G.D.H. and M. Cole | Ellen Wilkinson | Arthur Durham Divine | Thomas Kindon | Sir Basil Thomson | H.M. Richardson | Henry Wade | J. Jefferson Farjeon | Elspeth Huxley | George Goodchild | George Bellairs | Eric Shepherd | Edmund Crispin | Belton Cobb | Richard Keverne | Dermot Morrah | Herbert Jenkins | Geoffrey Household | Eric Ambler | Arthur Williams | Vincent Cornier | Arlton Eadie | Georges Simenon | Seicho Matsumoto | Kyotaro Nishimura | Shizuko Natsuki | Norizuki Rintarô
A. Fielding | The Footsteps that Stopped
Father Ronald A. Knox | The Viaduct Murder | The Footsteps at the Lock | The Body in the Silo | Double Cross Purposes | Short Stories
Christopher Bush | The Perfect Murder Case | Dancing Death | The Case of the 100% Alibis / The Kitchen Cake Murder | The Case of the Chinese Gong | The Case of the Platinum Blonde | The Case of the Second Chance | The Case of the Purloined Picture | The Case of the Happy Medium | The Case of the Three Lost Letters | The Case of the Amateur Actor | The Case of the Dead Man Gone | The Case of the Good Employer
E.C.R. Lorac / Carol Carnac | The Case of Colonel Marchand | Death of an Author | Murder by Matchlight | Murder of a Martinet / I Could Murder Her
Christopher St. John Sprigg | Death of an Airman | Death at 8.30
John Bude | The Cornish Coast Murder | The Lake District Murder | The Sussex Downs Murder
Rupert Penny | Policeman's Holiday | Policeman's Evidence
Clifford Witting | Murder in Blue | Measure for Murder
Josephine Tey | Miss Pym Disposes | The Daughter of Time
Cyril Hare | Tenant for Death | Death Is No Sportsman | An English Murder | Short Stories
Mary Kelly | The Spoilt Kill
Elizabeth Lemarchand | Death of an Old Girl | Let or Hindrance / No Vacation from Murder | Unhappy Returns | Suddenly While Gardening
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Superintendent Wilson's Holiday (collected 1928)
Death of an Author (1935) (Chapters 1-5, 8-9)
The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) (Chapters 4, 17)
The Case of the Second Chance (1946) (Chapters 1, 2, second half of 5, start of 6, 17)
The Case of the Purloined Picture (1949) (Chapters 3, 4, second half of 8, 9, 10, 11, 17)
The Case of the Amateur Actor (1955)
The Case of the Good Employer (1966)
Death Is No Sportsman (1938)
An English Murder (1951) (Chapters 1 - 13, 18)
Death Among Friends / The Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare
"Keep Walking" (1968)
Suna no utsuwa (Inspector Imanishi Investigates) (1961) (Chapters 1-9)
Koe (The Voice)
This article discusses various British writers in the realist school, and some non-English language writers influenced by the British Realists, such as Simenon and Matsumoto. For an article on the realist school as a whole, click here. Certain writers listed above are discussed in other articles: Arthur Upfield in the section on Tribal Detective Fiction.
See also Nick Fuller's survey article on the Coles with many links to his reviews at The Grandest Game in the World.
The Coles' mysteries often involve ingenious murder devices; these machines are to Coles' personal slant on the "scientific" approach of the Freeman school. Their earlier works of the 1920's sometimes emphasize the following up of physical evidence through deduction, in line with the Freeman-Crofts school once again. The Croftsian interest in faked alibis is also sometimes present. These Croftsian approaches are less prominent in their later work of the 1930's. There is a similar change in emphasis on the criminals in the two periods. The earlier work tends to look at white collar crime, and presents an exposé of crooked businessmen; this probably reflects the Coles' socialist beliefs. By contrast, some of their best works of the 1930's feature a scathing satirical look at prominent, successful writers, and their corrupt personal and professional lives. This was perhaps a world that the Coles knew first hand, so it gives an inside, jaundiced look at the intelligentsia of the period, just as Henry Wade knew the police and politics as an insider.
One of the Coles' strengths was their sharp characterization; despite a somewhat dry writing style most of the characters in their stories "come through". Superintendent Wilson seems much more vivid than Crofts' Inspector French, for example. So do the various victims, killers and suspects. Wilson is not a plodder, like French too often seems like. Wilson has very intense curiosity, combined with the professional skills that help him to analyze and investigate problems. His character is convincing as a "thinker".
There is usually a note of satire in the Coles' characterizations; it is quite sharp, but it is only one element of a realistic portrait, and restricted to specific aspects of the characters' personalities and behavior. The Coles' satire can be profitably compared to that of their contemporary and fellow Croftsian Henry Wade. The different attitudes of the Coles and Wade can be summarized as cynicism (The Coles) and despair (Wade). The Coles believe that there is a lot of corruption in England, and that many people are practicing it. All of the Coles' characters have free will, and they choose to engage in bad behavior or not, according to their moral fiber. In the Coles' villains one or more aspects of a character has gone rotten, made wrong choices, and is now engaging in corrupt activities. The same person could easily have chosen a more honest route. The Coles are eager to expose these corrupt activities, satirize them in detail, and hope that society will do something about them.
The Coles' writing never turns into the all encompassing picture of moral and practical failure found in Wade's work. Nor do the Coles' characters represent such absolute social types as do Wade's. In Wade's world, people, especially men, are falling to pieces after World War I. Their immense failure on all levels leads them into crime and other social problems. Crime reflects systematic failure in the relations of society, especially in war, race relations, and the support owed the young by the old. The failure of a Wade character is almost structural, representing their role in a dysfunctional society, rather than personal, as it is in a Coles story.
The Coles' storytelling style has some paradoxes. It often seems plain and unadorned, but it can make for very interesting reading. One reason for this is the amount of sheer mystery in the Coles' tales. The detectives are always investigating some mysterious situation, and the mysteries once solved lead to more mysteries to investigate in turn. There is an effect of continuous unfolding, especially in some of the Superintendent Wilson tales.
"Superintendent Wilson's Holiday" is a tracking of trails of evidence story, in the realist school tradition. It also shares some imagery with an Australian detective story, Randolph Bedford's "The Bardoc Finn", from his omnibus Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (collected 1911). Both stories build up an elaborate outdoor landscape, complete with map.
The other three stories are reprints from the Coles' earlier collection, Wilson and Some Others (1940). "A Tale of Two Suitcases" is a police procedural, whose best aspect is its political background. The tiny "Glass" is just an anecdote, built around another of the Coles' "sinister machine" ideas. "The Motive" is the weakest tale in the collection. It has some plot similarity to Loel Yeo's "Inquest". In fact one wonders if the apparently pseudonymous Yeo is really the Coles, although what motive two professional writers like the Coles would have to disguise their identity is beyond me. Elements of liberal satire in Yeo's work seem consistent with the Coles' approach. However, Yeo's literary style seems very different from the Coles'.
The Brooklyn Murders is a novel of considerable charm. We watch as both the police and the couple follow up clues, explore timetables, and try to either validate or explode alibis, all features of the Crofts tradition. The novel also has good characterization and storytelling, although like most of the Coles' work, it is fairly slow moving. The Coles' steady methodical pace of plot unfolding, and lack of padding do help sustain interest throughout their narratives, however. So does the fact that the story sticks relentlessly to detection. The Coles seems genuinely interested in mystery and detection, here and in their other works. The tale builds up an mandala like effect, with each bit of alibi together with its witnesses and locations becoming part of the design. The locations in the tale involve the Golden Age enthusiasm for maps and architecture. The initial crimes show the Coles' love of symmetrical plot constructions, which appear again in their Counterpoint Murder (1940). The sheer size of the story, and the feel of being plunged into a complex, highly imagined world, recall Cleveland L. Moffett's Through the Wall (1909).
Wilson's relationship with his wife anticipates that of Crofts' Inspector French, who makes his debut one year later in Inspector French's Greatest Case (1924). So perhaps the influence between the writers was a two way street, with Crofts influencing the Coles, and vice versa.
The end of Death of a Millionaire has Wilson resigning from the police, and The Blatchington Tangle shows him working as a private investigator. This is a decent idea, but one wishes were in books better than these. The portrait of the private investigator's life and work in The Blatchington Tangle is in the low key, small businessman style of PI's that is conventional in British novels, and has little interest or imagination.
Worse, Wilson's resignation is prompted by his protest against the evil influence of what Death of a Millionaire depicts as Evil Jews Corrupting Britain Behind the Scenes, one of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes of the era. This book is just really trashy.
Anti-Semitism is also found in their uninspired locked-room short story "Too Clever By Half" (1939), with its Jewish doctor who seemingly has the brains of a flea. As Hitler was poised to start World War II in 1939, the Coles were still promoting hatred for Jews.
Wilkinson's novel has a Background: The House of Commons, and government ministries that relate to it, such as the Home Office and Number 10 Downing Street. Wilkinson knew this background from first hand, from sitting in Parliament. Like other authors of the Realist school, she drew her Backgrounds from her own personal experience.
The solution to the murder in the novel also recalls the Coles' techniques. It is perfectly sound technically. However, it is unbelievable that Scotland Yard would not have found the solution long before they do in Wilkinson's story. In fact, without giving away the solution of the story, the Yard's failure to find the missing clue right away seriously misleads the reader, and functions as a failure of fair play. Because of this, no one can consider Wilkinson's book a landmark in the history of impossible crime fiction.
Much better handled is the subplot about the notebook. The notebook business is also better integrated with the political Background in the story, leading to some of Wilkinson's best satirical chapters.
Many of the political attitudes of the Tory M.P. hero seem annoying today. His passivity in terms of doing any political action for anyone seems defeatist. He seems to believe, that since the glory days of the British Empire are over, that there is no point in doing anything for anybody. All he seems to value is the raw power the Empire once had. He is also merely perplexed by the poor people marching for bread in the story, regarding them as a conundrum. But he regards the fall of Britain's great country houses due to taxes and modern expenses a cultural tragedy. This genuinely upsets him. One can see that we are in a country, that even in the throws of the Depression, that still regards the upper classes as more real and more important than the lower. One wants to shake this guy, and tell him the real cultural tragedy is the way Britain never educated its poor people.
There are three woman characters in the story:
Divine was a South African who lived in England, according to Michael Cox' anthology The Oxford Book of Spy Stories (1996), where this short story is reprinted.
Murder in the Moor has not one but two Backgrounds:
There is a good deal of rollicking humor and wit in the novel. The use of such unforced humor reminds one of Agatha Christie. So does the gently satirical, good natured evocation of various British types among the suspects. It fact, Kindon's characters in the early chapters are in general so likable that one hesitates to call them "suspects". They seem more like nice people who just happened to be around when the murder occurred.
One of the absurd characters Kindon's hero meets, at the start of Chapter 6, reminds us that X-File type believers in the paranormal are not just a phenomenon of the 1990's, but were present waiting to be satirized in the 1920's as well. Here this true believer is fascinated by the ruins of ancient British stone circles, a subject Agatha Christie handled in a rather similar fashion in "The Idol House of Astarte" (1928) the previous year (in The Tuesday Club Murders). Christie was also Devonshire born and raised, not far from the setting of Kindon's novel, and such remnants of ancient British paganism were probably a prominent subject of inquiry among local residents.
Thomson's tale reminds one of Anna Katherine Green's "Room No. 3" (1909), which takes place in a country inn in Ohio. Here the mother is found dead outside the hotel; but just as in the Thomson and Carr tales, everyone in the hotel claims not to have seen her. Green's version, probably the earliest of the three, shows an abundant, overflowing storytelling imagination, and is one of her best thrillers.
This story ultimately anticipated a whole lot of other writers as well. Evelyn Piper's Bunny Lake is Missing (1957) explores a similar situation, for example. I haven't read this book, but I have seen Otto Preminger's great film version: certainly the finest achievement in Preminger's distinguished career. Preminger is not interested in ingenious solutions, but has an emphasis instead on the social and moral implications of the plot. In the film, when the young woman reports that her daughter is missing, no physical evidence remains that the daughter ever really existed. Only the mother's love for the child has any survival into the present. The cold hearted police inspector doubts the child is real, and considers her a figment of her mother's imagination. He completely discounts the importance of the mother's feelings. This allows Preminger to explore his central personal theme of the privacy of subjectivity, the idea that people fail to penetrate to other's personal views (see Andrew Sarris' article in The American Cinema for a broader discussion of this theme in Preminger's movies). The mother's personal feelings fight a tremendous duel in the film with the impersonality of Society, in the form of the police. We see two worlds in conflict: an impersonal one, where society dictates what roles people are to play, and a personal one, where feelings of love are all-important.
On a more mundane level, Green's tale, and Thomson's after it, is the first I know of to contain a common suspense situation: people see something in a room, rush out and bring back the police, but when they return the room has been entirely redecorated, with new furniture, wallpaper, etc. This plot has been used a million times on TV, and is especially popular on spy shows. It is quite photogenic, and very effective in the film medium. However, there was already a long tradition of British thrillers and American dime novels when Green and Thomson's tales were published, with Edgar Wallace, J.S. Fletcher, Buchan, etc., and it is possible there are earlier appearances of this idea as well. (I also like that Green's story is one of the few classic detective works to mention my home town of Lansing, Michigan.)
Thomson's story is also an early burlesque of detective fiction. Mr. Pepper's dogmatic detectival pronouncements, half-wrong and half-right, and their collision with the ultimate realities of the case, reminded me more that a little bit of Jack Ritchie's 1970's Henry Turnbuckle stories. The comic tone nearly exactly matches that of Ritchie. I wonder if there are other good natured spoofs of detective stories in early Golden Age fiction. Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime were collected in book form in 1929; reportedly they appeared in magazines in 1928.
Thomson was a real life member of Scotland Yard, and most of his books are now considered to be early police procedural works. Like Freeman Wills Crofts, another early author of police fiction, he enjoyed writing about France. Here Britishers traipse over to Paris to investigate a crime, just like in Crofts' The Cask (1920).
The title character blows smoke rings - he is not a jeweler. The story is fairly well crafted, and contains some mildly surprising twists and turns. However, it seems to lack brilliance.
Also, it assumes that crooks are almost superhumanly gifted at impersonation and disguise, being able to fool a man's valet of many years. This skill at impersonation seems to be common in English detective stories of the 1920's, and is a convention one just has to accept.
This story, like the first chapter of Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad (1931), offers a vivid portrait of England's commuter train system of the era.
Only a portion of Wade's crime books are detective stories, defined as "mysterious situations investigated and solved by detectives". Instead, many of his works are non-detective crime fiction without mystery-solved-by-detection. This Guide is exclusively concerned with detective fiction, and will mainly only discuss Wade's genuine detective works.
Commentary on Henry Wade:
I didn't like Wade's The Dying Alderman (1930).
The novel is also steeped in Wade's gloomy attitude towards life, society and people. This attitude might be justified: the British upper classes were probably as immoral and selfish as he makes them out.
Mystery Plot. The other problem in No Friendly Drop is the minimalistic plotting. Wade does the absolute minimum he can, and still manage to write a formal detective story. SPOILER. The murder puzzle plot seemingly shows that one character had no motive to commit the crime; the main plot twist shows that that character was indeed lured by circumstances into committing the crime. That's it: that's the murder puzzle plot. The twist has some ingenuity. But still, it is a tiny idea on which to base a whole mystery novel.
On a positive note: the way the sleuth finds a new piece of evidence towards the end of the book, that turns his understanding of the case around, is the kind of development that will later occur in Ellery Queen novels. In both No Friendly Drop and Queen, the sleuth and the reader are long since convinced they know all the circumstances of a case, when suddenly a new detail emerges that has escaped massive investigation up till that time.
The Detective and Crofts Traditions. No Friendly Drop is in the Crofts tradition:
SPOILER. The Duke of York's Steps (1929) is a particularly nasty example of a detective novel of the era with a Jewish murderer.
The opening prison drama section of Released for Death (1938) suggests all the trouble in the prison is due to an evil Jewish convict. Meanwhile, all the sympathetic convicts are devout Anglicans, and regularly go to Sunday church services in prison! This is jaw-droppingly bad.
To be fair to Wade, the short story "The Three Keys" contains what seem to be non-stereotyped Jewish characters.
I am having difficulty justifying such claims, when looking at a mediocre mystery novel like No Friendly Drop. The skimpy plotting of No Friendly Drop seems far below the best standards of mystery fiction. Characterization is a little better: Wade provides consistent, plausible personalities and attitudes to his characters. Still, characterization in No Friendly Drop is not brilliant or memorable.
Barzun and Taylor often make purely evaluative statements like the above, without offering detailed analysis of concrete works to back them up. And I regularly find myself disagreeing with them.
Mystery Plot. I didn't like Farjeon's Thirteen Guests (1936) or Mystery in White (1937). As mysteries, these are badly plotted. There is little ingenuity in the main crime puzzles. Lots of people are running around crime scenes, whose complex but unimaginative movements are tracked. It is laborious to follow all of this. But the reader's labor is not rewarded by clever plot ideas.
Thirteen Guests has a mildly interesting plot idea, in the second killing (solved Chapter 32). BIG SPOILERS. There is a broad family similarity in this subplot, with Henry Wade's earlier No Friendly Drop (1931).
Class. The books show evil members of the lower or middle classes attacking virtuous representatives of the upper crust. There is lots of ugly class-hatred in all this. These books have some of the most negative stereotypes of the working and middle class found anywhere in British crime fiction.
Even the honest members of the middle classes come in for derisive comments too. The working middle-class man in Mystery in White is treated with condescension and ridicule. He gets sick through much of the novel.
Story Telling: Poor. Characterization in Mystery in White is especially bad. The upper class brother and sister who are the heroes are stick figures, about whom we learn nothing.
I didn't enjoy these novels, as works of story telling. Perhaps it's just me, but I found these books depressing. They have a gloomy spirit, and a lack of positive values. Their vision of life is empty and nihilistic. BIG SPOILERS. The promotion of euthanasia in Thirteen Guests is symptomatic of their anti-life attitudes. This book is a repulsive death-trip.
Supernatural. I disliked the promotion of the supernatural in Mystery in White. It's a bunch of hooey. I don't want to read books like Mystery in White that promote superstition.
I like Christmas very much. But I've never understood the Victorian British desire to link Christmas with ghost stories. The two subjects are completely unrelated. So while I like Christmas, I'm repulsed by books like Mystery in White that center Christmas on ghost stories - which I actively dislike. Leave my Christmas alone! Don't pollute it with the supernatural.
Mystery Traditions. I've included J. Jefferson Farjeon in this article on British Realist School writers, simply because these novels have police detectives. But actually, Farjeon is not a close fit with most of the characteristics of the Realist School. His works are anomalous, and untypical of his Realist School contemporaries.
Huxley wrote many non-mystery books, including The Flame Trees of Thika.
Realist School Traditions. Death of an Aryan reflects Realist School traditions, especially those of Freeman Wills Crofts:
Nazis. Death of an Aryan has a subplot, about the involvement of Germans in British Colonial parts of Africa in Nazi Bunds. Bunds were organizations that supposedly promoted fellowship among people of German descent living in non-German countries. In actuality, many were fronts for Nazi propaganda, and were influenced and controlled by Hitler and Nazi Germany. Huxley portrays the Bunds negatively, shows them under German Nazi control, and treats them as a security threat to Britain.
The Nazis are also criticized as racist, in their treatment of Black Africans. SPOILER. We see a leading Bund member giving horrifying treatment to an African worker (Chapter 1), a Nazi woman expressing race hate ideology (Chapter ), and an account of sexual exploitation of an African woman (Chapter ).
However, despite its title, the great majority of Death of an Aryan deals with non-political subjects that have nothing to do with Nazis. SPOILER. The murder itself turns out to be based in private motives, having nothing to do with Nazis, politics or public life. This seems not very interesting to me, almost a cheat. Also disappointing: the mysterious intrigue among the Bund members in the early chapters, eventually resolves itself into trivial explanations.
Farming and Colonialism. I am not a historian or expert on Colonialism, and am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the portrayal of Colonialism or African farming by 1930's colonialists in Death of an Aryan. My suspicion is that the depiction of colonial life in Death of an Aryan is fairly short and simple, and hence will not satisfy experts as any sort of in-depth picture.
Jonathan Lewis' article on the Goodchild-based film The Public Defender is at Mystery*File. The comments contain a Goodchild bibliography.
None of them are earth shaking, though, and this book is far from being "essential reading", let alone some sort of classic. Also, some of the poorer tales in the book include racial or ethnic stereotypes. However, the tales recommended here are free of racism.
Detective Work. The tales have a Scotland Yard policeman as sleuth, and hence fall more-or-less into the Crofts tradition. McLean does a share of routine sleuthing, like Crofts's Inspector French and other fictional policemen of the era. As in Crofts, we usually follow all of the sleuth's thoughts throughout the tale, rather than being surprised by his deductions at the end. However, the resemblance to Crofts is not close. There are few clever alibis, breakdowns of identity, ingenious criminal enterprises, or other Croftsian plot features in McLean Investigates.
In some of the better tales, McLean goes undercover in various roles. Often times, he is trying to get close to crooks. His undercover work often takes up just a section of the story, an episode where he learns something and has a brief adventure, rather than lasting the duration of the tale.
We learn nothing about McLean's personal life, and only a little about his skills as a policeman. In #11, we see that he knows French: a fairly common skill in educated Englishmen of the day, France being England's neighbor, and one that shows up in other authors' policemen of the era. He also knows a little Italian. In #8, McLean drives a motorcycle, a form of transport beloved by Realist School British writers of the period.
The Better Stories. The tales have no titles, only chapter numbers. They will be referred to here by these chapter numbers.
#2 is about one of those master jewel thieves. This tale reflects the Rogue tradition. Its thief is suave, very well-dressed in upper class clothes, and passing for a gentleman, in the Rogue manner. The story is also more light-hearted than many of the other tales. The finale has the crook coming up with a mildly ingenious scheme for a robbery.
#8 is a tale about a convict who knows where loot is hidden, and has Inspector McLean going undercover at the prison as a convict, to ferret out the secret. This plot was hugely common in US movies and even comic books. I was startled to see it in a British author, and at this early date. I don't know who was the first to use it. The storytelling is vivid, with just the right amount of location detail. The Dartmoor Prison in Princetown is the most famous in England, and there is an evocation of the Dartmoor moors around it, a location regularly used by British crime writers.
#11 is an "international thriller". It is fun. It also has a plot twist I didn't expect, that can be considered a form of whodunit. Unlike most of the good stories in the collection, this one is not about robbery.
#14 is a robbery, at a wealthy man's home. It has some interesting high tech aspects, in the anti-burglar devices at the house. The story follows these, and McLean's search for the gang of crooks that pulled it off. Like #2, this features a mildly ingenious scheme for a robbery. Edgar Wallace also sometimes included such schemes in his tales, such as "The Stolen Romney" (1919).
#15 is also a robbery, but this time in the household of a middle class businessman. It turns into a domestic drama. It also has elements of whodunit, and is probably the most enjoyable whodunit in the book (most of the other whodunits are poor). It is not a fully fair play puzzle though.
The books fall into the "Scotland Yard police procedural" category pioneered by Freeman Wills Crofts.
Local Color. By far the best feature of The Dead Shall Be Raised is its North England local color. This regional detail is especially strong in the book's opening section (Chapters 1 - 4). Much of this color has nothing to do with the mystery plot. The vivid recreation of a Christmas performance of Handel's Messiah is especially good.
According to Martin Edwards' introduction, the book is likely a fictionalized look at the real region of Saddleworth, a region close to the major city Manchester but historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire.
I'm not an expert on the traditions of the area, and can't vouch for the accuracy of anything in the novel. But I can say that the vivid detail of the opening makes absorbing reading.
Characters. I rather liked the police characters in the story, especially as they are depicted in the opening (Chapters 1 - 4). But I didn't find the suspects or the victims very interesting.
John's review at Pretty Sinister Books contains much background information.
Murder in a Nunnery is a comic novel, which treats its characters with genteel humor. It is relentlessly upbeat in its look at both the nuns and their boarding school. It rarely goes beyond this light comedy approach. It offers little real insight into the life of either convent or school, beyond the most conventional depiction. It is respectful in its treatment of the nuns and Roman Catholicism. But it is also superficial.
The chief merit of Murder in a Nunnery is the literate, witty writing. It overflows with well-turned sentences, filled with allusions and clever turns of phrase. These are used to evoke the characters and their environment. Many of the allusions are to well-known phrases from religious traditions.
Crofts Traditions. Murder in a Nunnery adheres to core paradigms of the Freeman Wills Crofts tradition:
Mystery Plot. Murder in a Nunnery has an exceptionally simple mystery plot. A character is killed; there are a handful of suspects; at the end we learn that one of them did it. That's all. There are no mystery puzzle ideas. There are no clues to the killer. There are no ingenious twists or surprises. Unlike many Crofts-inspired mysteries, there are no hidden Criminal Schemes.
This is exceptionally skimpy and minimalistic, especially by Golden Age standards. In fact Murder in a Nunnery might have the simplest mystery plot of any Golden Age detective novel. This simplicity seems to me to be mainly a negative thing. Witty writing aside, Murder in a Nunnery is pretty unsubstantial.
It seems unfortunate that the gimmicky anti-detective story, "Who Killed Baker?" (1950), is probably Crispin's best known work in the short form. Such real detective story gems as "Beware of the Trains" (1949) and "Black for a Funeral" should be much better known.
On the average, the earlier stories in Beware of the Trains are better than the later ones in Fen Country. Too many of the latter do not really create a full puzzle plot mystery. They also tend to be shorter and less substantial than the earlier tales.
Commentary on Belton Cobb:
Mainly, it is one of those psychological mysteries, in which the characters' unpleasant emotions and personalities are analyzed to death. The motive is one of those "psychological ones" of built-up frustration on the killer's part, that would never be an adequate motive in real life.
The main merit of Like a Guilty Thing is in its opening chapter, which centers on a middle-aged nurse, Emma Claypole. It convincingly shows her ever greater panic and despair at growing old, poor and jobless, in a society without any sort of government social safety net. It is a nightmarish and truly frightening piece of writing, and must have described the feelings of millions of working people. Like a Guilty Thing was written at a time when social insurance programs were being developed and debated, such as Social Security in the United States. Agatha Christie would soon follow with a similar portrait of a middle-aged woman's economic crisis in The Labors of Hercules (1939). They followed such mainstream writers as John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men (1937) and films like Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). All of these works are sobering reminders of what life was like before social safety nets. They remind us of the deep folly of right-wing Libertarians, who are determined to repeal such programs.
This story's plot is fairly clever, but easily guessed.
According to Jack Adrian, Keverne shared a publisher with both the realist Henry Wade, and E.C. Bentley. The title of Keverne's 1934 collection, Artifex Intervenes, anticipates that of Bentley's Trent Intervenes (1938), by four years.
The mummies and Egyptology aspects of the novel show the influence of R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911). So do some plot twists in the book, and the intellectualism of the characters. The amateur detectives in the tale are two dons. They include an archaeologist, who uses his professional skills to help solve the case; these scenes in Chapter 4 are the most inventive part of the novel. The book is at its most Freeman-like in these scenes, which show scientific skills carefully applied to crime solving.
The solution of the story involves the "breakdown of identity", although not for the purpose of alibi construction. The "breakdown of identity" is a plot approach, found in both Freeman, and many other Realist School writers.
There is no sign whatsoever of any Croftsian influence: no police detectives, no timetables, no alibis.
Another mystery novel set at Oxford appeared the same year as Morrah's book, J.C. Masterman's An Oxford Tragedy (1933). It is nowhere as pleasant, mainly being a gloomy and depressing psychological study, whereas Morrah's novel is a complexly plotted mystery story. Both novels focus on a group of dons, both administrators and professors, with the students having a small supporting role in the background. Both take place at a single, fictitious Oxford college. Both have plots about academic disputes concerning a scholar's life work. It is unclear which book was published first.
Morrah's novel was known to Dorothy L. Sayers, who reviewed it for her newspaper column. Sayers would soon produce her own novel of University life, Gaudy Night (1935). Before any of these writers, the American Croftsian Milton M. Propper published The Student Fraternity Murders (1932).
Jenkins was a book publisher, well-known for publishing P. G. Wodehouse. Jenkins self-published all his own books, an unusual procedure for the day. Many of his other works, such as the Bindle series, were humorous tales.
Mystery Traditions: Freeman. Jenkins' work has some similarities to R. Austin Freeman's:
There is no sign of any Croftsian influence in Jenkins' book, such as police detectives or emphasis on routine; this lack of influence is not surprising, given the publication date of just one year after Freeman Wills Crofts' debut in The Cask (1920).
A Lack of Fair Play. The Sage stories tend to lack fair play. That is, the clues Sage notices about the corpse in "Challoner", for instance, are not shared during the course of the story with the reader. They are only set forth during Sage's final summing up. A similar lack of fair play has often been noted in some of Freeman's scientific stories. The reasoning based on these clues is often excellent, however, and forms a high point of the tales.
Story Structure. As Sage points out, he is sometimes more interested in setting traps for the villain, than in detecting his original crime. This is true in the best of these tales, "The Surrey Cattle-Maiming Mystery" and "The Stolen Admiralty Memorandum". This gives a flavor of the inverted story to these two works. More ingenuity is expended in the net spread to catch the criminal, than on the original crime itself. These traps often involve considerable social comedy.
By contrast "The Holding Up of Lady Glanedale" is more of a pure mystery-and-solution story. Its solution has surprising elements: a pleasant approach emphasized in pure mystery fiction.
"The Missing Heavyweight" is more a thriller than any sort of mystery tale. It has some OK detective work on footprints near the beginning, but this is not as skilled as the footprint detection in "The Holding Up of Lady Glanedale".
Setting. "The Stolen Admiralty Memorandum" looks at both the upper class residents and servants and staff of its English country house setting. This often comic tale might appeal to fans of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, with its look at all social levels. The tale opens with a pleasant look at Malcolm Sage's own staff of servants.
The early sections of "The Missing Heavyweight" show the training staff of a British boxer. There is some social comedy and pleasant detail about what athletic training was like around 1920. This shows Jenkins dealing with working class Britons, such as trainer Alf Pond. Unfortunately, after this promising start the tale collapses. Some racial slurs are especially deplorable.
"The Missing Heavyweight" refers to the art movement "cubism", using the term accurately to make a joke. Ellery Queen also cites cubism in "The House of Darkness" (1935).
Influence on Christie. A number of Malcolm Sage tales might have influenced Agatha Christie:
The whole structure of Rogue Male has a format similar to one of Freeman's inverted detective tales. We see the hero trying to commit a crime, the assassination of Hitler. Then we see the Nazi police try to track him down. The moral point of view is the direct reverse of Freeman's: here the man who attempts the killing is the good guy, and the Nazi secret police who try to track him down are bad guys. But the form is similar to Freeman's. There are differences: in Freeman the point of view shifts from the criminal at the beginning, to the detectives in the second part of the tale, whereas Household keeps the point of view on the hunter throughout.
Rogue Male also has a finale at one of Freeman's favorite locations: a country lane. The hero living outdoors in the countryside seems an echo of Mr. Pottermack, as well as Thomas Kindon's Murder on the Moor (1929). Also Freeman-like is the crafts work in the book's finale, finding a solution through technology to one of his problems.
There is an emphasis on daily life in Household's tales. His heroes, now being stalked by monstrous conspiracies, would give anything to be able to settle down and enjoy their former existence as ordinary people. Their encounters with daily life throughout their adventures have a poignancy. It is as if they are locked out of the Garden of Eden. This too is rather Freeman like. Mr. Pottermack wants nothing more than to be able to cultivate his suburban garden. Taking part in ordinary daily life is his highest dream. But unfortunately he is being hounded by a vicious blackmailer. One also recalls the hero of Freeman's A Silent Witness, who is actually being stalked throughout the book by a nameless conspiracy, who want to kill him for something he innocently witnessed. This too is very Household like.
The subject matter of Ambler's novel is the hero's attempt to research the life of the criminal Dimitrios. Attempts to reconstruct the complex past history of a series of events, such as the life of Dimitrios, also have predecessors within the Croftsians - see Crofts' The Cask (1920) and Sayers' The Nine Tailors (1934). Such jigsaw like putting together of past events is an especial characteristic of Croftsian writers.
The sleuth of the story is a professor of political economy turned author of detective fiction. As a former professor and expert on European politics, he is typical of the scholar sleuths of the Realist school. As a detective story writer, he seems to be the author of British Country House, Golden Age style fiction, which he is always contrasting with the "realistic" crime story he is investigating in the novel. Such distancing of one's own realistic work from the fantasies of the British Country House mystery are not too uncommon among Croftsians. Crofts himself portrayed his work as an attempt to add realism to the genre. Such Croftsian writers as Dorothy L. Sayers and George Simenon attempted to bring further literary values to the detective story, beyond the escapism of their contemporaries.
There is only a little commentary on detective stories. At the start of Chapter 4, Ambler refers to East Lynne (1861) by Mrs. Henry Wood, a further example of the affinity of Realist school writers to the Sensation novelists. Colonel Haki much prefers American and British detective stories to those of the French.
The Mask of Dimitrios eventually turns into a sordid and unpleasant book. Despite its fame, it cannot be recommended.
The Mask of Dimitrios has some plot affinities with Mr. Arkadin (1955), an excellent mystery film directed by Orson Welles. Welles also worked on a version of Ambler's Journey Into Fear (1940).
This is the only known story from this writer; "Arthur Williams" is a pseudonym of a South African writer whose identity has apparently never been published.
The story was adapted as Arthur (1959), a half hour episode of Hitchcock's TV show - please see the article on Alfred Hitchcock for a discussion.
Commentary on Vincent Cornier:
"The Duel of Shadows" (1934) is a very creditable scientific detective story in the Hildreth series. It is also a well-done impossible crime tale. The science is a lot more plausible here than in many Cornier works, and the plot is ingenious. As in many of the Hildreth works, there is much emphasis on crafts work, here wood working, furniture restoring, and bullet manufacture. Both the crafts work, and the antiquarianism here and elsewhere in Cornier, come out of the Freeman tradition. When he reprinted some of Cornier's tales, Ellery Queen pointed out their influence from Freeman. By the way, Ellery Queen wrote that Cornier's name is pronounced in the French manner, cor-nee-ay.
Some of the Hildreth's are much more science fiction stories than they are mysteries. "The Catastrophe in Clay" (1935) is a routine high-tech weapon story in the tradition of H.G. Wells and Richard Marsh' The Beetle. It is hardly a mystery at all. Agatha Christie also wrote stories in this tradition, including the Poirot play Black Coffee (1931) and the Mr. Quin story "The Face of Helen". The best parts of Cornier's tale are the descriptions of a golden body. Cornier had elaborate descriptive skills, and a bizarre imagination.
The first Hildreth story "The Stone Ear" (1933) is another minor tale that is more sf than mystery. It anticipates the glass work in the Coles' novella, "The Toys of Death".
Mystery elements in Cornier's "The Mantle That Laughed" (1935) are present, but very perfunctory; mainly this is another tale centering on technology. The description of the golden "mantle" (or cloak) itself is the high point of this otherwise ordinary tale. It is an elaborately thought through object, worthy of one of the symbolic romances of Hawthorne. Unlike Hawthorne, however, it does not seem to symbolize anything. A basic theme in Cornier's fiction is the union between the natural and the mechanical. Many of his plot ideas involve mechanical objects that behave like living things ("The Mantle That Laughed", "The Stone Ear") or living organisms that develop mechanical features ("The Duel of Shadows", "The Catastrophe in Clay"). The mantle is an especially complex fusion of the natural and mechanical in this regard. One wonders if Cornier had read Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful", which also deals with the natural and the mechanical.
Cornier continued to produce new Hildreth works into the 1950's, for EQMM. The late Hildreth story "The Monster" (1951) is full of "sick" material, and makes grim, unpleasant reading. It does have a fairly clever mystery plot, however, one than is based on that Realist School approach, the "breakdown of identity". The tale also shows the influence of Seamark's "Query", reprinted in EQMM during the era in which Cornier was writing for that magazine. Both stories deal with the question: under what circumstances can someone commit a murder, and be free from any punishment from the law? Cornier develops a very different answer from Seamark. But his story treatment is similar, with a chorus of baffled legal observers in both tales. A much earlier American work, Charles Felton Pidgin and J. M. Taylor's "The Affair of Lamson's Cook" in The Chronicles of Quincy Adams Sawyer, Detective (collected 1912), deals with similar issues, and provides a third solution to this problem.
Cornier's "O Time, in Your Flight" (1951) shows his faithfulness to the Realist paradigm, 22 years after "The Flying Hat". (It is reportedly a rewrite of a 1935 non-Hildreth story.) It focuses on that Croftsian staple, the alibi, and an alibi based on a clock, just as in some of Dorothy L. Sayers' Montague Egg stories. See also Murder in Blue (1937) by Clifford Witting. Cornier includes some "science" in the tale; his explanations of the origin of chicken pox seem like delirious pseudoscience, not real science. They continue the Camp-like nuttiness of his earlier fiction.
Weird sociological question: why is the British scientific school so interested in freezing? Robert Eustace, Freeman, the Coles, Valentine Williams and Cornier in "The Flying Hat" are all into freezing as the technological marvel of the age. Their interest stretched at least from 1901 to 1937. American scientific detective writers are all into lie detectors, instead.
Some of Cornier's 1930's works were much better. The non-series story, "The Courtyard of the Fly" (1937) is a clever impossible crime tale. It is less science oriented than much of Cornier's work, as well as being shorter than the typical Hildreth tale. "The Courtyard of the Fly" (1937) is in the anthology Murder Impossible (1990), edited by Jack Adrian and Robert Adey. (This anthology is known in Britain as The Art of the Impossible.)
Simenon also had a serious, long-lasting problem with anti-semitism, that shows up in a number of his novels.
While Simenon's works reflect Crofts' in their detective work, characters, and social background, their plotting technique does not completely follow the standard interests of the British realists. There is little emphasis on alibis, or on the "breakdown of identity" used to create them - although Simenon characters often have more than one identity, often to aid in their criminal activities. Science and engineering play a smaller role in the Simenon stories than in Crofts, although there is the murdered man's interest in mechanical gizmos in M. Gallet décédé. Simenon will later introduce a doctor detective, Jean Dollent, in the book The Little Doctor (collected 1943). Physician detectives are part of the traditions of the realist school. The careful account of Simenon's characters' financial status and activities, also reminds one of such British realist writers as Crofts and, especially, Henry Wade. Simenon's characters are often middle class, just as in the realists. Crofts included a portrait of adultery in The Cask; Simenon has may unhappy couples in his novels. Simenon's non-mystery works in which guilty people are psychologically pursued by their crimes perhaps owe something to the inverted detective stories of which the British realists were so fond. The gloomy, downbeat tone of some of Simenon's work also reflects the tragic tone of much British realist writing.
Simenon's plotting style can involve two separate plots. The first is a scheme by some crook; the second is a counterscheme developed by a second crook in response to the first. The detective and the reader only see a confused trail of evidence left by the two schemes. Their job is to try to see into the two level scheme behind it. Sometimes this works brilliantly, as in "Death in a Department Store". (This story has also been anthologized by Ellery Queen as "The Slipper Fiend".) But all too often, it results in a non fair play mystery. It is hard to see how any reader could deduce the real nature of the plot and counterplot from the clues given. They are just too complex, and largely hidden from the reader, with only a handful of scattered clues suggesting what is really going on.
M. Gallet décédé, while it starts out with some vivid writing, eventually devolves into a series of tangled coincidences.
What seems less Croftsian is the extraordinarily creepy atmosphere of the opening sections (Chapters 1 - 6). Reading these chapters made me extremely nervous. I have no idea of how Simenon achieves this effect, because there is nothing overtly sinister going on. There are no supernatural events à la John Dickson Carr, and no conventional suspense technique or events. There is just an apparently normal middle class suburb. But the reader constantly waits for some totally ominous catastrophe to erupt. The sheer placidity of everything is frightening. Maigret himself seems to do no real detection, but rather to just stand around and observe the suspects. His lack of action engenders a helpless feeling in the reader. So do the hints that something monstrous or abnormal is going on at the house of The Three Widows in the tale.
Paradoxically, when the solution finally comes, it is far less frightening than the body of the story. It deals with mere criminality, something that seems far more familiar to the reader than the nameless dread which dominates most of the novel. Also, here Maigret finally takes action and does things.
The great director Jean Renoir filmed La Nuit du carrefour the next year (1932), in collaboration with Simenon as a scriptwriter. Andrew Sarris thought it was botched, Jean-Luc Godard thought it the greatest French detective film, and André Bazin ignored it entirely in his book on Renoir. One could see why it would appeal to Renoir:
Matsumoto's story unfolds against the background of a government scandal, involving bribery between businessmen and government officials. This is exactly the sort of situation featured in Akira Kurosawa's film, The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which makes an interesting cross reference to Matsumoto's novel. Kurosawa's treatment is very melodramatic and adventure oriented, whereas Matsumoto focuses on a straightforward realism, never losing focus on the detective work in the book.
Matsumoto's tales tend to focus on sinister murder conspiracies against the innocent. The conspiracies tend to be worked out in great detail, often involving faked alibis. There is a pleasing sense of mathematical symmetry in Matsumoto's plots.
The second half of the book is more of a pure thriller or suspense story, with only a little mystery left. It reminds one of some of the suspense short stories in Koe (The Voice). I like the second half of the book much less than the first, and in general do not enjoy Matsumoto's thrillers anywhere as much as his mystery stories.
The story also shows Matsumoto's gift for misdirection. Several times Matsumoto makes it look as if his plot were going one way, only to pull off the opposite direction a few chapters later.
Some of the reviews quoted on the back of Suna no utsuwa occasion some comment. It has become a truism of criticism that police procedural writers are trying to paint a picture of their society, and more than one reviewer duly states this about Matsumoto. I don't agree. While Matsumoto is indeed realistic, it is hard to see that he is attempting to build up a systematic picture of Japanese society, à la Balzac. Instead, Matsumoto mainly seems concerned with creating mystery plots, together with exploring a few specific subjects that seem to interest him: policemen and their wives, train travel, men with hidden mistresses, bar hostesses, stage and film actors, newspaper reporters, life in South Western Japan, where Matsumoto grew up.
The unnamed reviewer for The Milwaukee Journal compares Matsumoto to Anton Chekhov. This is very true. Matsumoto, like Chekhov, often creates a character by revealing some small aspect of their behavior or personality. This small piece somehow evokes a whole person, in ways that are mysterious, yet somehow very effective. There is also a low keyed intimacy of tone that recalls Chekhov, at once realistic and sensitive, and a gift for lyrical description of both scenery and everyday life.
"The Cooperative Defendant" also shows Matsumoto's fondness for waste spaces: railroad yards, industrial lots, lonely road sides, country areas that are just being built up into cities, deserted beaches are all favorite Matsumoto locales. These are all areas that have some small aspect of human occupation, but which are typically nearly deserted, and almost in their natural state. There often seems to be water nearby, whether the sea, a famous waterfall, or just a small irrigation pond, as in this tale. Such American pulp writers as Norbert Davis and MacKinlay Kantor also were fascinated by such spaces, although one doubts either had any direct influence on Matsumoto.
Matsumoto's characters often have complete life histories, something one also finds in Hugh Pentecost. Their various professions can show unexpected links to the murder plot.
"The Cooperative Defendant" is in the anthology Ellery Queen's Japanese Golden Dozen (1978). Ellery Queen's introduction says that Freeman Wills Crofts was at that time the third most popular Western mystery writer in Japan, right after Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen.
There are also ways in which Nishimura directly reflects Matsumoto, but not necessarily any earlier Croftsian traditions. Both authors have corpses without any ID found near rail road yards. Both like to include magazine writers and actors among their characters.
Above all, detection and detective technique shows similarities between the two authors. Both try to reconstruct elaborate criminal schemes. They do this bit by bit throughout the book, instead of all at once at the end. They use much imagination to come up with possible descriptions of the bad guys' activities. These imaginative ideas are often proven correct. Logic and reasoning is extensively employed. Sometimes reality seems to contradict them, however, or they reach a point beyond which they have not yet reconstructed, with no clue to get them any farther. Both policemen often find themselves up against a blank wall in their sleuthing. They get a bit discouraged, but persist. They keep investigating and learning more details. They also keep chewing over ideas in their mind, trying to find solutions to things that puzzle them. Suddenly, insight occurs, and they discover some new fact, or come with a new hypothesis, that explains away their difficulties. These moments are the most exciting in their books. They are the emotional and intellectual climaxes of their stories. These moments of insights allow a great deal of further reconstruction. Ideas start flowing, and more fruitful detective work also is enabled, allowing them to build a much more detailed picture of the criminals' schemes.
This process has analogues in the books of Crofts. For example, in Mystery in the English Channel (1931), Crofts' detective Inspector French comes up with a hypothesis, finds it looks good, then does a lot of investigation on it. He eventually will conclude it is wrong, and then start over with a new hypothesis. Crofts devotes some ingenuity to making a hypothesis originally look true, and then turn out to be false. Also, French eventually doubles back on some discarded ideas, and shows that they are true after all. This too takes ingenuity. French devotes much effort to reconstructing the crime. The reconstructions are very detailed models of what possibly happened. They can be modified as French gets new ideas and new data. Building such reconstructions is a key part of Crofts' technique. All of this is fairly similar to the approach used by Matsumoto and Nishimura. Matsumoto and Nishimura place more emphasis on the moments of insight that extend their original ideas, then do Crofts. Also, Crofts tends to contradict an original idea, and start over, while Matsumoto and Nishimura tend to extend and build upon earlier concepts.
Matsumoto's stories involve Croftsian style alibis, and are closer to the classical puzzle plot detective novel. Misuteri ressha ga kieta, by contrast, involves reconstructing how a Big Caper was done. This gives it much less of a puzzle plot feel.
I cannot read Japanese, and my knowledge of Japanese mystery fiction is restricted to the handful of novels translated into English. So it is impossible for me to build up any detailed map of the influences among Japanese mystery writers. Based on my very limited state of knowledge, one could guess that the relationship between Matsumoto and Nishimura was one of direct influence. Matsumoto (1909 - 1992) is of an earlier generation than Nishimura (1930 - ), and it is very common for a younger writer to show the influence of a famous older one. Although both writers show features that ultimately derive from Crofts, there is no sign of any Croftsian feature found in Nishimura which is not found earlier in Matsumoto. This suggests that these features could have transmitted to Nishimura directly from reading Matsumoto.
Misuteri ressha ga kieta refers to Akira Kurosawa's classic ransom film, Heaven and Hell (1963) (often known in English as High and Low).
Shizuko Natsuki's detectives use techniques familiar from Seicho Matsumoto. They try to reconstruct the crime, employing a great deal of reasoning about how it might have taken place. They also gradually get ideas which take them to a deeper and deeper level of insight to the crime. Watching the police as they mentally grope towards that insight is one of the main dramas of the tale.
Shizuko Natsuki (1938 - ) is also of the same generation as Kyotaro Nishimura (1930 - ), and one suspects that this era of Japanese writers was strongly influenced by Seicho Matsumoto.
Also like Matsumoto, Shizuko Natsuki's tales embody a great deal of sociological detail about Japanese life. This detail is fascinating to read. "Divine Punishment" and "The Sole of the Foot" offer an inside look at Japanese temples, and their social and financial relationships with the public. This is a subject of deep interest to the author. "The Sole of the Foot" is not as puzzle plot oriented as "Divine Punishment", but it goes even deeper into its social analysis.
Another Shizuko Natsuki specialty: the public inquiry, in which police and public collaborate to provide information about wanted men, stolen money, and other investigation foci. She weaves ingenious plots out of the different ways information flows between the public and police during such investigative campaigns. The events in such campaigns usually occur over a considerable period of time. She shows step by step how more and more information is accrued, and from a huge variety of sources. The kinds of information that appear are often quite different from each other; so are the kinds of people that provide them, their motives, and the different approaches they use to uncover the data.
But the actual content of the mystery is squarely in the Crofts-influenced tradition of Seicho Matsumoto and his successors. The plot deals with alibis and timetables. Also, as in Matsumoto and his followers, the truth emerges after a long discussion between the detectives on the case, in which they grapple with alternative ideas and approaches to the case, and only gradually come up with new ideas, after much mental struggle and effort. These discussions involve reconstructing the activities of various potential criminals among the suspects. They also emphasize logic and reasoning. All of this is very much part of the Matsumoto school approach.
"An Urban Legend Puzzle" can be found in the anthology Passport to Crime: Finest Mystery Stories from International Crime Writers (2007), edited by Janet Hutchings. It also appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2004.
Commentary on A. Fielding:
The best feature of The Footsteps that Stopped is an impossible crime / howdunit puzzle, with a decent solution. It also has some other not-bad mystery plot ideas and other felicities. Unfortunately, The Footsteps that Stopped suffers from often dull storytelling, uninteresting and unpleasant characters, and a lack of "fair play" clueing.
The Footsteps that Stopped is the sort of middling book that poses dilemmas for critics. Should I recommend it to readers? This Guide and its Recommended Works lists are full of dozens of first-rate mystery novels and short stories that are frankly better than The Footsteps that Stopped. On the other hand, The Footsteps that Stopped is not hack work: it has some real merits.
Impossible Crime: a Howdunit. The Footsteps that Stopped is best in its first third (Chapters 1-4). This opening section both sets forth its impossible crime puzzle, and solves it. We learn towards the end of this opening section how the impossible crime was committed - but not the identity of the murderer.
A "howdunit" is a mystery about a crime whose unknown, mysterious method of committing is baffling and obscure. The big puzzle is to figure out how the crime was done. Like quite a few howdunits by other authors, the murder method in The Footsteps that Stopped is so baffling that the crime looks impossible to have been committed. Such howdunits thus also serve as "impossible crimes".
Clues and Fair Play. There is a solid clue to how the murder was committed. The howdunit aspect of The Footsteps that Stopped is thus "fair play": that is, there are clues indicating the solution.
Unfortunately, other mystery subplots in The Footsteps that Stopped lack clues. Instead, Pointer solves them by citing evidence that has been previously concealed from the reader:
Scientific Detection. All of the various mystery subplots of The Footsteps that Stopped discussed above, wind up having scientific or technological features. These features are discussed during their solutions, where readers learns Pointer's ideas about the subplot. The features are part of the subplots themselves, rather than being technological devices used by police labs.
In The Footsteps that Stopped Scotland Yard has no way of identifying which gun fired a certain bullet. By contrast, today such ballistic analysis is routine. According to the Wikipedia article on ballistic fingerprinting, in real life such analysis was making major progress in the mid and late 1920's.
Photography. Pointer has a miniature camera attached to a glove (middle of Chapter 5).
Philip Vardon, an artist who is one of the suspects, works professionally as a "film photographer of wild animals" (middle of Chapter 8). We don't learn business details about how he makes money out of this. Vardon is shown to be an expert on cameras.
Reconstruction. Both The Eames-Erskine Case and The Footsteps that Stopped show Pointer and his team reconstructing the movements of characters around the crime scene. In both books, these movements are complex, and full of mysterious activities. In both, some suspects are lying about these activities, and what they did.
Jewish Character. The Footsteps that Stopped has a sympathetically presented Jewish character, a financier named Hyam who gives expert assistance to Pointer (near the end of Chapter 5). This forms an admirable contrast to the antisemitism that was rife in other English authors of this era.
Comments on Mystery Fiction. A brief passage has the detectives giving their ideas on why people read mystery fiction (near the start of Chapter 7). Each sleuth has a different idea, linked to their personality and world view. Pointer's opinions help characterize him, and explain what sort of person he is.
Reflexive comments on mystery fiction have a long tradition in the mystery story, dating back to the middle of the 19th Century. The casebook writer Andrew Forrester, Jr. referred to Poe in some of his 1860's stories, for example. So Fielding is part of an extensive tradition in mystery fiction, by using her own mystery to comment on the genre.
Knox's detective fiction is uneven. The puzzle plots tend to be labored, and nowhere as clever as Carr, Christie and Queen, but with some interesting ideas. Many of his books have long dull passages, but they also have lyrical sections of nature writing, and occasional sparkling social satire. None of the Knox novels I've read is a gem, the kind of book you want to recommend to other people to rush out and read. But the best things in them are worth remembering.
This opening shows Knox's skill at creating an interesting rural landscape, complete with map, something that will return in The Footsteps at the Lock and Double Cross Purposes. The Viaduct Murder has a railroad running through its landscape, while the other two have rivers.
All of these books involve their heroes with popular-among-amateurs British sports: golf in The Viaduct Murder, boating in The Footsteps at the Lock, fishing in Double Cross Purposes. Upper class British of the era were sports crazy, something one can see from the enthusiasts in Knox's novels. Sports were perhaps also seen as a wholesome, healthy activity, a welcome alternative to unhealthy-but-popular activities like drinking or playing cards for money. One guesses too, that sports were regarded as an acceptable, morally sound interest for a British clergyman like Father Knox.
All of Knox's detective novels are narrated in the third person. Knox adheres to 19th Century practice, in making the author's presence "visible". There will be brief asides from the author, discussing story telling approaches or mystery conventions. Knox's comments tend to be witty and verbally adroit, and intended to amuse the reader.
The two young men in the story seem to be "doubles" for each other as well, something that also unlocks a whole world of symbolism for the author.
Knox targets a man who works behind the scenes running Britain, a man who holds no elected office, but who seems to have his finger in many commercial Government deals (Chapters 3, 13). In books by authors such as the Coles or Chesterton, such characters are often anti-Semitic stereotypes. By contrast in Knox's The Body in the Silo, his power broker is clearly a member of Britain's upper class WASP Establishment, and completely non-Jewish. At least in the 1958 U.S. reprint of The Body in the Silo I read, there are no references to Jews, or any anti-Semitic material. Although Knox's gibes at such unaccountable-to-the-electorate Establishment types are welcome, Knox never really goes into much depth about this character's actual activities.
More trenchant are an encounter with an unsympathetic British military Intelligence official (Chapter 15), and comments by the locals in a pub (Chapter 16). The right-wing official's comments are politically appalling, and suggest the iron hand with which the 1930's upper classes went after Socialist political dissent. Knox indicates the total contempt his sleuth has for this official. Knox earlier made a similar but briefer satire about a Military Intelligence figure in The Viaduct Murder (Chapter 1). This World War I official was not interested in going after German spies. Instead, he wants to target British labor leaders as subversives. These are the only scenes I can remember in pre-1945 British mystery novels, in which a Government Intelligence agent is not treated with fawning patriotic respect. While Knox neither embraces nor attacks another character's Socialism, scenes like this cannot help express at least some sympathy for such left wingers, or at least concerns over their civil rights.
The working class villagers' comments in the pub are treated with odd ambiguity. The villagers are introduced satirically, and one expects them to make inane remarks that are disconnected from reality - the working class frequently gets portrayed that way in older British crime fiction. Instead, the characters' mainly left wing comments seem oddly accurate. Knox presents these comments without endorsing or condemning them.
Mystery: Plot Structure. SPOILERS. The Body in the Silo has an odd construction: one which weakens the novel as a mystery. At the solution, the sleuth reveals that many of the book's events relate to a planned murder attempt that never actually took place. The very existence of this attempt is a surprise to the reader, who was not before aware of it. There are a large number of clues relating to this attempt, but far fewer to the actual killing. Much of the book's elaborate solution (three whole chapters of detail!) relates to this attempt, rather than the actual murder. The Body in the Silo is not the only book to have such a construction: the year before Stuart Palmer's Murder on the Blackboard (1932) and Fog (1932-1933) by Valentine Williams and Dorothy Rice Sims also stressed similarly unsuspected murder attempts in their puzzles.
Unfortunately, Knox's strategy seems "unfair": the reader tries to fit the book's events to the crime that took place, while they really relate to the unknown attempted murder. The Body in the Silo would be a more satisfying mystery, had the attempted crime succeeded, and Knox had not included the book's current killing. Then the focus of the book's clues and the main murder mystery would have been aligned. As it is, the potentially impressive dovetailing of numerous clues at the solution, is not linked to anything that the book has presented as a mystery.
Mystery. Other aspects of the mystery puzzle present problems. The murder method using a silo is bizarre, and the reader expects some explanation of the why the silo was used at the end. However, the only reason that the killer uses the silo turns out to be a dubious, briefly explained psychological quirk. It would be better if there were some ingenious plot reason for the silo's use - but there isn't.
Another problem (and BIG SPOILER): Knox does not explain a technological fact till the solution, about the trunk of a car. Since 1933, car design has changed, and very few contemporary readers will know this fact - I didn't. This technological change is not all Knox's fault, and it only partly harms what is a clever murder method. The clues to the method, about how the victim was dressed, are clever.
The puzzle has interesting elements about the killer being able to control and manipulate the "elopement game", bending it to the murder plot. The killer also has control over the organization of the house party as a whole. There is some good detective reasoning about this early on (Chapter 8).
This section (Chapter 8) also discusses the issue of "accident, suicide or murder" in inventive ways. Sleuth Miles Bredon suggests the lines between accident and murder are not as clear cut as one might think, in some ingenious comments.
A personal note: I found reading this book stimulating to my imagination, a very good thing. It is far from perfect, but it seems to suggest vistas and encourage one's flight of fantasy. This is especially true of the opening chapters.
Characters and Satire. The satirical description of Venron Lethaby (Chapter 1) recalls that of power broker Cecil Worsley in The Body in the Silo (Chapter 3): both men are celebrities, but neither has any significant public accomplishments. Both men are described in satiric terms, with a long list of their behaviors, and how these appear in the press. The literary techniques used to describe the two men are similar.
A difference: Cecil Worsley is mainly political, with Knox making points about British politics, whereas Lethaby is a frivolous figure who is mainly apolitical. Paradoxically, Worsley doesn't have any explicit party politics, left, right or center, being a deal-maker, while the Society butterfly Lethaby is a declared Communist, something fashionable among his Chelsea set. After a brief mention (Chapter 1), Lethaby's politics never re-emerge in the novel.
Mystery Plot. After the opening, Knox propounds a very long drawn out story. There are some mild moments of ingenuity in the puzzle plot, which is set forth in Chapters 7-8, and solved at the end (Chapters 18-20). Both of the best ideas in the puzzle, those concerning the map and the body, are somewhat in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman; so is the novel's theme of a search for antiquarian treasure.
Sleuth Miles Bredon does sound detective reasoning, looking at the position of a boat on the shore (Chapter 4). This recalls in overall structure his detection involving the thermometer in The Body in the Silo. Both have him measuring something along a linear axis (distance in Double Cross Purposes, temperature in The Body in the Silo), comparing this to real-world weather conditions in the recent past, then making deductions.
The solutions at the ends of The Body in the Silo and Double Cross Purposes are provided with a series of footnotes. Each footnote links the solution, to a page early in the story, that has a clue to this aspect of the solution. In The Body in the Silo, these tend to be very systematically, hidden clues; but in Double Cross Purposes, some of these are more simply references to where story material was first introduced. Other authors sometimes did similar things with an appendix: C. Daly King has a Clue Finder at the end of Obelists Fly High (1935), and more distantly, Gladys Mitchell includes her sleuth's Notebook at the end of The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
SPOILERS. The subplot about the chauffeur (stated in Chapter 5, solved in Chapter 18), involves the Realist School approach of the "breakdown of identity".
Machines. The small "ferry" made of a single boat (Chapters 18, 20), is an example of "machinery based on pulling large objects with ropes" found in Knox. Other examples include the silo in The Body in the Silo, and the device in "Solved by Inspection". In "Solved by Inspection", such a device is used to construct a first rate puzzle plot. Elsewhere in Knox, these machines add some color to the tales, but contribute more modestly to the mystery and its ingenuity.
His late Sherlock Holmes pastiche, "The Adventure of the First Class Carriage" (1947) is charming, but less personal in its plotting than the other two tales. It shows Knox's faithfulness to the tradition of "the breakdown of identity" right into the late 1940's. It also contains some of Knox's evocative descriptive writing.
Bush's Strengths. Many Bush novels deal with hard-to-break alibis.
Bush showed skill in his depiction of crime scenes and their initial investigation. He frequently explored British business life, both of his genteel, business-like private detective heroes and his suspects, victims and witnesses. These two Bush subjects often merged: business offices or locales would become the scenes of crimes and their investigation.
Commentary by Critics. Some contemporary 1940's critics saw Bush as an example of the pure tale of detection and mystery:
Detectives. The detection set-up in The Perfect Murder Case is unusual. Both sleuths work for a large business organization, Durangos Limited (Chapter 3). Durangos Limited is a bit like today's conglomerates: a huge corporation with many different business units, pursuing different goals. Ex-cop John Franklin is in charge of that organization's Enquiry Agency unit, a high-toned private investigative division. Franklin is treated as the main sleuth in The Perfect Murder Case.
Working for Durangos Limited is eccentric intellectual Ludovic Travers. While a somewhat secondary character in The Perfect Murder Case, Ludovic Travers will eventually become the main sleuth in Bush's novels. Ludovic Travers has quite a background in The Perfect Murder Case. He is a renowned author of books on economics. He is working at Durangos Limited as the head of its Exchequer. In other words, he is the corporation's "financial expert", the one that evaluates the firm's business plans. He also gets involved with sleuthing, assisting Franklin.
The set-up in The Perfect Murder Case reflects the giddy enthusiasm for finance that gripped the 1920's. The Depression would start late in 1929, and make companies like Durangos Limited much less popular and impressive.
In later books, Ludovic Travers' financial background will largely disappear. He will always be depicted as a Cambridge graduate, part of his resume in The Perfect Murder Case. But his fame as an economist and career in finance will not be included in later novels. For example, in The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) Travers being an economist is mentioned in a single sentence (Chapter 2), but otherwise plays no role in the novel. He is treated simply as a wealthy man functioning as an amateur sleuth.
In The Perfect Murder Case, Travers is something of an "amateur detective" in that his job description involves finance rather than detection, and he is doing his detective work as a sidelight. Still, he is not really an amateur sleuth in any strict sense: his detective work is an offshoot of his paid job at Durangos Limited, a firm with a private investigative unit.
Both sleuths have aspects that recall Anthony Gethryn, the hero of detective novels by Philip MacDonald that began with The Rasp (1924):
The phone company aids the police by tracing a call from the killer (Chapter 4, section A). This gives a vivid picture of how such an event might transpire in 1929. A threatening anonymous call is traced in The Election Booth Murder (1935) by Milton M. Propper.
Cinema. Ludovic Travers has an interest in cinema, partly as a business. He seems especially concerned with the British getting involved with film, as opposed to giving in to American domination of the film industry. His brief comments are interesting (Chapter 1, section C, plus more at the start of Chapter 7). Quite a few British Realist School writers comment on the cinema in passing: it is perhaps part of Modernity, in which they are interested. See my list on Movies and Modernity: British Crime Fiction.
Mystery Plot. The initial investigation of the crime is well done. This has the police and Travers talking to witnesses, then reconstructing the movements of the killer and the witnesses around the crime scene (Chapters 4-7). This sort of investigation/reconstruction is something that Bush was good at: see also The Case of the Second Chance.
SPOILERS. One good idea of Travers is on the borderline of the impossible crime (Chapter 7). This is part of the reconstruction. It helps explain a puzzling feature of the killer's movements.
BIG SPOILERS. The solution to a phony alibi (Chapter 22, section A) anticipates an idea used for different purposes in Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933).
The guests are promptly snowbound, making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave the grounds. This creates a closed circle of suspects: all the crimes must have been done by someone snowbound in the house. Several other mysteries about snowbound country home murders are better known than Dancing Death:
Influence of Agatha Christie. Dancing Death incorporates several ideas that had previously appeared in Agatha Christie. These ideas include both story subjects, and mystery puzzle ideas based on them. SPOILERS:
Masks Off at Midnight (1933-1934) by Valentine Williams is a slightly later book about murder at a costume party. It makes a huge spectacle out of the party, with chapters of descriptions of the guests' clothes. By contrast, Dancing Death keeps things simple and fast paced. We do not see the party itself, just brief preparations for it, and a look at the aftermath of the party, after most of the guests have left. The aftermath is described in Chapter 3, entitled "After the Ball Was Over". This title is part of the lyrics of a once very famous popular song "After the Ball" (1891).
Series sleuth ex-cop John Franklin is downplayed, being off-stage for much of the novel. Among his few good bits is his choice of costume for the party (middle of Chapter 2). This wittily conveys his tough guy nature.
The Crimes. By far the best section of Dancing Death is the description of the crimes and their initial investigation (second half of Chapter 3, Chapters 4, 5), together with a vivid look at the relevant architecture (last part of Chapter 2) and a later part that extends this material (Chapter 13). This section shows the aftermath of the party, discovery of the crimes, and series sleuths Ludovic Travers' and John Franklin's initial investigation of them. Such initial investigations are often the best part of Bush novels. This section is vividly written. It has a surrealistic feel, with some of the events being odd.
As is typical of Bush Golden Age books, there are both a floor plan and a map. Bush books often have either a floor plan or a map - but the generous Dancing Death has both. Architecture plays a role in the descriptions. While the architecture in Dancing Death is simpler and more conventional than in many Golden Age books, it is still pleasant and welcome.
These sections also contain the main depiction of the house being snowbound. People struggling to make their way on foot through snow are well-described. So is the way that landscape and architecture affects the snow.
John Franklin does some decent work analyzing footprints in the snow (Chapters 4, 13). This footprint analysis is not "fair play", though: the footprints are not shared with the reader, before they are analyzed by the detective.
Mystery Plot. Readers are likely to find the mystery plot of Dancing Death disappointing. BIG SPOILERS. Three crimes, two murders and a burglary, are committed independently by three different criminals. All three are coincidentally committing crimes on the same night in the same house! Such solutions are typically regarded as second rate. For much of the book the reader wonders how all these disparate crimes are related. Then the solution reveals they are not related at all.
A decent episode follows Travers as he investigates the movements and activities of one of the characters, writer Denis Fewne (Chapters 19, 20, 21, first half of 22). He interviews many businesses tracing the man's actions, offering a not-bad portrait of various businesses and enterprises. This episode culminates in the solution to one of the crimes. SPOILERS. Ideas about the dagger are interesting.
SPOILERS. A nice subplot deals with mysteries surrounding footman Charles (second half of Chapter 3, Chapter 13). This turns out to have nothing to do with the three crime subplots. But it is fun. The solution to this subplot is revealed long before the end of the novel (Chapter 13). The actions of servants often features in Bush's initial investigation of what people were doing at the time of a crime.
SPOILERS. I thought the identity of the burglar was easy to guess. But enjoyed this subplot anyway. It is solved at the same time as the footman subplot (Chapter 13), long before the novel's end.
The Detectives. Series sleuths John Franklin and Ludovic Travers are still employed by the company Durangos, a fact that is briefly mentioned (Chapter 2). However, they are brought into the case by accident in Dancing Death, being guests at the house party, and with Travers consulting on a business matter. They thus function essentially as amateur sleuths, investigating a case they have stumbled on by chance. While I like amateur detectives, I think that this is less interesting than Bush works like The Perfect Murder Case and The Case of the Second Chance which emphasize their sleuths' professional status.
Ludovic Travers is the main detective here, with John Franklin fading into the background.
A private investigation agency also makes an appearance (Chapter 20). It is seen favorably, and anticipates the later, refined and business-like detective agency Travers himself will run after World War II.
A Work within the Work. An unfinished novel written by one of the characters appears in part in Dancing Death. The portions reproduced are not especially interesting. Better: the characters are all asked how they would continue the book. Their responses are included (start of Chapter 27). Each response is different, and "in character" for the person suggesting it. This is a clever idea.
An excerpt from a musical stage show is also described (first half of Chapter 3).
Morality of the Weapons Trade. A man invents a sinister new weapon: what today is called a "weapon of mass destruction". Both he and the other characters in Dancing Death simply see it as a wonderful new business opportunity for him to make money (Chapter 2). Ludovic Travers shares this point of view: in fact he is brought into the novel not as a sleuth, but as a financial expert who can help with the money making. No one questions the morality of such weapons, or their marketing. This sort of calm acceptance of "merchants of death" is morally creepy.
The Kitchen Cake Murder is inoffensive - but not very good. Its mystery ideas are mainly poor, and its story telling is dull. Bush plays away from his strengths. The novel's best part is the opening (Chapter 1, start of Chapter 2), which contains such creditable features as the murder scene, the phone calls, and the landscape with roads.
Mystery Plot: The Alibi. How the alibi is worked, is an old dodge, long become a cliche. The book itself points this out (end of Chapter 13): it's called "hackneyed" and "been done a hundred times." I agree. And can't imagine why anyone would want to wade through The Kitchen Cake Murder to come to this routine solution.
SPOILERS. The two-level deep alibi is mildly interesting and original (Chapters 15, 16). Once the original alibi is exploded, a suspect has a second alibi all prepared.
Mystery Plot: The Crime Scene. Bush novels often feature a good initial investigation of a crime scene. However, the investigation in The Kitchen Cake Murder is not one of Bush's stronger efforts. It does pull up a number of odd features in the crime scene, including fingerprints in various places. Unfortunately, the book does not give a logical explanation for these features. Instead, these features are later mainly explained away as a witness who did irrational things because he was in a "blind panic" (middle of Chapter 5). This is not very good.
Mystery Plot: The Telephone Calls. By contrast, we can have some polite applause for the subplot about the many phone calls around the time of the murder. The calls are striking, and make fairly absorbing reading (Chapter 1; outlined in a timetable at the end of Chapter 3). As the detectives points out, the purpose of the "lot of telephoning" is mysterious (end of Chapter 1). And the book comes up with a reasonable explanation of the calls (middle of Chapter 6).
Reflexive Comments on Structure. The Kitchen Cake Murder opens with a declaration that the "cake upset an unbreakable alibi." This is declaring the subject of the mystery puzzle plot - right in the first paragraph. The statement is as reflexive comment, highlighting what is important about the book's plot structure.
The same opening says the crime thus became known as The Kitchen Cake Murder. This is using the book's title, right in the book itself to label the case. This is not unusual in mystery fiction. Still, it is reflexive.
The opening refers to a label for a murder case (such as "The Kitchen Cake Murder") as a "tag-title". A "tag-title" is a phrase I don't recall from anywhere else. Presumably Bush coined it.
This opening is just warming up, in introducing reflexive elements. The suspect Raymond Rennyet turns out to be a mystery writer. He systematically discusses the mystery's events in terms of a possible future novel. The proposed novel is a "literary work within the mystery": something that runs through Bush.
Reflexivity is fairly elaborate throughout The Kitchen Cake Murder. Unfortunately Bush never does much creative with it.
Landscape. Bush liked to set his crime locale buildings firmly between roads running in front and back of them. He has the roads and the surrounding landscape play a role in the mystery plot events.
Often times these are two named roads. The Kitchen Cake Murder offers a mild twist on this: the streets are referred to as the "old road" and the "new road".
A night-watchman named Juker is stationed at the fork joining the two roads. It is not exactly clear to me what the watchman is doing there. The roads at the fork are under construction:
Travers' Book. Early Bush novels refer to sleuth Ludovic Travers' hit book The Economics of a Spendthrift. We learn about what other books one reader of The Economics of a Spendthrift is also reading, with a list given (middle of Chapter 12). They are not at all what I expected! The passage perhaps suggests The Economics of a Spendthrift resembles Rabelais and John Bunyan, two other authors on the reading list.
The Wallet of Kai-Lung (1900) by Ernest Bramah is also on the reading list. This is perhaps Bush's tribute to Bramah.
Mystery Plot. The main murder mystery is set forth relatively briefly. It is like a short story, contained in the novel:
Bush here shows an interest in stage trickery, just as did his contemporaries, John Dickson Carr and Dorothy L. Sayers.
A servant is among the characters whose movements are reconstructed after the murder. This is common in Bush. Servants, who after all are working, are often among the most active characters during the murder.
Testimony about the time of the murder, sometimes has witnesses trying to interpret sounds they heard.
Architecture. An outdoor path at the house is tiled with "crazy paving" (irregular shapes). Bush must have like this: it also shows up in The Case of the Second Chance and in The Case of the Three Lost Letters (first part of Chapter 1).
The summer-house on the grounds, with a person writing in it, recalls the pagoda on the grounds housing the novelist in Dancing Death. However, the pagoda is a more elaborate piece of architecture, and plays a bigger role in its story. A summer-house is the site of a murder in The Case of the Platinum Blonde (start of Chapter 12, complete with a map of the surrounding garden).
The Opening. The opening of The Case of the Platinum Blonde has charm (Chapter 1, 2). SPOILERS. Best aspects:
The First Murder: Not Too Creative. The first murder is not that interesting. While this crime is the book's central subject, little about this murder mystery is inventive. BIG SPOILERS. Most of the apparent "clues" at the crime scene are fakes left by the killer, in an attempt to frame an innocent person. So that the "clues" and "evidence" the detectives and reader are studying, turn out to be phony and have nothing to do with the crime. I confess I often find such "faked evidence" crime puzzles disappointing. I would rather see real evidence, that genuinely points to the true killer. This "faked clues" gambit is sometimes also used by other writers: Philip MacDonald, Anthony Boucher.
The Second Murder: Scientific Detection. SPOILERS. The second murder involves a use of technology in its alibi puzzle (set forth middle of Chapter 12, a clue at end of Chapter 13, solved middle of Chapter 15). It is simple and hardly a classic. Still, it has a certain charm. The idea has a broad family resemblance to the gimmick in The Case of the Chinese Gong.
At the time of the murder one of the suspects is working on his car, parked at home. This relates to the Bush subject of people working at home. The depiction is simpler and shorter than some of the "home office" workers in other Bush novels.
The map of the grounds that illustrates the second murder lacks many interesting features. It is inoffensive. But it doesn't illuminate the events of the second murder. On the positive side, the way that the summer-house is right on the tennis court is unusual. In most Golden Age mysteries, summer-houses are in an isolated position in the grounds.
Gaboriau. In the solution (second half of Chapter 16), Travers refers to the fictional detective Lecoq, created in the 1860's by French mystery writer Émile Gaboriau. I've always thought that Gaboriau excelled at the initial investigation of crime scenes. Bush apparently has a similar perception: Lecoq is cited as exceptionally skilled at finding clues in crime scenes.
Bush himself was good at crime scene investigations. One wonders if he were directly influenced by Gaboriau.
Not much Background. Many of the characters are involved in the "war savings" program, which encouraged civilians to save money. We get a brief look at this program in the opening (Chapters 1, 2). See the Wikipedia article. The depiction of this War Savings Campaign is one of the few Backgrounds in the novel. Backgrounds, showing some business or institution, are a prominent feature of Realist School mysteries.
It is perhaps typical of Bush's business-orientation, that he would depict the war in terms of a financial program! We get an inside look, at how the campaign is run in this typical small village.
After this opening, The Case of the Platinum Blonde plays away from Bush's strengths. There is little about business: many of the characters seem to be retired, or gentlemen of means who do not work. So the book as a whole does not have other Backgrounds, showing some businesses or institutions.
Why are there so many retired men? The Case of the Platinum Blonde is set in 1943 wartime Britain. Most of the younger men are off fighting. The novel has a bit of home-front wartime atmosphere, especially in the opening. The war atmosphere is lightly if pleasantly done. It is much simpler than say the TV series Foyle's War, which is also set in Sussex in the war era.
A brief look at charitable fundraising in Sussex also describes a financial activity (start of Chapter 7). This is simple, briefer than the look at War Savings, and hardly constitutes a "Background". Bush's depiction of the fundraising is wholly negative. His characters seem lacking in public spiritedness. This is consistent with his disinterest in public good provided by rationing in The Case of the Purloined Picture, and the negative look at charities trying to help refugees in The Case of the Dead Man Gone. I confess I disagree with and dislike these opinions of Bush.
Failed Relationships. Much of The Case of the Platinum Blonde comes to deal with failed marriages, adulterous relationships, and the like. A confession: this is a subject that has never interested me, and which I usually dislike. The Case of the Platinum Blonde is no exception: this material seems dreary to me.
Detectives. Its best aspects are its brief look back, at how the hero Ludovic Travers and his partner set up in the private detective business. The opening shows Travers on leave in wartime 1942 Britain, looking up his old colleague Superintendent George Wharton of Scotland Yard. Then, at the start of Chapter 6, we move forward to the end of the war in 1945. Wharton has retired from the police, and Wharton and Travers decide to become private investigators to give them something-to-do. This look at moderately well-off middle class men becoming private eyes as a hobby is an unusual one. Neither is doing it for the money. Travers is a gentleman, dines at his club, etc.
Despite doing detective work as a hobby, the two men seem serious, even a bit solemn, about the actual work. One might expect a bit of comic sass, given this premise, but it doesn't materialize. They are straightforward workers, and they want their detective agency business to be a commercial and popular success.
Cognition. The opening takes a look at what today would be called the "cognitive styles" of detectives Ludovic Travers and George Wharton (Chapter 1). We learn how they think, their mental approach to detective work, and what interests them. It offers an inside look at the men's minds. This is enjoyable. But I wish these ideas were further developed in the men's detective work in the rest of the novel. An interest in sleuths' cognitive styles returns in The Case of the Good Employer.
Background. The victim has an office in his home. The opening (Chapters 1-2) offers a detailed look at what such a home office was like in the 1940's, and the business routines that take place there. It is mildly interesting, and forms a sort of mini-Background. Bush would later look at a somewhat similar set-up in The Case of the Happy Medium. Bush likes to set tales on the weekend, making office and domestic routine more complicated and trickier.
The Case of the Second Chance is yet another Realist School work set near Hampstead Heath. It isn't clear why these writers favored this genteel, upper middle class area as a murder locale.
Mystery Plot. The opening (Chapters 1-2) describes the initial investigation of the murder. It contains a not bad puzzle plot, that is solved at the book's end (Chapter 17). The solution depends on two gimmicks, neither of which were at all new, even in 1946. Still, the solution managed to surprise me. And there are fair play clues to both gimmicks. This opening and solution would have made a decent short story.
SPOILERS. A subplot about a marriage between two suspects (second half of Chapter 5) anticipates a similar gambit in Ellery Queen's Face to Face (1967).
Business. An early section (Chapters 3, 4) describes several places of business: two antique stores, a workshop, a lumber yard and a quarry. Bush shows his skill at depicting work environments. While no classic, this section is quietly interesting.
In other Bush novels, such business environments are often crime scenes, explored by the sleuths after a murder is committed there. But in The Case of the Purloined Picture, this section occurs long before the murder, which doesn't happen till much later (end of Chapter 5). However, later on some of these business settings will indeed become crime locales.
Bush uses similar techniques to describe the work areas here in The Case of the Purloined Picture and previously in The Case of the Second Chance:
Rationing and Austerity. The early business section (Chapters 3, 4) also shows how the austerity of post-War Britain and regulations of the Labor Government impacted life and work. Bush is purely negative about this: if the Labor Party had any positive effects on British life, they are not being shown. Although one-sided, Bush's portrayal does have some mild historical interest, in showing what British life in a small city was like in 1949.
Bush's upper class and middle class characters see no problem in breaking the law, and cheating on both food rationing and gas restrictions. They show no sign of any sense of public responsibility. All of this is treated simply as an annoyance for them to work around. They make jokes about breaking the law. In the current phrase, these well-to-do men feel "entitled".
Corrupt Business vs Government. However, when it comes to more serious crimes than buying black market food or gas, the detective heroes do respect government regulation. Bad guys regularly get into serious conflict with the government. This is a Government with teeth. It is quite willing to prosecute rich businessmen for malfeasance. The portrait of government in conflict with business criminality is trenchant and detailed: one of the interesting features of The Case of the Purloined Picture.
Antiques. The Case of the Purloined Picture deals with crooks stealing antiques, especially easily-resold objects like carpets, furniture and paintings. Most characters in the novel are antiques lovers, including sleuth Ludovic Travers and his wife Bernice. Some antique dealers are among the characters. The book takes place in small British towns, that are centers of the antique trade.
The subplots in The Case of the Purloined Picture dealing with stolen antiques and paintings are not very good, in my opinion. They lack imagination. At the start we learn that antiques are being stolen; eventually we discover the thieves who are doing it. So what? There are no ingenious plot twists or surprises. Nor is there a detailed Background look at art or paintings. SPOILERS. Despite the title of The Case of the Purloined Picture, the stealing of the art turns out to have little to do with the murder mystery.
I am not an antiques fan, or a collector of anything. It is possible that The Case of the Purloined Picture might be more interesting to readers who are fascinated by antiques.
The Case of the Purloined Picture shares an attitude with R. Austin Freeman: both only seem to value antiques, old houses and anything that is old. Today, most art histories portray 20th Century Europe as a hotbed of brilliant design. You would never know this from The Case of the Purloined Picture. Furniture only seems to be good in this novel if it left over from the 18th Century. Virtue consists of old homes full of costly antiques. It is the most backward-looking vision of society and life imaginable. Anything contemporary is never mentioned or discussed. I find this attitude deplorable.
Cinema. A local cinema in this small town is finally getting to show Gone With the Wind (1939), ten years after it was released (end of Chapter 6). This odd touch is not explained further. What caused such a delay? Perhaps this is satire about what a remote small town this is.
We learn briefly that a local businessman is one of the investors in a cinema theater (middle of Chapter 9). As in The Perfect Murder Case, Bush's interest is in the cinema as a business.
Links to "The Case of the Green Felt Hat". The corpse is found in a pile of sawdust (Chapter 6). This recalls Bush's The Case of the Green Felt Hat (1939), where a corpse is found in a pile of a different material. Some detective/forensical reasoning is done about these materials in both books.
A sinister suspect whose name is not known is referred to as "the man in the brown felt hat". This echoes the title of Bush's earlier novel.
Both books are set in small British towns. Both have road maps. Both have a local vicar as a character.
Links to "The Death of Cosmo Revere". Another Bush mystery set in a small town (or village) is The Death of Cosmo Revere (1930). It too has a road map.
Both The Case of the Purloined Picture and The Death of Cosmo Revere have a gravel pit.
Various bad guys seem perturbed when the private detective hero shows up at a seance conducted by the phony medium of the title. He can't figure out why: nothing criminal or even interesting happens at the seance. This reader couldn't see anything significant about the seance either!
This rather poor book unfortunately contains an ethnic stereotype.
Mystery Plot: Who Done It?. I thought the villain was easy to guess. Long before even Part I was over, I had figured out who the killer was.
SPOILERS. The choice of villain was clearly intended as a "surprise solution", bringing the crimes home to someone the reader never suspected.
Mystery Sub-Plots: The Secrets. Part II (the rest of the novel) spends much time trying to uncover the Big Secrets of the various suspects - secrets that might be motives for the murder. These secrets are largely banal and unoriginal, unfortunately. Nor is the detective work used to uncover them notable.
The most original secret involves business: always a favorite topic for Bush. SPOILERS. This is the "export license" issue (middle of Chapter 17). I didn't actually understand Bush's brief explanation, which perhaps deals with 1950's British government regulations. I would have enjoyed a more detailed account.
SPOILERS. O'Brien's secret (middle of Chapter 12) recalls one in an earlier mystery, E.R.Punshon's The Conquerer Inn (1943).
Disappearance. SPOILERS. A private investigator mysteriously disappears. This recalls the sinister disappearance of a private investigator in The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (1936) (last part of Chapter 5) by Freeman Wills Crofts. In both books, a sympathetic woman from the investigator's home is the sole witness who can provide much information.
Series Characters. As the book points out (start of Chapter 3), policeman Grainger had earlier appeared in Bush's The Case of the Silken Petticoat (1953).
Business. The victim and suspects in The Case of the Three Lost Letters are mainly seen at home, rather than at work.
But Part I does contain a detailed portrait of the operations of sleuth's Ludovic Travers' own detective agency. We meet the staff, see how it hires and assigns operatives, communicates internally and interfaces with the police. It's a sort of "private detective agency procedural". While this portrait is no classic, it does help Part I achieve absorbing storytelling.
There are brief looks at the jewelry business: pleasant, but very short.
Vamping. Private eye Travers romances a sexy witness to get information from her (Chapter 9). It's an odd episode, and not typical of Bush's Travers novels as a whole. It seems intended to get some mild raciness in the novel, and perhaps to get a bit more of a "tough private eye" image for Travers - who is usually more "gentlemanly". The encounter doesn't really work: no matter how you slice it, this is an exploitative action on Travers' part.
The sexpot witness used to be in show business. We soon meet her former boss (Chapter 10). This helps get some of the show business atmosphere Bush likes into the tale.
Yacht. One of the suspects has a yacht (end of Chapter 8, first part of Chapter 10). This gets a bit of "boats and sea" subject matter into the novel. This topic was a favorite of Freeman Wills Crofts.
Religion. The Case of the Three Lost Letters is unusual in that it reveals Ludovic Travers' religious beliefs. These are not given an explicit label, but they seem to be Deist. He believes in a Creator of the universe, but NOT a "personal God" (Chapter 1).
Both Travers and policeman Grainger heap scorn on the Oxford Group and its Moral Re-Armament (Chapter 7). Moral Re-Armament is mainly treated as a religious group in The Case of the Three Lost Letters, one that repulses Travers and Grainger with its religious practices. Its (highly dubious) political, pro-Nazi and anti-labor activities are not much mentioned. Instead, we get an over-bland, brief account of its 1950's political activities (Chapter 11). This account fails to include the group's awful 1930's politics. This section does offer a negative look at Moral Re-Armament's cult-like determination to recruit wealthy big-shots to its cause.
(Note: The Case of the Three Lost Letters erroneously refers to the Oxford Group as the "Oxford Movement". The real Oxford Movement was an 1830's religious movement that had nothing to do with the 20th Century Oxford Group and its Moral Re-Armament. Bush has simply gotten his names mixed-up.)
Moral Re-Armament is contrasted with a kindly Anglican vicar, who represents what Travers sees as a "good Christian" (Chapter 11). This vicar is an enemy of the Moral Re-Armament group. The vicar represents a positive portrait of mainstream Christianity.
Jews. Travers gets some show-biz inside information from a friend, Tom Holberg (middle of Chapter 14). The brief scene emphasizes that Holberg is Jewish, and he is seen in a positive light.
Mystery Plot. The Case of the Amateur Actor has a classic structure for its mystery plot. Various clues and hidden sub-plots concealed in the story point to revelations near the book's end. These revelations join together like a jigsaw puzzle, to form the hidden pattern behind the crimes.
This sort of structure is regularly found in the classic mystery fiction of many authors. It is always a pleasing reading experience.
Mystery Plot: Textual Analysis. A nice element of the mystery centers on analyzing a letter a victim wrote (Chapters 8, second half of 13, first part of 14). This is part of a tradition of Textual Analysis in mystery fiction, in which sleuths make discoveries of hidden patterns or information in pieces of text, such as a letter.
Mystery Plot: Alibi. Like many other Bush novels, The Case of the Amateur Actor has an alibi mystery. SPOILERS. A core idea of the alibi plot has been used previously, in The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen. Bush's specific use of this to create an alibi is different from the plot in Queen's novel.
Architecture. There are no great architectural set-pieces in The Case of the Amateur Actor. But there are a number of pleasant scenes that evoke buildings or man-made landscapes.
Bush likes "crazy paths" in people's yards, and they run through his novels. One is actually being built here in a suspect's back yard (middle of Chapter 7).
The brief description of Alton's flat involves a favorite Bush trope: a description of the tenant's books, which relate to his interests (middle of Chapter 9). The flat is over a small-town business, has a staircase leading to the flat and a landing, all features recalling rooms in The Case of the Purloined Picture.
The roadside ditch where a body is found, is simple but oddly interesting (first half of Chapter 10). It involves a gate and culvert. This shows Bush's flair for interesting crime scenes.
The description of the glitzy business offices of a jam-and-marmalade factory are enjoyable (end of Chapter 14, start of Chapter 15). Businesses and their settings are a specialty of Bush. I only wish this scene were longer. Bush includes color imagery: the interior is blue-and-white, like the colors of the food canning factory in Recipe for Homicide (1952) by Lawrence G. Blochman. Blue-and-white is also the color scheme of the kitchen in the Manhattan penthouse in Helen Reilly's McKee of Centre Street (1933) (Chapter 7). All of these examples relate to food production.
Bad Social Attitudes. The Case of the Dead Man Gone has deplorable social attitudes. All of the Jewish characters are unpleasant people. Detective Travers says that he judges people as individuals based on their actions, and has nothing against Jews. This is an admirable attitude, but it is undercut by the negative portraits of the actual Jews in the tale. A Jewish woman is criticized for having "ideas" and financial tastes beyond her station in life.
The Case of the Dead Man Gone paints a negative portrait of refugee and relief charitable organizations. Continuing character Scotland Yard man Superintendent Jewle says he suspects many are scams (Chapter 9). Once again, we get lip service to the idea that there are some honest ones - but the one shown in the book is an out-and-out swindle.
A Work within the Work. A fund-raising speech for the charity group is one of the book's best scenes, however (Chapter 8). It shows the use of films mixed with a talk: an interesting look at media back in 1961. This is a "performance within the novel", like the fictitious play discussed in The Case of the Second Chance (second half of Chapter 4).
The private investigation firm run by Travers often investigates its own customers - Travers is afraid they are lying to the firm, and attempting to either swindle it, or get it involved in illegal business. This gives Bush a justification for such Freeman-like investigation of the lives of the hero's acquaintances. It is not just curiosity, but a urgent attempt to detect if any hidden problems affect the firm.
There are also features that recall Freeman Wills Crofts. Bush's series detective hero, Ludovic Travers, is a non-hard-boiled private inquiry agent, recalling the equally middle class private investigators that run through Crofts. Travers' detection takes him through a realistically detailed France, just as in Crofts' The Cask (1920). If the book's medical characters and knowledgeability about painting and the art world recall Freeman, the depiction of an English gaming establishment and a French engineering concern echo Crofts, and his skill at depicting small businesses. Travers' own detective firm is given a full small-business treatment, showing both the mechanics of its operation, and its occasional attempts to outwit the official police to collect rewards for recovering property before the police do it. The reward-collecting schemes of Travers' firm, recall a bit the schemes of the bad guys' businesses in Crofts, although Travers' firm always stays within the law. In both Crofts and Bush, there is a sympathy for the money making schemes of middle class, small business tradesmen. Both authors' characters show plenty of get up and go.
Bush shows skill in depicting the different kinds of mental operation of the firm's different detectives. Each has their own "cognitive style". The suspects in the tale and their own mental approaches are also well characterized, and furnish a key clue at one point. These mental styles of detectives and suspects tend to relate to how they carry on their business and professional activities.
As in Crofts, everything that the hero thinks is fully shared with the reader at all moments. Both authors perform detection throughout, with the solution being revealed step by step throughout the story, rather than being saved up for the last chapter finale. Bush's detectives are always comparing what people tell them, with a logical analysis of what reality actually is, looking for discrepancies and hidden patterns. Bush encourages the reader to do the same. Both detectives and reader are constantly analyzing the events in front of them, in the true, admirable detective tradition.
Technology. Bush shows a fascination with surveillance devices, used to observe the customers and other suspects in hidden ways. These perhaps reflect the scientific detection tradition of Freeman, although such devices were rarely used by Freeman himself. He also depicts what today is called closed-circuit television, used by an auction house (Chapter 2).
Architecture. Travers explores a casino (Chapter 1) and a man's house (Chapter 4). Such an interest in architecture is part of the Golden Age tradition, here surviving at a late date.
Finding the Painting. The scene where the hero finds a mysterious painting concealed in a friend's house (Chapter 4) echoes an earlier such episode in The Case of the Purloined Picture (middle of Chapter 4). Both scenes are lively. They differ pleasantly in their details. Both have the hero entering a room on his own, where he has not been invited.
Arson. The deliberate burning of the house in The Case of the Good Employer (Chapter 8) recalls the burning down of the pagoda in Dancing Death. Both arsons are dramatic. But neither is especially creative or imaginative.
Commentary on E.C.R. Lorac:
Much of the rest of The Case of Colonel Marchand is routine. Its upper class suspects are ultra-conventional and dull: the spoiled nephew heir, the doctor, the lawyer, the male secretary. This is the cast of half of the mysteries written in the Golden Age. These men lack the sparkle of the servants.
Mystery Plot. But the solution (Chapter 26) shows vigor. SPOILER. The solution gives a logical account of the crime, tracing it to a character who had good opportunity to commit its various features and actions. This is logical and sound. Lorac also approaches the Least Likely Suspect, managing to surprise me in her choice of killer. Lorac's solution is not at the high puzzle plot level of Christie, Carr and Queen. But a sound look at opportunity and a good choice of killer are solid virtues.
SPOILER. Aspects of the plot recall Henry Wade's No Friendly Drop (1931).
Minorities: A Positive View. Also notable: a stand-alone detection episode involving a jeweler (Chapter 11). The jeweler is Jewish, as was common then and now in real-life in the diamond trade. And unlike lesser detective writers of the era, Lorac's jeweler is treated as a good man. This is one of the most positive portraits of a Jew in Golden Age detective fiction. It is clearly designed as an anti-racist statement.
Lorac emphasizes that a detective novel might combine literary merit and mystery fiction: a popular idea in that era. However, I have not usually found Lorac's own fiction to be especially "literary". She seems much less literary in approach than say Margery Allingham or Michael Innes.
A long debate ensues about woman's writing. The woman gives a vigorous defense of feminist ideas. One suspects that she is a spokesperson for the author. This is notable as an explicitly feminist passage in a Golden Age mystery novel. A shorter but somewhat similar debate is briefly seen in The Case of Colonel Marchand (Chapter 1).
A later debate on women's writing (start of Chapter 9) cites Dorothy L. Sayers and F. Tennyson Jesse as outstanding women authors whose work cannot be stereotyped as conventional "women's writing". This section also states that "the cunningest murder stories are planned by women's brains". (Wilkie Collins is also referred to, in Chapter 8).
Household views a Crime. Next comes one of Lorac's set piece accounts, of a household in the wake of a crime (Chapters 3-5). This detailed look is the most gripping part of the novel.
Mystery Plot. SPOILER. The police sleuths pull an unexpected idea out of the prior events (Chapter 8). This is solid mystery plotting.
I didn't like the bigoted treatment of the Irish characters. The stereotyping starts immediately after the opening (Chapters 4.3 and beyond). The novel takes a nosedive in quality at this point.
Dysfunctional Family. It is a mystery about a dysfunctional upper class family in London. I usually don't like books or films about dysfunctional families - and I Could Murder Her is no exception. Reading about these unpleasant people made me nervous. In general, I have never understood what positive lessons can be learned, from reading about dysfunctional people. The characters in I Could Murder Her are too neurotic and cowardly to lead productive lives. Also, the premise of "domineering, evil matriarch who is ruining her family's lives" was already a mystery cliche by 1951, as Anthony Boucher noted in his otherwise positive review.
Mystery Plot. The killer is easy to guess, on psychological grounds. SPOILER. I tend to dislike books in which the most sympathetic suspect turns out to be the murderer. However, Anthony Boucher's NY Times review, quoted in the blurb, likes the fact that the killing is "sympathetic and believable".
I Could Murder Her does provide a clue to the killer's identity. SPOILER. It claims that only one person would have been trusted by the victim: a somewhat dubious assertion, in my view. So this clue does not seem very good to me.
Like The Case of Colonel Marchand, I Could Murder Her also looks at who had opportunity to commit the crime, in terms of time schedule. However, this schedule aspect is less well-developed and logically conclusive in I Could Murder Her.
Detective. Our first view of Chief Inspector Macdonald emphasizes how well-built he is, and how healthy looking (start of Chapter 4). Depictions of Scotland Yard men as muscular are somewhat atypical of British crime fiction. Today we might refer to Macdonald as a "hunk".
Society: Post-War Britain, a Positive View. A brief but interesting section (Chapter 1.4) looks at an upper class man who crosses to class lines to make friends with a wide variety of people. There is an implication that class barriers in general are falling in post-war Britain. Such new democratic society seems to be strongly welcomed and endorsed by Lorac. I thought this was the most interesting part of I Could Murder Her. It also is a welcome positive note, in a book otherwise filled with the failed lives of this dysfunctional family.
There is an even briefer look at the change in medicine after the introduction of national insurance (near the end of Chapter 4). This too is positive. It makes a contrast with some of the negative looks at Britain's new medical system from conservatives like Margery Allingham's "The Patient at Peacocks Hall" (1951) and John Dickson Carr's The Cavalier's Cup (1953).
His work shows elements of British Realist school traditions. But it often combines these with impossible crimes: something none-too-typical of the Realists. His books also show elements of satire, comedy and farce.
Commentary on Christopher St. John Sprigg:
Mystery Traditions: Crofts. Death of an Airman shows many links to the work of Freeman Wills Crofts:
A Near-Impossible Crime. The main killing in Death of an Airman is mysterious. In fact, its circumstances are so bewildering, inconsistent and contradictory, that it seems impossible to understand or explain. In this sense, the killing can be seen as a "near-impossible crime".
It is definitely not a "traditional" impossible crime, which tends to have a clear, well-defined feature that make it impossible, such as a locked room, or only one set of footprints in the sand.
I couldn't see how Sprigg was going to explain his bewildering situation. He amazed me by coming up with a clear, logical explanation at the end.
BIG SPOILERS. Sprigg's solution in part is based on that favorite concept of the Realist school, the breakdown of identity.
Who Is the Detective?. Accounts of Death of an Airman, including the back cover of the recent paperback, suggest that the Bishop plays the role of an amateur detective. He does indeed make a good observation early on (first part of Chapter 4). But after this, all the major detectival discoveries are made by Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard. It seems to me that Bray should be considered as the main detective in Death of an Airman, and that accounts of the Bishop as a detective are largely wrong.
Money. Death of an Airman is unusual in that it gives us a full account of the finances of its victim. This includes explicit amounts of how much he was paid for different kinds of work (first part of Chapter 7). Such explicit numbers for salaries and wages are rarely shown in most traditional mystery fiction. I don't know why. We do sometimes learn how much private eye heroes charge per day. Otherwise, money almost seems like a taboo subject.
There are also explicit financial details in the pulp short story "Queer Coin" (1920) by Hugh MacNair Kahler, a writer who otherwise comes from a different world from Sprigg: American pulp fiction.
Links to Edgar Wallace. "Death at 8.30" is an imitation of the famous, and much better, novel The Four Just Men (1905) by Edgar Wallace. In both:
Earlier the pathologist has suggested a different murder method. That method is related to one used in The Claverton Mystery (1933) by John Rhode.
Detectives. Although there are three policeman characters in "Death at 8.30", all the actual successful detective ideas come from Paule. He also gets an interesting summary of his career.
An odd note: the pathologist, a famous surgeon, is named Sir Charles Martell. This recalls the very obscure 19th Century mystery writer Charles Martel. This might just be a coincidence.
The Villain and his Effects. The villain is seen by Paule as being a "different kind" of being than himself, more intelligent, more powerful but lacking in morality or compassion. This recalls the description of the Martians in The War of the Worlds (1897) by H.G. Wells.
The villain is not just committing a crime. He has the potential to transform society in sinister, degenerative ways.
The motive for the attack in "Death at 8.30" is financial extortion; the motive in The Four Just Men is politically idealistic. This seeps into the tone of "Death at 8.30", which is snide and cynical. This attitude makes "Death at 8.30" less fun to read.
Commentary on John Bude:
The Cornish Coast Murder is an inoffensive, but mainly dull book. It suffers from colorless settings and characters, and slow storytelling. And I agree with TomCat's analysis (linked to, above) of how the mystery's solution lacks fair play, in its choice of murderer and motive. The Cornish Coast Murder has a few merits, especially in the how-done-it aspects of its mystery plot, and its opening, described below.
Mystery Plot: How was the Murder Committed?. The Cornish Coast Murder is a how-done-it: how the murder was physically committed is mysterious at first. It doesn't seem possible, especially in light of the footprint evidence (set forth in Chapters 2, 3, start of 4). The detectives come up with two different solutions to this mystery: first an explanation by Inspector Bigswell (first half of Chapter 9), then by the Vicar (Chapter 16). This how-done-it is the best aspect, indeed the only good aspect, of the book's mystery plot.
Like many how-done-its, the way the crime doesn't seem too possible, links the mystery to the impossible crime.
The mystery in The Cornish Coast Murder is not actually impossible: two women present could easily have committed the crime. But the Vicar, who knows them, doubts strongly that either is a killer. And it does indeed look impossible that anyone else could have done the shooting.
Aspects of the setting anticipate some impossible crime books by John Dickson Carr. But the actual mystery plots are quite different:
The Opening. Before the mystery plot gets going, there is a nice opening account of the Vicar and his friend the Doctor having a pleasant evening together at the Vicarage (Chapter 1). This section is genuinely warm and charming.
The opening also contains an interesting discussion of the mystery and crime books the two men like to read. Their tastes include both detective and crime-suspense novels: pure detective fiction by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Agatha Christie, and authors who emphasize suspense and thrills, sometimes combined with mystery, such as Edgar Wallace, J. S. Fletcher and Jefferson Farjeon. Bude does not separate these writers into the two categories of detection and suspense. But he does note that the six "run the whole gamut" of crime fiction.
The Vicar's favorite seems to be Agatha Christie.
Problems with the Novel: Social Depiction. The Cornish Coast Murder is set in the murdered man's country house, the Vicarage across the road, and a small village surrounding these in Cornwall. These locations are utterly traditional, both in themselves, and the cliched way they are depicted in the novel. They are so old-fashioned that they make Agatha Christie's St. Mary Mead look like Silicon Valley.
The restricted view of English life in The Cornish Coast Murder can seem positively creepy.
Many Realist School novels have Backgrounds that give vigorous pictures of British business, society or technology. They are more original and interesting than The Cornish Coast Murder. And Christopher Bush, John Rhode and R. A. J. Walling all wrote better mysteries that give vivid accounts of rural and small town Britain.
One can contrast The Cornish Coast Murder with other mysteries that offer far more detailed views:
A Bad Man Does Bad Things. SPOILERS in this section. The victim seems to be a well-regarded locale magistrate, highly respectable (start of Chapter 2). But throughout the book, we surprisingly learn about some of the terrible things he's done to people in the region (Chapters: end of 6, start of 29, start of 32). He especially victimizes women and the poor. This is one of the most truly rotten men in Golden Age mystery fiction.
As best I can tell, no explicit political conclusions are drawn about this in The Cornish Coast Murder. But the portrait hardly suggests that rich upper class men are to be admired. Instead, one wonders if this is an implicit attack on the British upper classes as depraved.
Experts. Inspector Bigswell is a local policeman. He has a horror that his superiors might call in Scotland Yard, thus having Bigswell lose charge of the case. Such fights over local police control vs the Yard are standard elements in British Golden Age mysteries. Bigswell is especially incensed when his superior calls Scotland Yard "the experts", and says Bigswell is not an expert in murder investigation (Chapter 9). His superior is correct about this, but unfortunately that doesn't stop Bigswell from being upset. From then on, Bigswell refers to Scotland Yard contemptuously as "the experts".
This is clearly satire - Bigswell does not do a brilliant job, while Scotland Yard likely would have done much better.
I don't know about the 1930's. But in today's world, conservatives have a burning hatred of experts. Trying to destroy the reputations of all experts is part of the repulsive conservative ideology. So the satire in The Cornish Coast Murder takes on an extra edge today.
Realist School Traditions. Martin Edwards' Introduction to the recent paperback describes The Lake District Murder as part of the "school of Freeman Wills Crofts". I mainly agree, with the proviso that the book also echoes some other Realist School writers.
Motorbikes, gas stations and technology are all symbols of "modernity" in British Realist School writers. The depiction of England in The Lake District Murder thus seems modern. This differs from The Cornish Coast Murder, which is exclusively based on cliches of "traditional village life".
While The Lake District Murder mainly takes place in rural or small town areas, we see little about farming or other rural activities. Instead it focuses on gas stations and their suppliers. While such gas stations are in very isolated rural locales, they are essentially the same as gas stations in London or Manhattan.
A farmer is the main witness in the opening (Chapter 1). He is coming back from a meeting of the Farmers Union, a prominent feature of British agricultural life in that era. While only briefly mentioned, this gives farm life a dimension beyond traditionalist cliches, framing it as part of modern social organization.
Working Men's Clubs also get mentioned. These too have a modernist aspect.
Mystery Plot: Criminal Scheme. The investigation of the hidden Criminal Scheme takes up much of the second half of the novel (Chapters 11-20). This sustained passage is one of the best things in the book.
Mystery Plot: Flaw. BIG SPOILERS. I thought the testimony of witnesses like Fred Hogg (Chapter 3) and Major Rickshaw (start of Chapter 7) was flawed. They should have given more accurate statements, and not be fooled. I had the same problem with similar witness testimony in The Davidson Case (1929) by John Rhode. In both The Lake District Murder and The Davidson Case, this problem is serious enough to make the solution unfair.
In Bude's defence, Bude is careful to make the events happen on a dark night, thus making witnessing the events accurately harder. So maybe I am nitpicking.
Young People. An appealing feature of The Lake District Murder is Inspector Meredith's 17-year-old son Tony. I don't recall many British Golden Age police characters whose children appear "on stage".
The victim is himself a young man, although completely grown-up. One wonders if The Lake District Murder is trying to appeal to young readers and the youth market. The gas station Background and the prominence of motorcycles might also appeal to young readers.
Photography. Tony works as an apprentice in the local small town photography shop (Chapter 9).
A professional photographer with a shop in a rural British town recalls Prove It, Mr. Tolefree (1933) by R. A. J. Walling. The mountainous scenery of The Lake District Murder also recalls Prove It, Mr. Tolefree. A stream plays a prominent role in both Prove It, Mr. Tolefree and The Lake District Murder (Chapter 17).
Bude likes color imagery in The Lake District Murder, especially relating to petrol companies and the colors of their vehicles and uniforms. Color imagery sometimes plays a role in Walling too.
Wireless. Tony is first seen assembling a wireless set with his Dad (end of Chapter 4). This recalls the numerous hand-made radio sets in the village in Genius in Murder (1932) by E.R.Punshon. Like the photography, motorcycles and gas stations, this stresses the technological side of British life - even in the remote area of Britain where the novel is set.
The Rotten Rich. The wealthy businessman Ormsby-Wright is a suspect and seen negatively. This recalls the vile, and upper class, victim in The Cornish Coast Murder. While no explicit moral is drawn, both books implicitly suggest that at least some of the rich are rotten.
The Lake District Murder does not neglect to mention that Ormsby-Wright is a member of the Conservative Club (middle of Chapter 10).
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. The mystery plot centers on an old, much-used gimmick. Because of this, I suspected the truth right away. So should have Inspector Meredith and the other police. This robs the mystery of surprise and originality.
The mystery plot of The Sussex Downs Murder is substantially simpler than that of The Lake District Murder. This makes The Sussex Downs Murder less interesting and less worthwhile.
Tony. Inspector Meredith's 17-year-old son Tony is a less interesting character in The Sussex Downs Murder than he was in The Lake District Murder. In The Lake District Murder Tony was intelligent and performed real detective work, aiding his father. In The Sussex Downs Murder Tony is reduced to being comedy relief, suggesting over-lurid explanations of the crime to his father.
The strongest feature in the Penny mysteries I've read is the explanation of how the mysteriously-done crimes are committed: the howdunit in Policeman's Holiday, the solution to the locked room in Policeman's Evidence. By contrast, the rest of the mystery plotting in these books is ordinary. As a whole, Penny seems like a fairly minor writer.
Policeman's Holiday starts out well, with a brisk, nicely detailed account of a police investigation into a suspicious death (Chapters 1-5). This opening also contains some decent characterization.
Mystery Plot. Policeman's Holiday is a howdunit: it is not at all clear at first how the killing took place. The best parts of the puzzle plot of Policeman's Holiday deal with howdunit: two later sections (Chapters 7, 17) offer ingenious ideas, on how the crime was committed. The chapters reveal everything about howdunit long before the end of the novel.
The clever ideas in Chapter 7 go beyond just how the crime was committed, involving alibis as well. SPOILER: The ideas in Chapter 7 have links to those in John Dickson Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933). END OF SPOILER.
By contrast, the solution at the novel's end to the mystery as whole, is a mess. More than one person is wandering around, coincidently committing sinister actions. Nothing is ingenious or clever. The killer implausibly employs an accomplice who could easily betray the killer later.
The Crofts Tradition. Policeman's Holiday is in the Crofts tradition:
Detective. Chief Inspector Beale seems a bit more gentlemanly and upper class than the middle class Inspector French in Crofts' books. This is not necessarily a good thing. One also gets tired of the upper class characters endlessly complaining about how "common" the victim's second wife is - meaning she lacks upper class mannerisms and attitudes.
Mystery Plot. The murder and its locked room puzzle finally occur at the start of the Second Part (Chapters 11-12). The solution seems unbelievable, at least to me, and hence unfair (Chapter 24). However, it also shows some imagination. Maybe a variation on this approach would actually work, under somewhat better conditions. It would be a bit more plausible, for example, if the main witness were some dizzy, naive, easily fooled amateur, rather than the experienced Scotland Yard inspector who is actually on the scene in the story. In any case, the locked room puzzle is better than the novel around it.
Mystery Traditions. Policeman's Evidence is less Croftsian than Penny's previous Policeman's Holiday. This is partly due to the construction of the two books. In Policeman's Holiday, the tale opens with the murder, and a Crofts-like police investigation. By contrast, in Policeman's Evidence the crime does not occur till half-way through the novel. The whole first half of the book is taken up by an account of the people staying at a country house, looking for an alleged hidden treasure. This is a variation on the British country house mystery, complete with butler, secretary, chauffeur and house guests. The characters are singularly unpleasant people, and make a miserable experience to read about.
John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins / The Hollow Man (1935) is explicitly mentioned, invoking that book's Locked Room Lecture. H.C. Bailey's detective Mr. Fortune also gets a reference. Beale also separates genuine detective fiction from "mere thrillers of the Bulldog Drummond type", a widespread distinction in his era (end of Chapter 14).
Detective. Policeman's Evidence gets its title, from the second half of the book being narrated by Chief Inspector Beale himself. He is given a logical, precise narrative voice, distinct from the jaunty tone of regular narrator Tony Purdon. The previous year Margery Allingham's "The Case of the Late Pig" (1937) experimented with the detective Albert Campion narrating his own case.
Commentary on Clifford Witting:
Witting incorporates features of Freeman Wills Crofts tradition:
Best Parts. Best parts: Chapters 1, first half of 3, 4, last third of 5, start of 6, 10, 18. These parts include:
Origins of Series Characters. Murder in Blue creates Witting's series policeman hero Inspector Harry Charlton, and his young aide Peter Bradfield. It also creates his imaginary county of Downshire, where they work. Lulverton, where the Inspector is stationed, is briefly mentioned (Chapters 1, 3), but most of the novel takes place in nearby smaller villages.
The narrator, well-to-do young John Rutherford, also appears in some later Witting works. He's pleasant, but uninterestingly conventional. He's the Handsome Young Upper Class Hero Who Gets the Girl. We learn his entire life history (Chapter 2). The novel stops dead in its tracks, to give his backstory. This sort of detailed (17 page) backstory anticipates contemporary mystery fiction, and is fairly rare in Golden Age mysteries. It's a bore in Murder in Blue, just as it is in contemporary crime novels.
The narrator in Measure for Murder also gives his life history.
Oddly we get little backstory for Inspector Charlton. Like many other Golden Age detectives, he lives in the eternal present, with his work as a detective emphasized over characterization or life history.
Mystery Plot. Murder in Blue contains one good plot surprise, in the testimony of the witness Walker during the inquest (Chapter 4). This takes the mystery puzzle in a direction I didn't expect. As far as I know, this direction is original to Murder in Blue. I don't know of earlier books that did something like this. This plot surprise can be categorized more as a "clever premise for a mystery novel" rather than as a "mystery subplot" or an "ingenious solution to a mystery".
The subplot about the lodger is pleasant. Its solution anticipates a nice subplot in Measure for Murder (end of Chapter 18, start of Chapter 19).
Unfortunately, the main murder mystery never amounts to much. We have various characters wandering around the crime scene, for numerous reasons. None of this is especially ingenious or imaginative.
The solution at the end has some gimmicks used to create alibis (Chapter 17). These are sound enough, but not brilliantly creative.
BIG SPOILERS. Crofts liked to include multiple copies of objects, that can get confused with one another, complicating the mystery plot. In Murder in Blue there are multiple copies of police bicycles and police truncheons.
Working Class Good Guy. George Stubbings, the assistant in the hero's bookshop, is a farm worker's son. He is enormously brainy, competent and resourceful. He anticipates a later working class good guy, Archibald Hobson in Measure for Murder.
The narrator John Rutherford is a genial upper class dilettante; he owns a bookstore/lending library as a lark. George Stubbings does most of the real work of running the shop, as the narrator good-naturedly points out (first part of Chapter 3). This is gently comic. But in its genteel way, it depicts a Britain where the working class is actually doing the hard labor, both physical and brain work. It's a left-wing point of view.
Murder in Blue shows good-natured rapport between the classes, at least in the friendly relations between George and the narrator. But it is NOT a right-wing fantasy where the working classes "know their place" and stay there. (That's the nauseating point-of-view in Margery Allingham's right-wing "The Case of the Late Pig" (1937), for example.) Instead, George is fearlessly eager to move ahead in life. For a farm worker's son, a middle-class job like running a bookstore is a huge step up. He also reads constantly and tries to improve his vocabulary.
George is quite young: Nineteen. Giving an upper class hero a teenage working class assistant of high talent, is a tradition in mystery fiction. See:
Autobiography. Sgt. Martin gives a biography of the victim Johnson (last third of Chapter 5). Johnson was a bank clerk, something his family had arranged. But he hated bank work, and threw it over to become a policeman. In real life Clifford Witting was a clerk in Lloyd's bank (1924-1942). Witting moonlighted as a detective story writer. One suspects there are elements of autobiography here, with Johnson living out some of Witting's fantasies.
Don Juan. Johnson is a Don Juan type, compulsively romancing numerous women. This is seen as a character flaw, and producing motives for his murder. A character with similar problems is Peter Ridpath in Measure for Murder.
Theater. Inspector Charlton is depicted as an expert on Shakespeare, anticipating Measure for Murder (middle of Chapter 11). There are other Shakespeare references by the narrator, such as to Caliban (last page of 5). We hear briefly about an amateur community theater of which Charlton is President (middle of Chapter 11), also anticipating Measure for Murder. Both Shakespeare and community theater will be explored in much greater depth in Measure for Murder.
Mystery Writers. Murder in Blue mentions other mystery writers: G. K. Chesterton (middle of Chapter 11), S. S. Van Dine (last third of Chapter 13, also first part of Chapter 17). Oddly, both of these belong to what I call The Intuitionist School of mystery fiction, while Clifford Witting's own books mainly recall the Realist School. Murder in Blue definitely follows Realist School traditions, with its policeman detective and its concern over alibis.
The main passage on Van Dine (last third of Chapter 13) contains self-reflexive comments on Murder in Blue itself. This anticipates the more elaborate fictional self-structuring in Measure for Murder.
Manusfacture and Self-Reflection. There is a cultural tradition, in which an "artwork featuring an object also shows the manufacture or production of the object". Witting does this:
Bookstore: Not a Background. The hero's bookstore is atypical, being a rich man's hobby, and dependent on patronage of the upper crust. We don't learn much about typical bookstore/lending libraries of the era. In other words, the novel does NOT have a Background depicting the operation of bookstores in detail. Book-lovers might enjoy the sections in the store - but they are not going to learn from them.
The mainstream novel-like aspects of Measure for Murder continue with a long, not very good section on the characters' romantic problems (Chapters 6-11). These problems are unpleasant and dull. This section does introduce a new character, Franklin Duzest (start of Chapter 8), and resolves some minor mysteries (start of Chapter 9). It also includes observations about Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure (1604), which the Little Theater is rehearsing. This mainly consists of jaunty and often sarcastic comments on the characters in Measure for Measure, and their feelings and motivations. It does not seem deep or interesting, but it does show Witting giving the play close study.
Working Class. In addition to a large cast of middle class characters, Witting also includes a sympathetic and skilled working man, Archibald Hobson. As a technically skilled representative of the working class, Hobson recalls Polton in R. Austin Freeman, although Hobson is a handyman, not a professional technician like Polton. One wonders if Witting is trying to appeal to a broader audience, by featuring a man showing the abilities of the working class.
Left-wing Politics. Two sympathetic middle class characters involved with the arts (architect Paul Manhow, literary journalist Matthew Kelso) are left-wing politically, something one doesn't always see in Golden Age British novels. Kelso is described as a "redhot Socialist" (Chapter 15), Manhow's precise politics are unspecified (Chapter 2). By contrast, the book criticizes the Hitler-Stalin pact (end of Chapter 4).
A comic note: the intellectual Kelso is partly characterized by his broken-and-mended-with-tape glasses, decades before this became part of the stereotype of the "computer nerd".
Architecture. The opening chapters show the Golden Age interest in architecture. They describe in detail the architectural layout of the theater, including a floor plan (Chapter 3). There is also some description of the boarding house's unusual architecture (Chapter 4), which later plays a mild role in the solution of the mystery (Chapter 21).
The former industrial bakery or "bakehouse" where the theater is located, has a bit of a resemblance to the food factory in Rex Stout's "Bitter End" (1940): both have tunnels going into the buildings, where vehicles can be driven. The resemblance is perhaps just a coincidence: this was a common aspect of industrial architecture. The two staircases in the bakehouse leading to the theater also have a bit of a tunnel-like feel.
Mystery Plot. The mystery solution is not very good. It brings in far-fetched material, that is also not related to most of the previous novel.
The single simple clue to the killer's identity is based on a piece of history that was obscure at the time, and which now will be unknown to most readers. The fact that it involves the history of technology reflects the interest in science of the Realist School.
Better: a subplot about one of the suspects (end of Chapter 18, start of Chapter 19). This idea isn't original, but it did surprise me. This subplot has a bit of an Edgar Wallace feel: Wallace sometimes included similar gambits, as in The Green Archer (1928) (Chapters 3, 6).
Detectives. We only learn a little about Witting's series sleuth Inspector Charlton. He seems bright, cheerful, brisk, persistent, smart, highly competent and good at summarizing data in police reports. He's also bland, smooth and misleadingly affable and "civil", in the Crofts tradition, but rather more intimidating than Crofts' Inspector French. In Measure for Murder (Chapter 11), Charlton is around fifty, big and with a "rather fine face". He is also highly literate and knows a lot about Shakespeare. He believes the key to detective success is interviewing countless witnesses, rather than police lab work (start of Chapter 15) - and indeed much of the second half of Measure for Murder consists of such interviews.
One of his constables is young Peter Bradfield. In later novels, Bradfield becomes the series sleuth in Witting. In Measure for Murder (middle of Chapter 17), we learn that Bradfield is from a good family, son of a London solicitor, but is starting out at the bottom to learn the policeman's trade. He choose not to go to Police College, but began as a beat cop; he's now in plain clothes. In a general way, this recalls other sleuths who combine the "upper middle class young hero" with the "working cop", such as Bobby Owen in E.R.Punshon's novels, and Sgt. Johnny Lamb in Nigel Morland. Like Bobby Owen, Bradfield is noticeably attractive to women, in a refined way.
Miss Pym Disposes is full of detail about the women's college, in the Background mode of the Realist school. People who have an interest in such institutions, will perhaps enjoy seeing how life was lived in such athletic schools. The fictitious school in the book is called the Leys Physical Training College. Its purpose is to train women to be schoolteachers of athletics, what are called "gym teachers" in the US, and "games mistresses" in Britain. In real life, Tey graduated from such an institution, and taught physical education herself. Presumably the novel is based in part on first hand experience.
In Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1992), William L. DeAndrea praises Miss Pym Disposes highly, especially for its depiction of the "closed woman's society" of the college. The college, where the teachers and students are all female, is one of the main examples of such an all-woman institution in British Golden Age fiction. Gladys Mitchell wrote another with St. Peter's Finger (1938), a look at a convent whose nuns run a girl's school and orphanage for girls. St. Peter's Finger includes a woman athletics instructor at the school, and Mitchell taught physical education in real life.
As a novel, I would describe Miss Pym Disposes as mainly competent but undistinguished. Its modest virtues of recording a time and place are not enough to awake any deep interest or enjoyment.
SPOILER. Any account of "women without men" is going to raise the issue of Lesbianism. Miss Pym Disposes has a full agenda on this topic. It depicts homosexuality as an evil force, one that harms people and destroys lives. Miss Pym Disposes is an example of the ugly anti-gay hatred that sometimes appears in older mystery novels.
I don't get why some critics think that The Daughter of Time is one of the best mysteries ever written. The Daughter of Time is not as imaginative or creative as the best standard mysteries, whose authors have created their plots and characters from scratch.
In some ways, The Daughter of Time can be considered as a True Crime non-fiction book, wrapped lightly in a novelistic frame. I am not a heavy reader of True Crime, and not qualified to judge True Crime non-fiction.
The Daughter of Time relentlessly trashes professional historians, depicting them as a bunch of idiots. Tey depicts historians as men who know a lot of facts, or at least received ideas, but who have no judgement, skepticism, curiosity, commitment to research, or analytic skills, and who usually come to the wrong conclusions. Similar views about experts as a whole are common today. Such condemnation of "experts" seems to be especially prevalent among political conservatives. I confess I am uneasy about both today's anti-expert beliefs and Tey's anti-historian views. I suspect most people have a great deal to learn from experts, including professional historians.
The Daughter of Time briefly cites some interesting accounts of daily life and social institutions in historic Britain (end of Chapter 4, near the end of Chapter 15). These are the best historical passages in the novel. But it also makes fun of this sort of social history (Tey calls it Constitutional History), dismissing it as dull (Chapter 4). It also mocks interest in the Peasants Revolt (Chapter 7). Both attitudes dismiss the history of ordinary people's lives as a significant subject. Instead, The Daughter of Time gives us a sustained focus on royalty as a subject of supreme interest. My own attitudes are the reverse: social history is the key topic of history, and royalty is only interesting when it affects the lives of ordinary people and their social institutions.
The early chapters of The Daughter of Time show us some female-run worlds:
Mini-Backgrounds. The characters in the books are involved in a series of businesses, and Hare provides inside looks at how these run, in the Crofts tradition of Backgrounds on the world of work. Instead of one business forming the entire Background of the novel, however, as in most of the Crofts school, Hare offers of series of mini-portraits of several different enterprises, at several different class levels of British society. We see the big time financier running an elaborate scam in the City, London's financial district; middle class workers at a housing agency; and a working class newspaper seller. This series of mini-backgrounds is somewhat unusual in the Crofts school. So are the humor and social satire with which Hare conducts his narrative.
The financier, and the massive scandal his frauds invoke, recall the victim in E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913), another pioneering book in the Realist School tradition.
Mystery. The mystery technique of the novel's puzzle plot also recalls Realist School traditions, with a standard approach of the School used in the book's ingenious finale (not named here to avoid spoilers). SPOILERS. The book involves an alibi, of a sort, but one of a different kind than usually seen in mystery novels.
On the down side, the book has too many coincidental relations between the characters, that turn out to be just that - coincidences - rather than being logically explained as part of the mystery plot.
There are also R. Austin Freeman-like aspects of the book. The plot centers around a mysterious personage, about whose life other people only get fragmentary glimpses. Such dimly observed events at the center of a mystery occur in many late Freeman novels. As in Freeman, the person comes out of nowhere, and even the details of him renting his house or opening a bank account are only glimpsed partially.
Politics and Class. Hare's largely conservative political ideas are full of contradictions. Although this is poor logic, it also makes interesting reading. Hare shows colonialism and Empire building as admirable, and seems to have no realization that the British Empire was less than ten years from disintegration, at the time of his writing. Hare treats the financial setbacks of upper class characters as tragic, but snobbishly views the hard working efforts of working class characters to better themselves as mere uppitiness (the book's least pleasant aspect). Conversely, there are a lot of signs that British society is full of dissatisfaction at all levels, from upper-middle class people who want to emigrate, to lower class radicals.
The "good breeding" of the upper classes is always being compared favorably to the ill breeding of the lower here. Apparently, any sort of style or gracefulness was a monopoly of the rich in 1937 Britain. No wonder the British people later so enthusiastically embraced the Mods, the Rockers, the Teddy Boys and the Swinging Sixties, all movements that allowed working class Brits to show some style and flair.
Still, this Inspector Mallett book can be seen as belonging to the Crofts tradition, with a policeman hero, a Background of fishing, a detailed topography and map, a setting on the water, and much information about business.
The characters and social background recall the preceding Tenant for Death: we have corrupt businessmen and their sinister schemes, a young Gentleman who gets involved in some two-bit plotting himself over his lady love, and a well-to-do, sophisticated woman involved in affairs. However, the actual intrigues of all of these people are subtly different than in the first book, making for pleasant variations. The crooked business schemes are especially juicy, in their satirical depictions of moral rot in British business of the time. They form a scathing look at the upper classes.
Hare also expresses some ecological concerns, that seem more relevant today than ever. The obnoxious, upper class murder victim is obsessed with power and control over others, at all levels. In this he resembles the politicians to come in An English Murder. Hare links his desire for control over money and business, control over nature and the environment, and control over women as sinister actions with a common root cause. In this, Hare anticipates many current social critics.
Hare's story also briefly condemns his lower class villagers for lacking sexual morality. Hare echoes in a mild way Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), which also depicts a traditional English village whose peasant inhabitants are sexually uninhibited. Both novels feature a village girl who has a baby out of wedlock, both feature the vicar's dominating battle-ax of a wife as a character, a woman who runs the village with an iron hand. However, Hare's attitude towards his village is far more indulgent than Mitchell's ferocious tome. His biggest satire is directed at the village's upper class Chief Constable, a memorably awful expressor of upper class attitudes.
The lawyer, Stephen Smithers, is interestingly characterized. Abrasive, rude, high-handed and egotistical, one first suspects that Hare is setting him up as a villain. However, as the tale progresses, one gradually discovers that he is among the most honest and truthful of the characters, virtues that compensate a bit for his outrageous personality flaws. He and the police are also about the only people who can offer any effective resistance to the book's upper class monsters.
Its murderer is easily spotted, and its puzzle plot is simple to solve. At least this is how it seemed to me, when I read it. But both 1939 and some contemporary reviews say the solution was a big surprise.
The carefully elaborated Background involves politics and the English class system. It is set forth with a wealth of absorbing detail, and is unusually trenchant for a mystery novel, which often deals with politics in vaguer and less forthright terms than Hare does here. Hare also, like his model Freeman Wills Crofts, and Ngaio Marsh, offers deep opposition to anti-Semitism. Hare has plainly progressed since his early works, and thought much more deeply about political issues. The story has the multiple-class perspective of Tenant for Death. The various portraits of the characters and their lives also have somewhat of the same "series of mini-portraits" structure of that earlier novel. As in Tenant for Death, movement of characters between classes is a focus; so is a portrait of Britain as full of political radicalism.
In the Internet discussion group GAdetection, Tony Medawar revealed that An English Murder was based on Murder at Warbeck Hall, a half hour radio play first broadcast by the BBC on 27 January 1948 as Play No. 2 in the series "Mystery Playhouse presents The Detection Club, a series of plays specially written by its members". The story's politics do seem somewhat more appropriate to the immediate post-war period in Britain, 1947-1948, than to 1951.
Neither An English Murder nor Death Is No Sportsman are at all mainstream like. Their storytelling very purely follows the narrative conventions and structures of traditional Golden Age fiction. In An English Murder, we have all the suspects gathered into an isolated country house; in Death Is No Sportsman, we follow the characters around one of the beautifully executed, map-based country landscapes beloved by Golden Age writers. Yet both books offer so little in the way of puzzle plot that they seem on the margins of what I value so highly in traditional mystery fiction. They seem more like eccentric curiosities than true classics. Both could use some of the plotting ingenuity that marked Hare's first mystery, Tenant for Death.
Hare also wrote a series of six mini-mysteries based on the "Monday's Child" nursery rhyme. All but one are genuine mystery tales, and most are pretty good, showing concision in their telling. They tend to deal with crimes short of murder, a welcome change of pace more authors should try.
Among the non-mystery crime tales that turn on "twists", "Line Out of Order" has one of the more inventive plots. It also offers a portrait of government agents versus political radicalism, to go along with An English Murder.
"A Life for a Life" is not any sort of crime or mystery tale at all. Yet it is a good story. It concentrates on the serious problems of an "ordinary" middle class Englishman, and relates these to political difficulties of history.
Much of the best Background information is in the book's first third (pages 7-77 in the Penguin paperback: the novel's start up through the interview with the gate keeper.) Kelly has a vivid descriptive style. This opening section is the main reason anyone might want to read The Spoilt Kill today.
The Spoilt Kill is about a large-scale industrial manufacturer of pottery, with a factory and a huge design staff. It is not a contemporary "cozy" about a lone craftsman turning out hand-made pottery in a backyard shed.
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Theft. The private eye is brought into the case to investigate the theft from the manufacturers of what is now known as "intellectual property". Such industrial espionage and intellectual property theft has a long history in mystery fiction.
The private eye hero and the reader learn the details of the theft in a long conversation the sleuth has with the manufacturing firm's head Luke Shentall. The head sketches in the presumed steps of the crime. These ideas are logical, detailed and closely based on the technical and business aspects of pottery design. This section is the best part of The Spoilt Kill, considered as a work of mystery fiction.
Near the novel's finale, we learn the identity of the thief. Unfortunately, this adds little of interest to the theft sub-plot. This finale is more interested in offering a depressing account of the culprit's motives, than telling us anything more about the crime or the pottery business.
Inspector French is in fact mentioned in Death of an Old Girl (start of Chapter 18). Toye reads his cases. One suspects this is a homage and tribute to Crofts. It also is perhaps an indication by Lemarchand about her ancestors as a mystery writer.
The Guardian is quoted on the first page of the US paperback of Death of an Old Girl: "A real-genuine police detective story". I wholeheartedly agree. Despite its late date this novel is very much an authentic mystery story - and very much in the Crofts tradition of police detective fiction.
The Christie Tradition?. The front cover of the US paperback says "In the best Agatha Christie tradition". This blurb has a point. While her police detectives and mystery plot are Crofts-like, her characters and settings do have something of the same genial gentility one finds in Agatha Christie, and other writers like Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. She also writes with a sparkle and flashes of wit, and has a bit of the "comedy of manners" feel of such authors.
Class and Modernity. Pollard's boss Chief Superintendent Crowe explicitly points out how middle class most of the characters are (last part of Chapter 10). Some of them would have to be labelled as upper middle class: the victim is well-to-do. Still, no one is an aristocrat hanging out at Downton Abbey, and at the other social extreme no one is an obvious professional criminal or thug. Aside from the victim almost everyone works for a living. The book also includes a few working class characters, mainly working as caretakers at the school.
The characters largely support the innovative, "modern" methods of the school's new head Helen Renshaw, rather than the 'traditional" approaches favored by the victim. This likely shows the confidence that middle classes in the 1960's had in innovation and progress, and their disdain for tradition. It is also an example of the interest some British Realist School writers showed in Modernity.
Mystery Sub-Plot: Where is the Body?. A character disappears early on. Since this is a murder mystery, it is easy to guess they have have murdered. But where is the body? The novel comes up with an ingenious place (middle of Chapter 4). The place has been mentioned earlier, forming a clue to it as a possible location for the corpse.
Later, another plot twist builds on this same location (first part of Chapter 15). It too is fairly ingenious. SPOILERS. It forms a solution to a perplexing mystery: what was the victim doing in the murder area?
Mystery Sub-Plot: Criminal Scheme. SPOILERS. Crofts liked to include hidden criminal schemes in his plots. These are activities of some crook, that are only revealed to the reader at the end of the novel, and which form a hidden motive for and influence on the murder. Such a hidden criminal scheme is concealed within Death of an Old Girl. Such schemes form another link between Death of an Old Girl and the Crofts tradition.
Death of an Old Girl includes a number of clues, pointing to the nature of the Criminal Scheme.
While Crofts liked Criminal Schemes, they are also used by writers of other schools of mystery fiction. For example, the non-Crofts writer Edward D. Hoch was expert at constructing them.
Mystery Sub-Plot: Timetables and Alibis. Death of an Old Girl contains timetables of the events surrounding the crime (start of Chapter 7, start of Chapter 17). Timetables are a standard, enjoyable part of mystery fiction, in use since the mid 19th Century. SPOILERS. The timetables in Death of an Old Girl have an unusual, apparently innovative feature: they contain a extra column, documenting confirming witnesses for the times. This is eventually used ingeniously as a clue to the gimmick underlying a faked alibi (start of Chapter 17).
Let or Hindrance often succeeds as story telling, and in its setting and characterization. The opening section leading up to the murder, is especially entertaining (Chapters 1-4). But the book's mystery plot is unfortunately routine. The choice of the killer seems arbitrary and un-clued.
In general, Let or Hindrance seems like an attempt to write a mystery in the same mode as Death of an Old Girl. Both:
SPOILERS. The body is found in a dramatic locale, that is an important natural feature of the geography. The same is true of Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh.
Mystery Sub-Plot: Criminal Scheme. I thought the hidden Criminal Scheme (revealed at the end of Chapter 12) only moderately interesting. It's conventional and unoriginal - although realistic and plausible. And it is unclear why the crooks never actually completed it, and put it into full operation.
Modernity. Let or Hindrance continues Lemarchand's sympathy with modernity and innovation. A comic character Hugh Stubbs is satirized for his devotion to the old ways. He is described as being threatened by the social innovation of the 1960's and early 1970's (first part of Chapter 10). Let or Hindrance calls this 60's change an "upheaval", and recognizes how drastic it is. Stubbs is contrasted with policeman Pollard's sensible Aunt Isabel, who likes to keep up with the times.
Let or Hindrance is also basically sympathetic to a young suspect with long hair (Geoffrey Boothby): a major flashpoint of the era. Perhaps a bit satirically, he is not depicted as someone Counter-cultural. He is just an ordinary, normal young man who happens to wear his hair fashionably long.
Film. Let or Hindrance has documentary films being made and shown at the school, for educational purposes. This recalls the film shown at the charity event in Christopher Bush's The Case of the Dead Man Gone (1961). Perhaps documentary films used by institutions, were becoming a part of the media landscape in 1960's Britain.
The Crofts Tradition. Let or Hindrance continues Lemarchand's allegiance to the Freeman Wills Crofts tradition. Most of the Croftsian features enumerated for her first novel Death of an Old Girl are also present in Let or Hindrance.
Currents. In Elizabeth Lemarchand's Let or Hindrance (1973) (last part of Chapter 5), ocean currents are examined, and used to make deductions about the crime. This is part of a tradition in mystery fiction:
Class. Unhappy Returns resembles Death of an Old Girl in concentrating on middle class characters, along with an occasional working class person in a caretaking role (Ethel Ridd in Unhappy Returns).
Modernity. Unhappy Returns is more old-fashioned and less "modern" in its social setting than Death of an Old Girl, being set in traditional villages.
However, the numerous experts consulted by the police on forensic aspects of the case, are examples of the "modern". Unhappy Returns has a modern investigation conducted by modern police, into crimes in a tradition-oriented part of the world.
The rusting machinery at the abandoned quarry, suggests modern technology once came to the villages, but was later abandoned.
Art. Art played a role in Death of an Old Girl. In Unhappy Returns, the old church building and its fixtures are works of art.
Clerical. The opening (Chapter 1) of Unhappy Returns sets up a clerical situation, with various factions debating the future of the Anglican churches in the villages. This makes pleasant reading. And one expects that Unhappy Returns will be what literary scholars call a "clerical romance": a novel about the doings of church people and clergymen. Unfortunately, this church-debate aspect virtually vanishes from the rest of the novel. It has little relationship to any of the mystery plots or crime elements, that dominate the rest of the book.
There is a church tie-in to a key subject of Unhappy Returns: the missing chalice. The parts of the novel concentrating on the chalice mystery are also good (Chapters 5, first half of 7, 8). These parts also tell a bit about the architecture of the Church.
The churches are an institution, the way the school in Death of an Old Girl is an institution. And just as Death of an Old Girl focussed on teachers and staff of the school rather than pupils, so does Unhappy Returns concentrate on clergy, lay officials and church workers, rather than parishioners.
Mystery Sub-Plots: Hiding Places. Unhappy Returns is another Lemarchand book, where the mysterious location of a hidden body is a subplot. The solution is logical, but rather conventional (start of Chapter 10). SPOILERS. The location in Unhappy Returns resembles a bit the location in Let or Hindrance - but is simpler.
It also has another "hiding place" subplot: where is the vanished chalice? This gets a pretty good solution (end of Chapter 8).
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Victim Who Knows Something. Agatha Christie sometimes has a naive victim who innocently lets out that they somehow know some fact that might be damaging to the villain. Then the victim promptly gets bumped off, to shut them up. Lemarchand follows this same plot-line in Unhappy Returns.
This plot gambit has advantages. For one thing, the victim can be a financially "ordinary", everyday person. Lots of other mysteries have as their victim a millionaire who is killed just before changing his will, or putting through some big business coup. The victim in such books is a bigshot. But the "witness who innocently knows something" can be anybody, not rich or famous. And indeed, the victim in Unhappy Returns is a harmless working class woman.
Mystery Sub-Plot: Criminal Scheme. Lemarchand often includes that Croftsian staple, the Criminal Scheme. This is a hidden action by bad guys, to make money in some illicit way. Unhappy Returns duly has a simple Criminal Scheme. Unfortunately it is perfunctory, with little ingenuity. It only takes up a tiny fraction of the novel. And has nothing to do with either the murder mystery or the chalice mystery. SPOILERS. We are talking about George Aldridge's activities (middle of Chapter 11).
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Main Murder. The sole clue to the identity of the killer is not learned by the police (or readers) until late in the book (middle of Chapter 11). The clue is not ingenious: simply a statement by a witness that contradicts what the suspect originally said. And its late arrival means there are no clues to the killer through most of the novel: hardly a fair play situation.
The police do some simple alibi busting, after they learn who the killer is (last part of Chapter 11). This is sound, but far from one of the classic alibi puzzles of mystery fiction. It also lacks any sort of fair play cluing that will let the reader figure the solution out in advance. SPOILERS. The solution makes for pleasant reading, though, in part because it is closely based in landscape: always a fun topic.
The motive for the murder has become a cliche, in both books and TV. I'm not sure though whether it was one in 1977. The exploration of the motive has amusing aspects, with information humorously coming from an unlikely character (second half of Chapter 12).
BIG SPOILERS. In both Death of an Old Girl and Unhappy Returns, the killer is a bigshot. Lemarchand clearly distrusted such men.
Television. Let or Hindrance has documentary films being made. Unhappy Returns has a pleasant segment showing a TV news show being produced (first half of Chapter 9). Both film and news show are non-fiction works filled with factual information.
There is a pleasant spoof of a Western movie being shown on TV (first half of Chapter 7).
Landscape. Suddenly While Gardening is set on an upland moor frequented by tourists. Despite its title Suddenly While Gardening is not a "cozy" book about gardening. Instead it is an atmospheric, sometimes eerie book about about a remote moor.
The landscape forms a significant "character" in the story. In this Suddenly While Gardening recalls Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh. An earlier Lemarchand mystery with a Ngaio Marsh-like use of landscape is Let or Hindrance.
The moor is an atmospheric nature area up a hill from the bustling towns surrounding it. In this it recalls the eerie park above London in the film classic Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966). In both works, there is a sense of entering a different world, when one ascends to the moor or park.
Adult Education. In Let or Hindrance adults converge on a school in the summer, which is offering special programs in Adult Education. Similarly, the moor in Suddenly While Gardening hosts many adult groups interested in history, botany, archaeology, etc.
Hero Pollard shows the British love of walking through the countryside, that is a feature of numerous English detective novels.
Environmentalism. Pollard's Aunt Isabel is involved with environmental campaigns (Chapter 1). Once again, she is involved positively with modern movements.
Mystery Plot. The mystery plot is something of a mess. SPOILERS. Three different people turn out to be separately responsible for the three main mysterious actions. Coincidentally, they all acted independently.
Nor any any of these three subplots clever or ingenious.
SPOILERS. Steve Lewis' review (linked to above) is right to complain about that cliche, the "smashed watch" gambit.
Men's Hair. In Let or Hindrance a young man has the long hair fashionable in the era. This aids his characterization, but plays no role in the plot. In Suddenly While Gardening the victim is a young man who sports the bleached hair that was also a hippie-like style of the time. In Suddenly While Gardening this hair does play a role in the mystery plot: it is the victim's most identifiable feature.
Dispute. In the opening a legal dispute is settled, about a right-of-way in the moor. This recalls the opening of Lemarchand's previous novel Unhappy Returns, which involves a dispute over the merging of two Anglican parishes. Both works involve public debates among genteel middle class people in a remote rural area.
Right-of-ways are the subject of disputes in some Golden Age British novels: