Happy New Year, Terrans and other sentient lifeforms! And welcome to the future!
I’m tired; I’ve just flown by jetpack from Mars Colony Five to my parents’ habidome halfway down the Mariana Trench. I’m telepathically dictating this with my cerebral augs while enjoying a revitalizing course of electro-stimulation. In the next room, I can hear the servobots prepare a nutritious meal of reprocessed hazardous waste. They may be mechanical, but they’re cheerful creatures, as they scuttle around, cleaning the house, pouring drinks, and chanting ‘Exterminate the human scum’ in their grating metal voices. After dinner, I’ll play with the sabre-toothed tiger / baryonyx hybrid I grew in my pocket lab.
Life in the year 2020 is idyllic. We control the weather, so every day is lovely, with just enough rain to keep the planet lush and green. We’ve solved the world’s energy, famine, overpopulation, poverty, and crime crises, thanks to nuclear fission and recycling social undesirables.
As the electrodes shoot volts of plasma into my brain, I look back over the highlights of 2020.
In non-crime: Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars. An intriguing literary experiment which tells the history of a lost culture from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish perspectives, while also telling a horror story and a murder mystery. And all through dictionary entries that can be read in any order. Rereading Borges. And Jules Verne is excellent when he’s not listing the heights of mountains.
From a detectival perspective, the most memorable books were Lange Lewis’s Murder Among Friends (tricky and moving) and Paul Halter’s 7ème hypothèse (hyper-ingenious). Boris Akunin’s Fandorin novels are excellent, too, and Brian Flynn is fun.
A lot of the year’s detective stories, though, were unimaginative and dull. Most have faded from my soma-stained memory. Carolyn Wells’s Crime in the Crypt stands out as particularly bad; the murderer is obvious from his first appearance. M.M. Kaye’s Death in Kashmir is reactionary drivel; it’s written by an Indian army officer’s wife, and the killer is a wicked Communist, motivated by envy, like all left-wingers, apparently.
See below for reviews of three read this year.
On my other blog, OperaScribe, I’ve worked my way from 1639 to 1788. Somehow, I didn’t expect to enjoy the Baroque as much as I did; the formula of opera seria – castrati singing elaborate, highly ornamented da capo arias (section A, section B, repeat section A) – sounded dull. And yet my favourite opera of the year featured five counter-tenors (two in drag) and a tenor: Artaserse, by Leonardo da Vinci (no relation). Vizier murders Persian king to put his son on the throne; things go wrong. It features some of the most thrillingly virtuosic singing you’re likely to hear; this is singing with balls (so to speak). The same singers – particularly the extraordinary Franco Fagioli, Max Emanuel Cencic, and Philippe Jaroussky – are also wonderful in arias by Porpora.
My other great discovery of the year was Salieri: a man hard done by. Known to the Amadeus-watching public as a monster of mediocrity, falsely accused of murdering Mozart, he’s really rather good: the most highly regarded opera composer of his day, with a keen sense of drama. Les Danaïdes has 49 murders and ends in hell; Tarare calls for revolution two years before the storming of the Bastille.
The worst operas of the year, on the other hand… I listened to nine – NINE! – operas by the dreadful Lully at the start of the year; all open with a brown-nosed prologue to Louis XIV (the greatest monarch who ever lived, our Mars, our Jupiter, before whom the universe stands in awe), last three hours but have few melodies, and consist largely of dancing. The dramatic highlight in his most famous work is the hero falling asleep. Later, he’s turned into a tree. Montéclair’s Jephté is opera for religious fundamentalists. Over-rated: Mozart.
The Invisible Circle (Paul Halter, 1995)
An Arthurian fetishist invites seven people to his Cornish castle, expecting one of them to murder him. He’s skewered in an inaccessible tower room, doors and windows duly locked, bolted, or barred. The criminal, moreover, has a claim to be rightwise king born of all England: they pulled the sword out of the stone in which it was cemented. Throw in a homicidal lunatic, something horrible and batlike swarming up cliffs … and the Holy Grail.
Halter’s imagination certainly can’t be faulted, and the book moves swiftly … but this is the impossible crime as pure spectacle, as mise en scène. The murderer, as far as I can see, gains nothing from such a fantastically elaborate scheme. Why the whole Arthurian / Horatian charade? SPOILER follows.
(SPOILER: He wants to kill Madge. OK. Won’t it look suspicious if he presents himself to a lawyer and tries to claim the fortune?)
There’s an in-text explanation: the murderer wants to be admired for his intelligence: “a form of narcissism, of self-admiration, so to speak, for his ‘work’. It’s a spectacular, tremendous show he’s put on for us.” It serves Halter’s purpose of amusing the reader … but nobody rational would think of committing a crime in such a way when pushing his victim in front of an oncoming bus would be easier and safer. Believe me, I know.
The Flying Boat Mystery (Franco Vailati, 1935)
The most famous Italian mystery novel is certainly Eco’s Name of the Rose, that exhilarating blend of Agatha Christie, Borgesian libraries of Babel, and mediaeval theology – but apparently several Italians wrote mysteries mid-century. Few have been translated.
This is Vailati’s only mystery novel. A banker steps into the toilet aboard a flight from Rome to Palermo – and disappears, one might say, into thin air. Despite the impossible crime, the main influence seems to be Freeman Wills Crofts. Modern transport (trains, planes, boats); methodical police investigation; gangsters; financial skulduggery; and a breakdown of identity problem (suitcases à la Cask). The solution to the impossible crime is clever, but calls for James Bond’s nerves of steel. The villain’s identity is a colossal surprise – partly because he appears on three pages two-thirds through the book. Trying to fool the reader is laudable, but this is unfair. Our reaction should be ‘Gosh! I never considered him!’ or the expletive-laden ‘WHAT?’ – not ‘Who’s he?’
Perhaps the best thing about the translation is that it makes non-Italian readers aware of detective stories in that genre. I’m keen to read more gialli. L’antro dei filosofi (Scerbanesco), La famiglia Morel and Il naso di cartone (D’Errico), L’unghia nel leone and La notte impossibile (Spagnol), È 31 con la morte and La donna sulla luna (Leoni), and Il palazzo delle 5 porte (di Marino)…
In Spite of Thunder (John Dickson Carr, 1960)
Eve’s a shady lady: the ageing actress was a Nazi sympathizer, and a possible murderess. Her wealthy boyfriend fell to his death at Berchtesgaden; nearly 20 years later, the ageing actress topples from the balcony of her Geneva villa. But nobody was around…
At 14, I thought this was one of Carr’s best: identical deaths past and present, and a nifty murder method. It doesn’t hold up to my fond memories, though. I started to reread it in September, and gave up. I finished it this afternoon; the second half is readable, but this is late and tired Carr.
Do you remember Gideon Fell in his youth? Quaffing beer by the gallon, playing with clockwork mice, impersonating Viennese psychiatrists? An absent-minded, unruly schoolboy in the body of G.K. Chesterton? In his old age, the once-loveable sleuth is now a parody of Dr Johnson, much given to ponderous rhetoric, and suffering vastly from wind.
He and stuffed-shirt writer Brian Innes lie to the police to protect a chit of a girl. There’s a lot of activity, emotional scenes, crises de nerfs, in a hothouse atmosphere; gunplay at a witch-themed night club; but it adds up to little. (Sound and fury signifying sumthin, Curt Evans quipped, riffing on the Macbeth title.) The telling is as ponderous as Dr Fell himself; it lacks zest and badly needs editing. Pity.