mystery

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

The League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men - Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men – Rex Stout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

Fer-de-Lance

Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance – Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was first published in 1934. It is the first in the Nero Wolfe detective series. I have two copies of this novel:  the 1984 Bantam paperback and the 1968 (3rd printing) of the Pyramid paperback. I read the former.  There were a number of typos in my edition; I did not find this reprehensible, but other readers might hate reading such text.  I think that there is at least one erroneous paragraph in the Bantam versions – beyond the basic typos.

Nero Wolfe is one of the most famous detectives in the genre.  Of course, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but Nero Wolfe may be the third famous.  The character is even referenced in a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. He is exceedingly large, sedentary, and fastidious.  We first meet Wolfe as he is tasting beers – this timeline corresponds to the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act (March 22, 1933) that legalized a low-alcohol (3.2%) beer.  The entire novel, though, is told through the eyes and ears of the main character, Archie Goodwin.

Archie is something like the footman and errand boy for Wolfe.  He does all of the actual legwork in the investigations.  He resides in the NYC brownstone along with Wolfe and Wolfe’s other “servants.”  Of course, it is the 1930s and one doesn’t say “servants,” even though just household crew is meant.  Archie is in his 30s, I think, but from this novel, it is difficult to really say that with any true assurance.  In fact, throughout, one might reasonably guess Archie’s age to be anywhere from 19 – 42 years old.

Archie does all of the grunt work on the investigations and he acts like head-of-household.  But he is not simply the brawn to Wolfe’s brain – Archie also is shown as capable for taking notes, collating stories and documents, and doing research.  I think he also does a good portion of the budgeting in the household. It takes a bit to get used to Archie’s point of view.  The author has a distinctive writing style and it can be jarring.  Also, until the reader gets used to it, the sarcastic banter between Archie and Wolfe, et al. seems really caustic and abrasive.  Overall, Archie is a good-hearted chap, although quite opinionated. He is devoted to his boss – even loyal enough to disagree with Wolfe when the need arises. It is through Archie’s eyes that we meet the other characters in the book.

Fritz giggled.  He’s the only man I’ve ever known who could giggle without giving you doubts about his fundamentals. – pg. 93, chapter 10

Wolfe has a live-in chef named Fritz Brenner.  Fritz acts as the household butler and prepares elaborate meals for the household.  He is also, I believe, in charge of acquiring and serving Wolfe’s vast amount of beer. The biggest issue I had with this entire novel, is that we have a fantastic chef, a spunky American named Archie, and an obese genius who spends his afternoons cultivating orchids and drinking beer – and we do not really get much background at all about these characters.  There is no backstory as to how this crew met, decided to work together, decided what to work on, how they developed their idiosyncrasies, etc.  And frankly, between agoraphobic Wolfe, happy-go-lucky Archie, and a cook named Fritz – one would expect an amazingly thrilling backstory.

The actual crimes in the book to which Wolfe and Archie apply themselves are typical of the genre.  Murder. Two murders, actually.  Plenty of suspects, an inept and obnoxious district attorney and investigator, and a rich, young woman fill out the storyline.  The young woman’s father is murdered on the golf course.  Literally, at the tee.  Nero Wolfe, without leaving his brownstone, solves the crime.  But the twist is that the crime is not what the reader originally thinks.  Instead, this death is also connected to two other deaths – one recent, one many years past.

The key feeling within the novel is that Wolfe and Archie do not solve these cases because of some altruistic belief or some devotion to justice.  Both seem to have a keen sense of truth and prefer monetary reward to the satisfaction of justice served.  They do not always play fair and perhaps cross the line into committing criminal acts themselves.  Definitely, they hinder and obstruct the course of lawful investigation. Regardless, it is interesting to have an agoraphobic genius who is so attached to money.

The major prop in the novel is a fer-de-lance – a breed of poisonous serpent.  Archie struggles with saying the name:

I tried it again. “Fair-duh-lahnss?”  Wolfe nodded.  “Somewhat better. Still too much n and not enough nose.  You are not a born linguist, Archie.  Your defect is probably not mechanical.  To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices.  In some manner you manage without that scorn, I do not quite know how. – pg. 166, chapter 16

Overall, I really want to find out more about this NYC brownstone and its inhabitants.  After having read Sherlock and Poirot, well, its kind of tough to impress me.  So the “genius” of Wolfe isn’t all that impressive.  However, it is curious and because of that, I have collected a number of Nero Wolfe novels.  This specific novel is quite standard in comparison to the genre and so I can only give it three stars.  I recommend this to those who like pre-1940 American novels and who want more and more and more of the detective genre.

3 stars

Clouds of Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

Whose Body?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

It Walks By Night

It Walks By Night – John Dickson Carr; Avon

It Walks by Night was first published in 1930 by John Dickson Carr (1906 – 1977).  Carr also wrote under a number of pen names including Carter Dickson.  This novel is likely one of his first (if not his first) published novels.  It is also the first in the novel series starring detective/magistrate Henri Bencolin.

I read this novel in the end of October and beginning of November while traveling.  This means it saw use in the car and in hotel rooms.  Strangely, it was a fast read – but still took too long for its mere 176 pages.  That’s my copy in the picture – the Avon 1970 edition.  Avon published a number of mystery/thrillers in this same cover design (which I think is hideous).

My first impression after reading this novel is that it is such an oddly written novel.  At several points I felt that it was not a very good novel.  However, there are other parts where the writing is really quite impressive.  So, I guess if this is such an early work by Carr, one hopes he improved.  Not that this is a bad novel – but there are sections that are not where one wishes they were.

This is a locked-room mystery, although I did not love the resolution.  The setup up is quite interesting.  The story is told from the perspective of Jeff Marle (though you would miss this name if you were not specifically watching for it).  For some reason, Henri Bencolin decides to have an audience to “help him” solve the murder.  So, we are just stuffed with a few characters for the sake of characters. (Dr. Hugo Grafenstein is one such.)  The Duc de Saligny has been murdered in a “locked-room” at a nightclub.

I say this is an odd, odd little book for a number of reasons.  One, I feel Bencolin is patterned a little on Sherlock and Poirot (aren’t they all?) but we really do not know much about him.  In fact, though he’s the mastermind and brilliant detective, he mainly feels like a supporting character.  Two, there are long chapters which involve the romantic (not erotic) evenings of Marle.  And perhaps this is to setup a false lead for the reader, or maybe for the reader to get to know Marle.  Either way, it seems just very odd.  In fact a number of characters in this story are just odd.  If you read about this story in the news, it would definitely be one of those “wow, weird things go on in our town” news items.

Marle is prone to mentally breaking into poetry or song when the moment strikes him.  It is somewhat disjointed when it happens.  Again, is this to show that Marle is a cultured chap?  Or is he really suffering A.D.D. or what?  Anyway, I did not really know the referent for most of these poems/songs.  However, the references to Poe I managed to catch! See, I’m not senile, yet!

But there are whole passages where Carr displays that rare, old-fashioned classic style of writing that blends beauty and wit.  And these are really good passages.  Carr cannot consistently keep this up, though, and there are also long sections which are not expertly written. At one point it seemed we had totally forgotten the actual murder and had moved into a different storyline. Also, it ends really abruptly and oddly, too.  Certainly not a drawn out ending.

In the words of Marle, there is a particularly fun line in chapter ten:

Now the moment anybody mentions the word “Victorian,”  you can take it for granted that the conversation is going to become artificial, and that the person who says it is avoiding all pretensions to frank discourse.

Surprising lines like that make this book easier to read than maybe it should be.  It is sometimes confusing (lots of characters) and sometimes tedious (why did we spend three chapters with this?), but it does have a unique feel and a dose of charm that make it worthwhile.  I would not recommend this novel for everyone.  I think there are “better” mysteries out there.  However, if you want to read something that is older and classic, without reading Agatha, then this is one for you.  I do intend to read more by this author, though he’s a bit of a pain to find around.

3 stars