I haven’t posted since mid-February; I’ve been finishing a major project, which has taken much of my time. I’ve read few detective stories, partly for lack of time, partly for lack of inclination. I have 90-odd on my Kindle, and a lot on my shelves to reread – but finding a really satisfying detective story is difficult once one has exhausted the greats. These days, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, and Robert Graves hold more appeal.
The Four Tragedies of Memworth (Lord Ernest Hamilton, 1928)
Or, A Secretary’s Memoirs. Ronald Knox and Barzun & Taylor considered this one of the few good uses of Chinamen in detective fiction. The author (one year older than Conan Doyle) was a soldier, Conservative politician, and Fascist supporter. This is an extremely leisurely work in the spirit of Mrs. Gaskell or Trollope: a country estate, an old peer, bicycle races with a neighbour’s pretty daughter, and no hint of crime until page 70. While there is a murder and some detection, that is only a third (pp. 80–140) of the first 200 pages. At the end, whodunit is not spelt out, although the reader can piece it together himself. It is, perhaps, a study in gullibility – a man who is unwilling to believe the worst of his “friend”.
The Link (Philip MacDonald, 1930)
It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet. Third in the prolific Macdonald’s Gethryn series. American gangsters in the English countryside, with the usual horses and bloodsports. The squire is shot; suspicion falls on a young vet, in love with the widow. A lengthy inquest and lots of laborious alibi-busting. The scheme is transparent but clever.
The Case of Alan Copeland (Moray Dalton, 1937)
I respect Dalton’s powers of characterization, but I find her only a minor detective writer. In most of her books, the same type (gur zvqqyr-ntrq fcvafgre) is the criminal. Copeland is partway between E.F. Benson (possessive, destructive women, village social comedy) and Gladys Mitchell (stone circles, nature) – but the tone is far from Mitchell’s optimism. This is a world of frail young women struggling to find work, impoverished spinsters, unhappy marriages, adultery, children conceived out of wedlock; of dusty carpets, greasy cards, dirty lace curtains, and dreary streets.
Bury Him Deeper (R.A.J. Walling, 1937)
Philip Tolefree and his narrator/admirer/boyfriend Farrar are shipwrecked on a Scottish island (with castle) in the middle of a loch. Farrar’s acquaintance, a retired shipmaster, vanished three months before; there is a local legend of buried treasure (money sent to the Young Pretender from France); and their hosts are horrified to learn that Tolefree is a detective. This should have been much better; it seems to belong to the Romantic line of Chesterton, Carr, or Mitchell, but the situation is wasted. The book is strangely pointless: a detective story without any mystery. Almost from the start, we know (and Tolefree knows) that the people on the island are concealing a murder. The twist at the end might have succeeded in a short story; in a novel, it’s too little, too late.
Mike Grost considers it a boring failure, because it eliminates many important aspects of standard mystery fiction: who done it, the situation behind the crime, the motive. Bill Pronzini also panned the book.
The Diamond Chariot (Boris Akunin, 2002)
The blurb promised “murder on the Trans-Siberian Express”; instead, we get a Russian version of a Freeman Wills Crofts police procedural (Death of a Train, to be precise). Villain known from start; lots of trailing suspects, bugging telephones, questioning workmen, and action sequences better suited to the screen than to the page; skimming irresistible. I gave up at the end of the first book, Dragonfly-Catcher. Trudging through 400 more pages would be masochism. Don’t judge Akunin by this effort.
The League of Matthias (Brian Flynn, 1934)
As I told Brad this morning, I don’t rate Flynn very highly. While I’ve enjoyed some of his books – The Orange Axe and The Padded Door are clever, so is Peacock’s Eye – I don’t rate him very highly. Stodgy detection; cardboard characterisation; a style that veers between Boy’s Own and wannabe Van Dine; and often hackneyed situations and desperately stupid plots. (Try The Triple Bite, with its flying Sri Lankan centipede, for instance.) And he doesn’t play fair. Given the presence of gangs, master criminals, sinister foreigners, and poisons unknown to science, they’re really thrillers – cousins of Sexton Blake. Flynn’s target audience seems to be 14-year-olds.
The first half is one of the better things Flynn has done. A young man’s chivalry plunges him into a mysterious situation – but the reader starts to suspect the seemingly innocent narrator. Why does the girl (beautiful, of course) faint when she learns his name, and why is she so unwilling to call him by his name? Why are there pyjamas and a gun with his initials? Are we in Paul Halter territory here? But that mystery pops halfway through; it’s a massive, unjustified coincidence. The second half gives us a super-criminal deathmatch, several innocent people wandering around the scene of the crime knocking each other out, stilted would-be emotional prose, and an underwhelming solution. And as usual, Flynn doesn’t provide all the clues. (TomCat liked it more. Sorry!)
The Golden Child (Penelope Fitzgerald, 1977)
A parody of the 1970s King Tut craze, set at the [British] Museum. The “Golden Child” is a mummy of the Garamantes, an ancient civilisation that dwelt in the Sahara; its discoverer, an elderly archaeologist, becomes a body in the library. Praised by Barzun & Taylor, this is certainly amusing – there’s even a ghastly package tour of Moscow – but the murder isn’t committed until halfway through, and there’s little investigation proper. We’re a long way from The Scarab Murder Case.
The Death of Mr. Lomas (Francis Vivian, 1941)
The straightforward, provincial British detective story. A disagreeable newsagent is pulled out of the river, poisoned with cocaine, and shaved after death. That is the only concession to sensationalism and romance. The focus is purely on the investigation; all the characters are seen from the outside, from Inspector Knollis’s perspective. Not very exciting, perhaps, but Vivian adroitly manipulates timetables, dope peddlers, and murders past and present; he pushes suspects into the foreground and then back into the limelight, and turns bystanders into criminals and criminals into private investigators. By the end, almost all the characters have been murdered, arrested, or hanged. It may lack atmosphere and human interest, but I enjoyed it; J.J., I think, would enjoy it even more.