Thursday, April 19, 2012

All aboard the S. S. Van Dine!

I’m afraid that readers of this blog will begin to think that I’m simply stealing my reading list off of other blogs. Once again, today’s book was inspired by a previous review—and yet again, it was Bill from Traditional Mysteries who inspired it. The book is Murder in Pastiche by Marion Mainwaring, and after the enticing review Bill wrote in January, the book flew near the top of my to-be-read pile… and now that it’s April, I figured it was about time to give it a read. (Yeah, I’m not sure how to explain the physics behind that… Apparently, the last few months on this blog have been a massive game of Jenga with my to-be-read pile, and nobody was aware of it.)

But I digress. We find ourselves on board the R. M. S. Florabunda as it sails from Liverpool to New York. And, by an astonishing coincidence, nine prominent detectives have all come on board the same ship! These sleuths are parodies of some of the most famous detectives of all-time: M. Atlas Poireau (Hercule Poirot), Sir Jon. Nappleby (Sir John Appleby), Jerry Pason (Perry Mason), Broderick Tourneur (Roderick Alleyn), Trajan Beare (Nero Wolfe), Miss Fan Sliver (Miss Silver), Spike Bludgeon (Mike Hammer), Mallory King (Ellery Queen), and Lord Simon Quinsey (Lord Peter Wimsey). With any one of these detectives on board, a mystery is bound to explode— but with nine? That’s just tempting fate.

Indeed, it isn’t long before a hated journalist is murdered, bludgeoned to death. None of the passengers nor the crew are particularly sorry to find out about Paul Price’s murder, but the authorities in New York are bound to take a different position, so the nine detectives each do some sleuthing to unearth the truth. Meanwhile, the passengers and crew are a strange, eccentric lot. The captain regards all land-dwellers with hatred and suspicion, and the ship’s doctor spends all his time writing an epic poem entitled Tipptoppus and Gazella—and he considers the murder and the various injuries he’s called to deal with as a major nuisance!

And the parodies are absolutely wonderful! The detectives do a good job of investigating, but the author does a fantastic job imitating the style of the author and the type of investigation that these sleuths undergo. The layer of humour this forms is just wonderful, and many are laugh-out-loud worthy. For instance, there’s a sly dig at Dorothy L. Sayers, who hadn’t produced a Lord Peter Wimsey novel for years—since 1937, and this was 1954—and thus, the fictional Lord Simon Quinsey is portrayed as a former detective who hasn’t been in the hunt for years, although he was said to be one of the most brilliant.

But even the not-so-promising material is surprisingly funny. I wasn’t expecting much out of Ellery Queen and Roderick Alleyn, but the author surprised me. Mallory King’s investigation contains some delightfully sly references to at least two of EQ’s novels: Cat of Many Tails and The King is Dead. The parody of Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn is remarkably accurate, down to the detective’s demeanour and the method he uses in his investigation. Hercule Poirot’s “order and method” makes it in here as well, and Sir Jon. Nappleby declares at one point that “it is difficult to solve a case without a thorough knowledge of the classics and of modern European literature. … Indeed, I suspect that crime and indagation are not only inherently arcane, fantastic, and polysyllabic, but quintessentially allusive.”

But of all the parodies, I have two absolute favourites. The first is Trajan Beare—who, like Nero Wolfe, shares the first name of a Roman emperor and an animal-like last name. He is accompanied by his assistant, Ernie Woodbin, and these segments are just perfect. This is the voice of Archie speaking, and the replies of Trajan Beare sound precisely like Nero Wolfe! The bantering, the sarcastic comments from Ernie to Beare and to the reader—everything is just like a delightful Rex Stout novel. And my personal favourite line comes when Ernie contemplates using the doctor’s epic poem in such a way: “I worked out a scheme for making Beare think the clue to the mystery was in that epic, so he’d have to read through all 57,000 lines, but I gave it up because he might have made me do the reading.”

My second favourite parody was—somewhat surprisingly—Spike Bludgeon, a vicious parody of Mike Hammer. This segment has many laugh-out-loud moments, as Bludgeon is portrayed as a complete psychopath willing to murder everyone left and right to get to the truth. The jokes here are full of references to I, the Jury—which readers may recall I scathingly reviewed last year—as Bludgeon contemplates how, for a brief few second, the dead man had been a friend to him; and therefore, he will find the killer and put a slug in his gut and watch him die. I have no particular love for Mike Hammer—indeed, I absolutely hated the fellow in my only encounter with him—and I loved the scathing yet accurate parody of this character through Spike Bludgeon.

In fact, there’s only one real criticism I can make of this thoroughly delightful novel: the parodies are too good. Just consider: there are nine detectives jostling each other for screen time, and so we only get brief scenes for each of them. Each investigation takes about 20 pages, and sometimes the parodies are so good that when they come to an end, you want to cry out: “What??? Is that all we’re going to get???” Don’t get me wrong: I loved every page of this book, but once a detective performed his or her investigations, they were liable to disappear for large chunks of the novel. We get 22 pages for Trajan Beare and Sir Jon. Nappleby, 16 pages for Spike Bludgeon, 20 pages for Atlas Poireau… It just doesn’t feel like enough, and at times the author seems to be rushing through a segment. I guess that’s what you get in a 224 page novel where nine parodies are fighting for screen time…

In a way, that just shows you how spoiled I am—but I really did want to see much more of these detectives. The parodies are just perfect and extremely observant. If you like your detective fiction and know the original characters, I’m sure you will love it. And unlike many parodies, this book is actually a delightful little mystery in its own merit. The only thing that got to me was the way it felt somewhat rushed. And even then, it’s a fault I can ignore. The book is still one of the most delightful parodies I’ve ever read, and I unhesitatingly recommend it to fellow admirers of Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, & Co.


  1. I loved the ending of this one. There is a "Twilight Zone" element to the book neither you nor Bill mentioned which was my favorite part of the book. When I read this (decades ago)I had only an acquaintance with Poirot, Wimsey, Mason, Wolfe, Queen, and Alleyn. But I knew nothing about Appleby or Maud Silver. I still have yet to read anything by Patricia Wentworth.

    1. @John
      Neither have I, if you can believe it! I see used books of hers all the time but I haven't been tempted to pick her stuff up just yet. I've still got stacks of books on my shelf, and I'm going to have to clear up after that Jenga game... ;)

  2. I always wanted to read this book, but a copy of it never ended up in my hands. The parodies you described of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin make it tempting to place an order for it on my next round of picks-up. Decicions! Decicions!

    1. Our local library system here in Rhode Island (yes, the whole state is one big system) had it available, perhaps you might investigate that? I also note I was glad to see the first cover above, which indicates it's been reprinted in relatively modern times. Outside of that library copy of the first edition, I've never seen the book anywhere else.

    2. @Mike
      I believe TomCat is from the Netherlands, so that would be quite the Interlibrary Loan! Still, the copy I found in my library was from the 1970s--'74 I think-- so perhaps there are some decent copies floating around somewhere?

      Oh, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this one. It's somewhat like MURDER BY DEATH but with a satisfying mystery thrown into the mix. :)

  3. Glad to see that you liked this one. The more I think about it I can't help wondering if Neil Simon took this as inspiration to write Murder By Death.