And now for something completely different, as Monty Python would say. In this book, the late Robert L. Fish created the most clever and enjoyable pastiche I’ve ever read.
The Incredible Schlock Homes deconstructs and “destroys” twelve of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved stories featuring Sherlock Homes. In the process the reader, or at least this reader, is completely captivated by Fish’s word play, his twisted logic, and his obvious devotion to the most famous detective in fiction.
Do the stories’ titles–“The Adventure of the Adam Bomb,” “The Adventure of the Spectacled Band,” and the “The Adventure of the Artist’s Mottle”–give you a clue about Fish’s style? In “The Adventure of the Adam Bomb,” Homes arranges a fake funeral for himself because his disappearance is essential to solve a crime. When his colleague Watney questions the amazing disguise Homes needs to wear while presumably dead and yet be able to investigate, Homes explains. The body in the casket? “An excellent example of Madam Tussand’s art.” The “corpse’s” extra weight? “One of Mrs. Essex’s pillows.” His present stature, at least a foot shorter than Homes’ actual height? “Special shoes,” responds the detective. Are you beginning to get the idea?
True to the style of Sir Arthur, Fish begins each story with the year it takes place and a brief history of other cases the celebrated detective solved. In the intro to “The Adventure of the Spectacled Band,” Watney describes the mystery of a gang of Parisian cabbies as “The Adventure of the Taxi Drivers’ Métier.” Honestly, I was laughing and rolling my eyes at the same time.
The two men live at 221-B Bagel Street (truly) on the second floor of Mrs. Essex’s boarding house. While trying to get to the location of the house featured in “The Adventure of the Artist’s Mottle,” Homes and Watney need to decide what train to take. “There is a train that runs on even days that fall on odd dates,” Watney complains. “Besides, it has the notation M-W-F listed above, which I frankly do not understand.” “Milk, Wine, Food,” replied Homes curtly. “It has a combination restaurant car and bar, is all.”
“But that one is annotated T-T-S,” Watney continues. “What can that mean, Homes?” “Most probably, Tewksbury Temperance Society, indicating that on that train the bar is closed,” is Homes’ thoughtful explanation. Who wouldn’t come to that same conclusion?
With the brilliant introduction by Anthony Boucher, for whom the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention is named, the reader is swept away into the nineteenth-century world of telegrams, hansom cabs, and veiled women. Boucher is quick to point out Fish’s other, more serious achievements–winning the 1962 Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for the best first novel of the year (The Fugitive), penning police procedural short stories and novels, and his completion of Jack London’s unfinished The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., in which Boucher contends it’s impossible to detect any difference between the writings of London and Fish.
In his closing paragraph, Boucher writes, “Robert L. Fish, I am by now pretty thoroughly convinced, can do anything….but I shall never forgive him if his unpredictably assorted output does not continue to include, from time to time, a fresh triumph/fiasco of Schlock Homes.”
I will leave you with this from Robert L. Fish: “Author’s note: The characters in this book are all real, and any similarity to fictional characters is strictly coincidental.” Want to have a feel-good hour or two? Start reading The Adventures of Schlock Homes asap.
There aren’t many books that have sparked an entire genre, but Little Caesar has that distinction. Written at the end of the 1920s by a previously unpublished author, Little Caesar became an overnight success for W. R. Burnett. Reading this novel is a terrific way to go back to the beginnings of the original gangster story.
Little Caesar is the nickname of Rico, which in turn is the nickname of Caesar Enrico Bandello, a small-time mobster who climbs nearly to the top in the gangland of late twenties Chicago. Physically unimposing, small and slightly built, Rico is single-minded about becoming the head of Sam Vettori’s mobsters and moving up the ladder from there.
Rico doesn’t have the usual vices that many of his colleagues have. He likes women but not enough to get sidetracked into a serious relationship with any one of them. He doesn’t touch alcohol or drugs and doesn’t gamble, at least not seriously. And because of his lack of these vices and his ruthless desire to get to the top, he almost manages to claw his way there. Almost.
Rico’s biggest concern is that one of his men might “turn yellow.” Squealing to the cops would be, of course, the worst thing a gang member could do, whether he did it voluntarily or was coerced or tricked into it by the police. Regardless, there is no excuse for this in Rico’s mind, and he seems to have an uncanny knowledge of which man would turn cowardly and thus be a danger to the group. He is without pity to those he deems to be any sort of risk.
Little Caesar was made into a film two years after the book was published and made Edward G. Robinson, in the title role, a major star. Although the movie sticks closely to the plot of the book, there are some differences. Rico’s best friend in the film is Joe Massara rather than Otero, his best friend in the novel, although in the book Rico never trusts Joe and has no use for him. In the book Rico has two heterosexual relationships, but in the movie there are subtle homosexual overtones between Rico and Joe and Rico and Otero.
Also, for some Hollywood reason, Rico’s last words in the novel, “Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?,” have been changed in the film to “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
Burnett went on to write High Sierra, later made into a Humphrey Bogart film, and The Asphalt Jungle, featuring a very young Marilyn Monroe. Burnett’s interest in and knowledge of the underworld gave his novels and screenplays a tough, gritty verisimilitude that resonated with readers. There’s very little description and no deep thought by the characters in Little Caesar, just the chilling talk of a group of killers, led by the coldest one of all.
You can read more about William Riley Burnett at this web site.
Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.
What a sad, sad story about dysfunctional lives in pre-World War II London. What a terrific read.
Hangover Square takes place in a seedy area in the down-at-the-heels Earl Court district of the city. George Harvey Bone is a twenty-something man with mental illness, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say mental illnesses. He suffers from schizophrenia, alcoholism, and an obsession which manifests itself only when he is in his schizophrenic state. During his non-schizophrenic time, George is both fascinated and repelled by Netta Longdon. During his schizophrenic episodes, his all-consuming desire is to kill her.
In his normal state, George is utterly besotted by Netta. When he sees her the day after Christmas, he is struck again by her looks. “Although she was not made up, untidy and not trying,” she bewitches him “with…unholy beauty….” In his functional state, his wish is to marry Netta and have children with her; in his schizophrenic state, he plots to kill her. In each state, he has no memory of the other one.
Netta is the leader of a small group of extremely unpleasant people. She is a wanna-be film actress but is unwilling to put any effort into learning her craft. Actually, it’s not so much that she wants to act, she wants the money and glory that would come with being in that profession. But, being too lazy to improve her skills, she hasn’t gotten any further than a couple of small movie roles.
In many ways, the relationship between George and Netta is similar to that between Phillip Carey and Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. In each novel there is a sad, lonely man who falls in love with a sadistic and uncaring woman. Both Netta and Mildred use George and Phillip, respectively, only for monetary reasons. They show no warmth, feeling, or compassion for these men, only scorn and distain for the way the men allowed themselves to be treated.
Hangover Square is a hard read. One goes back and forth in George’s disturbed mind, and both of his states are hard to deal with. When he appears normal, his obsession with Netta allows her to treat him dreadfully, and although he sometimes recognizes this, he is so enthralled by her he is unable to break the cord that binds them. When he’s in his schizophrenic state and plotting murder, it’s equally hard to read.
Hangover Square is considered Patrick Hamilton’s finest novel. He also was a poet and the author of two successful plays: Rope, which was made into an Alfred Hitchcock film starring Jimmy Stewart, and Gaslight, later to become a movie starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.
You can read more about Patrick Hamilton at this web site.
Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.
The late Magdalen Nabb wrote thirteen mystery novels, and I confess I had not read any of them until this week. I’d seen her books in my local library and various bookstores, but somehow I never got around to reading one.
Because Ms. Nabb’s books take place in Florence, Italy and I’ll be visiting that beautiful city this spring, I decided it was time to read one of her books, so I picked up Death of an Englishman, the first in her series featuring Marshal Guarnaccia. I’m sorry and glad–sorry that it took me so long to discover Ms. Nabb’s writing and glad that I finally did.
It’s a few days before Christmas, and people whose homes are in other cities are leaving Florence to go to their families for the holiday. Everyone except Marshal Guarnaccia, who’s confined to his bed in the police station with influenza instead of being able to head home to Syracuse. Manning the station’s night shift is Carabiniere Bacci, a recruit with only two months on the job.
The phone jars Bacci awake, and a garbled voice asks for the marshal to report that an Englishman living a few streets away…well, what about him? The caller can’t bring himself to tell anyone but Guarnaccia, but Guarnaccia is asleep with a fever, so Bacci leaves the station to investigate.
A few minutes later the phone wakes the marshal. It’s Bacci, reporting that there’s been a murder at number fifty eight Via Maggio, so the marshal forces himself out of bed and walks unsteadily to the address.
It’s Gianpaolo Cippola, the building’s custodian, who has called about the Englishman. Cippola’s wife had died the night before, and he’s a man in shock dealing with two deaths in two days. The murder brings two Scotland Yard officers to Florence later that day; it turns out that the Englishman, a Mr. A. Langley-Smythe, is a member of a well-connected British family, and that family wants to make certain that “no unnecessary distress” is caused by the Italian authorities.
The city of Florence is brought to life through Ms. Nabb’s evocative descriptions. Every sentence has meaning in this short novel; nothing is extraneous. Even the Italians’ discovery that the Englishman had been living on the ground floor, a cause for much astonishment, means something.
The characters in Death of an Englishman are beautifully drawn. Marshal Guarnaccia, sick with the flu and afraid that he won’t be able to get home for Christmas; the inexperienced Carabiniere Bacci, fluent enough in English to act as translator for the two Yard detectives but very much aware of his own lack of knowledge of police procedures; the voluble and eccentric elderly English woman, Miss White, who lives in the same building as the deceased and has made her apartment a shrine for the poet Walter Savage Landor; the frightened Cipolla, who wanted to report the death only to the marshal; all of them are real and believable.
Magdalen Nabb died at the age of sixty in 2007, but her admirers have continued to update her web site. You can read more about her at this web site.
Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at this web site.
Joe Quinn, licensed Nevada private detective/security guard, has been cleaned out at the Reno gambling tables and has grabbed a ride back to California with a friend. The friend, in a hurry to get home, leaves him at the side of the road some forty-five miles from San Felice, Joe’s destination. The friend tells him that there’s a religious community just up the road that will give him food and drink and shelter for the night, so without any other resource to fall back on Joe takes his advice.
The Tower is a community of twenty-seven people, including three children, that is headed by The Master. The members have renounced all worldly goods–telephones, television, regular clothes–the better to get to heaven; it is their belief that wearing wool robes, going barefoot, and bathing no more than weekly in cold water will assure them a place in Paradise. Even their given names have been left behind–now they are known as Sister Blessing, Brother Tongue, Brother Crown, and Brother Light of the Infinite, for example.
During his overnight stay, Joe is approached by Sister Blessing, who acts as the nurse and manager of The Tower. She appears kind and concerned about Joe’s physical and emotional well-being, and when she learns that he is a detective she asks him to do a job for her. She emphasizes that this is against the rules of the community, and she pays him with money secreted from the others that her son sends her every Christmas.
Sister Blessing’s request is that Joe go into Chicote, a nearby town, and find a man named Patrick O’Gorman. He’s not a friend or relative, she assures Joe, and she doesn’t want Joe to contact him in any way. Whether O’Gorman is in Chicote or not, she tells Joe to “come back here and tell me about it, me and only me.”
Joe is only slightly interested, but he’s broke and doesn’t have any other job offers. So he gets a ride to San Felice in the community’s truck the next morning and starts asking questions. And early on he discovers that Patrick O’Gorman has been missing and presumed dead for five years.
The novel takes a number of twists and turns, and circles back on itself again, but every detour has a reason and every red herring is perfectly contrived. About ten pages from the end of the book I realized what had happened in the past and what was about to happen, and I was blown away. The plot is so skillful and well thought out that it made me want to start reading How Like an Angel over again to see if I could have/should have figured out the ending sooner.
Margaret Millar lived from 1915 to 1994; she was the wife of Kenneth Millar, better known to mystery fans as Ross Macdonald. Imagine having that couple to your house for drinks and dinner!
Matt Marshall was a self-made man who became wealthy due to his brains, charm, and business acumen. He had a beautiful wife, three grown children, and seats on the boards of charities, museums, and hospitals around the country. But he also had a secret, one which he shared with no one in the over twenty-five years since the war ended. He believed he had fathered a child with a young Vietnamese woman when he was overseas, while his wife and first-born child were in the United States.
The novel opens as the attorneys for the Marshall family hire Adam Bruno, lawyer turned private investigator, to look into the validity of the will’s codicil made by Marshall three months before his unexpected death; the will itself had been made years before. In the codicil, Matt Marshall stated that while he was in the army in Vietnam, in 1971, he was told that he was the father of a child being carried by a young Vietnamese woman. Due to the upheavals at the end of the war, the two were separated and never reunited.
Marshall couldn’t find out for certain if the woman, whom he had nicknamed Cricket, gave birth to the child, and he was unable to find out her location or situation after the war. In the codicil Matthew commanded his family to continue to search for Cricket and/or her child, should there be one. If a child is found, that child is entitled to half of his estate, and should any of the will’s other recipients challenge this in any way, they would be automatically disinherited. Quite a codicil.
The very, very wealthy Marshall family, all politeness on the surface, is definitely upset by the fact that they may have to share their father’s $105 million estate with this Asian-American child, assuming that he/she exists. Although Adam is hired to find the mother and child, it is obvious to him that the Marshalls don’t want to believe in the child’s existence. Or, if Adam discovers there is such a child, the Marshalls don’t want that child found. And really, who can blame them?
New people are introduced throughout the book, men who were with Marshall during the war and four years after it ended when he returned to Vietnam for a final search for Cricket. Where they are twenty-five years after the war speaks to the horrors they endured, or sometimes caused. As we know, the men who were “in country” returned to the United States to find a public that was often hostile and/or embarrassed–those who were hostile felt the returning soldiers were “baby-killers”; those who were embarrassed were furious that we had lost the war and the country.
The Codicil is gripping up to and including its final page. But a word of warning–this is not a novel for the faint-of-heart. There is a lot of profanity, and there are graphic descriptions of wartime atrocities committed by both sides. It’s a book that brings the pain of the Vietnam War back again.
Tom Topor is the author of several screenplays. You can read more about him at this web site.
The series begins in the twelfth century at the border between England and Wales. Brother Cadfael, born in Wales, had traveled the world as a soldier in the first crusade and a sailor in the years following but now has found his calling as a member of the abbey. He is in charge of the abbey’s garden and herbarium, an important position at a time when home-grown medicines were almost the only ones available.
As the novel opens, a civil war between two cousins, Stephen and Maud, has been going on for three years; it eventually lasted nineteen. Henry I, Maud’s father, had named her his heir after the death of his only son, but many nobles rebelled at the thought of a woman leading the kingdom and thus supported the claims of Henry’s nephew, Stephen. As Stephen comes to Shrewsbury with his forces, aristocrats and soldiers loyal to Maud flee the town to join her in France.
A fellow monk introduces Cadfael to Godric, a “young man” who is willing to help in the garden, but it doesn’t take Cadfael long to realize that Godric is actually a young woman, Godith Adeney by name. Her father fled to France to support Maud, and if Godith is discovered she will be imprisoned and held for ransom in order to bring her father back to face Stephen. Cadfael, although not taking sides in the fight for the kingdom, vows to keep Godith’s secret and protect her.
After a battle in which ninety-four of Stephen’s enemies are killed, the abbey’s abbot requests that the men be prepared for a proper Christian burial. The abbot sends Cadfael to the castle to handle this task, but when the monk counts the dead, he discovers that there is one more body than he had been told. And this man was not killed in battle but strangled by a thin wire from behind.
In One Corpse Too Many we are introduced to Hugh Beringar, a soldier who, in later novels, becomes a close friend of Cadfael’s, and the woman who becomes Hugh’s wife, Lady Aline. In addition, a number of Cadfael’s fellow monks whom we meet here continue to appear in other novels, while new members of the monastery join the cast of characters in later books.
The late Ellis Peters (real name Edith Mary Pargeter) created the character of Brother Cadfael when she needed “the high equivalent of a mediaeval detective, an observer and agent of justice in the center of the action.” She was a writer of some renown as a translator of Czech literature, but today she is best known for her mystery novels. Unfortunately, Ms. Peters died shortly after the BBC television series got underway and thus did not see all the books made into television programs, but she was a strong supporter of Derek Jacobi, who played Cadfael with great wit and charm.
There is not a dedicated page for Ellis Peters, but there is a brief biography about her and a summary of all Brother Cadfael’s novels at Philip Grosset’s Clerical Detectives web page.
Hailed by most literary critics, including T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers, as the “first and best” of the English detective novels, The Moonstone introduced a number of literary conventions that are still followed in this genre. There’s the large, secluded country estate, the closed circle of suspects, the mysterious foreigners (less frequent now than then), the inept local police, and the least-suspected party who turns out to be the villain.
In brief, the moonstone is an incredibly valuable gem stolen from a Hindu (spelled Hindoo in the novel) statue in India by a corrupt English army officer. When he returns home, he is shunned by family and former friends for his ungentlemanly ways, and he determines to get his revenge. Upon his death, the gem is bequeathed to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her eighteenth birthday. Although her mother, Lady Verinder, pleads with her not to accept this gift, the young woman is mesmerized by the jewel and insists that she will keep it and indeed will wear it that very night to her birthday dinner.
Although many precautions are taken by Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, and the home’s butler, Gabriel Betteredge, when the morning arrives the moonstone has disappeared from the Indian chest where it was placed by Rachel just before she went to bed. Even more strange than the disappearance is the complete turnaround of emotions by Rachel. The night of her birthday, it was obvious that she and her cousin Franklin were in love; comes the morning and the jewel’s disappearance, Rachel will no longer speak to her cousin and refuses to help the local police look for the moonstone.
The book has many voices: Betteredge, the butler; Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin who is deeply in love with her; Drusilla Clack, a poor relation of the Verinders and an incorrigible Christian evangelist; and Matthew Bruff, the family’s solicitor. And it has many unforgettable characters in addition to the narrators: Rosana Spearman, a former thief now employed as a second housemaid by Lady Verinder; Geoffrey Abelwhite, another cousin who wishes to marry Rachel; Dr. Candy, the family’s physician who unwittingly plays a major role in the moonstone’s disappearance; and Ezra Jennings, Dr. Candy’s mysterious and disfigured assistant.
And there’s Sergeant Cuff of the London police. Cuff was the prototype of several detectives who followed in his footsteps–Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe coming immediately to mind. He’s rather odd looking, lean with a face as sharp as a hatchet–(Holmes and his angular profile); he would rather discuss and grow roses than do anything else (Wolfe and his orchids).
Then there’s the opium issue in the novel. Wilkie Collins was an opium addict; he had begun using it to control back pain but it soon took over his life. And did not Sherlock Holmes find favor in that drug?
The Moonstone is a mystery that is as fascinating today as it was when it was written. Leave the present for a time and go back to Victorian England. You’ll enjoy the trip.
You can read more about Wilkie Collins on this web site.
Going for the Gold takes place at those same Olympics games. John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, the third largest bank in the world, has been dragooned by the bank’s president, a member of the International Olympics Committee, to attend the games. There’s lot of excitement, of course, as the young athletes and their coaches swirl around the Olympic Village, and there’s a lot at stake. Some of the athletes have been working for years for the possibility of winning a gold medal, while a few have somehow made their country’s team more by luck than by skill. But all are excited and thrilled to be at the Games.
As Thatcher watches a practice run of alpine skiing, France’s number one skier, Yves Bisson, takes a flawless leap from the giant ski tower. He hovers in the air, and then a shot rings out. Bisson falls to the snow-covered ground below, dead.
What is uncovered after Bisson’s death is the discovery of fraud in European travelers’ checks, with Bisson behind it. The resources of the Sloan are put to the test, as the bank is the official bank of the Games, and additional employees are brought to Lake Placid to try to uncover how the fraud was worked.
There’s more than simply bank fraud going on at the Games, however. Someone is hijacking supplies meant for the athletes, a Swiss female skier is accused of taking forbidden drugs, and the blizzard of the decade is stopping all comings and goings out of upstate New York.
Emma Lathen is the pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha Hennisart, a lawyer. Together they wrote more than twenty novels featuring John Putnam Thatcher, a banker who could solve any crime that had a financial basis; and we all know that many of them do. Each book focuses on a particular industry or organization with ties to the Sloan. There are books on chocolate companies, Catholic schools, the automobile industry, and the garment business. Each shows a detailed knowledge of that particular business or group and is written in such a way as to make all the financial dealings clear to the most financially unsophisticated reader, e.g., me.
There’s a short list of recurring characters in Lathen’s books: Thatcher, of course; his devoted secretary, Miss Corsa; Walter Bowman and Everett Gabler, bank officials under Thatcher; and Brad Withers, the bank’s president who would rather be anywhere, doing anything but banking.
While most or all of Emma Lathen’s books are unfortunately currently out of print, they’re available at many libraries and can be bought used online. Even though no more novels were written after Mary Jane Latsis’s death in 1998, there are still enough available to keep anyone reading for a long time. These are definitely cozies, with a minimum of murder and mayhem, but with plenty of suspense to keep the reader involved until the last page.
You can read more about Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart at The New York Times.
Rex Stout, one of the absolute masters of the Golden Age of mysteries, wrote more than fifty mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. For the uninitiated, Wolfe was the quintessential eccentric detective–middle-aged, hugely overweight, handshake-avoiding, woman-distrusting, and agoraphobic. Goodwin is his assistant–probably two decades younger, good-looking, a great dancer, and the “legs,” if not the “eyes,” of Wolfe.
The story opens with Wolfe telling Goodwin that while the latter was away on a job, a man named Andrew Hibbard had come to the office to ask Wolfe to protect him from assassination. However, Hibbard refused to give Wolfe the name of the man he was afraid of and insisted that he didn’t want the man arrested or punished, simply stopped.
Hibbard’s story is that there were a group of friends at Harvard more than twenty-five years before who inadvertently injured this man when he also was a student there. As a result this man had had several operations and now, years later, still walked with a pronounced limp. The group had done whatever they could to help this man, financially and emotionally, for years, but the accident still burdened many of them. Only recently had this man found his talent, and he was now a successful novelist and playwright. However, in their guilty state, the men years ago had decided to call themselves The League of Atonement, a name which still stuck.
Recently, while at the Harvard graduation of the son of one of the League members, a group of these men and the injured man had been walking together along ocean cliffs late at night. The next morning, one of the men was found at the bottom of the cliff. And two days after that, the remaining members had received a poem which they all agreed came from the crippled man, which said he had killed the League member and was going to kill all the others.
Then, several months later, another member of the group died. The police declared it suicide, but a follow-up poem allegedly by the injured man and saying that there would be more deaths had prompted Hibbard to come to Wolfe for protection.
Wolfe explained that he could not agree to be a bodyguard but would agree to remove the threat, but Hibbard vetoed this. The meeting ended. Then, when Goodwin returns to the office several days after Hibbard and Wolfe’s meeting, he casually mentions an article in the newspaper about a man who had written a book the district attorney wanted declared obscene. This pricks Wolfe’s memory, and he sends Goodwin out to buy a copy of the book. After he’s read it, he realizes that the injured man Hibbard was talking about is the book’s author, Paul Chapin.
Wolfe gets in touch with the remaining members of the League of Atonement and promises to remove the Chapin threat for a huge fee, payable only if he succeeds. The majority of the men agree, although some are still hounded by their guilt and fearful of wronging Chapin again. And then Chapin himself enters Wolfe’s office. Talking to Wolfe, “he got into (his voice) a concentrated scorn that would have withered the love of God.”
Stout’s book is a masterful psychological study. To those who know and love Wolfe and Goodwin, this book is absolutely one of the best in the series. If you’ve never read Rex Stout, this novel is the perfect one with which to start.
You can read more about Rex Stout at http://www.nerowolfe.org/htm/stout/author.htm.
In 1964, Ruth Rendell’s first mystery, From Doon With Death, was published. The jacket’s blurb states that the publisher, “in keeping with its policy of attracting and encouraging the most promising new authors,” takes great pleasure in publishing this novel. Did they truly ever suspect that the young Ms. Rendell would be the acclaimed author of more than fifty novels, nearly two dozen of which feature, as does her first, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford?
I read From Doon with Death more than thirty years ago, but it’s always remained in my memory as an outstanding piece of legerdemain. Although an internet piece on Ms. Rendell states that she broke from the mold of the British Golden Age mystery writers (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers), I think that From Doon with Death is very much like Ms. Christie’s novels in its ability to fool the reader with red herrings.
The novel opens when Ronald Parsons, a neighbor of Detective Inspector Mike Burden, calls Burden to tell him that his wife Margaret is missing. She’s a woman of regular habits, her immediate family is deceased, she has made no friends since their move to Kingsmarkham six months earlier, but she’s not home when Ronald returns from work. No clothes are missing from the meager assortment in her closet, nor is her luggage missing.
Burden tells Parsons not to worry, that she’s simply out somewhere and that she’s bound to return home shortly. But she hasn’t returned by the next morning. And a day later her body is found in a nearby forest.
Her life seems innocuous enough, except that when Wexford and Burden return to Parsons’ home for another search of the premises they find in the attic several volumes inscribed to Mina with much love from Doon. Ronald Parsons says he never called his wife by that name nor heard anyone else call her that. So were the books actually inscribed to Margaret Parsons, or did she acquire them from someone else?
As the investigation proceeds, the police discover that Margaret had lived in Kingsmarkham when she was a teenage girl in school. Her husband doesn’t see that as having any relevance to the murder, but Wexford wonders if someone or something from her past has caught up with her, perhaps the mysterious Doon. Wexford finds a teacher and several of Mrs. Parsons’ classmates still in town, but no one seems to be able to shed light on why anyone would have killed her. Her only relative, a cousin who moved to America following World War II, may have the answer, but the police are having trouble locating her.
The end of the novel came as a complete surprise to me on my first reading. From Doon with Death shows the brilliance of Ruth Rendell, even in her first novel.
You can read more about Ruth Rendell at www.amazon.com/wiki/Ruth_Rendell/.
Elizabeth Macintosh, Tey’s real name, used an “old proverb” that can’t be found anywhere, according to a review of Tey’s works in the Washington Post, for the title of this book. “Truth is the daughter of time” is the saying, and I must admit I’m not sure exactly what it means. Perhaps it means that “truth will tell,” which would certainly fit with the novel’s story.
Alan Grant, the British police detective who is the hero in several of Ms. Tey’s novels, is, as the English say, “in hospital” with a broken leg. Cranky and bored, he welcomes an old friend, Marta Hallard, a well-known stage actress, who brings him a pile of posters from the British Museum. Each one is a portrait of a murderer or evil-doer. In that pile is a portrait of a man whom Grant believes doesn’t belong there, and Grant is famous at Scotland Yard for his ability to “pick them at sight.” The portrait is of Richard The Third, infamous king of England, best known for killing his two nephews in the Tower of London to preclude any claims they might have to be king.
The more Grant looks at the portrait, the more he is certain that the man with the sensitive face could not be the monster that English history says he is. So obsessed does he become with this portrait that Marta brings a young American friend of hers, Brent Carradine, to do a bit of research for him to find out more about the king. And the more deeply Grant and Carradine get into it, the more certain they both become that “history is bunk” and that Richard had no reason to kill his nephews and didn’t do it.
There’s a great deal of history in this book that apparently is known to the English but totally unknown to most Americans. Names such as Eleanor Neville, the Cat and the Rat, and Lord Morton of “Morton’s Fork,” for example, are seemingly as well known in that country at Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross would be to students of American history. But Tey explains her country’s history beautifully, and what might in other hands have become a dry treatise is instead a wonderful look into kings, queens, and court villains.
Fighting the battle at Bosworth in 1485 between the Yorks (Richard’s family) and the Lancastrians (followers of Henry Tudor, soon to become the first Tudor king), Richard was defeated and killed. How amazing is it that Tey brings not only Richard but all of the members of his family and his court to life more than 500 years after his death?
Unfortunately, Josephine Tey doesn’t appear to have a web page, but you can read about her at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Tey.
Not to keep you in suspense, I’m writing my first post in this section about what I consider the most golden of all Golden Oldies–And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.
I have read this mystery at least five times over the years, each time with the thought that this time I’d see the red herrings and clues that I hadn’t noticed the previous times I had read the book. After all, I knew after the first reading what had happened and why.
But that didn’t happen. With each reading I was more impressed by the author’s ability to completely mystify me, to lead me down paths that definitely led me away from the murderer, all the while being convinced that I knew exactly what she was doing. In my mind there’s no one like Dame Agatha (she was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1956).
For those not familiar with the novel’s plot, ten people, a very disparate group, are invited to a deserted island off the coat of Devon. There seems to be nothing in common among them–there’s a judge, a rich young racing car enthusiast, a married couple who are the servants on the island, a retired military man, a governess, a former policeman, an elderly woman, a mercenary, and a physician.
Each had received a somewhat cryptic invitation from someone who professed to be an acquaintance, inviting them to spend a few days on the island. But when the group was assembled, it turned out that no one knew exactly who had invited them, and there was no host or hostess there.
All was set for their arrival however, and they anticipated that the next day would bring the owner of the island to the house. But after dinner, the manservant played a recording that accused each of the guests of being a murderer. They all vehemently denied the accusations with various excuses or reasons for the deaths that were described, and all claimed they were innocent.
The young race car enthusiast admitted that he had run down and killed two pedestrians some time ago, but he said that certainly wasn’t murder, just an accident that was “beastly bad luck.” He picked up his drink at the bar, swallowed it in a gulp, convulsed, and died in front of the group.
And then the other guests started dying, one by one. At first there was denial, the guests saying that the deaths were natural–suffocation, a weak heart. But soon there was the realization that someone had decided that these people literally had gotten away with murder and needed to be punished.
And Then There Were None is a masterpiece. Perhaps it’s dated, as a Sherlock Holmes story may be dated, but that doesn’t take away one bit from its perfection. If you haven’t read it, put it on your reading list. If you have, you know why it’s heading the G. O. list.
One of the most enjoyable series I had read were the Judge Dee mysteries by Robert van Gulik. Judge Dee (his Chinese name was Ti Jen-chieh) was an actual personage who lived during the T’ang dynasty from A.D. 630 to 700, although van Gulik has placed the stories in the Ming period. Donald F. Lach, who wrote the forward to The Chinese Nail Murders, says that the judge and other magistrates were often the heroes of popular literature because of their detective ability and outstanding moral conduct.
This novel was written in 1961 and takes place midpoint in the series. Dee was a magistrate who was assigned by the Imperial Court to various districts during his career, bringing with him several assistants whom the reader meets repeatedly over the course of the series: Hoong Liang, Ma Joong, Chiago Tai, and Tao Gan. The judge also has three wives and several children who travel with them, but they are very much in the background in most of the books, while Dee’s adviser and lieutenants play pivotal roles in many of the novels.
In The Chinese Nail Murders, Judge Dee has been assigned to a remote outpost on the northern edge of the Chinese Empire. The book takes place during a snowy, brutally cold winter, and the weather plays a part in the story.
The book has a page called Dramatis Personae, as was the custom in many Golden Age mysteries. Here it identifies the many characters in the book, an excellent idea as the names can be confusing to readers unfamiliar with Chinese names. It’s good to know that in China, as in other Asian countries, the person’s family name comes before the individual name, as the family name is considered the more important one.
As in all the other novels in the series, the judge is confronted by several problems at the same time–a missing young woman, a decapitated body, a missing man, a death that had been declared natural by Dee’s predecessor but may not be. On the Dramatis Personae page, the cases are given their own titles: The Case of the Headless Corpse, The Case of the Paper Cat, and The Case of the Murdered Merchant. The solution ties all of these mysteries together but not without the magistrate risking his career and possibly his life in an effort to find out the truth about the murdered merchant.
The most entertaining thing about this series is the way the reader is transported back to ancient China. Details of people’s clothing, their meals, methods of transport, marriage customs, all these are beautifully detailed and explained. The reader enters into daily life as it was more than a thousand years ago.
Van Gulik was a man of numerous accomplishments: a linguist who spoke Dutch, Sanskrit, Chinese, English, and the language of the Blackfoot Indians of America; a calligrapher; an artist who illustrated his own books; a musician who played the Chinese lute; and a secretary in the Netherlands mission to China during World War II.
You can read more about Robert van Gulik at various web sites, including Wikipedia.