When I picked up No Friendly Drop by Henry Wade, I was at first expecting the “drop” to be a fall from a building— perhaps it would be an elevator murder if we were lucky. But as it turns out, I forgot a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (despite having acted in the play) where Juliet refers to “no friendly drop” having been left for her by Romeo. That’s right, this is a novel involving a poisoning, and it’s a really good one.
Henry Wade was the pseudonym of Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher. That’s right: he had two titles and 3 names (four if you count the hyphenated name as two). But don’t let that mislead you. If you’re expecting Henry Wade’s detective novels to have a sleuth à la Lord Peter Wimsey running around, making pedantic comments and a general nuisance of themselves, you’re entirely wrong.
No, his detective is Inspector John Poole, one of the most likeable police detectives I’ve ever come across. He has a college education, but he doesn’t go off into irrelevant asides about the limits of translating The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám into Swahili. He does have a romantic interest in this novel, but it’s delightfully subdued, producing extremely memorable moments of banter.
Though I’ve been looking at various Crime Kings lately, I would now like to do something that can be best described through the words of John Cleese: “And now for something completely different.” Thus, I would like to take a look at a short story entitled The Play of Light and Shadow, written by fellow mystery aficionado and JDCarr forum member Barry Ergang. I first read this story when I was trying to write an impossible crime story of my own (which I still work on, on an off-and-on basis), and remembered highly enjoying it. Revisiting it after all this time, I was delighted to discover that it held up just as well on a re-read.
The Play of Light and Shadow is narrated by Dr. Alan Driscoll, a university professor on sabbatical. Tired of the monotony of departmental politics, he gets an interim job as bartender, where he meets private eye Darnell, and discovers in him a fellow lover of literature.
The inanimate things around us have each of them a song to sing to us if we are but ready with attentive ears.
— Dr. John Thorndyke, “The Echo of a Mutiny” (collected in The Signing Bone)
And thus we have returned to R. Austin Freeman. I launched this series of reviews last week with Freeman’s own The Eye of Osiris, devoted to various Crime Kings: male authors who wrote in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and towards whom time has been extremely unkind. Freeman is an excellent case in point. At one point in time, he was a highly respected author, even earning praise from Raymond Chandler (no mean feat, that). Flash forward to the publication of Bloody Murder in 1972, and what does Julian Symons write about Freeman? “Reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing on dry straw.” And he hasn’t fared much better today, which just puzzles me. My confusion increased after reading The Singing Bone, a collection of short stories originally published in 1911, in which Freeman invented what is known as the “inverted detective story”—a technique that the television show Columbo excelled at. I was expecting an interesting experiment but not much more. But once again, Freeman surprised me and smashed the ball out of the park.
As I said when I reviewed R. Austin Freman’s The Eye of Osiris, I intend to take a look at various Crime Kings from the Golden Age of Detection—male authors to whom time has been unkind. The females have done a bit better—Agatha Christie is still in print, and you can regularly find stuff on a bookstore’s shelves by Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh. But Anthony Berkeley Cox’s case is a truly tragic one. Berkeley was in his time an extremely prolific author and the founder of The Detection Club in 1928. He wrote under the names Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles. DeAndrea argues in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa that:
… It was as Francis Iles that he made his greatest contribution to the genre, writing novels not of detection but of criminal procedure. His belief was that the mystery story was transforming into a “puzzle of character”, and he did his best to lead the way. Malice Aforethought (1931) is told from the point of view of a weasely doctor who intends to murder his wife and does so. In Before the Fact (1932), Iles pulls off the even more remarkable trick of chronicling the events leading up to a murder from the point of view of the neurotic young wife who is the intended victim. With the ending altered and the name changed to Suspicion, this became a classic Alfred Hitchcock film.
I will be looking at a Berkeley title instead of an Iles- I will review Malice Aforethought some other time. But I have a question: how is it that an author so talented goes from having a novel adapted by Alfred Hitchcock to the quagmire of obscurity? Berkeley was a grandmaster and deserves better recognition than he has gotten. Thankfully, The Langtail Press has reprinted a slew of books by Anthony Berkeley. If you haven’t read Berkeley, I definitely recommend checking him out… and the book Top Storey Murder (which TLP hasn’t gotten around to reprinting, though I hope they do) is a solid example of his work.
A recent review of Anthony Wynne’s The Green Knife by fellow blogger extraordinaire TomCat (who also goes by the alias LastCenturyDetective) seems to have stirred up interest in this long-neglected GAD-era author. “Anthony Wynne” was the pseudonym of physician Robert McNair Wilson, who seems to have obsessed himself with impossible crimes of all sorts, though he never achieved the status of authors like John Dickson Carr or Clayton Rawson. And his book The Toll House Murder shows all too clearly why that is so.
The Toll House Murder begins promisingly, as we learn of the murder of Sir Andrew Burke, the wealthy man in charge of a famous shipping company. The circumstances are bizarre— Sir Andrew walks into a toll house to ask the man in charge to let him through. He re-enters his car and passes through the toll, but after a couple of hundred yards, the car swerves and tips over. As a result, the doors jam and have to be forced open. Sir Andrew is lying inside, stabbed through the heart— but there is no knife in the car, no other passenger, and no footprints anywhere in the snow around the car!
Murderers make mistakes! … I should just think so! So many devise ingenious schemes to mislead the police and to avert suspicion from themselves: real brainy schemes which ought to succeed. And then they go and spoil them by some tiny oversight which gives the whole thing away, so that their guilt stands out a mile. It’s like a man who fits up an elaborate electrical system in his house: lights, fires, heaters; every conceivable gadget and convenience, and then spoils it all by forgetting to switch on the current.
— Inspector French, The Case of the Lower Flat (collected in Murderers Make Mistakes
Freeman Wills Crofts is another one of “The Humdrums”, men whose books are too often scorned by critics, although they had quite a following in their day and have been rather influential in the genre. Crofts seems to have had quite an obsession with seemingly perfect alibis and the way they are broken. Raymond Chandler called him “the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy”. Now, I disagree with Chandler on many points about the genre but he actually has a very good point there, which I will go further into as I take a look at Murderers Make Mistakes.
Murderers Make Mistakes is an interesting short story collection by Freeman Wills Crofts. These stories were originally radio plays, and the book makes no attempt to disguise it. It glories in the fact, giving you the original episodes and their broadcast dates. Eighteen radio plays from Chief Inspector French’s Cases (broadcast between 1943 and 1945) were converted into story form with varied degrees of success. In addition, five cases from Here’s Wishing You Well Again were converted into Inspector French short stories (the original detective being the coroner, Dr. Cataret). There are 23 stories in this collection, and I’m lazy, so once again, I won’t go through each story individually, but give you an idea of the collection as a whole.
|Richard Austin Freeman, creator of Dr. Thorndyke|
R. Austin Freeman is one of a group of writers that have collectively been labelled “The Humdrums”. They include prolific authors like John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts, and JJ Connington. Time has not been kind to them, as their books have become scarcer and scarcer to find. Often the price tags attached are ridiculous. These authors are often scorned by critics, and have an unfair reputation as writers so dull they couldn’t entertain a drunken fish. (I used this description in my review of John Rhode’s Death on Sunday, but it could easily apply to the “Humdrums” in general.) They actually had quite a following in their day. Raymond Chandler, for instance, surprisingly confessed that he enjoyed R. Austin Freeman’s work:
'This man Austin Freeman is a wonderful performer. He has no equal in his genre, and he is also a much better writer than you might think, if you were superficially inclined, because in spite of the immense leisure of his writing, he accomplishes an even suspense which is quite unexpected ... There is even a gaslight charm about his Victorian love affairs, and those wonderful walks across London ...'
This comes as something of a surprise from the same person who damned authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. And yet, it is somewhat understandable when you consider the painstaking scientific realism Freeman achieves through Dr. John Thorndyke’s investigations. (And boy, we sure know that Raymond really had a thing for realism...)
But is this all this “scientific realism” a positive point or a negative point about Freeman’s work? I think it’s a bit of both, as evidenced by his 1911 novel The Eye of Osiris. But to discuss why, I suppose I’d better start by describing the plot.
“He liked his John Dickson Carr,” said Julie, standing in front of the books. “He’s got at least forty here. The other writer he collected has a similar name in a way—Carter Dickson. I wonder if there’s a connection.”
— Julie Hargreaves while examining the victim’s books, Bloodhounds
My introduction to Peter Lovesey’s work was far from the best— I read and was disappointed by Mad Hatter’s Holiday. The second Lovesey I read was far more encouraging— Rough Cider was written remarkably well, with a colourful setting and excellent characters that fuelled my interest in the book. Although I highly enjoyed it, it didn’t quite convert me into a fan— but when I opened Bloodhounds, I had high expectations. After 120 pages, I could safely say that I was now a fan of Peter Lovesey.
Bloodhounds is a delightful book from start to finish. It’s a marvellous tip of the hat to the Golden Age mysteries I admire so much, and in particular to my favourite author, John Dickson Carr. Lovesey creates a group of characters who are mystery enthusiasts— they call themselves the Bloodhounds and they meet once a week to discuss mysteries. They are an unusual and very mixed lot— some, like Rupert, like “crime noir”; others, like Milo, enjoy classical puzzles. Through these characters, Lovesey gets a lot of talk about mysteries going, bringing up some decent points but also getting across a sense that the author enjoys mysteries too. You’ll find none of Julian Symons’ general air of condescension here.
The last time I read a book by William DeAndrea, I walked away disappointed. Cronus was highly unlike the other DeAndreas I’ve read— it was a paranoia-fuelled and painfully average Cold War thriller. It was wonderful, then, to return to Matt Cobb, DeAndrea’s main series character. Killed in the Act was the second Matt Cobb mystery, right after the Edgar -winning Killed in the Ratings. Cobb is a fusion between the classic GAD investigator and the hardboiled, private eye: he speaks in the hardboiled voice, but he’s not a private detective by trade, and in fact, he seems to suffer from a severe case of J. B. Fletcher Syndrome.
Matt Cobb is Vice-President of Special Projects at The Network, a major television broadcaster like NBC or CBS. His job is basically to handle tricky situations and make sure The Network comes out of it with a squeaky-clean reputation. The way he speaks reminds me uncannily of Archie Goodwin—like Archie, he speaks with the voice of the private eye without the negative qualities. Yes, he can make sarcastic comments in his head, but he doesn’t make it a governing staple of his life to be rude to everyone he meets, and this quality makes him a likeable character, the kind of guy you want to win in the end.
I suspect that Louise Penny has joined the likes of William DeAndrea and Bill Pronzini (and possibly Peter Lovesey) as modern/recent authors who have done an excellent job keeping mysteries alive and breathing. In June, I read her book The Murder Stone a clever book with a good impossible crime which was neatly executed overall. I compared Penny to Agatha Christie, pointing out it was a modern-day country house mystery, complete with an eccentric family ruled by a domineering matriarch. After a very good introduction to the author’s books, I eagerly picked up the second book in her Armand Gamache series: Dead Cold (a.k.a. A Fatal Grace).
Once again, Louise Penny does an excellent job putting the Canadian spirit onto the page. It’s excellently done, this time through the sport of curling. I’m not a curler myself, and I don’t follow the sport (which makes golf look like an extreme sport), although I have great respect for curlers themselves. Louise Penny obviously likes the sport a lot, and through her descriptions, the game seems to come alive. It’s all done very well, and is in many ways part of the plot— descriptions of snow-covered landscapes are lovely, but snowdrifts can complicate the investigation process, no? But she balances everything nicely: the characterization, the Canadiana, and the plot play off each other very well, and it never seems overdone. For instance, a group of people sit down to watch a hockey game. (Hey, it’s Canada!) Canadian’ passion for hockey is often the source of jokes, the scene here feels very authentic, right down to die-hard fans screaming the goalie should be traded when he’s having a rough night.
My casebook also records the name of the American barque John D. Carr, whose disappearance was a fortnight’s sensation, until Homes was able to accurately predict its exact location—in drydock—from a simple mathematical calculation and the word of the steersman that he had lashed the wheel before going over the side—a case I have already chronicled in The Adventure of the Locked Rhumb.
—Dr. Watney, The Adventure of the Missing Cheyne-Stroke
“I fear some grave misfortune may have befallen Sir Lionel Train.”
Homes nodded in instant understanding. “Who?” he inquired.
“Sir Lionel Train, head of Q6-JB45-VX-2DD-T3, the most secret of our secret services. Other than the Yard and Special Services, no one has ever heard of the man.”
“Ah! That Sir Lionel Train!” Homes said, and nodded.
— Criscroft and Schlock Homes, The Adventure of the Great Train Robbery
Schlock Holmes was a creation of Robert L. Fish, and I was inspired to find this book after reading Norma Schier’s brilliant The Anagram Detectives. Her final tale, The Boing! Ritual, is a riff on Schlock Holmes, who himself is a parody of Sherlock Holmes. Homes and his assistant, Dr. Watney, are pulled through some of the most astounding adventures, brought to them at their headquarters in 221B Bagel Street. On occasion, Homes’ brother Criscroft comes by to bring an interesting problem to his attention. (Invariably, however, there is something at Criscroft’s club preventing him from investigating himself.) Throughout the collection, Homes and Watney come across their archenemy, Professor Marty (whom they call—with good reason—The Butcher), several times.
Recently, there has been much talk about a group of writers who have collectively been labelled “The Humdrums”: men like R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, JJ Connington, and John Rhode. (I for one cannot wait to read Curt Evans’ book on the subject when it is published.) The derogatory label is extremely unfair, something John Rhode proves beautifully in his book Death on Sunday.
John Rhode was the penname of Cecil John Charles Street—but apparently, he went by John Street. Much like Cecil Day-Lewis (who wrote mysteries as Nicholas Blake), he hated the name Cecil. Rhode has a reputation for being a technically-minded man— for instance, thanks to his technical wizardry, Eric the Skull’s eyes glowed red at The Detection Club’s meetings. Rhode’s (undeserved) reputation is also that of a dull writer who couldn’t entertain a drunken fish.
That’s somewhat surprising, because Puzzle for Players is a very well-done theatre mystery. I just love these: death is hiding in the shadows in the wings, waiting to strike again, while the actors are on stage rehearsing… This particular theatre is the Dagonet, which comes complete with an age-old jinx (shows that play there constantly fail) and a ghost named Lillian, who has a nasty habit of turning up in mirrors. The theatrical atmosphere is nicely done— Quentin captures the general bedlam of backstage before the performance. The petty, pointless rivalries, the progression of the show as the performance is being moulded… It’s really nicely done.
I stumbled over the film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame by accident, as I was looking up an adaptation of Robert Van Gulik’s The Haunted Monastery. The film seemed okay, but the trailer rather turned me off. It didn’t seem like my kind of movie. Well, I was wrong… but I was also right. This movie is a strange mixture of stuff I really like and stuff I don’t care for at all.
The idea for a plot is a really darn good one. As Wu Zetian prepares to be declared Empress, a series of spontaneous combustions occur that threaten to ruin the coronation. Detective Dee is released from prison, where he was thrown 8 years before for treason, and he is ordered to track down the criminal and serve justice.
Not too long ago, I read the entire English-translated series Case Closed to date, in about a month. It’s a manga series by Gosho Aoyama, and although I’m really not into the recent manga craze, Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) really caught my imagination. It’s an interesting series with characters I enjoy following around, and it uses a lot of imagination and creativity in its mysteries. Throughout the series, you’ll get clever locked room mysteries (my favourite has to be in volume 19) maniacal killers isolating groups of people somewhere remote (be it an island, mountaintop, or mansion), serial killers terrorizing the city, inverted murder mysteries, and an ongoing storyline where Conan tries tracking down the syndicate that is responsible for shrinking him down to first-grader size. It’s plenty of fun and highly enjoyable, and today I at last got to sit down and catch up with the most recent volume of the series, Volume 38. Overall it’s an enjoyable, solid volume of stories.
Time has not been kind to William DeAndrea’s novel Cronus, which I would classify more as a thriller than a mystery. As I read it, I was reminded uncannily of the 1984 movie Red Dawn. If you haven’t seen it and you want a good laugh, I’d recommend it. Simply put, it doesn’t age well— it requires the paranoia of the Cold War to make it work. Seen from the viewpoint of someone born in 1993, it just seems incredibly silly. (In Red Dawn, for instance, I always burst out laughing when the main characters pack essential stuff to hide out from the Russians… and they’re sure to take a football, just so they can play a good ol’ American game later in the movie. Hoorah for patriotism!) Not all thrillers from this time are bad—The Hunt for Red October, for instance, has aged quite well. But like I said, the same can’t be said of Cronus.
For a while now, I’ve been meaning to change the look of the blog. At first, I thought I’d do away with the purple and throw in scans of my favourite book covers. It wasn’t a bad idea, except the file size ended up being so huge, I was forced to scrap it. Then I thought of taking photos of my shelves— that didn’t work for similar reasons.
And then I thought to myself: “The blog is called ‘At the Scene of the Crime’…” Well, Golden Age mysteries and crime scene maps go together like peanut butter and jam! I took a quick look through some of my books and ended up scanning a few diagrams. Then, thanks to Curt Evans (who has uploaded some great pictures onto his Facebook account), I obtained a diagram from a book I didn’t own. After playing around with Photoshop to give me the diagrams in my desired colour scheme (I won’t bother you all with details), the result was the new background image.
It is composed of five crime scene diagrams from five books:
(1) Paul Halter’s Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor)
(2) John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man)
(3) Freeman Wills Crofts, Death on the Way (with thanks to Curt Evans)
(4) John Dickson Carr, The Problem of the Wire Cage
(5) Paul Halter, La Tête du Tigre (The Tiger’s Head)
What else has changed? Gone is the purple—as much as I enjoyed the colour, it was time for a change. The new colour scheme involves a dark blue-green. This redesign has resulted in a different look, a distinct one from my French-language blog, Sur les lieux du crime.
So, welcome to the new crime scene! Your comments are, of course, welcome! Keep your eyes peeled for another review coming soon!
How can I describe Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries? I was expecting something rather like John Dickson Carr’s The Department of Queer Complaints: impossible murders and locked rooms being investigated by a police squad. Well, I was wrong—the series turned out to be just what it claimed. It was all about peculiar crimes. Some books, like White Corridor and Ten Second Staircase involve genuine locked rooms (or other impossible scenarios). Others, like The Water Room, are just bizarre crimes.
Since this is my first time reviewing a Fowler novel on the blog, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the previous entries I read in the series. Full Dark House has a brilliant atmosphere, a retrospective murder case in WWII London with a lunatic murdering people in a theatre. It has a lot of social commentary, but Fowler gets away with it because it’s good stuff. The only thing wrong with it is the solution, where the book falls apart, as some impossible occurrences are never adequately explained and the killer is just random.
The Water Room has a far less interesting set-up but an infinitely better solution. (With Fowler, it often seems that the better the set-up, the less interesting the solution, and vice versa.) Ten Second Staircase involves a lunatic serial killer dressing up as a Highwayman and killing minor celebrities, becoming one in the process.
Death at Wentwater Court is the first detective novel in the Daisy Dalrymple series, written by Carola Dunn. For a debut mystery, it’s not bad at all, and I rather liked it. It’s a good, old fashioned fair play detective story, complete with a family get-together over the Christmas holidays at a secluded country house… The inevitable snowstorm that cuts the suspects off from the outside world, however, was delayed due to icy road conditions.
In any case, the book is great fun. The mystery involves the death of the highly unpleasant Lord Stephen Astwick, who managed to get himself invited to Wentwater Court even though nobody really liked him. When a skating party forms one morning to have some fun down at the lake, they receive a shock instead: Lord Stephen has apparently fallen through a patch of thin ice, knocking himself unconscious in the process and drowning to death.
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.
Margery Allingham is an interesting author, though definitely an acquired taste. My first Allingham was The Case of the Late Pig, and although I liked the quality of the writing and the writer’s sense of humour, I thought it was not the best introduction to her work, as her detective, Albert Campion, does the narrating, thus leaving me confused about who certain people were, if there were backstories or not, and so forth.
Police at the Funeral is far more traditional. It is told in third-person narration, and I followed the characters much better this time around. Of course, it helps that the characters are extremely well-written to begin with, and overall, Allingham does a fine job with her story.
It was a welcome diversion to enter the mad, alcohol-drenched world of Craig Rice for a few hours as I sat down to read her book My Kingdom for a Hearse. It stars the detective team of Jake and Helene Justus as well as lawyer John J. Malone. This is a sleuthing trio that gets a whole lot more talented after a couple of drinks, and the adventures they embark upon are delightful.
The story starts when John J. Malone is hired by Hazel Swackhammer, who is the head honcho over at Delora Deanne, who is basically a cosmetics company. Delora is the model who does all the advertising, and as Malone learns, she isn’t real—all the images of her are composite shots of five different young ladies— one provides the face, another the hands, and so on, with one of the five providing her voice on radio broadcasts. But there’s been a distressing event— Hazel has received a package, with a pair of gloves inside… but the gloves are not empty! Distressingly, he finds that the model who poses for Delora’s hands has gone missing…
Back when I wrote about Peter Lovesey’s Mad Hatter’s Holiday, I was heavily critical of the book. I found the main character, Albert Moscorp, a very creepy character who single-handedly brought much of the book down. At the same time, I noticed encouraging signs about Lovesey that may turn me into a fan yet, such as an attempt to create a clever plot and that “when Lovesey isn’t preoccupied with developing Moscorp’s character or throwing historical stuff your way, the story is told in a fun style. I suspect Lovesey would work better writing in a modern day setting.”
Well, 1964 is not the most modern date around, but that’s the setting for Lovesey’s Rough Cider. Theo Sinclair, a university lecturer, is approached without warning one day by a beautiful blonde who sits at his table while he’s eating, visits his office, and sits on the hood of his car in the rain for a few hours waiting for him. Theo is rather annoyed at first by her attempts to make his acquaintance. After a not-too-successful date, he gets home to find that she’s broken in and is lying naked in bed, waiting for him. His reaction? Why, he realizes he has nothing to complain about and brings up champagne for two, of course!
The Caves of Steel takes place about three thousand years in the future. The course of civilisation has been forever altered by two technological advancements: space colonization and the creation of the positronic brain. In this futuristic world, which Asimov describes with detailed precision, a murder takes place, as an eminent scientist is killed while working on an advanced robot. Asimov creates an interesting impossible crime scenario, the details of which I’ll let the reader discover on their own (as I find that attempts to describe it suggest the solution too clearly).