Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Nine Possible Answers

Most men, they'll tell you a story straight through. It won't be complicated, but it won't be interesting either.
—Ed Bloom, Big Fish (2003)

Alfred Walter Stewart had a long career as a professor in chemistry and a university lecturer in Glasgow and Belfast, but more importantly for the purpose of this review, he also wrote detective novels under the name “J. J. Connington”. He was a well-regarded figure in his day, and John Dickson Carr gave him some praise in his famous essay The Grandest Game in the World. One of Dorothy L. Sayers’ better novels, The Five Red Herrings, is an homage to his book The Two Ticket Puzzle.

Unfortunately, academic disinterest and snobbery levelled against the Golden Age of Detective Fiction have seriously harmed Connington’s reputation. If you hear about him at all nowadays, it will be classed alongside the similarly-maligned John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts, Henry Wade, or R. Austin Freeman. (None of these writers were mentioned even in passing by P. D. James in Talking About Detective Fiction, and Julian Symons mentions some of these authors only in passing.) He will be called an ingenious technical writer but someone who couldn’t entertain a drunken fish— a Humdrum, in fact. After reading his book The Case With Nine Solutions, two explanations propose themselves to explain this discrepancy: either Connington and the Humdrums have been unfairly attacked, or the academic worth of drunken fish has been sorely underestimated.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

He's been mostly dead all day...

Following Black Orchids, Not Quite Dead Enough is the second of the Nero Wolfe books that is not a novel. Again, Rex Stout gathers two almost entirely unrelated novellas and sticks them into one book; but this time, he feels comfortable enough with the form. In Black Orchids, Archie Goodwin writes brief prefaces to the stories and an afterword, which seem like an apologetic note trying to explain to readers what he is trying to do. There is no such thing going on in Not Quite Dead Enough.

The novella form seems to have brought out the best of Rex Stout. The plotting is tighter and more fast-paced, and the stories themselves are far more interesting. Some Wolfe novels would have worked so much better in this form, particularly (of those I’ve read) Fer-de-Lance, Too Many Clients, and Where There’s a Will. Each of these books is fun to read, but I’ll be darned if I remember much about the plots of those I haven’t read recently.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mr. Wolfe Steps Out

I’ve been on a mission to read the Nero Wolfe books in as chronological an order as I can manage. The previous entry, Where There's a Will, was something of a disappointment: it wasn’t just flimsily plotted, but it seemed to lose interest in itself about halfway through. So when you compare it with the next book in the series, Black Orchids, the achievements of the latter seem even more impressive.

The structure of Black Orchids is completely different from any Nero Wolfe book that preceded it. It is not a novel but two novellas stuck together with only a tangential relationship between the two stories. The cast of characters is entirely different, and in fact, only the mention of black orchids gives the stories some common ground. Archie Goodwin himself must intervene and explain to the reader what he is trying to do. These stories are too long to be considered short stories, but they’re also far too short to be novels.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prima Aprilis!

“But how extraordinary! I mean, it’s like finding a cauliflower in your bed, or something perfectly ridiculous like that.”
—Ludovic Travers, The Case of the April Fools

The Case of the April Fools has an interesting premise at its core—an April Fool’s joke has gone horribly, horribly wrong. It’s a very good idea—in fact, Anthony Boucher and Denis Green used it in one of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio plays, where Dr. Watson is enlisted by friends to play a trick on Holmes where the great detective investigates a fake jewel theft with clues planted that will point to none other than Holmes himself… but then the real jewel disappears!

However, something a little more serious than theft is involved in The Case of the April Fools. Ludovic Travers is invited by the rich Courtney Allard for a get-together at Allard’s country house. Everything goes splendidly, until Charles Crewe, one of Courtney’s guests, is found stabbed to death in his room. Courtney breaks down and says that this was not supposed to happen— Allard was supposed to die a fake death as an April Fool’s prank. Travers sees that Courtney is more or less useless, so he goes to call the police himself… but as he does so, a shot rings out! When Travers returns to the scene of the crime, he finds another corpse: Courtney Allard has apparently blown his brains out, but oddly enough, the gun is nowhere to be found.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Morderstwo odbędzie się…

Bishop: What do you think when you see a beautiful woman?
Father Mateusz: I thank God for making me a man.
Bishop: And when you see an unattractive woman?
Father Mateusz: I thank Him for making me a priest.
Ojciec Mateusz (Father Mateusz), Season 1 Episode 3

I was raised in an entirely Polish family, and in fact, the Polish language was the first I learned. My parents thought it really important to instil in me traditional Polish values, the Catholic faith, and a knowledge of the Polish language and culture. It was one of the reasons I was sent to Polish School every Saturday for years—some kids got to sleep in and watch cartoons on Saturday mornings; I had to go to school.

But thanks to all this, I’ve gotten to know the Polish language like a native speaker, and as it turns out, it was a good thing to learn. Today, at Detection by Moonlight, penned by fellow blogger TomCat, I’ve volunteered my services and written aguest blog about the detective story in Poland: why it’s taken so long to flourish and what gems can be found there. I’ve made some hopefully-enticing allusions to books that should be reviewed over here, hopefully in the coming weeks. Please take a moment to look at TomCat’s blog and discover the world of Polish detective stories.

Should this count as a crossover review? Well, since I've crossed space and time and taken over TomCat's blog, I'll go ahead and say yes. Plus, this gives me a page to place in my "Criminal Record" to account for the work.

And what does my post title mean? It's actually the Polish title for A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie, but it translates out to "A Murder Will Take Place..."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The 43% (Alcohol) Solution: An Appreciation of Craig Rice

Mayor: Drebin, I don't want any more trouble like you had last year on the South Side. Understand? That's my policy.
Frank: Yes. Well, when I see 5 weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of 100 people, I shoot the bastards. That's my policy.
Mayor: That was a Shakespeare-In-The-Park production of Julius Caesar, you moron!!! You killed 5 actors!!!
-The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

Welcome, readers, to another special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! I’ve really been spoiling you all with these articles of late, where I (somehow) manage to persuade a fellow partner in crime to collaborate on an article, be it a book review, a general discussion, or a fusion of the two. I didn’t have to resort to blackmail or Mike Hammer techniques this time, but I did manage to persuade Jeffrey Marks to join me today. In case you didn’t know, Jeff is the author of an excellent biography of Anthony Boucher, a personal hero of mine. I reviewed the book earlier in this blog—in fact, it was the first non-fiction book I reviewed. Also, Jeff is the author of Who Was That Lady?, the official biography of mystery author Craig Rice. And that is why we’re here today, to have a discussion about Rice.

I’m not up-to-date with biographical details (yet), so I can’t tell you where Craig Rice was born, who her parents were, and what her favourite colour was. But I can tell you this much: she was the author of some of the funniest mysteries I’ve ever read, and managed to be the first female mystery author to appear on the cover of Time magazine— which is quite an accomplishment, n’est-ce pas? Unfortunately, her life was far too short, dying before her 50th birthday in 1957.

Jeff, thanks a lot for agreeing to join me today!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Party to Die For

Mr. Pidgeon is a truly extraordinary fellow. A few months ago, he was a humble university lecturer, but after suddenly coming into an enormous fortune, he’s had pots of money and no idea what to do with it. So he does a very reasonable thing: he buys an island off the Portuguese government and purchases a splendid yacht and invites a group of quite ordinary people for the maiden voyage. It happens in Anthony Berkeley’s Panic Party, which sometimes gets the alternate title Mr. Pidgeon’s Island.

This voyage follows in the proud tradition of the Titanic, as the ship malfunctions off the coast of the island and the passengers are marooned there so that the boat can get repaired. Nobody is very happy about this, but Mr. Pidgeon is pleased as punch and proposes a game everyone can play to pass the time: one of the people on the island, he claims, is a murderer, and he has conclusive proof of their crime that will go to the police upon return to England. He even proposes prizes, but by more or less unanimous consent, people refuse to partake in the game. Later, however, Pidgeon confides to one of the passengers, amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, that the entire game is a hoax cooked up just for the stay, which he’s engineered—the group is completely cut off from the outside world and will have to cooperate until the boat returns in a fortnight, or murder could be done.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dead Men Tell No Tales

I’ve recently been hired at the university library as a general shelver, and as a result, I now spend 13 hours a week at the library. I haunt the place to death anyhow, but the difference is I now get paid for it. To my delight, I discovered that the job wasn’t particularly formal—more casual—and I learned that if I felt so inclined, I could listen to audiobooks during my shift. I didn’t need to be prompted twice, and as a result, I listened to Rex Stout’s Where There’s a Will, finishing it in practically one day.

Noel Hawthorne was a very, very rich man, and when he died in a hunting accident, his family was consoled in the knowledge that they could comfort themselves with Noel’s money. What a shock, then, when they discover that Noel’s sisters (April, May, and June) get nothing but fruit— a peach, an apple, and a pear! Noel then left his wife a mere half million, and after some other legacies, the rest of the estate, about seven million or so, is left to his mistress, Naomi Karn.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Dead Sleep Lightly

“When I was a boy, we used to light fires, a circle of bonfires around the village, to ward off the ghosts. Well, the ghosts have come back to Melford to haunt, to seek justice, perhaps even revenge. We not only deal with treasons of the living, Ranulf, but the treason of the ghosts.”
—Sir Hugh Corbett, The Treason of the Ghosts

I have shamefully neglected Paul Doherty’s tales starring Sir Hugh Corbett, but recent reviews by The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel convinced me to give the stories a shot as soon as I could. But I decided to be a rebel and start with a title that sounded great instead of reading in strict chronological order. The result? I ended up picking up a copy of The Treason of the Ghosts.

It’s a really good title, isn’t it? And it’s adequately explained by Doherty in the quote I chose to open the review with. And the story itself is just as atmospheric as the title. The village of Melford is our backdrop. Five years ago, Sir Roger Chapeley was hung for a series of brutal rapes and murders. Now, however, the killings have started again, and the dead man’s son, Maurice, insists on an investigation. This brings Sir Hugh Corbett down to the village, and like a bloodhound, he begins to sniff around, catching the killer’s scent and relentlessly pursuing it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ministry of Miracles

John Dickson Carr: Scribe du Miracle is a fascinating book by Roland Lacourbe, a French critic who is no stranger to this blog. I have mentioned Lacourbe several times before, usually in connection with Paul Halter. I’ve found Lacourbe’s introductions to Halter’s works excellent, and he conducts a brilliant interview with Halter in the first of the three Masque omnibuses.

Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there was only one copy of Lacourbe’s book in all Canadian libraries, and they wanted me to pay around $20 to get it via Interlibrary Loan. It is sometimes available on sites like PriceMinister, but for rather high prices— the lowest I’ve found right now is 36,10€. So it seemed like I was doomed to not read this book anytime soon.

Until I found out something about my university library: they could get a hold of Lacourbe’s book via RACER (their version of Interlibrary Loans) for free! I rejoiced at the prospect and placed a request, expecting to wait a few months. I got the book after two weeks, and have been reading it on the side for quite some time now.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Talking about Talking About Detective Fiction

I’d like to welcome readers to this special edition of At the Scene of the Crime, in which I’m joined by a very special guest: Curt Evans, mystery scholar extraordinaire and author of a soon to be published book on “Humdrums”, authors from the Golden Age like John Rhode who are often dismissed despite their importance in the genre’s history.

It seems ironic, now that I think about it, that Curt’s agreed to join me and examine P. D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction, which is a book that examines the mystery genre. I’ve taken good-natured cracks at P. D. James on the blog before. I haven’t read any of her books, but their size frankly scares me—in the wrong hands, one of her books would make an admirable bludgeoning weapon. But just how well would the Baroness analyse that noblest form of literature, the mystery? The only way to find out would be by reading the book…

Curt, thanks for joining me!

Perhaps I should start by saying that I found this book could be charitably called a train-wreck. I disagreed often with Julian Symons throughout Bloody Murder, but with P. D. James, I rarely got the chance to agree! Her history of the genre is highly selective, going from Jane Austen to the Crime Queens to a cursory glance at modern day, with barely a glance at anything else in between! The entire non-hardboiled American school of writing is treated as a non-entity, as though it never existed! John Dickson Carr is lucky to escape with a mere half-sentence acknowledging him as master of the locked-room mystery, while Helen McCloy, Anthony Boucher, Ellery Queen, and S. S. Van Dine are never mentioned!

James also has a curious fixation on Ronald Knox’s “Commandments” of Detective Fiction, treating them as though they were the only set of rules ever written. Van Dine’s Commandments are never mentioned, for instance, and James gets things horribly wrong when she writes: “Rules and restrictions do not produce original, or good, literature, and the rules were not strictly adhered to.” Did you hear that, Bill Shakespeare? You and your silly sonnets are neither original nor good, because you restrict them to 14 lines! The only rule you can really apply to detective fiction is for it to play fair with the clues, which I don’t see as a problem: it’s simply something that defines the genre.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My friend Daedalus

Paul Halter’s Le Crime de Dédale (The Crime of Daedalus) has an idea at its core that has haunted and fascinated me since I first heard of it. Throw everything you know about Greek mythology into the dust bin: Paul Halter tackles the impossible crime with Ancient Greece as a backdrop and mythological characters taking roles in his story. Le Crime de Dédale is a fascinating book with two storylines: one takes place in Ancient Greece, and the other takes place in 1937.

The book opens in 1937 with Professor Lewis Newcomb making an incredible discovery on the island of Crete. Unfortunately, Paul Halter, that perpetual prankster, withholds the discovery from his readers for several chapters. In the meanwhile, you witness a strange series of events: Newcomb’s team of archaeologists opened a tomb a few days before the Incredible Discovery. This tomb came complete with its very own ancient curse, and right on schedule, one of the team members falls to his doom, winding up impaled on a bull’s horn carved out of stone.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Rules were made to be broken...

[Note: I am trying out something new today on the blog: instead of reviewing a book, I am discussing my impressions on a topic and trying to put them in a cohesive article. Feedback on this experiment is much appreciated, as I would like to include more posts like this in the future and would like to improve them.]

"This means war!"
—Daffy Duck, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

My reaction to James' book...
In her book Talking About Detective Fiction, P. D. James has a curious fixation for Ronald Knox and his “Ten Commandments” for detective fiction. This is one of the many points about the book which rather annoy me. Knox was not the only one to come up with rules, but James never even mentions this. She seems to believe that everyone took these rules as Law, and that any deviation was frowned upon with nothing but scorn. In fact, she goes on to say that “Rules and restrictions do not produce original, or good, literature, and the rules were not strictly adhered to.” This is a stunningly silly statement—if it were true, we might as well throw every book of poetry into the rubbish bin, because they all adhere to one rule: they must not be written in prose. 

If all goes well, you will hear more about James’ book and my problems with it in a few days. But for now, I’d like to examine Father Ronald Knox’s Decalogue. Just how futile is this attempt to define rules for the genre?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

You are cordially invited to dine with death

Killed in a locked room—what a way to go! And that’s precisely what happens to Harold Vickers, master of the impossible crime mystery, in Paul Halter’s La Mort Vous Invite (Death Invites You). What a bizarre crime! First, someone purporting to be Vickers sends two invitations. One is to a police officer, Simon Cunningham. The other is to a newspaper reporter, Fred Springer. They arrive, but Mrs. Dane Vickers insists there must be some sort of mistake: her eccentric husband locked himself in his study yesterday and hasn’t left since! However, when Vickers doesn’t answer to knocks at the door and something smelling like chicken is detected in the air, the door is forced open…

Vickers is sitting at a table prepared for three, face down in his food, his face and hands severely burned in bubbling-hot oil. The food is an exquisitely prepared meal… but where did it come from? It was still steaming when the door was opened, but nobody could’ve prepared anything in the kitchen without being noticed! Still more bizarre: the door to Vickers’ study was locked and his windows were shut and locked, with the shutters closed! To add to the crime’s strangeness, a pair of gloves is discovered at the crime scene as well as a goblet half-filled with water underneath the window. Don’t forget to point out that this case strongly resembles an unsolved murder from 1907, and that the dead man was planning to use the exact same scenario for his new book… And, heck, just for good measure, throw in a long-lost, similar-looking brother from Australia.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dead Man's Chest

Bien qu’admirateur inconditionnel de Carr et amoureux sans frein de son art de conteur, je me dois de constater qu’aucun de ses ouvrages les plus réussis – je dis bien : aucun ! – ne contient la grandeur tragique des dernières pages de La Malédiction de Barberousse.

As an unconditional admirer of [John Dickson] Carr and unreservedly loving the art of his storytelling, I wish to ascertain that none of his most successful works – I mean it: none! – contain the tragic grandeur of the final pages of La Malédiction de Barberousse.

—Roland Lacourbe, preface to La Malédiction de Barberousse (Barbarossa’s Curse)
(My apologies to Roland Lacourbe if I have butchered his words beyond belief in an attempt to translate them into English.)

The story behind the publication of La Malédiction de Barberousse (Barbarossa’s Curse) is interesting. It was originally self-published by Paul Halter in 1986, and it won the Prix de la Société des écrivains d’Alsace-Lorraine. It introduced Dr. Alan Twist, who would star in the award-winning tour-de-force La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door) the following year. It would be published by Le Masque in 1995. It’s even shorter than La Quatrième Porte, and it’s an interesting look at Paul Halter’s imagination. That being said, there are a lot of flaws in this book as well, which seems to be taking a nosedive until it redeems itself with a stunning ending.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Mr. Marlowe Finds God

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—no, nor woman neither…”
Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

I’m convinced that the mystery community is in a giant conspiracy to get me to start reading the work of Margaret Millar. The trouble started a few months ago, in a discussion with Jeffrey Marks, who asked me whether I’d read any Millar. I replied that I hadn’t, and she wasn’t particularly high on my list of authors to read, although I had been intending to read something by her husband, “Ross Macdonald”.

A few weeks later, I jubilantly held my copy of William L. DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, which had been delayed in the mail. Acting on a sudden whim, I flipped to the M section and looked up Margaret Millar, only to read the following: “Unjustly overshadowed by her husband Kenneth Millar, who attained fame as ROSS MACDONALD, Margaret Millar has produced some of the most varied and provocative mysteries in the history of the genre, with endings often unguessable until the last page.” This intrigued me, but I filed it away in the back of my mind.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


— Non. À l’heure actuelle, vous êtes sans conteste le meilleur. Le seul qui, au mépris de notre époque où hélas le mystère et le merveilleux cèdent le pas à la violence et au sexe, le seul qui persiste à écrire des énigmes digne de ce nom. Je dirai même que vous êtes le dernier défenseur de l’authentique roman policier.
“No. At the present time, you are undoubtedly the best, indeed the only one who continues to write crime mysteries worthy of the name. Your contemporaries have allowed sex and violence to take the place of mystery and suspense. I would even go so far as to call you the last defender of the authentic crime novel."

— Dr. Alan Twist, La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door)

Just over two weeks ago, I rejoiced when John Pugmire announced that Paul Halter’s award-winning first novel, La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door) was now available in English on, in e-book form as well as in print. I’ve gotten extremely fond of Halter’s work since discovering it earlier this year, and this recent bit of news gave me an excuse to return to the world of his fascinating imagination. So I ordered La Quatrième Porte and eagerly picked it up as soon as it arrived.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei ora pro nobis peccatoribus...

Paul Doherty’s An Ancient Evil was an excellent book, but it also set the bar for his “Canterbury Tales” series very high. This begs the question: would other books in the series rise up to the occasion, or would they fall short of the first book? However, being a foolish mortal, I skipped A Tapestry of Murders (Being the Man of Law’s Tale) and A Tournament of Murders (Being the Franklin’s Tale) and I went right to 1997’s Ghostly Murders, Being the Priest’s Tale.

Ghostly Murders is told by the Poor Priest, and the introduction is bone-chilling, as we see the Spectantes (“Watchers”) and hear them chant their ominous words to the priest: “Spectamus Te! We are watching you!” As in An Ancient Evil, the priest is prompted to tell his story, and as he goes on, we get more and more hints that this story really took place.