Thursday, July 07, 2011

The cat it was that died

William DeAndrea did something very impressive to kick start his career as a mystery novelist: he won back-to-back Edgars for his novels Killed in the Ratings and The HOG Murders. I read the latter, which starred eccentric Italian genius, Professor Niccolo Benedetti, philosopher and amateur criminologist: a traditional Great Detective in a modern-day setting. In The HOG Murders, he tracked down a serial killer who went by the name of HOG.

More than a decade later, DeAndrea revisited Benedetti with The Werewolf Murders and The Manx Murders. However, I’m at the mercy of the Interlibrary Loan system here, so instead of reading the series in chronological order, I have to take what I can get—thus, I read the third instalment in the Benedetti trilogy: The Max Murders.

Because a trilogy it is— there seems to be a definite note of finality in this novel, unlike the Lobo Blacke/Quinn Booker novel Fatal Elixir, which gives you a tantalising hint of what the series could have become. Benedetti allows his assistant, Ron Gentry, to figure stuff out on his own. Gentry must learn not to rely on Benedetti for the answers, which is compared to the way a child learns that Dad can’t solve everything, and that you need to take initiative yourself sometimes. “I think the Professor’s finally about to give you your diploma, dear,” says Gentry’s wife, Dr. Janet Higgins, at one point.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong: DeAndrea could’ve been planning to make this his major series for all I know. But the note of finality does seem to be there. Benedetti shows some humility for a change, and it is Ron Gentry who figures out the final piece of the puzzle. The professor no longer has a spotless record and this may have been DeAndrea’s way of retiring him.

In any case, The Manx Murders tells an interesting tale. It’s not about a serial killer terrorizing a city, but about a family feud that gets out of hand. The Pembroke twins were inseparable until one of the boys fell in love with a woman and the other married her. From that point on, the two have irritated each other— one loves birds, and the other suddenly decides he’s a cat person. But things become very awkward indeed when Clyde Pembroke is accused by his twin Henry of somehow spiriting all the birds away from Henry’s part of the estate. It’s not as if the birds were poisoned, for there are no corpses: they just up and vanished, although on Clyde’s part of the estate, the birds seem to be getting along dandily. After a cat is found dumped at Clyde’s doorstep, brutally murdered, Clyde Pembroke is kidnapped and held for a million dollar ransom… and all this eventually leads to murder.

In a way, this is an impossible crime novel, what with the disappearance of the birds and all. The main clues and the general idea of the trick are very obvious, but DeAndrea explains it with a devilish excitement that’s contagious. I really liked the whole idea, although the identity of the culprit is quite obvious.

I haven’t got much to grumble about. DeAndrea’s usual sense of humour is here, and it’s just a really fun book to read. And heaven knows, I needed a fun book to read after struggling through a collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches so awful, I couldn’t even write a half-decent review of it. The note of finality I describe, however, left me with a somewhat depressed feeling I can’t quite shake off…

Incidentally, in this book, we get more confirmation of Benedetti’s (and, I assume, DeAndrea’s) love of Westerns. He particularly loves the John Ford-John Wayne cavalry trilogy, and is seen watching She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Once Upon a Time in the West, taking brief breaks from abstract painting, a process which helps him solve his cases.

4 comments:

  1. Look at the bright sight... you still got The Werewolf Murders to look forward to. I had hopes for a short Benedetti story, detailing one of the cases alluded to in the second novel, in the collection Murder – All Kinds, but alas, The Manx Murders really was the end of that fun ride.

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  2. It's unfortunate, since it was really cool to see the eccentric amateur detective transposed to modern day and work as well as the professor did. There's also Matt Cobb, but he's more like the private eye instead of the brilliant amateur sleuth (and part-time lexicographer).

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  3. A few months back I came across a copy of DeAndrea's 'Encyclopedia Mysteriosa' in fine condition with dust cover at a low price that was impossible to resist. So I thought you might enjoy the entry in it about William L. DeAndrea himself: "Recovering from a bout with the flu at the age of twelve, DeAndrea, home from school, found a copy of 'The Adventures of Ellery Queen' (1934) and has been hooked on mysteries ever since. He would have been content to remain a fan, but failure to find a job better than factory work after graduating with a degree in communications from Syracuse University in 1974 made him decide to try writing.
    His first novel, 'Killed in the Ratings' (1978), won the best first novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and introduced his most regular series character, TV troubleshooter Matt Cobb. His second, 'The Hog Murders' (1979), won the Edgar for best paperback original, making him one of only three authors (Gregory McDonald and Warren Murphy are the others) to win Edgars in consecutive years with novels for adults. 'The Hog Murders' also introduced master detective Professor Niccolo Benedetti, who returned in 'The Werewolf Murders' (1992).
    Beginning in the mid-1980s, DeAndrea wrote a tetralogy about master spy "Clifford Driscoll," whose real name was never revealed. He has also written two historical mysteries: 'The Lunatic Fringe' (1980) features Theodore Roosevelt, New York City Police commissioner in 1896, and 'Five O'Clock Lightning' (1982) was set in 1953 and featured a plot to kill New York Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle. DeAndrea has also written two light mysteries under the punning pseudonym "Philip DeGrave": 'Unholy Moses' (1985) and 'Keep the Baby, Faith' (1986).
    A student of the genre, DeAndrea once appeared on an international quiz show as an expert on the works of Ellery Queen (he won). He writes the popular "J'Accuse" column in 'The Armchair Detective' magazine. He worked for four years at the bookstore Murder Ink in New York. There, he met his wife, mystery writer Jane Haddam. He is general editor and principal writer of this encyclopedia."
    Other entries in the Encyclopedia include ones on his characters Matt Cobb and Clifford Driscoll. What a wonderful reference to the mystery/detective genre!

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  4. Thanks for that! All the borrowing I did with DeAndrea titles of late seems to have inspired my local library to purchase a copy of "Encyclopedia Myseriosa"-- this calls for a trip to the library!

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