1930s

Mystery Mile

Mystery Mile coverMystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1930.  It is the second in the Albert Campion series; I read the first back in 2015 and did not really care for it. Mystery Mile, however, is the first novel in which the character Albert Campion actually stars having the main rôle.  Anywhere online where I saw anything about “Albert Campion,” I saw mention of how the character is a parody of or very similar to Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy L. Sayers’ work.  I feel like this is some sort of literary-world mantra that has been repeated so much that most readers accept it as fact. In my reading, I can see how readers might draw that conclusion, but at the same time, I do not think the connection is all that strong. Campion is made to produce a lot of chatter, some of it learned, most of it just free-association. It annoys his fellow characters more than it annoys the reader, truthfully. The Wimsey character can keep up a similar monologue, but his is somehow both more intelligent and more forlorn. So, Allingham might have taken a certain tidbit from Sayers and spun it a little differently. I doubt Wimsey is the only source; I seem to recall Sherlock et al. having a bit of – seemingly – irreverent chatter.

Of the bunch of Golden Age mysteries and detective yarns that I have read, Allingham’s are the least serious.  These are not quite the usual leisurely detecting that, say, are parodied in Leo Bruce’s novels. You know the ones – the murder happens, usually in a country manor home, and all the suspects sit around having brandy while the detective plays at various intellectual exercises.  These are also not the sort of heavy, serious stories that feel like the fate of the world is directly waiting the conclusion of the case. These are romps, a word I do not use often.  These are 1930s action/adventure mysteries.  Indeed, and I am going to go out on a limb here, they are entertaining and fun.

Now, the amount of fun and entertainment mileage a reader gets from a novel like this will vary. The story itself is fairly well-written, no one will accuse Allingham of being a lazy writer or a writer that did not have a grasp of plot, setting, characters, etc. However, at times it seems a bit overwritten.  At times, especially, in this particular novel, it seems the author focused too much on the main character and made the rest of the characters run around like panting obedient dogs behind him.  Do not get me wrong, though, this novel does introduce us to a number of definitely interesting characters who stand on their own. We meet Campion’s manservant/houseman, Magersfontein Lugg.  And Lugg’s associate Thos. T Knapp.  The segments of the story involving this latter character light up because Knapp is such a colorful and lively creature.  The scenes with his mother and their little apartment are also rather priceless.  Knapp’s character does play on some of those archetypes and Allingham pulls in those elements with skill.  Specifically, things like his accent, his skill set, his physical movements, etc.

Still, some of the other characters, though independent and not cardboard placeholders when taken on their own, seem unable to do otherwise than follow and obey the main character. They never really develop or show any particular insights or dynamic other than what their face value has already presented to the reader.  These characters, though likeable in their own way, make for some tediousness.

My main complaint about this novel is a singular plot point. I feel like left alone, most of the plot is organized and reasonable. However, there is one piece that were it not so, would utterly collapse the entire book.  So, it has to do with the early night in which guests arrive and a certain character, Anthony Datchett arrives – uninvited.  The housemaid, Cuddy, lets him in and hands his card to the lady of the house. The rest of the household should, at this point, knowing full-well why all of them are gathered the heck out on this swamp, misty peninsula, punt this guy right back out into the night. Literally, why he is allowed entrance to the room, much less the house and why he is allowed to engage with the guests is inexplicable.

My second complaint is really a bit unfair and very minor. In the middle of the book, the main character is given a specific prop. Apparently, he is aware of what it signifies, but no one else is. And there is no way any reader could know because we do not live on the peninsula nor do we have a map of it. So, when Campion reveals its meaning – though the prop is alluded to a number of times and suspense is allowed to build over it – it falls flat. It makes sense, its logical. However, I think this could have been handled better and been an awesome prop as opposed to a fizzled out element.

“Two young females in this ‘ere flat,” said Lugg. “Well!”

“Shocking!” agreed Campion. “I don’t know what my wife would say.”
Marlowe stared at him. “Good Lord, you haven’t a wife, have you?” he said.

“No,” said Mr. Campion. “That’s why I don’t know what she’d say. Get your coats on, my little Rotarians.” — pg. 199, chapter 24

I laughed at the above.  Some readers might find it stupid. Most of Campion’s punchlines are hit or miss, but this one tickled me. Allingham did provide several nicely done action scenes. There is a rooftop house-breaking rescue full of all the excitement readers could want. There is a nighttime escape and evasion late in the book which results in several reveals, but also things like gunfire and quicksand! There are comical moments as well:  being introduced to the rear entrance to Campion’s apartment is priceless.

Overall, this is a serviceable enjoyable read.  Readers ought not take it too seriously and have fun with the little romp.  There is a dog who provides little levity and amusement, as well. I will very likely read the next in the series, which I already own. However, this is not a series I can gobble down – it definitely does better with breaks in between stories.

3 stars

Death At The President’s Lodging

Death At the President LodgingDeath at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart 1906 – 1994) was first published in 1936 and is the author’s first novel in the Inspector John Appleby series.  Innes was an academic; professor of English Language and Letters. This novel was published when he was only thirty years old and while I think it is nearly excellent, there are some minor issues that I think keep it from being a five-star novel.  First and foremost the most important point to emphasize is that this is not an entirely coldly serious novel, it is a bit self-referential and it does seek to amuse via subtle wit at the expense of detective novels in general.  Not just mystery novels, but also academic life (specifically high-brow British).

Throughout the novel the wit and humor is very subtle and very tongue-in-cheek.  Readers who can pick up on subtle nuances and hints are going to have a better time of this one than readers who just like straightforward “whodunits.”  In his very first detective novel, Innes includes a character who is a don of a university that also, under a pseudonym, writes detective novels.  Including such a character is a mark of confidence and also demonstrates the author’s ability to find amusement in such reflective items.

“To be as clear as I can, sir, I would speak a trifle technically and say that your question had a latent content.  The feeling-tone evoked was decidedly peculiar.” And with this triumph of academic statement Slotwiner gave one more ghost of a bow to Appleby and glided – levitated almost, to speak technically – out of the room. – pg. 33, chapter 2, part 3.

This segment, where Inspector Appleby is quickly asking a few questions of the butler, was the first piece of the book in which I laughed aloud.  Its the “technically” part. It is even funnier as you read it in context. Like I said, the humor is subtle and tight.

There are sometimes passages like the below that can be used as a litmus test for readers. You will either snort because you find it amusing or you will find it tedious, stupid, and obnoxious:

The ability to smell a rat is an important part of the detective’s equipment.  Appleby had smelt a rat – in the wrong place.  But he was too wary to take it that a rat in the wrong place is necessarily a red herring:  it may be a rat with a deceptive fish-like smell – and still a rat. — pg. 166, chapter 11, part 1

Subtle humor like this, a little wordplay, will either make readers giggle a bit or they will find it impenetrable and wonder why the author is writing “like this.”  In any case, in this novel there are plenty of suspects, and as the detective often complains, a lot of “light” on the matter. In other words, there seems to be too many clues and too much evidence.  This is kind of a fun twist, again surprising for a first novel, on the detective novel trope – usually, it seems, detectives are missing key clues or are constantly looking for more evidence to prove their theories. The fact that there is an abundance of evidence is a neat element for this genre.

The overall theme of this novel, though, is its academic setting.  As I have said many times, most writers write what they know and Innes was definitely an academic.  We can know this through his biographical reports, but also because of the very accurate and realistic manner in which he portrays the setting and characters in this novel.

Most of the suspects or persons of interest in this novel are dons/fellows/professors.  The ones who are not, are long-time residents and employees of the school. The core group of individuals that are involved are scholars:  to be seen as experts in their field and in academia generally. These are men who have dedicated their lives to their profession, in whatever specific field of study that was, and have been granted the titles and prestige to go along with achieving a high level of success.

Immediately upon beginning his investigation, and at several points throughout, Appleby is struck by the fact that this case is not the “average crime” involving hasty, ham-fisted criminals.  In this case, the suspects and witnesses are all exceedingly comfortable with being interrogated about details, they are experts in explanations, and they are adept at ratiocination. These are calculating, efficient, and sharp intellects that generally do not make errors and cannot be bullied by a gruff interrogation.

Innes does not give us a weakling for an inspector, though. Turns out, Appleby is a graduate of the school himself.  The case allows for a bit of a homecoming, if you will.  This little detail gives the reasonability of Appleby to “keep up with” the dons intellectually and also for his moving around campus with the facility that is afforded a member, so to speak.

I enjoyed considering this situation. It is a daunting and interesting scenario to put your detective up against.  I imagined some of the minds that I know and knew from all of my schooling and I promise I would not want to have to sift through their witness statements or to have to discover which of them was misleading or something. To have to match wits in such circumstances would be intense – but what a fun theme for a novel!

Innes balances out these formidable intellects with a brilliant and lovely segment in chapter eleven that is, no doubt, quite famous among those who have read it.  It is worth, probably, reading the entire book just to come upon this fantastic section.  Appleby has gone about to trace the movements of a couple of the dons on the night the murder took place.  This involves his going to the suburbs where one is likely to find “scholars of enormous age” who live in quiet retreats. The entire segment is worth reading every single word for because it is absolutely beautifully depicted, but the ultimate point is that Appleby has called on a small villa in which lives Sir Theodore Peek.

Appleby found him in a small and gloomy room, piled round with an indescribable confusion of books and manuscripts – and asleep.  Or sometimes asleep and sometimes awake – for every now and then the eyes of this well-nigh ante-mundane man would open – and every now and then they would close.  But when they opened, they opened to decipher a fragment of papyrus on his desk – and then, the deciphering done, a frail hand would make a note before the eyes closed once more.  It was like being in the presence of some animated symbol of learning. — pg. 169, chapter 11, part 2

Every bit of Appleby’s interview with Peek is outstanding for its witty, realism, erudition, and fun. A perfect chunk of writing – including the end of the segment with its utterly truthful response from Appleby. Anyway, this scene is absolutely perfect and I feel like I have seen it, lived it, and see it coming in the future. The description is totally balanced with the necessary realism and the intrinsic characteristic of humor found in brute reality.

From what I have I have written so far, it should be amply clear that I enjoyed the novel and that it contains several uncommon elements to make it interesting and engaging even among mystery readers. However, I am very sad that I have to refrain from giving it the full five-star rating.  The first reason is that it became clear that Innes could not (or would not?) write the character of Dr. Barocho.  This character was removed from the “likely suspects” early on (he lacked means and motive, I suppose), however, if we are to believe Appleby is as thorough and diligent as he is meant to be, then we were deprived of an interview with Barocho – although we did have interactions with him. Unfortunately, the interactions made Barocho seem like an awkward character simply because of the fact that he is a “foreign” item in the setting. It is not that he was written rudely, but that he was not given a fair chance at being either a hero or a villain. So why include him at all except to include a foreigner?

Secondly, the ending is paced a little too suddenly.  One should have expected the denouement to be a bit of a gather round and explain.  However, it seems like Appleby was just a moment ago by the river watching the rowing team and pondering clues. Then, suddenly, denouement. The end. It is not inaccurate or strange, but it is paced too suddenly.  This could be a product of it, indeed, being Innes’ first novel and maybe in the following books this is tamed and tempered.

Lastly, the strongest reason for withholding the fifth star, is the motive-cause of the murderer.   Pargeter would be dismayed. Its not enough. Its not good enough. Its not worth all of the foregoing. It could be valid, naturally, but it was not proven. It was hung upon like shirt is hung on a hanger. It is not sufficiently nuanced.

So, overall, I am thrilled I read this one.  It was a great read and I enjoyed so much of it.  I loved spending time at St. Anthony’s with all of these gentlemen and I did not find Appleby to be some retread of any other inspector.  I liked the setting and the writing and the crime, but yes, I admit, the denouement needed a bit more work. I would happily read Appleby stories again.  Recommended for bright readers, vintage mystery fans, and for readers who do not get frustrated at subtle humor. The reader is not going to be spoonfed – to speak technically.

4 stars

Background to Danger

Background to DangerMy latest read was an excellent novel to read after the misery of the previous one.  Background to Danger (aka Uncommon Danger) by Eric Ambler was published in 1937.  I definitely should have read this one years and years ago. However, in my defense, I have only begun really reading fiction since the late 2000s. So, once again, I find myself commenting on a novel that is very famous and seems like “everyone” has already read. I am late to the party – but it was a helluva party anyway.

I survived a chemical spill this week – nitric acid and oxides pluming throughout the land; was on the edge of my seat wondering how far the chemical situation would develop.  This is an excellent, though not wholly recommended, backdrop for reading an exciting espionage novel. Another thought that I want to pass on is that due to the reduction of rail travel, thrilling moments like these are almost rendered non-existent these days.  I mean, so many vintage novels and stories and films utilize the train and train depot as a setting or a passage for their plots. It is a real shame that this is gone for the contemporary reader.

I read the Vintage Books 2001 edition.  However, I did find in the stacks an old copy of a Dell edition from 1965.  I took a good look at this later and I do not think it has ever been read. There is a bit of tear on the top right of the cover, but the book is spotless otherwise. Inside, it seems the covers have never been opened (and boy, is that font tiny!)  I really like the art on the cover of that one – I would happily buy it as an art print or poster.

“Mr. Kenton, Mr. Kenton, please! I have not been to sleep all night. I must ask you to spare me your outraged feelings.  We are all feeling outraged this morning, aren’t we, Mailler?” He addressed the words over Kenton’s shoulder. — pg. 80, chapter 7

There is not a whole lot that I can share here about this novel that probably has not been explained and discussed in innumerable places. It is, indeed, a super-famous novel and its stood the test of time, I think, extremely well.  Another thought that I had while reading this book was how the villains and heroes in our fiction have actually gotten stupider.  I mean, the novels nowadays seem to have doubled in size, but they are lacking characters with intelligence and cleverness. So, these page count-expansions seem horribly dull.  The tension and suspense needed in a thriller are slaughtered by stupid characters.

In Background to Danger, there is a relatively small cast of characters. The main character, Desmond d’Esterre Kenton, is likeable and realistic; its easy to believe his situation.  Kenton makes logical choices, human movements. He is not simply a tool the author is utilizing for everything else. The villains do push the boundary a wee bit as to their fanatical behavior or their somewhat ridiculous personalities. Not, though, so much as to actually commit the crime of being outrageous and outlandish. They are violent and intelligent adversaries.  I enjoyed every character in the novel because they were all dynamic and interesting. None of them were the stock characters or cardboard cutouts that readers bemoan in fiction.  The two female characters were quite skilled and enigmatic. They were far more than the typical female characters one might stereotypically expect of the time period/genre.

In fact, one of my favorite chapters was 18 “Smedoff.”  Smedoff is an unforgettable character and I could fancy a whole spin-off novel or series from her character.  I am usually very unimpressed and unenthused by characters, generally. But I am adding Smedoff to my list of characters of awesomeness because she’s fantastic.

Her hair was short, henna’d and dressed in innumerable curls that stood out stiffly round her head, so that with her back to the light she looked like a rather disreputable chrysanthemum. – pg. 248, chapter 18.

The story is definitely a suspenseful and tense read. Ambler’s writing is perfect for it – snappy and lively, but not crude or simple. I know that I was gripped by many of the scenes because they contained just the correct amount of description, plausibility, and movement.  There are several sections that provide a contrast to the somewhat “crackerjack” action sections.  For example, in chapter eight, there is a relatively long commentary on Big Business:

It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations.  The foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Businessmen, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be.  Big Business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it.  Big Business also provided the answers. . . For those few members of the public who had long memories and were not sick to death of the whole incomprehensible farce there would always be many ingenious explanations of the volte face – many explanations, but not the correct one. For that one might have to inquire into banking transactions in London, Paris, and New York with the eye of a chartered accountant, the brain of an economist, the tongue of a prosecuting attorney and the patience of Job. . . One would have to grope through the fog of technical mumbo-jumbo with which international business surrounds its operations and examine them in all their essential and ghastly simplicity.  Then one would perhaps die of old age. – pg 94, chapter 8

That was a longer quote than I like to use, but its worth it. Maybe even possibly especially in these fiery days…..

There is a snazzy Mercedes, a whole lot of gunplay, dossiers, and interesting supporting characters to meet along the way.  Also, there are several times that Ambler subtly adjusts the disposition of the reader towards characters – so-and-so is obviously a bad guy, right? oh, so-and-so is clearly witless, right? surely, so-and-so had nothing to do with this situation, right?  And each time the change is not some big ugly hammer-fisted reveal, but a slight adjustment like a few key details now shared and that is it. Its intriguing writing that works perfectly for an espionage story.

Ambler also did the minor details very well. For example, a man absently touching a ribbon on his overcoat, a small but utterly necessary detail about an escape, a minor phrase that later on solves an unsuspected question or a problem. (For example, how a mute person speaks on a phone – hah hah! you thought you had us there!) Also, when was the last time you read the word totschläger in a novel?

263760Truthfully, since I feel like everyone has already read this, I feel people will think me foolish for my enjoyment; you know, latecomer to the bandwagon thing. I like intense stories with dynamic characters and exciting storylines. I know some readers today will not agree with me that these are dynamic characters, but my definition tends to be different. I usually do not think having strong characters is the same as endlessly relating every detail about characters.  Yes, I do think some of the most tense action scenes may push the belief of the reader just a bit, but not, truly, in comparison to most of the moments in contemporary novels! Remember how I started off this review talking briefly about nitric acid? Well, you know, sometimes danger and action is a reality and not so far-fetched!

If anyone is wondering – no, I have not seen the film (1943), though I read somewhere that the author was no fan of the thing.

5 stars

Case Without a Corpse

Case Without a CorpseCase Without a Corpse by Leo Bruce (Rupert Croft-Cooke 1903 – 1979) was published in 1937 and is the second of Bruce’s Sergeant Beef mysteries.  I cannot imagine any of his other stories to be on the level of the first Beef mystery, Case for Three Detectives, but readers who somehow expected the same seem to be a bit disappointed in this second offering.  In my opinion, once you get used to how Bruce is writing these stories – with the poking fun at the whole detective novel industry – you can settle in and simply enjoy the read.

Overall, this novel was an entertaining read this week that did not strain my eyes or annoy me in some other way.  The characters are not very subtle, but they are a relatively fun group to trek around the countryside with.  The story is told from the perspective of Townsend who also chronicled the first Beef mystery. Townsend is a novelist and he hangs about Beef’s location in Braxham in the hopes of getting fodder for his next detective novel.  Beef is a fun character; the foil of all the very obnoxious detectives that most of the famous novels give us.

This is, first and foremost, a comedy. A tongue-in-cheek amusement that actually has a decent murder-mystery storyline as its frame. The humor is redundant and the plot is not a speeding bullet train.  However, it is entertaining and it all turns out right in the end. So, one of the main targets for the humor is the amateur who tags along with the detectives and inserts himself into the investigation.  In this case it is Townsend who is extremely up-front and honest about the fact that he has no business meddling, but is going to anyway.

There was, of course, no reason why I should be admitted, but my reading of detective novels, which had been considerable, had taught me that an outsider, with no particular excuse, was often welcomed on these occasions, especially if he had the gift of native fatuity, and could ask ludicrous questions at the right moment, so I hoped for the best. . . . That, I thought, is one good thing that writers of detective novels have done – taught Scotland Yard to admit miscellaneous strangers to their most secret conclaves. – pg. 62, chapter 8

So, authors who include this random character in order to make the whole story work, using the character as a lever or wedge when necessary, are being mocked here. And it is funny.  Its a dry humor, of course, but it is also a breath of fresh air.

This novel pits the simple, plodding honesty of Sgt. Beef against the modern methods of the professional Scotland Yard Inspector named Stute.  Stute is strict and is constantly demanding facts and efficiency.  His interviews of subjects are clip, direct, and sharp.  He will inevitably interrupt the witness to demand that they tell him the precise time or moment.  Method, facts….these are his tools.

Beef and his constable Galsworthy often take the brunt of Stute’s elitist prejudices and frustrations.  Galsworthy and Beef are outrageously saintly in their good-natured and long-suffering patience. The poking at Galsworthy’s name is repetitive, but several times had me snort. Stute has a need for Townsend’s presence, of course, but he does not spare him, either.

“But how can you spare the time to follow us round? Don’t you ever do anything?”

“I write detective novels,” I admitted.

Stute made a curious and I thought rather hostile sound with his lips. – pg. 165, chapter 20

It is absurd, and Bruce is correct to point out this absurdity in novels.  Townsend ends up spending weeks in Braxham following this case.  Every day paying, presumably, for his lodging, his meals, and endless pints at every pub they pass. Most of the time I am amazed at how wealthy these hangers-on must be in order to just lodge and eat and drink.

While Stute tends to be pointed and sharp with his comments, Beef tends to leave everyone wondering if his comments are genuine or if he is being tongue-in-cheek.  I think that is the most amusing part of the character and, of course, when Beef solves the mystery, we suspect he may have been toying with us all along. But I turned the pages from 217 to 218 and laughed out loud:

Beef shook his head.

“Its all these modern methods wot confuses those chaps,” he said sadly, “Vucetich System, and Psy. . . sy. . . “

“Psychology?”

“That’s it–Sickology.  And tracing this, that, and the other.  And analysis and wot not. I go on wot I been taught.” pg. 218, chapter 26

Yep. “Sickology” had me laughing and currently has me with a rueful smile on my face.

The nice thing about the novel is that it is not all just parody and absurdity. There actually is a rather interesting case – it starts off suddenly in the early chapters and it becomes even more fraught as the storyline continues.  And yes, it is literally a case without a corpse, in a sense. And it all hinges on perspective, which is a truly witty and clever thing for Bruce to have done to the reader. The perspectives of Beef and Stute and a little misdirection.

Recommended for summer vacations and vintage mystery fans.

3 stars


P.S.  My copy of this novel was ⚓ Heather M. Schroeder’s (nee Anderson) (1937- 2017) copy.  Schroeder was a Royal Canadian Navy commissioned Officer who also enjoyed mystery novels.  She was married to Colonel John K. Schroeder, Jr. (1929 – 2021) who was a highly decorated USAF officer.  Unfortunately, it remains unknown to me how many “stars” she gave Case Without A Corpse.

The Late Monsieur Gallet

Monsieur Gallet Simenon coverThe Late Monsieur Gallet (also known as The Death of Monsieur Gallet) by Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989) was first published in 1931.  It is the third Inspector Jules Maigret novel that I have read. I think I like this one the most, so far. Still, I am giving it the same rating as the first that I read, Pietr the Latvian.  I think that Maigret’s brooding, aloof manner really suits this storyline very well. The mystery was revealed carefully enough to complement Maigret’s personality.

These are short novels, so far. M. Gallet was only 155 pages in the Penguin Classics edition (2013) that I read. Its nice and noir, so to speak, how Simenon gives us such bare bones stories with so much character in them. I do not feel like I missed out on anything, that the book was lacking in some obvious respect, or that the story needed to be expanded in any direction.

Some of the phrases and sentences are slightly awkward. They are not maligned, but just ever-so-slightly off. I assume that is the translation, though. I have enough French that I could get through Simenon, but I have yet to see a physical copy of one of these novels in French. So, every once in awhile a sentence is a little less than smooth.  It usually seems fine because it melds with the noir feeling and Maigret’s ever-somber personality.

The story begins 27 June 1930 and it is a hot summer, a fact that seems to wear heavily on Maigret. In the low 90°s throughout the novel.  Maigret, of the Flying Squad, is sent to investigate a murder in Sancerre (just about the center of France, south of Paris). Strikes me as a bit absurd – having Maigret with his imposing stature being in the Flying Squad. He travels to Saint-Fargeau by train in the heat to meet with the family of the deceased. He meets the Madame Gallet and informs her of the situation – but the whole time, he seems distracted and set at great unease by the temper and status of the household.

One of the things that I enjoy about Maigret is how he very much allows his thoughts to take control of his movements and attitude and he is little swayed by the, let us say, smoke and mirrors that appear around him.  From this first experience at the Gallet home, Maigret is never able to shake a feeling of wrongness that pervades his whole investigation. There is also a particular prop that is collected here and remains with Maigret and the reader throughout the novel.

It was so extraordinary that the picture the inspector was constructing for himself made him feel an indefinable anxiety, as if it evoked certain phenomena that shake our sense of reality. – pg. 57, chapter 4

Anyway, once in Sancerre, we meet a variety of other characters as Maigret gets to the typical work of detecting.  We meet an almost-charming landholder and we are pestered by an enthusiastic hotelier.  There is a sort of femme fatale going about who is first described as similar to a Greek statue. The deceased has been shot and stabbed and no one seems to have very much information at all. Maigret’s sense of unease and dissatisfaction with the case continues to haunt the pages.

Every criminal case has a feature of its own, one that you identify sooner or later, and it often provides the key to the mystery. He thought that the feature of this one was, surely, its mediocrity. – pg. 23, chapter 2

In a sense Maigret’s gut-instinct here in the beginning is quite valid, but it plays out in an unexpected and interesting way. I do not want to give away the plot, but mediocrity is such a significant term for this novel.  Ironic and paradoxical.

The plot is relatively unique and I did not really see what had happened until it happened. It is not complex – once it is demonstrated. However, the looming, angry Maigret during the big reveal is a terrible and frightening image. This is not a novel that will restore a reader’s faith and hope in mankind.  There are some crooked and selfish characters in this one that will make readers as dissatisfied and sour as Maigret.  But there IS Maigret – the bulky and brooding detective that ferrets out these ugly incidents of human action and is the reader’s consolation because he, too, is angered and repulsed.

This is a quick read and most vintage mystery readers ought to be familiar with it, I think.  I like the economy of the novel and the strength of the main characters. Overall, while it is not a cheerful read, it is a solid noir-type mystery.

3 stars

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