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Past Masters and Mistresses

SUSIE STEINER: An Appreciation

I had never heard of the English mystery author Susie Steiner until her untimely death last month.  Then I read about her in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, and many online sites.  The writers of the various obituaries wrote so glowingly about her talent and her fortitude in the face of devastating illnesses that I decided I had to read her first mystery, Missing, Presumed.

In the opening chapter, we meet Ms. Steiner’s heroine Manon Bradshaw, a detective sergeant (DS) on the Cambridgeshire police force.  She’s thirty-nine years of age and is rapidly losing hope of finding Mr. Right, or even Mr. Almost-Right.  She’s on a date with a man whose name she can’t quite recall–it “might be Brian but could equally be Keith”–as the waiter brings the bill to the table.  Brian/Keith/? decides they should split the bill, although “to be fair” he didn’t have any wine, so he pays for only what he ate and she pays for her wine and food.

But even more upsetting than that, at least to me, is that she invites him back to her flat!  I just wanted to shake her, but instead I devoured the rest of the novel.  And I loved it!  I can’t wait to read the next (and sadly the last) two books in the series.

In childhood Ms. Steiner was diagnosed with a hereditary and degenerative sight condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and she lost her eyesight completely in 2013.  Then in 2016 it was discovered she had grade 4 glioblastoma, a brain tumor.  Incredibly, the three Manon Bradshaw mysteries were written after that.

The literary world is definitely poorer following the death of Susie Steiner, who died at the age of 51.  Her talent was amazing, her resilience even more so.


SUE GRAFTON: An Appreciation

Such a sad way for mystery fans to greet the New Year, with the death of Sue Grafton.  As a reader who has read the Kinsey Millhone series from the beginning, it’s hard to imagine that this is the end of the alphabet.

A is for Alibi was published in 1982, and although it was not Ms. Grafton’s first work, it was the first stop on her road to literary fame.  It received widespread publicity and acknowledgement as one of the earliest mystery series to feature the new type of female protagonist–independent, tough, smart, and sure enough of herself (most of the time) to believe she could make it in the mostly male world of private investigators.

Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series debuted in 1977, and that helped pave the way for Kinsey.  Right from A is for Alibi Kinsey is upfront about who she is–twice-divorced, no children, no family (although she finds relatives much later in the alphabet), unconcerned about her physical appearance but dedicated to jogging to keep herself in shape.  She gives the reader the impression of “take it or leave it,” this is who I am.

In my opinion, it was Sue Grafton’s writing style that made her a reader’s favorite.  She had a knack of drawing you into the story immediately, and you were rooting for Kinsey all the way.  Kinsey wasn’t fearless and she made mistakes and misjudgments along the way, but you felt her heart was always in the right place.

Halfway through the series, when she meets her mother’s birth family (whom she hadn’t known existed, much less that they were practically neighbors), her sense of their betrayal of her mother is so strong that you understand why she has no desire to become a part of the clan, even knowing that some benefits might come with belonging.  She feels that it would be disloyal to her late mother to forgive, or at least to forgive easily.  Kinsey is never a cardboard character simply working her way through the plot; she has feelings the reader can emphasize with and understand.

In a loving tribute to her mother, Jamie Clark wrote on Sue Grafton’s Facebook page that “as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”  Amen to that.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


RUTH RENDELL: An Appreciation

Just over four years ago I wrote a review of one of my favorite Golden Oldies, From Doon With Death, by Ruth Rendell.  As I wrote in that May 2011 post, I first read the novel more than thirty years ago, and I vividly remembered what an impressive debut it was.

Ms. Rendell died last month at age 85.  Of course I didn’t know her personally, but I imagine that she must have been, in addition to her obvious literary talents, an interesting lady.  She started out as a journalist, was assigned to cover a local meeting, and wrote the story.  The problem was that Ms. Rendell hadn’t attended the meeting and thus didn’t know that the night’s speaker had died suddenly in the middle of the talk he was giving; not surprisingly, she was fired.  Not quite an auspicious career beginning.

However, she had more success with her first Inspector Wexford novel, the above-mentioned From Doon With Death, and it was followed by twenty additional Wexford novels.  The author said that her protagonist was modeled after herself, although he was a police detective and she became, in 1997, a lifetime peer, the Baroness of Babergh.  In a Simon & Schuster video she said, “I’m not creating a character so much as putting myself as a man on the page.”  Not something, certainly, that every female author could do, or could do with such authority.

In addition to the Wexford mysteries, Ms. Rendell wrote under the pen name Barbara Vine.  Those novels were darker, more terror-inspiring, perhaps because, as she told the Associated Press, “I don’t think the world is a particularly pleasant place.”

Perhaps not, but certainly Ruth Rendell made it a much more exciting place for the millions of readers who enjoyed her books, which were translated into over twenty languages.  On the Wikipedia short biography page about her, she is placed, under the heading “People also search for,” alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Patricia Highsmith, and Elizabeth George.  Heady company indeed, but very well-deserved.

Ms. Rendell was the recipient of three Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America plus four Gold Daggers and a Diamond Dagger from England’s Crime Writers’ Association.

Ruth Rendell’s last book, Dark Corners, will be published in October.  How caring of her to have left us a final gift.


P. D. JAMES: An Appreciation

In the midst of getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, I heard the news of the death of P. D. James.  Although at age 94 her passing was certainly not unexpected, it still saddens me to think that no more of her wonderful mysteries will be forthcoming.

Amid all the personal remembrances that have been written just since her death yesterday and all the other yet to come, I’d like to add my own.  I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. James more than thirty years ago at Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, which I believe was one of the first stores of its type, specializing in all forms of mystery and suspense novels. 

Kate Mattes hosted many authors over the years, both novices to the publishing world and famous ones, including Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, and of course Ms. James.  To me Ms. James was the epitome of the English writer.  I remember her as petite, with brown hair and wearing what the British call a “twin set,” also brown.  I can’t remember if she wore pearls, but I’ve added them to the picture of her in my mind.  Of course I still have the book she inscribed to me, Innocent Blood.  “To Marilyn, With every good wish from the author, P. D. James.”

Like many other readers, I was an immediate fan after reading her first novel, Cover Her FaceBut I must confess that her two novels featuring private investigator Cordelia Gray were my favorites.  From interviews the authors gave, she stopped writing about the P.I. because she wanted a more authentic protagonist, and at that time there were no women detectives in Scotland Yard.  Thus Adam Dalgliesh became her best-known creation.  However, I still retain a special warm spot for the inexperienced but intrepid Cordelia Gray.

Baroness James of Holland Park, as she was known after receiving a life peerage in 1991, did not have an easy life.  Her husband, a physician, returned from World War II with mental problems, leaving Ms. James to support their young family as well as dealing with his frequent stays in psychiatric hospitals.   She worked for many years for the British government and finally achieved great fame years after her husband’s early death.  Her novels were all carefully plotted, totally believable, and featured both settings and characters that held the reader from the first page to the last.  They were a joy to read and re-read.

If there was one more thing to be thankful for yesterday, it was having had the works of Phyllis Dorothy James to read over these past decades.

You can read more about P. D. James at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.





JEREMIAH HEALY: An Appreciation

A few months ago I was looking through my bookshelves for a mystery to re-read, and I came across the several Jeremiah Healy books I own.  I remember wondering why there hadn’t been a new John Francis Cuddy book in a number of years; when I checked Mr. Healy’s website I realized it had been more than a decade.

I actually toyed with the idea of contacting him through his website to ask whether his readers could expect another in the Cuddy series anytime soon.  But, like many other good intentions, that idea got lost among numerous things I had to think about or do, so I never attempted to contact him.

Reading about Jeremiah Healy’s death last month, I felt so sad.  He was a talented writer who made his Boston-based private investigator stand out from the crowd.  John Francis Cuddy was a veteran, a law school dropout, a widower at a very young age, and a really nice guy.  His compassion and kindness, as well as his toughness when necessary, are evident in each of the dozen books in which he appears.

Mr. Healy’s private life had its own difficulties.  He battled depression for years and apparently had a drinking problem.  Despite this, he had successful careers before beginning writing mysteries; he was an attorney in private practice and later taught at a Boston law school.  

It seems unbearably cruel that such a talented and well-liked man (glowing epitaphs from such authors as Harlan Coben and Lawrence Block) felt so overwhelmed by depression that he took his own life.  But as Cuddy’s late wife, Beth, told Cuddy, “If you’re waiting for life to be fair, John, I think you’re in for a very long siege.”

What is fair, though, as well as true, is that Jeremiah Healy will be remembered by his many fans as a outstanding writer who created an original character and brought reading enjoyment to many.  




EDGAR ALLAN POE: An Appreciation

Well, a bit of an apology is in order.

Last December 28th I wrote an appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In it I said that “To me, he is the father of the modern mystery story (apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, but that’s my opinion).”

One of my readers wrote last month to suggest that I write an appreciation of Poe.  He said that writing a post wouldn’t necessarily mean that I liked Poe, only that Poe shouldn’t be excluded.  And Mr. W. R. B., you are right; Poe certainly is a worthy Master.

Of course I had read many of Poe’s stories, as I imagine most people have, either in high school or in college.  In my mind Poe was quite old-fashioned, and his stories were not up to the caliber of Doyle’s.

I have just re-read two of Poe’s stories, “The Murder in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”  While I still think that Poe’s stories are harder for the modern reader to find engrossing than Doyle’s, I was struck by something unexpected.  I had not realized how much Sherlock Holmes owed to Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin.  The similarities are too numerous to be coincidental; I believe that Doyle read Poe’s works (Doyle was fifty years younger than Poe and was born ten years after Poe’s death) and took several of his devices and plots and made them his own.

First there is the obvious pairing of a brilliant, eccentric detective with a not-as-astute narrator (Auguste Dupin/the unnamed narrator vs. Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson).  Of course, this device came to be used by many other authors, including Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot/Captain Arthur Hastings) and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin).  In fact, avid mystery readers are familiar with the fact that the vowels in Sherlock Holmes are repeated in their exact order in Nero Wolfe.  A very clever homage, in my opinion.

Second is the way each author shows the brilliant reasoning power of his detective.  In “Rue Morgue,” Dupin and the narrator are taking a stroll.  There has been no conversation between them when Dupin says, “He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes.”  After a moment, the narrator realizes that Dupin has exactly followed his thought process since, in fact, he had been thinking that the particular actor was better suited to comedy than tragedy because of his extremely small stature.  The narrator insists that the detective explain, which Dupin does, showing how seven steps have enabled him to follow his friend’s thoughts perfectly.

In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” Holmes and Watson have been seated in silence for several hours when Holmes remarks, “So, Watson, you do not propose to invest in South African securities?”  Admitting his total astonishment at Holmes’ statement, Watson asks how Holmes came to that conclusion.  The detective tells him, showing how in six steps he went from seeing chalk between Watson’s fingers to deducing that Watson had decided against the investment.

And third is the “coincidence” of plot.  In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin visits a man suspected of having an incriminating letter he plans to use for blackmail hidden in his apartment.  When a shot is heard outside, the shot having been arranged by Dupin as a diversion, the man rushes to the window and Dupin is able to substitute an identical-looking letter and leave with the original. 

In the plot of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes tricks his way into Irene Adler’s home to find out where she keeps the photograph of herself and her former lover, the photograph the lover has hired Holmes to find.  The detective has arranged for a fake call of “fire” from outside to force Irene to reveal where she has hidden the picture, her most valuable possession.  

Even granting that some of Doyle’s writing owes a great deal to Poe, I believe that Doyle comes out ahead.  His style is much more natural, his characters more realistic.  So, although both men were gifted writers, my vote still goes to Doyle.  In my opinion, it’s a case of the student surpassing the teacher.









“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

Can anyone who has ever read those words forget them?  More than a century and a quarter have passed since The Hound of the Baskervilles was published, but the shock and horror of those nights on the moor outside Sir Henry Baskerville’s estate live on in the minds of all its readers.

I don’t know why I haven’t written an appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before this.  To me, he is the father of the modern mystery story (apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, but that’s my opinion).

When you consider that Sir Arthur was born in 1859 and created Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 1886, the freshness and modernity of his writing is nearly incredible.  More than 125 years after his “birth,” Sherlock Holmes is still read throughout the world.

He has been portrayed on the stage (William Gillette), in the movies (Basil Rathbone), and the PBS series starring Benedict Cumberbatch is returning to television in January (the less said about Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes, the better).  Anna Katharine Green and Catherine Louisa Perkis were roughly Doyle’s contemporaries, as were Israel Zangwill and Arthur Morrison; seen any television programs or movies about their protagonists lately?

The cleverness of the plots and the charisma of Holmes are what has kept this series alive.  The Hound of the Baskervilles is my favorite of the four novels Doyle wrote, but it is his short stories that show the author at his best.  Who can forget the trickery behind “The Red-headed League,” the snake slowly uncoiling from the ceiling in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” the greed of the stepfather in “A Case of Identity”?  And consider the allure of Irene Adler, the woman in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

That is not to say that all Holmes stories are equally good.  The last ones suffer from comparison to the first, and a careful reader can see where Doyle seemed to run out of ideas for his hero.  The plot of “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” is uncannily similar to that of “The Red-headed League,” and “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” definitely share the same idea.  But readers forgave Doyle his self-plagiarism, a concept that probably didn’t even exist when he wrote; they were simply too happy to have another Sherlock Holmes story.

Much of Doyle’s biography is well known.  He grew up in a poor Scottish home, was sent to medical school by a wealthy uncle, and during slack times in his opthalmic office started writing detective stories.  In addition to these two occupations, Doyle was, at various times, a whaler, a speculator, and a war correspondent.  A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story, and it was an immediate success.  Although Doyle wrote several historical novels and volumes of poetry as well, it is of course for the Holmes oeuvre that he is remembered today.

It may be that Arthur Conan Doyle was disappointed that his mystery novels and short stories were to be his legacy rather than the more serious works he wrote.  But we, his readers, can be forgiven for choosing the unforgettable Holmes and Watson above all of Dr. Doyle’s other literary creations.  There is something in them that resonates with us, that once read cannot be forgotten.

You can read more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creations at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.



Is there any mystery fan who has not read at least one novel featuring Perry Mason, the criminal defense attorney whose clients are always innocent?  Probably not.  Erle Stanley Gardner wrote eighty books featuring Mason, along with Perry’s confidential secretary Della Street, private investigator Paul Drake, district attorney Hamilton Burger, and police lieutenant Arthur Tragg.  The famous television series featured the same characters and ran from 1966 through 1957, staring Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, and Ray Collins, respectively.

Gardner was a self-taught lawyer, a student who attended one month of law school in Indiana before moving to California where he passed that state’s bar exam.  He began writing for the pulps in the 1920s; pulps were magazines called after the type of cheap paper on which they were printed.  Many well-known authors in the 1920s and 1930s got their starts in these magazines, Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man) and John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee novels) among them.

In 1933, Gardner published his first Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Velvet Claws.  It was an immediate success, and Gardner began writing full time.  In each of the Perry Mason books, a client comes to the lawyer, willingly or unwillingly, with a story that seems totally unbelievable.  Many of the novels deal with gorgeous women and multiple guns, and Perry is initially lied to by nearly all his clients.  The evidence against every client is so strong that the arrogant district attorney, Hamilton Burger, always strides into court with a pitying look at Perry, knowing that this time the famed defense lawyer cannot win.  But, of course, he does.

Gardner also wrote under various pen names, most famously using A. A. Fair for the Bertha Lam/Donald Cool series.  In addition, Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort in 1948 to investigate cases where he believed the wrong person had been convicted.

There is a delightful piece on YouTube with Gardner appearing as the mystery guest on TV’s “What’s My Line”:  Gardner comes across as charming, down-to-earth, and with a good sense of humor.

As a tribute to Gardner, a middle school in his adopted home town of Temecula, California is named after him.

In today’s world of mysteries with its demented characters and horrifying torture scenes, the Perry Mason series may seem a bit dated.   Most of the crimes in these novels are related to greed or revenge, good old-fashioned motives.  But, in fact, those motives never go out of style, as one knows from reading today’s newspapers.

Erle Stanley Gardner definitely made a place for himself as a writer of detective fiction.  He deserves to be on anyone’s list of masters of the genre.

MAJ SJOWALL and PER WAHLOO: An Appreciation

When you read this post of Past Masters and Mistresses, you’re getting two for the price of one.

Long before Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell arrived on the Scandinavian literary scene, there were Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a couple from Sweden who decided to write ten books of thirty chapters each to document what they saw as the disintegration of Swedish society.

I discovered their novels, which feature Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck, probably in the late 1960s, shortly after an English translation of their first book, Roseanna, was published.  I was beginning to look for new authors, having devoured the oeuvres (aren’t you impressed?) of Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dorothy L. Sayers.  I suppose I was interested in something different, something not American or British, but I’m not sure how I came upon Sjowall and Wahloo’s first mystery.  Just a lucky thing for me.

I was captured from the beginning, although this detective Beck was certainly not your usual protagonist at that time.  He was always depressed and dour, it seemed to me, with an increasingly unhappy home life, as each succeeding book in the series made clear.  But he was also dedicated and caring, obsessive in his work ethic, and never gave up. Over the years, I read each novel as it became available in the States.

There’s a wonderful interview with Maj Sjowall at The Guardian/The Observer web site.  I hadn’t known anything about Ms. Sjowall or her late partner (Per Wahloo died over forty years ago, just as the last novel in the series was published).  If you’re unfamiliar with their work, this interview will definitely make you want to get a copy of Roseanna and then read the nine novels that follow.  If you’ve read the books already, but it was back in the day, do yourself a favor and read them again.  They’re well worth the trip back in time to a Sweden just beginning to realize the enormous changes that were coming to its society.

Ms. Sjowall is currently living in Sweden.  I’ve stretched my definition of Past Masters and Mistresses a bit, as the Master in this Appreciation is deceased but the Mistress happily is not.  However, given that Ms. Sjowall is no longer writing any Martin Beck mysteries, I decided that this remarkable couple deserves an Appreciation.  I hope you’ll give their books a try.

TONY HILLERMAN: An Appreciation

All I know about the Navajo I learned from Tony Hillerman.

As soon as I read my first Hillerman novel, The Blessing Way, I was hooked. For several more books I was under the impression that Hillerman himself was a Native American, so knowledgeable did he seem.  Also, given his last name, I imagined a whole scenario in which the first male of his family was born within sight of a big hill, hence the name.  Ultimately I read that he was not a member of the Navajo tribe, or indeed any other tribe, simply a man who knew and respected the culture of the American Indian and wanted others to join him in appreciation of their culture.

Hillerman’s two detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are members of the Navajo Tribal Police who work out of the Four Corners area of Arizona and New Mexico. It’s a barren but beautiful area, and Hillerman’s prose puts the reader right there.  The huge open spaces, the day’s heat and the night’s cold, the dryness of the desert, the hope when black clouds come into view and the disappointment when they don’t drop any moisture on the parched land–all of that comes through vividly in each novel.

Hillerman’s first book, written in 1970, featured Joe Leaphorn, and Jim Chee came along exactly ten years later.  Each one was the protagonist in three books, and then Leaphorn and Chee combined forces in 1986 in an even dozen mysteries.

Leaphorn is the older, more experienced detective, and somewhat surprisingly is the less traditional of the two.  Chee is more conversant with the customs of his people, and indeed in some novels he is working toward becoming a singer of some of the Navajo blessing or curing ceremonies.  Both men are college graduates who have returned to Four Corners to put their skills and their understanding of the white culture to work for the Navajos.   Although Leaphorn and Chee differ in age and personality, essential goodness and compassion shine through both men.

As with many series, it’s best to begin at the beginning of the books, or at least as close to the beginning as possible.  Both men age and undergo personal highs and lows, and the books will be more meaningful if they’re read in the order in which they were written.

It speaks volumes about Hillerman that there is a Tony Hillerman middle school and a Tony Hillerman branch library, both in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He left behind a wonderful legacy in his books, and his memory is honored in his adopted state.  He died in 2008 at age 83.

Although Tony Hillerman didn’t have his own web page, there is a great deal of information about him on the web.  One good source is this web page.

JOHN D. MACDONALD: An Appreciation

I never knew there were so many colors in the rainbow until I started reading the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald.

Starting in 1964 and continuing until a year before his death in 1987, MacDonald wrote 78 books, 21 featuring that Florida knight-errant, Travis McGee.  How I miss him!

Dress Her in Indigo, A Tan and Sandy Silence, The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, The Empty Copper Sea–those are wonderful titles.

The Travis McGee series was, to my knowledge, the first in what now has become a long line of detective fiction from The Sunshine State:  think Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Randy Wayne White,  Stuart M. Kaminsky.  But McGee was not only the first to bring us to Fort Lauderdale, he made it his own.

He lived on The Busted Flush, a houseboat he moored at Slip F-18 in the marina, after he won it in a poker game.  That and Miss Agnes, his ancient Rolls Royce, seemed to be his only material possessions.  There was a perpetual party going on at the marina, with lots of sun bunnies, I think they were called, but McGee was never cavalier or uncaring in his sexual adventures.  They may seem a bit hedonistic now, but I don’t think they were.  It was a more innocent time, and McGee and his romantic adventures were part of it.

People in trouble came to McGee–people who had been scammed, abused, tricked out of what was rightfully theirs. McGee was a “court of last resort”; after all other avenues of justice had been tried and been proven inadequate, McGee rode to the rescue.  He asked a percentage of the “salvage,” what he recovered if it had a monetary value, but that’s not why he did what he did.  He was trying, and succeeding in his small way, to right the wrongs of the world.  He was for the underdog, first and foremost.

John D. MacDonald was years ahead of his time in talking about pollution, greed, and overbuilding in his beloved Florida–things we’re all too familiar with today.  But by making Travis McGee his voice, MacDonald made his points powerfully but without preaching.  McGee loved his state, rarely left it, and railed against the things that were changing it for the worse.  McGee did a lot of thinking about the state of the world, and most of it is as true today as it was when it was written.

I don’t know how easy it is to obtain the Travis McGee series, but you will be doing yourself a favor if you try to track down these books.  They take place in a time before computers, cell phones, and the Internet, but that doesn’t matter.  John D. MacDonald created a timeless series for us to enjoy.

You can read more about John D. MacDonald at this web site.

REX STOUT: An Appreciation

One of the first mystery authors I read was Rex Stout.  I was captivated immediately by his incredible creations–Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  The former was a transplanted Montenegrin, the latter a transplanted Ohioan, but they became the quintessential New Yorkers.  Ah, if only the walls of Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone could talk!

Although Rex Stout wrote other mysteries, it is the Wolfe series that made him famous and sealed him into my Mystery Hall of Fame.

More than 30 years ago I took a course on mysteries given by John McAleer, Professor of English at Boston College.  He had just written the biography of Rex Stout, and the thought of being in a room with someone who had actually met the author was an incredible experience for me.  I felt as if Stout might walk into our classroom at any moment.  He didn’t, but Professor McAleer made him real for me and everyone else in the class.

He told us that Stout wrote four pages every day and never made any corrections to his writing.  He thought it all out in his head beforehand and simply put it down on paper.  I still find that amazing.

I’ve seen a couple of old Nero Wolfe movies and the television series with the late Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie.  Fine actors they may be, but I could never get into the series.  The same holds true for the very brief series of Wolfe mysteries with William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Archie; it was a non-starter for me.   I had such a strong feeling for what Wolfe and Archie (that’s how I think of them; last name for Nero Wolfe, first name for Archie Goodwin) would look like and talk like, neither series rang true.  The script writers couldn’t match Stout’s prose, and Wolfe and Archie without Stout just didn’t work.

But Wolfe and Archie were not the only fabulous characters that Stout invented.  Anyone familiar with this series knows Fritz Brenner, the chef who cooks the incredible meals that Wolfe and Archie eat; Inspector Cramer, the always exasperated police detective who can never get the best of Wolfe; Lily Rowan, the wealthy society “girl” and Archie’s love interest; and Saul Panzer, a private eye second only to Archie in his abilities.  And who could forget the master criminal, Arnold Zeck?  He was the only man ever to come close to beating Wolfe.

There have been adaptations of Nero Wolfe mysteries in Germany, Italy, and Russia.  I can only imagine the liberties the writers of those scripts took with Stout’s words, if the American writers, obviously more familiar with U.S. slang and New York City, couldn’t get it right.  Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin need the words of Rex Stout, and no one else, to truly be who they are.  No adaptations or abridgments work.

So the bottom line is, if you want to visit this first-class detective series, you need to read the books.   Among my favorites are The Golden Spiders, Fer-de-Lance, A Family Affair, Too Many Cooks, and The Doorbell Rang.

You can read more about Rex Stout at the Wolfe Pack web site.

AGATHA CHRISTIE: An Appreciation

There is only one Queen of Crime, and Agatha Christie is her name.

From The Mysterious Affairs at Styles (1920) to Sleeping Murder (1976), she wrote.  Think of it, more than fifty years of writing.  Not only novels but plays, short stories, her biography, romances under the name Mary Westacott.  She began when there were probably more horses than cars in England and you needed an operator to make a telephone call and finished when men had stepped onto the moon and satellites spun around the earth.

Not every book she wrote was great.  Actually, on the advice of a friend I’ve never read Nemesis, because she told me it was so bad I’d never want to read another Christie afterward.  And I never liked Tommy and Tuppence, a married couple who seemed outdated to me even after Mrs. Christie tried to modernize them in the 1970s.

But, when she was good she was great.  If I had to choose one mystery to take along on the proverbial desert island, there’d be no hesitation…And Then There Were None.  I must have read that novel at least five times, and each time I’m amazed by it.  How did she do it, I’d ask myself.  The identity of the murderer is right there, it’s clear from the first chapter, and yet the reader is totally surprised at the end.  You may think that a mystery is a “beach read,” to use the popular phrase, but that’s not true for a really great one.  You need to read every word if you want to catch the villain.  And in Mrs. Christie’s books, to coin a metaphor, the floors are slippery with red herrings…you need to watch your step or you’ll fall into the trap she sets for you.

Monsieur Hercule Poirot was her masterpiece.  Ms. Jane Marple, the elderly lady from St. Mary Mead, was featured in a number of outstanding books (At Bertram’s Hotel, A Pocket Full of Rye, The Murder at the Vicarage), but it is Hercule Poirot who brought the author her greatest fame.  In 1975, the year before her death, Mrs. Christie released Curtain, which told the story of Poirot’s last case and his death.  I remember reading his obituary in The New York Times that day, the first (and maybe to this day still the only) time the death of a fictional character was headlined in that newspaper.

If you haven’t already read them, or even if you have, please do yourself a favor and (re)read the following:  And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and The ABC Murders, just to (re)discover what outstanding storytelling is.

You can read more about Agatha Christie at her web site.

DICK FRANCIS: An Appreciation

2009-10 was a sad year for mystery fans.  Dick Francis, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Robert B. Parker, and William G. Tapply all died within the last year.  I’d like to share my thoughts about each, beginning with Dick Francis.  Other columns will follow.

To my mind, Dick Francis was an absolute master.  I’ve ridden horses fewer than a dozen times in my life, including one weekend more than thirty years ago at a dude ranch.  I never was into the “young girl and horses” mania, although that may be because I grew up in Brooklyn and horses were few and far between on my street.  So why would Francis’s books resonate with me, and why did I await each new one so eagerly?

Dick Francis had an incredible knack for letting us into his characters’ minds. Most of his heroes (and yes, they are all men) were basically average men, not tough private investigators or policemen. They were actors (Edward Lincoln in Smokescreen), bookmakers (Ned Talbott in Even Money), chefs (Max Moreton in Dead Heat), glass blowers (Gerald Logan in Shattered) and other occupations not commonly associated with the racing world.  Each man was innocently involved in a criminal event connected to racing, and each had to find not only the solution to the crime but also the personal courage to deal with the situation.  It’s the resourcefulness and integrity of each of Francis’s characters that grabbed me years ago when I first started reading his novels.

Although as I’ve said in other posts on this blog, I prefer mysteries with a recurring character that I can follow, Francis’s books were so well written, so thoughtful, that even though most of his books are stand-alones (only two of his heroes appear in more than one book), I loved every one.  I don’t believe he ever wrote a bad book.  Actually, I don’t think he ever wrote a “good” book; they were all wonderful and I, along with many others, will miss him.

You can read more about Dick Francis at his web site, which is one of the very best sites of any type I’ve ever seen.