detective

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 Voice and Other Stories

The VoiceThe Voice by Seicho Matsumoto (1909 – 1992) is a collection of six short crime stories.  This is the first I have read by him, but I absolutely would read everything by him based on how much I enjoyed this collection. I think the height of popularity for him was in the 1960s/1970s.  In 1952 he was the winner of the Akutagawa Prize.

This collection was just the sort of fiction that I enjoy.  One of the characteristics is that the writing is perfectly balanced – like a nice gravy. Yeah, that is an odd thing to use, I know, but hear me out.  Most gravies/sauces are too salty, too fatty, too pungent, too potent, too sweet! Every once in a while, though, you get the joy of a perfectly balanced sauce that is blended, vibrant, and balanced.  There is no one flavor or seasoning that is overpowering. The whole thing is complementary of whatever else is being eaten. In the case of these stories, I felt Matsumoto’s writing was utterly balanced:  he absolutely had the correct scaling between giving us a robust and well-formed story and not over-writing every aspect.  The writing was excellent for short stories.

The genre of crime fiction and noir stories really matches Matsumoto’s writing skills here. At the heart of each story is not some complicated situation with many actors and many victims and misdirects and red herrings. The stories here are from situations in everyday life.  Although there are a few points that rely on coincidence, most of these stories are so ordinary as to be rather boring – were it not for the skill in telling them.

  • Kyohansha – 1965 – The Accomplice5 stars
  • Kao – 1959 – The Face5 stars
  • Chiho-shi o kau Onna – 1959 – The Serial5 stars
  • Sosa Kengai no Joken – 1959 – Beyond All Suspicion5 stars
  • Koe – 1959 – The Voice4 stars
  • Kanto-ku no Onna – 1960 – The Woman Who Wrote Haiku4 stars

The first story, The Accomplice, was stressing me out as I read it. I am a silly, basic reader and I kept shaking my head as I read because the main character’s choices were digging him deeper into the scenario and it was all because of a choice he had made a long time ago that was haunting him and tormenting him.  Now, I am quite sure, many readers would scoff at my tension caused by this character.  But there is no defense, Matsumoto knew how to get his story to resonate with my reading style, I guess. Character Hikosuke was a man who created his own demise, but he made me worry about him and his errors. Without a doubt, I gave this story five stars because unlike so many stories I read, it engaged me quite a bit – and without using exaggerated writing tricks.

The Face has some similar elements to the first story – the main character is, again, the cause of his own struggles. The perspectives of characters and the skewed decisions based on such perspective drive both of these rather mundane storylines. In this story, there are some detectives that really bring the plot to life.  I like Matsumoto’s detectives, because they are not the superhuman Poirots and they are not the pompous Nero Wolfs.  There is a fantastic scene that takes place in a restaurant in Kyoto – an imobo (kind of a yam based dish…) restaurant – that caused my heart to palpitate.  It was so subtly written and yet so immersive.

The Serial started off with such an everyday and mundane beginning that I was sure that it was not going to meet the level of the previous stories. But I was wrong! First of all, I really enjoyed the brief thoughts about newspapers that used to print serial fiction. (Maybe, in a few years, I will simply be reminiscing about a thing called newspapers!) I enjoyed this one a lot because it also played on the characters’ assumptions and perspectives. I really liked the inclusion of some of the details and the way the plot built. The main character is trapped in a situation, so, of course, I pity the character.

Beyond All Suspicion was one of the longer stories, but it kept my interest the full length. Again, a character finds himself in an unfortunate situation and does not make the best choices. He chooses revenge and thinks he can outwit everyone. Poor, miserable character. As a revenge tale it works really well because it demonstrates a revenge that is long-in-coming and not some hot-headed slash-up.  It also contains a bunch of noir elements like nighttime bars, banks, taxi-cabs, and a silly song that becomes an integral part of the story.

The last two stories are the ones I gave only four stars.  I felt that The Voice started off very interesting and super noir.  However, the second part (there are two parts to this one) got a bit too convoluted, though the detective team involved really do keep the reader informed throughout the investigation. I just felt the resolution was a bit too complicated. Or, maybe “complicated” is not the most accurate word here. Perhaps I just did not like the way it all worked out. I think that is accurate.  I felt badly for the victim; she had a lot of nonsense in her life that it does not seem she deserved – plus, she was one of us:  a fellow reader!  Similarly with The Woman Who Wrote Haiku – wow, this was quite a sad story.  The crime was entirely imaginable, though. It was difficult to not feel sad for the poor woman we readers never actually met.  I supposed we ought to be somewhat glad that there were these interested parties (members of a Haiku magazine) who solved the crime.

Easily some of the best stories I have read in this year. The style of writing is exactly what I enjoy and the crime/noir was neither gross nor over-done.  Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was unnecessary. I do not re-read a lot of fiction, but I do think that I could re-read these stories.  I wish I could get my hands on all of the author’s fiction, because he has a lot of skill that makes reading his stuff an enjoyable experience.

5 stars

The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel FawcettIt seems like this book is not as well-known nowadays as it was a few decades ago. I think that is because many readers started to feel that it was dated and when other readers heard that, they became less enthusiastic about reading this novel. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was first published in novel format in 1954. I read the Fawcett Crest 1972 edition with cover art by John Berkey.  I have tested the title out on a few people – they had no recognition of it. But when I said something like: “Asimov’s robots stuff,” there was immediate recall and familiarity (at least of some concept of the book). Frankly, I love Asimov and his works; he’s one of my answers to those tedious questions of: “Who would you invite to a dinner party if you could pick any six people, deceased or living?” I mention this to say, no, the work does not seem especially dated, and yes, I think this is still a vital read. (By the way, the title comes from a rather poetic line in the novel and represents the state of civilization on Earth.)

Of course other readers will disagree; that’s fine, I just hope they hear me out, too.

One of the reasons that I love Asimov is that he loves to take up a challenge and then chew on it until he has made it his. Can science fiction be a detective mystery? Cross-genre fiction that remains top-notch? The Caves of Steel is such an example. Now, in 2019, readers may not be all that impressed. There are dozens of steampunk-westerns, romantic-urban-fantasy, high fantasy-technothrillers, and mystery novel time-travel stories. How many are any good? Well, that’s a different question. But the familiarity of this mixing is taken for granted now.

I love that Asimov writes about robots. But this isn’t the “juvenile” fiction that we might get from, perhaps, Hal Clement or John Christopher and I always associate with the TV show Flipper (1964 – 1967).  Asimov takes the concept “robot” and chews the heck out of it. I think he even forgets that he’s still chewing on it. The result is a concept of robots that spans nearly all of his fiction works in a consistent manner. The concept is detailed and well-examined. It is also lasting, since everybody seems to run into the Three Laws of Robotics in some fashion. Readers, writers, actors, philosophers, historians, programmers – at one point or another the topic will come up and someone will name drop Isaac. The robots are not tin cans with antennas.

Asimov wrote this novel as a detective story. But he has a few sections where he forgets (this happens often with him) that he is writing a story and he gets on a soapbox, using his characters as mouthpieces, and he runs on about some issue. I am sure some readers find this so very tedious. To me, I love it because this is Asimov chewing on that topic. He is never going to simply hand-wave at a concept. Once he gets on it, though, he really has to flesh out this matter before he can move on.

It sometimes seems to me like readers are always complaining about how they want more depth in their novels. They don’t want wooden motives, cardboard characters, and superficial matter-of-fact plot devices. Well, this is how you get depth sometimes; by getting to the crux of the matter and just working your way around it and carving it out – maybe even using some long-winded soapboxes.

Finally, besides the novel having robots and future-science, besides it being a detective mystery, here are problems of overpopulation, complacency, and stubborn-minded societies. If that was all I mentioned about a book, viz. that it deals with overpopulation and how society needs to be more forward-thinking and tend less toward a nostalgic mentality, who would immediately assume I was talking about a 1950s novel? No one, because such a novel could easily be written and popular in present day!

The biggest complaint that I can justify about this novel is that it is a bit dry sometimes. Dry as in a little bitter, a little dull, and maybe needs a little more gas pedal.  It is true that the main female character is really tough to deal with because she is so hideous a caricature. I would hope that we will reach a stage when it is moot to mention that the female characters in 1950s novels are usually written hideously, demonstrating a chauvinistic mentality common in that era. Certainly there will be some louts today who are still a degree more barbarian in their thinking, but a word from me is not going to change that.  Nevertheless, I understand the level to which the female character (Jessie is her name) vexes readers. Literally, in places, it seems like the entire problem of the storyline is all her fault. The fact that Asimov actually names her Jezebel is just ridiculous. But there it is; do not read this novel for a female role model or strong female lead to identify with, okay?

The characters in the novel (excepting robots) are all tempestuous creatures. Readers might find their stubbornness and their opinionated attitudes disagreeable. None of that is because the novel is dated. Go on Twitter and look at any tweet about anything – you will get the same indignant vehemence and triggered psychoses. One of the robot Daneel Olivaw’s neat abilities is that he can study a person’s psyche by cerebroanalysis. It is as pseudo-science as Asimov gets in this novel. The robot is able to sense when/why humans are willing to change their minds or are receptive to concepts and ideas outside of their own. Definitely this is relevant today – from marketing to ethics.

It is difficult for me to dislike an author who understands that humans, including himself, can be irrationally stubborn or pig-headed. Asimov wrote a detective novel – with some science fiction elements. At the same time, he presented an unnervingly unfriendly look at human attitudes and mentalities. Unlike some modern dystopia novels wherein all is lost and we are waiting for a special, unique hero, The Caves of Steel offers a solution. Shunning the “hold on for heroes” ideas, it makes some strong suggestions for us to roll out of our caves and rekindle our curiosity and bravery.

4 stars