Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Of Gangsters and Outlaws

Private eye Nate Heller is now in his second year of operations. His first year was described in detail in the novel True Detective, and all things considered it was a good first year. Unfortunately, Year Two has been much more quiet, with clients few and far between. After all, it is the Great Depression, and Heller has been watching the proceeds from his first year slowly dwindle…

And then he gets a case. It all starts when a shifty guy named John Howard comes to see Heller at his office. Howard is a travelling salesman who is worried that his wife, a pretty girl named Polly, is having an affair while he’s on the road. He pays Heller an exorbitant $100 in advance to follow Polly around and to determine whether or not she is being faithful. But right from the start it’s an odd job… and after a while, Heller finds that Polly is seeing a man all right… and that man looks remarkably like John Dillinger.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes

Donald Thomas’ book The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes is a rare treat, hitting upon a brilliant idea for a Sherlockian pastiche. As Dr. Watson explains in an introductory letter, Sherlock Holmes has died and his private papers have passed into the good doctor’s hands. These papers worry a good deal of important people, who would like to set fire to the documents on the spot. But after much bargaining, a compromise is reached: Dr. Watson is to have access to the papers and is allowed to chronicle some of Sherlock’s most secret cases. Afterwards, the stories (as well as Holmes’ papers) are to be suppressed for seventy years, to see the light of day only long after the principal players have all died.

And thus, Dr. Watson explains, this is the first time he dares to take up his pen and chronicle Sherlock Holmes’ most secret cases, completely uncensored and with no attempt to disguise the famous people involved in the mysteries. For instance, we learn that The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton was largely fictionalised in order to protect the identities of the persons involved – in reality, the notorious blackmailer was Charles Augustus Howell, who was found with his throat cut and a ten-shilling coin stuck in his mouth: the slanderer’s reward. Another of Holmes’ cases, mentioned in passing, involved a forgery case in which Holmes was of some service to Lestrade; Dr. Watson reveals that it was in fact the Bank of England forgeries of 1873, “when the Bidwell brothers came within a hair’s breadth of having the Bank’s funds at their mercy”.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Of Shoes and Ships and Cereal

I might as well have tried to explain to a man dying of thirst that the water was being saved to do the laundry with.
- Archie Goodwin, The Silent Speaker

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you of course know by now that I love the work of Agatha Christie. She is the original Queen of Crime, the woman who introduced me to the world of detective fiction. For a long time she was my favourite author; with books like A Murder is Announced, Five Little Pigs, And Then There Were None, and Murder on the Orient Express to her credit, I consider her one of the most important figures in all of detective fiction.

Unfortunately, her popularity and historical importance have one major drawback, in that they’ve spawned a group of haters who mindlessly claim that Christie is psychologically shallow, a hackneyed writer repeating old clichés, “cozy”, naïve about sexual matters, or just plain “bad”. The most cursory look at Christie’s work is enough to dispel these notions, but the public perception of Christie has been influenced by many factors. And one of the most fatal is that Christie’s grandson, Matthew Prichard, is willing to put his grandmother’s name on just about anything.

Perhaps you’ve guessed what the subject of this article is going to be. If not, perhaps you haven’t heard the news yet. Well, last week reports surfaced that the Agatha Christie estate (read: her grandson, Matthew Prichard) has commissioned a brand-new Hercule Poirot novel, to be written by author Sophie Hannah. This book is expected to hit bookshelves next year. And if you look really carefully at the publicity photos, you can see that Matthew Prichard’s eyes have dollar signs in place of their pupils.

Monday, September 09, 2013

A Comedy of Murders

When Clifford Flush founded the Asterisk Club, he did it out of purely altruistic reasons. It was a service that society desperately needed, and Flush was willing to provide it. You see, the Asterisk Club is the most exclusive club in London, and possibly the world: in order to join, you need to be a wrongly-acquitted murderer. The current Club members include such colourful people as Mrs. Naomi Barratt (a self-made widow) and The Creaker, an enormous man who frightens even the other Club members. Rounding out the cast of murderers is the butler, Beecher – not a murderer himself, but he has been jailed 14 times for housebreaking.

Next door to the Asterisk Club live Peter and Fan Hilford and Bertha and Hugo Berko. They share the lease on the house and
have a bit of a rat problem. The Asterisk Club is full up for rooms right now, and so the Club sends its newest potential recruit, Benji Cann, next door as a paying lodger. What could possibly go wrong? Well, let’s just say that Mr. Cann will not become a member of the Club after all, now that he’s deceased.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Have you heard about The Murder Room?

I’d like to flash back to almost two years ago, if you’ll permit me. Back in December 2011, I made a post called The Great E-Book Debate, in which I shared:

- That I, of all people, had just purchased a Kindle
- Six reasons I purchased a Kindle
- My initial impressions of the device

Much has changed since then. For one thing, I no longer use that Kindle which I was so proud of – I’ve since upgraded to the Kindle Paperwhite, a magical device that allows me to read pretty much any time, anywhere, under any lighting conditions.

But the technology is not the only thing that’s changed. A lot of e-books have been published since December 2011. Many of them are brand-new works, but just as many are reissues of classic mystery novels – exactly the kind of stuff I want to read. And one more major publisher has joined the game, and I’d like to take some time to shamelessly promote this publisher.

The Murder Room describes itself as “an online portal devoted to bringing hard-to-find or out-of-print crime classics to a brand new audience”. I’m glad to report that they certainly live up to that promise. If, like me, you’re a fan of classic crime fiction, you might experience a shudder of pleasure as you browse through their online catalogue. Where else will you find Margaret Millar’s name within scrolling length of J. J. Connington’s?

There’s plenty of material being brought back to print by The Murder Room. And as a result, you’ll basically find a book for anyone’s reading tastes in their catalogue. If you’re a fan of noir, you can find several books by Jim Thompson, including his infamous The Killer Inside Me. Or maybe you like thrillers with non-stop action – perhaps James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish might suit your taste? Maybe you enjoy intelligent detective stories with twist endings, but with clues planted everywhere pointing to the killer. In that case, I highly recommend J. J. Connington’s work, and Anthony Boucher is also rather good in this regard. Or maybe you want a good story involving a locked room? John Dickson Carr’s your man. All of these authors are available from The Murder Room.

And I’ve got plenty other names I could mention, authors well worth your time. Names like Ronald Knox, Stanley Ellin, Anthony Gilbert, Joe Gores, Jonathan Latimer, Donald Thomas… Or how about Dorothy Uhnak, a respected police procedural writer who won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel for The Bait… which is also available from The Murder Room! (You can read more about Uhnak here, where you’ll find a great piece full of enthusiasm written by Sarah Weinman.)

The great thing is, even if you don’t own an e-reader, you can take advantage of The Murder Room’s catalogue. Many of their books are available as e-editions and print-on-demand books.

So why this post? Am I being paid to advertise? Is this part of an elaborate tax dodge? Well, no. I have two reasons for writing this piece. The first reason is to share news of The Murder Room’s existence: you can’t imagine how happy I was to find out about them. If anyone out there is desperately searching for one more Bill Crane mystery or that one Ronald Knox novel, this is a great place to look for them. And from what I hear, more great stuff is on the way. For instance, several Elizabeth Ferrars titles are being shown in the Kindle store as available for pre-order... and I have heard that one Helen McCloy might be finding her way back into print quite soon!

The second reason is that this post forms a nice introduction to tomorrow’s review, of a book written by an unfairly-neglected author… and which has been brought back to life by The Murder Room. Intrigued? Then come back tomorrow and find out just who is this Alternative Queen of Crime!

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Sound and the Fury

Do you have any idea how long it’s taken me to write this post? I’ve been trying to sit down and write a review of Father Brown for months, ever since the first episode aired. I thought the first episode was decent – not particularly good, but not out-and-out terrible either. But it didn’t inspire me in any way. I didn’t feel like watching more of the show, nor could I write a half-decent review of the first episode. Along with Elementary, it’s one of the few things I’ve watched which I simply couldn’t review. I tried and I tried, but everything I wrote seemed absolutely terrible. I even tried writing a post comparing the flaws of Elementary with the flaws of Father Brown, and abandoned it after writing two pages. Even in that aborted attempt at a post (abandoned in mid-May), I complained about just how difficult it was for me to write a review about Father Brown. Here is the relevant excerpt:


G. K. Chesterton’s original tales are remarkable works, some of the finest short stories ever written. Father Brown solves mysteries not with the dropped handkerchief or burnt cigarette ash, but with his knowledge of the human spirit and the evil of which it is capable. And how did he get this knowledge? His religion: as a priest, he has seen all kinds of evil and has heard it in the confessional booth. I’m afraid, however, that someone at the BBC missed the entire point, and like the editor in The Purple Wig, decided that “God” should be replaced by “circumstances”.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Let Dover Come Over

Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover is a difficult man to get along with. He’s fat, he’s lazy, he’s rude, he’s inconsiderate – in fact, in just about every measurable way, Dover is a repulsive human being. So woe to the criminal forced to deal with Dover, because it will be an extremely unpleasant experience. That’s what someone in Creedshire is about to learn.

It all started with the disappearance of Juliet Rugg, a young girl who weighs sixteen stone. The grotesquely large girl was even more repulsive than Dover by all accounts, and so nobody really seems to care about her disappearance. But it’s Dover’s job to care, even though he thinks it’s a gigantic waste of his time. But as the investigation proceeds, the question becomes more puzzling: just what did happen to Juliet? The unique circumstances, described in detail in Joyce Porter’s Dover One, make an accidental death, a suicide, an elopement, and a kidnapping seem utterly impossible. The only option remaining is murder… but where could you stuff such a large girl?