Archive for the Classic Mystery Reviews Category

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.

 

 

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Peter Dickinson – A Tribute

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries on June 13, 2017 by cshmurak

I recently reread Peter Dickinson’s Some Deaths Before Dying (1999) – it may have been the fourth time I’ve read it – and was deeply impressed still again by the magnificent story-telling. Sure, there have been other books in which the detective is bedridden and must rely on the footwork and interview skills of others: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter come immediately to mind. But those two books center on police detectives who are professionally trained and experienced at solving mysteries. Dickinson’s protagonist is a 90 year old woman with ALS, paralyzed from the neck down and barely able to speak. Her determination to understand the events leading up to her husband’s death draws in two other women who are willing to help her in her quest. It’s an amazing book.

When I first retired from 40 years of teaching, I decided to start a mystery readers group at my local library, and fortunately my efforts were welcomed by the library. For our first meeting, I wanted to choose a book that would attract people who were already mystery lovers and perhaps some other readers who were not familiar with classic mysteries. I chose Dickinson’s The Yellow Room Conspiracy (1994). The title harks back to two classics: The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) by Gaston Leroux and The Yellow Room (1945) by Mary Roberts Rinehart. The story itself is set in England in the period between world wars and thus reflects the time of The Golden Age mysteries. And it’s a compelling story of love and loss. We had a stimulating discussion, and the mystery group continues to this day.

Peter Dickinson (1927-2015) died not long ago on his 88th birthday. Unfortunately Some Deaths Before Dying was his last mystery (though he continued writing prize-winning children’s books for many years afterwards). He simply could not write mysteries fast enough to meet his publisher’s demands and so he gave up on them. But what a legacy he has left behind! His very first mystery, The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest (1968)also published as Skin Deep –   won the Golden Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association and was a finalist for the Edgar Award in the United States. His second book, The Old English Peep Show (1969) did the same; Dickinson was the first author to win two Gold Daggers in a row.

His books are never formulaic, even those in his Jimmy Pibble series. The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest is about murder among a New Guinea tribe that is housed in London; The Old English Peep Show is a country manor mystery, but the killers appear to be a pride of lions. Two of his mysteries create an alternate history of the British royal family: King and Joker (1976) and Skeleton-in-Waiting (1989). In these books, the eldest son of King Edward VII did not die in 1892 but instead went on to rule as King Victor II, and Buckingham palace is the scene of the crimes. Among my other favorites of Dickinson’s books are The Last House Party (1982), again set in the period between wars, and Hindsight (1983) with its World War II backstory of the relocation of London’s children to the countryside.

For many, many hours of fascinating reading, Peter Dickinson, I salute you!

Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) – Tony Hillerman

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Tony Hillerman with tags , , , on March 6, 2017 by cshmurak

hillerman
This is the second book in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series set in the Four Corners area of Arizona/New Mexico. The series almost didn’t happen: Hillerman’s agent, on reading the first book, The Blessing Way, suggested that he cut Joe Leaphorn and “all that Indian stuff.” Fortunately Hillerman persisted, and an editor at Harper & Row suggested that Leaphorn’s role be enlarged. A few books later, Jim Chee was created. (Hillerman had briefly lost the rights to Leaphorn and so had to invent a new Navajo detective; when he regained those rights, Leaphorn and Chee became a team.)

Dance Hall for the Dead won an Edgar award for Best Novel and was well-deserving of the honor. As a traditional mystery, it has all the requisite elements: several murders, a cruel and devious murderer, clues, red herrings, and a distinctive detective. But it has so much more: Joe Leaphorn is a man who lives in two worlds, a protagonist with the knowledge of the modern police detective and the skills of a traditional Navajo tracker. Like some of the Native American sleuths who have followed him (I’m thinking particularly of Jane Whitefield, Thomas Perry’s Seneca ‘guide’), Leaphorn has the ability to remain still for hours, while keenly observant his surroundings.

In addition to the hunt for the murderer, there is a search for a missing Navajo boy in the high desert, where winter is fast approaching; thus the setting becomes, as is true in most of Hillerman’s books, an important element of the book. And the reader will, of course, learn much about both Navajo and Zuni cultures, as well as some fascinating archeological information (about Folsom man).

I had read a few of the later Hillerman best-sellers, like Thief of Time (1988) and Coyote Waits (1990), but it was interesting to go back to a much earlier book in this series. Joe Leaphorn was a marvelous addition to the world of detective fiction.

A Sleeping Life (1978) – Ruth Rendell

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Ruth Rendell with tags , on December 27, 2016 by cshmurak

sleeping-lifeUnlike many fictional detectives, who are often eccentric loners,  Reginald Wexford is a family man: happily married, with an adoring wife and two grown daughters. In A Sleeping Life, one of his daughters is unhappy in her marriage, and his attempt to understand her situation makes him wonder about his own.

Set in 1978, A Sleeping Life brings the reader into a time when women were questioning much about their lives. Like Parker’s Finding Rachel Wallace (reviewed here), it gives us a glimpse of the feminist movement of the time.  Rendell was called “the biggest anti-feminist there is” by Ms. Magazine  for her portrayal of a radical women’s group in An Unkindness of Ravens (1985), but here, she seems sympathetic to the plight of both Wexford’s daughter Sylvia and that of the murder victim, Rhoda Confrey.

Rhoda Confrey, a middle-aged, unattractive woman, is someone whom society might well have assigned the role of caregiver to her elderly father. But by suddenly coming into money, she escapes that fate and goes off to live her own life in London. What then leads to her death by stabbing in her hometown? And what exactly was her life like in London?

Wexford and his longtime friend and assistant, Michael Burden, go up several blind alleys in their attempt to solve the mystery of Rhoda’s life and death. Rendell provides many clues, cleverly distracting the reader from their significance.  A finalist for the Edgar Award (at a time when very few women were nominated for Edgars), A Sleeping Life is one of my favorites of Baroness Rendell’s Wexford books.

 

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.

 

 

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!