Tribal Detective Fiction | Arthur W. Upfield | Aldous Huxley | The British Murder School | W. Somerset Maugham | F. Tennyson Jesse | H. de Vere Stacpoole | Alice Dunbar-Nelson | Hannah Lees | Earl Schenck Miers / David William Meredith | Edmund Wilson | Perfect Crimes | Damon Runyon | Samuel Fuller | Nicholas Meyer
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
"The Master of Mystery" (1902)
It is very unclear to me how realistic these stories of tribal life really are. One wonders how tribal life could have survived and built an economy if their members were always in such a state of murderous conflict. And as mystery writers have often melodramatized contemporary life in their tales, it would not be surprising if these works offer a similar melodramatic exaggeration of tribal reality. Still, these tales are imaginative, and form an attempt to include tribal life in the mystery genre.
Many 19th Century writers with ties to the mystery story created literary traditions about tribal life. Herman Melville and his literary disciple William Henry Hudson wrote sophisticated stories about life in the South Seas, and South America, respectively. Wilkie Collins wrote about the South Seas, as well, pioneering the clichés about the angry gods, erupting volcanoes, taboos, and beautiful maidens that have appeared in so many movies. Now that the manuscript of Collins' unpublished first novel, Iolani (1844), has been discovered and is being published, it will be interesting to see Collins' conceptions of the South Seas at full length. Two other influential traditions: H. Rider Haggard's stories of darkest Africa, complete with witch doctors, white and black magic, lions, spears and Zulu warriors, and Longfellow's magnificent recreation of Native American life in Hiawatha, source of most later movie images of these peoples.
In the 1920's Arthur Upfield began his books about Napoleon Bonaparte, a half white, half aboriginal detective in Australia. His detective's aboriginal background gave him a fabulous, in-depth knowledge of the Australian outback, and an ability to read clues from it, and to track suspects. These stories have been popular all over the world, unlike most Australian crime fiction, which has been little known outside the continent. Upfield's work served as a direct influence on Tony Hillerman's modern mystery fiction about the Navahos, for instance, according to interviews given by Mr. Hillerman. Upfield's tales are different from the London tradition. There is much less emphasis on tribal life in groups, and much more emphasis on aboriginal people's relationships with the land. The landscape of the Australian outback plays a key role in these tales, just as the American Southwest will later play a major role in Hillerman's tales. There is little sense of "primitive" or superstitious beliefs in Upfield's stories, and much more about the intimate relation to, and vast knowledge of, the very complex Australian outback possessed by Bonaparte. The Upfield - Hillerman tradition depicts native peoples living in modern times, and interacting with people of all races, unlike the London stories, which took place in eras before contacts were made with Europeans.
A more realistic depiction of modern Native American life began with Manly Wade Wellman's series of tales about detective David Return. The best of the series is "A Knife Between Brothers" (1947), which contains a well done impossible crime. Wellman's stories are emphatically set in the contemporary world, with his detective hero both expert in criminology, and very knowledgeable about both the contemporary daily life and the traditional culture of his people. Pride is expressed in Native American culture, with the author attempting a detailed exposition of Native American life as a background to the mystery tale. Wellman's stories are the pilot works in the "modern" tradition of mystery fiction dealing with Native Americans, which includes the novels of Tony Hillerman and Jean Hager.
Wellman's stories were not the only tales about Native American detectives published in EQMM. Oliver La Farge's "Woman Hunt No Good" (1951) won Third Prize in EQMM's Sixth Annual Detective Short-Story Contest. It is clearly in the tradition of Wellman's fiction. La Farge's tale takes place on an Apache reservation, and features an Apache detective who is expert at reading tracks. He is presented as a shrewd, tradition oriented detective, much less glamorized than Wellman's characters. The story has good atmosphere and background detail. It suffers from a not very well concealed villain in the easily guessed mystery plot, and a sexism in the treatment of the role of women in allegedly macho pursuits such as hunting and crime fighting - a sexism that extends to the title. La Farge was an anthroplogist specializing in Native American life. He published many books, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Laughing Boy (1929).
Upfield, a British-born writer who emigrated to Australia, shows clear links with the Freeman-Crofts school of "realistic" detective fiction, and shares many of their key characteristics. There are backgrounds in Upfield's tales: the detailed description of the Australian outback. There is the detectival pursuit of chains of physical evidence: Bonaparte is an expert at reading clues from the outback, and tracking suspects from them, as well as finding evidence for murder. There is the sympathetic portrait of racial minorities: in this case, the Australian Aborigines. There is a scientific content in the stories: in this case, a look at the ecology of the outback. Finally, there is an occasional use of the inverted detective story invented by Freeman: Upfield's only short story about Bonaparte, "Wisp of Wool, Disc of Silver" (1948), is an inverted detective tale. It, and the novel it is based on, The Sands of Windee (1931), the second Bonaparte book, also show another Freeman interest: ingenious methods of disposing of a body, so that a charge of murder cannot be brought. Upfield also shows some differences from the Realist school. Upfield's puzzle plots often turn on misdirection. In this he is closer to Agatha Christie, than to Realist school authors. I do not know of any Upfield stories with that realist school favorite, the "breakdown of identity".
Upfield's technique also recalls that of the Casebook writers, all the way from the 1860's. Bony tends to go undercover on a crime scene, long after the crime was committed. He has to pick up a cold trail. He cannot interrogate witnesses; instead he has to trick them into talking to him under his new identity. He has to interpret physical evidence at crime scenes. Working class people and servants are not dismissed from his world, but treated as serious suspects and as part of the plot. The stories often involve robbery as well as murder. The story is often relentlessly from the point of view of the detective. All of this is familiar from the world of the Casebook authors. Bony sometimes has relationships and rivalry with other policemen, which recalls Gaboriau.
An Author Bites the Dust (1948) shows the same detailed depiction of a Melbourne suburb that Upfield usually devotes to an Outback community. Upfield sets his suburb close enough to the country, so that nature and natural settings play a major role in the plot. As is usual in Upfield, this nature includes business enterprises, here timber cutting. Upfield depicts not one, but two communities: the community of "ordinary" people in the suburb, and the literary types who've settled in their midst. The first community gets its daily life shown in many small details. An Author Bites the Dust is at its best in the first half, Chapters 1 - 17. These sections show considerable charm, whereas the book's second half is repetitive.
Upfield's field of mystery fiction is often scorned by "literary" types. In turn, such mystery writers as John Dickson Carr have shown corrosive skepticism about the value of "serious literature", especially modern fiction. Upfield's novel is one of the most sustained expressions of such skepticism in mystery fiction. It offers a detailed exposé of both the artistic faults and the literary log rolling of many mainstream novelists. The finale of Upfield's book (Chapters 28 -29) is a look at what Upfield considers to be the exploitation of popular fiction such as mystery writing, by literary mainstream fiction. Upfield links this exploitation to the way men exploit women. Upfield's vision is ferociously feminist. Upfield's feminism is convincing, but the look at literary relations is less believable here than in the first half of the novel. Certain plot elements here recall Helen McCloy's The One That Got Away (1945).
An Author Bites the Dust is unusually full of references to crime and mystery writers. Upfield mentions Joseph Conrad, John Buchan and S.S. Van Dine, all admiringly, in Chapter 5, and the Australian Rogue writer Guy Boothby in Chapter 12. The book also refers to G.K. Chesterton. There are signs that An Author Bites the Dust is Upfield's homage to S.S. Van Dine. It takes place against the sort of group of intellectuals that often populate Van Dine novels, in this case a group of literary writers, and it centers on an obscure poison, like such Van Dine books as The Casino Murder Case (1934). See also Upfield's phrase at the end of Chapter 27.
An Author Bites the Dust (1948) and its predecessor The Devil's Steps (1946) include a (fictional) detective novelist among their characters, Clarence B. Bagshott. He is one of the many detective novelist characters included in detective stories, by such authors as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Mignon G. Eberhart, Lenore Glen Offord and Bill Pronzini. The name Clarence B. Bagshott contains the same rhythm as Arthur W. Upfield. One wonders if the character is to a degree a self-portrait, like Agatha Christie's Ariadne Oliver.
Death of a Lake (1954) has many structural similarities to An Author Bites the Dust (1948). Both books are much better in their first rather then their second halves. In each work the second half is readable, but it is gloomy, less imaginative and charming, and suffers from its look at some very unattractive suspects. In Death of a Lake, the first half (Chapters 1 - 12) forms a vivid, "you are there" portrait of an outback station by one of Australia's "temporary" lakes. The second half deals with events which are much more melodramatic, and less typical of real life.
Death of a Lake and An Author Bites the Dust share a common game plan. The opening chapter sets up the suspects, showing us their typical daily life. The novel will never again be so close to showing us events from their point of view. Then the death of a character is introduced, forming the main mystery of the books. In the second chapter, Bony goes undercover, starting an investigation into this death, already some months old, now a cold trail. Bony becomes the point of view character. There is no Watson in the stories.
Bony encounters a lot of interesting people who could be labeled as "non-suspects". These are people who are surrounding the investigation, but who are not at the center of it. Neither Bony nor the reader ever seriously regards them as suspects in the tale. The novel provides us with much more detailed information about these non-suspects than it does about the actual suspects to the crime Bony is investigating. They are the subjects of full fledged character portraits. The non-suspects are generally a very likable lot, whereas the suspects are a pretty rotten bunch, morally. The suspects tend to all work closely together, being a tightly knit group; while the non-suspects are often on the periphery of the suspects, forming various tangential elements. The sympathetic non-suspects tend to be part of a community. Upfield shows us many details of the life of this community. There is also much discussion of nature, and how it interweaves into the characters' lives. This portrait of nature and a community is the richest and most memorable part of Upfield's fiction; one suspects that it is central to his appeal to mystery fans, as well.
In Death of a Lake, the suspects include the seven people at the station at the time of the disappearance. The non-suspects are such characters as the truck driver Red Draffin, and Earle Witlowe. In An Author Bites the Dust, the suspects are the literary types. The non-suspects include the local residents, such as Miss Pinkney, the doctor, Simes and his sister. One can see that Upfield often used Dickensian names, that reveal elements of the characters of their possessors. Upfield refers to Charles Dickens in An Author Bites the Dust.
After this, comes The Incident. The Incident is a mysterious but non-murderous event. It serves to thicken the plot, and to introduce a second mystery in the story. The Incident is detected by Bony, and is a chance for Upfield to show off Bony's bush tracking skills. In An Author Bites the Dust, the Incident is Wilcannia-Smythe's adventure; in Death of a Lake, it is the visit to the water tank. The Incident tends to take place at night, with an investigative follow up the next day.
After this point, the quality of the story takes a nose dive. What was imaginative and of a consistent charm and interest fades into more artificial, less believable and less enjoyable writing.
Next comes the second death. This murder forms a second mystery in the plot. But it is much less interesting than the first. The second murder is a cliché in Golden Age mystery novels. It serves to revive interest in and get action going in a mystery novel, which has many pages to fill before the solution is revealed. The Second Murder is rarely a memorable event in even the best Golden Age writers. Frankly, it is usually a form of padding.
Finally, comes the solution to the case, in the last two chapters. This solution is often quite sour. It reveals bad behavior and bad morals among what up till that time had been a fairly sympathetic member of the suspects. The solution of Death of a Lake is especially minimalist and unimaginative. Anyone who reads this book for its mystery plot, rather than for its depiction of the Australian bush, is going to be disappointed.
Aldous Huxley's "The Gioconda Smile" (1921) seems to be the prototype for a whole series of later works in the mystery field. For one thing, it seems to be ancestral to a rash of mystery short stories published after World War II in magazines like EQMM and AHMM. These tales focused on genteel, highly fastidious middle class people who commit crimes out of some highly respectable passion or obsession, such as getting married or opening their own businesses. These people seem oddly ready to commit murder, but utterly unable to violate any other social convention. I have always found these people to be utterly dull, and these stories seem to be pandering to a certain audience of middle-aged suburban-genteel stuffy readers. They seem to have a wish-fulfillment quality, in that the heroes and heroines are rather mousy people who find fulfillment in finding the right mate, usually some middle-aged stuff bucket, or striking it rich through owning their own restaurant, bookstore or little shop. I certainly miss the glamour of Ellery Queen's New York sophisticates in these works, or Agatha Christie's English gentry. All of these people have vastly broader horizons, intellectual interests, emotional vivacity, and even greater energy level than these middle-class "murderous squares".
The stories focus on the people, and there is no detection of any sort. These "suspense" stories, like Huxley's, tend to go on to ironic endings. There is a great deal of stress on the cleverness of the killer, who usually either gets away with the crime, or nearly gets away with the crime except for some final twist. Rather implausibly, none of the other characters in the tale ever tumbles to the killer's schemes, or even half suspects anything might be amiss, or that "not everything is as it seems". A devotee of Golden Age mystery fiction, such as myself, is hardly in a strong position to complain about implausibility in other kinds of stories, but this lack of detection has always annoyed me. Is everyone in these stories brain dead, I've wondered? Does no one have any intellectual gumption, that requires them to explore alternative explanations for things? I always try to look at alternative explanations, in real life as well as fiction. It is part of being a trained scientist, that one does not settle for the obvious explanation, but is looking at alternative answers. The plots could be much richer and more complex in these tales, if there were detection as well as crime. These tales are plainly appealing to the "superintellect of crime" fantasies that some people have - a fantasy that has never appealed to me.
Other aspects of Huxley's tale reoccur in later fiction, thus strengthening my suspicion that it furnished a model for these later tales. The characters do not communicate with each other on vital issues. This plot device allows delusions to fester, oftentimes making people murder based on misinformation. In Huxley's tale a woman kills a man's wife, on the grounds that if he were free to marry he would marry her. In actuality he is not interested in the woman at all.
Five minutes conversation on this important issue could have cleared up the woman's misapprehension. She would never of killed at all if she knew his true feelings. It seems to me to be ridiculous that the woman is willing to kill, but not willing to discuss her feelings with the man she loves. This sort of situation is very common in the suspense tales of the last forty years, where people are always being "blinded by their obsessions", or laboring under terrible misunderstandings, misunderstandings that bring on murder. It is all supposed to be terribly ironical. But it seems to me to be a bunch of poppycock. I don't like characters who don't discuss things, but just go blindly on ahead. Oftentimes these characters are women, who are motivated in their reticence by prudishness, just as Huxley's characters are. There are some things these women "just can't bear to discuss", according to their authors. Poppycock! These characters all seem to suffer from terminal middle class respectability.
I have no idea if Huxley invented these conventions in "The Gioconda Smile", or if he is merely tapping into a longer tradition. If he is their originator he deserves a lot of credit for originality, at least. It would not be his fault that these devices were worked to death by later authors of "suspense".
Huxley's tale seems to have influenced other brands of mystery fiction, as well. In the story the husband feels that being condemned for a murder he didn't commit is somehow poetic justice for all the adultery he has committed. This dubious plot device turns up later in Anthony Berkeley and James M. Cain, as well as a host of their imitators. People in these stories are always being punished for crimes they didn't commit, thus being punished by fate for things they got away with earlier in the story. Huxley's work also seems to be any early example, later developed by Berkeley and Cain, of the "crime novel" or "suspense novel". Berkeley and Cain worked in the 1930's; Huxley's story, collected in book form in 1921, seems to be an important predecessor to their work. Aside from Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, I don't know of many other early examples of the "crime story" at this date. It is hard to tell whether this is just my ignorance of early authors, or whether Huxley really was a pioneer here.
Huxley's portrait of an unhappy marriage, complete with philosophizing, trapped husband and unhappy, obsessive wife also seems prophetic of the many somewhat unhappy marriages in the stories of J. G. Ballard. There is a similar sort of feel to both authors. In both, the wife hardly seems to have any intellectual consciousness, or any reflective irony or capacity for humorous self criticism. Instead, she seems absolutely driven by obsessions and feelings. The husband, by contrast, is full of intellectual musings, an awareness, partly satirical of his own faults - and those of others - and full of a dissatisfied longing for "something else". In both authors this is partly just simple sexism - showing women as all feelings and no thought. But it also gives a character to the relationship. The man's problems would be far more bearable if he could just talk to his wife about them. Instead, this seems impossible, given her combination of no brain, and powerful emotions that are always boiling and seething near the surface, threatening to spill over and wreck everything if he makes a single false move.
All in all, Huxley's tale seems to be startlingly familiar to modern readers, full of echoes of styles of storytelling that I thought were only created much later.
Evolutionary biologists have the concept of a refuge. This is a geographical region in which a group of species manage to survive, while the region outside the refuge is inhospitable due to climate or predators. Later, after conditions outside the refuge improve, the species can spread out and occupy a greater territory.
Dorothy L. Sayers' suspense stories, largely collected in In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939), could be described as a refuge for the traditional suspense story. If no other suspense tales survived, the genre as a whole could be reconstructed from these stories.
Sayers was not the only one to write suspense tales during this period. The suspense genre was largely a British genre, during the era 1912 - 1940. Maria Belloc Lowndes' "The Lodger" deals with a serial killer. Aldous Huxley's "The Gioconda Smile", Ernest Raymond's We the Accused, C.S. Forester's ironic portraits of murderers were prominent contributions by mainstream authors. T.H. White's Darkness At Pemberly is also largely a suspense story. The murderer-portrait novels of Francis Iles (also known as Anthony Berkeley), while perhaps ultimately deriving from the inverted detective stories of R. Austin Freeman, also belong to this tradition. They have crossed the line over into suspense fiction, being more concerned with fictional portraits of killers than with any detection of their crimes. Sayers' detective story anthologies are full of even lesser known writers of inverted stories and suspense. Such British stage melodramas as Rope, Night Must Fall, and The Green Bay Tree also fall into this class.
What all of these stories have in common is focus on a murderer as a central character. Sometimes the killer is the protagonist of the tale. At other times, the killer is closely observed by the protagonist. This observation involves some sort of personal relationship, and is not simply the surveillance of a criminal by a detective, whether amateur or professional.
Another common element is the bourgeois social environment of these tales. They are largely set in a middle or middle-to upper class environment the reader can presumably identify with. The reader is clearly supposed to identify with the killer. The motives of the crimes are rooted in desires for middle class social success, or in getting rid of an unwanted family member.
A third common element is the convention that any middle class person might routinely consider murder as a option to solve their problems. Whereas in detective stories killers are seen as a breed apart, here murder is rationalized as a routine event. This point of view is something that always offends me about these tales. It seems to me neither believable, nor morally acceptable, that an ordinary person would regard murder so casually.
There is surprisingly little social criticism in these tales. Society is accepted as it is; the police are seen as just, and the killer usually just wants to get ahead. One can try to find some social criticism in these stories, of course. Occasionally rich relatives are portrayed in these tales as stuffy people who thwart the killer's ambitions, and this might be seen as a satirical picture of the upper classes. Still, this entire genre is in general very complacent about middle class social customs. The poor hardly exist in these tales; everything takes place in a stifling middle class environment, which is seen as a virtually eternal reality.
Julian Symons' attempt to sweep some of these British suspense stories, especially Francis Iles', into a genre called The Crime Novel, along with Hammett and Chandler, seems to me to be ill advised. It disguises the fact that Iles' tales are related to a distinctive genre of killer's tales. This genre is circumscribed geographically (it is largely confined to the British Isles, with some outliers among British émigré writers like Upfield, in Australia) and circumscribed in time: parallel to the Golden Age detective classics in Britain, 1912-1940. Many of these writers, Huxley and Forester excepted, also wrote conventional, puzzle detective stories. Trying to mix these tales in with American Hard-boiled crime fiction, itself a well defined genre, is mixing apples and oranges.
The only 1930's American writer I can think of who focuses on portraits of killers is James M. Cain. He has some things in common with these British writers, but also many differences. For one thing, Cain offers portraits of poverty and the Depression in his work, as does Woolrich, whereas the British writers cling to middle class respectability. Cain's murders are wrenching experiences, whereas the British depict murder as a routine option for the middle class wastrel.
Ancestors of the British Murderer School before 1912 seem to be rare. Robert Louis Stevenson's "Markheim", about a murderous shopkeeper, and to a lesser extent "The Body Snatcher", might qualify. The bad guys in "The Body Snatcher" seem to fit less well into the British suspense pattern.
British crime fiction of 1890 - 1912 is full of Rogue literature, stories of clever thieves and swindlers who get away with their schemes, humiliating the authorities in the process. While on the surface these stories might seem similar to the later killer tales, as both star criminals, I think they are not closely related genres. The feel of these upbeat rogue tales is very different from the somber, 1912-1945 killer tales, which emphasize murderers, who almost always get caught after their crimes slowly unravel. The rogues also use their ill gotten wealth to enjoy the high life, which is very different from the middle class setting of the killer tales.
The British killer school influenced many post war writers. Many stories in EQMM and AHMM fall clearly into its paradigm. In particular, Stanley Ellin's overrated crime stories are direct outgrowths. Ellin's work generally focuses on a killer's eye point of view. There is the same middle class settings and motives, the same annoying assumption that ordinary people are routinely willing to kill. Large number of suspense novels have also invoked the British killer tradition. Some of them have stuck more closely to its strictures than others; the stuffily middle class point of view is no longer as fashionable in fiction. Even middle class people now tend to want to see their lives as a bit more glamorous and hip.
Ethel Lina White's stories of women in jeopardy seem to me to belong in a different category than the British Murderer School. White is clearly most sympathetic and concerned with her innocent protagonists, not with killers. White's tales are far more congeneric with Cornell Woolrich's suspense tales, than with the British tradition we have just been discussing. White and Woolrich also share an ability to depict absolutely nightmarish circumstances, with great vividness and imagination. White and Woolrich's fiction also often share the basic structural pattern of the protagonist doubling as an amateur detective, trying to solve a mystery while also trying to extricate themselves from the nightmare. These mysteries in this way incorporate puzzle elements similar to the Golden Age detective story classics, as well as suspense.
The genre of innocent people in terrible trouble, and their suspenseful attempts to escape, might also have other 1930's representatives with which I am not familiar. Dorothy B. Hughes might fit here, but her stories tend to be of a slightly later date.
The excellent "Footprints in the Jungle" (1927) is the only full detective story Maugham ever wrote. It shows the self-referential quality of so many detective tales, with comments on The Mystery as a genre embedded right in the story. Neither such self-referential authors as Doyle nor Carr could have done this better! Maugham was a great admirer of detective fiction, and did not adopt the condescending attitude towards it of such lesser lights as Edmund Wilson.
"Footprints" appeared in January 1927; later in 1927 Maugham's tales about the secret agent Ashenden appeared in magazines, being published in book form a year later. Ashenden's adventures are notable for the sober realism they brought to the spy tale, after years of melodramatic adventure tales by other spy writers. The were written at a time when the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts and his realistic police stories were at their peak; such works might have helped inspire Maugham to a similar approach to the spy tale.
I have included "Red" here, not because it is especially mystery oriented, but because it is my favorite Maugham tale.
The psychic stuff does not intrude too much on the detection. Occasionally it gives Solange clues that she would not normally have been able to attain through traditional investigations. What the psychic elements do achieve in the stories is to aid the characterization. They let Solange sense the inner lives of her acquaintances, getting deep into their emotions and personalities. They also can add a symbolic richness to the story, an extra dimension for the plot to inhabit. I am not a big fan of supernatural fiction, usually, but here the psychic theme is handled with delicacy and restraint.
Early in "Lot's Wife" (1929), Solange becomes enthralled with another woman's beauty. The scene is hard to interpret. It could be meant as a purely aesthetic reaction. But it can also feel like a vivid, emotionally charged look at a lesbian heroine. This sympathetic look at lesbianism is quite unusual in early 20th Century writing.
The non-series "Treasure Trove" (1928) is a short supernatural story with some tangential elements of crime. It has no mystery or detection. For some reason, it has been regularly reprinted in mystery anthologies. It is OK as a supernatural tale, and shows Jesse's flair for descriptive writing: she is both a good prose stylist, and can create vivid word pictures of the settings of her tales. However, anyone encountering it in a mystery anthology and expecting it to be a detective story is bound to feel cheated - something that is not Jesse's fault, of course. The supernatural plot anticipates in basic approach Frank Gruber's "The Gold Cup" (1940).
EQMM also reprinted "The Lord of the Moment" (late 1930's?), a minor story from The Strand mainly notable for its extreme gloom.
Stacpoole (1863-1951) was a contemporary of Doyle and Arthur Morrison, and his mystery technique, like Morrison's and Max Pemberton's in the 1890's, seems like a holdover from the casebook literature of the 1860's. Yes, all the way to 1929! There is the same emphasis on robbery, the same police attempt to sneak up on the crime scene and criminals, going undercover in disguise, the same search after physical clues.
Her fictional technique is not bad, especially in the early chapters which include her best writing; but her mystery technique is hopeless. Diagnosis: a mainstream writer trying to publish in the mystery field, who neither knows nor cares about the mystery.
At the end, her amateur detective protagonist decides it would have been better if he had never nosed around at all: fewer people would be dead. This "anti-detective" ending of a mystery novel became fashionable after World War II in such books as Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails (1949) and Howard Browne's The Taste of Ashes (1957); this is the earliest version of it I know. A parallel tradition: at the end of E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1912), the detective expresses skepticism about the possibility of human reason to solve crimes. Gilbert Frankau's imitation of Trent, the Kyra Sokratesco story "Tragedy at St. Tropez" (in his 1937 collection Experiments in Crime and Other Stories), ends with Kyra suggesting bitter regret at the finale for the misuse of her detective powers. When EQ reprinted the tale in his The Female of the Species (1943), he stated that the finale had made a deep impression on him.
Commentary on Earl Schenck Miers:
A Disabled Hero. The most striking feature of The Christmas Card Murders is its disabled hero. The narrator Clarence Standish is a man who has faced a long struggle to recover from polio. He can now get around with a cane. He has developed a new profession, as a writer, so that he can work from home (Chapter 1). He has a car with special equipment that he can drive (middle of Chapter 10).
At the tale's end, both the narrator and policeman Inspector Ezra Adams contribute to the solution of the case. The hero is thus a detective, as well as being the narrator.
While much of The Christmas Card Murders is psychological, it avoids psychology in discussing disability. Instead, the novel implicitly suggests that hard work and adaptability are keys to dealing with a disability. These are what the hero uses, successfully.
Miers had cerebral palsy through his entire life. Like the hero of The Christmas Card Murders, he was a hard worker who had a career as an author.
Psychology. The Christmas Card Murders is relentlessly psychological. It constantly analyzes the psychology of the characters. Most of the events in the novel, including both the characters' lives and the motive for the murders, are rooted in that psychology. This psychology is the main subject of the novel. By contrast, the characters' jobs hardly matter and are barely explored. Nor is there any social Background, or depiction of industry, science, scholarship or the arts.
There is even a New York City psychiatrist who shows up midway through the book, who offers an in-depth psychological analysis of the characters (Chapter 8).
I'm allergic to the "psychological crime novel", and found The Christmas Card Murders rough sledding.
Realism. The blurb at the start of The Christmas Card Murders calls it "a murder mystery involving ordinary people living everyday lives and under the strain of everyday social and psychological tensions - one of which was to lead to murder. What and how and why make a mystery novel that is exciting, suspenseful, action-filled - and real."
This blurb gives an accurate account of the book's goals. It is indeed an attempt to write a realistic novel about ordinary middle class people.
Politics. One of the characters is an unlikable politician. He engages in anti-Communist crusades, of which the hero disapproves (Chapter 3). This is a brief but pointed comment.
This brief political discussion is another non-psychological moment, in a novel that is otherwise highly psychological.
In the "Author's Note" in Grass Roots Miers refers to himself as a "lifelong Democrat".
Not a Cozy. Contemporary readers might suspect from its title that The Christmas Card Murders is a "cozy". This is not really true. The Christmas Card Murders is NOT a warm sentimental tale of Christmas. Admittedly, it resembles the modern-day "cozy" in being set in a small town, among "ordinary" people, and having no explicit scenes or foul language. But the tone of The Christmas Card Murders is fairly serious, even grim. It is more a tale of murder, set among some realistically portrayed folks who have all sorts of problems in their personal lives.
The Map. The Christmas Card Murders includes "modern" approaches, such as the emphasis on psychology, and realistic characters from daily life. But it also contains some traditional elements of older detective fiction. These include a map of the streets where the crime was committed (start of Chapter 3).
I don't recall this sort of small-scale street map in many Golden Age detective novels. Quite a few Dell map-backs have large scale maps of a city, such as New York or San Francisco. But the map in The Christmas Card Murders shows just a few streets and alleys, around a city block. Small-scale maps are also in:
Public Places. Some of the best-described locales in The Christmas Card Murders are public places: the alley, the Post Office, and above all the train station. Unfortunately, all of these become either sites of death, or of threats of death.
Who Is the Victim?. The Christmas Card Murders keeps us in suspense as to who the murder victim will be. We learn immediately that someone was killed, but we don't learn which of the characters is killed until later (end of Chapter 4).
Earlier books that keep the reader puzzling over who will be killed are Measure for Murder (1941) by Clifford Witting and Pick Your Victim (1946) by Patricia McGerr. Both of these conceal the victim until a far later stage of the novel than The Christmas Card Murders.
New Jersey. Miers was a New Jersey resident, and regularly wrote about the region. As his "Author's Note" points out, The Christmas Card Murders is set in real places. The characters live in the village of Stelton, part of Raritan Township. Three years after The Christmas Card Murders was published, Raritan changed its name to Edison, in honor of its most famous resident, Thomas Edison. The city's nickname is "Birthplace of the Modern World", referring to Edison's many inventions.
The book also mentions the real-life Army camp, Camp Kilmer. And real-life New Jersey cities like New Brunswick.
Aside from the fact that many of Damon Runyon's tales have crooks as their protagonists, his stories have little in common with the Rogue School. Rogue literature forms a well defined tradition of elegant crooks committing ingenious thefts, while impersonating members of the upper classes and thumbing their nose at the police. There is nothing of this in Runyon. One would never confuse his Nicely Nicely Johnson or Dave the Dude with such authentic rogues as Raffles or the Saint.
Mainstream critics have always been puzzled about where to place Runyon in the scheme of things. He is a writer with no literary prestige among academic critics, but he hardly fits in with the genre of mystery fiction, either.
Both cartoonist George Herriman and Damon Runyon learned much from fellow Hearst employee Tad Dorgan. All three of these creators shared some common characteristics. They were exuberantly humorous. They depicted a subculture: sports, the animals of Kokino County, Broadway. All three were immensely linguistically inventive, creating an entire new world of speech. All of this speech was based on, and extended, American slang.
The relationships among the three are a bit obscured by their differences in media. Tad was a sports cartoonist, Herriman created comic strips, and Runyon wrote newspaper columns and short stories. Despite all this, they are part of a united cultural movement.
Crown of India, on the other hand, reads like a Fuller picture plays. It is, apparently, a novelized screenplay. It has tons and tons of plot, and a large cast of interlocking characters. If it had been filmed, it would have been larger in scope than the typical modestly budgeted Fuller film, with a larger and more diverse cast of characters. The book is full of the vigorous storytelling incident that dominates Fuller's movies. Two favorite scenes: The hero goes to a Sam Fuller film, and falls asleep in the theater. Two: a recreation, in reminiscence form, of the lights going on again in London after World War Two.
A Fuller "novel" that is apparently not actually by him is the paperback version of his film The Naked Kiss. The novelization is not bad at all. This book is very readable, and helps give a permanent record to the script of one of Fuller's best films.
For the record, my favorite films by Fuller are: I Shot Jesse James, Fuller's first film and a powerful look at sex roles in America; his Korean war The Steel Helmet and early Vietnam picture China Gate; the journalism homage Park Row; for technical reasons the Westerns Run of the Arrow (beautiful color schemes involving primary colors) and Forty Guns (the fascinating ten minute take); the Mob exposé Underworld USA; and his climactic masterpieces Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Among his last films, I also enjoyed Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street.
Meyer also scripted an interesting TV movie adaptation of Robert van Gulik's T'ang dynasty detective tales, in Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (1974), based on Robert van Gulik's 1961 book. This offbeat film seems to be completely forgotten today.
My other favorite of Meyer's film work is the Peace Corps comedy, Volunteers (1985). This is one of the few Meyer works (prose or film) set in the present; most are either detective stories set in the past (his 1970's output), or science fiction tales set in the future (his 1980's work).
Volunteers is set in Asia, and shows Meyer's sympathy with Asians; one of the best characters in The West End Horror is the Parsee. Judge Dee is also one of the few American made for TV movies set in China, with an all non-European cast.