Friday, August 16, 2013

Der Fuehrer's Face

Seeing how my last review was about a book set in 1945 Nuremburg, it seems appropriate to go just a bit further back in time today. The year is 1934, and today’s book, The Talking Sparrow Murders by Darwin Teilhet, was just published. Across the Atlantic ocean, a man named Hitler has just seized power in Germany, and at this point the worst being thought of him was that he was just another crackpot dictator. But Teilhet disagreed – he saw what Nazism was doing to a country that he loved, and he didn’t like it. And his book is a vicious denouncement of all that Nazism stood for.

This is fascinating to see in a 1934 novel. Nowadays, it’s easy to use the wisdom of hindsight and say “Well, people really should’ve known better.” But here we have someone denouncing Hitler and all he stood for long before WWII and the revelation of the widespread Nazi atrocities. Not only that, this is being done in a detective novel, a form often ridiculed by critics as mere “crossword puzzles in prose”. And while there is a puzzle to solve in The Talking Sparrow Murders, the Nazis are constantly hovering in the background, threatening to turn this into a tragedy.

William Tatson is in Germany as a temporary plant engineer for the United Porcelain Tank Manufacturing Company. While walking down a street one day, he comes across an old man who spots a sparrow, and then suddenly exclaims that the bird spoke to him! The bird flies away and the stranger collapses. When the police arrive on scene, it turns out that the old man has been murdered, and nobody believes Tatson’s story. The police refuse to let him return to America until he changes his story and remembers just what the old man really said.

This is the start of a complex plot, with murders happening left and right and the victims dropping like flies. It’s a complicated puzzle, but at the end of the day it’s fairly clued and satisfying, with everything being explained logically. The only exception to this is the titular riddle of the talking sparrow, which is only solved when you’re given a vital piece of information that you weren’t aware of until that point. Apart from this small blemish, I felt it was an admirable detective story which managed to fool me entirely as to “whodunit”. It’s also an outlandish story with such over-the-top elements as a man who punctually bows down to a pine tree.

But as I have mentioned, the most interesting part of the novel is how it condemns Nazism. It’s fascinating to see a contemporary viewpoint on this issue (as opposed to an author in modern day going back and cleaning up history to make it more palatable). Teilhet shows Nazism in all of its ugliness, with the corpses of Jews everywhere and looted Jewish shops strewing the cityscape. There’s also a passage which must surely be the most retrospectively uncomfortable passage I’ve ever come across in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction:

The fat man looked at me, swallowed, and reminded me that I would have to pay a fine of twelve marks for going without identification papers. You couldn’t break down German efficiency with a holocaust of murders.

Overall, I give The Talking Sparrow Murders a high recommendation. This is a fascinating book which manages to blow up many misconceptions about the Golden Age and the attitudes of detective story writers. Here is a book where cops can be nasty thugs, where prominent politicians are potential murder suspects, and where the government itself persecutes a group of civilians. And it still manages (for the most part) to adhere to the idea of fair play and to give the reader a surprise ending.


  1. I read this about a year ago and was tremendously impressed. I was a bit disappointed in the solution, but that by no means detracted from the book as a whole.

  2. Hear, hear! (to both Bob and Patrick)

    The Talking Sparrow Murders has its flaws, but, as said here before, they hardly distracted from the book as a whole – which, retrospectively and historically, may be one of the most important novels from the Golden Age. It's an outright condemnation of Nazism and their crimes, before they began blitzkrieging their way through Europe.

  3. International Polygonics published a "Crime Classic" edition in 1985 which included an excellent introduction by Douglas G. Greene, providing valuable background information about the author and his books. When she reviewed this mystery, Dorothy L. Sayers said the opening episode, described above by Patrick, suggested the work of John Dickson Carr. I say it's well worth seeking out.

  4. I also agree that this is a phenomenal book historically with Teilhet condemning the Nazis well before most. Holden mentions the International Polygonics edition--the intro by Greene is excellent and very informative. I wasn't all that taken with the mystery itself--perhaps that's because I am such a fan of what's generally perceived as more normative Golden Age mysteries.

  5. Never even heard of the Teilhets (for shame) until now (thanks Patrick) - not every source credits Hildegarde as co-author on this one - is there any uncertainty?