missile to be used in the catapult, the author has been forestalled. A fairly recent detective novel was based on a killing done by what appeared from the wound to be a stiletto. Actually, no steel did that job; John Rhode has used the same substance to heighten the mystery element in his story.
Books (Will Cuppy, 19th June 1938, 300w):
Mr. Rhode has been accused of slowness in the past, though we always called it thoroughness; this time there’s plenty of speed and a rather terrific amount of suspense, or whatever it is that keeps one reading a baffler. There’s also the narrative skill that makes the better English mysteries so comforting.
Sat R of Lit (25th June 1938, 40w)
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 26th June 1938, 200w)
New Yorker (16th July 1938, 40w)
No one is fairer than John Rhode in giving his readers a chance to solve mysteries for themselves.
Marjorie Hyde, gifted but unsuccessful actress, was unhappily married. Like many members of her profession she was temperamental, and though not beautiful had the Titian colouring that is supposed to make men mad. Her husband was insanely jealous. He learnt that she was frequently in the company of Philip Clare, a barrister and Parliamentary candidate. Christopher threatened to take divorce proceedings that would ruin his rival’s career. The same night he drank his usual glass of after-dinner port and died from hyoscin poisoning. The unravelling of the mystery surrounding his death makes thrilling reading. Anthony Gilbert’s gift for portraying character is seen at its best in this magnificent story of crime and passion.
My last Gilbert, I complained, was conventional. Death at Four Corners(1929) showed a young author using the technique of one of the dominant writers of the day, and producing an average detective story – solid, well-constructed, rather dull – that lacked individuality.
Half a dozen years later, Gilbert rebooted her career with vulgarian lawyer Arthur Crook, bright and cynical as a Cockney sparrow. She had found her voice: lively, vivid, and cheerfully sardonic. And, like Gladys Mitchell, an enthusiasm for experimentation.
One never quite knows what Anthony Gilbert will do.
Sometimes it’s a classic whodunnit in the line of Christie; sometimes the villain is known from the start; sometimes it’s a thriller; and sometimes what appears to be one sort of story is really another in disguise.
One may well call The Man Who Wasn’t There the ultimate in fair play: the detective story without any mystery.
The police have an open-and-shut case against actress Marjorie Hyde. She had motive, means, and opportunity to kill her husband Christopher, a crazed war veteran. But the police didn’t reckon with Arthur Crook.
Halfway through, Gilbert changes tack. Now it’s the story of a murdered Jewish moneylender. One of the possible suspects in Major Hyde’s death was in Rufus Julian’s power. While Crook lies in a coma, his understudies try to prove the man’s guilt.
Every clue they turn up, every deduction they make, they share with the reader. They all point straight to their suspect.
There are no surprises. Their quarry is guilty. The only twists are quite minor: variations on a theme introduced in the opening sonata. (SPOILERHyde didn’t poison himself to frame his wife; he poisoned his wife’s glass, and the murderer then switched glasses.)
It’s as close to minimalism as the detective story gets.
And it rather goes against the grain when the thumpingly obvious murderer turn out to have done it.
And yet I enjoyed it. Gilbert, as I said, writes well.
Just don’t expect any surprises, mystification, or misdirection. The reader is warned.
A corpse in clerical clothing is found on a platform overlooking the sea, near the estate of Sir Gervase Blount, nobleman and clergyman.
The dead man has been shot through the head. For good measure, he is clutching a button; has a livid blue mark round his wrist, and a scar on his chin; and is wearing another man’s boots.
Suspicion falls on Sir Gervase, whose wife the victim blackmailed.
A warning: This is not a country house mystery, despite the title. It’s a Croftsian procedural: conventional, humorless, and something of a trudge.
The police investigate the victim’s rooms; question the landlady, servants, lodgers, constables, and postmen; and build up a case against Sir Gervase. There are long, dense paragraphs of speculation, where the detective laboriously sets out what he thinks happened; since we’re only a third through the novel, he’s almost certainly wrong.
Other elements feel late Victorian: a noble suspect, who is both a parson and a devoted husband protecting his wife; a Lady’s (innocuous) secret; a dastardly blackmailer; a sinful woman – with a French name; and some social commentary on boarding houses and genteel poverty.
The occasional burst of fine writing shows that Gilbert could do better.
A sudden ray of sunlight, wan and transitory, smote that smut-laden garden; it kindled the weeds to a momentary beauty, struck a faint illumination from the dusty leaves of the laurels, and lingered for an instant about the stunted bough of the slender, barren cherry-tree.
Some do, though, call for Stella Gibbons to asterisk them.
The September twilight had come down suddenly like a curtain over the luminous sky; already the leaves were falling in soft fugitive showers and somewhere out of the dim branches a robin sang. That sweet and poignant melancholy, that haunts travellers in lands where no robin has ever been heard, and that sings remembrance irrevocably into the heart, struck the impressionable listener to a sudden, anguished pity; he realised that before the thread of suspicion, now lying in Bremner’s fingers, had been wound into the ball of fulfillment they would have reached the heart of tragedy for two, at all events, of the players in the drama.
One passage is surprisingly grimly realistic for the period:
Ambrose remembered certain dreadful nights when his mother had lain dying of cancer – the screams, the smothered moans. They had been appalling to hear, but less so than this silence.
Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 27th January 1929, 100w):
Here’s a meaty, well written and sufficiently scandalous item [with] a clever and unusual conclusion.
NY Times (3rd February 1929, 220w):
It is an absorbing story even though the solution of the mystery seems a bit far-fetched.
Springfield Republican (10th February 1929, 140w):
Livelier and more mysterious than the author’s previous effort, The Murder of Mrs. Davenport. Surprise after surprise awaits the reader and the plot is not fully revealed until almost the final words.
Times Literary Supplement (7th March 1929):
Fortune, it seems, favours the writer of detective fiction; no other class of persons can claim among its friends so many people with logical minds. Mr. Gilbert is no exception. No sooner have the first few pages of his book disclosed what appears to be a murder of the most baffling kind than a young man springs up, his brain overflowing with brilliant deductions. If the murdered man had a button and a piece of cloth in his hand, obviously he was shot—there was a bullet in his brain—during a fight. Since his shoes were far too small for his feet, obviously the body had been disguised after the murder. Since also the scars on his chin were acquired many years ago, obviously—or at any rate probably—he had become clean shaven only recently. And so on. Of course, as these deductions all occur in the first chapter, they are mostly incorrect; only correct enough, that is, to throw the reader on the wrong scent. But for all that there is no denying young Scott Egerton’s exceptional powers of logic, and it is a gracious act of recognition on the part of the author to allow him the two or three final pages of awe-inspiring elucidation. The central situation is neatly contrived, and the various incidents dovetail so that as many people as possible are suspected. But the writing is for the most part undistinguished.
Boston Transcript (6th April 1929, 200w):
Death at Four Corners is a good detective story with very minor faults. Its construction is excellent, its situations well worked out and logical, and its characterisation adequate.
First published: Le Masque, Librairie des Champs-Elysées, 1999. English translation: Locked Room International, 2018, trans. John Pugmire
Like many of Halter’s later books, L’Homme qui aimait les nuages is part fairy-tale, part myth.
The story involves a miser who lives in a cursed house where the wind always blows (the house of Usher); a wood nymph who can predict the future, create gold from stones (the Midas touch), and make herself disappear in the Fairy Wood. (As the Puzzle Doctor says in his review, it’s clearly a nod to Carr’s “House in Goblin Wood”.)
It falls into a group with Halter’s other village mysteries, Les larmes de Sibyl (crimes predicted by a soothsayer) and Le cri de la sirène (victims falling off cliff, apparently killed by a banshee).
Halter excels in piling incident upon incident and sustaining an atmosphere, rather than in pure detection. There are several murders, and the enigmatic Stella, but little in-depth investigation.
Twist and Hurst make few deductions or question witnesses; they seem almost to react to the crimes, until the showdown. Several characters (Patience Walsh, the vicar, the Fishes) seem underdeveloped, or only tangentially connected to the plot.
Which is as much as to say that Halter emphasises imagination, the mysterious, the insoluble, over characterization or painstaking sleuthing. The story is all.
And his imagination is undeniable. While murders apparently committed by the wind lack the chutzpah of, say, La 7ème hypothèse or Les 12 crimes d’Hercule, there’s plenty of creativity.
The killer is surprising, and there’s much more going on under the surface than first appears. The “how” of the impossibilities, though, is far from Halter at his best.
What, no references to Aeolus or Nephele?
This is the first Halter novel I’ve read in English. I’m feeling lazy. (To assuage my conscience, I’m listening to Rameau.)
John Pugmire’s translation is notably terser than the original; it moves briskly, and it’s clean and idiomatic. He abridges some of the passages, or skips over adverbs and some descriptions.
Why, though, Dodoni (the modern Greek village) rather than the more traditional Dodona (the oracle and oak grove sacred to Zeus)?
A passenger dies on a short hop flight to Santa Catalina, a resort island off the Californian coast.
Schoolteacher sleuth Hildegarde Withers suspects foul play. Her suspicions are confirmed when the body goes missing before an autopsy can be conducted. Not before the dead man is identified as a star witness with a $15,000 bounty on his head…
Like many of the early Stuart Palmers, this feels like the basis for a film script – and, unsurprisingly, was filmed with Edna May Oliver as Miss Withers two years later.
The novel is entertaining, moves briskly, isn’t too complex, and has plenty of incident.
Miss Withers robs the US mail; burgles suspects’ rooms; is threatened with guns, and tied up in cupboards; gets caught in storms and earthquakes; makes pals with a hard-boiled Hollywood gal; and acquires a terrier. (There are worse things to have!)
The mystery, though, is on the light side. Miss Withers detects, but there isn’t much to detect.
I reached the dénouement suspecting everybody and nobody. Palmer doesn’t really give us much chance to suspect the suspects. Christie and Carr would have planted false clues leading us to suspect at least two innocent people, and subtle clues pointing away from the murderer.
Mike Grost complains that the killer’s identity is arbitrary, without any real clues, and the motive is generic.
I see where he’s coming from. The culprit took me by surprise, as it did Mike, as did a big twist a chapter before – but Palmer’s clueing is scanty.
A sentence in the first chapter is fair, and could give the game away to an astute reader. Another later on (a footprint) is also a pointer. It’s a long way, though, from the clever clueing and counter-clueing of Carr, let alone Queen’s exhausting logical deductive chains.
This round of reviews begins with three detective stories in East Africa; visits a WWII military camp, and small-town opera productions; and finishes with a hardcore porn film.
I’ve always wanted to go to Africa – to see the pyramids of Egypt and Kush, the mosque at Djenné and the rock churches of Lalibela, and the cities of Ifé and Great Zimbabwe; to explore the souqs of the Maghreb and the voodoo markets of Benin; to soar in a balloon over the Great Rift Valley, and cross the Sahara on a camel; and to see gorillas in the Rwandan mist, wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, and lemurs in Madagascar. One day!
(I’ve discovered a travel company called Undiscovered Destinations, which takes you well off the beaten track, to places like Chad, the Cameroon, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and the Congo. You can even take a Punt on Somaliland.)
Elspeth Huxley gives us a Murder on Safari (1938) in “Chania” (Kenya), when well-heeled Westerners came to Africa to blaze away at the wildlife.
To her credit, Huxley doesn’t think much of it.
Peppery peer Lord Baradale dismisses the notion that big game hunting pits man’s skill and ingenuity against the animal’s (“Why is it more unsporting to bomb a herd of elephants or turn a machine-gun on to a pride of lions than to drive up to them in a motor-car and shoot them with a high-powered rifle?”) –
or that it allows man to show his courage (“There’s no danger at all in going after some wretched animal, whose only aim is to escape, armed with a battery of expensive high-velocity rifles and flanked by a couple of professional shooters”).
“It isn’t sport; it’s murder,” Lord B concludes.
There’s human murder, too, of course. The victim is the unpleasant Lady Baradale, a wealthy American with a taste for younger men. Her jewels are pinched – rifled, one might almost say – and she’s rifled, too: drilled neatly through the head, and eaten by vultures.
A case for Superintendent Vachell.
This is a model detective story, with an unusual setting, good handling of a large cast, and a fine balance between plot and story.
I read this a dozen years ago – and I couldn’t remember who did it. My main suspect got killed, and my second was a red herring.
Rather a nice surprise, that! I’ve reached the point where I can reread books afresh.
(Unfortunately, I still remember whodunnit in every Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. Can someone recommend a good hypnotist? “You will forget the plot of Murder on the Orient Express… You will forget everything… You have no will of your own. You are now my zombie… Go, and assassinate the Pope!”)
The killer is well concealed. It’s not a gaping surprise – not a “There lies the murderer, but God forbid we should judge him now!”, a Roger Ackroyd, or “Yes, he shot at the same man again, but not in a…” – but you probably won’t guess whodunnit.
Huxley’s technique is beautiful. She builds a proper ladder of clues, many of which seem to be saying something else (background info about big game shooting, or proving that another character couldn’t have done it) – and they’re all FOOTNOTED, to boot! (Something not enough detective writers do: Carr, Knox, King – who else?)
In its unsensational way, a triumph.
M.M. Kaye’s Death in Kenya(1958) takes place in a politically troubled time.
It’s set in the late ’50s, halfway through the Mau Mau uprising (1952-64), “the Emergency”.
The Mau Mau – a militant nationalist group – tortured, mutilated, or murdered nearly 2,000 (1,819) Kenyan natives, 32 Europeans, and 26 Asians. (See Wikipedia article.)
The British, it is estimated, killed more than 20,000 Mau Mau militants in response.
Historian David Anderson called it “a story of atrocity and excess on both sides, a dirty war from which no one emerged with much pride, and certainly no glory”.
Kaye (whose husband’s regiment was called in to help quell the uprising) writes from a colonial perspective. She does not mention that the white administration – one of the most racist and oppressive in Africa – arrested thousands of suspected Mau Mau supporters, many of whom were tortured (including castration) or executed; or the forced resettlement of nearly half a million (320,000 to 450,000) Kikuyu into labour camps.
30 years later, however, she wrote: “The opinions voiced by my characters were taken from life and at first hand. For though the Wind of Change was rising fast, very few of the Kenya-born settlers would believe that it could possibly blow strongly enough to uproot them from a country that every single one of them looked upon, and loved, as a ‘Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrim’s pride…’”
The Mau Mau uprising is, though, a backdrop to the detective story – which is an excellent one.
Poltergeist activity in post-Mau Mau Kenya turns even nastier. I’m not saying who the victim is; it’s a nice surprise.
For those who have read all of Christianna Brand, this might be just what you need – and in an unusual setting, too!
It’s a tight, character-focused detective story where the murderer must be one of seven suspects, all friends, and all equally likely starters.
Kaye pulls off the least-likely person with aplomb. X is cunningly concealed, and not someone I suspected. It’s inevitable in hindsight, and even the heroine’s romance is crucial. There’s also a decidedly ingenious subsequent killing, and a clever twist on an old device.
More than O-Kaye. All of a sudden, I like detective fiction again.
The Merry Hippo (1963), Elspeth Huxley‘s fourth detective story, deals with decolonization.
France and the UK had started granting their African territories in the 1950s.
A Royal Commission visits the British Protectorate of Hapana to determine whether it’s ready for independence. It’s an uphill process.
The British are well-meaning, but inefficient; the chairman’s previous success led to a dictatorship. The UN representative is an earnest windbag, full of high-principled speeches. And the Africans quarrel over tribalism, religion, and politics.
It’s an entertaining, good-natured satire in the line of Waugh’s Black Mischief and Scoop (journalists misinterpret and exaggerate to create news), with some lively characters.
It’s not quite as good a mystery as I remembered; it’s fairly-clued, but the murderer does come somewhat out of left-field.
Back in Blighty, Christopher Bush’s Case of the Murdered Major (1941) is an entertaining look at a POW camp, written with shrewdness and humour. An incompetent officer is sandbagged in the snow; no footprints in sight. The murderer is very easy to spot (they have a cast-iron alibi, can’t have done it, so obviously must have), but there’s a clever murder method that Carr would have enjoyed.
In Robert Barnard’s Death on the High C’s (1977), an obnoxious Australian is murdered during a small-town production of Rigoletto.
In Death and the Chaste Apprentice(1989), an obnoxious Australian is murdered during a small-town production of a Restoration comedy and a lost Donizetti.
Both books are amusing; neither is a great mystery.
I enjoyed Apprentice more. The pastiche Restoration comedy is full of the riper bits of Beaumont, Middleton, and Massinger. (“It was generally agreed that two hands were discernible in it, though only half a brain.”)
And Barnard certainly knows his Donizetti.
Prolific and versatile, the bel canto composer from Bergamo turned out around 70 operas (depending on how you count them) in comedy, tragedy, and genres in between.
A short list of his most popular operas would include Lucia di Lammermoor, with its famous mad scene (soprano stabs husband on wedding night); Lucrezia Borgia (soprano poisons son); Anna Bolena (soprano is beheaded by Henry VIII); Maria Stuarda (soprano Elizabeth I beheads another soprano – “Figlia impura di Bolena! … Vil bastarda!”); Roberto Devereux (soprano Elizabeth I beheads the Earl of Essex); and La favorite (the king’s mistress – mezzo, actually – dies of an unhappy love affair).
Plus three comedies in which, surprisingly, no soprani are harmed at all: L’elisir d’amore; Don Pasquale; and La fille du régiment.
Donizetti is part of mainstream repertoire in opera houses around the world, but fell into neglect in the mid-19th century. His operas were rediscovered in the post-WWII bel canto boom after years of neglect, thanks to singers like Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé. Opera Rara in Britain has devoted itself to recording his works, using critical editions.
Adelaide di Birkenstock, the long-lost opera semiseria in Barnard’s novel, was composed in 1825, for the castrato Velluti, revised in 1838, and then lost – part of the MS in London, the rest discovered only the year before as a door-stop in the Conservatory of Music in Naples.
The soprano “hacks her husband’s head off, and then stabs herself after some fearsome coloratura”. Here, Birkenhead is somewhere North of the Border. “Indeed, to him or his librettist all England seemed to be an appendage of Scotland, which at least righted a balance, some might think.”
It’s a nod to:
the unfinished Adelaide, which became the unfinished L’ange de Nisida (performed for the first time this year), and which became La favorite
the early Emilia di Liverpool. Emilia is the daughter of Claudio, Count of Liverpool; Liverpool is, Charles Osborne says, “a village in mountainous country somewhere just outside London”; and the opera is full of “dreadful jokes in Neapolitan dialect”.
Gabriella di Vergy, a long-lost Donizetti opera, which Donizetti composed in the 1820s for his own pleasure, revised in 1838, but was never staged. The husband presents his wife (soprano) with her lover’s still-beating heart in an urn. Donizetti liked bloody plots. “Give me love – but let it be violent love!”
So too might the Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41) have said.
He’s famous for such bon mots as:
“If you had one neck, I would hack it through!”;
“Kill them all, from baldie to baldie”;
“Let them hate me, so long as they fear me”;
and “I’ve thought of a wonderful joke – but you wouldn’t find it funny. I only have to give one nod, and both your throats will be cut on the spot!”
Caligula has, for some strange reason, gone down as one of history’s worst tyrants: a capricious, extravagant madman who declared himself a god, slept with his sisters, turned the palace into a brothel, appointed his horse consul, and declared war on the sea.
Our chief source is Suetonius’s scandal-mongering Lives of the Caesars, written a century or so later, in the reign of Hadrian. (Tacitus wrote about Caligula in his Annals, but that section is, unfortunately, lost.)
Caligula was a young man out of his depth. He was only 24 when he became emperor, succeeding the gloomy, taciturn Tiberius – who had exiled or executed his mother and several of his brothers.
“I am nursing a viper for the Roman people, and a Phaëthon for the whole world,” the old man said, shortly before he died. (Smothered, rumour said, by Caligula and the guard captain Macro.)
Caligula had grown up in the east, and acquired notions of divine kingship (and, of course, incest to keep the royal bloodline pure).
The Romans weren’t having this, and Caligula was assassinated at the age of 28 – setting a precedent for the deaths of Vitellius, Domitian, Commodus, Heliogabalus, and their ilk.
Caligula, by the way, is a nickname meaning “Bootikins”; his real name was Gaius.
So much for the man, now for the monster.
I’m not convinced that Caligula (1979) tells us much about the emperor. It has a good cast – Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren – and a script by Gore Vidal, who intended it as a study of power.
“[The Caesars] differed from us – and their contemporaries – only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies. This is the psychological fascination of Suetonius,” Vidal wrote in his essay ‘Robert Graves and the Twelve Caesars’ (1959). “What will men so place do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything.
“Caligula gave the game away when he told a critic, ‘Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please.’ And that cruelty which is innate in human beings, now give the opportunity to treat others as toys, flowered monstrously in the Caesars.”
And so, apparently, in the movie’s producer: Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione.
“Pedicabo ego vos, et irrumabo,” may well have been his motto.
He took what could have been an arthouse movie in the line of Fellini’s Satyricon – and turned it into a hardcore porn.
Vidal and director Tinto Brass sued to have their names taken off, and the movie suppressed.
Caligula is, to use a Roman phrase, defiled in every orifice. It’s 2 1/2 hours of fellatio, buggery, and bestiality – as unappetising as that sounds.
It’s also deeply boring.
Mechanical, joyless couplings; lesbians; extras jerking off in the background; and close-ups of ejaculating penii may well leave one with a Waughian distaste for these vile bodies.
It’s rather like the infamous Divine Carnage (2001), Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed’s unhistorical, pornographic drivel.
This has orgies in the Colosseum (decades before the Flavians); giant homosexual lions; Tiberius’s depraved plan for the whole Roman Empire to die in a gang-bang; and gladiators dotting the “i” in the emperor’s name with their opponent’s severed head.
“Corruption,” Mrs Bradley once said, “is not only nauseating to the senses, but it palls upon the imagination.”
Watch, instead, Ralph Bates in the ITV’s Caesars (1968). This may be the finest portrayal of Caligula: a rational psychopath, who’ll debate power politics over dinner while forcing a father to watch his son sawn in half. It’s a terrifying performance in one of television’s most intelligent political dramas. Its stance is Tacitean, via Camus.
John Hurt, in the BBC’s I, Clavdivs (1976; best TV drama ever made), brilliantly plays Caligula as a comic monster, leaving no stage-set un-nibbled. This adaptation of Robert Graves combines Suetonian scandal-mongering with Shakespearean high camp.
If you haven’t yet supped full with horrors: a phenomenal performance by Australian actress Zoe Caldwell as Euripides‘ Medea.
Still not 100%, though. Funny thing: pneumonia plays hell with the memory. Even now, I sometimes forget names. That’s nothing; since I came down with pneumonia a fortnight ago, I’ve forgotten my phone number, making phone calls, and other things I can’t quite remember.
I do, though, remember what I’ve read and listened to. (Most of it!)
I’ve also learnt to play cards. Djinn rummy is a tricky game; you have to summon up Middle Eastern spirits, then ply them with more spirits!
Michael Gilbert: Be Shot for Sixpence
A spy thriller that starts better than it finishes.
My notes: “Sometimes one knows, even before a story has got underway, that one will enjoy a book! Chapter 1 gives us:
a clever intrusion of the author (narrator’s cousin, Michael, who writes thrillers);
businessmen “like burst brown paper bags”, “foaled by Money out of Timidity”, discussing strikes
the narrator breaking up with his mistress, after she visited his father: “He knew all about us.” “He knows all about myxomatosis. But he doesn’t want diseased rabbit served up for breakfast.”
a vivid description of an aquarium
a small club committee room with 200 volumes of Punch, a buffalo’s head with one eye, and no windows of any sort. “Even bailiffs have been removed from it screaming in less than 30 minutes.”
It doesn’t quite stay on that level of wit. The book breezes by, and Gilbert is never less than readable, but it turns into a somewhat routine tale of kidnap to, and escape from Communist Hungary, with lots of cross-country travel.
Back in the dark old days (c. 1997/1998), when the internet was still in its infancy, the universe was still recovering from the Big Bang, and I read nearly 60 Carrs in just over a year, the only online information about John Dickson Carr was Grobius Shortling’s site.
He liked this one.
I read it in a day. I thought it had a great opening situation: the young hero learns from a famous pathologist that his fiancée is really a cold-blooded poisoner with three dead husbands. Pathologist is then poisoned in a locked room – in the same way the husbands died.
But it didn’t quite live up to expectations. It didn’t have the WOW! factor of Green Capsule,The Red Widow Murders, Death in Five Boxes, The Plague Court Murders, or In Spite of Thunder (to name five around that time I loved); the creepy atmosphere of Poison in Jest; the comedy of The Blind Barber; or the sheer fun of The Waxworks Murder, To Wake the Dead, and The Sleeping Sphinx.
(I didn’t, for the record, love The Three Coffins, The Burning Court, The Judas Window, The Case of the Constant Suicides, He Who Whispers, The Curse of the Bronze Lump, or The Nine Wrong Answers either.)
Carr’s narrative is lean and fast-paced, and there’s more emotional involvement than some of his earlier books. On the other hand, the plot is less complex, and the detection slighter.
I found the solution hard to visualise. This is the third time I’ve read the book, and I STILL want illustrations and a diagram. It feels mechanical and tricky, rather than simple and inspired.
But it’s Carr – so streets ahead of almost anybody else.
Elizabeth Gill: Crime de Luxe
This is the kind of elegant, clever detective story that Hogarth would have reprinted back in the ’80s, in those large purple-spined paperbacks with introductions by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan.
(You remember; Gladys Mitchell’s Saltmarsh Murders, When Last I Died, and Laurels are Poison; Romilly and Katherine John’s Death by Request; Anthony Berkeley’s Dead Mrs. Stratton; Nicholas Blake’s Smiler with the Knife…)
Gill’s artist sleuth Benvenuto Brown is travelling to New York by ship when an inoffensive spinster falls overboard. There are some fine descriptive passages, observations of people, and discussions of politics and time.
It’s light as a detective story, but Gill passes suspicion neatly around – and knows how the experienced reader thinks. (Brown outlined the case against my suspect in Ch. XXIV.) In hindsight, the truth is obvious; it all fits neatly together, and we feel we ought to have known!
Doctor Who: The Serpent in the Silver Mask / Lure of the Nomad
Two Big Finish audio plays set on space stations / ships.
The Serpent in the Silver Mask: Doctor Who does Kind Hearts and Coronets. Samuel West plays six members of the obnoxious Mazzini family, bumped off one by one. A clever plot – and Big Finish has pulled off the impossible: they’ve made the companions from hell likeable.
Lure of the Nomad: There’s a whopping great twist in Episode Three. For those familiar with the range, I’ll just mention Omega and The Kingmaker. It’s that good. Otherwise, this is an entertaining tale of gaseous beings in body suits, sociopathic businessmen, and squids in murderous exoskeletons.
And I’m playing Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, the new adventure game by the Coles, designers of Quest for Glory. [*] I’ve waited six years for this – and it’s rather good.
[*] Not to be confused with the other Coles. One were a husband and wife who wrote Left-wing books about economics, and some occasionally clever, occasionally funny, often rather loose detective stories; the other are a husband and wife who write clever, funny, well-crafted RPGs.
I don’t like this, but I can see why the impossible crime enthusiasts would enjoy it.
It’s Scream Taiwanese style. University students spend a dark and rainy night in a strangely-shaped house where three people were killed; four more die.
The group includes a stalker and would-be rapist; a reclusive voyeur; and two people who were bullied at school, and whose parents died violently.
It’s all puzzle, with little in the way of style, humour, or characterisation. The “pure” puzzle plot, without any character interest (à la Period I Ellery Queen), is as unengaging as the British Humdrum at its dullest.
The solution gives it a (much-needed) lift. The idea is simple and surprising, one of those devices that can be told in a single sentence, and I can see why the puzzle fans would cheer and applaud. It’s not entirely original (see, among others, episodes of The New Avengers and The X-Files), but it’s effective.
It also, though, involves a hell of a level of coincidence, which the author justifies by invoking Edgar Allan Poe and what looks like dependent arising.
We’re meant to believe, too, that several people have the kind of tricky, crazed engineer’s mind that can construct a locked room mystery.
Points off, too, for the fourth death, involving sticky-tape, running up and down floors, and two diagrams. It’s so complicated that my eyes glazed over. (It’s the pneumonia!) If the central idea seems inspired, this is laborious.
The solution to the mystery in the past also smacks of Heath Robinsonry, or what Wodehouse called Murderer’s Flytrap. (SPOILER: Glueing a saw to the floor!)
I feel like I’m rehashing Anthony Berkeley’s argument in The Second Shot, but, as I said above:
“The “pure” puzzle plot, without any character interest (à la Period I Ellery Queen), is as unengaging as the British Humdrum at its dullest.
(Unless, of course, it’s a short story, where the plot can be all – e.g. the Coles’ “In a Telephone Cabinet”, Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”.)
A great detective story MUST be ingenious – but it should also be a story. It should have characterisation, style, atmosphere, action – and, ideally, imagination, a sense of humour, and an interest in the world and people.
See, for instance, John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and Christianna Brand: all diabolically ingenious, masters and mistresses of misdirection, and all with interesting, lifelike characters, for whom – certainly in Brand’s case, as Brad says – one often comes to care.
Carr and Chesterton were brilliant at devising imaginative scenarios and solutions, but they were also natural storytellers: Romantics for whom the detective story was a tale of mystery and imagination, full of adventure and colour. (And, in GKC’s case, was a way of commenting on society, human nature, or religion.)
Few of their imitators are. (Hake Talbot, Anthony Boucher, and John Sladek, arguably; Derek Smith, Paul Halter and the shin honkaku movement, not so much.)
There must, simply, be more to a good detective story than a trick, however ingenious.