Monday, May 25, 2015

Something about a Will: Child's Play (1987), by Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill's death at the beginning of 2012 received less attention from the major presses than did the deaths of "Crime Queens" PD James and Ruth Rendell in 2014 and 2015, but most fans of modern British mystery, I believe, would readily include Hill in the ranks of the very best crime writers from the last half-century (see this nice 2012 piece by Mike Ripley in the Guardian).

Hill's first novel about Superintendent Dalziel and Inspector Pascoe, A Clubbable Woman, appeared way back in 1970.  Between that year and 1984 he published eight well-received D&P detective novels, but I think the period from 1987-1990 represented an advance in his work, with his writing attaining greater depth, while not sacrificing the formal puzzle aspect.

In those years Hill published three novels: Child's Play (1987), Underworld (1988) and Bones and Silence (1990).  Over the next dozen years Hill produced what I think are some of the very finest modern examples of the mystery form, including Pictures of Perfection (1994), On Beulah Height (1998) and Dialogues of the Dead (2002).

Over the next few weeks I want to look at a pair of these novels, starting, I hope very soon, with Child's Play, a book that involves so many classic elements, including a rich old woman's will, a pack of disgruntled relatives and the return of a missing heir, vanished during the Second World War. But is the man really the heir, or an impostor?  There's lots for the classic mystery fan to like here.

Reginald Hill

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tea'd Off: Death Comes to Tea (1940), by Theodora DuBois

After an affair as shocking as my tea party on January twentieth, you naturally think back and try to discover the origin of the trouble....

By 1940, when Theodore DuBois published Death Comes to Tea, the British Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh had become the most notable representatives of classic, ratiocinative mystery for many detective fiction readers.

a terrific American dust jacket, I think
--note the face in the vapor and the
skull and crossbones pattern
around the rim of the teacup
Early in Death Comes to Tea Anne McNeill, the feminine half of Theodora Dubois' series sleuthing couple and the novel's narrator, is found lying on a couch "before the living-room fire, re-reading a book by Dorothy Sayers," indicating to readers that they are perusing the sort of literate manners mystery that people had come to associate with Sayers, Allingham and Marsh (puzzle mistress extraordinaire Christie at this point was already in her own class).  Classical music (Mozart) and poetry (Pope) are referenced and the murderer is condemned not so much for wicked ways as for beastly bad form.

Although associated more with England than the United States, many such mysteries in fact were written by American authors, such as Theodora DuBois. Those who followed my links to earlier blog pieces in my previous posting will have learned more about DuBois and have seen that I greatly disliked her 1941 detective novel, Death is Late to Lunch, to a large extent on account of the appalling snobbishness of Anne McNeill, wife of Dr. Jeffrey McNeill, a medical researcher at a prestigious Connecticut university (obviously Yale, where Theodora DuBois' husband, Delafield DuBois, was employed as a medical researcher).

Anne still strikes me as something of pill, but she is much more bearable here, where the novel takes place within an authoritative college milieu and her phlegmatic husband is much more in evidence than he was in Lunch.

Anne does go on about those with good breeding and those without it, speak condescendingly of an "ethnic" person--in this case her faithful maid, Mary (this when complimenting her own flower arrangements, which have "an artistic touch impossible to Mary's practical Irish hand")--and take time to wonder, when one of her husband's colleagues is fatally poisoned at her tea party, whether a stain will come out of a chair's upholstery.

Yet the murder is rather brilliantly carried out, the narrative smooth and the writing good.  I even was in Anne's corner when she had to put up with a smug district attorney, prone to speaking patronizingly about "the ladies."

There is as well a good clue that allows Anne to solve the mystery, although I thought my choice for murderer would have made a stronger ending.  Is the novel a "small masterpiece," as Anthony Boucher believed?  I don't know that I would go as far as Boucher, but I did enjoy Tea; and I have been encouraged by it to keep reading DuBois.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Du-Over: Theodora DuBois and Death Comes to Tea (1940)

Well, this always goes to show you that you can't always judge an author by one book.

I was hugely disappointed with Death Is Late to Lunch (1941), by Theodora DuBois, to a great extent because of the unbearable snobbishness of the author's narrator and sleuthing couple half, Anne McNeill, about whom, in homage to Ogden Nash (Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance), I composed this immortal couplet

Anne McNeill
Had better get real.

Anthony Boucher called DuBois' Death Comes to Tea "a small masterpiece," however, and on Goodreads the discerning Lisa Kucharski gave this novel five stars; so I felt I should give DBbois another go. And, what do you think?  I quite liked Tea (Anne is still something of a pill, however).

Just how much did I like my Tea?  You will see later today, in the full post.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Boost of the Blurb: Death of a Beauty Queen (1935), by E. R. Punshon

The first five titles in Dean Street Press' reprint series of E. R. Punshon's Bobby Owen mysteries are now available in paperback, with the electronic versions on the way on June 1. (Dean Street Press has previously published vintage detective novels by George Sanders and Ianthe Jerrold.)

I've been writing introductions for each volume in the series, so I don't want to write too much here about this one title, Death of a Beauty Queen [DBQ] (See Amazon for my full introduction.)

I'll just say that it's an interesting puzzler about the slaying of a beauty contestant and that it incorporates into the plot some unexpectedly serious material about religion.  I strongly recommend it, as did, in her day, Dorothy L. Sayers.  Already by 1935, when DBQ was published, the opinions of Sayers--not only a popular mystery writer but the mystery fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times--had become desirable as book blurbs, as is demonstrated on the dust jacket of Gollancz's "cheap edition" of DBQ.  

Gollancz was famous--or infamous, depending on your view--for its so-called "yellow peril" dust jackets, which eschewed illustrative art.  But Gollancz did trumpet prominent endorsements:

"It is very fine," says Dorothy L. Sayers.

However, don't just take my word for it, or even Dorothy L.'s--get it for yourself and see what you think. And don't forget there are four earlier titles in the series available, with five later titles, including The Dusky Hour on the way soon.  All the titles will be available in paper and electronic formats.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Exit Lines: No Man's Nightingale (2013), by Ruth Rendell

What turned out to be the final novel in Ruth Rendell's near half-century Inspector Wexford saga appeared in 2013, under the title No Man's Nightingale, which is drawn from the poem "Jordan," by George Herbert (1593-1633):

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse?  Is there no truth in beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?

May no lines pass, except they do their duty
         Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves?
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover's loves?
Must all be veil'd, while he that reads, divines,
         Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing;
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime;
I envy no man's nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
         Who plainly say, my God, my King.

Ruth Rendell denied that she intended No Man's Nightingale as an homage to Agatha Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), but surely it's hard for fans not to think immediately of Christie, when we read in the opening pages of this final Wexford novel that there has been, well, a murder at the vicarage.  (Of course a title drawn from lines by a metaphysical poet inevitably recalls Dorothy L. Sayers as well.)

Done to death has been Kingsmarkham vicar Sarah Hussain, a theologically liberal, half-Indian, single mother whose installation was upsetting to a number of local conservatives, some of whom objected to her skin color, some to her sex, some to her theological liberalism and some to all of the above.

Are all these still such hot-button issues in England these days?  (Rendell explicitly set the novel in late 2012-early 2013.)  As usual when reading a newer Rendell novel, I tend to feel the author had not really moved on much since the 1990s.  Adding to this feeling is the way Rendell through her spokesman, the now-retired Inspector Wexford, continues to view with dubiety desktop computers (not to mention newer devices), along with modern slang, television, music and dress.

I have always enjoyed Rendell's wry social observations--up to a point.  She was aware too that she did tend to go on a bit, having Wexford asking his replacement, longtime subordinate--for 45 years of novels!-- Mike Burden, whether he, Wexford, is becoming an old curmudgeon.  Burden replies simply, "yes."

Was someone moved to murder the vicar on political grounds, or did the motive arise out of something in her past?  Just who was the father of her beautiful teenage daughter, Clarissa? Improbably, Burden allows the retired Wexford to help with the investigation, including, on occasion, by interviewing people connected to the case.  It's not very plausible, to be sure, but then we accept the fiction of the amateur detective in Golden Age mysteries, so why not here?  Truth be told, while he is not an incompetent nincompoop like Sophie Hannah's deplorable Inspector Catchpool, Burden always can use help.

Wexford is reading Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I enjoyed his meditations on this work, especially concerning Gibbon's views of religion.  Some reviewers have decried this material as filler, but religion is the central theme of the novel. Although Wexford's wife, Dora, is a believer, "Reg" himself is not; yet Reg seems to be thinking about religion a lot.  I think at heart the novel is a call for greater tolerance of differing forms of religious belief--not a bad message for the world.

True, Wexford complains about the frequent replacement, in religious services, of the Book of Common Prayer with the Alternative Service Book, but this is on literary grounds, not theistic ones:

" generation after another of possible church attenders was growing up without the least knowledge of that beautiful work, probably without knowing it even existed."

At heart, the plot of No Man's Nightingale is, like the Book of Common Prayer, highly traditional. Rendell deigned to provide some genuine clues (including a word clue), though these are to the second murder rather than the first. (The first murder is solved through the solution of the second murder.) There is a lengthy subplot as well, but it is better integrated into the main plot than some of the subplots in previous Wexfords have been.  On the whole I quite enjoyed this final Wexford novel.

At the end of the tale, Rendell made clear there was to be at least one more Wexford novel. (I'm guessing it would have been written this year, had death not intervened.) Yet she also quoted Omar Khayyam, with words suggesting she was aware not only of Wexford's mortality, but, poignantly, her own:

"Ah, make the most of what we may yet spend
Before we into the dust descend."

I'm glad Ruth Rendell wrote No Man's Nightingale, a worthy addition to the Wexford canon.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Country House Con Games: Carson's Conspiracy (1984), by Michael Innes

Perhaps more than any British Golden Age mystery author outside those belonging to the select company of the "Crime Queens" themselves (particularly Dorothy L. Sayers), Michael Innes (1906-1994)--one of the key figures in the development of the erudite, "donnish" detective novel--epitomizes what so many people for so many decades have come to associate with Golden Age British mystery: country houses, dry wit, and lashings and lashings of learned literary allusions.

To be sure, Innes did have a tremendous fantastical streak that set him apart from most other mystery writers, especially in the earlier phases of his crime writing career.  In Inspector John Appleby mysteries like Stop Press (1939), Appleby at Ararat (1941), The Daffodil Affair and Appleby's End (1945)--which Innes' English publisher Gollancz rather insistently called detective stories--chimerical elements abound. However, at some point in Innes' career--say perhaps after the publication of Operation Pax (1951), the fantastification in Innes' crime fiction diminished, to be replaced by a more sedate sense of genteel British whimsy.

The last 15 of the 32 Appleby mysteries, published between 1962 and 1986, are for the most part genial country house affairs investigated by the now-knighted Sir John Appleby (who has retired from his lofty post as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police), usually with his gentry wife, Judith (Raven) Appleby along for the fun.  Among this later group novels, it's probably fair to say, there are no masterpieces on par with some of Innes' preceding crime books, but as a group they afforded (and still do) a safe harbor to traditionalist mystery readers buffeted by the sheer beastliness, as many of them saw it, of modern crime fiction.

the current edition from
House of Stratus
Carsons' Conspiracy (1984) is Innes' penultimate crime novel, as well as his penultimate Appleby detective novel. (It would be followed by Appleby and the Ospreys in 1986.)  Gladys Mitchell, whose last mystery, The Crozier Pharoahs, was published posthumously in 1984, was, I believe, the last Detection Club member from the 1930s to have a new book make it into print; however, had Michael Innes been living in Britain at the time--he resided in Australia between 1936 and 1946--he likely would have become a member of the Detection Club, I would imagine, in the late 1930s. (He did become a member in 1949.)  So Carson's Conspiracy, along with Appleby and the Ospreys, essentially can be seen as the final flowering of the Golden Age British detective novel, as represented by the elite group who belonged to the Detection Club in the Thirties.

Although Carson's Conspiracy was published when Innes was nearly eighty years old, it reflects none of the slackening narrative and plotting grip that is so sadly obvious in Agatha Christie's eightieth-year novel, Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)--ironically a work that in the strangeness of its subject matter, if not the competence of its composition, approaches some of the more bizarre earlier Innes novels. (It was subtitled, at her publisher's insistence, An Extravaganza.) Indeed, Carson's Conspiracy is written with the same aplomb and smooth style that characterizes Innes' earlier books.

Carson's Conspiracy concerns the dubious activities of nouveau riche businessman Carl Carson, a country house neighbor of the Applebys.  Here is a snippet of Appleby conversation concerning Carson, clearly reflecting a certain amount of distaste on their part for arriviste businessmen (to be distinguished, of course, from long-ago gentry ancestors, who naturally were pure of heart in their--gasp!--business dealings).

"Arthur called him a clever little city chap....It's my impression that Carson is pretty prosperous in what's possibly a ramshackle way.  Share-pushing type.  Promotes things."

"He belongs, in fact, to the great entrepreneurial class."

Ouch! Interestingly both this novel and E. R. Punshon's The Dusky Hour (1937), previously reviewed here, involve questionable activities by investment advisers and the like.

Carson in fact is finding himself in increasingly hot financial water, though he manages to keep up appearances locally. He decides to take advantage of his mentally unbalanced wife, who, he is all too well aware, tells fanciful stories of a fictitious son, Robin, who, the stories go, lives in the United States.  In order to collect as much money as rapidly as possible for a flight from the country to South America, Carson decides to concoct a fake kidnapping of this nonexistent son, who supposedly is returning to England for a visit with his parents.

Thus goes the first half of the tale.  The second half deals with Sir John's amateur investigations of these goings-on and his increasing suspicions that something is not quite right here. Will the amiable able Appleby catch out the canny Carson? And just precisely what is there for Carson to be caught out having done?

I found this short novel (about 60,000 words) quite enjoyable, graced with an interesting plot and Innes' good writing.  More an inverted (or partially-inverted) mystery, it reminds me of some earlier novels by Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman--or, even more so, Henry Wade, an accomplished writer like Innes who possessed a powerful sense of irony.

At this late stage in his crime novels, both Innes' plots and his sentences were less complex, to be sure, but for readers desirous of a more streamlined, immediately comprehensible, Innes, this could well be an advantage. Certainly Innes' writing is still as pithy as ever:

Carson...also liked Pluckworthy because of his old school tie.  Not that the lad wore the thing; it was just that you knew at once that he had it in a drawer.

She was the sort of wife whom, in more sensible times, one had kept locked up in an attic....A woman subject to that degree of delusion simply wasn't safe.  She oughtn't to be trusted with a  carving-knife, a knitting-needle, or even a hair-pin. [Innes here reflecting Carson's rather unsentimental state of mind about his "loopy" spouse.]

....Victorian assertions of the unflawed propriety of female nudity when done in something sufficiently impenetrable and chilly white [Innes on the life-size marble statues at the Carsons' country home].

There are moments of career retrospection on Appleby's part in Carson's Conspiracy, including amusing references to Appleby's End, the novel that one might call the Ur-text of Innes' Appleby mystery fiction. (You should get this if you have read it.)  Appleby also references Dorothy L. Sayers once and Sherlock Holmes several times, as on this occasion, when he speculates to the Chief Constable on his future in detection:

Remember Mycroft Holmes, Tommy? He's Sherlock Holmes' lethargic brother. He sits at home and thinks things out, while young Sherlock scurries round in hansom cabs, or crawls about on carpets, brandishing a magnifying glass. In old age I'm going to be Mycroft. I've only just thought of it. But the decision is irrevocable.

Yet the end of the novel suggests that Appleby has thought better of this resolution.  Had Innes contemplated Carson's Conspiracy as the completion of the Appleby saga?  If so, he changed his mind and produced one more Appleby novel two years later in 1986, a half-century after the appearance of the first Appleby mystery.  It's a winning tale too, as I recollect.  Something about bats....

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Carson's Conspiracy (1984), by Michael Innes, plus a bit on Evans' Endeavor

For my Friday Forgotten Book, I wanted to take a look at something by Michael Innes, an erudite British crime I writer I very much enjoy but have not written about here at the blog.

A full review of Carson's Conspiracy, Innes' penultimate crime novel, is coming, but for now I wanted to mention a bit about my forthcoming book, The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot-Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole. (You may perhaps notice a trend here: "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler; A Very British Murder/The Art of the English Murder, Lucy Worsley; The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards.)

My book deals with ideology and aesthetics in the detective fiction of two major British Golden Age mystery authors, Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, a baronet who wrote under the pseudonym Henry Wade, and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, socialist intellectuals who actually composed their novels independently, though they took joint credit for all but one of them when published. (Aubrey-Fletcher would be happy with the Conservative performance in the British election results this morning, incidentally, but not so the Coles!)

Currently of all the works by these authors only one novel is in print, Henry Wade's wonderful Lonely Magdalen, but I have hopes this situation will change soon.  I also hope soon to be able to post the cover of my new book, which should be out next month.  There will be more detail about just what's in the book as well!

Here are links to previous pieces at The Passing Tramp on books by Henry Wade and the Coles.

The Coles: The Man from the River (1928)Death of a Star (1932)Toper's End (1942)
Henry Wade: The Hanging Captain (1932)