Archive for Golden Age Mysteries

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.


Another Golden Age? My Favorite Series Authors, 1990-2015

Posted in Colin Dexter, Donald Westlake, Donna Leon, Ed McBain, History of Mystery, Lawrence Block, Magdalen Nabb, Mysteries, Peter Lovesey, Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard, Ruth Rendell with tags , , on June 6, 2016 by cshmurak

When I became a member of the online group DorothyL back in 1994, my reading of mysteries really accelerated. In addition to the wonderful Golden Age mysteries I’d read and loved for a long time, and the new crop of female writers who followed upon the success of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the 1980s, there appeared to be so many other fine contemporary writers, male and female, of whom I’d never heard. I’m still a DorothyLer, and I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never be able to keep up with all the great mysteries out there.

But I’ve been thinking lately that the last 25 years (1990-2015) might be considered by some as another “Golden Age.” And so I’m writing this post to discuss the authors who have made the strongest impression on me. A very subjective list (aren’t they all?) but made a bit easier by the fact that I’ve submitted to DorothyL every year a list of my Top Ten mysteries for the year, and I’ve kept my lists archived on my computer. Some authors’ names appear again and again on my Top Ten lists.

So here are my nominees for the contemporary Golden Age. I’ve grouped them to make it a bit more manageable.

The Class of ’36:

Robert Barnard, Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey are three British authors who were all born in 1936. They all had academic backgrounds and, for a time, they travelled together in the UK calling themselves “The Class of ’36.” Sadly, Reginald Hill died in 2012 and Robert Barnard in 2013; Peter Lovesey is still publishing wonderful mysteries. The books of all three men have consistently made my Top Ten lists over the years.

charbodyPlease see my tribute to Robert Barnard published in 2014, on this blog.




BeulahReginald Hill was best known for his series of books featuring the beer-swilling, blasphemous Superintendent Andy Dalziel (pronounced “Dee-Ell”) and the more refined Sargent Peter Pascoe. If I had started with the first one, A Clubbable Woman (1970), I might not have continued; but Hill just kept getting better and better, and the one I read first was On Beulah Height (1998) because it was garnering so many rave reviews and award nominations. It was fabulous! Then I went back and started the series from its beginning. So many good ones – I’ll just list a few: Bones and Silence (1990), Recalled to Life (1992), Pictures of Perfection (1994), a personal favorite. A few of the later books were perhaps a little too scholarly for some readers, and even the earlier ones sent me to my Chambers Dictionary with a long list of words to look up, but the last three were just superb: Death Comes for the Fat Man (2007), The Price of Butcher’s Meat (2008), and Midnight Fugue (2009). I put off reading Midnight Fugue for a year or so when I realized it was to be the last one, but when I finally read it, I thought, “What a way to go out!”

BloodhoundsPeter Lovesey had written a series of successful Victorian mysteries and some excellent standalones – including the terrific Gold Dagger winner, The False Inspector Dew (1982) – before he began his Peter Diamond books. But it’s the latter series, beginning with The Last Detective (1991), that has elevated Lovesey to the my Top Ten list over and over. Lovesey has placed his prickly police detective in the city of Bath and given him a great variety of complex mysteries to solve: Bloodhounds (1996) is both a parody of mystery readers’ groups and a locked room mystery; Diamond Dust (2002) combines poignant tragedy with an amazingly twisty plot. And the high quality of the books continues – the last two I read (The Tooth Tattoo (2013) and The Stone Wife (2014)) were as clever and intriguing as the earlier ones.

The Expatriates

leonTwo women, one British, one American, moved to Italy in the 1970s and remained there, each writing a wonderful detective series. Donna Leon, an American author who resides in Venice, created the better known (at least in the US) of the two series. Her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, first appeared in Death at La Fenice (1992) and has been featured in a new mystery every year since then, a total of 25 books. Among my favorites are Acqua Alta (1996) – which brings back two characters from La Fenice, Flavia Petrelli and Brett Lynch; Flavia has recently reappeared in Falling in Love (2015) too – as well as A Noble Radiance (1998), Uniform Justice (2003), and Blood from a Stone (2005). Brunetti is a family man, so in addition to the mystery element, most of Leon’s readers, myself included, look forward to the warm and witty scenes of Brunetti with his professor-wife Paola and his two teen-age offspring, Raffi and Chiara. Many of Leon’s books have been adapted for German TV as the “Commissario Brunetti Mysteries”; the series is visually beautiful and well-acted, and is available with English subtitles.

nabbThe British writer, Magdalen Nabb, set her books in Florence, and her detective is Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Carabinieri, who makes his first appearance in Death of an Englishman (1981). The Marshal is an endearing character, often underestimated by his superiors, who becomes involved in the lives of the people he meets through his investigations. My all-time favorite of the series is The Marshal and The Madwoman (1988 ) for its detailed retelling of recent Florence history and its colorful portraits of even the minor characters. Other favorites include The Marshal at the Villa Torrini (1994), The Marshal Makes His Report (1991), and the last four in the series : Property of Blood (2001), Some Bitter Taste (2002), The Innocent (2005), and Villa Nuova (2008). Magdalen Nabb died in 2007, so there will be no more of the Marshal, but Soho has released all of her Florentine mysteries in beautiful new editions.

Both Leon and Nabb do a masterful job of putting the reader into the Italian cities they depict. One can feel the heat of August in Florence as the Marshal makes his way through the streets of the “Madwoman’s” neighborhood, and can follow Brunetti through the alleys and over the bridges of Venice as he wends his way home from the police station. (The Leon books have lately included maps of Venice.) And their central characters become incredibly real as each series progresses. Occasionally I’ve been asked to compare Brunetti and Guarnaccia, and what I say is: If I were having a dinner party, I’d invite Brunetti and Paola – they are witty and urbane and would keep the conversation lively. But if I were upset about something, I’d want a hug from the Marshal. (Unless it was August.)

The New Yorkers

Three writers, who have used New York City (or a facsimile thereof) as the backdrop for witty and well-plotted crime novels, have repeatedly made my Top Ten lists: Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, and Donald Westlake. (I’m using the term ‘crime novels’ here because Westlake’s books aren’t mysteries; they’re comic heist stories.)

MondrianLawrence Block has written an incredibly large number of books, including four crime series. The books that I love are those about Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and burglar. They are often funny and full of social commentary, yet hold up as well-plotted mysteries. As it happened, I started with the 6th book, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994), and I can’t recall why, as I’m not much of a baseball fan. But I liked it enough to read the next, The Burglar Who Thought He was Bogart (1995), and being a classic movie buff, I loved that one! So of course I had to start the series from the beginning, and found many more that I delighted in: The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (1979) (Block at his funniest), The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983) (a great twisty plot), The Burglar in the Library (1997) (a witty send-up of Agatha Christie). There have only been two more since 2000, but it’s always fun to be back with Bernie, and I hope for more.

McBainEd McBain is a hero of mine. Imagine sustaining a series for nearly 50 years (1958-2005) and still keeping it fresh – that’s what McBain did with his 87th Precinct novels. The last few books he wrote were as good or better than the earlier ones. Romance (1995) was the first one I read, and I found it funny and romantic (of course) and a delight to read. I was determined to read all the others that had preceded it, which was no small task: many of the books were out of print, so I had to obtain them from used book sources, (before Amazon really got going in that market and made it easy). Consequently, I read the books in the order I could find them, which was pretty random. But it didn’t matter too much – character development wasn’t the reason to read McBain. Not that the characters don’t change a little over time (though they don’t age much); it took a little effort to keep track of Kling’s love interests. But the dialogue was so good and the stories so entertaining that I persisted till I’d read them all, while still keeping up with the new ones as McBain published them. The grand total: 57 books. Favorites include: Like Love (1962), Tricks (1987), Widows (1991), Ax (1964), Fuzz (1968), Calypso (1979) and Fat Ollie’s Book (2003). (I wouldn’t advise starting with this last one – read a few books with Fat Ollie as a minor character first.)

drownedWhile several of the authors above write mysteries that could be categorized as ‘clever’ or ‘witty’, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books are best described as ingenious and hilarious. These are caper novels, not mysteries; each cleverly planned heist, whether of artwork, jewels, or simply money, goes awry with disastrously humorous results, and part of the fun is to see John Dortmunder plot his way out of the problems that arise. Drowned Hopes (1990) is Westlake’s tour de force, as the Dortmunder crew attempts an underwater robbery (again and again), but other favorites of mine are Get Real (2009), Bad News (2001), Good Behavior (1986), Jimmy the Kid (1974), and What’s the Worst that Could Happen? (1996).

The works of all three of these New York writers have been filmed – poorly. None of the film adaptations comes close to the book. The Hot Rock (1972), based on the first Dortmunder novel, is actually pretty good though Robert Redford is miscast as Dortmunder. Bank Shot, with George C. Scott as Dortmunder (renamed Ballentine), manages to be outright boring, and the less said about the other Dortmunder films the better. Bernie Rhodenbarr was given a sex change to Bernice as played by Whoopi Goldberg in the awful Burglar (1987); I think that ended Bernie’s film career. McBain’s 87th Precinct has fared better: a few of the earlier books were made into movies I’ve not seen (1958-60); a TV series (1961-62) was shown on American TV with Robert Lansing miscast but otherwise doing well as Steve Carella, and Norman Fell and Ron Harper well-cast as Meyer Meyer and Bert Kling respectively, and featuring guest stars like Leonard Nimoy and Dennis Hopper at the beginning of their careers; Fuzz (1972), with a screenplay by McBain, was played mostly for comedy with Burt Reynolds as Carella and Yul Brynner as “The Deaf Man”; and then there were a few made-for-TV movies (1995-1997), two with Dale Midkiff, who actually looked the most like my idea of Carella.

And Two More Brits

waythruwoodsI’m just going to give these last two a brief mention, as I plan to review some of their books in posts this fall: Colin Dexter, who created the wonderful Inspector Morse books (1975-1999),  and Ruth Rendell, better known for her “psychological” mysteries, but writing the Golden Age-like Inspector Wexford series for nearly fifty years (1964-2013). Among my favorite Morse novels are Last Seen Wearing (1976), The Wench is Dead (1989), in which Morse solves a case from his hospital bed just as Alan Grant did in Tey’s Daughter of Time, and the twisty The Way Through the Woods (1992) (reviewed here). The Wexford books that I most enjoyed are Best Man to Die (1969), A Sleeping Life (1978) (reviewed here), and The Monster in the Box (2009).

monsterinboxMany of the British writers’ characters have been dramatized by British television and shown on American TV as well; the casting in most cases has been impeccable. John Thaw was so good as Inspector Morse that Colin Dexter admits that the actor influenced the way he wrote about the character. Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan were perfection as Dalziel and Pascoe, and George Baker aptly filled the role of Wexford in 50 episodes of that series.  All three series went on for so long that the authors couldn’t keep up with the demand for TV scripts, so many of the episodes were written by others; not surprisingly, these seldom lived up to the quality of those based on the books.

So that’s my list! I might have included Margaret Maron, whose Deborah Knott series (1992-2015) has recently concluded after 20 books, but somehow, despite the excellence of some of those books, I don’t feel the same affection for them as I do for the ones above. Which authors would you include in your Golden Age list?

All of these books are available online, many as e-books as well as paperbacks, and a few others have been recently reprinted. Here are links to their pages on Amazon:

Barnard, The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori

Barnard, Murder in Mayfair

Hill, On Beulah Height

Hill, Pictures of Perfection

Lovesey, The Last Detective

Lovesey, The Tooth Tattoo

Leon, Death at La Fenice

Leon, Uniform Justice

Nabb, The Marshal at the Villa Torrini

Nabb, The Marshal and the Madwoman

Block, The Burglar who Thought He was Bogart

Block, The Burglar in the Library

McBain, Romance

McBain, Widows

Westlake, Drowned Hopes

Westlake, Bad News

Dexter, The Way Through the Woods

Dexter, The Wench is Dead

Rendell, The Monster in a Box

Rendell, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter

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,, will receive a small commission.

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,, will receive a small commission.

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 ( 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.