Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Blast from the Past: John Rhode's Licensed for Murder (1958), Revisited; Plus Jane Wallace's (and Nedra Tyre's) Favorite Crime Fiction

My choice for a 1958 crime novel is John Rhode's Licensed for Murder, mainly, to be honest, because I posted this substantive piece about the book several years ago on this blog, where I addressed it specifically for what it had to say about the time when it was written.  John Rhode, aka Cecil John Charles Street, is one of the Golden Age crime writers I discuss in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, an attempt to recover some of the lost history of Golden Age British crime fiction.

At this blog there's some additional interesting personal background material on John Street here and here and reviews of some of his novels here and here and here. Discussion of Street's friendship with John Dickson Carr, which encompassed much drinking as well as a collaborative detective novel, is found here and here.  Street's writing on the infamous Constance Kent murder case is discussed here.  Of course there's lots on all this and more in Masters!

And speaking of British crime fiction, Nedra Tyre, discussed in my last post, expresses a great partiality toward it in her 1952 crime novel, Mouse in Eternity.  At one point in the tale her protagonist, Jane Wallace, presumably speaking for the author, lists the crime writers with books on her shelf--and it's a list dominated by the sceptred isle:

Edmund Pearson (A)
Dorothy L. Sayers
Oliver Onions
Ellery Queen (A)
Wilkie Collins
H. C. Bailey
Margery Allingham
Marie Belloc Lowndes
Joseph Shearing
Agatha Christie
William Roughead
Elzabeth Daly (A)
Graham Greene
Eric Ambler
Ngaio Marsh
Michael Innes
Dashiell Hammett (A)
Raymond Chandler (A)
Freeman Wills Crofts
Nicholas Blake

Only five American in the lot: two classicists (Queen and Daly), two hard-boiled (Hammett and Chandler), and a true crime writer (Edmund Pearson).  Many of the names will still be familiar today, although the true crime writers of fact and fiction (besides Pearson, Roughead, Belloc Lowndes and Shearing) likely are be less so; and no doubt many fewer people today have read Bailey and Crofts (another Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery author) than the Crime Queens (Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh) and Detection Dons (Innes and Blake--was surprised not to see Edmund Crispin, by the way).  Given Tyre's evident tastes John Dickson Carr is a notable omission, as is the great G. K. Chesterton.

When Jane Wallace and her invalid friend, Mr. Lawrence, discuss their "recipe for the perfect murder story," is it hardly surprising that Mr. Lawrence urges:

"I think it would have to be set in England."

Do you agree?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Higher Aims? Mouse in Eternity (1952), by Nedra Tyre

Native Georgian Nedra Tyre is one of the "domestic suspense" writers highlighted by Sarah Weinman in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives who was unfamiliar to me.  I quite liked the Tyre story that Weinman anthologized, and I also enjoyed the one included in John D. Macdonald's interesting late Fifties collection of crime stories by women, The Lethal Sex.

Weinman notes that Tyre wrote more than forty short stories, which mostly were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Tyre also authored six crime novels over two decades. This imbalance suggested to me that perhaps Tyre's talent was more suited for short fiction; and my reading of Tyre's first crime novel, Mouse in Eternity (1952), confirms this suspicion.

Tyre's first published book, Red Wine First (1947) is a collection of first person narratives based on her experiences as a social worker with clients in three southern states during the Second World War. This is an interesting book, having something of the quality of that American southern classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  But it's not a novel, nor, strictly speaking, a collection of short stories. Rather, it's more a gathering of  fact-based dramatic monologues (this is the form as well of the two Tyre crime shorts I read).

Even though Tyre seems clearly to have had strong inclinations toward "straight," or "mainstream," writing, five years later she turned to the potentially lucrative crime novel market with the oddly titled (for a mystery) Mouse in Eternity. The title is derived from a poem by the foreign correspondent Paula Lecler:

When I measure myself by the grasses
Then I am good and tall;
When I measure myself by the mountains
I do not exist at all.

It is very, very curious
How one may either be
A cat that nibbles a moment
Or a mouse in eternity.

I loved these lines (especially "A cat that nibbles a moment/Or a mouse in eternity"), which suggest that Tyre had "artier" ambitions in mind than writing a "mere" puzzle (see Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery for my discussion of the disparagement of strongly puzzle-oriented mysteries at this time).

The novel is set among Atlanta social workers--write what you know, as they say--and initially it reminded me rather of Christianna Brand's delightful workplace mystery, Death in High Heels (1941), wherein, as in Mouse, a hated boss is killed.  Unfortunately, I thought the pace in Mouse dragged and by the time I was halfway through the novel I had completely lost interest in the narrative.  There just was not, I felt, enough of a crime interest to sustain this book as a crime novel.

Interestingly, from the evidence of Mouse Tyre herself clearly had a genuine interest in crime literature, because throughout the novel her female social worker protagonist, Jane Wallace, and Wallace's intellectual male invalid friend discuss crime fiction with the true fan's passion.

murder story?
At one point Jane names twenty crime writers whose books she has on her shelves (the list is forthcoming), much to the disgust of her friend Peg, who thinks crime writing is hopelessly lowbrow:

"Many intelligent people like murder stories," I said...."Some of the finest writing ever done has been in mysteries --even your precious Henry James tried them."

The Turn of the Screw is not a murder story."

"It's placed among mysteries--how else would I know about it?"

Jane names her favorite mystery short story as "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" and her favorite mystery novel as The Nine Tailors ("Nothing touches it.").  Her invalid friend names his as "The Two Bottles of Relish" and The Moonstone.

I'm with the invalid friend!  How about you?

I'm afraid that I did not find Mouse in Eternity anywhere close to the level of the above classic crime novels, but I'll have another post about the observations on crime fiction in Mouse; for me they constitute the most interesting parts of the book.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Night Call: Another Ring

On my last post about Night Call Kevin Killian in his comments to the review stated that there are an additional dozen or more unpublished stories--good ones--in the Charlotte Armstrong papers. Moreover, going by the select bibliography provided in Night Call, there are some other Armstrong stories that were published but to this date never gathered in a Charlotte Armstrong collection. So is there enough additional material out there good enough for another book?  Hope so!

I also wanted to note that Doug tells me that just as Night Call was coming off the press, one of the editors, Kirby McCauley, passed away, at the age of 72.  He was a literary agent who, genre fans should know, edited the landmark horror anthology Dark Forces.

A fine tribute to McCauley is found here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Suspense is on the Line: Night Call (2014), by Charlotte Armstrong

Since I  last blogged two years ago about mid-century American crime writer Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969)--see here and here--she was anthologized in Sarah Weinman's well-received and much-publicized book, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. Now another notable Charlotte Armstrong publishing event has occurred: the publication, by Douglas Greene's Crippen & Landru press, of the third, and presumably final, collection of Charlotte Armstrong short fiction: Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense.

During her lifetime Armstrong published two short fiction collections: The Albatross (1957) and I See You (1966); a third collection, composed of pieces that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the 1960s, probably would have followed in the 1970s had not Armstrong passed away from cancer at the age of 64 in 1969 (it's sad to think we missed possibly two decades more of original fiction writing from this gifted author).

Crippen & Landru's Night Call collects these works, which had never appeared in book form, plus two previously unpublished pieces. This makes a total of thirteen short stories--one a short short--and two novelettes.

Thirteen of the pieces appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the 1960s--editor Fredric Dannay was a great fan of Armstrong--and, as stated, two of the pieces, a short story and a novelette, have never before been published. Night Call's editors, Rick Cypert and Kirby McCauley, have divided the book into four sections: Younger Female Protagonists, Older Female Protagonists, Male Protagonists and Novelettes.

Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969)
My favorite of the short story groupings is the section that concerns the "older women protagonists." One of these tales, "The Splintered Monday," about an old woman who solves a domestic murder in her family, is included in Weinman's anthology.  The two in this section I had not read before are "The Case for Miss Peacock" and "The Cool Ones."

Writer Kevin Killian has memorably dubbed Armstrong's wise elderly women her "Norns." They are indomitable women who invariably surmount the various crises thrown into their lives in Armstrong's tales.

In "The Case for Miss Peacock," the protagonist of the title is an older woman living alone in diminished circumstances but quiet dignity.  When she is accused of having robbed a lingerie store she must prove her alibi to an investigating policeman.  In the course of this excursion we learn much about Miss Peacock, just as she learns much about herself and the way the world sees her.  This is the essence of Armstrong in her mature years: gently humorous and life-affirming.  In tone I was reminded quite a bit of her classic, Edgar award-winning suspense novel, A Dram of Poison (1956).

"The Cool Ones" is more overtly dramatic, in that it deals with the kidnapping of an elderly woman and her efforts to save herself from the certain death that awaits her after her ransom is paid.  The theme of this suspenseful tale is the affinity between grandparents and grandchildren.  Old Mrs. Finney knows it is her grandson who can save her, if she can only leave him the right clues....This fine story was published in 1967, at the height of talk about "the generation gap." Here it isn't grandparents who are clueless about young people, but middle-aged parents.

contemplating the foibles of man?
"The Light Next Door" is included in the "male protagonists" section. It's a tale of suburban suspense that focuses on a man and his Dalmatian dog, Miggs (personally, I think Miggs is the real protagonist).

The editors note that Armstrong's books have been dubbed "suburban noir"; yet as is so often case, I think that here the term "noir," while no doubt important-sounding, is inapt.  Armstrong's work doesn't seem to me to have noir's requisite bleakness. To be sure, there is bleakness in "The Light Next Door," but there is also a redemptive image left flickering at the end.

This is another fine story, dealing with that classic scenario of a couple who begins to suspect that there is something odd going on with their neighbors (a middle-aged man, a former widower, and his new bride).  It cleverly updates Gothic motifs to suburban California in 1969.  Had it been published earlier in the 1960s, one might have seen it televised on the series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Of the stories with "younger female protagonists" I liked best "From out of the Garden," another tale that draws on Gothic tropes (especially the work of Edgar Allan Poe). However, in contrast with then-popular (1968) neo-Gothics, Armstrong takes the relationship between the young woman--an intrepid journalist investigating the long-ago disappearance of a wife--and the brooding, middle-aged man in the gloomy, old house in rather a different direction....

Night Call's two novelettes occupy  a third of the book's 300 pages; happily both are very good tales. "The Second Commandment," about a minister suspected of murder when his wealthy, decade-older bride falls to her death over the edge of a cliff, is a quite moving story that uses the occasion of sudden death to probe deeper spiritual issues about the human condition.

The previously unpublished "Man in the Road" is a real find: a fully-developed mystery "situation" about a career woman, Hallie White, returning home to visit the small desert town she left behind years ago, who in the early morning hours on a deserted road outside town hits a man darting in front of her car, by a store building called "The Rock Shop."

When after reporting the accident Hallie returns to the scene with the police, they find a dead man; and some in the town are soon muttering that Hallie is a hit-and-run killer. This tale is more a full-fledged detective story--and a real winner of one at that.  In addition to the interesting mystery, there is a richly-developed small-town atmosphere and a pleasing heroine with an appealing love interest in her old grade-school sweetheart, now a cop.

With its previous collections of short fiction by Margaret Millar and Vera Caspary--stories from both these collections, incidentally, are found in Weinman's recent anthology--Crippen & Landru had already made an important contribution to the field of mid-century women's crime fiction.  That contribution has become even more profound with Charlotte Armstrong's Night Call.  If you liked Sarah Weinman's Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, you should definitely consider picking up Night Call.  It is available in paperback and hardback, the latter an especially well-fashioned edition.

Note: Also included in the book are an Afterword about Charlotte Armstrong by her son Jerry Lewi and a bibliography of Armstrong's published short fiction, serialized novels and novels.

Also note other Crippen & Landru volumes reviewed at The Passing Tramp:
The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas (2012), by Elizabeth Ferrars

More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2006), by Edward D. Hoch
Banner Deadlines (2004), by Joseph Commings

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Douglas G. Greene and Mysteries Unlocked

Douglas Greene
Today is the seventieth birthday of Douglas G. Greene, the great American crime fiction scholar who, among his many other accomplishments, published the seminal John Dickson Carr biography, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) and founded the mystery short fiction publishing house Crippen & Landru.

Over 2013 and 2014 I happily was able to shepherd into print Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, a collection of two dozen essays on detective fiction, in honor of Doug and his important work, published by McFarland Press.

Going by order of appearance in the book, there are essays by Bill Ruehlmann, Mike Ashley, Roger Ellis, Curtis Evans, Michael Dirda, John Curran, Martin Edwards, B. A. Pike, Julia Jones, David Whittle, Mauro Boncompagni, Steven Steinbock, Henrique Valle, Jeffrey Marks, Jack Seabrook, Tom Nolan, Marv Lachman, Jon L. Breen, Sergio Angelini, Joseph Goodrich, Helen Szamuely, Patrick Ohl and Peter Lovesey (there are also an afterword by Boonchai Panjarattanakorn, a prologue by Steve Steinbock and an introduction by myself).

The essays cover a broad range of crime fiction authors (and critics) from over a century, including Thomas W. Hanshew, Max Rittenberg, J. S. Fletcher, Carolyn Wells, John Dickson Carr (of course), Doug Greene himself, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, Patrick Quentin, Hake Talbot, T. S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, Raymond Chandler, Craig Rice, Fredric Brown, Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Horowitz, Jill Paton Walsh, P. D. James and Rene Reouven.

Doug's work over the decades has illustrated the richness of crime fiction from the gaslight era to the present time.

Although often today twentieth-century crime fiction is simplified as a dichotomous conflict between masculine American hard-boiled/noir and feminine British cozy/clue puzzle (and there are frequently unjustly dismissive attitudes toward the latter), Doug's ventures in both genre history and publishing have illustrated otherwise, that our mystery past in fact was so much more complex and rich.  I think the essays in Mysteries Unlocked do the same.

I wish you a most happy birthday, Doug, and I thank you for all you have given us!

Coming up for Friday is a review of the latest publication of Crippen & Landru, Night Call, a new collection of short fiction by the great crime writer Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969).

For more on Mysteries Unlocked, see here and here.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Wimsey-and-Pee": Nicolas Freeling on Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

In 1992 Patricia Craig edited Julian Symons at Eighty: A Tribute, a collection of pieces in honor of the eightieth birthday of the great British crime writer and critic Julian Symons. There are original stories by Reginald Hill, Edward D. Hoch, Thomas Narcejac, Elizabeth Ferrars, poems by others (Symons was no mean poet) and also some essays, ranging from the incidental--a 200-word piece by Patricia Highsmith that reads like it was dashed off thirty minutes before deadline--to substantive: pieces by HRF Keating, a good friend of Symons, and Nicolas Freeling (1927-2003). Keating's piece, on Symons' critical writing, is characteristically charming, while Freeling's, "Gaudy Night in 1935," is surprisingly (or is it characteristic too?) caustic.

Julian Symons of course could be a tough critic himself, but he often found much of worth in Golden Age detective fiction.  Freeling, a crime writer very much of the modern school (indeed, his Guardian obituary, linked above, questions whether he was really a crime writer at all), found nothing of worth in the Golden Age, except some of the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, especially Gaudy Night, which he praised, with some qualifications, at length, referring to it in passing, incidentally, as a "locked-room mystery" (ironically, Symons himself did not like Gaudy Night, much to the future horror, as we know, of the book-stamping Lucy Worsley).

Nicolas Freeling (1927-2003)

Of the Golden Age and Gaudy Night Freeling writes:

In these years the writers of detective-stories proliferated.  They sold enormously, were thought intellectually respectable, and thought a great deal of themselves.  They are all unreadable; the great thing was to devise a new exotic method of killing people and without the killer being at once guessed. Sixty years have passed and point to a paradox: two survivors of this time, constantly reprinted, are Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. If the first is the darling of Hungarian students learning English, the second is reread and loved.  This phenomenon is often ascribed to snobbery, Lord Peter Wimsey being a pleasantly Woosterish figure (does anyone under sixty read Wodehouse?), but the explanation does not satisfy me.  Gaudy Night is arguably, to myself evidently, Sayers's best book. Wimsey appears only in the second half.  Indeed it is not a "detective story" and makes only a superficial pretence of being so....

Instead, it is a serious book, seriously written.....never a common combination, arguably unique in the crime-writing of the twenties and thirties in English-speaking countries....

Freeling also likes The Nine Tailors ("a sunny, happy work of immense charm"), is dismissive of Strong Poison ("undistinguished" except for its introduction of Harriet Vane, "a character full of vigor, struggling for life") and The Documents in the Case ("awkward" and "slight") and hates The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcase ("alarmingly dull, conventional stodge, full of fingerprints and timetables").

Freeling also contrasts Gaudy Night with The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham, "a writer then highly thought of." I think both Tiger and Allingham were still pretty well thought of in 1992, but never mind, Freeling does not like the book or its author:

The Tiger in the Smoke was successfully published as late as 1952, so unwilling was the lending-library public to abandon Edwardian notions of bourgeois comfort. It is deplorable trash, notable for perfect fidelity to the Sayers pattern of thirty years before. There is an aristocrat-detective, Wimsey-and-pee, and a comic manservant far worse than Bunter, called Magersfontein Lugg. There's a kindly old vicar, and a redhaired beauty called Amanda from a Good Family. To sound Holmesian there's a lot about fog; street musicians talking fake cockney; a Scotland Yard man, very tough but properly subservient to the upper classes; and a preposterous theatrical villain. Everything is Rather-Frightening, and the result is flim-flam.

On the other hand, there is grit in a Sayers composition....

I do not like the Golden Age
(Thanks, Noah Stewart!)

Freeling cites as one example of Sayers' rare "grit" "the lesbian nurse in Whose Body?" I think he means Unnatural Death, but that's hardly the only point with which I find occasion to disagree in this essay.  What about you?

I wonder what Julian Symons thought of "Gaudy Night in 1935"?  Symons himself liked The Tiger in the Smoke, calling it the best of Allingham's books, "a thriller of the highest quality about a hunted man and his hunters." And Gaudy Night he thought a dull novel "full of the most tedious pseudo-serious chat between the characters that goes on for page after page."

Had Freeling ever actually read Symons' crime criticism opus, Bloody Murder?  If he had, he certainly did not let the book constrain in his tribute essay his own critical judgments, which were rather different in particulars from those originally made by Symons two decades earlier.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Sticky Wicket in Scotland: Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978), by Emma Lathen

In her long-running fictional series about Wall Street banker John Putnam Thatcher (of the Sloan Guaranty Trust), the American mystery writer Emma Lathen--actually two women, Mary Jane Latsis (1927-1997), an economist, and Martha Henissart (b. 1929), a corporate lawyer--produced detective novels that appealingly blended clever, credible mysteries with wry observations about the corporate world.

Nineteen Thatcher detective novels appeared between 1961 and 1982, then, after a fallow interval of a half-dozen years, five more between 1988 and 1997, the year of Latsis' death (Henissart then discontinued the series, even though an additional Thatcher novel reportedly had been 80% completed at the time).

The Thatcher mysteries surely constitute one of the most notable series of twentieth-century American detective novels, although they are out-of-print today (Latsis and Henissart also had another, more short-lived, mystery series, with an American congressman as sleuth; the two women produced seven of these mysteries, written under the name R. B. Dominic, between 1968 and 1983).

The Lathen Thatcher detective novels I have read all have been crisply and delightfully written, with considerable dry wit about business life exhibited. Typically in each Thatcher novel Lathen tackles a specific business with which the senior Sloan Vice President, in his capacity as head of Sloan's trust department, is currently involved.  During the course of cutthroat financial transactions, someone invariably gets bumped off and it takes the keen-eyed Thatcher to spot the culprit. The plots in the Lathens I have read have been uniformly excellent.  The mysteries are fairly clued, cogent and credible and the books include much fascinating business detail.

In some ways, Lathen reminds me of Golden Age British "Humdrum" mystery writers, particularly John Street, who also was involved with, and interested in, business, though Lathen is much more sophisticated and detailed in her presentation of business institutions and Lathen's dry humor is exceptional within the mystery genre (indeed, on account of the latter quality admirers have compared Emma Lathen to Jane Austen; interestingly, she was long enthusiastically championed by the notable British publisher Gollancz).

Lathen's seventeenth Thatcher novel, Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978), is a good example of the author's talents, though it is more of a globetrotting tale than many of her books.  Events are driven by competition between two construction firms, Macklin of Houston, Texas and Norddeutsche Werke GmbH (NWG) of Hamburg, Germany, for a contract to build "a billion facility in north Scotland," at Noss Head, involving "tanker berths, onshore pumping stations, and pipelines to outrun the imagination of man."  Other firms from around the world are involved too, but these two are the favorites.

"From the map...it looks like the most
godforsaken spot in the British isles.

During the height of the competition Davidson Wyle, Macklin's European manager, is grabbed by armed men in Istanbul, purportedly by a terrorist group ironically named Black Tuesday.  A 1.5 million ransom drop is demanded, and Thatcher is one of the people involved in this transaction.

Wylie is not returned when he was supposed to be after the ransom was made, and there are fears for his life; but happily after several weeks he does reappear, alive.  He is whisked back to Houston by Macklin, but there, as Interpol descends to interview him about the kidnapping, about which there are still unsettled questions, he is killed when his car explodes.

The car explosion was no accident.  So who killed Wylie?  Terrorists who thought he might give them away?  Or could he have faked the kidnapping to get the ransom and then been eliminated by confederates in the plot?  What does his beautiful Italian wife, Francesca--whom he was in the process of divorcing--know about all this?

Noss Head, Scotland

Eventually Thatcher solves the case, but not before more travel mileage is chalked up--there are trips to London and the construction site at Noss Head--and another death occurs.  The solution is fairly clued, quite interesting and all-too-plausible.  Along the way, the reader can also savor Lathen's sardonic writing, full of keen observation on the situation of the world in 1978.

Some of my favorite passages had to do with the indomitably conscientious do-gooder Roberta Ore Simpson, descended from Quakers and fired with zeal to stamp out corporate wickedness:

Some women in public life are invariably known by three names.  Occasionally this designation provides continuity for a career begun under a maiden name and continued after marriage.  More often it serves as a warning to the uinitiated that the lady's claim to fame rests on the grandeur of her own family rather than on her consort.  But sometimes the polysyllabic mouthful signals the inadequacy of the English language.  Under certain circumstances "Mrs." and "Miss" can be grotesquely inappropriate while "Professor" and "Doctor" are irrelevant.

The Lathen novels invariably offer fascinating historical and cultural snapshots of their times.  One such, as indicated above, is the role of women in business and public life (still a way to go in this novel, though changes are taking place). Another concerns, naturally enough, the oil business:

OPEC, Thatcher suspected, wanted to illustrate the distinction between promise and achievement. Just as every oil well, before it is drilled, is going to be the biggest gusher ever seen, so North Sea oil might become the bonanza of bonanzas.  Yields might outstrip those of the Persian Gulf, Europe might dispense with the Emirates, and world energy prices might plummet.

But, in the meantime, OPEC was doing very well, and they had decided to prove it.

Then there's this pithy observation on the influence of television news anchors: "He might accuse his wife of overdramatizing, but Walter Cronkite?"

You don't question Uncle Walter

And then this exchange between two policemen in Houston, discussing where the dynamite that destroyed Wyle's car might have been obtained by the terrorist group Black Tuesday:

"All that construction.  There's probably dynamite lying around on every [street] corner....Unless terrorists always carry their own brand with them."

"They would have had to come through Customs and Immigration at the airport....

"Ha! We've got over four million illegal Mexican immigrants.  Do you think they would have noticed a couple of Arabs?"

I strongly recommend the Emma Lathen detective novels to you if you have never read them.  Every time I read one I find a pleasing mystery and I feel I'm learning about an interesting place and time in world history.  I only wish Emma Lathen had been able to continue writing mysteries for another dozen years or so, up to the rise of the Occupy movement.  Death Is Occupied would have made a great Emma Lathen mystery title!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Catch As Catchpool Can't: The Monogram Murders (2014), by Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah
"The Poirot I've written about is absolutely in every detail Agatha Christie's Poirot.  The originality and innovation comes in with the story.  My way of making it new is to bring an exciting and intriguing case for Poirot to solve...."

"With my other books, the only reputation at stake is my own.  I was very conscious of making sure I did Agatha proud and didn't let her down...."

"I have read the Poirot novels several times each and I just know him....I know him in the same way I know my husband and kids...."

"Having read all of her books more than once and having been so influenced by her, I just instinctively know what kind of story would appeal to her and what her priorities were in storytelling. You can tell that by reading all of a writer's work...."

"Most crime fiction plots are not ambitious enough for me.  I want something really labyrinthine with clues and puzzles...."

Sophie Hannah, interview with Susan Swarbrick, Herald Scotland, 13 September 2014

Anyone slightly familiar with Sophie Hannah's crime fiction surely appreciates that Hannah enjoys constructing labyrinthine plots and puzzles in her books. Unfortunately, in her just-published debut Hercule Poirot detective novel, The Monogram Murders, once Hannah has led her readers into her murder maze, she has considerable trouble getting them out of it. More than a few Agatha Christie fans are questioning whether The Monogam Murders really reflects, not only the personality of Christie's iconic Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, but the Queen of Crime's basic storytelling priorities. In my view the novel frequently does not.

The Monogram Murders opens in 1929, with a chapter reminiscent of the late Christie novel Third Girl (1966). Poirot encounters a mystery woman named Jennie, who seems to be in fear for her life.  Jennie makes intriguing cryptic comments about her plight ("Oh, please let no one open their mouths!") before fleeing from Poirot into the night.

Even here, however, what seem to me false notes concerning Poirot's character are struck.  First, the encounter takes place in a "coffee house" that, though "in a part of London that was far from being the most salubrious, made the best coffee Poirot had tasted anywhere in the world."

For those of us used to Poirot delicately sipping tisane, chocolat, creme de menthe and sirop de cassis, the idea of this well-traveled Continental often dismissive of English gastronomy not only grabbing coffee at an insalubrious London coffee house--he eats beef chop and vermicelli souffle there too, incidentally--but actually finding it the best coffee he has had in all the world seems well-nigh inconceivable.

Then there's the fact that Poirot is staying at a lodging house just down from his own flat, for what he calls a "rest."  This seems odd behavior for our Poirot, even if the lodging house is "impeccably clean."

Christie fans have pointed out elsewhere in The Monogram Murders things that have struck them as additional anomalies in Poirot's personality: he walks in the cold night, he rides a bus to ruminate, he draws with his finger in the mud.  But I don't want to get bogged down in what some might dismiss as Poirot pedantry (however, Hannah herself has made this an issue by insisting that her Poirot "is absolutely in every detail Agatha Christie's Poirot"). With this novel I have what I deem more serious problems, having to do with narrative and plot structure and depictions of character (in addition to Poirot's) and setting.

After the first chapter, the narrative abruptly changes, from third to first person.  Our new narrator is one Inspector Edward Catchpool, who rooms at the same lodging house as Poirot.  (So that's why Hannah plops Poirot down there!) We learn the novel is in fact a manuscript written by Catchpool, which explains the sudden point-of-view shifts that occur. (The name, incidentally, is reminiscent of crime writer Julian Symons' Superintendent Hilary Catchpole, who appeared in a couple of novels in the 1990s.)

Sometimes Catchpool is alone or with Poirot, describing things at first hand, while sometimes Poirot is on his own, with the narrative shifting to third person. I found this distracting--though I preferred the third person narrative to that told in Catchpool's own voice.

Catchpool may vie for the title of most tiresome and inept Scotland Yard policeman in the history of British crime fiction. Besides being dumb as a box of rocks, Catchpool is one dismal fellow. Never have I so missed Poirot's perennial Golden Age "Watson," Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings may not be the brightest bulb in the art deco chandelier, but he is of course merely an amateur assistant to Poirot and there is a great deal of charm and affection in the Poirot-Hastings relationship, as portrayed by Christie.  I discerned neither charm nor affection in the Poirot-Catchpool relationship.

Throughout the book Catchpool struck me as a miserable and glum individual. This is not surprising, since Hannah in thoroughly modern fashion has saddled him with a load of psychological baggage, rather in the manner of Charles Todd's seriously shell shocked Inspector Ian Rutledge, who gets sleuthing wisdom from the voice of the dead friend that he hears in his head (though Catchpool's problem does not arise, as one might have surmised given his age--32--from Great War service, but from some not altogether shocking childhood trauma). Catchpool does not seem, really, even to like Poirot, nor Poirot him.

as a cop Edward Catchpool does
not quite measure up in skill to
 PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost)
in Hot Fuzz (2007)
Catchpool also makes an absurd policeman. He has a morbid fear of dead bodies--the childhood trauma, you see--and runs away from the novel's crime scene (see below). Why on earth did he become a cop? At least he didn't take up the mortician trade!

Despite some feckless grumbling, Catchpool allows Poirot to completely take over his investigation, doing everything on direction of the Belgian sleuth, who seemingly has no qualms about acting as investigative head in all but name and who misses no chance to rather cruelly belittle the poor schlub.

I know Golden Age detective novels often are castigated today for unrealistic depictions of police procedure, but Hannah's novel really outdid her purported models in this regard.  I found it so ridiculous as to be alienating.

But what, you ask, is the crime scene from which Catchpool flees? ("Fly, Catchpool, fly!") Well, as you probably know by now from other reviews and HarperCollins' publicity campaign, three dead bodies are found in three rooms on three floors of a fashionable London hotel, the Bloxham, each with a monogrammed cuff link placed in his/her mouth.

Based on the mysterious Jennie's earlier cryptic comment (see above), Poirot concludes that she is connected to this conundrum. Identification of the dead persons, two women and a man, leads the investigation to events that took place long ago in an English village, Great Holling.

On orders from Poirot, Catchpool travels to the village and wanders rather aimlessly about, listening to anyone who will tell him anything about these past events. Here he finds a surprisingly freethinking vicar's widow, Margaret Ernst, who gives him (and readers) a huge amount of expository back story--two chapters worth--including information on a pair of tragic deaths that took place in the village way back before the First World War.

Catchpool, after promising Ernst--whom he calls "Margaret"--that he will talk to no one else in the village about this information, departs to report back to his master, Poirot. Meanwhile Poirot does some leg work of his own in London, the most significant being an interview with an artist, Nancy Ducane, who also has a connection to Great Holling.

Then Jennie shows up again, in a manner of speaking. Has there been a fourth unnatural death at the Bloxham Hotel?  At this point Hannah starts laying out the solution(s) to the mystery, and this leads to perhaps the gravest fault of the book in my estimation: a veritable water torture of a mercilessly drawn-out explanation that extends over eight of the novel's twenty-five chapters, about 36% of the book.

I not only found, like Simon Brett did in his review (if you follow the link to Brett's review beware the spoiler in the next-to-last paragraph), much of the explanation extremely implausible, I also found it, frankly, approaching the impenetrable. Nor, despite the convolution, was there really much surprise in the revelation of culpritude.

This part of the book made extremely tedious reading, the kind of fictional murk one wades through simply out of a grim determination to somehow make it to the end.

Sophie Hannah says she instinctively knows Christie's storytelling priorities, yet surely one of those priorities was narrating a mystery with clarity and cogency.  On this count, The Monogram Murders is a failure.

To the extent the novel resembles a Poirot mystery in terms of narrative it is one from later in Christie's career, when the Queen of Crime was losing her extraordinary facility with narrative: By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), say, or Hallowe'en Party (1969). There are clues in those novels, yes, and involved plots, but the deft storytelling is gone. Yet even those books I would rank higher than The Monogram Murders, which, out of the entire Christie canon of Poirot novels, probably is superior to just one, Elephants Can Remember (1972).

If you really think The Monogram Murders captures the essence of Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries from her best years, you should compare the elegant explanatory chapter in Murder on the Orient Express (1934)--7% of the novel--with the stodge offered by Hannah now, eighty years later. The difference illuminates why we call the Golden Age of detective fiction (1920s-1940s) golden.

Additionally, I was underwhelmed with Hannah's depiction of character and setting. There's a waitress introduced in the first chapter who has some of the qualities of a memorable Christie person, but otherwise I found Hannah's characters a forgettable, charmless lot.  As Noah Stewart points out in his splendid review of The Monogram Murders, the three most potentially interesting characters in the novel are all dead when we encounter them; and we only ever learn anything about them from the exceedingly long-winded individuals who have long hated them.  Christie gave much more dramatic force to her celebrated retrospective death Poirot mystery, Five Little Pigs (1942).

As for setting, Hannah's (deliberately) dreary village of Great Holling is most disappointing, essentially false and absolutely nothing like Christie in my view; but the Bloxham Hotel never really comes alive either.

once read, never forgotten
I am saddened to post such a negative review of this novel, because I have praised Sophie Hannah in the past for publicizing her great admiration for Christie and her belief that plot is actually important in a detective novel (this shouldn't be an exceptional assertion, but these days it seems to be). However, it is precisely because I believe plot is important in a detective novel that I am so disappointed with The Monogram Murders.

The great Golden Age detective novels are not just about complexity, but complexity clarified. This is especially true of Agatha Christie's miraculous Golden Age mysteries, which have plots that are tricky yet comprehensible. Deft misdirection, not lumbering obfuscation, characterizes Christie's narratives.

One can explain the brilliant solutions to novels like Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in single sentences. I would not even care to try to explain the solution to The Monogram Murders.

There are clues of a kind in this new Poirot mystery that often seem clearly inspired by Christie, but they are not carried off with the peerless panache of a Christie, let alone the fleet skill of, say, a Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Ruth Rendell or Peter Lovesey, to name some additional immortals of English-style mystery.

Detection as a Fine Art
In his essay in Mysteries Unlocked (2014), "Agatha Christie and the Impossible Crime," John Curran, author of two highly-praised books on the Queen of Crime--he's read all her books several times, I believe--writes that "Christie's ingenuity...lay in the simplicity of her plots and it is that simplicity that accounts for her presence today on the shelves of bookshops and libraries worldwide."

It is for this reason that in her review of The Monogram Murders Christie biographer Laura Thompson--she also, one imagines, has read all the Christie novels several times--contends that Hannah's mystery "actually bears very little resemblance to [an Agatha Christie novel]."  Notes Thompson: "What is not there, crucially, is [Christie's] sublime simplicity."

If, as I expect, Hannah produces another Poirot mystery, I hope she improves the clarity and cogency of her plot and makes her narrative much sprightlier. Since HarperCollins and Christie's heirs seem determined to make a go of a new Poirot series, I would like for the next novel in the series to be one I really can enjoy reading.

Dare I also hope that Hannah might ditch the dire Catchpool and bring back Hastings? If she does, I think I have the perfect title for this novel: The Murder of Edward Catchpool. There surely would be no shortage of suspects in such a case.

Come back, Captain Hastings....

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders (2014) and the Perils of Pastiche

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah's much-anticipated Hercule Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders, is out and reviews are coming in fast and (sometimes) furious.

First there are the book blurbs from crime writers--Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Charles Todd, Laura Lippman--and Agatha Christie's grandson Mathew Prichard, praising Hannah and her novel to the skies.

In the New York Times cozy mystery and children's book author Alexander McCall Smith assures us that Hannah's plot in The Monogram Murders "is as tricky as anything written by Agatha Christie."

In the Independent, reviewer Andrew Wilson, evidently gifted with clairvoyance, declares that Hannah "has written a novel that not only would have delighted the Queen of Crime, but her rather more highbrow sister in suspense Patrica Highsmith too." What is one to make of that, I wonder?

In the Washington Post reviewer Carol Memmott confidently pronounces that "Christie herself, some might say, could do no better....I'd challenge any Christie-phile to find differences between her distinctive writing style and and Hannah's mirroring of it."

On the other hand, in the Express crime writer Simon Brett, President of the Detection Club, laments that the novel suffers from a dull narrator and that the plot is lacking in "one brilliant central idea" as well as basic credibility.  It's "not up to the rigorous plotting standards of the Queen of Crime," he concludes (beware a spoiler in the next-to-last paragraph).

Christie's latest biographer, Laura Thompson, is similarly unenthusiastic: "For all its approximation to an Agatha Christie, the book actually bears very little resemblance to one."

Carol Memmott might lose her challenge, judging by reviews on Amazon.com (where the book currently averages 2.8 out of five stars) and Amazon.co.uk (where the book currently averages 2.6 out of 5 stars), which currently are leaning towards the disappointed and even distressed.

A few who did not find Sophie Hannah comparable to Christie:

Look closely and you actually
will find Sophie Hannah's name on
the cover of the American edition
Under an Amazon.co.uk review pungently headlined "codswallop" F. M. Stockdale writes scathingly:

This would be a dull, repetitive, unendurable book even if it was unconnected to the Poirot oeuvre.  As it is, it simply absurd. The first chapter is quite fun, but thereafter the story descends into a farrago of unconvincing nonsense.

At Amazon.com, JMB believes that

Sophie Hannah, on the other hand, has written a ham-fisted pastiche of a Poirot mystery that dwells unnecessarily on useless and obscure clues, far too many red herrings and a convoluted plot line that stretches credibility.  Her Poirot is charmless and flat, the Japp/Hastings substitute so bland and characterless to be completely superfluous and forgettable.

On the other hand, the reviewer the Great Reads, who posted the first review of the novel on both websites back on September 9, lauds "bestselling author Sophie Hannah's fine writing and the compelling plot line" in The Monogram Murders and avows that "Princess" Hannah has fashioned "an absorbing story true to the legacy of its original writer," the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

What do you think?  Are you going to read The Monogram Murders, or have you read it already?

For my part I got the book on Kindle and am halfway through it now.  I will be posting my thoughts on Sophie Hannah's narrative and plotting choices in a few days.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Death in Venice (and Other Places): Daphne du Maurier's Don't Look Now (2008), edited by Patrick McGrath

"She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we would be in danger if we stayed in Venice...."

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) sometimes seems to get left out of crime fiction studies, not, I surmise, because she is seen as unworthy of the genre--she is a very well-regarded writer--but because she is seen, so the saying goes, as having transcended it.  Yet with several of her novels she produced some of the greatest modern Gothics, the best known of which remains Rebecca (1938). And then there is her short fiction.

Don't Look Now is a collection from the quality imprint New York Review Books of nine du Maurier tales. Several of these works, I would argue, can be classified as crime fiction, including the superb title piece.

The novella "Don't Look Now" (1971) familiar to many, no doubt, from the much-praised 1973 film adaptation with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, is the story of a British couple vacationing in Italy, where they are trying to recover emotionally from the tragic death of their young daughter.

At dinner in a Venice restaurant a blind woman claiming to be clairvoyant (there with her sister) tells the wife that she saw the couple's dead daughter sitting with them.

The wife is inclined to believe this tale, while the husband thinks the sisters are crude crackpots or connivers.  The couple is also informed that they will be great danger if they stay in Venice, but again the husband scoffs.  Is he right to do so, or is there real peril for the grieving pair? Don't look now....

Venice makes such a creepy setting for s suspense story, and du Maurier makes the most of it.  "Don't Look Now" truly is one of the great short form suspense tales in the literature and if you have not yet read it--well, really you should.

If only he could keep them from his eyes.  Nothing else mattered.  He must keep them from his eyes....

The second story, the novelette "The Birds" (1952, filmed in a typically loose adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963), is equally remarkable. Strictly speaking, it is outside this blog's purview, as it is not a crime story, but it is certainly a tale of suspense.

Probably most people here are generally familiar with the plot, wherein birds suddenly begin savagely attacking humans at a rural settlement in Cornwall (Hitchcock shifted the setting to northern California and made the protagonist a wealthy playgirl socialite, inevitably a blonde).

This is one of the most powerfully creepy tales I have ever read, a true masterwork of the storyteller's art.  I am an admirer of the Hitchcock film, but to me it does not attain the sheer elemental terror of du Maurier's original "end-of-the-world" story.

The shorter "Kiss Me Again, Stranger" (1952), which shares some affinity with "Don't Look Now," is another of du Maurier's best-known tales.

As editor Patrick McGrath suggests, this is masterful femme fatale story.  It may not be "hard-boiled," but it definitely packs a punch.

Another tale from the collection that I should mention is "The Blue Lenses" (1959), about a woman recovering in hospital from an eye operation who starts seeing things--people, actually--in a very different light. This is another one of du Maurier's best suspense stories, one about which one must restrain oneself from saying too much!

In Don't Look Now some terrific stories are omitted, such as "The Apple Tree" (1952), "The Old Man" (1952) and "The Alibi" (1959), but this is still a wonderful collection, splendidly produced by New York Review Books, who has made some other fine ventures into crime/suspense genre fiction, which you may see reviewed here in the future.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Dew Over: The False Inspector Dew (1982), by Peter Lovesey

Tomorrow is the birthday of Peter Lovesey, whose distinguished career in mystery writing now stretches back nearly forty-five years, to 1970, when he published the wonderfully-titled--and simply wonderful--Wobble to Death, the first of his eight Sergeant Cribb Victorian mysteries, a series that ran until 1978 (the last novel in the series, Waxwork, is reviewed here).

Since 1991, Lovesey's crime fiction output has been dominated by his much-praised present-day Peter Diamond series (the fourteenth novel in the series is about to be published in the US), but in between these two series Lovesey shook things up quite a bit.

Between 1982 to 1990 he published under his own name six crime novels: The False Inspector Dew (1982), Keystone (1983), Rough Cider (1986), Bertie and the Tinman (1987), On the Edge (1989) and Bertie and the Seven Bodies (1990). Of these books only the two Bertie--i.e., Albert Edward, Prince of Wales--mysteries were part of a series (a third, Bertie and the Crime of Passion, would follow in 1993).

The False Inspector Dew, Keystone, Rough Cider and On the Edge are standalones but all reflect Lovesey's interest in history and period settings in his mysteries.  I intend to look at each of these interesting novels over the rest of the year, beginning with Lovesey's hugely praised The False Inspector Dew, which won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association.

The False Inspector Dew somewhat reminds me of HRF Keating's The Murder of the Maharaja (1980), which won the CWA Gold Dagger two years earlier, in that it too is a witty, virtuoso take on the classical mystery.  After a very short opening section, which includes a dramatic episode on the torpedoed Lusitania (today this part inevitably would be called a prologue by the original publisher), Lovesey takes us to 1921 and introduces the various characters who will find themselves enmeshed in drama on the high seas, when they fatefully go aboard the SS Mauretania.

Our central figures are Walter Baranov, a henpecked English dentist ("Baranov" is a family stage name; Walter once worked the halls as a mentalist), and Alma Webster, a naive fan of the romance fiction of the much-ridiculed but much-read Ethel M. Dell.

Walter's wife, Lydia, is a faded stage actress of, to put it charitably, quite mercurial temperament, who has decided, based on the slenderest of hopes, that she can revive her moribund career in the American film business. Lydia controls the purse strings in the marriage, owning, along with the couple's house, Walter's dental practice, and she has announced that Walter must abandon his new vocation to become her agent in Hollywood. Walter refuses, so Lydia angrily declares she will go without him, selling his practice anyway (she says she needs the money for her American career promotion).

Walter, who has become romantically attached to Alma, one of his patients, begins planning with the lovestruck woman some way to get rid of Lydia--for good. Eventually they decide they will murder her on board Mauretania. Alma will be a stowaway on the ship, taking Lydia's place after Lydia is extinguished and dropped out a porthole, while Walter will take passage under a false name, "Walter Dew"--after the police inspector who famously apprehended the wife murderer Dr. Crippen aboard SS Montrose in 1910 (Walter is fascinated with the case).

This sounds like classic suspense, and, indeed, the tale is plenty suspenseful. You likely will feel compelled to finish the book in one or two sittings.

Yet embedded in the text is a legitimate "fair play" mystery, for Walter Baranov, the false Inspector Dew, ends up investigating murder on the Mauretania (I won't say more, except that I found intriguing the development of Walter's character over the course of novel).

If you read carefully you definitely should hit upon part of the solution after about 200 pages or so, I think, but another aspect of the puzzle is harder to discern ahead of the author's grand revelation. A few readers have complained that this part of the novel is not "fair play," but I beg to differ. I was partially mystified too originally, but legitimately so.

The False Inspector Dew is a wonderful, witty, tricksy mystery novel (right down to the last line), a true high point in post-WW2 crime fiction for lovers of the classic form.  This is one fictional voyage you do not want to miss.

Note: I should mention that Peter Lovesey contributed the coda essay, on the Detection Club, in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (McFarland 2014), which I edited.  His substantial piece is a lovely homage to the Detection Club and to that great historian of the mystery genre, Doug Greene.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Actors! Death of a Star (1932), by GDH and Margaret Cole (mostly Margaret)

As I pointed out in my last piece in the English mystery-writing team of GDH and Margaret Cole, on The Man from the River, Douglas Cole probably wrote eighteen of the twenty-eight detective novels credited jointly to them, and Margaret ten.  The Man from the River was primarily by Douglas, so I thought I would look at a Coles novel primarily by Margaret: Death of a Star (1932).

Who murdered Rita Morning?
Death of a Star details events that follow the discovery of the head of an English film actress, Rita Morning, left in a fishbag in the back seat of a London taxi. World events have brought actual decapitations into the news in the West, as we all know, and this fact was unpleasantly in my mind when I reread this novel.

As has been observed many times, Golden Age detective novels often treated death as a game and in some of them gruesomely gamboling with body parts could be part of the "fun" (see, for example, Gladys Mitchell's The Mystery of a Butcher Shop, where the murder victim is cut into joints in a butcher's shop--hilarious, huh?).

However, in Death of a Star the decapitation is not treated as a grisly joke by the author but as something genuinely horrific, which of course it is (as an aside I should note that the period known as the Golden Age of detective fiction also seems to have been the Golden Age of the Trunk Murder, if you will).

a club I would have
joined in the 1930s
In fact when rereading Death of a Star I was struck even more forcibly than before about what an impressive exercise in social realism it is for the period.  The author deftly portrays social classes high and low, from London society--aristocrat Everard Blachington, who appeared previously in the Coles' excellent The Blatchington Tangle, 1926, and Burglars in Bucks, 1930, pops up again, though as an observer rather than as a sleuth--to London toughs; and she also is painstaking in her depiction of police investigation. Her cops--Supt. Henry Wilson does not appear in this one--are not idealized and, with one exception, a lowly police constable, are not even likable, really (certainly the lower classes do not like them--with some justification, Cole suggests).

There are a few Jewish characters--a lawyer, a film producer and a fishmonger--and the police are allowed some ethnophobic thoughts in their direction, which is probably a fair enough portrayal of a number of police at the time, I imagine.  The author is also frank in her portrayal of the casual sexual morals of the film world.

All this I found made highly interesting mystery reading.  I enjoyed the puzzle plot as well, but of course can't talk about that in detail here!  This is another Coles novel I would love to see reprinted someday.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Found Drowned? The Man from the River (1928), by GDH and Margaret Cole (mostly GDH)

Below is pictured the dust jacket of The Man from the River, the 1928 detective novel by the mystery-writing English couple GDH and Margaret Cole--one of the finest dust jackets for a Golden Age mystery in my view.  How is the novel itself?

In The Man from the River Dr. Michael Prendergast is on vacation in the quaintly decayed Essex village of Steeple Tollesbury, outside Colchester, awaiting the arrival of his clever policeman friend, Superintendent Henry Wilson of Scotland Yard (Mrs. Wilson is nowhere in evidence in this one). Two later Coles novels also pair Wilson with his sometime Watson, Dr. Prendergast, as do some Coles short stories.

Before Wilson's arrival to join Prendergast at The Old Malting House, a corpse is fished out of the River Toll.  Foul play is suspected--but just how was the corpse done to death?  The dead man is William Meston, a partner in a Colchester brokerage firm.  It turns out that there are quite a few people who might have wanted Weston dead, for motives both financial (there seem to have business shenanigans going on in the brokerage firm) and amorous (Weston's beautiful wife, Sylvia, had recently left her husband to stay with relations at nearby Loring Grange--see map--where she had a great many male admirers).

Local law enforcement being a bunch of nitwits, they are soon relying heavily on the informal aid of the vacationing Wilson, who in turn informally allows his minion Prendergast to do some investigative leg work for him and to sit in on all his interviews with witnesses and suspects. Golden Age crime writers tended to be rather casual about this sort of thing in the 1920s, don't you know.

endpaper map (showing Loring Grange)

Critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor liked the plot of The Man from the River, but thought the approach too whimsical and discursive. There is a somewhat facetious tone to the proceedings that detracts from the book, in my view, although this ultimately is a matter of personal taste.  But the plot is a rich and complex, with the authors (primarily, with this one, GDH Cole) impressively juggling some two dozen characters.*

*(a list of the characters to go with the wonderful endpaper map would have been nice, especially since some of the names are similar: William Meston, Mark Warden, Wallace Burden).

The last third of the book, when the investigation begins really to focus, is quite good and the solution clever and surprising. The Man from the River is, all in all, a fine example of a twenties English village mystery: a bit flippant, perhaps, but oh! so clever.  Sadly, it is out-of-print, like the other Coles detective novels.

GDH and Margaret Cole were prominent twentieth-century English intellectuals and socialists who over a period of some twenty years in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s published close to three dozen detective novels and novellas/novelettes, as well as nearly three dozen mystery short stories.  GDH, or Douglas, Cole probably wrote eighteen of the twenty-eight novels, and Margaret ten.

The majority of these works concern the exploits of their character Superintendent Henry Wilson, who, like Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French, was one of the most prominent Golden Age fictional police detectives.  For more on the Coles' detective fiction see my forthcoming book The Spectrum of English Murder.