Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In Tribute to A. C. Baantjer

TomCat and John have already posted reviews of books by the late Dutch author A. C. Baantjer, who died a year ago on August 29th, 2010. I’m afraid this review is two days late, but better late than never, right? I cannot soliloquize about how Baantjer influenced me, because I only just finished reading my first (translated) book by Baantjer, DeKok and Murder by Melody. I cannot offer new, in-depth insights into the author’s psyche, the viewpoints expressed in his novels, or the influence on a generation of Dutch authors. I can, however, offer a fair review of a book that not only flew by, but also was highly enjoyable. Isn’t that the best tribute you can ask for as an author, to know your stuff is still being read and enjoyed after you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Night of the Lone Wolf

Le mardi, il y eut quatre brebis égorgées à Ventebrune, dans les Alpes. Et le jeudi, neuf à Pierrefort. « Les loups, dit un vieux. Ils descendent sur nous. »

L’autre vida son verre, leva la main. « Un loup, Pierrot, un loup. Une bête comme t’en as jamais vu. Qui descend sur nous. »


On Tuesday, four sheep were killed at Ventebrune in the French Apls. On Thursday, nine were lost at Pierrefort. “It’s the wolves,” a local said. “They’re coming down to eat us all up.”

The other man drained his glass, then raised his hand. “A wolf, Pierrot, my lad. It’s a wolf. A beast such as you have never clapped eyes on before. Coming down, as you say, to eat us all up.”

Opening dialogue of L’homme à l’envers (“Seeking Whom He May Devour”)

When I was returning to Canada from Portugal, we took an Air France flight first to Paris and then to Toronto. At the airport, I found a bookstore/general newsstand and bought five books by French authors. Three of these were by Fred Vargas, a decision prompted by the intriguing summary on the back of L’homme à l’envers (meaning literally “The Inside-Out Man”, though a translation has been published with the inferior title of “Seeking Whom He May Devour”).

Monday, August 29, 2011

What's your favourite scary movie?

Though horror movies are far from my favourite genre, I love the Scream series of movies. These films take a look at the horror film in a delightfully satirical, tongue-in-cheek way: the characters expound on the rules of the horror movie, proudly avoid the same stupid mistakes, and then turn around and make new stupid mistakes. This layer of satire is what makes the first two films, Scream and Scream 2, stand up above your average violent slasher flick. While still violent (and rather scary) movies, they have a fun habit of mocking themselves in the process and it makes for great watching.

Something happened by the time Scream 3 rolled along, however. The series became lazy and started to come up with outlandish situations… but it took itself seriously. The charm of the first two movies was the characters’ self-awareness, but in Scream 3, these scenes were very few, far between, and not nearly as successful. There are some moments in the movie—like a very good chase through a movie set, or a cameo by Carrie Fischer in which she takes a fun crack at herself and the character she played in Star Wars—but overall, Scream 3 fell flat, feeling like little more than an attempt to cash in.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Return of the Crime Scene

Your faithful correspondent in Barcelona
The day after I wrote about Paul Doherty’s The Devil’s Domain, I boarded a flight that would eventually take me to Spain, where as part of a 23-person group, I participated in World Youth Day in Madrid. It was a wonderful experience, and I loved visiting all sorts of lovely places. Barcelona and Porto particularly impressed me as beautiful places with very friendly people. I managed to have all sorts of adventures, including one in which I (with a handful of others) managed to get separated from the rest of the group at around 10 PM in the middle of anti-papal protests. Of course, I wasn’t regarding it as an adventure while I partook in it, but as G. K. Chesterton wrote: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

Which makes for a wonderfully convenient segue into today’s book review, G. K. Chesterton’s The Flying Inn. Like I said last time, I took no mysteries with me, but I took Chesterton’s novel so as not to be bored. I read some of it on long plane rides to Europe and back (for some unfathomable reason, I have never been able to sleep on a moving plane, even if I’m extremely tired), but I ended up having so much fun with my friends that I did not turn a single page of the book while actually in Europe.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Five Little Frenchmen

Recently on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, one puzzledoctor (aka Steve) has recently been dipping into the work of Paul Doherty. I was intrigued. How could an author of historical mysteries, who apparently kept his eye on the puzzle element as well as the historical, have slipped under the radar for me? I’d certainly never heard of him. But one book review followed another, until I finally went around a few used bookstores and bought three books by Doherty: The Cup of Ghosts, The Season of the Hyaena, and The Devil’s Domain.

I finally decided to read The Devil’s Domain and see just what there is to like about Doherty. The answer: a lot. This was definitely the right book to pick. It a historical mystery with clever clueing and a fast-paced, exciting plot… and also an impossible crime! As an added bonus, it’s an impossible poisoning! For some reason, you don’t see too many of those, probably because it’s kind of hard to come up with a way to make poisoning seem impossible. Still, when it’s done right, it’s a fantastic plot idea! See The Red Widow Murders or The Chinese Gold Murders for good examples.

Monday, August 08, 2011

They do but jest...

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has attained a level of fame by setting a record as the longest-running play in theatre history. The story is a fairly routine one, with an isolated circle of suspects and murder (of course). It’s an expansion of the 1948 short story Three Blind Mice and premiered in 1952, and it hasn’t run out of steam since.

But in Scott K. Ratner’s play Kill a Better Mousetrap, Miles Edward Merbinau argues that it’s one of Christie’s worst efforts—“all the superficial trappings of a great Christie work, with none of the ingenuity,” he says. Personally, I’ve never seen a production of The Mousetrap, but my impression from reading the script was that it was an agreeably silly little play with a few nice touches of ingenuity.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Come and be grilled...

There are a few reasons I omitted Rex Stout when I covered various forgotten Crime Kings. For one thing, reprints have been relatively kind to Stout, and Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are still fairly popular, as evidenced by The Wolfe Pack. Heck, there’s even a recent, brilliant TV series based on the Wolfe novels! So I felt justified in putting Stout off, and probably wouldn’t have gotten around to reading him before I leave for Spain if not for Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive, a book so brilliant it made elongating the Crime Kings series seem rather superfluous.

After making my initial acquaintance with Rex Stout’s work, I read a few randomly-chosen Nero Wolfe novels (including Champagne for One, Too Many Cooks, and Too Many Clients) before deciding it would be best to read the series chronologically. The last time I read a Nero Wolfe was the book Over My Dead Body, which was the result of an accidental error in my chronological shelving system. So at long last I’ve returned to the book I accidentally skipped: Some Buried Caesar.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Murder most foul

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee;
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Macbeth, Act II, scene i

I find myself once again puzzled over why Henry Wade should be considered one of The Humdrums. I can understand why someone like John Rhode or Freeman Wills Crofts would be considered as part of the group, but for the life of me I don’t see that in Henry Wade (pseudonym of Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher). I’ve just finished reading his book Heir Presumptive, and it is undoubtedly the best inverted murder mystery I’ve ever read. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it (ahem) Literary Art.

Heir Presumptive was published in 1935, though the edition I found in the university’s library was a reprint from 1937. It comes complete with a family tree and a map of Captain David Hendel’s deer forest, folded in an interesting way at the front of the book and the back. These come in very useful, particularly the family tree: the family history is a complex one, and at first, I found myself looking at the family tree quite often to see who was related to whom.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Puzzle for Magicians

Jonathan Creek is a television series in which the titular character is a magician’s creative consultant, who manages to get himself mixed up in various impossible crimes, often with supernatural touches. The entire series was written by David Renwick, and much of it is very fun, even when it is flawed. And so, in 2009 and 2010, after a five year hiatus, Jonathan Creek returned to screen in a pair of full-length specials: the 120-minute The Grinning Man (New Year’s Day 2009 Special) and the 90-minute The Judas Tree (Easter Sunday 2010 Special).

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Dr. Thorndyke Speaks

In the last few weeks, I’ve examined various Crime Kings and have quickly developed quite a liking for the work of R. Austin Freeman, creator of Dr. John Thorndyke. I loved The Eye of Osiris and the short story collection The Singing Bone, both of which are, in my humble opinion, masterpieces.

So I approached the short story collection The Magic Casket with plenty of optimism, hoping for something that would continue the brilliance. As it turns out, The Magic Casket is not a particularly brilliant short story collection, but it is a solid one, with some fairly good stories and interesting forensic techniques through which Dr. Thorndyke solves his mysteries.

Monday, August 01, 2011

LXXVII. In which the mystery reader gets less than his money's worth.

I recently acquired a copy of William DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, which already has become a valuable tool in my blogging activities. When looking up Elliot Paul and his detective, Homer Evans, I came across the following information:

“Like his creator, an American living in Paris, Homer Evans was intended to be a parody of Philo Vance. On that level, the character was a failure. Although far more accomplished than Vance (for instance, Evans had to give up painting as a hobby because all the professional artists of his acquaintance were nearly suicidal with despair), Elliot Paul was incapable of making anyone a tenth as obnoxious as Vance. Where the Homer Evans mysteries succeed is as absurdist, almost surreal farces, populated by likable loonies somehow involved in murder cases that didn’t have to make much sense—they just had to serve as a framework for the craziness.”

Well, there we have it: William DeAndrea has already summed up everything I have to say about Elliot Paul’s Mayhem in B Flat. This is a world so alcohol-soaked it makes Craig Rice’s books seem like the work of a teetotaller. The adjective describing the mad mix-ups that populate this book has yet to be coined. Tarantula fights, kidnappers, gangsters, drunkards, brawls in nightclubs, chorus girls and girls in general (a long line of them) run all over the place in this book, smack in the middle of which is a murder mystery— or at least something that masquerades as one.