Golden Age Mysteries: My Favorites

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on May 13, 2016 by cshmurak

The Golden Age of Mystery is usually defined as the period between World War I and World War II, or roughly 1920-1940; some people would extend it into the early 1950s. As for me, I like to think of the Golden Age as beginning with Trent’s Last Case in 1913, interrupted by WWI, and then continuing into the early 1950s (so I can include the best of Josephine Tey, who’s clearly a Golden Age author). Below I list my favorites –  a subjective list, of course. The order is somewhat random, I confess, but I think the first three are truly my top three.

  1. 99661574Trent’s Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley – The book that introduced a detective who’s fallible and human, at a time when most mystery authors were creating omniscient Sherlock Holmes clones. Read my review of it here. So many Golden Age authors (Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie among others) admired this book as one of the outstanding pieces of detective fiction of all time, and Sayers even copied an important plot point for her first mystery, Whose Body.

  2. strong poisonStrong Poison (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers – The beginning of the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane romance as well as a well-plotted and humorous mystery. Though others may prefer Gaudy Night or The Nine Tailors – both of which I’ve enjoyed – I find them too weighed down by feminist rhetoric or showy scholarship (into bell-ringing!). You can find my review of Strong Poison here.
  3. bewiseTo Love and Be Wise (1950) by Josephine Tey – It’s so difficult to choose just one of Tey’s books, but this is a sentimental favorite. I love Brat Farrar too, and many people would say it was her best book, but I just can’t choose a book without Alan Grant! And as for The Daughter of Time, I find it brilliant on some days and tedious on others. Reviews of all three: TL&BW, BF, DoT
  4. longdivorceThe Long Divorce (1951) by Edmund Crispin – Many people would choose The Moving Toyshop as Crispin’s best book, but I’ve never liked it that much; maybe the over-the-top finale is just too much for me. For complete hilarity, I’d go with Crispin’s Buried for Pleasure instead. Long Divorce, on the other hand, while still quite humorous, puts the emphasis on the mystery, as Crispin’s Oxford don detective, Gervase Fen, travelling incognito as “Mr. Datchery,” solves a case involving poison pen letters and murder. People who enjoy humor that is eccentric and scholarly (though never pompous) will enjoy this one.
  5. 51mru5rxXfL._SX367_BO1,204,203,200_Flowers for the Judge (1936) by Margery Allingham – Allingham wrote so many novels about Albert Campion (and she kept on writing them through the mid-1960s) that it’s difficult to choose. I really like Sweet Danger, in which Albert meets Amanda Fitton for the first time, and Dancers in Mourning (which I review here). But Flowers for the Judge is especially entertaining, both for its look at the world of publishing and for the amazing disappearance in broad daylight of one of the members of the publishing house.
  6. MarshConstables_Clutch of Constables (1968) by Ngaio Marsh – Like Allingham, Marsh is another of the great British writers who continued to write Golden Age mysteries long after the period was over (until 1982, in fact). I might have chosen Artists in Crime (1938) instead, the book in which Roderick Alleyn meets Agatha Troy –  notice a certain romantic theme in my favorites (see Strong Poison and Sweet Danger mentioned above) – or Death of a Peer (1940) (reviewed here) for its exuberant silliness – another theme in my favorites (see Buried for Pleasure above and Appleby’s End below). But I truly love this one that features Troy in the leading role. Here’s my review.
  7. farewellThe Long Farewell (1958) by Michael Innes – Like Marsh, Michael Innes wrote Golden Age mysteries from the 1930s to the 1980s. Some of them are very funny (like Appleby’s End with its bizarre train ride); others – chiefly those written in the 1940s –  are more like spy novels, and some are pure mysteries. The Long Farewell is in the last category and shows Oxford scholar Innes at his best, as his detective Sir John Appleby investigates the suicide (or was it murder?) of a bigamous Shakespearean scholar. In addition to his Appleby novels, Innes wrote a series of books about Charles Honeybath – most of which I don’t like – and a few non-series books that are very good, particularly A Change of Heir and Christmas at Candleshoe. (The Disney studio bought the title, Candleshoe, and then threw away the book, so the film and the book have nothing much in common.)
  8. Trial&ErrorTrial and Error (1937) by Anthony Berkeley – Berkeley wrote a series of good mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s featuring the writer/sleuth Roger Sheringham. In 1929 he created a character named Ambrose Chitterwick (“a mild little man of no particular appearance”) and placed him in a Sheringham book, The Poisoned Chocolates Case.  An unlikely detective, Chitterwick appeared in two more of Berkeley’s novels, The Piccadilly Murder (1929) and Trial and Error (1937). For me, it’s really a toss-up between Poisoned Chocolates and Trial and Error. But I’m choosing Trial and Error for the uniqueness of the plot, wherein a murderer tries to prove he committed the murder so an innocent man won’t be convicted of the crime. Berkeley also wrote under various pseudonyms; as Francis Iles, he was the creator of the creepy Before the Fact, the basis of the Hitchcock film, Suspicion.
  9.  AdrianThe List of Adrian Messenger (1959) by Philip MacDonald – Starting with The Rasp (1924), MacDonald wrote a series of mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s about detective Anthony Gethryn, then brought him back for one last bow in this book, a finalist for the 1960 Edgar Award.  Adrian Messenger gives a list of ten men’s names to a friend at Scotland Yard; then the plane carrying Messenger is blown up, and Gethryn must investigate each of the ten men to find if any of them is still alive and which one is the murderer. This was made into a film of the same name in 1963, starring George C. Scott as Gethryn, and featuring people like Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum in fairly obvious disguises. The movie is fun, though not nearly as clever as the book.
  10. HouseoftheArrowThe House of the Arrow (1924) by A.E.W. Mason – Mason is most often remembered – if he’s remembered at all – as the author of The Four Feathers, a wonderful adventure story. But he also wrote a series of five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud, an eccentric French detective who may have been a precursor of Hercule Poirot. The House of the Arrow may be Mason’s best, though At the Villa Rose, written in 1910, is a close second. In Arrow, Hanaud must help a young heiress prove that she hasn’t murdered the woman who left her all her fortune. Publisher and critic Bennett Cerf said of this book: “Its startling but thoroughly logical conclusion, which took me completely by surprise, still impresses me as the cleverest piece of literary sleight-of-hand I have ever read in a detective story.” There have been three British film versions of this novel (1930, 1940, 1953), none of which I’ve ever seen, but I think I’m going to try to track them down!

All of these books are available online, many as e-books as well as paperbacks, and a few others have been recently reprinted by wonderful publishers like Felony & Mayhem or Stratus. Here are links to their pages on Amazon:

Trent’s Last Case

Strong Poison

To Love and Be Wise

Brat Farrar

The Long Divorce

Buried for Pleasure

Flowers for the Judge

Sweet Danger

Dancers in Mourning

Artists in Crime

Clutch of Constables

Death of a Peer

The Long Farewell

Appleby’s End

Poisoned Chocolates Case

Trial and Error

List of Adrian Messenger

House of the Arrow

At the Villa Rose

Note: If you make a purchase using one of these links, I receive no payment; however, at no cost to you, my daughter’s green living blog, HealthyGreenSavvy.com, will receive a small commission.

The Big Sleep (1939) – Raymond Chandler

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Raymond Chandler on January 23, 2015 by cshmurak

BigSleepThis was a big year for Raymond Chandler and his fans. Billy and Ray, a show about Chandler’s writing the screenplay for Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder, opened off Broadway. A new book, The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (the pseudonym of author John Banville), carrying on the exploits of Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, was published. The real-life model for Marlowe, a PI named Samuel Marlowe, was revealed. And a libretto for an operetta, The Princess and The Pedlar, co-written by Chandler in 1917, was discovered. So it seemed like Chandler was everywhere when my book group and I set out to read The Big Sleep this past September.

Chandler is not known for his plotting, so it’s not surprising that The Big Sleep leaves some threads dangling at the end; we’re never exactly sure who killed the chauffeur, for example. (The 1946 movie version is even worse, as the three screenwriters, one of whom was William Faulkner, were clearly under instructions from the studio to stick Lauren Bacall’s character into as many scenes as possible, in order to capitalize on the public’s desire to see Bogart and Bacall together.) There is a homophobic element throughout the book as well, not an uncommon thing in hard-boiled detective fiction of that time. And Chandler’s women, with one exception, are pretty awful too.

So why is Chandler so revered? And why was The Big Sleep a finalist for the Anthony for “Best Mystery of the Twentieth Century”? (The others were Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon [see my blog posts on these two], Sayers’s Gaudy Night, and duMaurier’s Rebecca, the winner of the award.) Clearly it is his style.

The book is filled with similes that have come to be known as Chandlerisms:”The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.” “The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” There is also a lot of description of people and the clothes they wear: 

            “She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating… Her eyes were slate-gray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.”

The character of Marlowe is the prototype of all the sardonic, wise-cracking PIs who come after him:

” ‘Tall aren’t you?’ she said.

‘I didn’t mean to be.’ “

By coincidence, I was rereading Robert B. Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace [see my blog post on this book] at the same time as I was reading The Big Sleep, and it was obvious how much Parker had learned from Chandler. Many of Marlowe’s quips, like the one above, would feel right coming out of Spenser’s mouth. Both books use the image of the knight as a symbol of the detective and his code. Indeed, the knight appears on the first page of The Big Sleep in a stained glass panel, and reappears several times, once as a chess piece (“Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights”) and near the end on the same panel as on page 1 (“The knight in the stained glass window still wasn’t getting anywhere”). Parker too is explicit about Spenser’s code of chivalry, and his girlfriend Susan often refers to him as “Galahad” or “Lancelot.”

Almost anyone who writes hard-boiled detective fiction today is compared to Chandler. And if the setting is Los Angeles, the comparison is inevitable. Of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), one critic says: “Mosley’s going to be compared with Chandler, but he has a clarity and precision that Chandler never achieved,” and another says “Easy Rawlins is cut from Philip Marlowe’s cloth, but he goes him one better.” The Los Angeles Times says of Robert Crais’s L.A. Requiem (1999): “After Chandler we had James M. Cain and after Cain there was Ross MacDonald and currently we have Robert Crais.”

So, is this a great detective novel? I don’t think so, not by today’s standards. But was it an incredibly influential book? Absolutely.

 

 

Robert Barnard – A Tribute

Posted in Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Robert Barnard with tags , , , on May 22, 2014 by cshmurak

charbodyI recently finished reading A Charitable Body, the last published book of Robert Barnard, one of the best of our contemporary British mystery writers. Robert Barnard (1936-2013) was in many ways a Golden Age writer: his mysteries were always carefully constructed and filled with intelligence and wit. His series characters, Perry Trethowan and Charlie Peace, were memorable and endearing. And many of his non-series books were even better than the ones with Trethowan and Peace.

For twenty years, I have been a member of the e-list DorothyL, and an annual DorothyL tradition is the posting of members’ Top Ten books read that year. Robert Barnard’s books almost always made my Top Ten list, and the lists of many others. Sometimes, two or three of his books made it into my list of favorites for the year.

Though he was awarded a Diamond Dagger (an award for Lifetime Achievement) by the British Crime Writers Association in 2003, Barnard’s novels never won an Edgar, an Agatha or an Anthony (though some of his short stories did, and a few of his books were finalists for the Edgar). His American fans were numerous, and yet he never became a household name.

So this is my tribute to Robert Barnard: a list of my favorites among his many books: the ones that, over the years, kept me entranced and amused and made me eager to come back for more.

In chronological order they are:

Death on the High C’s (1977)

Death by Sheer Torture (1981) [Trethowan]

The Case of the Missing Bronte (1983) [Trethowan]

Corpse in a Gilded Cage (1984)

School for Murder (1984)

Out of the Blackout  (1985)

Political Suicide (1986)

Skeleton in the Grass (1987)

Death & the Chaste Apprentice (1989)  [Charlie Peace]

Scandal in Belgravia (1991)

Masters of the House (1994)

Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998) [Charlie Peace]

Murder in Mayfair (2000)

Unholy Dying (2000)

Bones in the Attic (2001)  [Charlie Peace]

The Graveyard Position (2004)

Last Post  (2008)

The Killings on Jubilee Terrace (2009) [Charlie Peace]

A Stranger in the Family (2010)

A Charitable Body (2012) [Charlie Peace]

 

Thank you, Robert Barnard,  for so many years of enjoyment!schoolformurder

 


 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

The Five Red Herrings (1931) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on April 8, 2013 by cshmurak

5redherringsThe Five Red Herrings is usually considered one of Sayers’s least successful books, and I have to agree. It lacks the wit and colorful characters of most of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. And yet even a lesser Sayers book is worth a look — if the reader can make it through all the Scottish dialect and railroad timetables. This is the book that follows Strong Poison, so Lord Peter has met Harriet Vane and wants her to marry him. Yet there is no mention of her here. Peter has gone off to Scotland to vacation among the artists of Kirkcudbright and is drawn into the mystery surrounding the death of one of them. What was Sayers thinking?

Apparently, she was thinking of her friends and colleagues in the Detection Club; in fact, Lord Peter mentions many of them:  Austin Freeman, G.K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Crofts, GDH Cole, and Milward Kennedy. She even has one of the characters make a joke about the lowest form of detective fiction, one that has a murderer who was not introduced until the end of the story (a violation of one of Ronald Knox’s ten rules for detective fiction).

This is a true Golden Age puzzle mystery, and Sayers plays scrupulously fair with her reader. As early as chapter 2, she points to an important clue. She doesn’t hide it; she calls our attention to it. Less than halfway through, she again provides another vital clue, this time more deftly hidden. This is a murder in a small, well-defined community: there are six suspects — one is the murderer, the other five are red herrings. Alibis are checked, lies are uncovered. And in the end, Lord Peter comes up with a brilliant, if far-fetched, re-creation of the crime.

But the six suspects are not especially well characterized, so that it is difficult to remember who is who. When the narrative leaves Lord Peter to follow some of the local policemen in their investigations, the book becomes plodding. And there is one character brought into the story who is depicted in a blatantly anti-Semitic way (which unfortunately is also a feature of many Golden Age mysteries).

I felt as I reread The Five Red Herrings that the proper way to read this book was to construct a chart with six columns, one for each of the suspects, and then to fill in the information about each one as it is given, until all the clues in one column add up to the murderer. Of course, few people today (including me) want to take the time and effort to do this; I wonder if readers in the 1930s did. I did figure out the identity of the murderer about halfway through, though I could never have put together the timetable of events that Lord Peter did. So I enjoyed seeing the solution worked out, and I admired the underlying construction of the book. But as Inspector MacPherson says at one point in the book, there are too many bicycles!

Whose Body (1923) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on February 17, 2013 by cshmurak

Whose BodyThis is the the book that introduced Lord Peter Wimsey to the world. It’s fascinating to see how most of the characters who would become a fictional repertory company are here at the start: Bunter, Charles Parker, the Dowager Duchess, Freddie Arbuthnot, even Sir Impey Biggs. Lord Peter already lives at 110 Piccadilly, which would become 110A (half of 221B?) in later books, and is busily collecting rare books and dropping his final G’s (an affectation that he loses as he becomes a more serious character ). It’s worth noting too that Lord Peter’s first words in Whose Body (“Oh, damn!”) are also his last words in the final book, Busman’s Honeymoon.

The plot involves the appearance of a mysterious body in a bathtub and the disappearance of the financial giant, Sir Reuben Levy. Lord Peter knows immediately that the body is not that of Sir Reuben; in Sayers’s original manuscript, it was because the body was not circumcised, but in the published version, his feet provide the evidence that the body was not that of a rich man.  Sayers was almost too generous in providing clues; I guessed the culprit very early on, as well as the motive, so for me the book became a howdunit instead of a whodunit. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that my knowing that Sayers was a big fan of Trent’s Last Case (see my review of that book on this blog) also helped me figure out a bit of the murderer’s modus operandi.

Whose Body has the witty dialogue (especially from Lord Peter and the Dowager Duchess) that Sayers did so well, and it’s full of the literary allusions one expects from her. There’s also the untranslated French and German dialogue that I find so annoying. But I’ve discovered a wonderful website by Bill Peschel (http://planetpeschel.com/wp/the-wimsey-annotations/whose-body/) that is a big help with all the references and foreign languages.

Despite some of the unlikely things that occur in the book, Whose Body is still a delight to read.

Curtain (1975) – Agatha Christie

Posted in Agatha Christie, Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on February 4, 2013 by cshmurak

Curtain2Curtain is Hercule Poirot’s last case. Agatha Christie wrote it during World War II, not sure she would survive the war. She had it locked away, to be published after her death, but in fact, she had it released in 1975, the year before she died. In Curtain, she reunites Poirot with Captain Hastings, now widowed and with a grown daughter. They return to Styles, the site of their first case (in The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Here Poirot tells Hastings about a serial murderer whom he refers to only as X. Poirot has a bad heart and is crippled with arthritis, but he is determined to bring X to justice.

Is it a fitting end to the Poirot series? In some ways, yes. Despite old age and illness, Poirot is his usual smug self, still withholding information from Hastings and from the reader; here he justifies himself that he is protecting Hastings from dangerous knowledge. Poirot succeeds of course, though at great cost to himself. And in many ways, Christie plays fair in presenting many clues while still surprising her readers. There is also one very clever bit of irony near the end, in which Hastings himself is the unwitting perpetrator of a crime.

But there is also a sloppiness here that is not characteristic of Christie at the top of her form. A five letter word in a Times crossword, which feels like it must be a clue, turns out to be “IAGO” — a four letter word. Poirot leads Hasting to what he says is a “logical inference,” but in fact, it’s not really logical at all. And the writing is sometimes repetitive or opaque. Was the editor afraid to change a word of the sacred text?  What’s more, I’m not at all convinced that the murderer’s usual method was feasible in the first place.

But there is  a certain satisfaction in seeing Poirot bring the criminal to justice in his final case.

The Nine Tailors (1934) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on November 8, 2012 by cshmurak

I’d like to welcome Donna Fletcher Crow, one of my fellow authors from the brand new e-book 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror, 52 Authors Look Back.  Donna is stopping by as part of the 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror Blog Tour. And I’m guest blogging on Donna’s blog too; we are both talking about Dorothy L. Sayers today. As soon as you finish here, you can read my essay, “Lord Peter and Me,” about how the Lord Peter Wimsey series has influenced my writing, on “Deeds of Darkness; Deeds of Light”:http://ning.it/RXT0wV

 Now on to Donna’s review of The Nine Tailors!

In The Nine Tailors, which many of Dorothy L Sayers’ fans consider to be her best book,  the murder and subsequent detecting are intricate. The setting— a small village in the fen country of East Anglia— is atmospheric and developed almost as a character in the story; the information about bell-ringing is fascinating; the characters are developed as living, breathing people and Lord Peter himself is at the top of his literate form.

All very true, but one of my favorite things about the book is what it says about the English spirit. I recently read a fun post on Facebook— A notice posted in war-torn Britain in 1940 for golfers with stiff upper lips. The historical background is that German aircraft from Norway would fly on missions to northern England; because of the icy weather conditions, the barrels of their guns had a small dab of wax to protect them. As they crossed the coast, they would clear their guns by firing a few rounds at the golf courses.

Rules stated that during competitions, during gunfire or while bombs were falling, players could take cover without penalty for ceasing play. The positions of known delayed action bombs were marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance. A ball moved by enemy action could be replaced, or if destroyed, could be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty. A player whose stroke was affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb could play another ball from the same place— penalty one stroke.

The person who posted this concluded: “This is purely wonderful— and says more than anything else I have ever seen about why Hitler lost the Battle of Britain.” And that echoes what I have always said about The Nine Tailors, (written in 1934)— that if Hitler had read that novel he would have known better than to try to break the British spirit with the Blitz.

When the dikes break after torrential rains the village of Fenchurch St. Paul is flooded. Do the villagers panic? No, not in the least. The church, the center of village life, is built on high ground. The villagers calmly and quietly work together. Everyone in the community pitches in rounding up children, cattle, and cookpots and taking them to the church. They set up a schoolroom, arrange space for cooking and sleeping and care for their livestock. In other words, life goes on. And Lord Peter maintains his sense of humor.

I have found this to be so true of the British spirit. I have been there during strikes, shootings and terrorist attacks. Family members would ring from America and ask in worried voice, “Are you all right?” And many times I wouldn’t even know anything was going on. Just as in Fenchurch St. Paul, no one panicked, everyone worked together to do what needed to be done and life went on.

That is just one example of the many things I love about the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers and why, when I began my Elizabeth & Richard romantic suspense series which features a literary figure in the background of each book, the first literary figure I chose was Lord Peter Wimsey.

In The Shadow of Reality, literature professors Elizabeth and Richard attend a mystery week in the Rocky Mountains, fictionally set as an English weekend. The host of the weekend is playing his role modeled on that perfect English gentleman sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. And Elizabeth is captivated:The setting was all her fantasies come true:  an elegant English manor house in the 1930’s. The man was even more than she had dreamed:  Sir Gavin Kendall— sophisticated, brilliant, rich and captivated by her.  Until murder intervened. Will Elizabeth’s lifelong dreams become reality or will she fall prey to the vicious murderer lurking in the shadows at an exotic mystery week high in the Rockies? Will Elizabeth discover the narrow line between fantasy and reality in time to achieve her dreams? http://ning.it/OY5DXp

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 40 books, mostly novels dealing with British history.  The award-winning Glastonbury, A Novel of the Holy Grail, an Arthurian grail search epic covering 15 centuries of English history, is her best-known work.  She is also the author of The Monastery Murders: A Very Private Grave  and A Darkly Hidden Truth, as well as the Lord Danvers series of Victorian true-crime novels and the romantic suspense series The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries. Donna and her husband live in Boise, Idaho.  They have 4 adult children and 11 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener. To read more about all of Donna’s books and see pictures from her garden and research trips go to: http://www.donnafletchercrow.com/ You can follow her on Facebook at: http://ning.it/OHi0MY 

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