H.C. Bailey | Margery Allingham | Anthony Wynne | Philip MacDonald | Lynn Brock | Sutherland Scott | Josephine Bell | Fiona Sinclair | Elizabeth Ferrars / E.X. Ferrars | J.J. Connington | Gladys Mitchell | R.C. Woodthorpe | Shelley Smith | Glyn Carr | Ruth Rendell
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Call Mr. Fortune (collected 1919) (available on-line at http://manybooks.net/titles/baileyhcother07Call_Mr_Fortune.html)
Mr. Fortune's Practice (collected 1923)
Mr. Fortune's Trials (collected 1925)
Mr. Fortune, Please (collected 1927)
Mr. Fortune Speaking (collected 1929)
Mr. Fortune Explains (collected 1930)
Case For Mr. Fortune (collected 1932)
Traitor's Purse (1940 - 1941) (Chapters 1 - 10)
Mr. Campion: Criminologist (collected 1937)
Commentary on H.C. Bailey:
Unanimous critical acclaim at one time greeted Bailey's work. He was both praised and anthologized by S.S. Van Dine, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, and Howard Haycraft, a clean sweep of the great critics of the Golden Age. The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection says that he was the most popular mystery writer in Great Britain between the wars. This means that his works were more popular than Chesterton, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or Carr, something that seems incomprehensible today. I still get very nice letters from contemporary enthusiasts of Bailey's fiction, so his work still has a significant following. Earl Emerson's Going Crazy in Public (1996) pays homage to Bailey, by including characters named both for H.C. Bailey himself, and for his lawyer detective Joshua Clunk.
One can see several problems with this formula from such a description. There is often a concentration on horror elements in such a work, an approach that has never been a favorite of mine (for whatever reason I have no interest in horror fiction whatsoever, marking me out as very different from the typical American reader of today). Secondly, there is often an emphasis on morbid psychology, a look inside sick minds. This was exactly the element about Bailey's tales that appealed to Dorothy L. Sayers, who felt that Bailey's work in this direction showed "originality", but it often just seems to me to be "sick".
There are also formal problems with the approach of the Bailey School. The hidden conspiracies and complex backgrounds of the tales are often "deduced" by the detective from the slenderest and most innocuous looking clues. It often seems to me that their approach violates the convention of "fair play", that there is no way an intelligent reader or other independent observer could actually deduce these complex background plots from such slender threads.
"The Little House" (1926) shows the above paradigm at its best. It is one of Bailey's most effective and gripping thrillers.
"The Broken Toad" is an example of how the above trends damage some of Bailey's work. "The Broken Toad" starts out promisingly, with an original premise in the crime and its victim. Next, Mr. Fortune does a good piece of detective work right away, finding forensic evidence that narrows down who might have killed the victim: the clue about the stomach contents. He does further sound, if more routine and ordinary, detective work at the crime scene, using evidence from plants (a Bailey favorite) and a statue to reconstruct the crime. The crime scene, a pair of British suburban gardens, shows the Golden Age interest in landscape. However, at this point the tale collapses. The rest of the story de-emphasizes detection, in favor of examining the morbid psychology of the killer, and the psychological failings of the killer's dysfunctional family. The abnormal psychology is also a portrait in human evil: a typical Bailey approach. "The Broken Toad" doesn't technically involve a conspiracy: a conspiracy by definition involves two or more people, and there is only one villain in "The Broken Toad". However, the large scale of the villain's activities resembles the huge conspiracies of other Bailey tales. So does the greed that motivates the criminal. A hidden story about the past emerges: a Bailey favorite. Anything like a fair play mystery puzzle vanishes: there is no way for the reader to deduce the identity of the killer. There are also no hidden schemes that the reader can deduce logically. "The Broken Toad" is a whodunit, but abnormal psychology replaces detection and deduction.
While detection is de-emphasized in some Bailey works, sound mystery puzzle plotting fully occurs in others. Stories with good detective plotting are emphasized in this article.
Within the Golden Age, where does Bailey's fiction fit? Is he aligned with the "intuitionist" school of Chesterton and Christie, or with the "realist" school of Freeman and Crofts? S.S. Van Dine firmly associated Bailey with the intuitionists, as Bailey's detectives, like Christie's, get their solutions by a mix of intuition and logical deduction, instead of anything resembling the realistic detective work of Freeman and Crofts. While Van Dine has a point, it also seems to me that Bailey's work is quite a ways off from what Jon L. Breen calls the Main Street of the detective story centered on such great intuitionist writers as Christie, Queen and Carr. One might add that Bailey's introduction "Mr. Fortune" to the collection Meet Mr. Fortune disavows that there is anything "intuitionist" about his sleuth.
The Bailey School's work also has some features in common with that of Freeman and his followers. The presence of doctors as detectives, combined with the frequent use of scientific or medical techniques to commit crimes, seems similar to Freeman's work. Bailey himself often used physical clues from which Mr. Fortune made deductions à la Dr. Thorndyke. Especially in the earlier stories, Mr. Fortune often concentrates on forensic analysis of the body to reconstruct the crime, also in the Thorndyke tradition. He combines this with a thorough look for other physical evidence at the crime scene. The clues also sometimes draw on natural history of plants in the vicinity of the crime, another Freeman-like idea. All these features make it likely that Mr. Fortune was originally conceived with Dr. Thorndyke as a model. The Fortune stories also occasionally deal with antiquities, another Freeman theme. There are tiny ancient statuettes from prehistoric cultures that serve as clues in such early Bailey stories as "The Hottentot Venus" and "The Young God" (1925).
Mr. Fortune loves to quote phrases from classic literature, a trait perhaps derived from another Realist school pioneer, E. C. Bentley.
The best early Mr. Fortune tale "The Business Minister" also shares Bentley's skepticism about the rich and powerful, that appeared in Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). SPOILER. Mystery plot elements also reflect a key twist from Trent's Last Case. "The Profiteers", an otherwise annoying ghost-story-masquerading-as-a-mystery, has a vein of social criticism, going after businessmen who made a killing out of World War I. "Zodiacs" (1927) offers a satiric look at murder of a businessman affecting events in the stock market, also echoing Bentley's novel. The finale of "The Hazel Ice" looks at industry skullduggery.
"The Profiteers" contains a brief but memorable statement of Supt. Bell's religious views, a subject that returns in "The Cat Burglar". In "The Business Minister", both Bell and Fortune agree that the tale's devilish villain must lack religion - a view that would be hotly debated by today's atheists and agnostics.
However, the extremely melodramatic storytelling of the Bailey School seems like the dialectical antithesis of Freeman and Crofts, who stressed sober realism in all things. Bailey has little interest in alibis, and that Realist school standby "the breakdown of identity" rarely occurs in his fiction.
Nor does the Bailey school typically create "Backgrounds" that realistically depict some industry or social institution, although perhaps the North Country local color in Bailey's The Red Castle (1932) comes close. However, medicine and medical institutions furnish what might be considered as a Background in some works by Bailey, Allingham, Josephine Bell. And the occasional depiction of foreign countries in Bailey School writers can also be considered a kind of Background.
All in all, it makes sense to consider Bailey and his followers as a "third school", one directly allied with neither Chesterton and Christie, nor with Freeman and Crofts. I have never seen any attempt at all to "place" Wynne or Bechhoffer Roberts in detective fiction history; both are fairly obscure writers. I have grouped them with Bailey on grounds of perceived similarities with his works. And although Ernest Bramah preceded Bailey by a decade as an author, some of his 1920's works show some affinities to the Bailey school. Such works as "The Mystery of the Poisoned Dish of Mushrooms" and "The Disappearance of Marie Severe" deal with children in jeopardy. They also have the medical background that often shows up in Bailey.
Bailey's first Mr. Fortune tales appeared in book form in 1919, a year before the appearance of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920) and Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), often taken as the start of the Golden Age. Bailey did not publish a mystery novel till 1930, concentrating on short stories, instead. This emphasis on the short form seems more typical of the pre-Golden Age era of Doyle and early Freeman, rather than of the 1920-1950 period in which most of Bailey's mystery fiction actually appeared.
There are Doyle like elements in Bailey's Mr. Fortune stories:
Bailey's tales are notable for their bloodthirstiness. There is often not one crime going on in a short story, but multiple killings, assaults, disappearances, burglaries, arson, con games, you name it. This is not merely a matter of melodrama, although Bailey exploits the lurid potential of such events to the max. It also aids Bailey's puzzle plotting. Bailey often shifts roles in the solution of his plots. What was assumed to be done by one character, was in fact done by another. Even before the solution, much of the criminal investigation done by Mr. Fortune and the police consists of speculations about the perpetrators of the crimes in the tale, with a constantly shifting perspective on who might have committed them. Bailey is uninhibited about coincidence. He finds nothing odd in a situation where two or three criminals are all running amok at once, piling up interlocked crimes that are all attributed to each other.
Bailey tales are often about kidnappings. These stories tend to come in pairs:
"The Cat's Milk" (1928) and "The Broken Toad" (1934) share subject matter. Both:
"The Football Photograph" (1929) is a sort of police procedural. It follows Fortune and his police colleagues as they collect evidence and gradually close in on a murderer. It is not fair play - the reader can only watch as Fortune makes his deductions from physical and medical evidence. It is absorbingly written, with an interesting look at working class life and settings. Fortune itself says it is unusual in his work, in that he has no "emotions" in the case - since there are no strong issues of protecting the innocent, just tracking down a routine murder. This somehow makes a good counterpoint with the mechanical clockwork type effect of gathering more and more evidence.
"The Hazel Ice" also subtly refers to the above texts:
In "The Yellow Cloth", Fortune quotes the phrase "We are not divided, all one body we" from the hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers".
Bailey liked Greek tragedy:
There are also seeming quotations in Bailey that I have failed to trace. "What is life that one should seek it" is said by Mr. Fortune in "The Long Dinner", Black Land, White Land (near start of Chapter 13) and elsewhere. Is it actually a quotation - or did Bailey write it himself?
Several stories of Bailey's use clues involving plants. See the wildflowers in "The Yellow Diamonds", the moss in "The Broken Toad". Bailey knew a great deal about the flowers and trees growing in both the English countryside and in suburban gardens. Traces of these are always being found on bodies and at crime scenes.
"The Hazel Ice" is set in the Swiss Alps. It mentions several kinds of Swiss wildflowers, including "Faith-of-men". I confess I have never heard of this flower, and an Internet search fails to identify it.
Bailey also liked butterflies and moths; he is almost as interested in these creatures as R. Austin Freeman was in mammals. Some of his stories give vivid pictures of butterfly hunting in the between the wars British countryside, especially "The Long Barrow" and "The Holy Well".
Other invertebrates show up in Bailey: "The Hermit Crab", "The Yellow Slugs", the disease-spreading lice in Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig. "The Face in the Picture" opens with a brief reference to a case Reggie has just concluded: "The malingering professor and the beetles". One would love to read this. And in "Zodiacs", when Mr. Fortune is in a gloomy mood, the tale comically symbolizes this to the nth degree by having him read a "monograph on extinct worms".
There are also more conventional animals in Bailey, such as the pet cat in "The Little House".
Also, for some such opening mystery situations, it is hard to imagine any logical explanation at all. The premise of "The Little House" looks as if it is going to be mildly difficult to explain. The off-trail mystery premise of "The Old Bible" will be much harder to explain in rational terms.
A plot element in "The Little House" echoes events in "The Case of Laker, Absconded" (1895) by Arthur Morrison. In "The Case of Laker, Absconded", the sleuth hero pretends to be a gas meter reader to gain access to a seemingly respectable house full of bad guys, and finds a clue in a cupboard under some stairs. In "The Little House", Mr. Fortune and a policeman gain access to a seemingly respectable house full of bad guys by pretending to be city water inspectors, and find a kidnap victim in a cupboard under the stairs. In both tales the detectives interface with the house's servants during their visit. Both "The Case of Laker, Absconded" and "The Little House" end with their hero leading a police raid on a nest of bad guys.
However, the back-story is interesting, considered as a work of story-telling. And it does logically explain the complex interactions of the characters throughout the tale.
Similarly, there are no clues that allow the reader to identify the killer: also a flaw.
Background. "The Hazel Ice" also has some unequivocal virtues. Its portrait of Swiss mountains, mountain climbing, and possible catastrophes is a skillfully done Background. (By the way, the story takes place at real towns in Switzerland: Interlaken, Kandersteg and Murren.)
Culinary note: in both Swiss tales "The Hazel Ice" and Shadow on the Wall, Reggie is consuming "ices", a sweet concoction, hazel-flavored in "The Hazel Ice", greengage-flavored in Shadow on the Wall. The ices have nothing to do with the plot of either story - they are just there to add some colorful detail.
Mystery Plot: Solutions. "The Hazel Ice" offers numerous proposed solutions, throughout the course of the story. These are logical and clever. They give the tale a mystery-plot interest that goes a long way towards compensating for the unfortunate lack of fair play in the story's finale. The solutions are not highlighted and "The Hazel Ice" is not an ostentatiously "multi-solutioned mystery", however. The solutions just keep emerging, mainly in the dialogues between sleuths Herr Stein and Reggie Fortune.
Stein: A Good Character. Herr Stein, the good-guy Swiss policeman who is a detective friend of Mr. Fortune's, is a well-developed character:
Stein's actions and ideas keep the plot of "The Hazel Ice" bubbling. New stuff keeps happening when he is around. His characterization as a policeman is not designed purely to make him an interesting person, but also to advance the plot.
Forensics. As is common in many Mr. Fortune tales, Reggie's forensic work gives a novel interpretation of the crime.
Both have somewhat similar hidden criminal schemes and motives for their crimes. The one in "The Holy Well" is more elaborate, but the simpler one in "The Greek Play" is better concealed. Uncovering these schemes is the main puzzle plot of the tales. This makes the mystery puzzle aspects somewhat bare-bones and simple in both works.
"The Point of the Knife" (1940) is a late tale that involves a criminal scheme and motive related to "The Greek Play" and "The Holy Well".
"The Greek Play" has a good Background depiction of a girl's school, not just the school life itself, but its upper class sponsors. It is rich in description and commentary on social class: one of the most pointed social critiques in Bailey. While issues of social class still play a role in "The Holy Well", including a brief critique, they are brief and less emphasized.
Instead, "The Holy Well" has an unpleasant emphasis on abnormal psychology, something all too common in Bailey, but mercifully absent from "The Greek Play".
In general, "The Greek Play" is a much more appealing story than "The Holy Well". However, one area in which "The Holy Well" has an advantage, is in the reasons Reggie Fortune gives near the start of each investigation, for disbelieving the official, apparent version of the crimes. In "The Greek Play" this is just some simple, if sound, analysis of body blows on the victim. In "The Holy Well", this is a more elaborate look at the natural world and moth collecting, something quite colorful.
BIG SPOILERS. Both do good jobs, at fastening the crimes on characters that readers never suspected. This is quite ingenious in both tales. The revelations of these villains is a clever surprise in both tales. Throughout the course of both tales, the readers' attention instead is focused on a domestic circle of suspects, thinking that the villain is found within this circle. The real criminal is instead found outside this circle.
While the motives are quite different, the technique in "The Violet Farm" and "The Hole in the Parchment" recalls that in "The Greek Play" (1930) and "The Holy Well": with well-hidden motives leading to persecution and attacks on the main characters, by outsiders they and the reader don't suspect.
"The Rock Garden" also has a genuine mystery in its plot, separate from the ghost story.
"The Long Barrow" (1925), "The Painted Pebbles" (1927) and "The Rock Garden" (1930) are among those Fortune stories in which he goes into a country house in which all sorts of strange emotional cross-currents and oddly spooky events are taking place - but no apparent crime. Fortune has to untangle the hidden emotional relationships of the characters - and usually discovers that some sort of sinister scheme is taking place under the surface. The stories also have similarities in the kinds of personal relationships among the characters which Fortune uncovers.
All three involve a strange earthworks of some sort, near the house; in the first two these are of archaeological significance.
All three invoke superstitious practices, for eerie effect - although as already said, "The Rock Garden" does not explain this away at the end.
The best of these is the first, "The Long Barrow".
In "The Pink Macaw" the victim's daughter, unable to get any sort of earthly justice against the rich man who killed him, believes the wealthy man will be punished with hell. Similarly, a woman whose innocent father is being hounded by the police in "The Little Finger", threatens the policeman with hell. The tales suggest that Bailey agrees with these women.
However, "The Missing Husband" shows sound detective work, with Fortune using logical steps to track down the killer. This work makes absorbing reading. SPOILER. "The Missing Husband" is an early example of modern-day ballistics work used to identify a gun. Such an approach is standard today, but was perhaps innovative in the 1920's. Fortune also makes deductions using blood stains. In addition to such scientific forensic techniques, Fortune uses a non-technological but sound approach: finding out who was the last person to see the victim alive.
The chief merit of the otherwise forgettable "The Archduke's Tea", which is the first Mr. Fortune story, is that it introduces recurring Scotland Yard characters the Honorable Stanley Lomas, chief of the Criminal Investigation Department, and his associate Superintendent Bell, and gives perhaps the best description of these men found in the series.
"The Archduke's Tea" is also an origin story for Mr. Fortune himself. Its characterization of Fortune does not gibe well with later accounts: Fortune is shown as a somewhat lazy young man from the upper classes. Later stories show Fortune as a whirlwind of energy, and someone who exhorts others to make more of an effort.
Mordan. The presence in "The Cat Burglar" (1926) of ex-Scotland Yard Inspector Mordan, now a private inquiry agent, echoes the regular appearance in Crofts of the British version of the private eye. Mordan is one of the more interesting recurring characters in the Fortune series.
The Continent. Bailey set a pair of his tales on the European continent. "The Hazel Ice" (1927) is an uneven story. But it develops an approach that Bailey would use with perfection later, in "The Face in the Picture": a continental setting, Fortune bonding with a sophisticated, charming, and highly competent official of a foreign police force, and a mystery against a specialized background in that same country:
The French policeman, Dubois, will return in "The Long Dinner" (1935). He also makes a cameo appearance in Black Land, White Land (near start of Chapter 17). The Swiss Herr Stein returns in Shadow on the Wall (1934) (Chapters 19, 21).
One suspects that showing Stein and Dubois as such admirable people is Bailey's way of paying tribute to Switzerland and France. These two detectives stand for their countries. This sort of tribute to foreign sleuths, and implicitly to their countries, also appears in other mystery writers. See the portrait of Constable Duvette of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Compartment K (1955) by Helen Reilly.
"The Love Bird" is full of mystery puzzles. And these puzzles are all off-trail. Bailey seems to delight in coming up with puzzling situations, that have never been seen in mystery fiction before. I will not spoil the story by saying what it is: but the central puzzle is jaw-droppingly unusual.
A very serious story "The Old Bible" also has a mystery puzzle that is completely unique. Mr. Fortune is presented with a mystery situation that just does not seem to make sense, in terms of psychology, previous murder cases, practical circumstances. He has to explain this. The story is not a whodunit so much as a what-the heck-is-going-on puzzle. Like "The Love Bird", this is a new and unusual puzzle situation that has not been seen before.
H.C. Bailey comes out of a comedy of manners tradition in the theater: Wilde, Maugham, Shaw, Coward. There are acres of clever dialog, wittily playing on phrases from literature, oratory, and ingenious shifts of subject matter. There is a mastery of English expression, rhetoric and repartee. This is intermixed with descriptive passages that appeal richly to the senses: colors, sounds, nature imagery, food descriptions, landscapes.
Bailey loves the Bible, and quotes from it memorably in "The Old Bible".
"Zodiacs" (1927) looks like a conventional mystery, at first, but it actually is more like one of Bailey's comic tales in disguise. Its sophisticated dialogue is delightful, and full of funny repartee. Its plot eventually develops approaches in common with some of Bailey's comic tales. "Zodiacs" has some structural approaches in common with "The Leading Lady", an earlier story that also bears an ambiguous relationship with the comic tales. Both of these can be considered as experimental mysteries, works that playfully bend the paradigms of the mystery tale. One wonders if Agatha Christie remembered "The Leading Lady", when she wrote the classic climax of The Tuesday Night Club Murders, "The Affair at the Bungalow". Both have actress characters, both show experimental variations on mystery paradigms, although these variations are different in each author.
The 1920's comic tales, such as "The Snowball Burglary", "The Leading Lady", "The Lion Party" (1926) and "Zodiacs" (1927), form one of the richest strands in Bailey's writings. But they are little known today, unfortunately. Anthologists have tended to prefer serious stories, and these playful ones are not much reprinted. All of these works show formal ingenuity, however, and show plot imagination that is not always present in Bailey's grim thriller tales.
Plot Problems. The Red Castle is well written but badly plotted. Although published at the height of the Golden Age, the book does not all adhere to Golden Age standards of mystery construction. It is not "fair play": one does not see how any reader could deduce the solution to the case from the evidence in the story. Nor is the crime brought home to one person, but rather to a diffuse conspiracy. Some of the crooks involved do not even make an appearance till the finale of the story! The behavior and motivations of the tutor in the story are completely inconsistent, and the whole burglary subplot in the book makes little logical sense. Anyone expecting a clever, Agatha Christie style solution at the end of this book is going to be horribly disappointed.
Detectives: Working Class. All of this said, much of the book is enjoyable reading. This is partly due to the well characterized detectives in the book, Joshua Clunk, and his likable young assistant Victor Hopley. Hopley is distinctly of working class origins, and his go-getting spirit, and romance with a pretty, smart and observant young maid at the castle have plenty of appeal. They seem designed as a rebuke to much of the snobbery of 1930's Britain, and of the British detective story of the era.
For that matter, Clunk himself is distinctly non-U. He must have considerable education to be a solicitor, but he never seems to display any upper class traits. His status as a lawyer for criminals trying to beat the system in part seems to be a sort of class conflict with the forces of social authority, played by the police. Clunk's enthusiasm for revivalist preaching, and his endowment of what seems to be a slum chapel, also mark him as an adherent to the religious practices of the poorest classes of Englishmen. Clunk's friends and clients all seem to be of the very small businessman and shopkeeper variety: tradesmen. In The Red Castle he makes friends with a lady running a tiny country inn, Miss Telfer, whose country cooking is one of the more entertaining features of the book.
Description. The Red Castle shows plenty of North Country local color. The descriptions of the moors are well written. So are the evocations of Roman ruins, and of the remains of the Roman cult of Mithras worship, which permeates the novel. An interest in Mithras will return in A Change of Heart (1973) by Helen McCloy.
Bailey shows a Chesterton-like gift for descriptions of the weather, especially in how it affects light and visibility. Unlike many thriller writers, Bailey is much more oriented to daytime scenes than night ones. The sheer visibility afforded by daytime allows Bailey to extend the visual imagery that is so important to him. Also, Bailey likes an atmosphere of the everyday for his most chilling scenes, and this happens more often in the day than in the dark. At night, his characters simply go to bed, reserving the next day for more adventures.
Bailey often creates clues to his characters' personalities:
But The Wrong Man has problems of its own, that sink it as a novel. Its highly complex plot is so tangled that it never quite turns into an organized, fair play puzzle. And the book is homophobic, something not at all present in Bailey's 1920's work.
American Hero. On a more positive note, Bailey's hero is an American officer who is stationed in Britain. Like Cyril Hare, Bailey clearly admired the Americans who had come to Britain to fight World War II. Bailey had previously had an American intelligence officer in Britain work with his other series detective in Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig (1943).
Politicians. Shadow on the Wall looks at a circle of British politicians and their friends. While the novel takes a satiric look at politicians, it can hardly be said to be a "political novel", since the characters' actual political beliefs are never discussed. Instead, we get glimpses of the characters' political careers, maneuverings in the House of Commons, and jockeying for political advantage. Bailey's tone is gossipy, and full of sordid detail on the politicians' lives. It is unclear to me how realistic Bailey's account is, or whether it has substance in its portrait of 1930's political life.
Shadow on the Wall is both uneven and episodic. It can seem like a bunch of short stories, loosely strung together. Two long sections are fairly well written. The opening (Chapters 1 - 7) centers on a costume party at Lady Rosnay's London mansion, and a second section (Chapters 11 - 15) reunites the same characters for a weekend party in Lady Rosnay's country house. Both sections are in the full Golden Age life-among-the-social-elite mode. They are also among the most novelistic parts of the book, fully concentrating on a group of characters and their social interactions. These are the parts of the novel, that give a portrait of the politicians and their circle. The second, weekend party section, seems modeled on an earlier Mr. Fortune short story, "The Love Bird".
An Anti-Drug Thriller. However, other sections of Shadow on the Wall offer drastic and usually uninspired changes of pace. They give a look at the drug trade among chic British swells, that is as unrealistic and fantastic as the similar unbelievable looks at drug conspiracies in Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. These sections also take us away from the book's main characters.
Swiss police detective Herr Stein returns, after his earlier appearance in "The Hazel Ice". SPOILERS. He and Fortune investigate possible drug smuggling in the cosmetics manufacturing industry (Chapters 19, 21). These sections have a bit of a "scientific feel", with chemical information about cosmetics included. Stein's earlier "The Hazel Ice" dealt with a related kind of manufacturing: the chemical industry and synthetic rubber.
In Shadow on the Wall we get to see Stein in his police office, something not shown in "The Hazel Ice".
Gays. The early chapters of Shadow on the Wall contain repeated references to gays. The acerbic Society leader Lady Rosnay wonders if Fortune himself and Lomas have developed "Platonic affection", something Reggie humorously denies. Such references to Plato were one of the few respectable ways for upper class Britons to mention gay love. She is soon evoking Oscar Wilde: the symbol of gay men for generations of British (Chapter 1).
Society gossip Bertie Luttrell says that of two male politicians with an intense friendship, one has "simply fallen for the" other. He dresses up this statement with a mountain of gay innuendo (Chapter 2).
These ideas are not much developed in the rest of the novel. Shadow on the Wall does not seem to have opinions, pro or con, on the value of gayness. It does treat gayness mainly as a matter of negative gossip: an unfortunate point of view.
Description. A brief description of the Alpine glow (end of Chapter 19) is well done. It shows Bailey's interest in atmosphere and outdoor light effects.
Swiss police detective Herr Stein explains the glow: as in "The Hazel Ice", Stein is linked to a love for and understanding of beautiful Swiss mountain scenery.
Mystery Plot. As a mystery puzzle, Shadow on the Wall is pretty dismal. The explanations of events that eventually appear are far-fetched. They also are sketchy and inadequately detailed, a problem that will be even more pronounced in the next Mr. Fortune novel Black Land, White Land.
The choice of villains is hardly clued, and also makes little sense in terms of what we have seen of their previous characterizations.
Best part of the solution: Mr. Fortune's analysis of a conspiracy (Chapter 18). This involves Fortune's finding common elements in a series of cases. The conspiracy itself also shows imagination.
SPOILERS. Shadow on the Wall builds both in ideas and structure on an earlier Fortune short story, "The Unknown Murderer":
The text also refers throughout to the fact of Mr. Fortune having made deductions and discoveries at many points, which one expects to be shared with the reader at the eventual denouement. This does not happen, either.
This is all too bad, because the book is well written and absorbing as a piece of storytelling. It is above average in terms of literary style. Still, most readers will prefer to enjoy Bailey's rich prose style in his best short stories, where the style is wedded to logical and complete mystery plots.
Landscape. Some of the landscape descriptions are very good, particularly when Bailey gets into the limestone and chalk regions. Such regions fascinated R. Austin Freeman before him: see Freeman's "The Green Check Jacket".
The title Black Land, White Land refers to two types of soil in rural England. It has nothing to do with race or ethnic conflicts.
Brown, the nouveau riche man who is buying up much of the property in the old village, recalls a bit the millionaire in Masks Off at Midnight (1933 - 1934) by Valentine Williams.
Tracy, a nasty man who likes to hurt in his remarks (Chapter 1), reminds one of the nasty painter Artus in "The Face in the Picture".
Small Town Local Color. It has a cathedral town, clerical setting, that recalls the short tale "The Woman in Wood" (1928).
In addition to the cathedral, the novel visits ruined castles, including one left over from Roman times. This gives a Historic Britain aspect to its settings.
The police in The Bishop's Crime trace characters through local, small town institutions, such as that old-fashioned business, a "cook shop" (Chapter 6). A "cook shop" is treated as a kind of business that is nearly extinct in 1940 Britain. I had never heard of cook shops before. Oddly, a "cook shop" turns out to be essentially what modern-day people call a "takeout", a place where customers can buy cooked meals to take home with them. Such places are everywhere in today's USA, and seem quite "modern"!
Despite being published during World War II, the war is not mentioned.
Social Commentary. SPOILERS. The Bishop is trying to sell some rare books belonging to the local church, to finance "social schemes" designed to aid the poor (Chapter 4). The Bishop is clearly a liberal social crusader; the local churchmen who oppose his schemes are likely conservatives. Bailey stays rather neutral on this subject. But he is far more sympathetic than Margery Allingham, who poured rotten right-wing ridicule on a man of the cloth who wanted to open a medical clinic for the poor in "The Case of the Late Pig" (1937).
SPOILERS. Despite the title The Bishop's Crime, and the way that the Bishop and the Dean are leading suspects throughout the novel, it turns out at the end that these clergymen are completely innocent and not involved. Nor are church disputes: the crime ultimately has nothing to do with the church or religion. This oddly recalls some American "political" mysteries of the era, which despite casts of politicians serving as suspects and Washington backgrounds, have solutions that have nothing to do with politics. These novels "tease" readers with suggestions of skulduggery in major institutions (the Anglican Church, the US Government), only to fasten the crimes on outsiders, at the end. In the case of The Bishop's Crime, this is probably not that big a deal. I have no particular desire to read a novel about a Bishop or Dean who murders folks in the churchyard! And regard the idea of an Anglican Bishop in 1940 as a killer as the height of improbability. Still, The Bishop's Crime constantly hints at outcomes it doesn't deliver.
Detective Work. The opening chapters are written in Bailey's lively style, and have some interesting detective work, reconstructing a crime (Chapters 2, 3, 4, 6). This includes some good forensic deductions by Mr. Fortune based on his study of the corpse.
The opening of The Bishop's Crime shares approaches with such Mr. Fortune short stories as "The Yellow Diamonds" (1933) and "The Yellow Cloth" (1938). These works emphasize detection based on deductions from evidence. They all have Mr. Fortune finding clues, that enable him to trace down criminals in remote cities or locations, far from the original setting of the story. This detective work is ingenious and admirable.
SPOILERS. The tracking down of a crime locale through unique local food eaten by a victim recalls "The Broken Toad".
Landscape and Trailing. A good mid-section has the police and Reggie staking out and trailing suspects (Chapters 23-25). This shows Bailey's gift for descriptions of rural England. Areas visited include wetlands. Trailing suspects is also an integral component of detective fiction, and it is pleasantly done here. Reggie and a policeman trail suspects through the Italian countryside in "The Hole in the Parchment": this is a kind of sequence Bailey liked.
This section includes a crime. Implicitly, it also includes the makings of an alibi puzzle, involving this crime. This puzzle is explicitly set forth and solved later in the novel (Chapters 39, 40). This alibi puzzle is not quite "fair": I don't think all the information needed to solve the puzzle is fully shared with the reader in advance of the solution. But the puzzle is fun to think about. SPOILER. It is closely tied to the landscape.
Main Mystery Plot. Aside from the two main "detective work" and "trailing" sections discussed above, The Bishop's Crime slides into needless and confusing plot complications, and is uninteresting. The main mystery plot, about who committed the crime and why, is uninspired.
Mystery Plot: The MacGuffin. SPOILERS. The subplot about the MacGuffin seems modeled on the one in "The Violet Farm", although all the specific details are new and different. The subplot in The Bishop's Crime is more elaborate and detailed than the one in "The Violet Farm" - but less dramatic and enjoyable. Both:
Once again, we have a Bailey novel that is episodic, and which seems like a series of short stories strung together.
Politics. Shadow on the Wall was a satirical look at successful mainstream politicians. Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig also takes a satiric, often condemnatory look at political figures: this time, political radicals. These radicals are far more marginalized and unsuccessful than the politicos in Shadow on the Wall. The radicals in Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig are mainly crackpots, whose influence hardly extends beyond local meetings they call, and items in marginal newspapers.
Mr. Fortune suspects these radicals might be the secret Nazi saboteurs that are causing so much damage. He makes what seem to me to be dubious, historically doubtful claims that certain groups tended to include Nazi spies. Among the radical beliefs marked in Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig as possible indicators of Nazi agents, we find pacifism, 19th Century Liberalism, old-style Radicals, and even members of a pagan religious cult that has survived in remote rural regions of Wales. The novel also goes after Englishmen of German descent, the wealthy, upper crust members of "old families", and men the book calls "sissies": who might or might not be gay men. Communists are also treated as suspicious, on the grounds their ideas might have been adopted as a mask to hide secret Naziism. What we don't find in Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig is any mention of the radical right, or of its supporters who joined British Fascist movements before World War II. I confess I find all this wrong-headed. British Fascist sympathizers seem to me to be far more likely to be Nazi spies, than were left-wing radicals, reds or gay people. SPOILER. Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig backtracks on some of its target groups at the end: the book endorses a British communist woman as a decent Briton, the kind that will help win the war! The sissy turns out to be harmless too. All in all, the politics of Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig is so weird, scattershot and internally inconsistent that one finds it hard to take seriously.
Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig depicts Nazi anti-Semitic groups, and paints a harsh, condemnatory picture of their ugly actions (Chapter 23). This is good. Unfortunately, the book also suggests that such attitudes were caused when a Jewish refugee gets promoted over a gentile at a university. The book speculates that this promotion in fact created anti-Semitism where it didn't exist before: a dubious assertion. This comes dangerously close to "blaming the victim".
Landscape. The reservoir created by a bombing crater is a unique wartime landscape feature (Chapter 13). It reminds one a bit of "The Holy Well".
One of the best parts of Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig is the description of the Welsh setting (Chapter 4 to start of Chapter 7). This section shows the Golden Age interest in landscape. The barren upper mountain areas are contrasted with the lush regions lower down. These seem like two worlds. They recall a little bit the two types of soil in Black Land, White Land. R.A.J. Walling makes a similar upland-lowland contrast in his Cornwall mountain landscapes in Prove It, Mr. Tolefree! (1933).
The castle in the remote countryside, recalls The Red Castle.
Mystery Plot. The landscape section (Chapter 4 to start of Chapter 7) contains two small but nicely done mystery subplots (SPOILERS):
Her detective Mr. Campion is a genius with unofficial ties to Scotland Yard. While Mr. Campion is not a medical doctor like Mr. Fortune, he does have Fortune's upper class social standing. Both Fortune and Campion are often the protectors of young lovers. Frauds and swindles are common in upper class society in both writers. This may just be a convenient plot generator, but it is a persistent motif in Allingham, far more than in Christie or Marsh. There is a lot of fraud in Bailey. Nice young people often suffer unjust persecution in both authors, often being framed for something they didn't do.
Campion's chauffeur, Lugg, sometimes splits detective duties with Campion, just like Mr. Fortune's chauffeur Sam, with Lugg or Sam researching the lower classes in a town while the detective sleuths among the upper. (Sayers' Bunter does this too.)
In both the Bailey and Allingham stories, there is a great deal of emphasis on exploring upper class life, especially its cultural side. Allingham was more systematic about this than Bailey, but there are distinct similarities - see Bailey's "The Violet Farm" or "The Greek Play", for example.
Both Bailey and Allingham showed a certain degree of disdain for the formal puzzle plot story popular in the Golden Age; once again, Allingham pushed this tendency to extremes, but the seeds are present in Bailey. Campion's investigations seem painfully unsystematic; they instead involve exploring more or less at random all aspects of a case.
Allingham's satires, like those of the other authors mentioned here, are targeted at the formal detective story, whereas Sayers' tales are takeoffs on the conventions of thriller fiction. Most of the mystery writers mentioned were noted for their logic; it is not surprising that they would discover some logical "holes" in detective story technique. Paradoxically, Allingham's satires on the formal detective tale are among her most ingeniously plotted puzzle stories. When she wrote straightforward detective fiction, (which was most of the time - these satires are only a small fraction of her work) she was usually far less interested in the puzzle plot format.
"The Snapdragon and the C.I.D." intercuts Allingham's satire with a moving nostalgia and evocation of the passage of time.
"The Border-Line Case" has a clever puzzle plot. It bears some similarity to a non-satire story, "On Christmas Day in the Morning" (1952). Both deal with mysterious crimes, in which the geography of the crime scene is all important. Both tales have different solutions - Allingham is coming up with different solutions to the same kind of mystery problem.
The order in which the tales were originally published: "The White Elephant" (1936), "The Case of the Old Man in the Window" (1936), "The Man with the Sack" (1936), "The Widow" (1937), "The Danger Point" (1937), "The Definite Article" (1937), "The Question Mark" (1938), "The Name on the Wrapper" (1938), "The Frenchman's Gloves" (1938), "The Longer View" (1938), "The Hat Trick" (1938), "The Case is Altered" (1938), "The Meaning of the Act" (1939), "Safe As Houses" (1940) and "A Matter of Form" (1940). This last story appeared in the May 1940 issue of The Strand; one sees that it was probably written not too long after war broke out in September 1939. The series, and the happy, comic English life it describes, did not long survive the horrors of World War II.
Among Allingham's puzzle plot stories, "The Hat Trick" (1938) and "The Case of the Old Man in the Window" (1936) shows a similar plot complexity to her "logical" tales, and are especially appealing. In both tales, apparently magical situations occur, to which Campion eventually finds logical explanations. These are not quite impossible crimes in the Chesterton-Carr tradition; instead the events seem magical, an eruption of magic or the supernatural into daily life. Such "magic explained" is also an element in "The Villa Marie Celeste" (1960) and "Safe As Houses" (1940).
Also outstanding as a pure mystery is "The Meaning of the Act" (1939). This tale, like many of Allingham's 1930's and 40's tales, incorporates elements of the Rogue tradition. Crooks in these stories tend to have a clever, ingenious scheme; unraveling this scheme forms an important element of the puzzle plot.
Allingham's Campion short stories show real story telling polish. Like Ellery Queen's short stories of the period, they are fully worked up pieces including plot, detection, characters, social atmosphere. One feels that both Queen and Allingham had standards, and they did not release a piece till it reached the full measure of what a short story should be.
Allingham's tales have a recurring set of comic characters:
Another common Allingham motif is The Danger of Going Out To Eat and Drink. Scenes in restaurants always lead to some sort of major disaster or threat to her characters, often the start of a major suspense sequence. See the finale of Death of a Ghost, or "The Hat Trick".
Other common Allingham attitudes:
Another short story in the same mode is "Safe As Houses" (1940). Here the eccentric family is presented as Campion's own. The old lady in the tale is just as concerned with her furniture, being horrified by a ring on a table again. And once again, letter writing plays a role in the tale. Campion's comically whiny Cousin Monmouth in the story is similar to Uncle William in Police, Uncle William being one of Allingham's richest creations.
Allingham's characters tend to be members of families. They rarely stand on their own, or are unattached people with romantic relationships, but no blood ties. Sometimes they are young men from "the best families", like Campion himself, and many of Allingham's romantic leads. Other times, they are members of middle class families.
One thinks of the unhappy family in Police at the Funeral, and the Fittons in Sweet Danger. While the Fittons are as happy and nice as the family in Police at the Funeral are warped, both families actually resemble each other a lot. Both families are eccentric. Both have money trouble. Both seem to stick very close to the large home where they all live together, and seem to have little interests beyond this house. None seem to have jobs that take them outside the home. Both families contain a large number of siblings, and an older woman who serves as matriarch. Both families have an ancient home, both have a lot of old furniture, both are keeping up traditions of the past that have nearly died out elsewhere. In both cases, being a member of this family marks one as a special person, sharing in traditions and attitudes that completely cut one off from the outside world. Both families virtually have a "culture" in the anthropological sense, a set of values, beliefs and life styles separate from the rest of society.
Like other Golden Age authors, Allingham was interested in architecture:
Main Mystery Plot. While I recognize skillful aspects of the book's writing, it also seems worthwhile to point out its many limitations. The modern-day main plot of Flowers for the Judge is skimpy in aspects in which other, less "literary" detective writers often excel, such as mystery plot and detective work. Backgrounds showing a business, institution or intellectual group are also absent. For example, anyone hoping for an in-depth Background look at the publishing industry, since many of the characters work at a publishing house, is going to be badly disappointed.
Flowers for the Judge has some decent science involving the means of death (Chapter 3), but science largely disappears from the book after this. This section has another plus: the main plot's only involvement with architecture. Both science and architecture are mainstays of much Golden Age fiction. This chapter of Flowers for the Judge benefits from both subjects.
Flowers for the Judge has lots of characterization, one of the book's chief concerns. But it tends to be concentrated on dysfunctional characters: the failed marriage and its adulterous complications that is central to the story, as well as pompous doctors, second rate business executives and blow-hardy barristers. Consequently, we are seeing a poorer grade of human being, than the skilled detectives, scientists and artists who are the subjects of so much "non-literary" mystery fiction. Non-literary mystery novels often have in-depth characterization of the detectives and scientists thinking and reasoning. There are many exceptions to the following generalization, but: dysfunctional, failing human beings, like those in Flowers for the Judge, are often the preferred subjects of post-1860 "serious literary novels". The emphasis on dysfunctional characters, studied in depth, does indeed link Flowers for the Judge to mainstream literary fiction.
Ever since Flowers for the Judge and related Allingham novels were first published, admiring critics have praised them as being closer to mainstream, serious literary novels, than are many conventional murder mysteries. This is true, in the sense that their subject matter and techniques approach those popular in literary fiction, and avoid subjects common in "non-literary" mysteries. But this doesn't mean that Flowers for the Judge has more substance than "non-literary" mystery fiction, or is a better work of art. The approaches used by other, "non-literary" mystery authors have artistic value, too.
Historical Mystery Plot. Embedded in Flowers for the Judge is a historical mystery about a disappearance, that actually has little to do with the main modern-day plot of the book. The brief sections dealing with this historical mystery, add up to short story length (first page of Chapter 1, last page of Chapter 9, first half of Chapter 10, later half of Chapter 20, Chapter 21). The historical mystery is conspicuously closer to traditional mystery approaches:
The historical mystery subplot anticipates some short tales Allingham would write:
It is interesting in that it is narrated by Campion himself. Allingham comes up with an original "voice" or prose style for Campion, that is not what one might expect. Much effort in fact is expended on distinctive styles of dialogue for most of the characters.
Detective Work - or its lack. "The Case of the Late Pig" often has the sleuths refusing to investigate the crime: an odd and unpleasant approach. The local head of the police claims that the people on the scene of the crime, who had strong motives, are "above suspicion" because they are wealthy and friends of his. The story itself follows suit, neglecting to even name most of these rich suspects, or have Mr. Campion question them. I have never seen anything like this in other detective stories of the era. Usually, all suspects are thoroughly investigated.
In addition, while Mr. Campion does some decent study of the murder scene and physical evidence there, he stops investigating for whole chapters, in order to go to fancy dinner parties, and to have conversations with his girlfriend. All in all, "The Case of the Late Pig" can make the reader feel that one is trapped in an anti-detective story, one where the sleuths simply don't investigate the crime. It can be a very unpleasant reading experience.
Social Commentary. "The Case of the Late Pig" is loaded with unpleasant far-right social commentary.
"The Case of the Late Pig" comes out against the "development" of an unspoiled country center. It seems less concerned with damage to the environment, than in changing an upper class community, its posh lifestyle and its architectural and social feel.
Anti-development ideas, more purely environmental, will play a role in Glyn Carr's Death Under Snowdon (1952). Similarly, most real-life anti-development politics today centers on concerns that development is destroying farmland, or important environments such as wetlands, or is promoting oil consumption by spreading out populations to commutes from remote areas. By contrast, "The Case of the Late Pig" is worried that development might harm the lifestyles of wealthy residents such as their country club and golf course!
The new young minister in the region is mocked as a bore, for talking about his plans to bring sanitation and a church-run medical clinic to the poor rural residents. The earnest young cleric is ridiculed by the author's spokesmen, for not understanding the alleged glorious traditions of English country life.
Also bizarre: Allingham's tribute to the alleged joy and affection working people in rural England feel towards their "masters" (her words). Did rural Englishmen really love being bossed around by rich idlers? One can contrast this with the left-leaning mystery writer E.R. Punshon. His Genius in Murder (1932) shows in gruesome detail, working people trying to cope with exploitative superiors.
"The Case of the Late Pig" is engulfed in strange far right-wing fantasies: a boot-licking concern for rich people and their country clubs, a belief that it is un-hip to worry whether the poor have sanitation or health care. It is hard to take Allingham's pretensions as a "literary writer" seriously. Real literary authors are much more in touch with actual social reality.
Schools. Campion's early education at one of England's elite "public schools" is treated as a miserable experience, marked by bullying he received. "Safer Than Love" depicts a somewhat less elite private school in mainly grim terms.
The basic plot premise is morbid, and depressing to read about (end of Chapter 1). It is a nightmarish treatment of the theme of "escape", given a much more light-hearted version in Flowers for the Judge and "Last Act".
The treatment of fashion salesman Rex shows anti-gay stereotypes (Chapter 1). Lugg's remarks (start of Chapter 6) also show anti-gay bigotry.
I confess I thoroughly dislike Lugg. His comedy routines seem like annoying interruptions in Allingham's work.
The heroine's office is a pleasant touch, and shows a bit of the Golden Age interest in architecture (start of Chapter 2). Even if it does resemble a glamorized version of Bentham's Panopticon (1786-1791). We can also have some polite applause for the golden salon (start of Chapter 3).
Just as Flowers for the Judge doesn't say very much about the publishing business, The Fashion in Shrouds is none too informative about the fashion industry. Works set at fashion houses were fairly common in this era, such as the movie musical Roberta (1935) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Fashion in Shrouds doesn't go much beyond the conventional portrayal of design salons seen in works like Roberta.
The middle section of the book (Chapters 7 - 10) is very much in the same style as Allingham's earlier thriller Sweet Danger (1933). Both works are thrillers, and seem a long way from the paradigms of the Golden Age country house mystery. Both stories have an extravagant wealth of bizarre, eccentric invention. Both guest star Campion's love interest, Lady Amanda Fitton. Both take place in very peculiar English towns, steeped in ancient traditions and a powerful sense of menacing activities going on behind the scenes. Both invoke an invented European institution going back to the Renaissance or beyond, Averna in Sweet Danger, the Bridge Institute in Traitor's Purse. Both books are full of large scale, unusual architecture, associated with centers of sinister power. This is partly in the Golden Age tradition of interesting buildings, although Allingham imaginatively takes this right over the top.
Traitor's Purse falls apart in its final section, when Campion goes On The Run from the authorities. His fugitive status starts mid way through Chapter 10, and lasts for most of the rest of the novel. The inventiveness disappears.
The comedy-drama film Huddle (Sam Wood, 1932) is about college football players at Yale. The Yale students like to gather at the famous real-life Morey's restaurant, and sing choral songs. One old song begins "More Work for the Undertaker". Before seeing Huddle, I never knew there was such a song, or that Allingham was referring to it.
"Wanted: Someone Innocent" is a delightful suspense tale. It brings a nice but naive young woman into a sinister house, and soon she is up to her neck in suspense, intrigue, mystery and eventually a little genteel danger. The story is full of corny elements, but somehow this does not destroy their storytelling appeal. Maybe they enhance it. Similarly, the reader can often guess what is going to happen next. This should destroy the story - but somehow, it just seems to make it more enjoyable. Even the newest mystery readers will be much less naive than this heroine, who is so kind hearted and positive that she never suspects even the most obvious problems that will occur.
"Wanted: Someone Innocent" has detailed, sympathetic portraits of the servants in the mansion. And it opens with the heroine's kindly Cockney landlady in London, before the heroine moves into the mansion. These are instances of the sympathetic working class characters in Allingham.
"Last Act" is a more serious tale than "Wanted: Someone Innocent", but not as enjoyable. "Last Act" has story elements that recall Flowers for the Judge:
The family in "Last Act" is involved in the theater. This is positively portrayed, unlike their real estate holdings. The theater and its rich traditions gives this family a separate "culture", like other Allingham extended families.
Denis is an attempt to create a young man who is more resourceful and accomplished that the more typical upper class eligible young men who often flit through Allingham tales.
"The Patient at Peacocks Hall" (1951) mixes romance, medical drama and a bit of suspense. In some ways, it is more of a romantic or medical drama, than it is a thriller. While hardly ground-breaking, it makes for entertaining reading. The detail with which Allingham has imagined everything helps. The characters are well-developed too.
There is mystery of sorts in the first half of "The Patient at Peacocks Hall". Odd events are happening, and neither the reader nor the heroine knows their cause or what lies behind them. However, neither the heroine nor anyone does any detective work to unravel the mystery. Instead, the underlying events are gradually revealed by the story. This story structure is fairly common in thrillers.
Allingham moves into Josephine Bell territory, by having her heroine be a fully qualified medical doctor. The heroine is refreshingly competent and practical. The male hero is also a doctor. He follows romance fiction traditions by being noble, good at his work, and a complete idiot when it comes to romance and personal relationships.
"The Patient at Peacocks Hall" criticizes socialized medicine in Britain - at that time a fairly new phenomenon. It depicts a noble doctor, in the allegedly glorious days before socialized care, who used to give free medical care to the poor, subsidized by fees he charged rich patients. Is this really an accurate, typical account of the medical care the poor received in pre-1945 Britain? Or was medical care for the working class actually hard to obtain?
"Safer Than Love" deals with a woman, scared of romance, who has instead entered into what she hopes will be a "safe" but loveless marriage. It is a grim, joyless story.
SPOILER. The opening chapter of "Safer Than Love" builds up a nightmarish portrait of the marriage. The husband has no interest in his wife, spends almost no time with her, and even spends his vacations with other men. Worse, he married her to silence some unnamed "scandal". The scandal is not revealed, until the end of the book. In 1954, most readers would instantly think of gayness, and that the husband has entered into a sham marriage to protect himself from charges of being gay. "Safer Than Love" does everything to suggest or imply such an interpretation.
However at the tale's end, the scandal is revealed to be the husband's affair before his marriage with another woman. This makes no sense in terms of the plot - a single man having a fling with a single woman would not really be a "scandal", and this man has never had any visible interest in women. But it wraps up the plot in a way that will evade the censor and social controversy.
"Safer Than Love" resembles Robert Anderson's play Tea and Sympathy (1953), a famous work in its era. The husband in both works is a headmaster at a private, upper class boy's school. The wife is a newcomer and outsider at that school. In both works, he is a fairly repressed gay man who has entered into an unsatisfying, unloving marriage to the heroine. In both, he spends all his time with other males, and avoids his wife. In both, the heroine had a better relationship in her past with another man: although this man died in the war in Tea and Sympathy, while he is alive and trying to romance the heroine in "Safer Than Love". I don't know when "Safer Than Love" was written or first published. But one suspects it is Allingham's attempt to do her own version of the material in Tea and Sympathy.
"Safer Than Love" is pretty grim stuff. It lacks entertainment value. It offers no insight into gay life per se: the husband and any of his male friends never appear on-stage in the story. The misery of the wife's situation is made apparent, but the tale has little else to say.
Commentary on Anthony Wynne:
More creative are some of the medical mystery ideas. Wynne seems to have invented new medical conditions, as well as new drugs to treat them, and woven this into his plot and solution. This concern with new, imaginary medical drugs with strange properties also pops up in other Bailey school writers, such as J.J. Connington. I am of two minds about all this. On the one hand, Wynne's plot has a certain satisfying symmetry and ingenuity, in dealing with these imaginary chemicals and their effects. On the other, it seems like a complete violation of fair play. There is no way that any reader could have predicted such new substances or their effect. So the solution of the mystery seems to be arbitrarily made up. A mystery writer could "explain" just about anything by making up some imaginary medical syndrome out of whole cloth. A tale like this in fact approaches science fiction. A better writer might have carefully explained the syndrome during the exposition, thus playing fairer with the reader.
Readers can experience most of Wynne's plot by reading the opening, Chapters 1-5, and the solution, Chapters 25-29.
Some of MacDonald's books have been made into entertaining movies. Edgar Selwyn directed The Mystery of Mr. X (1934), based on the MacDonald novel known as X. v. Rex (1933) in Britain, and as The Mystery of the Dead Police in the US. Henry Hathaway directed 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) based on MacDonald's Warrant for X (1938). Both of these films are discussed in the articles on their directors.
Commentary on Philip MacDonald:
The Rasp, like the later The Crime Conductor, is a full formal detective story, set in an English mansion, not a thriller. In both, the well-to-do owner of the mansion is killed. Servants play a bigger role in both books, than they sometimes do in Golden Age detective novels. Both mansions also house the murdered man's secretary.
The killer's motive in both The Rasp and The Crime Conductor is mainly emotional, bruised ego leading to irrational hatred. This psychological portrait makes interesting reading - but can seem weak as an actual motive for murder.
SPOILER Both novels involve fake evidence at the crime scene designed to mislead the police, and Gethryn's reasoned investigation of the same.
The Detective. Chapter 2 contains a biography of Anthony Gethryn, before he took up sleuthing. Gethryn worked as a British spy in Germany during World War I. He is now suffering from "war strain", recalling Sayers' earlier portrait of her detective Lord Peter Wimsey in Whose Body? (1923), who was also a troubled veteran. Gethryn is otherwise so "perfect" as to not have any actual individual personality, being a wealthy member of the upper crust who is good at science, the arts, athletics, war work, publishing, painting and writing novels and poetry!
Gethryn is the publisher of a small newspaper, and its editor asks him to investigate the murder in The Rasp. Gethryn is thus working essentially as a reporter, recalling E.C. Bentley's reporter-sleuth in Trent's Last Case (1913).
Gethryn is in some ways an amateur detective, being a wealthy man who is not paid for his sleuthing work. But in other ways he is not quite an amateur, being a former Government spy, and being the owner of the newspaper for which he is investigating.
Instead, much of the book is taken up with vaguely comic vignettes, telling the story of the events leading up to the crime and its aftermath. These often make entertaining reading. They are full of cameo portraits of working class members of Britain, a group of people usually featured less often in Golden Age fiction. Even the more middle class characters are businessmen here, being members of the Rynox company, and are not the upper class people of leisure one often finds in this era. Bailey and Allingham also sometimes featured sympathetic working class characters in their tales.
While considered as a puzzle plot, the book is very slowly paced - Agatha Christie would have packed all this into a short story - the puzzle is well constructed, and managed to surprise me at the end. The solution has elements which recall the work of R. Austin Freeman, although it has no medical or scientific aspects. The sheer methodicalness of the culprit, and his willingness to put an elaborate, logically thought through and very detailed scheme into place over many months, seems Freeman like, as do many details of that scheme.
The book is divided into Reels, like a movie, and the first two Reels are much better than the third - the reader can skip from the end of Reel Two right into the Prologue which ends the tale without losing any plot.
MacDonald's book seems influenced by H. C. Bailey. The crimes are crimes against young people, as in Bailey. And the killer's motive, a perverted desire to see people suffer, is also straight out of Bailey's works: see "The Unknown Murder" (1923), for example.
Murder Gone Mad is not a favorite of mine. The early scenes are well written, but the book tapers off in diffuseness and mediocrity as it progresses. (This is a good description of MacDonald's Warrant For X (1938), as well.) The puzzle plot aspects of the work are nil. The killer is eventually caught through some good police work, but any "fair play" clues to the killer's identity are non-existent. Much of the material, as in much of the Bailey school, is "sick".
John Dickson Carr once picked MacDonald's book as one of the ten best mystery novels of all time. The scenes late in the book where the police stake out the village, setting traps for the killer, pop up in the final scenes of several of Carr's works. Carr admired this book (in 1946), not so much for its mystery plot elements, but as the ultimate in horror. Today, serial killer books are so common that they are recognized as a subgenre of crime fiction. Most people today would regard MacDonald's books as pretty weak tea. They have been superseded by a host of much sicker works.
The story's setting. like that of The Crime Conductor, involves a bath.
This first half has a nice use of a floor plan. The section also has some perfunctory, simple, unoriginal locked room features.
After this solid first half, The Crime Conductor disintegrates. Nothing much happens in the second half, except sinister facts about the suspects' backgrounds and motives being unearthed. The final choice of killer is unclued and arbitrary. There is also an ugly racial slur.
Gethryn's Scotland Yard contacts, Assistant Commissioner Sir Egbert Lucas and Superintendent Arnold Pike, recall a bit in rank and personality H.C. Bailey's series police contacts the Honorable Stanley Lomas and Superintendent Bell. Bailey's police are much better developed as personalities, though. Still, one wonders if MacDonald has modeled his police officials on Bailey's earlier characters.
MacDonald marks the break between the two halves of his story, by having sleuth Gethryn go home at the end of the initial investigation (the novel's first half) and getting a good night's sleep. Such a clear break between the initial and subsequent investigation of a murder occurs in other Golden Age writers, such as John Dickson Carr.
By 1931, H.C. Bailey, G.K. Chesterton, Baroness Orczy, Agatha Christie and probably other authors had written mysteries with theatrical backgrounds. While not a novelty, the often comic look at theater people in the first half of The Crime Conductor is pleasantly done. MacDonald is especially interested in good-looking leading men: two play a role in The Crime Conductor.
The hero is an American playwright in London. This shows MacDonald's sympathy for Americans - and his interest throughout his writing in scenes where Americans and the British mingle and talk.
The opening has the hero is a booth in a tea shop, overhearing conversation from the next booth. The booths give a simple architectural dimension to the scene. An interest in architecture was common in Golden Age fiction. The overheard conversation, two disembodied voices, perhaps evokes radio plays, then at their peak of popularity.
The opening mentions and draws on The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) by G.K. Chesterton. There is also a reference to R. Austin Freeman's sleuth Dr. Thorndyke and his scientific detection (Chapter 5).
The main feature of this novel is its depiction of its villain, a sinister mastermind who never appears on stage in the story. Unfortunately, villains have never had the slightest interest to me; I only like detectives.
Its main value is its story telling: not so much the serial killing, as its view of an English village and country house dinner party. While no masterpiece, it is absorbing reading. The dinner party includes both American and English guests, like the one in The Crime Conductor.
Commentary on Lynn Brock:
Both Colonel Gore and Colonel Gethryn start out as amateur sleuths. But Gore is more purely amateur than Gethryn:
His name, Wick Gore, seems symbolic. A wick, at the top of a candle, seems like a phallic symbol.
And Gore suggests an involvement with violence. Actually, there is not much violence in the detective case in The Deductions of Colonel Gore. But he does have a past career as a hunter in Africa. Gore is the source of the African knife used as the weapon in The Deductions of Colonel Gore.
Soap Opera and Melodrama. The opening has excessive soap opera. The look at the suspects' marital problems (Chapter 1) anticipates the openings of Had I But Known (HIBK) mysteries, which also frequently begin with looks at characters' troubled personal lives. There is an undercurrent of hysteria and anxiety in this opening chapter, that also anticipates the tone of HIBK books. These sections of The Deductions of Colonel Gore are not much fun to read.
Mystery Puzzle. Considered as a mystery puzzle, The Deductions of Colonel Gore does not show much sophistication. The plot consists largely of various suspects' movements around the crime scene and encounters with the victims. There are few hidden patterns or surprises or clever alibis lurking into these movements, unlike suspects' movements in better books by other authors.
On the plus side, the movements are elaborate. They are also pleasantly linked to maps.
SPOILER. The choice of killer surprized me.
Detection. One of the better parts of The Deductions of Colonel Gore is Gore's investigation of the first murder (Chapters 6-11). This shows Gore vigorously (if not always accurately) reconstructing the crime. Gore often shows imagination and skill in making these reconstructions. Discussion of the time and cause of death are decently done.
The murder takes place a city street at night. Anyone in the city could have committed it. (In the terminology of mystery criticism, the book does NOT have a "closed circle of suspects". Instead, the crime is "open" to have been committed by anybody.)
But Gore repeatedly assumes the killer must be someone he has already met, someone who is connected to the case. This is faulty logic. It causes Gore to make assumptions about who the killer is: assumptions which turn out wrong. The novel should have been called The Leaping to Conclusions of Colonel Gore.
SPOILER. Gore's idea that the killer must be found among suspects he has encountered, affects not only his instal reconstruction, but his solution at the end of the book. His reasoning at the end, shows that one of the suspects fits the known profile of the killer (Chapter 28). That is true - but he fails to consider that some unknown Britisher might just as well have committed the murder.
The Graphs. An unusual multi-media feature: the graphs showing Gore's changed suspicions of suspects over time (Chapters 11, 27). These are played more for comedy, than as serious aids to detection.
In addition to their use within a story, such graphs might help people think about a tale. Such diagrams might help authors plot stories, or critics analyze already published tales.
The graphs anticipate the simpler gauges in Verdict of Twelve (1940) by Raymond Postgate. Postgate's gauges show only a juror's thoughts at a single instant in time - while the more complex graphs in The Deductions of Colonel Gore trace the development of Gore's ideas over time. This time axis or temporal dimension adds a whole layer of complexity.
Suburbia. The Deductions of Colonel Gore mainly takes place in upper class suburbs of a modest-sized English town. One gets a portrait of life in such suburbs: large mansions, but always neighbors near by and supporting facilities such as an upscale club and hotel. This makes an interesting contrast to both cliche settings of Golden Age mystery fiction: country houses and glamorous London.
The suburban setting might be a link to H.C. Bailey. Bailey's detective Mr. Fortune is shown as living in a fancy suburb and solving his first case there in the first Fortune tale "The Archduke's Tea". Fortune's suburb is near London, though. Later Fortune tales also sometimes feature genteel suburbia.
Class and the War. The wealthy suspect Arndale comes in for repeated criticism for having dodged service in World War I (Chapter 1). What especially seems to bother Gore, is that this man doubled his family's wealth, through the war profits he made from the family's ship-building firm. Gore seems at least as upset by this war profiteering as he does by the way the man stayed out of the Army. However, the phrase "war profiteering" is not used explicitly.
By contrast, we are forcefully reminded of the wartime Army service of various servants: the butler Clegg (start of Chapter 6), the chauffeur Thompson (start of Chapter 15). The latter is directly contrasted with the upper class suspect Arndale's non-service.
However, The Deductions of Colonel Gore is not militaristic, in the sense that serving in the War is not presented as a Good Thing, or glamorized. Gore explicitly suggests that war service was not a good experience (Chapter 1). The butler has lost fingers (start of Chapter 6).
The Deductions of Colonel Gore as a whole doesn't show much enthusiasm for either the upper or working classes. Corrupt members of both are portrayed. Negative looks at members of the upper class can be construed as criticism of the British class system. However, no efforts to change or reform this class system are proposed. The book seems to have a weary acceptance of the system as reality.
Scandal. British detective novels repeatedly suggest that blackmail is the worst of all crimes, even worse than murder. I am hardly going to defend blackmail. Still there are disturbing attitudes in The Deductions of Colonel Gore with which I disagree.
The wealthy heroine is being blackmailed over a past affair. Everyone, including Gore and the heroine, seems to believe she has an absolute right to conceal this. This reaches the extreme of covering up the first murder. No one goes to the police. Eventually, more deaths ensue. If the hero and other characters had gone to the police and told what they knew, it is possible these deaths could have been averted. One can ask, does a rich woman have the right to lie about her sex life, at the cost of human life? The Deductions of Colonel Gore is far more concerned with the upper classes being able to present the right image of sexual virtue, however falsely, than about justice or capturing a killer.
Sutherland Scott's main series detective is Dr. Septimus Dodds. His assistant, narrator and Watson is "Sandy" Stacey. The two run a firm, which collects fees for detective work. They also frequently assist Scotland Yard, and their friend their Detective-Inspector Brown.
Commentary on Sutherland Scott:
Bigotry. Crazy Murder Show has many problems. It cannot be recommended. It is especially flawed in how it treats social groups:
SPOILER. The mystery plot is utterly implausible: many people at the theater would have immediately recognized what is going on. This makes the mystery plot be a "cheat". After reading the opening sections of Crazy Murder Show I wondered about the central idea of this solution: but dismissed it as impossible in the context of the story. Then it turned up at the end, as the solution of the mystery!
One positive of the mystery in Crazy Murder Show: there is good cluing towards the solution. The treatment of the corpse, and the clue about vaseline, are sound ideas (explained during the solution in Chapter 23). Also good are the clues embedded in the Assistant Manager Brandon Sherwood's final statement (Chapter 21, explained during the solution in Chapter 23). All of these clues are original to Scott, and not borrowed from Ellery Queen.
Floor Plans. A strange note: the two floor plans don't seem to be consistent with each other, showing the arrangement of the rooms. This sort of Quality Control problem is rare in Golden Age novels and their floor plans.
Detectives. Unusually, when Inspector Brown gets sick, Scotland Yard asks Dodds to take over the investigation! It is hard to imagine in real life, that the Yard or any other police organization would have a non-police outsider put in charge. This development is apparently unique in Crazy Murder Show: I have never seen it in any other novel. It's a fun idea, but Crazy Murder Show doesn't do to much with it. The book does not recognize anything odd or humorous about the situation, for instance.
Bell's work shows the influence of several kinds of British Realist School authors, especially H.C. Bailey and R. Austin Freeman, with a bit of Freeman Wills Crofts as well. She is not a director imitator of any of these writers, but their influence as a whole on her work is powerful.
Commentary on Josephine Bell:
Like Mr. Fortune, David Wintringham is happily married to a wonderful young woman, and scenes of domestic bliss and good-natured marital conversation dot both sleuth's cases. David Wintringham also resembles Mr. Fortune, in being a bright, cheerful man, given to friendly banter and an interest in the world around him. In some ways, David Wintringham is very much in the mode of Mr. Fortune, although he is toned down in personality. He is also more "typical", more "every day", and even a bit more "ordinary" and "realistic" in personality than the flamboyant Mr. Fortune. He also seems not as affluent, though he is mildly prosperous, and much less of a big shot. All of this is consistent with the tone of sober realism in Bell's books.
Dr. David Wintringham differs from his predecessors, in that he is mainly an amateur detective. Mr. Fortune is an official consultant to Scotland Yard; Dr. Thorndyke is frequently brought in as a paid consultant, by solicitors or insurance companies. By contrast, David Wintringham seems to "stumble over corpses" like other amateur sleuths. He gets teased about this in Fall Over Cliff (Chapter 14).
David Wintringham has a policeman friend, Inspector Steve Mitchell of Scotland Yard, with who he frequently works on his cases. This reflects a long tradition of amateur detectives before and since, who often work closely with a friendly policeman.
Death at the Medical Board is relentlessly grim. Bell apparently lacks any sense of humor or comedy. She also makes the most likable characters be the murder victims, adding to the sense of gloom.
There is a Dying Message, which is written in an unusual way (end of Chapter 2). The message itself is interpreted in fairly conventional ways. Dying Messages are not a favorite of the British Realist School.
As the title suggests, Death at the Medical Board has medical settings and characters, in the Realist School manner. Death at the Medical Board reflects many different Realist School authors and traditions (SPOILERS):
But the Patient Died is not a full-fledged work of the Bailey tradition. But its subject matter does recall some Bailey school traditions (SPOILERS):
There is much medical soap opera in But the Patient Died, both about medical crises and the doctors' personal lives. Most of this is pretty conventional and uninteresting. Unfortunately, Sinclair doesn't explain very well how British hospitals of the era worked. Much is made about some characters being "registrars" and others "housemen", for example, without those terms ever being defined. But the Patient Died is thus less explanatory than many other books with Backgrounds, which more typically aim to inform readers about some institution.
Despite its hospital setting, there is not a lot of medical detection or scientific detection in But the Patient Died. The best medical detection occurs after the autopsy, when the doctors try to figure out the cause of death (Chapter 8).
The most original mystery plot ideas in But the Patient Died concern not the murder, but the victim's motives and actions (Chapters 6, 11). The change-of-setting visit to the victim's house (Chapter 11) is quite the most lively detective work section of the novel.
The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas and Other Mysteries includes six short tales about genteel private eye Jonas P. Jonas. Jonas is one of those lower middle class, two-bit, non-violent private eyes who run through British mystery fiction. They have the personalities and social status of British tradesmen. They bear little resemblance to the tough shamuses of American hard-boiled fiction. Some are quite honest and industrious, like Jonas P. Jonas.
The six Jonas tales are uneven as mysteries. But they are so short, and so connected in spirit, that most people will want to read them as a group.
Considered as a mystery, the best Jonas work is "The Case of the Blue Bowl" (1958). This develops a full puzzle plot murder mystery, with a surprising solution. It also asks an intriguing background question, about birds.
Commentary on J.J. Connington:
A Chief Constable was the head officer and administrator for the police in their counties or districts. They often show up in Golden Age British detective novels, but are rarely the main sleuth. Instead, what typically happens is this: the local police make a first investigation of a murder; they go report to their local Chief Constable, who is their superior and in charge; the Chief Constable makes a decision to call in Scotland Yard, deeming the problem too serious for the locals to handle.
Chief Constables were rarely depicted as having any great skill as detectives. Their job was administrative and decision-making. They often have Sir in their names, like Sir Clinton Driffield, and seem to be local big-wigs and representatives of the Upper Classes. They tend to be shown as bluff hearty country types. Some authors show them as highly competent, stalwart men, the kind who made the British Empire allegedly great; others depict these local members of the elite as incompetent figureheads. (For an example of an incompetent Chief Constable who is obsessed with upper class privilege, see Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig (1943) by H.C. Bailey. An even worse Chief Constable obstructs justice in Bailey's Black Land, White Land.)
In any case, Chief Constables are mainly shown at their desks, getting reports and assigning men to the investigation. By contrast, Sir Clinton Driffield goes right out to crime scenes, making a full scale investigation. Driffield is especially skilled at discovering evidence at the scene, such as blood stains. He also is good at reconstructing crimes, based on these observations. He is much better at these tasks than any of the local police officers who work for him.
Characterization. A big plus of Murder in the Maze is the characterization of sleuth Sir Clinton Driffield and his "Watson" Squire Wendover. The two carry on extensive dialogues, which are witty and acerbic. The dialogues convey how both characters think, talk and respond to the world around them.
Characterization of the suspects and victims are uneven. The victims are remarkably unpleasant, and some of the suspects are stick figures. But among the suspects, the male secretary Ivor Stenness and the brother Ernest have personalities. Connington has the good sense to foreground these two in much of the investigation.
Mystery Plot. Murder in the Maze suffers from the paucity of its mystery ideas. Its mystery puzzles are sound, but very simple, and not too creative.
SPOILERS. The main mystery puzzle involves one character who seems to have an alibi, but actually doesn't. Such "alibi puzzles" are frequent in Freeman Wills Crofts and some of his followers. The alibi puzzle in Murder in the Maze has an especially simple solution.
Other works by Connington also offer alibi puzzles. Alibi puzzles have some limitations, and seem especially weak when they are the center of long mystery novels without much other detectival interest: which is the case with Murder in the Maze. For one thing, there is little actual mystery about the actual murder. All of the mystery instead surrounds one suspect's alibi. The actual murder is routine, and has few puzzling features. This is the opposite of an "impossible crime" murder, for example, in which how the killing itself was done forms a big mystery.
SPOILERS. There are clues to the identity of the killer. Oddly, the opening (Chapter 1) offers a good indication of who the killer is, but this indication is never discussed by the detective, or mentioned again. This indication is pretty blatant and obvious. Later, there is another clue, one of those "statements by a suspect that reveal he or she has information that is only possible if the suspect is the killer". As the book points out (Chapter 18), this clue is weak: in this case, the suspect might have gotten the information innocently from someone else!
There are some clues that allow the sleuth to reconstruct the crime, including the order in which the killings took place (Chapter 18). This is mildly well done. Once again, there are some indications in the opening (Chapter 1) that are relevant, but which the detective does not mention.
The Maze. The maze is a striking setting for the murder. But the maze actually plays almost no role in the mystery puzzle plots. The book and its mystery elements would have been identical if the crime had taken place in, say, a garden bower or a gazebo.
The idea of setting a murder in a maze is a good one - maybe a terrific one. It was praised by John Dickson Carr, who later created his own such mystery "All in a Maze" (1955). Affair at Bromfield Hall (1984) is an episode of the spy TV series Scarecrow and Mrs. King, charmingly shot on location at a maze and country house in Britain.
Disappointingly to me, we do not learn much about the floor-plan pattern of the maze, navigating the maze, or about the principles of mazes in general. The fact that the maze has two centers in interesting - but the book does not go much beyond this in describing the maze.
Instead, Murder in the Maze stresses horror elements: feelings of panic at being lost in a maze. This treats the maze as an anti-rational experience: being trapped in a world one cannot understand. This horror aspect seems to be well-received by bloggers in the 2000's. But I personally found it unpleasant (I don't like horror in general).
Connington is an exceptionally cold and heartless writer; no one in the book seems to have the slightest sign of human compassion or warmth. Also, his plot is a mess, and the detection routine, with the exception of the science-based elements in the tale. The book is not recommended at all.
Warning: The title suggests that this is a mystery in the tradition of E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery, or Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, dealing with multiple, successive solutions. This is not so. Instead, the 9 solutions are all routine permutations of each other, and are discussed as a group one third the way through the case, in Chapter 6.
A comic footnote to the book: in Chapter 15 Connington introduces a middle aged maid called Mrs. Marple. Today no one would dream of naming a character this, but in 1928 the first of the series of Miss Marple stories that would make up Agatha Christie's The Tuesday Night Club Murders were just appearing in magazines.
The best parts of The Case With Nine Solutions are the opening chapters (1 - 5). The beginning is virtually a quotation of R. Austin Freeman: it deals with a young doctor, serving as a substitute for another, who is called out to a mysterious house where he witnesses the aftermath of a crime. This is a common initial situation in Freeman's books. But nothing that comes thereafter is especially Freeman like, and the doctor himself drops out of the work after a while. The opening scenes of driving through a foggy night are quite effective. They have a vivid tactile quality missing in much of the later novel. They also have a historical aspect, showing today's reader what driving was like in the 1920's.
The end of The Case With Nine Solutions contains excerpts from the detective's notebooks, showing the evolution of the detective's thinking over the course of the novel's events. The early books of Gladys Mitchell will feature similar notebook-finales.
John Dickson Carr was a Connington enthusiast: see his essay "The Greatest Game in the World" (1946). Carr's first novel was published in 1930, and he mentions two of Connington's 1920's novels with admiration. They were evidently part of his literary background in the years of his formation as a writer. Some similarities:
Mystery Plot. The Sweepstake Murders is a pleasantly straightforward detective story, of a kind not always seen, then or now. After an opening setting forth the characters and their background, it concentrates entirely on murder mysteries, their detection and solution. Additional factors contribute to this purity of approach:
When the mystery puzzles of the first two murders are unraveled, they each point to the killer as the only person who could have perpetrated the puzzles. This gives strong clues to the killer's identity. This approach is an indication of Connington's careful craftsmanship.
The Sweepstake Murders is constructed like a series of short stories. Each murder and its investigation is fully set forth in detail, forming what is essentially a short story within the novel.
The first murder involves a clever mystery puzzle idea. Variations on this idea have been much used by later writers. The section involving the first murder also contains the best writing in the novel.
Howard Haycraft's sole comment on Connington in his history of mystery fiction Murder for Pleasure, was to include Connington on a list of "conventional method" British detective writers. The Sweepstake Murders is indeed conventional. The kinds of puzzle plots in the various murders, fall into the same broad categories as those widely used by other British Realists of the era. One would not have been surprised to see The Sweepstake Murders signed by Freeman Wills Crofts or John Rhode. The sheer conventionality of The Sweepstake Murders is indeed a limiting factor. It is more an intelligent effort in standard directions, than any great work of originality or imagination. SPOILER. The alibi puzzle beloved by Crofts, and the murderous devices used by Rhode or the Coles, are central to the murder puzzle plots in The Sweepstake Murders.
Settings. The Sweepstake Murders does not have a full Background. That is, it does not set forth in detail some institution. The early chapters have an account of the Sweepstakes, modeled on a real-life lottery of the time. This perhaps forms a mini-Background.
The Sweepstake Murders shows industry coming to a traditionally agricultural county, something the rich landowner Watson laments. He also seems unpleased about the building of cinemas in the district, and their cultural influence on the local working class. An unpleasant local businessman has become rich through building and owning these cinemas. This guy rose from poverty to become a wealthy man, and is depicted as the most abrasive, rude man as possible.
The first murder is in the countryside, set against a spectacular - and dangerous - gorge. Such landscape features were beloved by Freeman, Rhode, Bailey and other British Realists. Connington uses the setting to add drama to the crime. But it doesn't actually play any role in the mystery puzzle.
The inquest (Chapter 8), quotes from Thomas Ingoldsby's poem Hand of Glory (circa 1837). This quotation centers on "the Dead Man's knock", later used by John Dickson Carr as the title of a 1958 mystery novel. According to the Wikipedia, other mystery writers also refer to The Ingoldsby Legends, including Dorothy L. Sayers in The Nine Tailors (1934) and Ngaio Marsh in Death in a White Tie (1938).
Inspector Severn rides that favorite form of British Realist School transportation, a motorcycle (start of Chapter 9).
Connington also shows how radio broadcasters can appeal to the public for information. These portions of the novel, mainly in the early chapters, show considerable ingenuity. The gambit of having radio broadcasters look into unsolved crimes popped up in such entertaining Hollywood pictures as George Sherman's Mystery Broadcast (1943).
The Four Defences is notable for the complexity of the plot. Every chapter unveils much new detail about the crimes. There is no padding: Connington has produced a Golden Age detective novel whose length is justified by the richness of the plot.
Commentary on and works by Gladys Mitchell:
Although Mrs. Bradley is medically trained, and hence in theory recalls the scientific detectives of Freeman, one sees little in common between Mitchell and the Realist School deriving from R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts. Science, medicine and technology play little role in The Saltmarsh Murders.
Backgrounds detailing some business or social institution, a major feature of the Realist School, do occur in Mitchell.
While alibis are investigated, they are neither central nor ingenious, as they are in Crofts and his followers. There is no Crofts-style plodding, methodical investigation by the police.
The Saltmarsh Murders pays tribute to P. G. Wodehouse, and in part suggests that it is just a parody of English mystery novels, especially the cozy kind that take place in small English villages and in which the local vicar is a benevolent character. Such a characterization no doubt helped to get the novel published, and gave it a polite position in the world of English letters. However, the book's full frontal attack goes far beyond anything that can actually be classified as mere parody. Mitchell gives no explicit political position in the book whatsoever, and one cannot tell from it what her politics are.
The novel is explicitly Freudian, with its detective heroine Mrs. Bradley being a psychiatrist and follower of Freud.
The book's events seems as least as surreal as anything in the official Surrealist movement. It is hard to imagine anything topping the events in Chapter 6 or Chapter 9, for instance, as a surrealist statement.
Mystery Plot. How does Mitchell's mystery technique compare with other writers of her day? The Saltmarsh Murders is a full-fledged Golden Age mystery novel, with a complex plot. The book starts out with some early, mysterious situations that do not involve murder. These include some disappearances, and a pregnant unmarried woman who refuses to name the father, thus leading to much speculation. Mitchell's treatment of these early mysteries is quite imaginative, with good storytelling and interesting solutions.
Only after a hundred pages or so do the actual murders appear in the book. The solution of these murder mysteries is uninventive, and shows little of the skill that distinguishes the earlier sections of the novel. There is an interesting choice of killer.
St. Peter's Finger is perhaps unusual in tales of convent life, in focusing on enterprises run by the convent, rather than the religious life of the sisters. The organization of society is Mitchell's subject.
Forced Labor. Mitchell gives an in-depth look at the work performed by the girls in the orphanage: the most vivid part of the novel, and one that goes in scope far beyond the minimal attention to working class labor in many Golden Age detective novels. The girls work full-time as domestic servants in the hotel, doing the bulk of the labor in the hotel. Their work is the economic foundation of the convent's entire enterprise. The girls are unpaid, compensated only by a bed to sleep in, modest meals that probably have little nutritional value, and education restricted to training to become a maid or cook in a rich person's house after they leave the orphanage at age 18. A few of the brighter girls get secretarial training. The girls are separated from the world, and rarely allowed to leave the convent. Some of the girls are orphans, but others are incarcerated against their will in the so-called orphanage for being "incorrigible": an undefined term that perhaps means they have been imprisoned there for being sexually active.
Today this looks like slave labor. And the orphanage looks like a slave labor camp.
Everyone in St. Peter's Finger regards these arrangements as normal. No one ever questions them, including sleuth Mrs. Bradley. Some people assert that since the girls are lucky enough to be given a bed and food, that it is fair they work in return. However, most people don't actually endorse this situation either. It is just "there", something to be described. And we wouldn't have this portrait today, if the novelist Gladys Mitchell hadn't been curious enough to write it.
One has the uncomfortable suspicion that upper class Britons in 1938 regarded any conditions among the working class as acceptable, no matter how dismal. Even slave labor.
St. Peter's Finger is a well-written realistic novel. Its depiction of a convent and its businesses keeps the attention of the reader; its routine mystery elements are more perfunctory. However, the disturbing social issues it raises make one uncomfortable.
Other British mystery writers were exploring working class labor at this time:
Women's Enterprises. St. Peter's Finger is unusual, in looking at businesses entirely run by women. The nuns, some lay women teachers, and the young girl workers in the orphanage do everything in the convent's enterprises. Psychiatrist-sleuth Mrs. Bradley is also a professional woman.
There is an unsympathetic but interestingly detailed look at a "games mistress" at the school: what in the USA would be described as a "teacher of physical education" or a "girl's gym teacher". This in-depth background likely reflects the fact that school teacher Mitchell sometimes worked as a games mistress herself.
St. Peter's Finger is not a tale about feminist role models whose work achieves heroic perfection. The convent enterprises embody negative features such as forced labor and class exploitation. They are run by people who are less than perfect, such as the games mistress.
The depiction of hotel cleaning by the young "orphan" girls, anticipates the look at house cleaning and its technology in "The Vacuum Cleaner".
A look at the serious economic problems of aging working women appears in other British writers at this time: the nurse in Like a Guilty Thing (1938) by Belton Cobb, the companion in "The Nemean Lion" (1939) in The Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie. These are isolated women workers, though, not women running a large scale enterprise, as in St. Peter's Finger.
Alternatives to Pure Capitalism. St. Peter's Finger shows an enterprise outside conventional capitalism. It reminds us that Western society is full of government agencies, cooperatives, non-profits and religious and charitable enterprises that are far from pure market capitalism. Mitchell likes to explore such organizations:
For mysteries set at non-profits see:
Alternative Sexuality. Some girls are imprisoned at the convent for being "incorrigible". This is a reminder of both that sexuality in Britain contains modes outside of convention - and that one can be imprisoned or punished for such sexuality.
The Saltmarsh Murders also looks at unconventional sexual behavior.
Religious Fanaticism and its Dangers. SPOILERS in this section. The killer in St. Peter's Finger is motivated by religious fanaticism. St. Peter's Finger can be read as a warning about excessive devotion to religion: it can lead to an unbalanced mind, and even murder. Similar warning scenarios appear in other mysteries of the era, such as The Afterhouse (1913) by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Warnings about the dangers of religious fanaticism were common, not just in mystery fiction, but in US and British culture as a whole in the 1900-1970 era. It was considered good to be religious, but dangerous to be excessively religious. The ideal person went to church on Sunday, practiced their religion sincerely and tried to lead a good life - but avoided a fanatic devotion to religion. This was part of a general cultural praise for moderation. The ideal person was "balanced" and "well-rounded". Aristotle's dictum of "moderation in all things" was constantly quoted by teachers and professors. So was Thales and Juvenal's phrase "a sound mind in a sound body".
But this has changed since the rise of extreme conservatism since the 1970's. Conservatives encourage religious fanaticism: You can't be too religious for them. Conservatives see the route to political power, through the labors of a group of fanatic religious activists who will work 24/7 for right wing causes.
"A Light on Murder" (1950), "The Jar of Ginger" (1951) and "Peach Jam" (1951) are all tales that turn on the intricacies of handling food. Sometimes this is for the purpose of poison, but not always. Mitchell has an eye for complex processes involved with food handling. "Juniper Gammon" (1950) is related to these tales, but more distantly.
"The Fish-Pond" (1953) is an inverted mystery. It too turns on an intricate process, that also involves handling objects. This is not a food process, but it is almost as domestic. Here the process is "draining a fish-pond". Mitchell's interest in water technology appears in Death at the Opera.
"Manor Park" (1950) is a whodunit. The sole mystery is to pick out a killer from a group of suspects. Hidden in the story are three clues. These clues, once they are pointed out by the detective, indicate the killer. Such a profile of clues is a standard sort of mystery puzzle, a kind that needs ingenuity to write. It is associated with such works as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, "Silver Blaze" (1892), E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913) and Ellery Queen's Halfway House (1936), as well as many other Ellery Queen tales.
"Our Pageant" (1951) has an interesting setting among modern-day people recreating traditional Morris dancing. It also has an ingenious solution. Both anticipate to some degree Ngaio Marsh's Death of a Fool / Off With His Head (1956), although Marsh's solution is different and more complex. Mitchell had previously explored this important part of British folk culture in Dead Men's Morris (1936).
"The Swimming Gala" (1952) has an arbitrary solution, none too interesting. But it has a richly developed setting. The setting shows much of the life of a whole small city. We get portraits of the city government, civic events, and an institution: the town swimming pool. Plus there is a whole Golden Age style architectural layout of an unusual building.
"The Price of Lead" (1952) also looks at civic life, this time the business aspects surrounding a church. It has a simple mystery, but hardly a full scale puzzle plot, and like "The Swimming Gala" is more notable for its well-developed social background.
"The Vacuum Cleaner" (1953) is another story more fun for its social background, than for its skimpy mystery elements. Here we get a look at house-cleaning in the British Isles. Mitchell rings comic changes on various elements of such cleaning, in transition to the electric vacuum cleaner.
Some of the tales might be dismissed as "failed whodunits": plots which look like whodunit mysteries, till their finales evade bringing home the crime to one of the suspects, instead settling for a well-known way of avoiding such a solution. It's too bad, because these stories have some decent story values up to that point. "Strangers Hall" (1950) has a decently described setting of an old English country house and surrounding landscape. It might interest fans of such country house stories, if they can overlook the dismal solution. And "The Falling Petals" (1952) imagines fairly well the relationships among a small troupe of acrobats.
Commentary on R.C. Woodthorpe:
Mystery. The mystery and detective aspects of Death in a Little Town are tenth-rate. It is one of those mysteries in which a bunch of characters are coincidentally hanging around the murder scene, complicating the crime. This makes any puzzle plot aspects be nil.
Politics. Death in a Little Town is most striking in its opening chapter, which shows the villagers revolting against a rich man who has fenced in a path. The sympathetically viewed villagers have a leader who has organized them, and who is now orchestrating "direct action". This term is associated with both some kinds of left wing labor movements, and Mussolini's Fascism. Death in a Little Town never makes its specific politics clear. "Direct action" also shows up in Robert Heinlein's famous science fiction story "The Roads Must Roll" (1940) - where it is not endorsed, but rather implicitly condemned. To be blunt, I find these political aspects of Death in a Little Town creepy. The leader compares the class conflict between the poor villagers and the rich man with World War I, terming it: "the other war . . . the war that goes on for ever . . . between those who have and those who haven't."
Woodthorpe's kind words for such jingoistic poets as Rudyard Kipling and the war-mongering John Masefield are also not encouraging (Chapter 5, Section 2). Nor is his support for corporal punishment in school (Chapter 4).
Architecture. Three of the main characters are associated with architecture or constructions. These are probably the most creative aspects of the novel. Although they have nothing to do with the mystery plot, they are examples of the Golden Age interest in architecture:
Influence?. Dictator's Way (1938) by E.R. Punshon also deals with a rich man who closes off a road, preventing public access.
Commentary on Shelley Smith:
Society: Influence of Gladys Mitchell. The story telling aspects of He Died of Murder! recall Gladys Mitchell:
While He Died of Murder! offers a progressive treatment of black people, it suffers from an anti-Semitic slur (also in Chapter 6).
Narrative Structure. J.J. Connington's The Case With Nine Solutions (1928), followed by early Gladys Mitchell novels like The Mystery of a Butcher Shop and The Saltmarsh Murders have an appendix or chapter at the end, setting forth the the sleuth's ideas leading up to the solution. These appendices are told by the sleuth in the first person, while the bulk of the novel is told in the third person. Shelley Smith follows the same structure in He Died of Murder!, with the sleuth narrating an Addendum, detailing his step by step reasoning that led him to the solution.
The Mitchell chapters are presented as excerpts from the notebooks of Mrs. Bradley, Mitchell's sleuth. Similarly, the Addendum in He Died of Murder! is depicted as the policeman detective's notes on the case.
The J.J. Connington and Mitchell notebooks contain entries from various dates throughout the duration of the case. Each shows the sleuth's understanding of the crime up to that time, and new ideas based on new clues that emerged on that date, as depicted in the main body of the novel. Shelley Smith uses a basically similar approach, with her detective outlining his step by step development of ideas over the time span of the novel.
Both Mitchell and Smith conceal their detective's thoughts through the course of the book, only revealing them in the solution at the end, and in these final notes which outline their reasoning over time. This is in contrast with Mitchell's popular contemporary Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers, who often have their sleuth's sharing all their ideas with the reader throughout the novel.
While the appendices in Gladys Mitchell novels are fairly schematic, with Notes in outline form, the Addendum of He Died of Murder! is told in full novelistic style.
Another difference: the Gladys Mitchell novels frequently change Point of View characters throughout the novel. By contrast, while He Died of Murder! is also mainly told in third person, everything is from the Point of View of its policeman sleuth.
Sleuth. The detective in He Died of Murder! is a Scotland Yard police Inspector, who has been called into the case. This resembles not Gladys Mitchell, but rather the Crofts School of British police detectives. Smith's Inspector Chaos is smooth, affable and a bit sneaky, like Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French, and many of the police sleuths of Crofts' followers in the Crofts School.
Impossible Crime. He Died of Murder! has an impossible crime plot. This plot is not-bad-at-all, and is the novel's best feature.
Oddly, the "impossible" nature of the crime is not much emphasized until the solution. This seems to me just bad storytelling. A key fact, that the shooting took place in close range - and yet no one was there, according to witnesses - is barely brought out. This hurts the clarity of the novel, and its impact as a clever impossible crime.
The presence of an impossible crime in He Died of Murder! is a break with Gladys Mitchell traditions: Mitchell rarely if ever used impossible crimes. According to Robert Adey's outstanding bibliography Locked Room Murders, Mitchell wrote no impossible crimes, while He Died of Murder! is the only impossible crime credited to Shelley Smith.
SPOILER. The basic approach used in the crime's solution, recalls solutions used by The Coles. The details of the solution are Smith's own, however.
Commentary on Glyn Carr:
H.C. Bailey's "The Hazel Ice" (1927) is an early mystery with a mountain climbing background.
Lament for a Maker is full of literary quotations, also like Carr. Such quotations are common in many Golden Age British mystery writers.
Death Under Snowdon also has a non-technical puzzle, relating to the identity of the killer and the overall structure of the events. This plot is a full mystery puzzle. Unfortunately, it seems none too original. For example, Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941) has a broadly similar choice of killer.
I'm not a mountain climber, and somehow naively expected that a mountain-climbing novel would be full of scenes of knotting climbing ropes, special picks and technical gear. Instead, the mountain climbing scenes in Death Under Snowdon mainly show people doing simple hiking: people walking around Mt. Snowdon. Carr's emphasis is on the geography, geology and scenery of this beautiful mountain, as seen by people walking up and down it (Chapter 4).
Death Under Snowdon is politically interesting, when it examines issues of Energy and the Environment. It shows that issues facing 1952 Britain are still relevant in today's society: maybe even more so! Death Under Snowdon is less convincing when looking at Labour vs. Tories. Were Labour MP's in 1952 really hopeless vulgarians with bad table manners? One doubts it!
Death Under Snowdon is best in its opening section (Chapters 1-7; 11) The book then runs out of steam. It is only mildly interesting as a murder mystery. And the best looks at Mt. Snowdon and the technical details of the murder, all come early in the book.