Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Parade of Jackets: Theodora DuBois and Sam Zaccone

Reviews of Mabel Seeley and Reginald Hill to come, but in the meantime I thought you might like seeing these Theodore DuBois book jackets.  After a bad experience with DuBois' Death Is Late to Lunch (1940), I rather enjoyed her Death Comes to Tea (1941), so I am giving DuBois' books another look. Plus, I just like the jackets.

From its jacket you might think The Body Goes Round and Round (1942) could have been titled Ride the Pink Horse.

Of course Dorothy B. Hughes made rather good use of that novel title four years later--not to mention that, six months before Hughes, A. B. Cunningham published a mystery titled Death Rides a Sorrel Horse. Evidently a sorrel horse is a copper-red shade of chestnut.

Interestingly, DuBois originally planned to call this novel Death Rides a Flying Horse, maintaining her "Death" series of titles.  I don't know why the title was changed.

It's Raining Violence (1949) presents a classic Salvador Dali-esque image.  Surreal jacket designs cropped up a fair bit in the Forties, but I think this is an exceptionally nice one.

It's credited to Zaccone, who also did the evocative jacket for Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle, as well as Triangle's edition of Edgar Allan Poe tales and Cornel Woolrich's The Black Path of Fear (1944)--a prestigious, if grim, portfolio!

Monday, May 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Reginald Hill

Saturday, May 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

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

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

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

Anne McNeill
Needs to get real.

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shady Doings: The Dusky Hour (1937), by E. R. Punshon

It was dusk, the dusky hour that lingers in the English countryside before the closing in of night....

Murder was certainly a dreadful thing, but also, in a way, impersonal.  It was like a war in Spain, a famine in China, a revolution in Mexico or Brazil, tragic, deplorable, but also comfortably remote....[Now] Mr. Moffatt was beginning to feel vaguely uncomfortable. Murder seemed somehow to be creeping near--too near.  No longer was it merely a paragraph in the paper, something fresh to chat about, an occasion for a comfortable shiver over a comfortable glass of wine.

                                                              --The Dusky Hour (1937), by E. R. Punshon

E. R. Punshon's The Dusky Hour was not well-received by that Bible of detective fiction orthodoxy, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Talyor's A Catalogue of Crime (1971). The COC even condemned the "adolescent name" of Punshon's sleuth, Sergeant Bobby Owen. Apparently, in the view of the COC, sleuths are not to be allowed diminutives (even one that calls to mind actual British slang for a cop).

On the other hand, Punshon was a great favorite of both Dorothy L. Sayers and of Sayers' successor as Sunday Times crime fiction reviewer, her fellow Detection Club member Milward Kennedy. Sayers's rave review of Punshon's debut Bobby Owen mystery in 1933 gave a great lift-off to the Bobby Owen series, while Kennedy declared specifically of The Dusky Hour, "I do not think that Mr. Punshon, another front-rank man, has ever done better work than this."

Concerning this divergence of opinion I side with Sayers and Kennedy.  Whence the divergence between these two pairs of discerning critics?  Likely it arose from their differing aesthetic views. Barzun and Taylor, I suspect, would have preferred a sparer narrative, along the lines of Freeman Wills Crofts or Agatha Christie.  The Dusky Hour is a fairly long book for the period, and Punshon's narrative style is leisurely, his sentences sometimes undisciplined.

Sayers and Kennedy, however, in the 1930s embraced the movement to merge the detective novel with the mainstream, literary novel and they saw Punshon as an important soldier in this movement, one to be celebrated, not castigated, for his narrative style. (Punshon, incidentally, became a Detection Club member in 1933, three years after the formation of the organization; Sayers and Kennedy were founding members.)

Certainly Kennedy commended the novel's plot, which concerns the discovery of a dead body in a car dumped in a Berkshire chalk pit (the novel preceded England's notorious real-life chalk pit murder by nine years) and the net of suspicion that is drawn around the inhabitants of three nearby country homes, including Sevens, the hideous "sham and inappropriate" Victorian Gothic abode of the local squire, Mr, Moffatt, and his young adult children, Ena and Noll. Yet Kennedy also praised the narrative of The Dusky Hour, pronouncing that it was "irreproachable in style" and "spiced by the author's wide reading and acute observation."

Again, I tend to concur with Milward Kennedy. The plot of The Dusky Hour is pleasingly complex, requiring a final chapter of sixteen pages for elucidation.  I greatly enjoyed seeing how Bobby--perhaps I should call him Robert to please the COC--fit all the pieces together. But there also are nicely individuated characters and interesting and unexpected asides that I believe enhance the tale.

For example, Punshon on several occasions amusingly mocks the agrarian conservatism of Mr. Moffatt, as in this passage, which makes mention of a certain English newspaper with a left-leaning, working-class readership:

Mr. Moffatt nodded.  He knew Norris well enough, the constable stationed at the village, a civil, intelligent fellow, though less active against poaching than one could have wished, and reported, though one hoped untruly, to have been seen reading the Daily Herald--a bad sign.

Through Bobby Owen the author also expresses doubt about the efficacy of capital punishment, and indicates that English police actually did need to concern themselves with getting search warrants--surely news to Crofts' Inspector Joseph French, who, with his array of bent wires and skeleton keys, flouts English law in Crofts' detective novels with cheerful abandon.  In The Dusky Hour I was positively thrilled when a character--a chauffeur no less--evicted the police from his abode after they admitted they didn't have a warrant.

On that I say three cheers for the people!  But three cheers also for Mr. Punshon and his Bobby Owen--a likable, young British cop who manages to crack a most complicated case, adolescent name or not.

The Dusky Hour, the ninth E. R. Punshon Bobby Owen detective novel, will be reprinted by Dean Street Press later this year, in both paperback and eBook versions, along with #'s 6, 7, 8 and 10.  The first five Bobby Owen mysteries will be available, on and and in both paperback and electronic versions, in June.

Monday, May 4, 2015

End of Era?

With striking coincidence the crime writers PD James and Ruth Rendell passed away within less than six months of each other, the more politically right James on Thanksgiving Day, 2014, and the more politically left Rendell within a few hours of May Day, just a couple of days ago. (Rendell was hit with her stroke on January 7, less than six weeks after James's death.)

Since the 1970s, James and Rendell routinely have been dubbed England's Queens of Crime, the successors to the Golden Age monarchs Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (and, in most accounts, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh).  You will know the phrase, "the Queen is dead, long live the Queen"--but do James and Rendell actually have successors into today's British crime fiction world?  Are there two UK women detective fiction writers who tower over their contemporaries the way these past Crime Queens are seen as having done?

To be sure, there were pretenders to the thrones of the Golden Age Crime Queens. The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the period traditionally defined as around 1920-1939--though some have urged extending it though the Second World World War or even into the early 1950s--in England came to be dominated, in memory if not necessarily in absolute fact, by four "Crime Queens": you know the drill--Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.  In a play on the schoolhouse vowel mnemonic A-E-I-O-U, and sometimes Y, I like to call this C-S-A-M, and sometimes Tey.

Although Josephine Tey these days arguably is the most critically-praised of these women writers, it is hard for me to accept Tey as a true Golden Age Crime Queen, in part because she only published two detective novels during the period, as traditionally defined, one under  the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, the name under which she published her mainstream novels and plays, including her great stage success Richard of Bordeaux.  No one back in 1939 would have included "Josephine Tey" as a "Queen of Crime," although Tey's mystery novel A Shilling for Candles (1936) intriguingly was adapted--or, more accurately, almost entirely reimagined--by Alfred Hitchcock and his screenwriters as the film Young and Innocent.

Georgette Heyer and Gladys Mitchell are sometimes advanced as Golden Age Crime Queens, but they have never quite made it into this queenly company. (Heyer's mysteries were, with one exception, plotted by her husband, while the distinctly eccentric Mitchell, whom I personally greatly enjoy, has always been something of an acquired taste, even among Golden Age English mystery fans.)  The name of Patricia Wentworth also comes to mind, but her Golden Age output consisted primarily of mysteries that are more thrillers than classic detection. (Additionally her Miss Silver detective novels, for which she is best-known today, some dismiss as "cozies" that don't rise to the level of the other works of the Crime Queens.)

If we extend the Golden Age from 1920 to, say, 1945, followed by a sort of Silver Age of Detective Fiction, let's say 1946 to 1985, where detection-focused mysteries increasingly had to compete with other modes of mystery fiction, we see James and Rendell emerging on the scene in the middle of that period, with the classical debut detective novels Cover Her Face (1962) and From Doon with Death (1964), and definitely moving away from the strict puzzle form in the later 1970s and the 1980s.

James exiled her most famous series detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, for nine years, after Death of an Expert Witness (1977), producing only two crime novels in the interim, Innocent Blood (1980), a bestselling non-series suspense thriller that made James' name in the US, and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), a sort of modern Gothic pastiche with James's second-string "girl sleuth," Cordelia Grey (abandoned after this book). In 1986 appeared James' A Taste for Death, a sprawling Dalgliesh detective novel that set the pattern for all her later mysteries, which evinced more interest on the part of the author in heavy narrative detail about characters and setting than in fleet-footed plotting ingenuity.

During this period it seems to me that James's commitment to the "classic," puzzle-focused Golden Age detective novel became more a matter of trappings than substance. We have the the elements people often associate with Golden Age mystery--closed settings, elite suspects, detailed investigations and great deference paid to the Queen's English--but of the nine James mysteries published between 1986 and 2011, is there one with a really memorable puzzle plot?

For her part, Ruth Rendell, with the publication of A Demon in My View (1976) and A Judgment in Stone (1977), began increasingly shifting away from classical detection to the psychological crime novel (what I am now seeing termed "domestic noir").  1986 also was a hugely important, transformative year for Rendell's work, in that Rendell that year launched her "Barbara Vine" mysteries, dense and rich works that recall Victorian sensation novels.

Rendell's Wexford novels got squeezed not only by these massive Vines, but by the "psychological" Rendells. Additionally, in the Wexfords themselves the puzzle plots were pushed aside to some extent by Rendell's increasing preoccupation with social issues (many of the later Wexfords explore at length such societal problems as racism, poverty, environmentalism and the abuse of women).

Probably no pair of English crime writers reflects the changes occurring in the world of British crime fiction from the 1960s to the 1980s better than James and Rendell.  Other writers could be added, of course, such as Margaret Yorke (1924-2012), who in the 1970s abandoned fair play detective fiction for the psychological suspense novel, and Reginald Hill (1936-2012), whose detective novels beginning in the late 1980s came more and more to resemble mainstream novels (though Hill in his later period still managed some ingenious plots as well).

The mentioning of Yorke and Hill reminds me of other great Silver Age crime writers who have recently passed, including HRF Keating (1926-2011) and Robert Barnard (1936-2013). Happily Catherine Aird and Peter Lovesey are still writing new mysteries, but it does feel like an era is passing. In the 1990s commentators increasingly spoke of the classical detective novel with a sort of affectionate contempt, portraying it as hopelessly obsolete in an era when not only its traditional practitioners, like James and Rendell, were moving away from it, but popular younger crime writers were increasingly devoting themselves to spinning gritty, violent tales of urban noir.

Ian Rankin: king of the hill

When I wrote Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012), I felt very much on the defensive in arguing that we needed to take a closer look at the world of Golden Age of detective fiction and challenge the dismissive myths and legends that had risen round it. It seems now that the publishing world is more receptive to this argument, however. I hope that, as another era of crime fiction history passes, the success of publishing ventures like the British Library's classic crime collection may signal a broader re-engagment with classical detective fiction, beyond the work of the Crime Queens. I've always believed there was an audience for it, would publishers but try.  Perhaps this new interest in turn will inspire more younger crime writers to try their hands at true detection and puzzle plotting in their own work.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Seriously? Intellectuals and the Golden Age Detective Novel 1: T. S. Eliot

We often hear about twentieth-century literary great T. S. Eliot's praise of Wilkie Collins' classic nineteenth-century sensation novel The Moonstone, but, oddly, we rarely hear much in genre studies about his views of detective fiction from his own day. We rarely hear, for example, that in the 1920s Eliot was a great reader of contemporary crime fiction and that his favorite detective novelists from that decade were R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts (two writers, as we have seen, praised by Raymond Chandler--particularly RAF).  He also was impressed with detective novels by S. S. Van Dine and J. J. Connington and with Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

T. S. Eliot
Eliot reviewed mystery fiction and wrote theoretical pieces about it in the 1920s in The Criterion, the literary magazine he edited.  He even came up with rules for detective fiction--or rules of "detective conduct"--that run along lines similar to those of Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine (Eliot's rules actually preceded the others).  I wrote about all this in an essay in Mysteries Unlocked (2014), called "Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction," one of two essays on intellectuals and detective fiction in this collection (the other, by Henrique Valle, will be discussed later on this blog).

Eliot's Twenties enthusiasm for puzzle-oriented detective fiction should not really be surprising, as such writing was tremendously popular among intellectuals at that time. Yet often today people write about Golden Age detective fiction as if it were loathed by intellectuals until Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers came along to make it acceptable to brainy folks.

P. D. James
Here's P. D. James in her charming 2009 book Talking about Detective Fiction meditating on Golden Age detective fiction, Hammett and Sayers (the second quotation comes from a piece on Sayers originally published by James in 1978):

[Hammett] raised a commonly despised genre into writing which had a valid claim to be taken seriously as literature.

To her admirers [Sayers] is the writer who did more than any other to make the detective story intellectually respectable, and to change it from an ingenious but lifeless sub-literary puzzle into a specialized branch of fiction with serious claims to be judged as a novel.

The idea that puzzle-oriented detective fiction was not "intellectually respectable" and was a "commonly despised genre" is belied by the fact, I think, that intellectuals spent so much time talking about it in the period.  To be sure, some intellectuals never were interested in detective fiction and did despise it, but there were others, like T. S. Eliot, who became quite attracted to it and even theorized about it, in that way intellectuals have.

I think the crux of the matter for people like P. D. James, however, is revealed in her words "taken seriously as literature" and "with serious claims to be judged as a novel." Take note of the word serious. While many intellectuals enjoyed puzzle-oriented detective fiction, while they desired to know just as anxiously as members of the common masses who murdered Roger Ackroyd and who was behind the Starvel Hollow Tragedy, they didn't believe that Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and Crofts' Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) were serious novels, but rather entertaining tales.

T. S. Eliot: an admirer of detective fiction puzzles

Writers like P. D. James and Ruth Rendell didn't want to be thought of as "mere" entertainers but serious novelists, and grew restive with the Crime Queen labels and the inevitable comparisons to Agatha Christie.  On the other hand, some genre theorists, such as the late Jacques Barzun, argued for decades that crime fiction properly belongs to the category of fiction known as the tale and should be respected as such, without aiming to be taken seriously as higher literature.

There have always been intellectuals who respected ratiocinative detective fiction as intelligent and respectable entertainment without demanding that it aim for greatness as serious art.  Indeed, T. S. Eliot thought it was tricky to try to merge detective fiction with the mainstream novel. Although he allowed that Wilkie Collins succeeded splendidly with The Moonstone, a number of others, he believed, had failed in the attempt.

Avatar of Alibis: Freeman Wills Crofts

Of Freeman Wills Crofts Eliot wrote, "Mr. Crofts, at his best...succeeds by his thorough devotion to the detective interest; his characters are just real enough to make the story work; had he tried to make them more...he might have ruined his story."  Yet even Crofts in the 1930s would get the urge to produce more "serious" detective novels, as we see, for example, with Antidote to Venom (1938), recently reprinted by the British Library. The desire to be taken seriously is a powerful human motivation and crime writers have been no exception in this regard.

Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)

It is sad news for me to report that Ruth Rendell, with the late P. D. James one of Britain's duo of post-Golden Age Queens of Crime Fiction, has died.  Four months ago Rendell suffered a stroke that left her in critical condition; I had heard nothing of her condition since, so the news of her death is not a surprise to me, though it is still a shock, as it always is when one learns of the passing of an author whose books one has read and enjoyed for years.

Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)
I believe the first Rendell I read was an Inspector Wexford, probably Shake Hands Forever (1975), in the mid-1990s, probably around 1994 (I will have to check this).  I know I was immediately impressed by the Christie-like misdirection in some of her earlier Wexfords (A Sleeping Life, 1978, was another one by her that I read early on).  By the time I had started reading Ruth Rendell, however, she had moved with her then-current work more and more into the realm of the psychological crime novel, both under her own name, and a pseudonym she created in 1986, Barbara Vine.  Under the latter name she produced some of her best work in the 1980s and 1990s, including the masterful Asta's Book (1994), one of the great modern crime novels.

Rendell grew increasingly restive with the puzzle aspect of the her Inspector Wexford novels (something Raymond Chandler, not one of the mystery genre's most natural plotters, compared to "coolie labor") and by the 1990s was lengthily exploring social issues in the Wexfords.  To my mind her Wexfords of the 1990s--Kissing the Gunner's Daughter (1991), Simisola (1994), Road Rage (1997) and Harm Done (1999)--still have much enjoyment to offer puzzle fans, as well as those who enjoy the broader focus of the crime novel.

Rendell's last Wexford detective novel, No Man's Nightingale, appeared in 2013, nearly a half-century after the first, Rendell's classic debut novel, From Doon with Death (1964). A new Rendell crime novel, Dark Corners, completed by Rendell shortly before she was felled by her stroke, will appear later this year.  It's an appropriate title.  Rendell illuminated the dark corners of the human mind for over a half-century, holding fans in her narrative grip through 66 novels and 7 original short story collections.  Like the work of her equally prolific predecessor, Agatha Christie, Rendell's work will, I believe, last as permanent fixtures in the crime fiction canon.  RIP Ruth Rendell.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Shady Doings: The Dusky Hour (1938), by E. R. Punshon

"Do you think young [Oliver] Moffatt left the lipstick behind as well?"
"Couldn't say, sir, if that's likely," answered Bobby.  "I've never seen him.  It might be true of some at the Cut and Come again [an arty, and disreputable, London nightclub]."
"Well, he's not that sort, anyhow, that's definite," declared the colonel.

                                                                 --The Dusky Hour (1937), by E. R. Punshon

The lipstick in the case lay next to the murdered man, who was found shot dead in his car.  Is the above an unexpected transvestism reference?  Either way, this is an interesting novel that, although disliked by Jacques Barzun, was highly praised by Milward Kennedy, a member of the Detection Club and successor to Dorothy L. Sayers as Sunday Times crime fiction critic.  Sayers too was a great Punshon fan.  More on the novel, which is to be reprinted this year, on Saturday.