1930s

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives – Leo Bruce

Recently, discussions and thoughts on this novel had been circulating/re-circulating around my small corner of the internet. Motivated by what I read, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down this novel (paperback version by Academy Chicago Publishers 1997). Its a 240-page read, which was perfect for my end of the year reading in the middle of all the usual events and such that take place. Originally published in 1936 by Leo Bruce; that is a penname, though. The author is Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903 – 1979) and this is the first in the small “Sergeant Beef” series of novels.

This is quite a well-known work and most fans of vintage/classic British detective novels have already read it or know of it. There is not a lot I could possibly share about this novel that the many better-informed mystery readers of the internet have not already discussed.  I am no expert in mystery novels – I read them for entertainment and I am forever unable to guess who-done-it. But I can mention a few of my thoughts here.

This is something of a country-house murder. The three detectives in the title refer to three quite well-known fictional detectives. Told in the first-person from the character Townsend’s perspective, the novel is also a decent murder mystery. Most readers should enjoy the parody of this type of country house murder combined with locked-room.  Townsend knowingly provides the tag-along simpleton position that allows the famous detectives to pontificate and show-off. Its really quite funny.

The author does a bang up job on representing each of the three detectives, though I think he overuses Lord Simon and underuses Smith. Still, he accurately parodies the famous three – without, somehow, going too far and making the detectives completely foolish. In a sense, mocking these beloved characters – but respectfully and tastefully, I suppose.

One of my favorite sections is in chapter 8:

I had learnt that after a murder it is quite proper and conventional for everyone in the house to join the investigators in this entertaining game of hide-and-seek which seemed wholly to absorb us.  It was not extraordinary for there to be three total strangers questioning the servants, or for the police to be treated with smiling patronage, or for the corpse to be pulled about by anyone who was curious to know how it had become a corpse….. I really wondered how these queer customs had arisen. — pg. 59

This amused me because it is so very true – and even until present day where you can see it all the time in TV serials (e.g. Monk, Castle, Columbo, etc.).  Detective fiction has its ups and downs, flaws and idiosyncrasies.  Perhaps the largest is this situation wherein all the laymen, neighbors, and whomever else happens by, all become part of the “detective squad.”  And murders are more like adventure quests wherein any of the usual horrors and miseries of a sudden death are forgotten.

Some reviews about this novel:

At the Scene of the Crime’s Nobody Invited the Fourth Detective (2011)

Cross-Examining Crime’s Case for Three Detectives (2016)

My Reader’s Block’s Vintage Sunday Mystery (2011)

The Reader is Warned’s Reflections on Parody in Detective Fiction (2018)

While I was amused throughout, there was one laugh aloud moment that I want to share. In chapter 6 (in which we meet Picon), Picon and Townsend examine the room where the murder occurred. Sergeant Beef is doing some detecting there as well. Picon in true-to-Poirot-form exclaims: “Ah, the good Boeuf!” This was such a funny moment for me, I laughed and laughed. Its so perfectly Poirot and so funny even if you don’t know much of Poirot.

Overall, an super entertaining read. Perfect for fans of vintage classic detective fiction. Bruce was clearly an able writer with a good skill for parody. I like that his parody does not turn cruel or nasty. I also enjoyed how he mocks a multitude of aspects of the genre – not solely the “amateur experts.” I can definitely recommend this to most readers.

4 stars

Peril at End House

perilPeril at End House is my latest read Agatha Christie novel. I read The Mystery of the Blue Train earlier this year, but I did not write a review. That is the sort of novel that does not really need to be looked into any further. Christie’s personal troubles during that novel do seem to have spilled over into her writing of it – it is not a very good novel. There really is not much I can add to what has already been said about it dozens and dozens of times. However, Peril at End House was very good and seems to represent Christie back to form.

Peril at End House was published in 1932 and it is the sixth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. The story takes place in Cornwall, which is a place I have never been, but suspect would be nice to visit. In other words, I am immediately more kind to a novel that is set in a location I am interested in. Hastings is in this novel, too. He was sort of written out of the novels for awhile, so the fact that he is in this one makes me a happy reader.

There is an involved and heavily-populated storyline here. Lots of characters, it seems, which means a lot of suspects.  But I think a strong argument can be made that a large part of the novel depicts the relationship between Poirot and Hastings. I hesitate to say that in 2017. Makes it sound untoward. Poirot is very insufferable in this novel – to those that find him annoying. No matter how obnoxious or arrogant he is, Poirot never seems to get on my nerves. However, I can see how he vexes others, including Hastings. The interactions between Poirot and Hastings are often the best parts of the novel. I do feel bad for Hastings – whenever he gets the upper hand on Poirot, Poirot quickly redirects their attention to something else instead of conceding defeat.

Hastings is so naive and harmless, sometimes I wonder how readers are not more annoyed by him than Poirot?

“You would say that! It would appeal, I know, to your romantic but slightly mediocre mind. Buried treasure – yes, you would enjoy that idea.”

Poirot is tough on him, but only because Christie is trying to be tough on the reader. Hastings sometimes represents that reader that wants their stories to be as fantastic and outrageous as possible. On one hand a reader seeking for wild entertainment and romantic elements – on the other, Poirot seeking methodological deductions. Describing Hastings to another character (in front of Hastings), Poirot says:

“He is, to begin with, reluctant to see evil anywhere, and when he does see it his righteous indignation is so great that he is incapable of dissembling.  Altogether a rare and beautiful nature. No, mon ami, I will not permit you to contradict me. It is as I say.”

That does describe Hastings perfectly and succinctly and it is significant to note that Poirot calls this both “rare” and “beautiful.”  Its also aggravating and appalling. But Poirot seems to enjoy having this personality around him, even though it frustrates him. Just as, we know very well, Hastings is sometimes thoroughly frustrated with Poirot.

The situation in the resort town St Loo is that it seems someone is trying to kill “Nick” Buckley. Buckley is a rather rambunctious young lady who has ownership of End House, a dilapidated old home around which the resort area has developed. Buckley is called “Nick” as reference to her grandfather, who owned End House, and their close relationship.

Nick has a number of guests, friends and acquaintances, that seem to revolve around her home. The lives of these folk has a rather bohemian feel to it, they are all in this little town drawn there because of some connection to Nick, but yet, it does not seem that they are really there because of her, either.  There is a feeling of lazy, youthful socialites.  This is the most difficult part of the novel for me:  why are all these people here? It feels like some weird parasitical group-up with these people.

Christie pulls off something like what she did in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but not exactly. It works, though, because it does suit the character’s temperament, making it seem genuine and obvious. In reality, Christie is really skilled at making the reader fall for whatever she wants them to. The reader will follow Christie like a lemming and then be surprised whenever Christie pulls the curtain aside.

Overall, the storyline is interesting, the characters are really well written and distinct, and Poirot is totally obnoxious. It is not the greatest mystery ever written, but it is a charming read.

4 stars

The Carter of La Providence

The Carter of La ProvidenceThe Carter of La Providence (also known as The Crime at Lock 14 and Le Charretier de la Providence) by Georges Simenon is one of the Inspector Maigret novels. I believe it was the second one.  It definitely is the second one I have read and I have mixed feelings about it. It was first published in 1931 in Belgium.

Having grown up on an island and amidst rivers and lakes, having wiled away many an afternoon watching boats come through locks, I did appreciate the setting of this story. But I like the setting much more than the story itself. Simenon also made the weather lousy.  So, not only is the story set on the Marne Canal in Northern France, it is raining, muddy, and generally dismal. A perfect location for the bulky, sulking main character:  Inspector Maigret.

There were two or three patches of sky where the sunlight still lingered, but the rain was coming down more and more heavily. -pg 49

Maigret is as expected – rock-solid.  He ponders a lot and does not share one bit of what he is thinking.  He seems demanding and grumpy.  Maigret interrupts people when they talk, stomps around in the mud, and thinks heavy thoughts. So, if murder was not grim enough, when Maigret is added to the storyline, things get heavy.  Why do I like Maigret? Well, probably because unlike Poirot or Lord Wimsey, Maigret is the noir figure. Unlike Whimsey’s hyperactivity and Poirot’s “little gray cells,” Maigret seems to use brute force to conquer mysteries.  But not physically.  It is as if Maigret confronts mental challenges with a bull-like resistance and then overpowers them. From Maigret, I can see derivatives in Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther characters.

Unfortunately, Maigret kept a little too much to himself this time around. I feel that because the reader was not privy to most of Maigret’s deductions, it made Maigret’s movements seem very random.  Further, the actual resolution seemed a bit too convoluted. Or something. Its just not a resolution that I found reasonable.

Also, the basic ingredients of the story did not appeal to me. Old weird people on a “pleasure boat” seemingly idle, drunken, and pointless sicken me. Bohemian leeches, hang-ons, bored socialites… none of these people are ones that I want to have anything to do with. Still, I admit that they add to the heaviness of the setting; the novel feels full of sluggish muddy elements. A character is describing one of the yacht-riders to Maigret:

“A dead weight.  A beautiful woman who is incapable of existing except on a couch, smoking cigarettes and drinking sweet liqueurs.  She started the day she first came on board and has been doing it ever since. . . . Oh sorry:  she also plays cards. I think it’s the only thing that really interests her.” – pg. 56

This is good writing. From this description I can really picture this creature. I was not around in the 1920s/1930s, but it seems like this sort of character was everywhere.  I imagine such a person to be something like a flapper-chick who has gone rotten and just oozes over chaise-lounges and smokes endlessly.

The resolution seemed a little less resolving – and maybe that is Simenon’s fault.  He set up some wonderful red herring-suspects and he gave us a truly weird character swirled in the middle of the muddy locks to wonder about. But the solution seemed almost unrelated or cobbled together.  I just didn’t like it. Came too quickly, from out of nowhere, and did not go in a more expected direction, I guess.

Overall, it’s not really a good read. However the unique setting and the brooding Maigret manage to make the story worthwhile. I want to read more Maigret, but this one is unnecessary. Its a shame because…. locks….

2 stars

Rogue Male

rogue-male largeFirst published in May 1939, Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household is another good read that NYRB publishing has returned to bookshelves. I believe this NYRB edition is 2007. It is a slender novel of merely 208 pages, but it contains a very interesting plotline.  It is a very masculine read, whatever that may mean. ‘Masculine’ being the adjective that I think best describes it – so it will fit on that “Man’s Man” bookshelf alongside Hemingway, Bukowski, and Haggard.  The plotline is in that group of novels that include assassinations, fugitives, and secret agent novels. So, think along the lines of Joseph Conrad and John Buchan.

In a nice pseudo-noir fashion, the reader never learns details about the characters – details such as names, birthdays, and other specific data. However, instead of the novel simply being a chase novel, Household writes intriguing and often insightful assessments of psychological importance. The main character, a member of the highest-level of British society is an avid sportsman. He is no debutante amateur in hunting; throughout the novel we are given plenty of examples of how well this character understands hunting and its associated skills.

Anyway, the novel is supposedly composed of the character’s writings as events occur – or soon thereafter, as in a journal.  The combination of the character being well-educated have possessing a high status in society allows for the journal to be quite a bit more psychological and thoughtful than one would expect from a hunter. Or at least, more than I would expect, which would be merely like a sniper’s log.

One of the key points throughout the novel is that the reader must question much of what the character has written. This is because as the novel (journal) progresses, the character also peels away self-deceptions and discovers more about his own actions and the motives behind them.  Therefore, when we first read that the character finds himself with his firearm on the compound of a political figure, maybe the prima facie reasoning needs to be questioned. But who can have time for that – because immediately, the chase is on.

This shooting trip of mine, started, I believe, innocently enough.  Like most Englishmen, I am not accustomed to enquire very deeply into motives.  I dislike and disbelieve in cold-blooded planning, whether it be suggest of me or of anyone else.  I remember asking myself when I packed the telescopic sight what the devil I wanted it for; but I just felt that it might come in handy. – pg. 8

Do you believe this? The reader, throughout, might question the truth-value of those statements. Well, the plot moves onward:  the main character is chased by the agents of the dictator – chased through the woodland in which he was found and then further chased throughout his own country. The hunter becomes the hunted.

Of course, the novel touches on all the expected points:  the devolution into an ersatz animal-state, loneliness, survival, etc.  All of this is done well and I think it is even more interesting coming from the very English point of view of the character.

Motives are, more or less, what this novel is about – under the rather well-constructed surface story of the hows and wheres of the fugitive and his narrow escapes. In fact, it is not until much later in the novel that the character, in his journal writing, tells the reader a sketchy and detail-less moment about a former romance – how does this romance influence the character’s actions? Further, does the character himself even know?

I wanted to give this novel four stars.  I found it very interesting and highly entertaining. However, there are several places where “you just gotta be there.” By this I refer to points in which the main character is describing things and its just too difficult to really picture what he is describing. I mean, there is a general image – but the details are too messy or undefined. I feel the author is very clearly describing something he knows well, but even for all of that, its too much for the reader to mentally build a perfect representation of the scene or item. But if the reader is at all hindered in this closely followed hunt, then I must deduct a star. The thrill of the hunt is based on the “being there” and if the reader cannot truly picture every fibre of grass and every scent of mud, then it is not as good as it needs to be.

Finally, Asmodeus. The cat. He is eternal. I love cats. I want to give the main character a gold star for understanding them. And avenging them.

3 stars

Why Shoot a Butler?

Why Shoot a ButlerThis year I have mainly read vintage science fiction novels. While that remains my preferred genre, I do like to read just about everything else as well. However, I admit, the other genres usually do not entertain me or engage me as successfully as the science fiction. So, giving space and aliens and the future of humanity a break, I spent some time in the household library digging out non-science fiction novels. Georgette Heyer’s (1902 – 1974) Why Shoot a Butler? was one of those. I believe it was first published in 1933. I believe it is Heyer’s second true-detective story, however she did write several other novels prior to this one.

Anyway, I enjoyed this novel as expected. It took me a moment to get used to the writing style and the diction of the characters. For one thing, the characters are all very sarcastic and until you get used to their remarks, it can be odd. The main character is introduced to the reader as he is en route to a country manor house, surly because he will arrive late for supper.  Heyer is upfront about Frank Amberley; she shares with us at several points that he can be abrasive and unlikable. Well, I never disliked him – but I never came to side with him, either. He is pompous and arrogant. Nevertheless, he is the detective in this story (his actual occupation is that of a barrister.) And he stumbles upon the murdered butler in chapter one.

Anyone who enjoys settings in the English countryside with manor homes and game preserves and little cottages will probably appreciate Heyer’s work here. There does seem to be a dizzying amount of twisting, half-paved country roads.  Still, she does not give in to long descriptions detailing the lawns, gardens, rooms, and decor of the area. Maybe, just maybe, I could have read a few more lines about all of this. Not much more, mind you.

It is good that the title is a question. This is not, as they say, a “fair-play” novel. I don’t mind that at all. Heaven knows I am not getting paid to be detective! I want to be entertained, not play Inspector! I am given to understand that some readers dislike not having an honest shot at solving mystery novel crimes. The title is a question and throughout there will be a lot of questions. Heyer provides a sketchy crime and a number of possible suspects. More than anything, however, the motive is hidden from the reader, and I could see that being somewhat frustrating.

“Why did he come snooping up here? Don’t say because he was tight, because I shall be sick if I hear that again.  If I went bursting into a strange house and tried to shoot up the place and then said I was tight by way of excuse, would you be satisfied with that? Like hell you would! That chap wanted to shoot up someone to start with.  Then he had four or five drinks and thought: By Jove, I’ll go straight off and do it.  Don’t tell me that just because a fellow’s three sheets in the wind it’s the natural reaction for him to get hold of a gun, stagger off several miles to a house he’s never been near before, and turn it into a shooting gallery. It’s childish.”  – pg. 109, Chapter Seven

This sort of sentiment is probably going to be felt by the reader, too. It always seems like events keep happening but we don’t have any idea why they should keep happening other than there is a reason out there somewhere.

Also, while I do not think there is a significant amount of gunplay, it did amuse me that Frank Amberley seems to be quite often coming upon handguns and depositing them in his coat pockets. Heyer never bothers to tell us what he does with them; I think it safe to assume he does something sane and reasonable. But it is fun to imagine this fellow walking around with every pocket containing a handgun.

Most readers seem to like Heyer’s characters – she seems to be well-known for creating likeable, interesting, and curious characters. In this novel the characters are somewhat face-value, no one undergoes a grand change in personality or development. They are all unique in their way, except for the police force.  All of the policemen are absolute bumbling idiots and are constantly being mocked for it. My favorite character in the novel is Lady Matthews who is Amberley’s aunt.

“Can’t talk in a public lounge, dear child.  So unwise. They always do it in bad thrillers, and it invariably leads to disaster.” – pg. 224, Chapter Fifteen

The majority of the novel contains a lot of back-and-forth movement. Driving, riding, pedaling, and walking back and forth to the three or four main locations. Honestly, it gets a bit dizzying and annoying. The dénouement is overly long – I stopped caring long before the characters stopped talking about the events. Sure, I guess it explains everything, but in a drawn out way that is unnecessary.

Recommended for fans of English countryside mysteries and vintage mysteries. I would gladly read Heyer again. I will miss Lady Matthews, though…

3 stars

Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian - Penguin Classics, 2013

Pietr the Latvian – Penguin Classics, 2013

I finished Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989).  This novel is the first of the Inspector Jules Maigret novels and it goes by a variety of titles.  It was allegedly written in 1929, serialized in 1930, and then published as a book in 1931. Anything I have skimmed regarding this novel is certain to include a caveat to the effect that (a.) this is not Simenon’s best work; (b.) this is not the ultimate basis of the Maigret character; (c.) Maigret’s characterization was heavily influenced by the real Inspector Marcel Guillaume.  Such statements seem more important than they are. I do not see how a reader needs to be warned and petitioned for mercy before they actually read the book. Also, those facts do not seem entirely germane to the value of this particular novel.  I read this book – and this is the book that I will review.

Anyway, the next time someone asks me for an example of noir, I think I may suggest this novel.  It matches quite well with the judgment that I have made regarding the definition of noir.  I think a lot of people simply suggest gangster novels, crime novels, or gothic-esque novels.  However, this novel really exemplifies what I mean by noir.

The writing style of this novel is exceedingly spare and pared-down.  Absolutely no long-winded descriptions or grandiose pontifications on minor aspects of any element of the novel.  There are no chapter-long ruminations on any relevant (or irrelevant) topics.  In fact, there are definitely some points where I felt a little bit lost or perplexed. Maybe a hair more detail would have been okay.  Or maybe my difficulty was based on the age of the novel and the fact that I read a translation.  Not that this ruins much of anything at all, I am just being honest and considering readers approaching this novel as they would any other.

We meet Maigret straightaway in chapter one.  He is in his office with the pipe, which becomes as essential to him as his limbs, and the fire-blazing stove.  Maigret is reading telegrams and files regarding the movements and description of Pietr the Latvian.  Maigret is on the move fairly soon afterwards and what we need to know about him, Simenon tells us directly.  Simenon tells us that Maigret is a hulking, sombre dude.  He intimidates others, he does not make unnecessary speeches, etc.  We do not get to know Maigret’s internal monologue or thought pattern.  Readers will not watch Maigret link each and every facet of this case together like some sort of jigsaw puzzle.

At first Maigret meant nothing to me.  Just a bland and somewhat predictable detective.  However, in chapter eight, the character really grew on me and I found myself much more concerned for his well-being and pursuits.  All of a sudden, and maybe without a lot of finesse, Simenon gave us a more developed Maigret personality. It was rather obvious, but I don’t always need the convoluted approach, either.

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science.  But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall.  In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent. – pg. 38 Chapter 5

The novel contains a lot of characters and what seems like half-built plotlines and/or clues.  I do not know if this is because it is an early novel or because Simenon chooses not to get bogged down in every little detail and history.  While this can be confusing, it is also the source of a lot of the noir-feel.  Being a non-omniscient reader has its plusses and in a crime novel, it worked really well.

The dialogue format is probably the thing that will take the most work for readers.  Simenon does not write out every syllable of conversation – it is as if he almost uses just symbolic logic/keywords.  I can see this being annoying and a bit too bare for many readers.  On the other hand, I can think of plenty of readers who would be relieved that the actual speech of characters is reduced to necessary nouns.  Either way, I think this, too, makes the novel noir.

Regarding the actual crime – it is difficult to say how many there are.  Maigret gets the case due to a specific crime, but there is a lot more going on than just one incident.  And this is very relevant. The character whose role I really was not entirely clear about was Mortimer-Levingston. Throughout the novel he seemed very random.  Now, the ending of this novel was unexpected and definitely far from some cozy-mystery novel. I think the last few chapters bespeak a lot about the character Maigret and also the kinds of stories that Simenon was going to try to write.

This is a good novel and there is a lot of value in reading it and knowing about it. It is not a great novel. It is a worthy read and one does want to read more stories about Maigret.

3 stars

Castle Skull

Castle Skull - John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

Castle Skull – John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

 I finished John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull this evening.  It is the second Carr novel that I’ve read and also the second in the series starring Henri Bencolin.  It was originally published in 1931; I read the April 1960 Berkley edition with the super-awesome cover artwork.

The previous Bencolin novel that I read was a “locked-room” mystery.  It was decent; I gave it three stars.  I liked a lot about the novel, but it had some sections that did not work so well.  I really wanted to get to this novel sooner, but I ended up waiting until late in December to get to it.  The cover artwork really makes me happy and I am glad I have this edition. It reminds me of the first Three Investigators novel and also Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat.  I like haunted house mysteries and stories. I would probably get a kick out of those haunted dinner party events.  Anyway, I made sure I did not raise my expectations too high prior to reading this novel, so I was ready for anything.

This novel surprised me with how good it ended up being.  Two things stand out for me:  the juxtaposition of characters is top notch excellent work and the macabre ambiance of the setting is great.  The basic storyline is a brutal murder that takes place on the bank of the Rhine River.

The novel begins masterfully:  our star characters, Bencolin and Marle, are at a restaurant on the Champs Elysées drinking Vichy water and other things.  The first line of the novel is:

D’Aunay talked of murder, castles, and magic.

That is how you start an interesting novel!  It seems a bit obvious, I suppose, but on the other hand – the reader must read the next line, just to see what follows that opener. And so on.  And through this novel, I have decided that John Dickson Carr certainly knew how to write for his audience.  Throughout the novel, there are dozens of paragraphs and lines that jump out at the reader as just really nice pieces of prose. Really effective writing bits. Witty and interesting sentences that make this novel worth every cent.

I really do not want to give away a single tidbit or spoiler or detail that might ruin the reading experience for another reader.  So, I am being somewhat careful in what I write in this review.  Nevertheless, I can share some basic things.  Once again, the story is narrated by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s pal from the first novel.  Bencolin himself is aloof, mysterious, and rather arrogant.  He’s described by characters as somewhat sinister – but definitely a man’s man. He’s a bigger fellow who can drink folks under the table, match wits in chess, gunplay, and poker.  Reminiscent of Christie’s Poirot, Bencolin can be disdainful and he purposely leaves the other characters (and, therefore, the reader) out of his deductive processes.  Marle seems a bit more intelligent in this novel than he did in the first.  But by no means is he a simpleton in either novel.

The plot pits the murdered character, an actor, against his neighbor and nemesis, a very sinister magician.  As Bencolin and Marle arrive at the scene to investigate, another official from the locale arrives. This is a German official who has a long-standing (not always friendly) competition with Bencolin.  So, the juxtaposition of these sets of characters is presented and the reader should really appreciate this.  At the nearby home of the murdered actor, a group of people is present – kept there by the police during the investigation.  These people are a variety of socialite-types who ran in somewhat of the same circle as the actor and his heirs.

There is a flavor, there is an old, dangerous, twilight charm, about the warrior Rhine when it leaves its lush wideness at Bingen.  Thence it seems to grow darker.  The green deepens almost to black, grey rock replaces vineyards, on the hills which close it in.  Narrow and widening now, a frothy olive-green, it rushes through a world of ghosts. – pg 12, Chapter 2

I’ve mentioned that the setting is awesome in this novel. And I mean so, even if I think it could have been utilized even more.  Maybe this is the sort of thing we expect Orson Welles and Hitchcock to collaborate on.  A castle that looks like a skull – on the deep-rooted heritage of the Rhine river – amidst difficult and steep terrain – with tumultuous weather patterns…  this novel has setting galore.  But it is not just dark and evil – there is also the brilliant juxtaposition of the two “houses.”  Like the actor vs. magician and detective vs. inspector, there is also the  house vs. house conflict.

All of the characters have intense personalities.  Sometimes, I did think that they may all be too melodramatic – but then, that’s why I read novels – not for banal and mundane characters!  There is a character in this novel, though, that is one of those super-memorable characters that the reader won’t forget anytime soon.  It is a little significant to remember this novel was published in 1931 and then to place these characters in that time period.  I say this because one of the characters would have an overwhelmingly potent personality in contemporary society – back then, this character would have been shocking. Literally: a real scream! A hoot! An undeniably hysterical classic! A cigar-smoking, Poker-playing, cocktail-drinking larger than life character! Reading just to meet this character (if not also for the mystery) is worthwhile.

I like the overall plot and throughout the novel there are a number of red herrings, diversions, and intrigues subsidiary to the actual crime that bulk out the plot. Some of these are interesting, some are a bit stereotypical.  But all in all, they are interesting and valuable to an entertaining story.  The “active” parts of the investigation are well written and the macabre setting is not overdone.  Marle is a good narrator. The reveal of the deduction is shocking and graphic (a bit gory, even). It’s really not for the tame.  But the last chapter of the story is also surprising and left me with a “ha! how about that!” sort of feeling.

I definitely recommend this novel.  It is not a speedy read, but it is not laborious.  Readers of vintage things, mystery fans, and fans of Clue should all enjoy this one.

5 stars

The League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men - Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men – Rex Stout

The second Nero Wolfe novel was published in 1935.  I read the previous Rex Stout effort and so was really excited to get my hands on this book. I ordered it straightaway and read it through.  I think I liked it just as well as the previous novel – but this one seems to be written better.  I zoomed through the first couple of chapters right away and it was immediately fun to hang out with Archie and Nero again.

The voice of the narrator, Archie Goodwin, is very unique.  His narration is interesting and helpful and seems consistent to his character. Also, every once in awhile Archie gives a turn of phrase that makes me read it twice because it is so quirky or unusual.

My first impression of Nero Wolfe was not that I disliked him, but that I felt a lot of other readers would dislike him.  Or misunderstand him. I think he is a hoot – although I am still occasionally taken aback by some of the banter and sniping that he and Archie share. Nero Wolfe (after these two novels) is a bit of an enigma and a person one cannot help but be curious about.  I also feel that Wolfe would say there is actually nothing to be curious about.  Anyway, one of my favorite moments is the “trick” Wolfe uses with Spenser’s poem “The Shepheardes Calender” – and when Archie gets sarcastic later on with Wolfe about this “trick.”  It’s so witty.

Descriptors that come to mind referencing Wolfe are easily “obese” and “smart.”  However, I think a very necessary ingredient to his make up is a bravado/confidence.  He is not really a person who is capable of false humility or insecurity.  And it is this odd confidence found in an agoraphobic that really interests me qua reader.

“Don’t badger me. I read it because it was a book.  I had finished The Native’s Return, by Louis Adamic, and Outline of Human Nature, by Alfred Rossiter, and I read books.” – Nero Wolfe to Archie, pg. 18; chapter 2

This semi-churlish quote from Wolfe amused me.  But I, of course, had to look up the names of these.  I am pretty sure other readers probably run right past them. I cannot let a book reference in a book go un-researched.  Anyway, I discovered that Alfred Rossiter was a relatively famous and successful astronomer who married Ruth Stout. Ruth is Rex Stout’s sister.  Kudos to Rex for planting this little reference in his novel!

I like the way Stout writes because I can be in the scene with the characters.  Somehow, using Archie’s voice and Wolfe’s uniqueness, I can easily form images of the scenes in the novel.  Everything is so clear for me to imagine.  I contrast this with so many novels that, try as I might, I can only summon up some vague picture that may not really be accurate to the author’s conception.  In this novel, I was right in the Wolfe’s office, in the roadster with Archie, and in the Inspector’s building.

Anyway, this is reputed to be a major example of a psychology-filled mystery. I think that is clearly accurate.  There’s a lot of “psychology” going on in this novel – not just with the overall criminal.  As far as “scientific psychological analysis,” that’s something different.  But fiction-wise, this novel presents characters that are not just handed some flat and barren motive that allows the heroes to hunt them down.  Archie and Nero are astute with examining people and describing the other characters in terms of psychological-driven ideas, mores, motives, and moods.  It’s very well done and deserves most of the praise given to it.

However, I think this novel is a bit long. The mystery, that is.  There are a lot of mis-trails and re-directions.  They all seem connected and some seem needless. And maybe it is not exactly the most logically-precise wrap up of a mystery.  But that is okay, because it is quite entertaining and a truly interesting read.  Once again, mystery readers will not be disappointed whatsoever.

4 stars