mystery

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

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy Part I)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

I was uncertain if it would be best for me to write a review on each individual part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy or if I should just write one big glopping whole. I decided to write individual reviews because a single review would probably be too long for a blog post and it remains true to the manner in which Auster originally published these works. City of Glass was originally published in 1985 and there has been a great deal of critical work regarding it proliferated. Everyone from Derrida-fans to Lacan-fans to Raymond Chandler-fans has felt the need to dig into the text. Deconstruct the text. Analyze the text. Etc. You know what I mean. I do not know that I have much in the way of original theory to add to all that has been said, but I can still share my thoughts.

This work is metafiction, I guess. Or postmodern. Or post-postmodern. It has been interpreted a hundred different ways. There are Freudian interpretations and ones that rely on Maurice Blanchot, etc. What is this book about? Is it a metafictional account exploring identity? Literature? Intertextual relationships? Cityscape architecture? Can one remain thoroughly neutral regarding this work and just comment on it – without, that is, seeming simple?  Well, sure, I guess it is all of the aforementioned. One of my biggest complaints about works that are so-called metafiction is that they always seem forced. Always, these works seem exaggeratedly wrangled to fit into a category dubbed “edgy” or “counter-cultural” by the intellectual debutantes or the created media industry.  If you force a work to match some presupposed concept, how can you then tell me that it escapes the boundaries that are supposedly “artificial” and imposed by the Establishment? Etc. Anyway, this story, while slightly forced into being metafiction, isn’t terrible. It is obvious and rather experimental-feeling, but I have read worse examples of the pseudo-genre.

First point:  I believe that this novel being situated in NYC is significant. Readers who are familiar with NYC (I am from NY) will have a better relationship with the context than readers who live in Iowa and have never left Iowa.  If I am asked why I believe this, I know I ought to be able to support my claim, but like many things in NYC, I can only say that “it is simply an understanding that is earned through experience.” Auster’s writing is spare and even. The fact that he spends several paragraphs just describing routes through the City, naming streets, pinpointing directions, is a fact that should not be dismissed.

Second point:  The plot, as in most metafiction, is secondary to all of the other elements of the story.  So, readers who are enthused to read this novel need to understand that this is not a plot-driven story like most traditional fiction.  The plot is vague and unimportant. There isn’t a set up, climax, resolution. There isn’t, really, an “ah-hah!” moment. Any details given are not about the plot. Therefore, there are a whole heap of readers out there who will dislike this novel and/or misunderstand it.

Those points being stated, I want to assure readers that if you like metafiction, you will probably enjoy this novel. Just like the best examples of the pseudo-genre, it has that noticeable ouroboros structure. Or, if you like, it feels like it is devolving and evolving – being deconstructed and then reconstructed throughout. This is what turns off most of the general readership; the layered, self-referential style that the novel uses.

In the first paragraph we read:  “In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences.”  And this is largely how this novel will operate.  Backstory and careful development of the background are absent – because they are not the important part of this style of writing. We meet the main character (and even calling him that is arguable, I realize) in the second paragraph:

As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance. We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old. We know that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both his wife and son were now dead.  We also know that he wrote books.  To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels.” – pg. 12

Basically, this is information will remain the extent of our knowledge of Quinn. Quinn writes mystery novels (think serial/house name style detective novels) under the pseudonym William Wilson. By page 12, Quinn adopts another persona (but mainly the name), viz. Paul Auster [sic].  To keep it clear at the start:  Daniel Quinn is a mystery novelist. He writes under the name William Wilson. In the first chapter of Paul Auster’s work City of Glass, the main character, Quinn, assumes the name Paul Auster.   There are several other name-changes and references that occur, but I do not want to spoil the book for readers. Needless to say, this is partially why it is so often said that this book’s theme is one of identity.

Auster [real author] wants to shake the reader’s reality up. So, like PKD and Italo Calvino, the linear and the standard are tossed out. Auster wants you on unsteady ground and wants the reader to question WHO is the character, WHO is the author, WHO is real, WHO is just a nickname?  The everlasting job of postmodernism:  to deconstruct, shatter, and disturb conceptions of reality/identity.

It was a woman who opened the apartment door.  For some reason, Quinn had not been expecting this, and it threw him off track.  Already, things were happening too fast.  Before he had a chance to absorb the woman’s presence, to describe her to himself and form his impressions, she was talking to him, forcing him to respond.  Therefore, even in those first moments, he had lost ground, was starting to fall behind himself.  Later, when he had time to reflect on these events, he would manage to piece together his encounter with the woman.  But that was the work of memory, and remembered things, he knew, had a tendency to subvert the things remembered. As a consequence, he could never be sure of any of it. – pg. 15

This paragraph, early in the book, is my favorite paragraph.  It is magnificent, really. I could talk about it for a long time. It is totally packed with concepts and ideas, feelings and memories, etc. If the writing of the whole novel was on this level, I would have unreservedly given it five-stars. This paragraph resonated with me on a personal level as-well-as on an intellectual, conceptual level. I love the phrases: “he had lost ground” and “was starting to fall behind himself.”  I really like the comments on memory versus things remembered. And above all, I appreciate “Already, things were happening too fast” – because this refers to both the plot and the actual structure of Auster’s novel.

This novel is also, heavily, about language/linguistics.  The whole “detective story” revolves around the theory of a pure, pre-Tower of Babel language. A divine language, so to speak. The chapters that elucidate this part of the story are interesting and creepy, and definitely show us another layer of this wrap-around novel.  For those who like word play (who doesn’t?), I particularly enjoyed a quote on page 90 wherein another character is speaking to Quinn:

“Hmmm. Very interesting. I see many possibilities for this word, this Quinn, this . . . quintessence. . .  of quiddity. Quick, for example. And quill. And quack. And quirk. Hmmm. Rhymes with grin. Not to speak of kin. Hmmm. Very interesting. And win. And fin. And din. And gin. And pin. And tin. And bin. Hmmmm. Even rhymes with djinn.  Hmmm. And if you say it right, with been.  Hmmm. Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr. Quinn.  It flies off in so many little directions at once.” – pg. 90

There is also a very famous deconstruction/re-construction involving the classic novel (and character) Don Quixote. It is worthwhile and interesting reading, but it is also one of the more frequently commented on parts of Auster’s novel. I was able to appreciate it, but I am not sure I was thoroughly impressed. Interested readers, though, should probably pay it more mind than I did.

Well, there is a lot more to this novel and not, all at once. I mean to say, there are usages/re-usages of names and elements and so forth. Found objects, red notebooks, baseball. Subtle twists and turns and even quite a dose of existential angst (Cp. chapter 12).  A lot more could be extrapolated from the text and commented on.  However, I find the work lacking the heart and soul needed to make this sort of entry fully established. Done correctly (Nabokov and Calvino) these works are unbelievably masterful.  Done poorly, they end up like parlor tricks (e.g. S. King’s The Colorado Kid).  Luckily, Auster does not kill the work, so I would rank it between the two groups I just mentioned. And then, in his defense, we haven’t quite finished the story – it is The New York Trilogy, so there may be a re-evaluation needed. But fragmentary deconstruction is not illicit in this case, I think.

4 stars

The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner - Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner – Baroness Orczy

I’ve had an exceedingly busy October. It started on the first with epic “1,000 year rain/floods” and then this past weekend I took part in the 30th Anniversary of my kung fu school.  In between the 1st and the 24th, there was mainly chaos, pandemonium, and a definite lack of sleep. Nevertheless, I was able to read this book, which I think is actually one that has slipped the memory of many contemporary readers.  I am glad I read it and I am giving it a generally favorable review here.

Having mentioned that I have been a wee bit busy, let me be honest and say I do not know the publishing history of this book. I suppose I could have bothered to do better with researching that, but I just did not. So, I am not sure if this is the first bunch of stories featuring the title character or the second. Also, there is something on the internet about the author reworking these stories – I have no idea about the extent of said reworkings.  None of that, however, truly matters when reading this book.

The author, Baroness Emma Orczy is certainly better known as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Now, I can tell you that this work was originally a play (1903) that the author also rewrote into a novel (1905).  I feel like “back in the day” (so, think 1950s – 1970s) this story was read a lot more and a lot more readers were familiar with it. I feel its popularity has waned quite a bit. I say all of this, but then must be obnoxious and admit that I have not read it, either.

  • The Fenchurch Street Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace – 4 stars
  • The York Mystery – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway – 2 stars
  • The Liverpool Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Edinburgh Mystery – 2 stars
  • The Theft at the English Provident Bank – 4 stars
  • The Dublin Mystery – 4 stars
  • An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery) – 4 stars
  • The Regent’s Park Murder – 4 stars
  • The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery) – 3 stars
  • The Mysterious Death in Percy Street – 3 stars

Now, I hesitate to consider this a “collection” of short stories because the author has written them to be somewhat seamless. As if the structure of the collection is presenting a fluid timeline. I suppose one could read these stories in any order, but I don’t see any reason for doing that.

The entire work starts with a few sentences that basically explain and contextualize the rest of the book. Straightaway we meet the title character, known to us as “The Man in the Corner” and his interlocutor, Polly Burton.

The man in the corner pushed aside his glass, and leant across the table.

“Mysteries!” he commented.  “There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”

Very much astonished Polly Burton looked over the top of her newspaper, and fixed a pair of very severe, coldly inquiring brown eyes upon him.

That is how, more or less, every story begins.  The man in the corner comes across as cantankerous and slightly overbearing. Polly comes across as shrewd, strong-willed, and keen. Together, they make for an interesting scene, if you imagine it.

The structure of each story is the same:  the man randomly blurts out an assertion/comment regarding a relatively famous crime that has been committed.  His statements pique the interest of Polly Burton, who is a young journalist.  The man then retells the story of the crime and the investigation/court case associated with the crime.  Polly is a journalist for the Evening Observer, but the newspaper she is reading (in quote above) is the Daily Telegraph. Polly is decidedly proud of her status as a member of the British Press.

After Polly affixes the man with a icy glare, she authoritatively states that: “And yet, this article will tell you that, even within the last year, no fewer than six crimes have completely baffled the police, and the perpetrators of them are still at large.”

“Pardon me,” he said gently, “I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime.”

So, of course, Polly attempts to test this arrogant old man’s assertions.  She suggests the Fenchurch Street Mystery, and thus begins the push and pull nature of their conversations.  One of them puts forth a particular “mystery,” and the old man relates the details of the case. By the middle of the book, Polly is less hostile toward the old man, and eagerly anticipates his arrival and his discussion.

All of the mysteries are roughly the same in presentation. A case baffles the police because something does not quite add up. The crimes are Edwardian (circa. 1900 – 1915) and generally involve the middle and upper class. Some are more interesting than others, of course, but overall they are decent reads.  The old man leads Polly to a conclusion wherein it seems like the perpetrator of the crime is revealed, although not all the time does he actually name the criminal. And his “evidence” or proof is not always tangible.  His deductions are generally logical and reasonable, but not to the extent that it is watertight and defensible.

Still, before hard-core mystery lovers attack the author, let me just say that these are entertaining reads.  The context and characters are unique and she deserves praise for her setting and presentation of the stories. Also, Polly (though we do not get to learn enough of her) is not a pushover and deserves her own spin-off series, I think.  If you want to play with logic, go get Asimov and Lewis Carroll and Spinoza and wedge, tilde, instantiate yourself giddy.  Orczy does just fine providing us a fun read with interesting little story twists and points of view. The quirky nervous habit that the old man has of tying knots in string is fantastic for its symbolism and psychology. Well done, Orczy.

The setting of these stories kept interesting me. They take place in a branch of the Aerated Bread Company (often simply referred to as an ABC – which, yes, has different connotations here in USA South.)  I was curious, so I did research this part of the book.  The Aerated Bread Co. was founded in 1862 by Dr. John Dauglish and hinged on a new process of bread-making.  Two years later, the company opened teashops, starting with a location in the Fenchurch Street Railway Station (Cp. the first mystery story in the book).  Dauglish was a graduate of Edinburgh university and passed away in 1866.  His efforts and experiments in bread-making are interesting, though outside the scope of this review. Similarly, the relevance of teashops is also a good study. Sadly, the company was bought out in 1955 and that gobbler corporation closed the business in the 1980s.

Overall, I really like the presentation and setting of these stories. I really want spinoff series for both Polly and the old man. I am tickled by many of the details throughout and I had fun reading these. Recommended for people who have busy Octobers and anyone seeking Edwardian-era things.

3 stars
average: 3.25

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

A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead - Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

A Man Lay Dead – Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

I have not read/reviewed nearly enough books this year. In fact, this is the first review since late January. I moved – and all of my books are still packed in boxes in a room that is also packed tightly. It has been frustrating. However, I did read this Ngaio Marsh novel in February – finally getting around to reviewing it now in April.  A Man Lay Dead is the first (of thirty-two) Roderick Alleyn mystery.  It was first published in 1934. I read the Jove Mysteries 1980 edition.

I have been attempting to read a lot more of the classic detective mystery novels lately. And maybe even some of the not-so classics.  Many of these early stories involve the character archetype of the “gentleman detective/burglar.”  This includes Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Albert Campion, and Arsene Lupin.  The star detective of this Marsh novel falls under this category.  I have a hit-or-miss sort of opinion of these sorts of characters.  I love Lupin. I love Poirot and Whimsey.  Campion and Alleyn irritate me and I find them pompous and unlikeable. Of course, let’s be honest, I have not really read very many books in any of these series.

The novel that I read before A Man Lay Dead was Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, which was published in 1929. The lesson to be learned between these two novels is clearly:  avoid house parties. So, apparently, no matter the decade (1930s or 1990s, etc.) house parties have a strong tendency to turn ugly.

This short novel has sixteen chapters, all of them generally focusing on the true main character, Nigel Bathgate.  He, and several others, have been invited to a weekend at Frantock. The group is attending another of Sir Hubert Handesley’s parties.  En route to the destination, Bathgate inquires of his distant cousin (Charles Rankin) who will be attending the party.  Rankin says “the usuals,” which includes the Wildes and Angela North and Rosamund Grant. Also, a Doctor Foma Tokareff – a Russian doctor whom Handesley knows from his “Embassy days in Petrograd.”

Not unlike Allingham’s novel, this house party decides to play with a particular rare and interesting dagger.  I am not sure what the authors were thinking utilizing this prop.  Do people really go to house parties and fanny around with daggers?  Does anyone really think that this is a good idea and will end well?  Have they considered Scrabble or Yahtzee?  Anyway, no reader should be surprised that there is a murder – yes, the dagger was used. Second lesson:  If you simply must attend a house party and someone hauls out a dagger – for God’s sake, leave the house immediately.

Alleyn shows up to investigate the murder.  He is cryptic and mysterious and annoyingly arrogant.  He begins his investigation by interrogating the members of the house.  However, his interrogation is certainly unique – he suggests they have a “mock trial” through which he will learn the details of the night’s events.  Nigel Bathgate is the most cooperative and interested member of the party.  At some point he seems like he wants Alleyn to think highly of him.  At other points, he is clearly not comfortable with revealing all of his thoughts to the detective. Angela North is a fiery young girl, who is not cowed by Alleyn, nor impressed by Bathgate, though she does take a shine to him.

Alleyn does not do all the work himself. He comes with a team of helpers (to do the grunt work).  Eventually, the storyline moves beyond the Frantock property and there are adventures involving Russian spies and gangs and foreign agents.

Overall, a lot better than Allingham’s showing.  Still, Nigel is the star and he is the one I enjoyed.  Alleyn was average and blah at best.  I am slightly put off with the “Russians are villains” trope, though. I do think I will read more of Marsh’s novels.  Everyone who wants to read 1920s and 1930s detective novels should add this to their list.

3 stars

The Crime at Black Dudley

The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley – Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1929.  It is the first of the “Albert Campion” mysteries written by the author.  It is the first novel by this author that I have read.  Overall, I was not terribly impressed.  The main complaint that I have is that the pacing for this story is uncomfortably off-kilter.  The main character, believe it or not, is not Campion, but a young Dr. George Abbershaw.

The story largely takes place at the Black Dudley, which is a large, rural estate owned by Wyatt Petrie.  The property has been in the Petrie family for some time, although in the distant past the manor was a variety of things including a monastery. Petrie allows his uncle, by marriage, to dwell at the property, entertaining the man by having “house parties” every so often.  These house parties consist of Wyatt inviting a number of his fellow young-academics over for dinner, drinks, conversation, and games. This story begins with Dr. Abbershaw finishing dressing in his room and heading downstairs for dinner.

Among the members of the party are Albert Campion and Meggie Oliphant.  The former is mysterious and annoys everyone constantly. The second is a red-haired young lady who Abbershaw is sweet on.  In any case, after dinner the group decides to partake in a game involving a ritual dagger. Its like hide and seek combined with hot potato. Wouldn’t you know, during the course of this game, someone gets killed….

Well, the pacing is all wrong in this novel. Chapters go on and on and on – and nothing much really happens at all. I think the reader is supposed to be getting to know the characters during these chapters, but since I did not really care about the characters, I did not care to bother about getting to know them.  The plot itself has a lot of stop and starts – although, more stops, it feels than starts.  Or, perhaps, the characters are painfully dull and crummy.

Campion annoys the other characters, but I think the reader is supposed to be intrigued by him.  I was not very intrigued. I did develop a sort of tolerance for the main character – who is easily the most developed in the novel. Abbershaw’s deductions, though, are sluggish and tedious.  He’s very mature for the most part, until he’s around Meggie, who makes him in turns:  courageous, sensitive, and protective.  The relationship he has with Campion is actually the only way we get to learn anything about Campion.

There are many chapters where I was grumpy because the characters seemed so pathetic.  Many of those same chapters do not advance the storyline whatsoever, either.  And then, late in the novel, I found myself asking:  “why is this story still happening?” it just goes on and on and it really should have been ended long before. Also, the villains – both the specific and in the relation to a larger body of organized crime – are almost completely absurd.

Overall, it is difficult to be told that most of the characters are skilled, academic professionals and then also watch them act and think so stupidly.  Coupled with the unending circular plot and this novel just is not very good. Nevertheless, I think because it is the first novel in the series, one should not write off this author/series. I do intend to read another Albert Campion/Margery Allingham mystery. Just not too soon.

2 stars

A Nice Class of Corpse

A Nice Class of Corpse - Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

A Nice Class of Corpse – Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

This past week I finished the first novel in the Mrs. Pargeter mystery series by Simon Brett.  A Nice Class of Corpse was published in 1986.  There are, currently, six novels in the series – the most recent having been released in 1999.  A year later, Brett became the president of the famous Detection Club.

Overall, this is probably a 3.5 star rated novel.  It is not a 4, so for this blog it is a 3.  It is a very speedy 221 pages of relatively cozy-mystery.  I say relatively because there are some elements that probably go beyond what mystery readers consider “cozy.” (For the record, some of these subgenre distinctions are a bit ambiguous, anyway.)  You should know that the majority of this story takes place within the Devereux Hotel – which strives to be an upscale retirement community for the rich and/or titled elderly.  Therefore, almost all of the characters are quite old.  Old people get killed off in this novel. Some readers might not find that so “cozy.”

There is also a helping of melancholy in this story.  There are some sad and uncomfortable moments throughout the novel.  This adds just a drop of depth to the novel and makes the story heavier than a simple mystery. Whether that is good or bad is for each reader to decide for himself, I think.  There are also some ridiculous and witty moments – most of them due to the star character:  Melita Pargeter.

We are introduced to this spunky elderly lady as she is moving into her new residence at the Devereux Hotel in seaside Littlehampton.  Her arrival causes some commotion because she does not follow the expected behaviors typified by solemn, droll, and sedate “upper class” worthies.  Immediately, Pargeter banters and shows her independence and spunk.  The other characters react in a variety of ways to this.  Brett does a very good job of describing the social sphere and the interactions of the characters.  He is an “observant” writer, even if he leans just slightly on the ridiculous.

Brett lets us meet the characters, though I am not sure we have access to every one of the clues.  He does provide a number of red herrings and false clues that should throw the reader once or twice. I never guessed correctly, so the ending got me!

Soon after Mrs. Pargeter’s arrival – a death occurs.  Mrs. Pargeter, while surfing the variety of entanglements in this closed community, also decides to do a little investigation on her own.  She is incredibly unobtrusive and does not always completely share her “deductions” with the reader.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch her patiently bide her time as she fits clues together.  Maybe she is a little too patient, though?

Through the course of these efforts, we also learn that Mrs. Pargeter and her late husband have lived quite unusual atypical lives.  Without my spoiling anything here, let me just say that we are not actually told a lot of detail about these things; Brett develops this subplot slowly and with some “mystery.” Nevertheless, this subplot might be more interesting than the actual plotline of the novel?  This Pargeter couple is definitely unique and interesting and may be the sole reason I really want to read book two in the series.

Due to this being rather unique and my preference for mysteries that take place in one building, I felt this could be four stars. Still, this is only a quick mystery novel and I am not convinced readers were given all the clues.  The ending to this story was very well done – a bit somber, a bit surprising. I think most general readers and mystery readers will enjoy this one.

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 Colorado Kid

The Colorado Kid - Stephen King; Hard Case Crime, 2005

The Colorado Kid – Stephen King; Hard Case Crime, 2005

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King was published in 2005.  I bought my copy years ago for $3.  I finally got around to reading it this past week because there was a lot of Haven watching going on around me and it occurred to me that that TV show is inspired by The Colorado Kid.  Anyway, the novel is a short, speedy read – I think I finished it in a day.

Overall, because the author is Stephen King, I think that this novel gets more praise and interest than it would if it had been written by almost any other author (with a few obvious exceptions).  I really like the Hard Case Crime concept – I cannot speak to their quality or their value. I just really like these pulp-style crime novels with vintage artwork covers. HCC has published many recognizable authors in their series; this novel by King is number 013 in the series.  Anyway, in the Afterword, King himself admits that this novel will divide readers – they will love it or hate it, he does not see any middle ground.

I did not hate this novel, but I really am not impressed whatsoever.  I accuse King of vague trickery with this one. Sure, it is a HCC novel and there is a vintage artwork cover on it. Yes, there is a mystery somewhere in the pages. However, as I was reading it and now afterwards, I keep asking myself:   is this really about anything or is it a novel about nothing? The novelty (pun intended) is that there is no closure or resolution to the mystery.  There really isn’t any deduction either.  Angela Lansbury and Sherlock Holmes are not showing up to follow the clues. Instead, at base, this is a rumination on what a “mystery story is” and what a “newspaper story” is.

The main characters are two elderly journalists who have developed a local newspaper (since 1948). They have hired on a young female intern named Stephanie to work at their paper The Weekly Islander.  Basically, the superficial story is that the two older writers are grooming/mentoring Stephanie to take over for them at the paper.  Part of doing this is getting her to value the local geography and society as well as teaching her various subtleties that are beyond textbook journalism basics.

Anyway, one evening the three journalists spend time discussing the locale’s “one big mystery.”  This mystery involves a John Doe body that was found back in 1980. And this is what this novel is really about.  It is a discussion on journalistic jurisdiction, the overarching purpose and goal of news items in a paper, and what a “story” consists of.  Ultimately, the three seem to conclude that mysteries that get published have closure and resolution – even if it is just what people want the end of the story to turn out to be. But real mystery stories tend to have a disconcerting multitude of deadends and open-ends.  And that is the sort of thing that doesn’t work just to sell papers and maybe puts more value in the journalist’s investigation than that of the policeman’s.

Nevertheless, is this novel really about anything? I go back and forth on this. In moments where I am feeling all speculative and academic I want to say that it is – it contains subtle ideas on stories and newspapers and mysteries etc.  In moments where I am feeling particularly empirical and dictatorial, well, I insist it is actually a faux-novel filled with nothing.

I’m only giving this two stars.  I’m not impressed. I just don’t think it is as insightful and witty as it wants to be. It is a quick read with a slight puff of twist to it.  Also, the effort King makes to have the characters speak in the local dialect is annoying. If I never read “Ayuh” again, it will be too soon.

2 stars

The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery - Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars