Monday, March 31, 2014

Sleuths Adrift: Harbour Street (2014), by Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves began her crime writing career almost thirty years ago, in 1986, back when P. D. James and Ruth Rendell were the twin rulers of the English crime scene. 1986 saw the publication of P. D. James' A Taste for Death and Ruth Rendell's Barbara Vine novel A Dark Adapted Eye, both of which were raved on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ann Cleeves
But although Cleeves published fourteen well-received novels between 1986 and 1997, I think it's safe to say that she began ascending to a new level of success starting in 1999 with the publication of The Crow Trap, the first of her Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope novels.  

Six Vera Stanhope novels have appeared since then, the most recent of them the newly-published Harbour Street.

Additionally, Cleeves' series sleuth Vera Stanhope helms Vera, an ongoing British television series starring the twice Oscar-nominated actress Brenda Blethyn, (indeed, Harbour Street has already been filmed as a Vera episode that will air in April).

I should also add that Cleeves also has another very successful book mystery series, the Shetland series, with Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez.

So far there are five novels in this series, published between 2006 and 2013 (the first book in the series won the coveted Gold Dagger from the CWA).  This series also has inspired a British television series, Shetland.  So you could rather say that Ann Cleeves' ship has come in, so to speak, commercially!

Harbor Street actually is the first Vera Stanhope mystery I have read (shame on me).  I recently picked up both it and the previous book in the series, The Glass Room, which has gotten a lot of praise from Martin Edwards and others.  I liked Harbour Street enough to make me want to go on and read The Glass Room (oddly, the only book in the series that has not been adapted for Vera).

At times I was reminded of the better work of James and Rendell, as well as as that of Karin Fossum, a Norwegian crime writer Cleeves greatly admires.  However, I also had some reservations about the novel.

Harbour Street concerns the stabbing murder of an elegant elderly woman in Mardle, a coastal town near the city of Newcastle in northern England.  The dead woman's body is discovered on the Metro by Vera Stanhope's favorite underling, Detective Joe Ashworth, and his daughter Jessie, who are on their way to attend a Christmas choral service.  

This is one of the niggles I had with this novel, incidentally.  I believe that in Silent Voices (2011) Stanhope herself discovers a murder victim at a fitness center (she is trying to get her weight down); now Ashworth and his daughter discover one. This is rather more like Jessica Fletcher Land than a police procedural on this point: the sleuths don't have to go to the bodies, the bodies come to them!

The case takes Stanhope and Ashworth and the rest of the team (the only other member of which stands out at all is Detective Constable Holly Lawson, who Vera tends to dislike because she's young, attractive, ambitious and lacking in empathy) to Mardle's Harbour Street, particularly the guest house located there, where the murdered woman, Margaret Krukowski, lived.

Cleeves does a fine job of conveying the atmosphere of the street.  She has said in interviews that she loves studying isolated locations in her books and I can well believe it from Harbour Street.  

The other main locale in the tale is a woman's shelter where Krukowski volunteered, which gives Cleeves an opportunity to address a bit social problems afflicting women in modern England.  

Cleeves delves deftly into the lives of some her characters (others, especially several of the men, are not as developed). She especially focuses on Kate Dewar, a former pop singer who owns the guest house and lives there with her two teenage children. Kate is widowed with a new man in her life and she is having to balance running her business and her romantic life with managing her children--it's all very challenging, and now she has a murder in the mix.

I like Stanhope as a character too (I suppose like everyone else I should call her "Vera"--why do we call her by her first name but male detectives by their last names). In Stanhope I see aspects of some famous male fictional detectives (Morse, Dalziel, Diamond), but she's more empathetic, at least with the downtrodden (socially ostracized woman especially).  I also like Ashworth--he seems surprisingly nice and normal for an fictional police detective these days (nowadays we are a long way off from Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French).

The mystery has been much commended in reviews for its "surprise" culprit.  I was taken in too and would like to comment more about Cleeves' interesting misdirection strategy, but can't, of course, because of spoilers.  There is some fair play clueing to the culprit, but I still have doubt about the psychological fairness of the solution (can't say more than that).

Stanhope herself is lost at sea during much of the investigation, so much so that I didn't think too much of her as a professional detective, to be honest, as much as I liked the character.  Stanhope is much too prone to imagining solution scenarios and then recklessly tearing after them.  It's one thing when a Golden Age amateur sleuth does this, another when it's a professional police detective. I would think Vera would be getting reigned in much more often than she seems to be.

the police in Harbour Street frequently seem lost at sea

At one point she decides that Krukowski's murder must have something to do with a murder fifty years in the past--a murder in the past she is only hypothesizing, without any evidence at all.  She decides a Harbour Street denizen must have been involved in this supposed murder, so she gets permission--how I couldn't see--to have the police dig up this person's entire property, to look for the body of another person whom there is no convincing reason to believe is dead in the first place.  

The dramatic, "made-for-TV" style ending I had some problems with also, in that it piled on three unlikely coincidences in a row.  This will probably play better on television, when there is less time to think about the unlikeliness of what one is seeing unfold.

Fortunately for Stanhope and her team, when the time comes to wrap up the novel, the culprit obligingly confesses everything, in the grand tradition.

I hope this doesn't sound unduly critical, but some parts of the book were so good they raised very high expectations in me.  Parts of the book are on the level with James and Rendell in their heydays, I think. I will certainly be going on to read The Glass Room.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

De Mortuis: Scarweather (1934), Anthony Rolls (Colwyn Edward Vulliamy)

Man is an animal that has lost its hair, or most of it, and is only able to exist (in temperate climates) by means of an artificial protective covering.  From the biological point of view he is an elaborate although not entirely successful product of evolution. His intricate structure renders him the victim of a great variety of horrible diseases, while his brain is always liable to the most humiliating and unpredictable disorders.

--"What Is Man," Chapter 2 of Man and the Atom: A Brief Account of the Human Dilemma (1947), by C. E. Vulliamy

My friend Ellingham has persuaded me to reveal to the public the astounding features of the Reisby case.  As a study in criminal aberration it is, he tells me, of particular interest, while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.

--Scarweather (1934), Anthony Rolls (C. E. Vulliamy)

Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy
Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (1886-1971) descends from Francois Justin Vulliamy (1712-1797), a Swiss clockmaker who settled in London in the 1730s.  His son Benjamin (1747-1811) and grandson Benjamin Lewis (1780-1854) followed in the family business; all three men were Clockmakers to the Crown.

C. E. Vulliamy was born in Wales (The Passing Tramp's ancestral home), where he was privately educated, like another crime writer we talk about here a lot, Agatha Christie, who was born in Devon four years later.

During the First World War he served in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, serving in fighting in France, Macedonia and the Ottoman Empire (he reached the rank of captain). While experiencing Asia Minor he became interested in archaeology and when he returned to England he took it up as an area of study, performing digs in England and publishing three books on the subject in the 1920s.

He then turned to the field with which he was most associated, eighteenth-century biography, producing in the 1930s biographies of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Wesley, James Boswell, William Penn and George III, among others.  He also published histories of the Crimean War and British South Africa.  It was during this time that he wrote the four crime novels published under the pseudonym Anthony Rolls.

In the 1940s and beyond he primarily produced satirical works, including a series of mock biographies of fictional Victorians, as well as six more crime novels.  There also were collections of essays and short philosophical treatises like Man and the Atom.

In a development that the mordant Vulliamy likely would have viewed with ironic amusement, all this distinguished work has been forgotten by most people today.  It is the job of the Passing Tramp to revive people, not to bury them, however. I believe Vulliamy's early Anthony Rolls novels deserve another look from the crime fiction reading public.

Vulliamy appears to have been a political leftist and a religious agnostic (or, even more likely I would think, an atheist). His 1930s crime novels are definitely not your run-of-the-mill Golden Age mysteries.  The Vicar's Experiments (1932) describes the murder spree of a maniac clergyman, Lobelia Grove (1932) details murder in an English garden city suburb, Family Matters (1933) is a dark study of murder in a seriously dysfunctional family environment and Scarweather....

Family Matters: the novel that immediately preceded Scarweather

Ah, Scarweather!  This is the book I said I would write about in a bit more detail this weekend (I want to look at Vulliamy and the Anthony Rolls novels in greater detail in the next issue of CADS).

The problem is it is hard to write about Scarweather without spoiling it.  The central idea in it is quite wonderfully brought off, in my view.  Even when the reader realizes what is coming, the reader has to read on, dreading the inevitable.

The story is told in retrospect by John Farringdale, a rather staid and respectable lawyer, eminently qualified to act as a Watson to his brilliant friend Fredrick Ellingham, a reader in chemistry at Cambridge, of whom Farringdale writes, "I have never known any man with a wider range of interest and of real attainment."  The prose is formal Edwardian stuff, but excellently done.

The narrative takes place over fifteen years, 1913-1928 (yet at about 90,000 words is still shorter than most modern-day English crime novels), and details the consequences of the meeting of Farringdale's handsome cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, with the eminent Professor Tolgen Reisby, Chair of Genetics at the University of Northport, and Reisby's beautiful and much younger wife, Hilda. In the main Scarweather is quite serious, though there is ample scope for Vulliamy's characteristic satire (particularly in the final section), this time directed at academia, from which Vulliamy always stood aloof and independent.

Regretfully Scarweather (the name of the Reisbys isolated house in northern England, by the way) was Vulliamy's last Golden Age crime novel. However, with its predecessors it offers crime fiction fans a taste of something much out of the ordinary run.  Let us hope these works are reprinted someday, as old editions of them are hard to find and they merit a modern readership.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Crime Novels of Anthony Rolls (Colwyn Edward Vulliamy)

Anthony Rolls is one of the crime writers whom Julian Symons in his seminal genre study Bloody Murder mentions as one of the "followers" of Francis Iles, the name under which Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote three psychological crime novels, the two best known of which by far are Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932).

Symons  lists three followers in addition to Rolls--Richard Hull, F. Tennyson Jesse and Raymond Postgate--and designates this group the "Iles school."  He concludes that this school "showed a certain lack of staying power" and that "for the time being [Iles'] influence faded."

Symons actually much underestimates the significance of the psychological crime novel, both in Great Britain and the United States, during the Golden Age, by attributing the innovation seemingly exclusively to this so-called "Iles school."  Important as Francis Iles undeniably was in developing psychological crime fiction, there were a number of other significant authors who worked this vein in the same period, proficiently and apparently independently of the immediate influence of Francis Iles.

However, I will leave this matter for another time and place and consider specifically the case of Anthony Rolls. There is no question, it seems to me, but that his first crime novel, The Vicar's Experiments (1932; cutely retitled Clerical Error in the United States), was influenced by Iles' Malice Aforethought, which preceded it by a year.  Like Malice, it details the actions of  man plotting a murder, in this case a vicar who suddenly snaps mentally, deciding that he has "been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy" (an obnoxious and influential parishioner).

It's an idea that allows scope for some wicked satire--Peter Lovesey memorably used a similar plot in The Reaper (2000) nearly seventy years later (without being familiar with Rolls' book, he later told me)--but I agree with Symons that "the story sadly falters once suspicion of the clergyman has been aroused."

But this is not the end of Anthony Rolls' story.

Symons goes on to write that "Rolls' later books, published twenty years and more after The Vicar's Experiments, did not repeat its [presumably relative--TPT] success."  I agree with Symons that the crime novels Rolls published between 1952 and 1963 (under his actual name, C. E. Vulliamy) are inferior works, far too arch for their own good. They might be said to resemble Michael Innes at his most precious and whimsical--and then some!

Yet Symons seems not to have been aware that there were three additional Anthony Rolls crime novels published in the 1930s: Lobelia Grove (1932), Family Matters (1933) and Scarweather (1934).

Each one of these novels is, in my opinion, more original than as well as superior to The Vicar's Experiments. Together with Experiments, these works constitute a notable body of British psychological crime fiction that deserves resuscitation today. I plan to write in full detail about all four of the Anthony Rolls novels in an article for the next issue of CADS, but, having just completed the last of them, Scarweather, I thought I would post some immediate impressions about it this weekend.

There will as well be some more about Anthony Rolls--or, I should say, Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (here is a portrait of the distinguished  author-to-be, done over a century ago).

Crime novels by Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (1886-1971)

As Anthony Rolls
The Vicar's Experiments (Clerical Error) (1932)
Lobelia Grove (1932)
Family Matters (1933)
Scarweather (1934)

As C. E. Vulliamy
Don among the Dead Men (1952)
The Body in the Boudoir (1956)
Cakes for Your Birthday (1959)
Justice for Judy (1960)
Tea at the Abbey (1961)
Floral Tribute (1963)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dalys Doubled: Elizabeth Daly Crime Covers

I have read about half the crime novels of Elizabeth Daly (an American crime writer primarily of the 1940s whom Agatha Christie greatly enjoyed), and enjoyed most of them. She is one of the fortunate past mystery masters whose works are being reprinted by Felony & Mayhem, a fine mystery press. I reviewed Daly's Night Walk (1947) here.

Before Felony & Mayhem came along, however, Bantam reprinted Daly in a nice paperback series in the 1980s. Crime novel covers in the 1970s and 1980s could be so ticky-tacky or just plain boring.

Take these seventies Ruth Rendell paperbacks (please!):

I'm guessing Rendell didn't think much of these covers--and she probably bristled at the declaration that she was following "in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie" (they used to say the same thing about P. D. James too).

However, back when I first got these books below on the used market in the 1990s I thought Bantam did a great job with the Daly covers, commissioned from artist Dennis Ziemienski (here is his website, if you want to see what he's doing currently):

The ghostly figure in the old-fashioned dress and sunbonnet has appealed not only to readers but to book illustrators ever since Evidence of Things Seen was originally published seventy-one years ago, as you can see below, right up to the recent Felony & Mayhem version (although there was a bit of an aberration in the mod sixties--though I suppose that could be the ghost's eye):

Happily Daly has been favored by paperback publishers over the years, because Daly hardcovers are hard to find!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

CADS 67 (Crime and Detective Stories)

The new issue of CADS: An Irregular Magazine of Comment and Criticism about Crime and Detective Fiction, is out.  As you can see on the right, I have an article in there about the Golden Age detective novels of Emma Lou Fetta, which are being reprinted this Spring by Coachwhip.

It is an illuminating issue as per norm, but I was especially interested in Arthur Vidro's piece on the real world origin of Ellery Queen's fictional town Wrightsville, so important in the author's later work (Vidro's piece originally appeared in the program notes to Joseph Goodrich's stage adaptation of Ellery Queen's landmark detective novel Calamity Town, which Vidro directed); an article by John Cooper on the late Simon Nash (1924-2013), a contemporary of P. D. James who wrote a short series of classical detective novels, reprinted in the 1980s, but sadly seemingly forgotten since; John Curran's fascinating investigation of just when Agatha Christie's play Black Coffee (1930) actually was written; and David G. Rowland's look at works by Sax Rohmer, one of whose Dr. Fu-Manchu novels I am planning to review here next week.

There are also articles by Philip L. Scowcroft on Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, by Lyn McConchie and Mike Ripley on the novels of Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham, Bob Adey on Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand and B. A. Pike's ongoing series on the short stories of H. C. Bailey and more. Lots of great stuff for the detective fiction fan!  If you are interested in getting this issue or back issues, contact Geoff Bradley at

Here's Martin Edwards, incidentally, on CADS and the recent CADS dinner (with a bit on the upcoming Doug Greene festschrift).

Friday, March 21, 2014

Two Terrific Twee 'Tecs: Tommy and Tuppence in Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1929)

Agatha Christie's accomplished biographers, Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, were not particularly enamored with the Queen of Crime's second-string sleuthing duo, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (both are single in their first appearance, 1922's The Secret Adversary, but they have tied the knot when Partners in Crime opens).  Morgan deems them "irritatingly perky," while Thompson goes farther yet, decrying them as "appallingly twee."

But oh! aren't they just the cutest couple!  To those of us who can appreciate the winsome charms of Tommy and Tuppence, Partners in Crime--a new version of which will be airing on British television in 2015 (it has already been filmed once, back in 1983)--is a delectable confection of tales.

It's six years after the exciting events of The Secret Adversary; and though Tommy and Tuppence still find married life blissful, it is sadly lacking when it comes to the thrills of crimesolving and spybusting. Happily for the bright young couple, they are offered the chance to take over a detective agency that is being used by the Soviets as some sort of intelligence gathering operation.

After six years of marriage, life seems rather too tame

Now Tommy and Tuppence can detect crimes and hunt spies again. What fun!

To aid them in the art of crime detection, the neophyte sleuths decide to imitate the great fictional masters, which gives Christie the chance to lightly parody some of her crime writing contemporaries (many of them forgotten today) and even herself.  Yet more fun!

Although Partners in Crime was first published in 1929, all but two of the stories were originally serialized in The Sketch in 1924 (one story was published in The Grand Magazine in 1923, while another did not appear until 1928, when it was published in Holly Leaves, the annual Christmas special of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News).

These Tommy and Tuppence tales followed two series about Hercule Poirot that were serialized in The Sketch in 1923 and 1924.  Some of these Poirot stories were collected in the volume Poirot Investigates in 1924, while others Christie adapted as the novel The Big Four in 1927.

Apparently the stories in Partners in Crime are meant to take place in 1926, as the events in The Secret Adversary take place, I believe, in 1920.  However, The Secret Adversary was published in January 1922 and the first of the Partners stories in December 1923, so they in fact were only separated by about two years, not six.

I discuss the Tommy and Tuppence stories individually, as they appear in Partners in Crime (their order in the book differs from the order in which they originally appeared in serial form).  The original publication date is included in parenthesis, as well as the sleuth(s) parodied.

"A Fairy in the Flat"/"A Pot of Tea" (24 September 1924, as "Publicity")

"How prudent men are," sighed Tuppence.  "Don't you ever have a wild secret yearning for romance--adventure--life?"
"What have you been reading, Tuppence?"
"Think how exciting it would be," went on Tuppence, "if we heard a wild rapping at the door and went to open it and in staggered a dead man."
"If he was dead he wouldn't stagger," said Tommy critically.
"You know what I mean," said Tuppence.  "They always stagger in just before they die and fall at your feet, just gasping out a few enigmatic words.  'The Spotted Leopard,' or something like that."

"A Fairy in the Flat" sets the plot in motion, with Tommy and Tuppence getting hired by Mr. Carter, the government man from The Secret Adversary, to take over Blunt's International Detective Agency.

This is a godsend to Tuppence, who, six years into marriage, is rather bored with her life.  "Twenty minutes' work after breakfast every morning keeps the flag [sic] going to perfection," she explains (I assume "flag" in the most recent HarperCollins edition should be "flat").

"I always like your cheery optimism, Tuppence.  You seem to have no doubt whatever that you have talent to exercise."
"Of course," said Tuppence, opening her eyes wide.
"Yet you have no expert knowledge whatever."
"Well, I have read every detective novel that has been published in the last ten years."

"A Pot of Tea" is an amusing trifle in which the resourceful Tuppence determines to find a cracking good case for Blunt's International Detective Agency.  Tommy is masquerading as Mr. Theodore Blunt, the boss, Tuppence as his secretary, Miss Robinson, and the teenaged Albert (introduced in Adversary) as the office boy.

The client in this case, the Wodehousian nitwit Lawrence St. Vincent (nephew and heir of the Earl of Cheriton, don't you know), will be referenced, along with his future wife, the shopgirl Janet Smith, in later tales (it seems they often tell their society friends what a wonderful job Blunt's did for them).

The Affair of the Pink Pearl (1 October 1924) (sleuths parodied, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke)

"I'll tell you my idea of what we shall find at 'The Laurels,' said Tuppence, quite unmoved.  "A household of snobs, very keen to move in the best society; the father, if there is a father, is sure to have a military title.  The girl falls in with their way of life and despises herself for doing so."

Tommy and Tuppence are called in to to solve the case of Mrs. Hamilton Betts' missing pink pearl, which vanished at the Kingston Bruce's house party at The Laurels, Wimbledon.  Reference is made to both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Thorndyke, detectives who originally appeared in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, respectively.

For this case Tommy decides to go with Dr. Thorndyke, the great scientific detective, after his attempt at Holmesian deductions to impress the client fizzles miserably (his violin playing also is execrable).

Tommy has a new camera that he is just dying to use, and he thinks it will help him "do" Thorndyke.

Tuppence, however, is skeptical that her spouse can live up to the standard set by the Great Detective: "I never heard that science was your strong point."

Tuppence is right.  There really isn't much of Thorndyke to the case, even though Tommy does get to play around with the camera a bit.

It is an entertaining tale, however, with a decent plot and some nice shots taken at social snobbery.

"The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger" (22 October 1924, as The Case of the Sinister Stranger) (sleuths parodied, Valentine Williams' Desmond Oakwood, Sapper's Bulldog Drummond)

"Gott! What cowards are these English."

a dangerous man to cross
In this story, Tommy and Tuppence tangle with enemy spies who have tumbled on to their game.

The villain of the piece resembles Valentine Williams' arch-fiend, Dr. Adolph Grundt ("Clubfoot"), so Tommy and Tuppence decide to model themselves after Clubfoot's opponents, Desmond Oakwood and his brother, Francis (as in the case of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu-Manchu books, in Williams' Clubfoot series the over-the-top villain became the chief allurement).

Later Tommy decides their adversary is less like Clubfoot and more like Sapper's Bulldog Drummond nemesis, Carl Peterson.  Indeed, this is very like a Bulldog Drummond story with lots of action and not too cerebral a plot.  Tommy even gets to call the villain a swine.

Finessing the King/The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper (8 October 1924) (sleuth parodied, Isabel Ostrander's Timothy McCarty)

"Be a sport, Tommy.  Try to forget you're thirty-two and have got one grey hair in your left eyebrow."

Well, here we learn how old Tommy is!  If the stories really do take place in 1926, then he would have been born around 1894 (this would make him around 26 in The Secret Adversary, mid-forties in N or M?, early seventies in By the Pricking of My Thumbs and late-seventies in Postern of Fate).

In an informative essay on Partners in Crime, Mike Grost says Christie does a good job parodying Timothy McCarty here.  I wouldn't know personally, though I have at least one of his books.  I have read one book by Isabel Ostrander but it did not have McCarty.

There is a murder in this tale, committed at the Ace of Spades, "a queer little underground den in Chelsea," but it struck me as a rather simple affair.  The upper class comes off rather badly in this one.

The Case of the Missing Lady (15 October 1924) (sleuth parodied, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes)

As the visitor left the office, Tuppence grabbed the violin, and putting it in the cupboard turned the key in the lock.

"If you must be Sherlock Holmes," she observed, "I'll get you a nice little syringe and a bottle labeled cocaine, but for God's sake leave that violin alone."

An arctic explorer, recently returned to England, hires Tommy and Tuppence to find his missing fiancee.  Tuppence declares that she is reminded of the Holmes case "The Disappearance of Lady Carfax" (1911).  The solution to the case (fairly clued and startlingly original to my knowledge) makes it one of my favorites in the collection.

Interestingly, the crime writer Edgar Wallace (see more on him below) published a story, "The Four Missing Merchants," in The Strand Magazine in December 1929 that is similar in its plot to "The Case of the Missing Lady," though Wallace puts an original twist on it.  Had the Great Man read Partners in Crime?

Blindman's Buff (26 November 1924) (sleuth parodied, Thornley Colton, the blind Problemist)

"One can't expect to be infallible straight away."

I have not read any of the adventures of the blind Problemist, Thornley Colton, but Mike Grost again assures us Christie does a good job with it.  Even I, who have not read any Thornley Colton adventures, found Christie's writing about this detective and his assistant quite funny.  Christie has to walk a fine line here, given the number of men who were blinded in the recent war (she has Tommy mention the war twice in this context).

There also is this comment, the book's most resounding sour note: "The man two tables from us is a very wealthy profiteer, I fancy," said Tommy carelessly.  "Jew, isn't he?"

The Great War "profiteer" who got rich from extortionate pricing of scarce and vital items while avoiding fighting on the lines was a stock figure in 1920s fiction.  Often in English crime fiction he is portrayed as Jewish, clad in fur coat and flashy rings and speaking with a ridiculously exagerrated lisp.

This is another spy thriller story, with a resolution that resembles the one in a tale about another blind detective, Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados.

"The Man in the Mist" (3 December 1924) (sleuth parodied, G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown)

ask a policeman
("The Man in the Mist")
Christie has Tommy conveniently dressed as a priest, there's a commendable attempt at eerie atmosphere and the solution to the murder in the story is adapted from a very famous Father Brown tale.  Yet this story in my view does not really capture the brilliant soul and richness of a Father Brown tale (a parody that conveys Father Brown very amusingly is Leo Bruce's Case with Three Detectives, 1936).  Chesterton is a tough act to follow!

Not bad, but nowhere near my favorite in the collection. It has a perfunctory feel to it and the ending seems rushed.

The murder victim is a film actress, who is very stupid, Christie announces.  This character reminded me of the actress character in the 1932 Miss Marple short story collection The Thirteen Problems, except as I recall she turned out to be not quite so dumb after all.

"The Crackler" (19 November 1924, as The Affair of the Forged Notes) (sleuth parodied, Edgar Wallace's generic police detectives)

"Tuppence, we do need a larger office."
"The classics," said Tommy.  "We need several hundred yards of extra bookshelf if Edgar Wallace is to be properly represented."
"We haven't had an Edgar Wallace case yet."
"I'm afraid we never shall," said Tommy.  "If you notice he never does give the amateur sleuth much of a chance.  It is all stern Scotland Yard kind of stuff...."

"I shall enjoy this case," said Tuppence.  "Lots of night clubs and cocktails in it.  I shall buy some eyelash-black tomorrow."
"Your eyelashes are black already," objected her husband.
"I could make them blacker," said Tuppence.

It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace
declared Wallace's English publisher--
and the English reading public seemed to agree
(Klaus Kinski starred in a series of
German Edgar Wallace films in the 1960s)
Edgar Wallace, not Agatha Christie, was the bestselling English crime writer of the 1920s (he died in the United States in 1932 while working on the screenplay for King Kong). As Tommy indicates, Wallace was also the most prolific English crime writer in the 1920s. In 1924 alone, he published six crime novels.

Christie's tale alluding to the king of the thriller puts Tommy and Tuppence on the trail of a gang of forgers passing their notes in London gaming society, but it is not nearly as exciting as a good Edgar Wallace tale. The best part is Tommy and Tuppence trying to get crook lingo straight (Wallace was considered an expert on such things; he even visited Chicago to study gangsters first-hand).

"I always get mixed up between Busies and Noses," laments Tuppence.

The Great Man himself!
Edgar Wallace
(resembling a James Bond villain)
I should add that Christie's title is brilliant.  "The Crackler" is Tommy's nickname for the forgery gang boss they are after (banknotes "crackle," get it?).  Wallace was known for his two word, three syllable book titles: The Ringer (1926), The Forger (1927), The Squeaker (1927), The Twister (1928), The Gunner (1928), The Terror (1929)--many of which he adapted into hugely popular London stage plays.  You will notice that all these novels appeared after the serialized version of "The Crackler" (called, prosaically, "The Affair of the Forged Notes").  It seems clear that Christie came up with the better title after witnessing the appearance of all these additional Wallace books/plays,  It makes me wonder how much Christie may have revised the stories for publication in book form.

"The Sunningdale Mystery" (29 October 1924, as The Sunninghall Mystery) (sleuth parodied, Baroness Orczy's The Man in the Corner)

"Of course," murmured Tommy, "I saw at once where the hitch in this particular case lay, and just where the police were going astray."
"Yes?" said Tuppence eagerly.
Tommy shook his head sadly.
"I wish I did.  Tuppence, it's dead easy being the Old Man in the Corner up to a certain point.  But the solution beats me.  Who did murder the beggar?"

Mike Grost credits this story with being more than a surface parody, capturing both the form and style of Baroness Orzcy's Man in the Corner tales (mystery short story expert Doug Greene tells me we should drop the "Old"), which are classics accounts of armchair detection.

Like Christie's recently published second Hercule Poirot novel, "The Sunningdale Mystery" tells of a murder on the golf links.  It is the most intricate tale in the collection, one that would have pleased Papa Poirot and thoroughly bamboozled Hastings.

Tommy and Tuppence solve the case through splendid teamwork, Tuppence supplying domestic psychology about the matter of choice of murder weapons (a hatpin in this case) and Tommy waxing wise about golf.  As Tuppence reminds Tommy:

"And remember what [Inspector] Marriot once said about the amateur point of view--that it had the intimacy. We know something about people like Captain Sessle and his wife.  We know what they're likely to do--and what they're not likely to do."

The House of Lurking Death (5 November 1924) (sleuth parodied, A. E. W. Mason's Inspector Hanaud)

"She's like those girls Mason writes about--you know, frightfully sympathetic, and beautiful, and distinctly intelligent without being too saucy, I think."

Tuppence reflected for a minute or two.
"I've got it," she announced.  "Clearly he must have married a barmaid whilst at Oxford.  Origins of the quarrel with his aunt.  That explains everything."
"Then why not send the poisoned sweets to the barmaid?" suggested Tommy.  "Much more practical."

This story with its splendidly lurid title tells of multiple poisoning murders at "a great rambling old-fashioned house called Thurnly Grange."

There are four deaths and a rather melodramatic denouement, but then this is supposed to be Mason! It is fairly clued, although this is one of the cases where the culprit is rather too conveniently voluble with information.

I believe Mason's The House of the Arrow, his first Hanaud mystery novel after a fourteen-year interval (At the Villa Rose was published in 1910), appeared only shortly before "The House of Lurking Death," but it certainly seems like Christie must have read it before she wrote this story.

A Hanaud short story, "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel," also preceded "The House of Lurking Death," in 1917.

"The Unbreakable Alibi" (December 1928, Holly Leaves) (sleuth parodied, Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French)

We were talking about detective stories.  Una--that's her name--is just as keen about them as I am.  We got talking about one in particular.  It all hings on an alibi. Then we got talking about alibis and faking them."

"Inspector French, of course," said Tuppence.  "He always does alibis.  I know the exact procedure.  We have to go over everything and check it.  At first it will seem all right and then when we examine it more closely we shall find the flaw."

Tommy and Tuppence travelling by train
just like Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French

Tommy and Tuppence are hired by wealthy young Montgomery Jones, yet another society nitwit.  A young Australian woman, Una Drake--a detective fiction fan and "simply one of the most sporting girls I ever met," says Jones--has promised Jones that she will wed him if he can break her alibi (I don't care what you say, I'm sure this kind of thing happened all the time in the madcap twenties).

Drake has provided evidence that she was in two locales, Torquay and London, at the same time. Jones--or actually Tommy and Tuppence--must determine which appearance she has faked.

Tuppence has read lots of books by Alibi King Freeman Wills Crofts and knows just what to do:

"We must get some other girls' photographs," said Tuppence.
"They always do," said Tuppence.  "You show four or five to waiters and they pick out the right one."
"Do you think they do?" said Tommy--"pick out the right one, I mean."
"Well, they do in books."

The naive confidence of Tuppence notwithstanding, the bright young couple finds this a challenging task indeed.  At one point Tommy pronounces: "I am inclined to the theory of an astral body."

The solution is a (deliberate) letdown, putting this one very much in parody territory. Having written Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I have read everything by Crofts, and I think Christie's parody in this story is right on track, so to speak, and quite amusing.

It is odd that this story first appeared in print in 1928, four years after the previous one in the series and not long before Partners in Crime was published.  Was an additional story wanted for the collection, so that Christie wrote one more in 1928? Or had this tale been written back in 1923/24 with the rest and then set aside for some reason?

Freeman Wills Crofts, probably thinking up another alibi

By 1924, Freeman Wills Crofts had published the landmark detective novel The Cask and four other highly received mysteries, including Inspector French's Greatest Case (1924), the first Inspector French novel, and was, along with Agatha Christie herself, one of the most popular "new wave" English detective novelists.

Inspector French himself would not have been the famous fictional figure in 1924 that he was in 1928, however, so I incline to the theory that Christie either wrote this story in 1928, or revised it then to specifically mention Inspector French.  By 1928, Crofts had published three additional Inspector French detective novels: Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926), Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) and The Sea Mystery (1928).

The Clergyman's Daughter/The Red House (December 1923, The Grand Magazine, as The First Wish) (sleuth parodied, Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham)

"That's it," cried Tuppence.  "We've got it!  Solve the cryptogram and the treasure is ours--or rather Monica's."

Here is another story that Christie must have revised, if it really is true that it was originally published in 1923, because the detective parodied in it--he is mentioned by name--is Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham, who did not even appear in an Anthony Berkeley novel (the author's first,The Layton Court Mystery) until 1925.

By 1929, on the other hand, when Partners in Crime was published, Berkeley had published three additional Sheringham detective novels, including The Silk Stocking Murders, which shares similar elements with Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (Berkeley's celebrated The Poisoned Chocolates Case would appear in 1929).

Was Agatha Christie that skilled parodist that she could parody a detective that the detective's creator had not yet created?!

Another reason that this story must have been substantially revised is that it appeared nearly a year before "A Fairy in the Flat," the story that introduces the series' narrative "frame." Some enterprising person with access to the original sources, like John Curran or Tony Medawar, really should check out this matter.

The story itself, a sort of treasure hunt tale, does not much resemble Anthony Berekely's Sherringham novels. The only real reference to Sheringham is that he likes to talk a great deal, so naturally the voluble Tuppence is the one who should "play" him..

This is certainly true, but Tuppence as Sheringham is not integrated into the story in any significant way. It is an enjoyable story, based on the familiar plot of faked ghosts being employed in an attempt to drive people out of their home (one might now call this the Scooby-Doo plot), but as a parody it is halfhearted as best.

The Ambassador's Boots (12 November 1924, as The Matter of the Ambassador's Boots) (sleuth parodied, H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune)

"Why are you being Reginald Fortune?"
""Well, really because I feel like a lot of hot butter."

This one is another rather weak parody, it seems to me, consisting of Tuppence occasionally mimicking foodie Reggie Fortune's supremely affected speech.  Fortune had appeared in two H. C. Bailey short story collections before 1924 and in five by 1929.  He was one of the most popular English sleuths in the Golden Age. The story, which deals with the question of why someone switched luggage with the American ambassador during his recent transatlantic voyage, is a good one.

The Man Who Was No. 16 (10 December 1924) (sleuth parodied, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot)

"You comprehend, my friend?"
"Perfectly," said Tuppence.  "You are the great Hercule Poirot."
"Exactly.  No moustaches, but lots of grey cells."
"I've a feeling," said Tuppence, "that this particular adventure will be called the 'Triumph of Hastings.'"

Will "Hastings" triumph this time?

For the final tale in the collection, Christie parodies her own creation, Hercule Poirot, specifically referencing the Poirot stories published as The Big Four.  Matters with the Bolshevik spies are brought to a head in this tale; yet, despite the thriller elements, there is a very nicely plotted vanishing (Tuppence herself), in the classic Christie style.

Albert plays a bigger role in this one as well (he also has a funny bit with a lasso in the previous story).  In fact, it is Albert who makes one of the most important implicitly feminist statements in the book, about the irrepressible nature of Tuppence:

"I don't believe anybody could put the Missus out, for good and all.  You know what she is, sir, just like one of those rubber bones you buy for little dogs--guaranteed indestructible."

At the end of this tale, Tuppence announces that she and Tommy will soon be launching on a new, entirely different adventure. This adventure will take them out of commission from sleuthing fun until the outbreak of the Second World War, when they come back with a bang in N or M? (1941).

Despite my disappointment with the first Tommy and Tuppence book, The Secret Adversary, I greatly admire Partners in Crime.

I think that Partners solidifies Tuppence's status in particular as an exceptional Golden Age sleuth and thriller character and that the stories themselves, while quite light for the most part, are consistently entertaining.

In short, like Tommy and Tuppence, Partners in Crime is jolly good fun.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

From Country Houses to Continental Pensions and Overseas Outposts: The Finger of Fate (1930) and the World of Sapper

"To have two hot-tempered men who loathe one another with a bitter loathing in a house-party is not conducive to its happiness."

                        --"The Green Death" (1920) Sapper

O. Henry (William Sidney Porter)
Sapper's short story model
Although best-known for his Bulldog Drummond series of novels (continued after his death until 1954 by his writer friend Gerard Fairlie, 1899-1953), the crime writer Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile, 1888-1937) wrote a great many short stories.

Sapper was a great admirer of the American author O. Henry (William Sidney Porter, 1862-1910), master of the short story twist and edited and introduced a massive anthology of O. Henry tales that was published in England by Hodder & Stoughton in 1930 and served as a standard collection for many decades.*

*(interestingly, both men died comparatively young, at right about the same age: Sapper was 48 and O. Henry was 47)

Nearly two dozen collections of Sapper's own tales were published, including five volumes of war stories between 1915 and 1918--during this time he saw a great deal of war action in France, where he was gassed--and the anthology 51 Stories (1934), which gathered Sapper stories dating back, in book form, to 1921.

Except for his two volumes of Ronald Standish mystery short stories (1933, 1936), which obviously were inspired by another great master of the short form, Arthur Conan Doyle, none of Sapper's collections were, to my knowledge, exclusively devoted to crime and mystery.

However, the author was a mainstay of The Strand Magazine and in most of his collections readers will find crime, mystery and occasionally supernatural tales.  In my view, his short tales can be quite entertaining, though they inevitably present "issues" to many modern readers, arising out of the author's retrograde social attitudes.

The world of Sapper's short stories is most definitely that of the stereotypical English Golden Age mystery.  Indeed, Sapper's world is even more stereotypical than that which we see in most Golden Age mysteries.

An arch-conservative Englishman, the grandson of a prominent minister and the son of a governor of prisons, Sapper believed in the importance of traditional honor, good breeding, super patriotism and social hierarchy. The full-throated endorsement of such concepts that he gives in his fiction makes it unpalatable to many readers today, though others put it aside, just wanting to enjoy a good tale.

There are fourteen tales collected in The Finger of Fate (1930), one of the last collections of Sapper short stories published during the author's lifetime (there followed 51 Stories and the Ronald Standish pieces); and some of them are quite good.

There are a few disappointing crime stories, "The Black Monk," "The Hidden Witness," "Will You Walk into My Parlor?," and "A Question of Mud," as well as two dullish paeans to the squirearchy, "That Bullet Hole Has a History" and "A Question of Identity."

"The Black Monk" appealingly makes use of a ghost story superstition about an old mansion, but it is altogether too predictable.  We know who the villain is right off, when Sapper's narrator tells us:

I've always felt that there was something about him, something I couldn't define, which just spoiled an otherwise first-class sportsman.  Perhaps it was that he didn't lose very well at games.

In Sapper's world one's attitude to sport offers one of the most accurate measures of one's character.

There is a last-sentence zinger that is very similar to that in Rupert Croft-Cooke's splendid short story (adapted on Alfred Hitchcock Presents), "Banquo's Chair" (1926), which preceded "The Black Monk" into print by two years.

Similarly, "The Hidden Witness," published in The Strand in 1928, is altogether too similar for its own good to Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).  "Will You Walk into My Parlor?" feels like an episode from a Bulldog Drummond novel.

However, the other eight stories all have much to commend them, I think.  The standouts for murder fanciers are "The Idol's Eye" and "The Green Death."  These are very early Sapper stories that for some reason were rather belatedly collected.  "The Idol's Eye" was published in The Strand in 1919 and "The Green Death" was serialized there in two parts in 1920.

"All  quite usual, you see:
the good old historic story of fiction.
Even the curse comes in,
so as not to spoil the sequence.
Both tales detail the strange demises of obnoxious men at country house parties (any reader of Golden Age mysteries will know that English country house parties have spectacularly high mortality rates among the guests).

In "The Idol's Eye" a cursed Eastern relic seems to work its malevolent magic yet again, while in "The Green Death" we have one of those "killer room" tales (see Eden Phillpotts' The Grey Room, 1921, and John Dickson Carr's The Red Widow Murders, 1935, for novels that make use of this motif).  Both are great fun. "The Green Death" even has genuine detection, though the solutions in it and "The Idol's Eye" as well most definitely are what one might call pulp science.

In these stories Sapper makes clear the two dead men are no great loss to country house society.  "It struck me as he sat there half-sprawling over the table, what a coarse animal he was," the narrator of "The Idol's Eye" comments about the soon-to-expire Fenton.

Similarly, the victim in "The Green Death," one Denton (yes, Sapper only bothered to change one letter in the name--there's economy!), is designated no less than the "swine-emperor" by another character. Any reader of Sapper will recognize that swine is the deadliest conceivable insult in Sapper-land--it's even worse than cad or bounder.

"The Two-way Switch" is another murder tale, but this time the locale is a hotel in Switzerland rather than an English country house.  Yet another objectionable Englishman meets his quietus, stabbed with his own dagger (he used it as a letter opener).  Here, the main suspect is one Pedro Gonsalvez de Silvo, to whom all the bright young English people at the hotel casually refer as the "Dago."

Fortunately, the tale is cleverer than the people at the hotel.

This brings us to an essential element of Sapper's fiction: its extreme, and often unsavory, clannishness. Sapper's world is a world of strictly maintained "sets," such as the "country gentry" set and, especially obnoxious today, the "white" set.

I found fascinating to see these attitudes at work in "The Two-way Switch."  Even the relatively sympathetic narrator, who doesn't think de Silvo is quite so bad as the others make out, won't play cards with the poor man.  Trouble starts in the tale when kindhearted Beryl Carpenter ("adorably pretty...and...quite unspoiled") dances with de Silvo.  "Poor little blighter," she declares, "he can't help being what he is."

Another tale where we see this clannishness occur is the admittedly quite clever shipboard tale "The Diamond Hair-Slide."  Here the English "white" set instinctively recoils from another passenger, Mrs. Delmorton.  Although, according to the narrator, she "was invariably most beautifully dressed" and, indeed, "an extremely good-looking woman," nevertheless she is looked down upon for being of mixed racial heritage ("there was an undoubted touch of the tar brush"--"that terrible but to the man who has lived much abroad").

We see this quality of Sapper's stories yet again in "Fer de Lance" (note it has the same title--derived from the deadly viper--as the Nero Wolfe novel, but Sapper got there first this time), a tale atmospherically set in Costa Rica, at a banana shipping depot.  No crime in this one, but rather a tale of the moral redemption of an English wastrel.  "White is white, however far down it has sunk," Sapper insists.

While sentiments like this will grate, Sapper can be effective in his tales of drunkards who through their personal failings have lost caste in foreign countries and colonial outposts. The two other good examples of this type of Sapper tale in this collection are "A Hopless Case" (South Africa, sad) and "The Undoing of Mrs Cransby" (Burma, amusing).

The title story, "The Finger of Fate," takes readers to Austria, where an Englishman must, for the love of a good woman, face down a vile Baron in a duel to the death. Here is the narrator on the Baron von Talrein:

Seldom, I think, have I seen a more arrogant and unpleasant-looking face.  And yet it was the face of an aristocrat.  Thin-lipped, nose slightly hooked, he was typical of the class of man who, in days gone by in France, would have ordered his servants to drive over a peasant in his way, rather than be delayed.

"The Finger of Fate" is a suspenseful tale, with a fine zinger in the last line.

We have been told for some years now that the Golden Age of crime fiction in England was dominated by women writers, that English readers after the disillusioning First World War rejected in fiction violence and the cult of manliness; yet Sapper, whether with his Bulldog Drummond novels or his many short stories, which are filled with crime and adventure, undeniably was one of the most popular figures of the era.  By 1936, just a year before his death, it was estimated that some five million copies of his books had been sold.

Sapper's fiction is not "feminized," as so much of Golden Age mystery is said to be, even though it shares settings that are similar to a number of Crime Queen works.  I was surprised at just how volatile his country house settings are.  As in those Continental pensions and overseas outposts, Sapper's country house settings seem to exist as martial stages for combat between men, typically over women.

Women in these tales tend either to be "bad" (older, jaded types like Mrs. Cransby) or "good" (younger "girls" invariably designated "adorable" and "unspoiled"). With his "adorable" young women Sapper evidently so liked the name "Beryl" that he used it for similar characters in no less than three of the stories in The Finger of Fate: Beryl Langton, Beryl Carpenter and Beryl Kingswood!

Occasionally women step to the forefront and become primary players on Sapper's stage, but more often these are men's tales, where women serve, intentionally or not, as goads for violence between assertive men.

It is an interesting world of which to get a glimpse, if not always an appealing one.  On the whole, I must admit I prefer the gentler (if no less malevolent) world of Agatha Christie to that of Sapper, but I find it enjoyable to drop into Sapper-land on occasion.

How would Sapper have fared had he lived a normal lifespan and survived into the 1950s or 1960s? He was, after all, only two years older than the redoubtable Agatha Christie.

Major Palgrave reflects....
Christie's somewhat underrated 1964 Miss Marple detective novel, A Caribbean Mystery, opens with the elderly amateur sleuth on vacation in the West Indies (at the behest of her clever modern writer nephew, Raymond West), politely listening to a retired army man, Major Palgrave, as he drones on and on about the exciting experiences of his younger years, when Britain ruled over much of the world:

It was a routine with which she had been well acquainted.  The locale varied.  In the past, it had been predominantly India....But the pattern was essentially the same. An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could he could, in memory, relive days when he had been happy....

I doubt Sapper would have been as adaptable to modern ways as Christie in the years following the Second World War, but he certainly left us a fascinating--if sometimes offputting and  unsettling--body of Golden Age crime fiction.

The Finger of Fate is available, like a number of additional Sapper works (including the previously reviewed Bulldog Drummond novel Knock-Out), in a nice paperback edition edition from the House of Stratus.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Knock-Out (1933), by Sapper (H. C. McNeile)

The once hugely popular English Golden Age thriller writer Sapper (pen name of Herman Cyril McNeile, 1888-1937; "Mac" to his friends) has been, of late decades, a much-criticized figure in mystery genre histories, his famous spy smasher Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond now being seen as less a lovable, sports-enthusiast "clubland hero" than an anti-intellectual, proto-fascist bully (representing the general view from on high, one academic source describes him as "a thuggish, authoritarian vigilante with fascist tendencies").

This perception is fueled by Captain Drummond's highhanded behavior and the offensive comments he makes about racial and ethnic minorities in 1920s Sapper novels, most notoriously The Black Gang (1922).

In the 1930s, however, Adolf Hitler was consolidating power in Germany and shocking much of the world with his bellicose, often antisemitic, rhetoric and behavior. Sapper continued publishing Bulldog Drummond thrillers up until his premature death in 1937. What was the tenor of this later work, which gets much less attention from critics? Here I look at one of Sapper's 1930s Bulldog Drummond novels, Knock-Out (1933).

Knock-Out opens with not with Bulldog Drummond, but another one of Sapper's series characters, Ronald Standish (he appears primarily in a 1930s series of Sherlock Holmes inspired tales, which ideally should have been collected in one volume, under the title Knock-Off).

Ronald and his friend Bill are in Ronald's flat discussing a vital matter--golf--when the telephone rings. It's Ronald's friend Sanderson and he wants Ronald to come over to his place immediately because--

Suddenly the line goes dead!

Ronald and Bill rush over to Sanderson's place, only to discover Sanderson has gone dead as well--there's a vicious puncture wound made through one of his eyes.

At Sanderson's flat Ronald and Bill also encounter Hugh Drummond and his friend Peter (what's the good of being a series hero if you can't have a sidekick to tag along with you).

The impetuous Hugh is about to pound Ronald and Bill into the floor, when Peter pipes up with an important piece of information: "It's Ronald Standish.  I've played cricket with him."

Ronald's bona fides as a sportsman having been established, the four good fellows--Hugh, Ronald, Bill and Peter--unite to find the slayers of Sanderson.

They find that that Sanderson was on the trail of some sort of BIG criminal conspiracy to alter life in England as we know it.  Of course, letting the duly constituted authorities (the police or the intelligence service) in on the "show" in any significant way is unthinkable, this naturally being a job for impetuous, high-spirited, public-schooled sportsmen.

Thus, Hugh, Ronald and their junior subordinates soon are on the hunt themselves for the conspirators, who include a noted society doctor, a sadistic American film actress and, most fearsome of all, a bald-headed, cross-dressing Greek male with lacquered fingernails.

H. C. McNeile and pal
A number of elements from earlier tales are shamelessly recycled: Hugh again indulges his odd penchant for disguise; the Wodehouseian nitwit Algy is made to take notes of Hugh's (inch) deep thoughts (to what purpose is not evident); there is a doting "old nurse" of one of the lads on hand to help out whenever she is needed; and, of course, there is a pretty, plucky girl, Daphne Frensham ("an absolute fizzer"), who pops up to provide love interest for one of the subsidiary characters (Peter, I think--or maybe it was Bill--it couldn't have been Algy, surely).

The heroes' headstrong, headlong assault on the villains' country house headquarters also will seem familiar to readers of earlier Sapper novels, as will the fact that it is defended by a loathsome, fearsome beast (here, a mastiff "the size of a donkey"--young apes were not available this season, evidently).

Hugh also goes into one of his patented berserk rages, splitting open one filthy swine's head and throwing another off a railway embankment, but in mitigation of his wanton slaughters his victims really were rather bounders, to be sure (they had already committed one act of terrorism and were attempting another).

Yet not all the novel is devoted to action.  The presence of the relatively cerebral--compared to Hugh, anyway--Ronald Standish gives Sapper an excuse to indulge in the exercise of a bit of noggin work. There is much speculation over exactly how Sanderson was killed and a cipher plays a role in the tale.

Unfortunately, since during the course of the action Standish is drugged, kidnapped, rescued, kidnapped yet again and concussed by a  bomb, his brains are not always fully operational throughout the tale, leaving us with the dubious companionship of Hugh. Happily, Hugh and his great hams of fists are enough to save life in England as we know it.

In regard to the question of antisemitism in Sapper's novels, I was very interested to note Sapper's sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish shopkeeper named Samuel Aaronstein, along with his wife and son. They are friends, we learn, of Hugh's (It should be noted as well that the sadistic American film actress who is aroused by seeing men tortured to death is not exactly a cozy concoction.  I could never quite figure out why she was necessary to the success of the conspiracy, but she certainly added a dollop of depravity).

H. C. McNeile
So, while Knock-Out is hardly the most original of Sapper's thrillers, it is not as offensive as some of his earlier books.

Sure, the lower class characters all speak exaggerated cockney-ish dialect, the street boy with the message for our heroes is invariably referred to by them as "the urchin" (I was half-expecting ragamuffin) and the head villain is a Greek hermaphrodite (or something like).  But it is easy to find books from the period that are far more obnoxious than this one (virtually anything by the egregious Sydney Horler, for example).

I have to admit that I am not a great admirer of the Bulldog Drummond saga, although I do like some of Sapper's (Drummondless) short stories.

Nevertheless, it seems that  in Knock-Out Sapper tempered some of the objectionable features of his Bulldog Drummond novels.  Perhaps the real-life horrors that were being committed in Nazi Germany were making an impression on Mac.

Sapper's father, Captain Malcolm McNeile (1845-1923), was a governor of English naval prisons at Lewes and Bodmin (Sapper was born in Bodmin) and has been described as "a 'rod-of-iron' officer from the old school" and "a disciplinarian of the meanest type."  This may help explain some of the elements in the Sapper books, particularly The Black Gang, that people deem fascistic.

Incidentally, Sapper's paternal grandfather, Reverend Hugh Boyd McNeile (1796-1879), was a minister considered by one source "unquestionably the greatest preacher and speaker in the Church of England" of his day.  Reverend Hugh McNeile obtained his first living in 1822 from the wealthy banker and politician Henry Drummond.  If we put together the names "Hugh" and "Drummond" from these two men we get the name of Sapper's most renowned hero.  Coincidence?  I think not!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Off the Map? Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970), by Margaret Millar

In her crime novel Beyond this Point Are Monsters (1970), Margaret Millar helpfully has a character give us the meaning of the title and theme of the book:

"Did Robert ever show you his old maps?"
"My sister sent them to him for his birthday one year.  They were framed copies of early medieval maps showing the world as it was presumed to be then, flat and surrounded by water.  At the edge of one map there was a notice saying that further areas were unknown and uninhabitable because of the sun's heat.  Another said simply, 'Beyond This Point Are Monsters'....The world of Robert's maps was nice and flat and simple.  It had areas for people and areas for monsters.  What a shock it is to discover the world is round and the areas merge and nothing separates the monsters and ourselves...."

Margaret Millar began her crime writing career with a relatively traditional series of three books about the archly-named amateur sleuth Paul Prye, published over 1941-1942.  In her next two novels, Wall of Eyes (1943) and The Iron Gates (1945), she shifted to another, professional series detective, Inspector Sands, and to a newer, less conventional approach.  The Iron Gates, in particular, seems to me more like a grim mainstream novel about a woman's descent into madness than any sort of "mystery."

Millar's sixth crime novel, Fire Will Freeze (1944), is something of a return to her earlier style, but by the 1950s she really hit her stride as a novelist of psychological suspense, producing compulsive page-turners with clueing and misdirection as deft as that offered by the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie.

Up to 1964, she published, in my opinion, at least a half-dozen genre classics, including the Edgar-winning Beast in View (1955).  After 1964's The Fiend, however, she published no more crime novels until 1970, when Beyond This Point Are Monsters appeared.  With Beast in View, Monsters was included by English crime writer H. R. F. Keating in his Edgar-nominated Crime & Mystery: The Hundred Best Books (1987).

Beast in View, though a brilliant crime novel, has lost a bit of its impact today, both in its twist and its subject matter. However, I was struck reading Monsters by how up-to-date it seems, with its plot involving illegal immigration and the treatment of migrant California farm workers (so many of these issues lie unresolved over forty years later). There are Millar's characteristic twists too.

In form much of the novel is devoted to testimony at a legal hearing.  Recently-wed ranch owner Robert Osborne vanished a year ago and his young widow has petitioned a court to declare him legally dead. Millar takes us through the testimony, along with flashbacks and actions of characters outside court.

It appears that Robert may have been killed in a fight with a couple of migrant workers who promptly disappeared into the hinterland, but as the quotation at the top of this piece suggests, matters in life (and death) are not always so cut-and-dried. They certainly aren't in Margaret Millar novels!

I noticed a key clue, so one of the twists I was able to foresee, but I did not anticipate the final events, which are more a matter of psychological than material clueing.  As always with Millar, the morbid psychology is fascinating.

It might be argued that the title creates the wrong impression on the reader, particularly the modern reader, in that it creates the expectation of there being some sort of Hannibal Lecter style serial killer at work.  In fact Millar's novel is far more subtle than that. Yet the final twist definitely has a frisson of horror that is uniquely (Margaret) Millar.

Incredibly to me, Beyond This Point Are Monsters has been out-of-print for over a quarter century. Since the demise of the wonderful International Polygonics, Ltd. (IPL), Millar, in contrast with her husband, Kenneth (Ross Macdonald), has been oddly neglected by publishers (Doug Greene's short story publishing house, Crippen and Landu, excepted).

Perhaps Margaret Millar's inclusion in Sarah Weinman's recent anthology of twentieth-century women suspense writers will inspire some publisher to get all her novels back into print.  They certainly merit republication.  Margret Millar is, in my view, one of the crime writer immortals.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970), by Margaret Millar

One of the few titles by one of my favorite crime authors, Margaret Millar, that I had not read until this week is Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970).  I decided to rectify this gap in my reading and I expect to get my post on the book uploaded by tonight.

Suffice it to say for now that the book has all the human interest, intriguing mystery and compelling narrative that is characteristic of the splendid author, who was one of the great twentieth-century writers of what was termed "psychological suspense."

In her recent anthology of tales by twentieth-century women crime writers, Sarah Weinman calls the type of book Millar wrote "domestic suspense." Whatever we call it, it is great stuff. Not to mention possibly Millar's single best book title--who could fail to be intrigued by it? Come take a trip with me this weekend into the unknown depths of the human psyche....