1920s

The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery - Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery was first published in 1929.  It was written by “Ellery Queen,” which in this instance is the collaboration of two cousin-authors:  Frederic Danny and Manfred Lee.  (Those names are also aliases.)  This is the first of the Ellery Queen novels – in this instance referring to one of the major characters in the series.  Ellery Queen, the character, is a mystery writer and amateur detective who assists his father, Richard Queen, a New York City police inspector.  “Ellery Queen” has also been used as a house name and a title which anthologizes mystery stories.

Overall, I expected better.  I was anticipating a better story.  Compared to stories about Lord Peter, Poirot, Nero Wolf, et al., this novel does not fare too well.  The first chapter is interesting and sets up what could be a taut and unique story.  However, the characters started to annoy me and I was very underwhelmed by the pacing of the story.

The Queens, father and son, really get on my nerves and annoy the heck out of me. The father, Richard, is supposedly an older man with a benevolent smile and gentle demeanor. Frankly, I find him churlish, moody, and immature.  The son, Ellery, reminds me of a big oaf.  He is allegedly broad-shouldered and tall, is constantly in a near-haze mentally, and fiddles endlessly with his pince-nez. His entrance into the story comes with some excitement – as if he is an intriguing character.  However, all he does is mope around and whine. He’s like an oversize turd who tries very hard to seem detached and wise. And between the father and son is a clearly co-dependent and exhausting relationship.

Not to mention Djuna, the non-white teenager that somehow Richard managed to bring into their home and subjugate into being a sort of manservant/cook.  Djuna is often compared to a monkey who simply adores his master, Richard. There’s a whole lot of weirdness about this.

Some readers have complained that this novel is “dated.”  Generally, I take “dated” to mean that it is difficult to read and enjoy without contextualizing it within a distant time period/setting.  Being “dated” does not necessarily mean anything, though, because there are heaps of works that are read and valued even though they are not recently published.  I do think we should read this novel (and others like it) with an understanding that it was written in 1928/1929.   Telephones operated differently and there was no internet. However, even for that dating it is difficult to accept as matter-of-fact the motive for the murderer in this story.

Anyway, the good parts of the novel are the actual setting and the props. I like murders in darkened theatres! I like that the theatre was presenting the stageplay “Gunplay!”  I like that there are a variety of characters – from rascal kids, to plump doormen, to sharp-witted policemen.  I like the props:  top hats and bowlers, evening capes and walking sticks, spats and decanters.  Heck, I am more comfortable with all of those items than with what I can accessorize with today!

I think the novelty of this story is that the authors supposedly put forth enough evidence/clues for the reader to race against the detectives and solve the crime.  Well, I guessed part of the solution – simply because it was the obvious.  I did not guess the murderer – or his motive – because that is a bit of a stretch.  And the “false leads” seem too convenient qua false leads.

The book is spoiled by the awfully annoying Queens and the horrendously slow pacing.  The pacing is so slow that chapters go by with literally nothing happening.  Put it this way:  most of the time I want to telephone the Queens up and tell them to “do something!”  instead of sitting around re-tracing their steps or sitting around snorting their snuff boxes. C’mon, get up and do work!

Anyway, I am glad I read it – to say that I read it.  I may try Ellery Queen again sometime, but no time soon. Really, this is only for the vintage-novel reader.

2 stars

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Clouds of Witness

Clouds of WitnessClouds of Witness is the second Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers.  It was first published in 1926.  It is also the second novel that I have read in the series.  Once again, I am pleased by the effort and absolutely love the main character.

There is a whole lot that appeals to me in this novel, much of it the same as with the first novel.  I continually see similarities between Whimsey and myself.  He and I have that 100-mph mannerism that just can make the most boring story (a murder at a lodge on the moors) an exciting and interesting caper. And Bunter – dear, wonderful Bunter – is once again the epitome of perfect manservant.

The other characters in the novel are interesting as well.  The reader is allowed to come onto this property on the moors and associate with several members of the Whimsey family.  We get to know a lot more about Peter’s sister, Mary, and their brother Gerald.  Gerald, by the way, is the accused in this murder mystery!  We also learn that Gerald is not as droll as we had originally thought!

In this novel, Sayers both supports and mocks the peerage.  There are discussions on “the working man” versus the gentry.  We hear from a variety of people regarding this manner and are witness to the spectacle that comes from accusing the Duke of Denver of murder.  Sayers pokes fun at the pomp and circumstance and yet also shows an astute respect and caring toward the lordships.  It is definitely a novel that readers fond of Great Britain’s “houses” won’t mind reading.

Sayers’ ability to manage the characters and plot while also turning a phrase, providing misdirections, and giving subtle and witty amusements is impressive.  It is one thing to write a good story, it is quite another to write one that also has little asides of humor and show brilliant wit.  There are several sections wherein I had to visibly grin while reading because it was so skillfully written.

Some people might find Lord Peter to be a bit unfocused or random.  They may even think he is unable to be serious – he often seems to derail, interrupt, or wonder aloud.  I know this frustrates people – because I tend to feel that frustration levied toward myself more often than not.  Like Peter, though, I have a loyal group of friends that join me on all of my adventures.  Peter’s biggest help in this novel (besides the indefatigable Bunter) is Charles Parker.  Parker and Whimsey begin by combing the grounds of the property looking for clues:

“Serve him glad,” said Lord peter viciously, straightening his back.  “I say, I don’t think the human frame is very thoughtfully constructed for this sleuth-hound business.  If one could go on all-fours, or had eyes in one’s knees, it would be a lot more practical.”   pg. 48, Chapter 3

I know that in this series, Lord Peter is supposed to “age naturally,” meaning, I think, that he doesn’t stay the same age for five novels and have 85 cases to solve per year.  Nevertheless, I have been unable to imagine him as more than in his late 30s. I know there have been some TV episodes, but I feel their portrayal is too elderly.  I don’t care what the chronology looks like – Peter is so youthful and energetic, he cannot be played by some grey-haired actor.

Doing more sleuthing, Whimsey is retelling part of the story to Parker, and Peter interrupts himself to ask Parker if he knows how to spell ipecacuanha.  Parker does:

“Damn you!”  said Lord Peter.  “I did think I’d stumped you that time.  I believe you went and looked it up beforehand.  No decent-minded person would know how to spell ipecacuanha out of his own head.”  pg. 103, Chapter 6

It really is not a stretch to hear myself saying those lines.  In Chapter 4, there is a small interchange between Peter and Bunter regarding Bunter’s mother – and it is priceless and amusing!  Whimsey surprised to learn that Bunter has one!  Nevertheless, though Peter surely aggravates the heck out of his friends, Chapter 12 demonstrates the loyalty and love his friends and family have for him.  And, honestly, even in dire circumstances, Peter still is sarcastic and obnoxious.  But in an almost self-effacing manner. Whew! Scary moments in that chapter! I am not any more endeared to moors having read this chapter.

With that instinct which prompts one, when depressed, to wallow in every circumstance of gloom, Peter leaned sadly upon the hurdles and abandoned himself to a variety of shallow considerations upon (1) the vanity of human wishes; (2) Mutability; (3) first love; (4) The decay of idealism; (5) the aftermath of the Great War; (6) birth-control; and (7) the fallacy of free-will. This was his nadir, however.

Our plucky hero picks up his spirits and trudges onward across this miserable moor.  I confess I probably have had my share of moments wherein I have paused in some mundane task to consider these kosmically heavy concepts.

The resolution for the mystery is given in the end chapters of the book during the court case.  Part of the storyline of this novel is that this trial involves a Duke.  So, of course, Sayers wants to show us the rigamarole of the court case involving the gentry.  I am just not a fan of courtroom dramas/stories/mysteries, etc.  Make no mistake:  these chapters are exceedingly well-written and are actually very entertaining.  I am just not a reader with patience for such things.

4 stars

Metropolis

MetropolisI read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write.  Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed.  Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing.  Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926.  Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker.  In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film.  As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel.  However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie.  Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda.  I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.”  I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.”  I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story.  An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984.  I do not really agree with any of this.  Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines.  I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself.  I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years.  I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person.  Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.”  This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times.  And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio.  Not written-English.  Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration.  I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work.  But after awhile, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.

The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (e.g. Maria, Paternoster).  Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times.  And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity?  In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it?  Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption.  But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel.  And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars.  There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times.  Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat?  Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it?  Is this a warning? A call-to-arms?  In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here.  At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance.  In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille.  She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls.  She does not wimp out when she gets to this part.  However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13.  In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary.  In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow.  Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers.  Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose.  These two chapters are exceedingly well done.  [Chap. 12:  Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]

Overall, this is a very weird read.  And it is not very accessible.  It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this.  And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

4 stars

Whose Body?

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers; New English Library; 1988

Well, the first book to be read and reviewed in 2014 happens to be a Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) novel.  Whose Body? was first published in 1923; I read the 1988 New English Library edition, which I picked up used for $1.80.  This novel is the first of Sayers’ novels, therefore it is also the first in her series starring the private amateur detective Lord Peter Whimsey.

I have been reading older books rather than freshly published ones.  I am trying to especially bulk out the 1920s and 1930s. Why? Absolutely no reason whatsoever.  Random idea.  And I am not really serious about it, just something I am in the process of doing.  Hence, Sayers falls into this category.  She also falls into the category of early detective mysteries. But beyond that, one of the last things that a very old professor (Emeritus and with a lecture series named after them) was working on before they really retired [this can be taken in several senses] was commenting on the religious and philosophical ideas found in Sayers.  This may seem totally non-academic, but I must gently remind you this was more so busywork and senior-minded hobbying; the years for true academic research long past.  At the time I witnessed this work, the professor was 80 years old.  I was always slightly curious about their interest in the author/works.

Well, so, I started reading this novel with zero expectations. I did not know what to expect and I did not demand anything from the novel.  It starts off a little jarringly, I have to say.  The main character, Lord Peter Whimsey, is en route somewhere – but we join the story as he is requesting the cab driver to turn around and return to his house.  At first I was not sure what to make of the character or the story. I was really not sure that I would get through this novel in one piece. But Whimsey grew on me. And then I realized why I was becoming so fond of him….. he reminds me of me.

Seriously.  I didn’t realize it at first, but then I couldn’t help but notice. He’s not a dandy or a fop.  He’s this eccentric, extremely witty, aristocrat. A bon vivant, which is more or less…..well… me. He is an expert in foods and wines and wardrobe and he LOVES BOOKS and folios and incunabula.   Whimsey is 100mph and is a lot of excitement. Maybe this likeness tainted my enjoyment of the novel just slightly.  But also, his mother reminds me of my mother a bit, too.

“You see, Lady Swaffham, if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you’ve got to do is to prevent people from associatin’ their ideas.  Most people don’t associate anythin’ – their ideas just roll about like so many dry peas on a tray, makin’  lot of noise and going nowhere, but once you begin lettin’ ’em string their peas into a necklace, it’s goin’ to be strong enough to hang you, what?” – Lord Whimsey, Chapter 7

Here’s the story sans spoilers:  a body is found in the bathtub of a certain simple-minded little man named Thipps.  Thipps has no idea who this is or how the body got into his bathtub.  Also, a self-made man of some repute has seemingly gone missing, wearing nothing but his birthday suit.  Lord Whimsey investigates with the help of his friend in the police, Detective Charles Parker and his totally awesome butler/valet Mervyn Bunter.  I suspect if I had a butler, he would have to be exactly like Bunter. And, really, Bunter is as much to credit for the resolution of the case as is Parker and Whimsey.

Sayers writes this novel utilizing lots of dialogue.  You have to follow along with discussions more so than descriptive prose.  This is okay because the majority of the characters say witty, interesting things.  One of the difficulties, though, is that Sayers does include dialect and slang and such.  So, unless you are British and/or reading aloud, it can slow your reading down just slightly until you get used to the “sound” of the voices.  I can see how this might drive some readers batty.  I got used to it and pressed onward without incident.

Sayers was criticized for the novel having a slightly anti-semitic tone.  Well, I am not going to really get into that – I do see how the criticism came about – certain characters do make some typically obnoxious statements, but I do feel it is par for the course with the setting and times of the novel.  It does not affect the novel in any major way, though.  Also, there is another detective that is investigating the case (Inspector Sugg) and it is hysterical whenever Whimsey and Parker mock him.  They obviously do not bear him ill-will, but they do get a kick out of mocking him.  So, the reader probably should take most of this novel on that level.

Anyway, I am definitely going to read more of Lord Whimsey’s series.  I am glad I read this one and I did have fun with it. Wrote down three quotes and laughed aloud a couple of times.  Also, I might start shouting for Bunter.

3 stars

The Big Four

TheBigFourThe Big Four is Agatha Christie’s fifth Hercule Poirot book, fourth novel.  I enjoyed it, Poirot was a lot of fun, and it was good to have Hastings back in the story.  It was originally published in 1927 and some of the language is not as politically-correct, as we say nowadays, as one would think.  Christie was, obviously, a spunky and sharp-witted woman.

The Big Four is perfect for people who are new to Poirot, I think, and don’t really enjoy cozy mysteries.  This is really a mystery/thriller and really seems a prime candidate for some film company to use as a summer blockbuster.  Adjust a few things, get a couple solid actors, and shazam! a movie.   The storyline speeds along much quicker in this novel than in the previous ones and there are more physical confrontations.  In the previous novels, Poirot and Hastings do not really deal with situations in which they are in true physical danger.  Generally, they are involved in intellectual battles.

The Big Four is actually an international group of anarchist criminals.  There are four and we are to believe that they have a hand in many worldwide occurrences.  In fact, today, we would call them a terrorist cell.  Christie, I feel, was trying out Poirot on a big stage – international events and crimes that affect the world, not just some small UK village.  I kind of want to ask Christie:  “So, how do you feel about Poirot and Hastings on this level?”  I think Poirot is much more charming on a smaller scale, but I do want to say that this story seems to make Poirot even more unbelievably impressive.

At points, the reader will truly feel that Christie is pulling a bit too much from Doyle’s Watson, Sherlock, Moriarty, Irene setup.  And I’m okay with it.  Other readers may want to complain about using a recycled idea.   Another small complaint:  Hastings rushed off to Argentina, but in this novel it seems like he is in England with Poirot (and for no other reason than hanging out with Poirot) for at least two years.  I mean, what was all the googly-eyed romance about his wife about if he can take off to England for years?  This was a bit odd.  On the other hand, yeah, we missed Hastings, so who cares about his silly wife in South America?

I probably should give this novel 3 stars.  However, I am giving it 4.  I cannot help myself… I still love Poirot and Agatha is a Dame Commander, so who am I to criticize?  I think I will try to cast this movie in my head this evening. Should be a fun supper activity.  And thinking about a book after the last page is done good and read is a good sign!

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but OF COURSE I have to give this FOUR stars!)

4 stars

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger AckroydThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Agatha Christie’s fourth Hercule Poirot book, third novel.  It was published in 1926 and it is the third Agatha Christie book I have read.  It is actually one of Christie’s most well-known books, particularly because of the twist in the method of telling the story – which, if you have not read the book, do not read about it – but go ahead and read the actual novel.  I would tell you – but it would wreck it.  So, this review will have to seem a bit ambiguous.

I kept myself innocent of knowledge about the novel and therefore, I was duly surprised and impressed by the famous “twist.”  Also, I give it five stars because of the twist and the continuous wit throughout the novel.  I really enjoyed the novel.  It’s almost a “locked room murder.” Hastings is alluded to, but we learn he has gone off to the Argentine.  Taking his place is the narrator of the story, Dr. Sheppard.

Poirot is really well-developed in this novel.  Much more so than in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links.  Christie gives a more complete picture of Poirot – and he is slightly less frustrating than in the previous two novels.  He is witty, amusing, and solves the mystery with panache.  How can you not love Poirot?

This novel has so much wit in it. Dry humor. Sarcastic humor.  Amusing characters.  I absolutely love the characters of Dr. Sheppard and his sister.  Their interactions are wonderful.  Also, I really think Christie describes Dr. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, with such insight and perfection that Christie must have known a person in real life such as Caroline.  And don’t we all?  After all, one thing that I do like about these characters in this novel is that I feel I know someone like each of them.  To include the tedious Mrs. Ackroyd.

One of the many amusing lines, from chapter 14:

“The English people, they have a mania for the fresh air,” declared Poirot. “The big air, it is all very well outside, where it belongs.  Why admit it to the house?”

I really chuckled at this because Poirot is such a stubborn and enigmatic character – plus, Christie loves using him to represent stereotypes of the French (Belgian) and English.  She’s poking fun at all of us and it is a real hoot.

I recommend this novel for everyone .  Sure, even if you are more shrewd than I and figure out the twist long before the ending, I think you will still enjoy the wit and setup in the novel.  The characters, for sure, are worthy.  If you are like me, and enjoying being surprised by the twists and turns of detective novels, you’ll like this one – it is a classic one that influenced the detective novel henceforth.

5 stars

The Murder on the Links

The Murder on the Links – Agatha Christie

The Murder on the Links is the second “Poirot” novel by the famous author Agatha Christie.  It was first published in 1923.  I read the first Poirot mystery last year and I finally acquired and finished this novel.  I think that the novels are both good – but this one is somehow more developed.  For one thing, the most significant development is that Poirot is more vibrant, talkative, and active.  In the previous novel, there are moments when the reader might believe that Christie expected the character Captain Hastings to be the major character, supported by the aloof and quirky Poirot.  In fact, in the first Poirot novel (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), Poirot is not even a really likeable character.

This novel starts off very interestingly – Poirot receives a letter requesting him to come to France under the employ of a man who thinks that his life is in grave danger.  Immediately, the characters are off and running, traveling to France.  One of the things I liked about this novel was that the action, so to speak, was immediate and was continued throughout.  None of the pacing was off.

My main complaint about the novel is that the twists and turns, red herrings and deductions seem a bit overwritten.  I feel that the latter half of the book has too many twists and turns for it to be a perfectly written mystery.  Nevertheless, the twists are explained fairly well and Poirot is always fun to follow around.  Still, I think the mystery was a bit too entangled and there were too many “deltas.”

I also think that the title is a bit deceptive.  This book really has nothing to do with golf whatsoever.  I do not know, really, what a mystery about golf might entail (I’m not really a golf fan), but I do think it would have to involve more than someone dying nearby a golf course that is being constructed.  Maybe even there could be a golf club?  Normally, I do not comment on book titles, but this one probably should have been entitled something different.

However, this is not to say that this is a bad novel.  It is a fast read – the pages fly by and the story is interesting and engaging.  Fast reads are not necessarily good reads, but it doesn’t really speak well of a book if one describes it as tedious or undeveloped.  I mean, honestly, who in 2013 would think that following a goofy detective and his sidekick around in the early part of the 1900s would be engaging?  Let’s face it, for the majority of the book, Hastings and Poirot do a lot of walking back and forth, traveling to and fro, and making general circles in the township.  Nevertheless, I was following right along and actually interested in where characters were walking to next!

Poirot has a little competition in this novel, as well.  Another “star” detective is called to the case.  This detective represents the very detail-oriented empirical approach to detective work. Poirot (as he will remind you endlessly) pays evidence only a fundamental concern, instead focusing on the psychologies involved in the case and working from cause to effect.  The detective, Giraud, is as obnoxious about his method as Poirot is about his own.  Therefore, there is a new twist to Poirot’s interactions, which is a neat counterbalance. I also really dig Poirot’s insistence against “sentimentality” and passion.  Although basing his methods on psychology, Poirot refuses to draw conclusions based on emotion, sentimentality, or passion.

Hastings is a bit of a fool, though one truly believes he has a good heart and really does his best.  This character’s role is to support Poirot, clearly, which sometimes means doubting Poirot.  The dynamic that develops between the two characters is worthwhile reading.

Overall, I am thinking this is not Christie’s greatest novel.  Still, it is a very interesting and charming read. The novel is not perfect, but it is a satisfying read that allows the reader to build their study of one of the most famous detectives.  I would really recommend this to anyone who would like to read a short novel that has wit and charm. It probably is not something a person who likes a chance to figure out the mystery would read – after all, Poirot never gives you all the clues.

4 stars