Gaudy Night (1935) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on February 28, 2019 by cshmurak

In 2000, Anthony Award voters selected the best mysteries of the 20th Century; the 5 finalists were The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Rebecca, and Gaudy Night, with Rebecca taking the top prize. I have to wonder how Gaudy Night made that list. Not that it’s not a good mystery, but it’s a difficult read compared to the others. Filled with long speeches, hundreds of quotations, and untranslated Latin phrases (plus one in untranslated Greek!), Gaudy Night is certainly not a page-turner.

It is, however, a fascinating look at women’s roles in the 1930s. Set at the fictitious Shrewsbury College of Oxford University (modelled on Somerville College, the women’s college that Sayers herself attended), Gaudy Night examines the life choices made by the dons and the students who reside there. Oxford University first began giving degrees to women in 1920, and it’s clear that the women of Shrewsbury are still insecure about the status of women’s education fifteen years later. When a series of poison pen letters and vicious attacks on manuscripts occur, the Dean and the “Warden” (the president of the college) don’t want to bring in the police because they fear the effects of a public scandal on the standing of the college. Instead, they ask Shrewsbury alumna Harriet Vane, renowned mystery novelist, to investigate. Harriet has recently attended a “gaudy” (a celebration much like a college reunion) there, and is persuaded to come for an extended visit.

Harriet is no stranger to scandal, having been tried for the murder of her ex-lover five years earlier (in Strong Poison) and she has successfully investigated one other mystery (Have His Carcase), which brought her further public attention. She is also the object of affection of the famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter had been responsible for her acquittal at the murder trial and has been asking her to marry him ever since.  And Harriet has been refusing – owing him her life, she cannot marry on such unequal terms.

Harriet spends much of the book thinking about women who marry and those who choose a career instead. She sees examples among her own former classmates of those who have lost themselves in service to their husbands and those who managed to maintain careers in partnership with their husbands. She also sees the havoc that romance wreaks in the lives of the young Shrewsbury students. (It’s not just the female students at Oxford whose love lives are problematic; there are some very funny encounters with male undergraduates.)  And of course she sees the dons, many of whom she greatly admires, who have chosen scholarly careers over marriage.  So it’s with great reluctance that she asks Lord Peter to, once again, help her solve the mystery.

Sayers made it no secret that she created the character of Harriet Vane in order to marry Lord Peter off and thus end the mystery series she had started twelve years earlier. How she moves their courtship along in this book is as interesting as the solution to the mystery.


The Thin Man (1934) – Dashiell Hammett

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dashiell Hammett, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries on January 22, 2019 by cshmurak

Most people hearing the title, The Thin Man, think of a classic film with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Perhaps they know that there were a series of films starring Powell and Loy with “Thin Man” in the title. Many fewer recognize it as the title of a book by the author of The Maltese Falcon.  The Thin Man was the last novel that Dashiell Hammett wrote; after 1934, the only published works by Hammett were previously written short stories.  Sadly, it’s not one of his better books.

Nick and Nora Charles, with their adorable dog Asta, are the protagonists as they are in the films, but in the book, Nora doesn’t do much. She shops at Saks, she pours a lot of drinks, she engages in cute verbal play with Nick. Nick is a former private eye, and he is the one who solves this case, though he claims he doesn’t want to get involved. Nora is a young heiress, and Nick has quit the detective business to manage his wife’s finances.  When Nora does try to put together the ‘clues’ – some of the odd things she has noticed – Nick says he’s sleepy and goes to bed.

Aside from this couple, there are few likable characters in the book. In fact, The Thin Man has some of the most unlikable women in detective fiction. Mimi Jorgenson is a lying, hysterical woman who beats her daughter, Dorothy Wynant. Dorothy is a whiny, immature 20-year-old with a hopeless crush on Nick. Then there’s the volatile redhead, Miriam, who throws a skillet at the man with whom she shares an apartment. The men include Gilbert Wynant, Dorothy’s brother, an insecure 18-year-old with intellectual pretensions, and Chris Jorgenson, the gigolo whom Mimi has recently married, and a few gangsters from Nick’s former life.

Most people assume that the “Thin Man” is Nick himself, but that’s a misconception caused by the titles of the six movies featuring Nick and Nora. It’s Clyde Wynant, Mimi’s ex-husband and the father of Dorothy and Gilbert, who is “the thinnest man” Nick ever met. Clyde is a somewhat loopy inventor, and he communicates with his lawyer Macaulay and with Nick via telegram, letter and phone messages. No one seems to know exactly where he is. When his secretary Julia is murdered, Clyde becomes the number one suspect for the police, though Nick is not so sure that Clyde is guilty. The rest of the plot involves Nick’s helping the police sort out the alibis and uncover the secrets behind the lies that just about everyone tells.

The setting is New York City during the Prohibition era. Nick and Nora, who are visiting from San Francisco, live in a spacious apartment at the Normandie Hotel for weeks at a time; the Jorgenson/Wynant household live at the Courtland Hotel. Most of the action takes place in one of these apartments and in various speakeasies. Nick and Nora stay out till 5 a.m. and think nothing of dropping in on Mimi and her children at 2 a.m. And everyone drinks an enormous quantity of alcohol. (Hammett himself struggled with alcoholism for much of his life.) The dialogue is breezy, and the story is told in Nick’s first person narrative.

The Thin Man is supposedly a “love letter” to Hammett’s longtime partner, the playwright Lillian Hellman; the book is indeed dedicated to her. (Hellmann admits that Hammett told her that the devious Mimi and manipulative Dorothy were also based on her.)  Nick is always commenting on Nora’s beauty, and the repartee between Nick and Nora is clearly a reflection of the Hammett/Hellman relationship.  I find it useful to think about this book, and the subsequent films based on it, in terms of four couples. There are the fictional Nick and Nora Charles  – he is 41 years old and she is 26. Then there are Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman; at the time the book was published, he was 40 and she was 29. Close enough.  But the people who brought the book to life were the actors, William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the screenwriters, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. When the first of the Thin Man films appeared, Powell was 44 and Loy was 29, and their portrayals of Nick and Nora Charles are witty and endearing.  Hackett and Goodrich were also a couple, married five years when the first film came out and married till her death at age 94. (For Hackett and Goodrich, the age difference was reversed, she being 41 and he 31 at the time of their marriage.) Together they wrote the screenplays for many classic films (It’s a Wonderful Life, Father of the Bride, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers etc.), and I think it’s their vision of a happily married couple that shines through the Thin Man films that so many of us love.



The Father Dowling mysteries (1977-2011) – Ralph McInerny

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on October 30, 2018 by cshmurak

The Father Dowling mysteries by Ralph McInerny must have been quite popular because McInerny’s publisher (St. Martin’s from the ’80s on) kept them in print for so many years. Yet the only major mystery award that McInerny seems to have won is a Bouchercon Life Achievement award in 1993; no single title was even nominated for an Agatha or an Anthony.

I’ve now read three of them: the first, Her Death of Cold (1977), and two later ones, Prodigal Father (2002) and Ash Wednesday (2008). I found the debut novel a little slow, but greatly enjoyed the other two; perhaps this is a series that grew better over time. McInerny was certainly a prolific author. A professor of philosophy and medieval studies at Notre Dame University for over 50 years, he wrote two other mystery series (one that was set at Notre Dame), several standalone mysteries, and many books on philosophy and the Catholic Church.

Father Roger Dowling, an expert on canon law and a former member of the Archdiocesan Marriage Court, is a recovering alcoholic who had become disillusioned with his vocation. As part of his recovery, he became the parish priest at St. Hilary’s church in Fox River, a suburb of Chicago. His close friend, Phil Keegan, is captain of detectives in the Fox River police department, and together they solve mysteries. This partnership, much like that of Rabbi Small and police chief Hugh Lanigan in Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series, allows the author to contrast the issues of mercy vs. justice and reason vs. faith. (In some of the later books, Keegan’s role is reduced and much of the police work is carried out by Keegan’s former partner, Lieutenant Cy Horvath.)

The stories are traditional mysteries, with multiple suspects, red herrings, and subtle clues. Her Death of Cold deals with the suspicious death of a wealthy widow who has left a generous gift to St. Hilary’s; Prodigal Father tells the story of a man who has left the priesthood but wishes to return to religious life as a monk in the Order of St. Athanasius, a monastery near Fox River; and Ash Wednesday describes the feud between two parishioners, one of whom takes revenge upon the other for supposedly causing a death in their family.

A few things set this series apart from most traditional mysteries: most notably, the perpetrator of the crime is not always brought to justice. As sometimes happens in the Rabbi Small series, the guilty person’s punishment is having to live with the knowledge of what a terrible thing he/she has done. A number of people in my book groups found this unsatisfying. McInerny’s use of Latin and classical references can make things difficult for readers with less knowledge than the author (and that’s most of us).  His feelings about Vatican II and the problems it has caused in the Catholic Church come across quite strongly too.

McInerny’s gentle humor pervades much of the books. The actions of the recurring characters of Tuttle, an inept lawyer, and Tetzel, a Pulitzer-seeking reporter – no first names were given for either man in the books that I read – are often hilarious.  And Dowling’s housekeeper, Marie Murkin, often lends a wry twist to the goings-on at St. Hilary’s. There are also puns: “fight friar with friar,” for example, and a major character named Agnes Lamb (!).

I haven’t seen the Father Dowling mysteries on TV, though I know that Tom Bosley, who plays the priest/detective in the series, looks nothing like the tall, slightly stooped Dowling of the books. I have to wonder if the humor and plotting of the McInerny novels were retained.

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) – Harry Kemelman

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on April 1, 2018 by cshmurak

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late is a traditional mystery with an untraditional detective. The protagonist, Rabbi David Small, is a young, somewhat unkempt, scholar and rabbi, who is new to his congregation in Barnard’s Crossing, a coastal town in Massachusetts. (The author, Harry Kemelman, lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts, for over 50 years, and it’s clear that Barnard’s Crossing is based on Marblehead.)  Small’s training as a rabbi has focused on the logical analysis of the Talmud, the central text of Jewish law and theology. He is a man of thought rather than a man of action.

As many contemporary clerical sleuths do, the rabbi has a good friend on the local police force (think of Father Roger Dowling and Captain Phil Keegan, or Sidney Chambers, the vicar of Grantchester, and Inspector Geordie Keating). Here, the friend is Police Chief Hugh Lanigan. Small and Lanigan meet for the first time in this book, and they engage in numerous discussions of ethics and religion while discussing the facts of the case at hand. Both men also have wives, and occasionally, they even listen to their wives’ suggestions.

The investigation in this book involves the murder of Elspeth Bleech, a nanny in the employ of the Serafino family. A shy young woman from Nova Scotia, Elspeth had one close friend, who tells the police that Elspeth never went on dates; yet an autopsy reveals that Elspeth was several months pregnant. Because her body was found in the parking lot of the new synagogue, Rabbi Small comes under suspicion, and when her handbag is found in the rabbi’s car, things look even worse. But there are plenty of other suspects. Eventually it is the rabbi’s logic, along with Lanigan’s good sense and long experience in criminal matters, that leads to the solution to this complicated mystery. And the mystery is a good one: I confess I couldn’t guess whodunit. Yet, like the best of Golden Age mysteries, the vital clue was there in plain sight.

For some reason, I’d never read any of Kemelman’s “Rabbi” mysteries before this. Now that I’ve read the first one, I plan to continue through the series. I already have Saturday and Sunday on order (Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry and Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home).

Photo Finish (1980) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on February 26, 2018 by cshmurak

I’m still making my way through unread books of Ngaio Marsh; Photo Finish, a book late in the Roderick Alleyn series, is not one of her best, I’m sad to say. As in many of her books, there is a theatrical background, though this time it’s a performance of a new opera that is the centerpiece of the plot. There is also a New Zealand setting, but aside from one Maori character, the book could have just as well been set in any country. Essentially, it’s a manor house mystery, with a group of people isolated in a large mansion on an island in the middle of a storm-racked lake. Of course, a murder occurs.

Superintendent Roderick Alleyn just happens to be there because his wife Troy has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the internationally celebrated opera star known as “La Sommita.” Loosely based on Maria Callas, Isabella Sommita is the mistress of millionaire Montague Reece, who has built the mansion for her. The diva has been stalked for years by a photographer known as “Strix,” and he may be on the island too. The debut of a new opera, written expressly for Sommita by an infatuated young musician, is the occasion for the gathering at the mansion.

Alleyn, of course, does what he can when the murder occurs, though he has no official standing as a police officer. Troy doesn’t do anything much except make a few sketches, and later, inexplicably, make a few beds. None of the other characters really comes to life in this book. Additionally, the fact that Mr. Reece’s male secretary is gay is constantly alluded to in the most unpleasant way.

Still, the story carries the reader along to its logical conclusion, and Marsh is scrupulously fair in providing clues. Photo Finish was a nice diversion while I was travelling, but it’s not a book that I’d recommend to someone who’s never read Marsh’s mysteries.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017) – Martin Edwards

Posted in 19th Century Mysteries, Agatha Christie, Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Margery Allingham on January 10, 2018 by cshmurak


I received this book as a Christmas gift and I’ve been having a wonderful time with it!

My first instinct — and this may be yours as well, since you are a reader of this blog — was to go through the Table of Contents, pencil in hand, and check off all the books I’d already read. Results: 30 out of 100.  Hmmm, not too bad, but so many more books to enjoy.  Next I turned to the chapter on Trent’s Last Case, my personal favorite of the early classics (see my review here). Good summary and analysis, no spoilers, and a brief bio of E.C. Bentley. Nice.

Then I began to read the book cover-to-cover. For each mystery, Edwards gave just enough detail for me to decide whether this was a mystery that I simply had to read, or whether it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I ended up with a long list of books, some of which I’ve been able to download at no cost from The Gutenberg Project or purchase very cheaply from iBooks.

The organization of the book must have been quite a challenge, but I like what Martin Edwards has done here. It starts off (mostly) chronologically with a section on “A New Era Dawns,” then “The Birth of the Golden Age.” Once Edwards arrives at the Golden Age, there are so many books to discuss that he groups them by theme: “The Great Detectives,” manor house mysteries, academic mysteries, ‘impossible’ crimes, inverted mysteries, humorous mysteries etc. American mysteries get their own chapter.

Have I finished this book? No, not yet. There’s too much to savor here. But I know I will, and I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for his monumental work and all the fascinating books that I’m going to read because of his book.

[You can buy The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books here.]

Night at the Vulcan (1951) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh on August 27, 2017 by cshmurak

Back to the Golden Age with Ngaio Marsh! This is another of her mysteries with a theatrical background, (see my review of Light Thickens), and her long experience as a producer/director is evident here. For example:

“There is nothing that gives one so strong a sense of theatre from the inside as the sound of invisible players in action. The disembodied and remote voices, projected at an unseen mark, the uncanny quiet offstage, the smells and the feeling that the walls and the dust listen, the sense of a simmering expectancy; all these together make a corporate life so that the theatre itself seems to breathe and pulse and give out a warmth.” [I wondered if it should be ‘corporal’ rather than ‘corporate’. A typo?]

In this book, the theatre is the Vulcan, recently renamed and reopened because a murder took place there years earlier. [This may have been in an earlier book in the series that  I haven’t read or have forgotten.] We follow a cast of players through two dress rehearsals and into opening night, and it’s not entirely clear which of the company will be the victim. But finally one of them doesn’t make it to the final curtain, and the police are called in to determine whether the death was a suicide or a murder. As with many Golden Age mysteries, there are a limited number of suspects; as with many of Marsh’s books, the death occurs quite late in the book (page 140 in my edition) and Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard doesn’t appear till several pages after that (page 147).

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Martyn Tarne, a young actress.  Martyn is similar to Roberta Grey in Death of a Peer in that she has just arrived from New Zealand and sees London from that perspective, as Marsh herself must once have done. Indeed, one of the young Lampreys from Death of a Peer is actually a character in this book.

In good Golden Age form, Alleyn gets to assemble all the suspects and explain the case to them. I had narrowed down the suspects to two likely characters, one of whom I really didn’t want to be guilty, and was still surprised by the final answer. This was a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying mystery.