Largely February

I made one of my occasional assaults on The Lord of the Rings, a book that both impresses and baffles me. Tolkien’s imagination was vast and deep; few can match his achievement of creating a world for a language. But reading it can be as much of a trudge as Frodo’s epic journey to Mount Doom. I first read LOTR in first grade, skipping a few of the battle scenes (which I still find dull); I reread it when I was 10, and early in university, when Peter Jackson’s films came out. An attempt to scale the book three or four years ago foundered on the Song of Eärendil, Bilbo’s poem at Rivendell. This time, I made it – rather slowly – through The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. What strikes me now is its melancholy. The epic is built on centuries and ages of history, but magic and wonder are fading from the world. The Elves are diminishing and passing into the West; the Ents (oldest of living things) are searching for their lost Entwives. It is a work of twilight. The Return of the King is staring at me, ordering me to read it; I’ve climbed the foothill of the first chapter (35 pages) and paused to rest. I may resume the journey one day. The road may go ever on, but I’m little inclined to follow it at the moment. When it comes to fantasy, I prefer the more whimsical, inventive approach of L. Frank Baum, James Branch Cabell, Michael Ende, Terry Pratchett or Walter Moers to sword and sorcery.

Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero (1944) sped by: one of her finer blends of people-led drama and tight detective story. I reviewed it in 2003; little to add.

Norman Berrow has been on my list of detective writers to investigate. His Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) may not have been the best place to start. The situations are splendid. A spinster elopes with a young man only she can see – and who died seven years before. A poltergeist haunts an inn with a room on a floor that doesn’t exist. A woman steps 350 years into the past to witness a double murder in a street that disappears. But the resolution is disappointing. There aren’t any murders, so the book lacks that ‘Whodunit?’ tug. The solution to the first mystery is obvious and underwhelming; to the second, highly technical (diagram, please!); the third is workmanlike. It takes fully a quarter of the book to explain the mysteries – but the actual solution isn’t particularly complex. Chesterton did it better – and faster.

Gensoul & Grenier’s La mort vient de nulle part (1945) has just been translated as Death from Nowhere, part of Locked Room International’s lineup of foreign impossible crimes. Soupart, Fooz & Bourgeois (Chambres closes, crimes impossibles, 1997) say this unjustly forgotten little novel offers an agreeable surprise; the solution shows real originality, even if used by other authors. This is really a scherzo, a playful spoof on the detective story. Old friends are assembled at Breule Manor, home of the Baron de Malèves; one of them announces he will commit a murder. He shuffles the cards, shouts ‘And the Emperor of China be damned!’ – and upstairs a man is shot. The cards are thrown down again and again, the Emperor of China cursed, and three more fall victim as terror mounts. We are keyed up to expect something monstrous: is the house a death-trap (with electricity or psychedelic maze)? Do giant centipedes scuttle behind the wainscoting? And then the light-hearted solution blows all the nightmare away. The authors don’t play fair; the reader has little chance to solve the mystery, but he will be charmed.

Clayton Rawson is best known for his four novels and short stories featuring the Great Merlini, a magician who knows the tricks behind impossible crimes. In the late 1930s, he wrote four novellas for the American pulps; written as ‘Stuart Towne’, these feature another magician sleuth, Don Diavolo, the Scarlet Magician. Death Out of Thin Air (1941) and Death from Nowhere (1943) have been reprinted by Mysterious Press, as have Rawson’s other books. The stories in Death Out of Thin Air are aimed at an adolescent or undemanding audience. Don Diavolo is almost a comic book hero: a mastermind with an array of gadgets, a team of sidekicks (identical twins, an Indian prince, and a magic designer), and a scarlet mask and costume. In his first case, “Ghost of the Undead”, he encounters an apparent vampire who preys on women, and thwarts the sinister Count Draco and his bats; in “Death Out of Thin Air”, he stops an invisible thief and murderer. The stories are told in the cliché-ridden, sensationalist style of the pulps, but are fast-paced and fun – if read with a large pinch of salt.

Helen McCloy’s The Deadly Truth (1941) is a more sophisticated example of the American detective story. Claudia Bethune, twice-married and with the eyes of Astarte, steals a truth drug, and puts it in her friends’ cocktails. The dinner party turns nasty; too much truth comes out; and one of her “friends” garottes her that evening. Basil Willing is on hand to clear up the mess. This is one of McCloy’s quietly excellent books: tensely written, deftly observed characters, subtly placed clues, scientific ingenuity (here: tests for deafness), and a surprise solution. “The real McCoy when it comes to writing first-rate mysteries,” to quote the Philadelphia Record.

In The Silent Murders (1929), by Neil Gordon (pseudonym of A.G. Macdonell), a tramp is stabbed; a financier is shot in a taxi outside the Bank of London; and an inoffensive schoolmaster is shot, apparently in mistake for his wicked brother from South Africa. Barzun and Taylor were fans: “An early and impressive specimen of police routine, full of legitimate excitement and complete with friction between superior and subordinate on the force.  The variety and surprise in the incidents maintain a high pitch of suspense and the detection is as solid as the explanation, which dawns on the reader just a few seconds before it does on the Scottish Inspector Dewar.  When it comes, it constitutes what is probably a first instance of its use: altogether a book to be cherished for its worth and its wit.” I found it solidly constructed and always readable, but not a great detective story. It’s a police procedural rather than a puzzle plot: the murderer doesn’t appear until the very end, and there are few deductions; clues turn up when the plot demands, not planted early in the text. Nor is the book a first instance of the motive’s use; John Rhode was there a year before, although Gordon is more convincing. Macdonell also co-wrote a thriller, The Bleston Mystery (1928), with Milward Kennedy.

The Body in the Road (1931) introduces Moray Dalton’s private investigator Hermann Glide, shabby and unscrupulous. This was reprinted by Dean Street Press last year, with an introduction by Curt Evans. Linda Merle, a lady pianist, pals up with Violet Hunter, a violinist who plays in a café; when Violet disappears, Linda finds herself the chief suspect. Fortunately handsome David Haringdon, ex-C.I.D., now a Lord, believes Violet innocent. Could Violet’s disappearance be connected to the sinister nursing home run by the foreign nerve specialist? Barzun and Taylor were critical: “It would be a mistake to begin one’s acquaintance with this author by taking up this book… Not characteristic work.” Too harsh a judgement; it’s smoothly written, and character involvement is well above average, but plot and detection are slim, and the murderer is obvious right from the start.

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