Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Killed in the Fall

G. M. Malliet is a relative newcomer to the mystery-writing scene. Ironically, considering how I recently wrote a rant against the word “cozy”, the title of her first mystery novel was Death of a Cozy Writer. I have yet to read it, but I got a hold of her newest novel, Wicked Autumn.

It is a new series for Malliet, so I haven’t missed out any backstory. The detective is Max Tudor, a former MI5 agent who found God and became a priest in the Anglican Church. He is now vicar of the church at Nether Monkslip, a supposedly idyllic English village in the countryside… which of course is the perfect place for a murder!

The victim was one Wanda Batton-Smythe, and you couldn’t find a much more despicable person on this little planet of ours. She presented a bluff, energetic façade to the world, playing the part of the Grand Dame, complete with a condescending attitude to those she considered her social inferiors. Naturally, she manages to get on everybody’s nerves right before a big autumn festival, and as a result, she gets herself killed. Wanda was famously allergic to peanuts—even people who barely knew her knew about this. She carried an epinephrine injector with her wherever she went as a precaution, and yet, she succumbs to death via her allergy. But why is the injector not in her handbag? And how did someone manage to convince her to eat something with peanuts in it?

Monday, November 28, 2011

It was a dark and stormy night...

Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet were American authors who sometimes worked together but sometimes worked separately. I really can’t say much more about them. Teilhet is known among Golden Age enthusiasts as the author of The Talking Sparrow Murders (which I’ve yet to read). Although written in 1934, it had a strong and unrepentant anti-Nazi stance, at a time when the Nazis’ rise to power didn’t seem like an extraordinary issue. After all, Germany had been so unstable it seemed like Hitler was just the latest in a long string of leaders.

But when 1940 rolled along, times obviously changed— in September of 1939, Hitler precipitated World War II by invading Poland, and before you knew it, all of Europe was engaged in warfare. And it was in 1940 that Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet released The Broken Face Murders, being the fourth adventure of the Baron Franz von Kaz, a comic detective in the tradition of John Dickson Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Interview with Paul Halter (Part II)

Yesterday, I posted Part I of an interview between Roland Lacourbe and Paul Halter. Now here is Part II, which deals more with Halter's own writing career. Both these parts originally appeared in Le Masque's Paul Halter omnibus, Volume 1, and have been translated with the permission of M. Roland Lacourbe.

***

Now we’ll begin to tackle your own work. So, traditional question: what brought you to write? The fundamental reason?

Fundamental? … (Long silence.) I believe I wanted to follow up on the investigations of Dr. Fell and H. M. Particularly Dr. Fell. 

La Malédiction de Barberousse (Barbarossa’s Curse)


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Interview with Paul Halter (Part I)

Paul Halter is arguably the current master of the impossible crime mystery. I have read ten of his books (one of which was a short story collection) and I was consistently impressed with the way he handles variation after variation on the impossible crime. He has explained away everything from the phenomenon of bilocation (La Quatrième Porte; translated as The Fourth Door) to an invisible man (Le Diable de Dartmoor; meaning The Devil of Dartmoor). The explanations are often simple and elegant, and at the top of his game, Halter can write books and puzzles to rival those of his hero, John Dickson Carr.

Paul Halter
French publisher Le Masque published three omnibuses of Halter’s works, and each omnibus contains a preface. I was particularly fascinated by the introduction to Volume 1, which is an interview between Roland Lacourbe and Paul Halter. It had plenty of interesting information on Halter and his approach to mystery-writing, and I thought to myself “Wouldn’t it be great to get this interview translated?” However, I didn’t act on this right away because I didn’t want to inadvertently get myself into any legal trouble.

However, the thought persisted, and eventually I was able to get in touch with M. Roland Lacourbe via e-mail, who most graciously gave me permission to proceed with the translation. I'm indebted to John Dickson Carr biographer Douglas G. Greene for making this possible. I would like to thank M. Roland Lacourbe for his kindness and the support he's shown throughout the project. I would also like to thank those who took a look at this translation and gave me helpful suggestions on improvements, particularly Barry Ergang, Xavier Lechard, and John Pugmire. Finally, another set of thanks goes out to Xavier Lechard, who helped me with footnotes about figures who will likely be unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What is Love?

"Now, did you hear anything unusual during the evening?"
"Well," said Mrs Love, after pausing, unprecedently, for reflection, "there was a weird play on the wireless, very intelligent I expect, but not the sort of thing I like, they do broadcast such extraordinary things sometimes, I dare say Andrew would have made something of it, I always felt with him that I had so much to live up to in a way it was a strain."
—An interrogation from Love Lies Bleeding

Mystery scholar extraordinaire Curt Evans has recently joined the blogosphere, creating a highly promising blog titled The Passing Tramp, which is certainly worth a look! Some attention has been paid early on to the work of Robert Bruce Montgomery, alias Edmund Crispin. Crispin authored a splendid series of comic detective stories in the Golden Age vein that starred English professor Gervase Fen. Crispin was inspired by John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge, and Fen is intended as an homage to Dr. Gideon Fell, sharing his initials and even referring to Fell as a real person in The Case of the Gilded Fly.

Earlier this year, I read Swan Song, which was an excellent book, but the publisher, Four Square Press, absolutely ruined it for me by spoiling the twist ending on the front cover and again on the back cover. (The plot summary also makes some stupid mistakes in summarising the plot.) I’ve slowly been reading the entire Gervase Fen series in order, and so, thanks to Curt’s recent posts, I decided to read Love Lies Bleeding (most of it I read on audiobook while at work—but I left off at such a tantalizing point that I read the final 30 pages myself). After my experience with Swan Song, I decided not to look at the back of my copy of the book…

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Viewer Discretion is Advised

You can tell right from the beginning that Richard S. Prather’s Strip for Murder is going to be something special. This is a mystery novel in the hardboiled vein, starring wisecracking private eye Shell Scott. (“Shell” being short for Sheldon.) Scott starts the narrative off with a bang, when he’s out of place at a fancy party-- "and," Shell Scot declares, "if this was the Smart Set, then I was glad I belonged to the Stupid Set".

Naturally, as a private eye, he isn’t getting paid to party—he’s been summoned there by a potential client, the rich heiress Mrs. Redstone, who has two young daughters who will inherit the estate one day. Naturally, the lady doesn’t plan on dying any day soon, but she’s worried about daughter Vera, who’s gotten herself involved with a scumbag, Andon Poupelle, who seems to be after her money. (Which is of course a real shock, since the term “sex bomb” may have been coined to describe Vera herself.) She’s already hired one detective, Paul Yates, to look into Poupelle’s background, but Yates has just turned up with a hole in his chest where his heart used to be. Yates had already delivered his report, where he gave Poupelle a clean bill of health, but he’s been known to be not-quite-honest when the money’s right.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Winding Rhode of Deduction

Lady Misterton was a general pain in the derrière to everyone she came into contact with. But on this occasion, she really crossed the limit. While driving through Windsor Great Park, she commanded her chauffeur, William Fitchley, to pull over. She had forgotten her handbag back at her residence, Clandown Towers. However, instead of turning back the car, she ordered the chauffeur to walk the three-and-a-half miles back to fetch the bag. Fitchley walked off obediently as Lady Misterton began to knit, while a portable wireless radio played Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. When Fitchley arrived at Clandown Towers, he found out that Lady Misterton had taken her bag with her after all…

Furious, Fitchley decided to dally on the way back and stopped at a pub for a “quick one”. Unfortunately, when he exited the pub, he failed to notice an oncoming vehicle. He was hit and subsequently hospitalized… But what about Lady Misterton?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge: Challenge Accepted

Bev over at My Reader’s Block has got a Vintage Mystery Challenge going this year. Now, naturally, if I’d know about it and signed up, I would have won hands-down... but as it is, I think it’s a bit late for that. However, that doesn’t stop me from planning ahead— which is what I thought of doing when I saw Bev post about the upcoming 2012 Vintage Mystery Challenge. I even had a good idea for a customized theme… but nah, the more I thought of it, the less eligible books I could come up with. Most of the titles I’d had in mind were post-1960 anyhow…

“Oh, Patrick,” you might be thinking, “you’re writing about it, so obviously you came up with something! So cut it out and just tell us!” Well, it actually started with a comment Bev herself made on Les Blatt’s post about the challenge on his excellent blog, Classic Mysteries, where she gave me a few good ideas. They started to swirl around my brain, and before I knew it, I had enough titles to fill up two lists. Naturally, I no longer had any excuse to hold out.

So, without further ado, here is my first theme for the upcoming challenge. All these books make some sort of reference to the Devil or (more generally) evil in the title, which is why I’ve named it:

Devil Take the Hindmost
Evil Under the Sun – Agatha Christie
Do Evil in Return – Margaret Millar
The Black Tower (The Tower of Evil) – John Rhode
The Devil’s Elbow – Gladys Mitchell
The Devil's Steps – Arthur W. Upfield
The Devil Loves Me – Margaret Millar
The Devil in Velvet – John Dickson Carr
The Devil at Saxon Wall – Gladys Mitchell

To contrast with this list, I’ve compiled another list of books with the opposite theme—these titles refer to angels, God, religious symbols, justice, and saints, which is why I’ve given the theme the name of:

How Like An Angel
The Black Seraphim – Michael Gilbert
The Egyptian Cross Mystery – Ellery Queen
The Four Just Men – Edgar Wallace
Lament for a Maker – Michael Innes
The Lamp of God – Ellery Queen
St. Peter’s Finger – Gladys Mitchell
The Tau Cross Mystery – J. J. Connington
Thanks to the Saint – Leslie Charteris

Naturally, these listings are only tentative and might change— in particular, there’s one impossible crime novel that will find its way on the “Devil Take the Hindmost” list if I don’t get around to it before the New Year is ushered in. But that will be seen in good time…

If you want to participate in this challenge, be sure to check out the rules and instructions here!

Continuing an Improbable Fiction

I very recently reviewed La Nuit du loup (The Night of the Wolf) by Paul Halter, where I noted that I was reading the original French edition. The French version and the English translation, published in 2007, contain significant textual differences. One story, Un Rendez-vous aussi saugrenu (An Appointment as Ludicrous) was dropped from the translation because it’s impossible to translate into English. Two more stories were then added to bring the grand total up to ten: L’Abominable bonhomme de neige (The Abominable Snowman) and Le Spectre doré (The Golden Ghost).

However, these stories have not yet been collected in French (although I sincerely hope that day is near). As a result, when I reviewed La Nuit du loup, I was unable to comment on these two tales which English-speaking readers can find in the translation. However, since my review, I have been fortunate enough to read these two stories, and so, I would now like to review them as an addendum to my earlier review.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Psychoanalysed Detective

Although I profess myself to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I had never read The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, although it was a fairly popular Holmesian pastiche and was even adapted into a movie! (However, I am frankly baffled that Robert Duvall was cast as Watson. Certainly not the casting choice that springs into mind!)

Meyer presents his book as though it were an undiscovered manuscript of Dr. Watson’s, and he does it wonderfully. The idea behind this pastiche is excellent— Dr. Watson tells his readers that Sherlock’s death at the hands of Moriarty in The Final Problem never happened. It was, he claims, a complete forgery (and then he goes on to mention some other “forgeries” like The Mazarin Stone and The Creeping Man with disdain) and this book is to set the record straight about what really happened.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Care Bears Solve a Murder

I really don’t think I can be very fair to today’s book, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James. I’ve taken James to task on this blog before for spreading the wrong ideas about the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but I approached her book with an open mind and with eager anticipation, since I’d read many positive comments about it. One of the things I love about my job is that I get plenty of time to listen to audiobooks, and I’d managed to find an audiobook version read by one Davina Porter.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman has got a marvellous title and an excellent idea for a plot. Bernie Pryde, from Pryde’s Detective Agency, commits suicide, and leaves the business to his partner, the young Cordelia Gray. Soon afterwards, Cordelia gets her first case, when she is hired by Sir Ronald Callender. His son Mark had recently left college and gone to work as a gardener, and was found hung, an apparent suicide. There seems to be no doubt about the verdict, but Sir Ronald is not happy. He wants to know why Mark killed himself and whether he was responsible for it or not.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Data, data, data!

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
— Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

If you read this blog regularly, you may have inferred one thing about me: I absolutely adore Westerns. One of my favourite movies of all-time is John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, and Andy Devine (amongst others). It is, in my mind at least, as close as you can get to the perfect movie: plenty of action and suspense, just the right touch of comic relief from Devine, a truly frightening villain, and complex characters that you get to care for. There’s also a powerful sense of nostalgic regret, which may be one of the reasons the movie was filmed in black-and-white…

Unfortunately, it’s hardly likely that I’ll be able to find some way of sneaking in a proper review of a “pure” Western like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But what’s the next best thing? Why, mystery/Western crossovers, of course! Because if you combine a murder mystery with cowboys, I’d like two subscriptions, please. I’ve reviewed such books in the past: William DeAndrea was en route to starting an excellent series in this vein starring Lobo Blacke and Quinn Booker, but his untimely death deprived us of more of their adventures. This is where Steve Hockensmith comes into play.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

...And not placing reliance on ... Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God...

The Detection Club was officially formed in 1930, and to become a member, you had to honour its core principle of “fair play”, i.e. giving readers the chance to arrive at the truth before the detective does by presenting all the clues. However, once admitted to the Club, it essentially became a social gathering.

Curt Evans takes a close look at the Detection Club in his essay Was Corinne’s Murder Clued?: The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953, which has been released as CADS supplement #14 and can be bought by contacting Geoff Bradley at Geoffcads@aol.com. It takes a look at The Detection Club and how it treated the concept of fair-play… and how the eventual death blows were self-inflicted.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Rant Against the Word "Cozy"

The term “cozy” really rubs me the wrong way. It’s not necessarily the word itself, which describes a niche of the mystery market decently: a book where everyone is nice and polite, the detective has a perfect love relationship, and there are plenty of cats to act as animal sidekicks. What really irks me is how this term is abused and stuck onto books and authors that do not fit the label in the least. As a result of this tomfoolery, many authors are branded with this simplistic and unfair “cozy” label.

Agatha Christie gets the most unfair treatment in this regard. Critics gleefully describe her books as “cozy”, citing her idyllic villages and how order is restored to these idyllic villages after some crime, with life going on as before. (Not to forget the usual snide remark about her upper-class worship.) To this I loudly proclaim: “Bah, humbug!”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

An Improbable Fiction

“Truth, I may remind you, is stranger than fiction.”
“Spare me that tedious lie. You are quoting the only paradox which unimaginative people ever succeeded in inventing. And it is not true. It is insidious propaganda on the part of cheerless souls who want to make fiction as dull as truth. … What we need is some fearless iconoclast who will come out boldly against this damnable tyranny, saying, ‘Fiction is stranger than truth.’”
Henri Bencolin, The Lost Gallows

La Nuit du loup (The Night of the Wolf) is thus far the only short story collection written by Paul Halter, and it was also his first book to be translated and published into English (back in 2007). It’s a wonderful collection that brings together all sorts of stories: some set in modern day, some starring Dr. Alan Twist, and others featuring Owen Burns. Halter has written several other short stories that have been uncollected thus far, and there’s enough to warrant a second collection, which would be most welcome.

However, it’s important to emphasize that I have read and will be reviewing the original French edition of La Nuit du Loup. There are several differences between the English translation and the original book. For one thing, the French edition contains only nine short stories (although the back cover claims it’s eight), while the English translation features ten. One of the original short stories was dropped because it was impossible to translate into English, and two others were added to bring the total up to ten: L’Abominable bonhomme de neige (The Abominable Snowman) and Le Spectre doré (The Golden Ghost). Finally, the order of the short stories is fairly different, although both English and French editions end with the titular short story.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

It's fun to charter an accountant...

There are some books that you pick up at a bookstore on a hunch, because you just know there has to be something good in between those covers! Maybe you’ve never heard of the author or read their work, but you can’t resist either way. Sometimes, the hunches do not pay off— I learned this the hard way with The Affair at Royalties by George Baxt, purchased solely on the strength of a brilliant cover that had absolutely no relevance to the story itself. However, when these hunches do pay off, the experience is extraordinary.

Such was the case for me with Death on the High C’s by Robert Barnard. I had heard of Barnard of course, and read his insightful appreciation of Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive, which I liked very much. So when his name appeared on a book with such a gloriously punning title, I simply could not resist the urge to purchase it on the spot. I do not regret this purchase in the least.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

"`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe..."

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
— 1 Corinthians, 13:11-12

Helen McCloy truly had wonderful talent. Earlier this year, I reviewed her first book Dance of Death. It had flaws, as many first mystery novels do, and although I liked the character of Dr. Basil Willing, I found his method of detection, which relies heavily on Freudian psychology, highly subjective. However, the book was overall a triumph, with a clever murder method, plenty of social commentary that still rang true over 70 years later, and a brilliant motive for the murder. All this made me eagerly anticipate reacquainting myself with McCloy and Dr. Basil Willing, and at last I’ve done so with her 1950 novel Through a Glass, Darkly.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Kicking the Habit

Earlier this year, I made my first acquaintance with Catherine Aird by reading His Burial Too. Although I expressed genuine enthusiasm for the locked-room situation and its resolution (which contains a very good trick at its core), I thought the book suffered from a poor sense of pacing, with a second act that dragged interminably on as the detectives investigated trails that were all-too-obviously dead ends. I had hopes that The Religious Body would be an improvement— the plot sounded like a riot and Aird showed an excellent sense of humour that could make such a story enjoyable. The result was not quite what I expected, though…

The Religious Body opens in the Convent of St. Anselm. One of the nuns, Sister Anne, is nowhere to be found, until somebody stumbles over her body at the foot of the cellar stairs. C. D. Sloan arrives with Constable Crosby in tow to investigate, and he decides that all this just doesn’t add up. Eventually, he decides Sister Anne was murdered, and begins to try finding the killer.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Of a Maze and Men

"Mr. Connington is one of the clearest and cleverest masters of detective fiction now writing."
—Times Literary Supplement 1930

J. J. Connington’s The Case With Nine Solutions is, in my estimation, a masterpiece— unfortunately, Murder in the Maze is something of a step down. There’s much to admire about it in terms of plot construction and writing, but ultimately it doesn’t all quite work out because of the extremely “solve-able” nature of its puzzle.

Brothers Neville and Roger Shandon are not particularly pleasant sorts. Neville is an unscrupulous lawyer who has a fearsome reputation in the courtroom. Roger, on the other hand, is a businessman with many dealings that are not strictly above-board. As we open our story, they are together at Roger’s estate, Whistlefield, with a few more characters to round things off nicely. Neville wants to focus on a high-profile trial and decides he’ll spend the afternoon in the hedge maze. After all, nobody will be likely to wander in, and if he simply stays in the centre of the maze, he’ll be less likely to be disturbed. Roger decides to accompany him but go to the maze’s other centre. Thus, both the brothers get what they wanted: peace and quiet.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Case Without an Amateur

The last book I read, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, was a dismal affair. It markets itself as a parody of Agatha Christie and her contemporaries, but it is remarkably mean-spirited, with senseless plotting, insipid characters, and a writing style composed almost entirely of clichés. To top it all off, Gilbert Adair even talks about G. K. Chesterton just so he can throw in the line “Gilbert is a genius.” Someone truly is a bit too fond of himself…

But I digress. The essence of it is that The Act of Roger Murgatroyd is possibly one of the worst mystery novels ever written, but more importantly, it is written with total disdain for the genre and Agatha Christie herself. This is why James Anderson’s The Affair of the Mutilated Mink was such a tremendous breath of fresh air for me; here, at last, is a tribute to Agatha Christie done right!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

I, The Jury

My lord, members of the jury, the great Internet public, we are gathered here today to put Gilbert Adair on trial for several counts of high treason, attempted intellectual murder, constantly beating his few funny jokes to death, being generally mean-spirited, and above all, this court is to determine a legal precedent: whether Adair’s book The Act of Roger Murgatroyd should be considered a crime in itself.

To determine this, it is best to review the evidence. The Act of Roger Murgatroyd was marketed as a hilarious send-up of Agatha Christie and her contemporaries. It contains a locked-room puzzle, when Raymond Gentry, a foul-mouthed gossip columnist, is shot to death inside a locked room, with the door locked, the windows barred, etc. This all takes place at the snowed-in country house of Colonel and Mrs. ffoulkes, who send for a retired Scotland Yard man to help solve the crime.