A. A. Milne | Ngaio Marsh | Georgette Heyer | Valentine Williams | Glyn E. Daniel / Dilwyn Rees | Nicholas Blake | Michael Innes | Phyllis Bentley | Christianna Brand | James Warren | Bruce Buckingham | Bruce Hamilton | Eden Phillpotts | A.E.W. Mason | Marten Cumberland | Will Scott | Valentine / Mark Cross
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Talisman Ring (1936)
Envious Casca (1941)
Death of a Peer (1940)
Colour Scheme (1943) (Chapters 1, 4, 8, 9, 14, 15)
Death of a Fool (1956) (Chapters 1 - 4)
False Scent (1959)
Hand in Glove (1962) (Chapters 1 - 3)
Alleyn and Others / The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh
Milne falls squarely into the "intuitionist" tradition of these authors, as was pointed out by S.S. Van Dine. It is hard to know who, if anyone, influenced Milne as a writer: at his early date there are very few famous detective novels. I have tended to associate him with Bentley and Chesterton as an Early Golden Age writer, but this might not be accurate.
Raymond Chandler once criticized Milne's book for a lack of criminological realism. Specifically, Chandler pointed out that modern, scientific police techniques could probably have solved the novel's murder, in ways that were different and perhaps faster than the sleuthing, investigation, and deduction used by the book's amateur detective hero. I agree with Chandler's analysis, but wonder how relevant it is to anything. Certainly police technology today is very powerful, and can make for interesting fiction. (I always enjoyed watching the TV show UNSUB, which detailed such high tech police work.) Chandler's criticism logically applies not to just The Red House, but probably to just about all mystery fiction, from Golden Age to hard-boiled, some of R. Austin Freeman and his followers excepted. But we read detective fiction not just to see realistic lab work, but to experience imaginative plots, and to see the great spectacle of the human mind in action. No subject in fiction is more fascinating than this. Human reason is a great subject for fiction. The Chandler-Milne debate is discussed in greater detail in the article on Realist fiction.
Links to Milne plays. There is a common plot pattern in The Red House Mystery and such Milne plays as Wurzel-Flummery and Mr. Pym Passes By. They open at an utterly conventional and placid upper class English household. Then a visitor arrives to shake things up, with distinctly unconventional news or views. (Visitor Mr. Pym is himself quite conventional, but he brings news of a sinister figure.) The contrast between a painfully complacent "ordinary" household and a sinister visitor anticipates Alfred Hitchcock, and his film Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
The Red House Mystery recalls Mr. Pym Passes By, in that in both Australia is a place where English "black sheep" go. Earlier mystery writers used Australia as part of a character's mysterious past: The Middle Temple Murder (1918) by J.S. Fletcher.
The introduction of characters in The Red House Mystery (Chapter 2) recalls that in the print versions of Milne's places. Both have an authorial voice directly addressing the reader. The tone is whimsical and witty.
Such chapter titles in The Red House Mystery as "Mr. Gillingham Gets Out at the Wrong Station" and "Mr. Beverley Moves On" recall the title of Mr. Pym Passes By.
The Detective's Jobs. Sleuth Gillingham has taken on a large number of working class jobs, to learn about people (Chapter 2). This perhaps echoes the cliche that writers in real life had worked in a dizzying number of jobs. This might be a cliche - but it seems to be true of many of the authors of the era.
It also anticipates the hero of the TV series The Pretender (1996 - 2000), who is always taking on different professions. The Pretender's jobs are more skilled than Gillingham's, though.
The symbolic controversy over the curtains that runs through Mr. Pym Passes By anticipates the film The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955).
Themes. Mr. Pym Passes By is full of references to modern art. It presumes that 1919 audiences have seen modernist paintings that contain geometric shapes. It refers to such art as "futuristic". This relates to a key them of the play: Brian, Dinah and to a degree Olivia welcome the Future, while old-fashioned George wants to be ruled by the Past. A concern with the Future appears in The Deadly Truth (1941) and "The Case of the Duplicate Door" (1949) by Helen McCloy.
Artist Brian Strange has non-materialistic values. He wants to paint and have fun with his wife, rather than make money. He is genial and humorous about this, not shrill, but he nonetheless offers an alternative value system to the money-oriented society around him.
Mr. Pym Passes By has characters from all age groups: young, middle aged and elderly. Entertainment from this era, both stage and film, often included such age-diverse casts.
Anticipating Christie. Young couple Brian and Dinah anticipate quite a few young couples in Agatha Christie to come. Brian is an artist and a left-winger; these non-conformist behaviors cause controversy in his relationship with British society. Christie too will have any number of young men who are artists and/or leftists.
Brian and Dinah are Bright Young Things, whose true love is mixed in with comic romantic banter. In this they anticipate Christie's Tommy and Tuppence. Both couples want to live lives of Fun. Both couples are 100% Good Guys. Tommy and Tuppence made their debut in Christie's The Secret Adversary (1922).
Production. After its run in London's West End, Mr. Pym Passes By became popular with amateur theater groups - something that earned Milne much money. Mr. Pym Passes By would have been easy for such groups to produce: it requires a single simple set, and just one costume for each character. The costumes are everyday clothes, that could be bought in any store; they would not need to be custom-made.
Leslie Howard played the lead in this on Broadway, 17 years before Gone With the Wind (1939), and he should have been very good in the role of the romantic hero. Earlier Howard had appeared as young lover Brian in Milne's play Mr. Pym Passes By.
Ngaio Marsh is an anomalous figure in the history of detection. Her books tend to follow a common pattern. There is an opening section, which introduces the characters and sets up the background of the crime. This section is quite elaborate, lasting roughly four chapters or 70 pages. It climaxes with the actual murder. At this point, Police Inspector Roderick Alleyn enters, and spends the next 150 pages investigating the crime. Finally, he solves it, and the book ends.
The opening and post murder sections of a Marsh novel seem like two different books. The opening chapters seem like a sparkling novel of manners, with sophisticated characters and comedy, an interesting cultural background, often centering on either the theater or the arts, and a great deal of gracefully written prose. They form an excellent novella, and are the part of Marsh' books I like best. They are modern equivalents of such writers as Oscar Wilde or Saki. And the cultural background is often quite insightful. For example, Death of a Fool (1956) centers memorably on traditional English morris dancing, and has a surprising amount to say about gender roles and sexual discrimination. Other examples of Marsh books whose opening sections are better than their rest include The Nursing Home Murder (Chapters 1 - 6), A Wreath For Rivera (Chapters 1 - 5) and Hand in Glove (Chapters 1 - 3).
The murder investigation sections tend to be dull and dreary. And her solutions, while they can be admirably bizarre, elaborately plotted, and uninhibited, do not at all reach the level of a Christie or a Carr. We are always reading in mystery criticism about writers who are allegedly full of literary talent, but whose skill with mystery plotting is not as good. I tend to be skeptical of this - just about everyone who is "hard-boiled" is described as being full of literary greatness - but in Marsh's case this is a good description of her work. The early novella openings of her best books really do show literary talent. Marsh is not at all like many writers who attempt to bring literary values to the crime novel. Her books are not mainstream novels given a thin coating of mystery. On the contrary, the elaborate but boring murder investigations waste far too much time in Marsh's fiction. The books fall proudly and clearly into the paradigm of the Golden Age detective story. Marsh was not at all ashamed of being a mystery writer. She just wasn't very good at it. At least much of the time.
The best Marsh book I have read, from the standpoint of a mystery novel, is False Scent (1959). It combines a well constructed, intricate plot with a delightful look at theater people. I would love to find more works of this quality in Marsh's oeuvre. Among her earlier novels, the huge Death in a White Tie (1938) is also outstanding for its storytelling and plot construction, large cast of characters - 16 well rounded people in addition to her regulars - and its fine writing.
Marsh's novels understandably wowed Howard Haycraft, and other critics who were trying to bring more literary merit to the detective novel. Above all, Marsh had a profound grasp on what "civilization" meant. Her characters are witty, cultured, kind hearted, and wonderfully flamboyant. I feel that I am a better person for having read her.
Ngaio Marsh's viewpoint character tends to be a young woman. This woman is young, naive, respectable, normal and middle class, and the people she observes tend to the exact opposite: older, outrageously eccentric and upper crust. She represents a person who has few social ties; they are people who are deeply committed to some social program, such as the theater, English folk culture (Death of a Fool), or an unusual family. She is potential, as yet unrealized; they are experience, what happens when humans commit to a life and start living it. She is usually quietly virginal, and looking for a respectable romance; they are usually deep in various relationships. They are her future, and she is their past. They are often a magic mirror of her dreams and aspirations, exaggerating them, transforming them, and mocking her hopes for romance or theatrical success in strange, bizarre ways. She is often a New Zealander, from that most democratic and middle class of all nations; they are British, and exist within a painfully stratified culture. She is an outsider, they are involved in society, often too much so. In her own quiet way she is a rebuke to them and their follies; but they are also a rebuke to her isolation and lack of human living. They need her intelligence, balance and good sense, but she needs their eccentricity, personality, and realized character. In many ways, she seems to be a portrait of Ngaio Marsh herself as a young girl, a young woman come from New Zealand to take part in British cultural life. She and the rest of the characters form a comic balance, one of the main structural supports in Marsh's comedy of manners. Oddly enough, for all her quietness and self effacing qualities, she is often the catalyst that stirs up the action, and who triggers the events among the other characters, who, however bizarre, were previous to her arrival in some sort of dramatic balance with each other.
Marsh's portrait of an eccentric family in Death of a Peer (1940) is one of her most sympathetic creations. Like Craig Rice's equally eccentric family in Home Sweet Homicide (1944), it is one of the most authentic and emotionally involving families in detective fiction. Only families this eccentric and this individual seem real.
Marsh tends to use echoes among her groups of characters. There are three mature women in Death in a White Tie, each with a young woman they are "bringing out" as a debutante. Two of the women have imposing older husbands with whom they have difficulty. There also is an uncle and a young man, who simply mirror the women pairs with a gender reversal. Similarly, there are three love triangles in Enter A Murderer, each with the unpleasant murder victim at their center. There are two brother-sister pairs in Hand in Glove, something that winds up playing a role in the plot.
Marsh's work has a visionary quality. There are several scenes of altered states of consciousness in Death in a White Tie, usually involving dreams. Even when awake, her characters often feel as if they are dreaming. It is usually the "good" characters who get these states, especially the detective, and her central protagonists. There are also several key scenes in Death in a White Tie where gender identity breaks down, and the line between male and female gets temporarily blurred. The sympathetic Bunchy combines male and female characteristics. Such androgyny recurs with full force in the Morris dancing of Death of a Fool. Dancing always has a visionary and allegorical quality in Marsh's writing. In general, despite their surface realism, Marsh's stories have a great deal of surrealistic spirit.
Marsh's hero and heroine emphasize traits that often are considered by society to belong to the other gender. Roderick Alleyn has social sophistication and good looks, whereas Troy has creative spirit - she is a great painter - and fierce independence. Alleyn can get along with anybody, and has remarkable verbal skills he can use to make contact with different people's world views, establishing harmony with them. He is a maintainer of the social balance, and often intervenes to help other people's social relations. Such a maintenance is often considered a female task, just as Troy's making of great art a male one.
We often see a scene in Marsh, then later on a witness to that scene will add some details we did not get as readers during the scene. For example, the footman adds info in Chapter 10 about the blackmail scene in Chapter 1 of Enter A Murderer. Similarly, Bunchy adds insight in Chapter 2 to the scene in the previous chapter with Lady Carrados in Death in a White Tie. The scene in the dressing room in Chapter 2 of Enter A Murderer is discussed and "extended" throughout the novel - the reader is always getting new information about it. The various events at the ball in Death in a White Tie are revisited again and again with a Resnais like fervor. When avant-garde directors like Alain Resnais chop up temporal logic and show their scenes in non-temporal sequence, it is ascribed to their interest in Modernist technique. But Marsh does the same thing within the framework of a detective story, and does it with great complexity and skill.
Secondly, the New Zealand flowering tree known as "Ngaio" in Maori, is scientifically called Myoporum. It is the type genus of the small family Myoporaceae. Myoporums are also found in Australia, where they are known as sugarwoods: they exude a sweet substance which is chemically closely allied to sugars, although technically not quite a sugar, strictly speaking. (Similar substances used to be put into many "sugarless" gums, although these chemicals were just as sweet, fattening, and teeth rotting as real sugars.) Myoporums have clusters of little white flowers. They are closely related to the Australian shrubs known as Poverty Bushes (Eremophila), which have brightly colored and more conspicuous flowers. I've seen Poverty Bushes in real life, in Santa Barbara's Francesci Park, but have only seen Myoporums in photographs. Studies on the chloroplast gene ndhF suggest that Myoporums and Poverty Bushes are in turn closely related to butterfly bushes, the Buddlejaceae.
Subject Matter. The Nursing Home Murder brings a great deal of unusual material to a Golden Age detective novel. This includes both medicine, and a wide variety of radical politics. The book is a counterexample to the idea that Golden Age mysteries took place entirely among upper class twits in drawing rooms of mansions. Some later Marsh novels also have unusual content with political significance: Death in a White Tie (1938), Colour Scheme (1943). Unfortunately, judged as a novel, I don't think The Nursing Home Murder is as good as Death in a White Tie or Colour Scheme.
Threats. The premise of the book has a right wing minister threatened by radicals for introducing a bill in Parliament. This derives from Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905).
This premise is introduced immediately, near the start of the first chapter. There are elements of poking fun at mystery novel conventions. Mysteries often start by showing all the suspects who'd like to kill the future victim. The Nursing Home Murder begins by showing that every violent leftist radical in England would like to kill this minister! He must have hundreds or even thousands of possible future murderers. It's a dark-comedy exaggeration of a typical mystery cliche.
Operation. An operation in a hospital is central in The Nursing Home Murder, as it was in the earlier, hospital-set The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) by Ellery Queen. Queen is a leading member of the Van Dine School. The similarities between this Queen book and The Nursing Home Murder is another instance of links between Marsh and the Van Dine School.
White. The Nursing Home Murder talks about the effects of "white" in surgical clothes. It is a philosophical passage, that winds up discussing the color white in general. And a passage that seems to come from the book's author, rather than anyone of the characters. White was also a motif in The Dutch Shoe Mystery, although without philosophical connotations. However, the presence of the color white in both books might simply reflect the many real-world hospitals using white.
Structure. The structure of the first half of The Nursing Home Murder echoes the structure of Marsh's previous Enter A Murderer. Both open with a business meeting, followed by a long, unified account of an event in a technical locale: backstage at a play in Enter A Murderer, an operation and its aftermath at a hospital in The Nursing Home Murder.
SPOILERS. The opening business meeting in Enter A Murderer briefly mentions that Jacob seems to be playing or playacting a theater magnate - rather than being a real one. This is greatly extended in the opening of The Nursing Home Murder. There the entire British Cabinet seem to playing cliche versions of themselves. This is very funny.
Anti-Investigation. Some characters don't want the crime investigated. They are afraid of "scandal": that obsession of upper-class Englishmen of that era. Only the widow's ferocious demands to have the crime investigated cause an inquiry to take place. I find this opposition to investigation utterly bizarre. But it does seem to mirror the upper-class values that frequently appear in Golden Age English mysteries.
Shockingly, Alleyn seems to share this opposition, at first. I didn't like this at all. He only seems to investigate later on because it is his "duty". Usually I find Alleyn a likable character. But his attitudes in The Nursing Home Murder make him unsympathetic.
My other favorite Marsh adaptation is one of the British TV movies, Hand in Glove (1994), well acted by a cast that includes Sir John Gielgud.
Colour Scheme (1943) is a frustratingly uneven work in Marsh' oeuvre. The best parts of the book, Chapters 1, 4, 8, 9, 14 and 15, show real imagination. Virtually all of the actual mystery plot is contained in these chapters. Unlike some of Marsh' fiction, these chapters include a well constructed puzzle plot. The rest of the book is the least interesting part of the story: the endless "mainstream" novelistic material swarming around the hostel and its denizens. Inside this huge novel is a good crime short story trying to come out.
These mystery sections are also the chapters that concern that spectacular New Zealand landscape feature, the thermal pools. Everything dealing with the landscape of the boiling mud pools is original. They also contain the frightening encounter with the train in Chapter 4; its railway cutting setting is also part of the New Zealand landscape. The pools are part of a tradition in British Commonwealth fiction, one that encompasses E. M. Forster's A Passage to India (1912 - 1924) and Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), the latter being made into a superb film by Peter Weir in 1975. In these books, people visit a remarkable, eerie and sinister geological formation somewhere in the corners of the Commonwealth, one that has religious significance to a group of people living near by. Mystical encounters ensue. Both Forster's caves and Marsh' pools can be seen as woman symbols, depictions of Earth as a woman and a mother. There is a sense in all of these works of the landscape being alive. They all have a disturbing quality. The underground cavern mystery novella by Kelley Roos, "The Case of the Hanging Gardens" (1954), also has a little of this same feel.
Marsh is less overtly mystical than Forster or Lindsay, however. Instead, there is a sense that Marsh is trying to produce a picture of home. New Zealand, after all, is where she was born and often lived. Marsh stresses the sheer instability of the Earth in these geological eruptions. The characters have no firm foundation underneath them. Similarly, the characters are constantly threatened in the book's plot by the financial takeover of their hostel, the only home most of the family has ever known. Their home is under siege, and threatens to collapse financially at any moment. The characters are also lacking in any fixed routine. The running of the hostel seems to be improvised from moment to moment, with no set business or cooking or maintenance processes in place. This too adds to the novel's picture of total instability. So does the wartime setting of the story, and the conviction that spies are on the loose in or nearby the hostel. Death of a Peer (1940) is another Marsh book about a loving family besieged by instability. Both families are comically but frighteningly incompetent to deal in the smallest ways with practical affairs, and lurch from crisis to crisis.
Also admirable is the non-stereotyped depiction of the Maori people in the book. This is in the anti-racist tradition of the Van Dine school, and continues Marsh' attack on racism in Death in a White Tie (1938). Unfortunately, the Maori culture never really comes alive. The Maori stage show has a good song about death and the pools, but little else that is really interesting. This is a failure of technique or ideas, not of sympathy. Formally, this scene anticipates the look at English folk culture and its performance traditions in Death of a Fool (1956). Marsh's stage shows tend to focus around murders and killings, whether it is the mystery play of Enter a Murderer, the murder game of A Man Lay Dead, or the folk performances of Colour Scheme and Death of a Fool.
Death on the Air. "Death on the Air" (1939) is a short story concentrating on a "death-trap" that kills a victim. In this it recalls Overture to Death (1939). The trap in "Death on the Air" is so technological that the story qualifies as Scientific Detection. Marsh goes into detail about the trap, showing the police gradually reconstructing how it works, a step-by-step process that involves observation of clues and detailed analysis. Marsh also offers a detailed account of the killer's activities setting the trap up.
Aside from the trap, "Death on the Air" also looks at such mystery favorites as alibis and movements around the crime scene. These are fairly simple however. A subplot about keys shows some skill, with a decent twist at the solution. The story's weakness: there are no clues to who the killer is, whose choice therefore seems arbitrary.
Marsh shows her skill at characterization. Although none of the characters are at all eccentric, each has a well-developed personality. Each one speaks with a distinctive "voice".
Characters in "Death on the Air" tend to come in pairs: some of Marsh' characters who "echo" each other in their characteristics and behavior. We have two brothers, two woman relatives in the mother and daughter, and two men who are not members of the family in the secretary and the doctor.
A murder during a radio broadcast, is a simple example of a Marsh killing during some sort of show or performance. However, the killing takes place at home, of one of the listeners to the radio broadcast, rather than among the radio performers themselves. Two suspects are also involved with the arts, and painting plays a brief role.
I Can Find My Way Out. "I Can Find My Way Out" (1946) is a backstage mystery, and shows Marsh's skill at portraying the theater. Its portrait is richly detailed.
Marsh later essentially expanded some aspects of "I Can Find My Way Out" into the novel known as Opening Night or Night at the Vulcan. But she did so in an unusual and creative way. The events in Night at the Vulcan take place after those in "I Can Find My Way Out", in the same theater but with different suspects. Characters in Night at the Vulcan talk about the crime in "I Can Find My Way Out". They note the similarity of the goings-on in "I Can Find My Way Out" to the events happening in Night at the Vulcan. This makes Night at the Vulcan a sequel to "I Can Find My Way Out". I don't recall any other short-story-expansions-to-novels by other authors with a structure like Night at the Vulcan.
SPOILERS. Marsh has an interesting subplot about the ideas that went into the play being produced. This is a form of a mystery: "what is the development history of the play and its ideas?" The truth is gradually rolled out, and leads in surprising directions. Structurally, this is rather like the murder mysteries common in crime fiction - although it involves neither crime nor violence, and there is no detective actively seeking the solution.
Chapter and Verse. "Chapter and Verse" (1973) is a short story with an English country church setting. The story's biggest plot strengths include numerous clues to the identity of the killer. Individually, some are small, but Marsh shows skill with devising them, and concealing them in the story.
There is also a mild-but-pleasant puzzle plot, about the meaning of three mysterious entries in an old family bible. This is not quite a code mystery, but perhaps it is a bit related.
The murder takes place while most of the characters at at a sermon. Perhaps in a genteel way, such a sermon can be considered as one of the performances or stage shows around which so many Marsh mysteries are built.
Evil Liver. Evil Liver (1975) is a courtroom drama that Marsh wrote as a television play. This light-hearted work is mainly a black comedy. It is lively and entertaining. It shows Marsh's great skill with dialogue, wit and characterization.
While the play is set entirely within a courtroom, the characters testify about events that happened in their suburban neighborhood. The architecture and its role in events of the neighborhood are not unlike those in Vegetable Duck (1944) by John Rhode. Both works feature pass-through architecture for deliveries of groceries and meat, architecture that plays a role in the stories. Like Vegetable Duck, Evil Liver is a poisoning case, although it lacks the technical intricacy of the poisoning in Vegetable Duck. Evil Liver also resembles Vegetable Duck, in that it takes place among middle class people seen satirically as examples of How Not To Be A Classy Human Being.
The characters in Evil Liver are mainly cliches of mystery fiction, and funnier for that. We get in extreme form the irascible retired military officer, and the snoopy little old lady. We soon realize that all of the suspects are as nasty and mean-spirited as possible. These folks are a satire on suburban pettiness in its worst forms. By contrast, the judge, prosecutor and defense counsel are all decent people, far more responsible, moral, intelligent and classier than any of the suspects. This contrast is funny too, as they attempt to contain the outbursts in their court.
Morepork. "Morepork" (1978) takes place entirely in a wilderness area: not Ngaio Marsh's usual haunts. The forest activities of the campers who are the suspects, are depicted in well-researched detail. While the setting is remote from civilization, the characters are mainly technological people, who enjoy building small things in the forest. Their constructions of a pool and a bridge show the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscape. Marsh shows skill at creating a picture of what high-tech camping was like in 1978, and in creating individualized characters.
Unfortunately, "Morepork" is a grim, dark tale. It has an ominous atmosphere that makes it not too fun to read.
"Morepork" is another Marsh tale about a death-trap. The trap itself is the most ingenious crime aspect of the story. The mystery otherwise is not ingenious. And unfortunately, the solution is revealed by a chance twist of fate, rather than by detective work.
Many of Heyer's regular mysteries lack good puzzle plots. Death in the Stocks is undistinguished as a puzzle plot, to put it mildly, but it has much clever black comedy in the Vereker family, a group of outrageously eccentric murder suspects. All of the Verekers are completely self absorbed, care nothing about the deceased or the social amenities, and say whatever selfish things they think. They are a bunch of monsters, but ones given superb dialogue by Heyer. The sparkling dialogue recalls stage comedies by Noël Coward, and the over the top families in Coward plays such as Hay Fever (1925). Heyer's dialogue is both subtle and intellectually complex, showing considerable logic; at the end of Chapter 11 she compares it to a stage play by Chekhov. It is also remarkably sustained over the whole novel.
The ability of several members of the Vereker family to justify themselves, no matter how venal or corrupt their actions, recalls Uncle William in Allingham's Police at the Funeral (1931). So does the tone of Heyer's comic dialogue for these characters, which blends whiny self-justification with a sort of parody of petit-bourgeois earnestness and conventionality. The use of long missing relatives in Stocks also recalls Allingham's novel.
Heyer's book in turn looks forward to Ngaio Marsh, and her comedies of manners mysteries. Indeed, Heyer's social comedy seems like Marsh's nearest ancestor in the mystery field. Marsh would create her own family of eccentrics in Death of a Peer (1940).
It would be a mistake to call Heyer's book a satire: the Verekers do not seem to represent any social class or profession, or even a standard human personality type. Instead they are a bunch of unique individuals unlike any other. They keep only to their self interest, and have no concern for murder, the tragedies of others, or anyone's feelings. They are pure self interest coming straight up from the id. This gives a child like quality to the Verekers: they seem like a bunch of 5 year olds who are only concerned with their own wants.
Heyer, like Marsh, is an intuitionist writer. Like other intuitionists, she often favors amateur detectives. Although Death in the Stocks introduces her continuing policeman character Superintendent Hannasyde, much of the actual sleuthing is done by solicitor Giles Carrington. He is a relatively nice and normal person in a book full of the outrageous Verekers. The opposite pattern is found in the earlier Why Shoot A Butler? (1933), where the abrasive barrister Frank Amberley serves as amateur detective among a cast of nice people. The deliberately rude, rather witty Amberley can be seen as a very rough sketch for the later Verekers; like them, he is given to saying the unexpected, and to shattering social conventions of politeness. Also like the Verekers, he disdains sharing information with the police, and enjoys puncturing clichés of good form during a murder investigation - see especially in Chapter 5. The Verekers' ingenuity and lack of social inhibition in suspecting themselves and each other of the crime also breaks down mystery conventions. Heyer's work here forms a sort of logical analysis of the mystery genre itself, a kind of logical debunking of received ideas. Allingham also wrote several stories that involve a logical parody or satire on mystery ideas.
When Giles goes off sleuthing at the end of Death in the Stocks, his first step is to dress in evening clothes. This is not surprising in an author whose historical novels stressed fashion: see Powder and Patch (1923).
The book also shows Heyer's skills at constructing motives. These motives are part of the intricate network of relationships existing among her characters. Their logical design forms an interesting and beautiful part of the plot. The system of inheritance among the characters, and the motives deriving from it, resemble those in Death in the Stocks.
The viewpoint characters in They Found Him Dead tend to be social outsiders, people who in real life have no power - old women, a penniless young female companion, a teenage boy. In the world of the novel, they have a firm place in the family structure, and considerable social clout. Heyer's novel perhaps functions as a piece of wish fulfillment, a taking of powerless characters and enabling them with social standing. Heyer's characters in general almost entirely long for social standing, to the exclusion of all else. They want to make friends and be included in society. Personal interests pursued by characters often actually root in a desire for social prestige. The hero of Powder and Patch's desire for nice clothes relates to his wish to be a "gentleman" and a social leader. The enthusiasms of her Regency bucks have for driving vehicles, and that of the hero of They Found Him Dead for sports cars, seems to come more from a need to engage in activities admired by other men, than from any deep personal interest. Even the teenage boy's desire to do detective work seems to have more to do with his taking part of the world of men, than to gratify any intellectual impulse. These activities also serve as part of "gender identity", a desire to do manly things.
Heyer is still referring to Chekhov here, who comes in for quite a discussion in Chapter 2. The tributes of her enthusiastic characters seems sincere. But there is also a new note of satire, a spoof of Chekhov's relentless gloom. These discussions are hilariously funny. But there is no sign that Heyer still regards Chekhov as the role model for her fiction, as Death in the Stocks seemed to imply.
Young Vicky is another humorous, say-anything Heyer character, somewhat in the tradition of the Verekers. She gets involved in an amusing burlesque on detective story traditions, in the Heyer manner.
The group attempting to solve the crime figures out fairly early on who the killer is, sharing this information with the reader. Most of their effort in the rest of the book is in proving it. In this it is like G.D.H. Cole's The Brooklyn Murders (1923), which has a similar basic plan. The characters who serve as amateur detectives are a very likable and sympathetic group, and their warm interactions serve as the beating heart of the novel. The many twists and turns of the plot recall Beaumarchais or Sheridan. In fact the harmoniousness of the patterns of plot and character recall not so much Beaumarchais, but Beaumarchais as set to music by Mozart. To borrow a phrase from E. H. Gombrich, The Talisman Ring shows "harmony achieved".
Heyer's best historical novels also include Faro's Daughter (1941).
Williams shows tremendous enthusiasm for all things American in the book, including American idioms and speech patterns. He seems to welcome America as an admirable alternative to modern Britain. Williams also seems genuinely internationalist in scope, with sympathy for people of all nations. "The Red-Bearded Killer" describes Treadgold's friendship with a number of famed policemen of various countries. Aziz Bey of Cairo is included among them.
Williams' stories show a great variety of approaches. There are intuitionist puzzle plots suggesting Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes style deduction from physical clues, and even a scientific crime scheme out of Freeman or the Coles ("The Singing Kettle"). Williams also occasionally mixes spy material with his country house plot matter, as well. Although all of his Treadgold tales have mystery plots, some of them come close to degenerating into pure thrillers. This eclecticism makes him hard to classify, but I think he belongs most closely with the intuitionists. Although he was praised by Howard Haycraft and has an entry in the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, the most important writer who seems to have noticed Williams is Agatha Christie, who burlesqued his Okewood Brothers spy tales in Partners in Crime (1928).
The names "Okewood" and "Treadgold" have a certain similarity; each has two syllables, both heavily stressed, and with a d sound at the end, and plenty of o vowel sounds in the names. He also had a series character named "Clubfoot", which continues the pattern. Treadgold's full name is Horace Bowl Treadgold, and he is also known as H.B. Treadgold.
Williams seems more like a follower than a leader. Many British detective writers of the era seem to be straining to be innovators, to create a New Type of Detective Story, one with their own personal stamp on it. Sometimes, as in Bentley's or Freeman's case, this is admirable; sometimes, in Berkeley's case, it is merely pretentious. Williams seems more content to grind out stories in established modes. Even at his best, there tends to be a somewhat labored quality to Williams' work. He doesn't seem to be a "natural", the way Christie was. Yet his best tales contain some real merit. If he was laboring, at least his work sometimes achieved results.
"The Strange Disappearance of Miss Edith Marless" (1937) is a tale in the same genre as Van Dine's excellent The Kidnap Murder Case (1936). Disappearance tales are loaded with an interesting ambiguity. Has a person run off? been kidnapped? murdered? Williams does himself proud in a genuinely puzzling mystery. This story and "The Blue Ushabti" (1937) suggest a writer in the puzzle plot Christie tradition, although there is a strong Doyle feeling to them as well. Such a direct Doyle influence is rare is authors of the 1930's.
"The Case of the Black 'F'" (1937) and "The Man With The Two Left Feet" do not have puzzle plots, but they do have a well-handled mix of detective work and international intrigue. Both tales show good storytelling. If other Williams tales recall Christie, these seem rather Sherlock Holmes like. The latter story has a treatment of contemporary 1930's politics that still seems relevant and gripping.
Williams' lesser stories recycle material from his better ones:
Williams went on to read widely in the Sensation novelists of the 1860's, and Gaboriau. He is the author of a much quoted article about Gaboriau.
The scenes in which Mr. Treadgold examines various victims' clothes for clues recall similar ones in Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886).
Williams' autobiography also makes clear that Williams regarded himself much more as an author of "shockers" (spy stories, thrillers, and related works), than of mystery fiction proper, although much of Treadgold falls in the latter category. No less a figure than John Buchan helped get Williams' first novel through wartime censorship, and Williams later became friends with E. Phillips Oppenheim on the Riviera. These are the major names in British spy fiction of the era. Williams also quotes with justifiable pride Kipling's praise of his writing. By contrast, Williams seems personally unacquainted with any of the Golden Age mystery authors.
Howard Haycraft in Murder for Pleasure summed up Williams' work as "highly superior", and wished Williams made more excursions into the realm of the detective tale, rather than the thriller.
My impression of Williams: he was what in 1930 was considered a "professional writer". Such authors cultivated a wide variety of skills, and were always looking to improve their craftsmanship in a host of directions.
Its American setting is startling for a British writer: it is an estate on Long Island Sound, filled with New York professional people, the kind one might meet in a Mr. and Mrs. North novel by the Lockridges. There is not an aristocrat in sight: everybody works for a living, in the American style. Williams seems completely ambidextrous as a writer, able to turn out British settings or American with ease.
Also, one might note that when Golden Age intuitionist writers brought the full machinery of the country house mystery into short fiction, they tended to make it a novella (short novel), and not a short story proper. Example include Phillpotts' "Prince Charlie's Dirk", Christie's "Dead Man's Mirror", Carr's "The Third Bullet", and C. Daly King's "The Vanishing Harp". Perhaps they believed that only a novella could accommodate all of the features of a full Golden Age plot. Or, conversely, perhaps they were commissioned to write a longer piece of fiction, and felt that readers would expect them to provide a "novel in miniature".
These allegorical rumblings only emerge slowly from a realistic mise-en-scène. Williams was a foreign correspondent, and the story prides itself on giving the reader an inside look at the German Army of World War I. Its moral failings are detailed with considerable finesse, and are redolent of the pacifist feeling after World War I, and a disgust with how the war had been conducted. The careful observations on class and sexism within the German Officer Corps also are examples of Williams' interest in this subject. They parallel works by American writers on class and the Army, discussed in the article on Donald McGibeny.
The Mata Hari like opening character, and intrigue over conveying information on troop movements to the enemy, come from a spy fiction tradition established at least as early as Richard Harding Davis' "Somewhere in France" (1915), and one that would give rise to such films as Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored (1931) and Curtis Harrington's Mata Hari (1985).
"The Pigeon Man" is a short story. It is included in Williams' collection The Knife Behind the Curtain, and in a number of anthologies, such as The Oxford Book of Spy Stories (1996), edited by Michael Cox.
Scientific Detection: The Characters. Fog is hardly a full-fledged Scientific Detective story. But it does have scientific aspects. Four of its characters are scientists or medical men:
Scientific Detection: Mystery Plot. A subplot deals with a medically-oriented crime. It is interesting: more interesting than the main murder. However, this subplot is none too prominent in the book.
SPOILERS. This plot deals with an attempted murder that fails to come off, and whose very existence is kept hidden from the reader, until the solution at the book's end. Such "concealed, failed attempts" occasionally show up in other novels: see Stuart Palmer's Murder on the Blackboard (1932) and The Body in the Silo (1933) by Ronald A. Knox. Such attempts give rise to oddly constructed mysteries: readers are usually trying to explain a novel's actual murder, not look for crimes that fail to come off. Springing such a failed attempt on the reader during a book's solution can seem almost unfair: It is not what readers are typically asked to look for in mystery novels. Still, the failed attempt in Fog indeed contains a clue to its existence. It makes interesting reading, whether or not it is quite "fair".
SPOILERS. The events surrounding the attempt are described (end of Chapter 5). They are indeed enigmatic and contain an unexplained happening: which should serve as a clue to readers that something is going on. Then they are explained at the novel's end, during the solution (Chapter 30).
Sleuth. It features series sleuth Scotland Yard detective Trevor Dene. Unexpectedly, it takes place in the United States, on Long Island, where Dene and his American wife are visiting.
Trevor Dene has refined manners and a low key, upper crust gentlemanly presence. Unfortunately, he has not much personality otherwise, and seems like a recessive figure, always fading into the background.
Meet the Characters. The first chapter of Masks Off at Midnight is structured like the first two chapters of Fog: a Point Of View character stands around and watches, while the main characters one-by-one come within his field of observation. In Fog each character in turn walks up a ship's gangplank while the hero watches; in Masks Off at Midnight each character passes through the center of a Long Island town. This opening of Masks Off at Midnight is not as long, detailed, or atmospheric as the opening of Fog. But it is still pleasant.
It has a good working class character Harry, a young man who works at a gas station. Unfortunately, Harry disappears out of the rest of the novel.
Business. The next scene in Masks Off at Midnight is even better (Chapter 2). This shows us the young local newspaperman Paul Kentish. It gives an interesting account of his career, and offers a mini-Background of small town journalism of the era.
This section also details a tax fraud being perpetrated by the local millionaire. It is not simply a "fraud": he is using his power to change the structure of government. This is an inside view of the corrupt activities of the rich. It is an interesting piece of social criticism. And the best reason to track down a copy of Masks Off at Midnight. The whole thing seems very modern: A member of the big rich deliberately evading taxes, and avoiding any contribution to the running of society. It is like today's vicious libertarian 1%, and their anti-tax crusades. Unfortunately, the look at business in the opening of Masks Off at Midnight is not sustained in the rest of the novel. And the book drastically declines in interest after this start.
Class: Conflict and Change. Much of the rest of Masks Off at Midnight deals with the conflict between Old Money families who have been social leaders for generations, and a newly rich tycoon. I didn't like this at all. Both sides in this conflict seem repellent. It is hard to work up sympathy for Society people whose main goal in life is to ensure that upstarts are not socially admitted into their inner circles. And the tycoon is a revolting person, trying to use his money to buy the book's old-family heroine as his wife. He is as obsessed with social success as the old money types. Neither side seems to want to actual do anything, or make any positive accomplishments. Valentine Williams is hardly the only writer to look at such conflicts: a famous account in mainstream literature is The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) by Booth Tarkington. However, the folks in The Magnificent Ambersons are all far classier than the rotten rich in Masks Off at Midnight.
There are loose similarities between such events, and the central character in "The Pigeon Man". "The Pigeon Man" deals with an apparent lower class man who might actually be a member of the upper classes. Similarly:
Bigotry. An upper class widow is living in this small upper class Long Island town, rather than New York City, in part because she does not want her kids in a New York City public school, whose student body is seen by her as full of anybody (Chapter 3). Translation: New York public schools of the era included black and Jewish kids along with everyone else (as can be seen in Hildegarde Withers novels by Stuart Palmer). This is a really ugly attitude. It is still a dominant view among many conservatives to this day.
The opening of the costume party forms a mildly pleasant spectacle, with guests in French court costume. Unfortunately, the next scene shows a procession, with various wealthy white people in costume as members of a Third World country. This scene of millionaires impersonating racial Others is sure to offend today.
Landscape and Architecture. A scene after the killing describes the architecture of the towers. Each one is divided into two rooms: a long narrow corridor, and a larger room. One such room is used as a changing area for swimming.
The same post-murder investigation has sleuth Trevor Dene investigating footprints - and it is nice to see him doing some actual detective work, rather than just standing around politely and exhibiting Good Breeding, as he does in much of the novel. This section describes the outdoor landscape of the estate grounds. An unusual feature: sunken areas. These are sometimes bordered by banks of earth, held up by brick walls.
Quebec. It has little interest as a mystery story, but there are some felicities in the characters and location. It is set in neither the USA nor in Britain, the two most common locales for detective fiction, but in a small town in Quebec. The detailed painting of both the scenery and the local customs is typical of Williams' writing. Williams' internationalism is perhaps part of his heritage as an espionage writer. Authors like Oppenheim and Le Queux also regularly took their readers to foreign countries.
Class and the Depression. At several point Williams actually mentions the Depression. This is atypical of British writers, whose upper crust characters were not supposed to notice such things. Many of the characters in this book come from professional classes, such as doctors or lawyers, but most are just getting by. No one is especially wealthy. In fact the prosperous tailor Mr. Treadgold seems as affluent as anyone in the novel.
SPOILERS. The progress shown by the Lord of the Manor involves nearly as much stripping away of class privilege as the Pigeon Man. First he loses his wealth, then his home, then moves to another country and gets a very middle class job, and finally he sneaks back into his old home to die, living like a tramp in it, during his final days.
Detective work: influence of Gaboriau. The crime scene elements in the book show the influence of Gaboriau. There are footprints, bloodstains and the evidence of candles and lights. The characters do some shrewd work in reconstructing the crime based on these clues, in the manner of Gaboriau.
As in Van Dine school writers, a genius amateur sleuth works closely with the police to solve the crime. Pure thinking is emphasized in all quarters, plus lots of investigative work. The story also shows what Van Dinean Ellery Queen called the "straightforward" approach. The sleuths start in detecting immediately after the crime, and do so continuously throughout the story, with no novelistic digressions to distract attention or pad out the tale.
Among the weaknesses of The Cambridge Murders is the fact that it lacks a clever solution. There are no big plot surprises, and no ingenuity in the choice of criminal. While the unfolding of the plot throughout the story is pleasant, there is nothing left over for the finale. However, throughout the tale, Daniel has thoroughly explored scenarios showing how different suspects could have committed the crime. These false solutions can be quite detailed, and partly make up for the lack of invention at the end.
Unlike the grim University novels of the early 1930's, Daniel keeps his tone light hearted. He also is more interested in the personal lives of his characters and their amours, than in their academic research.
A story like "A Study in White" is notable for the number of mysterious situations it contains - at least four - all of which are used to provide both puzzle plots, and clues to the identity of the killer. Blake's skill at constructing a complex narrative, and embedding clues therein, remind one of John Dickson Carr. So do the multiple mysteries in his tales, another Carr tradition. Blake's stories tend not to be impossible crimes, but they do echo the pure detectival technique of Carr's and Christie's narratives. Nor does Blake have the quasi-supernatural atmosphere of Carr. Instead, Blake's stories take place against a setting of daily life. There is often some sharp sociological detail in Blake's work, which takes place more in the everyday reality of Britain, than in any sort of fantasy escapist world.
Blake has been much praised for his characterization, by Howard Haycraft and others. But the characters in A Question of Proof seem one-dimensional. They are mainly the staff of an exclusive boys school. They are all painfully conventional people. None shows much individuality, beyond a single defining characteristic: we have an ex-Army officer, a mousy teacher, a man trying to live down his lower class origin, etc. Blake's reputation as a man bringing literary distinction to the detective novel is hard to justify, at least on anything one might find in A Question of Proof.
Michael Innes published four volumes of detective short stories, many quite compact and brief. Appleby Talks About Crime is available from its publisher Crippen & Landru.
"The Mystery of Paul's 'Posthumous' Portrait" (1958) shares plot ideas with "Death in the Sun". Both look at the appearances of twins, and how they relate to one twin's appearance. The concrete ideas are quite different in the two stories, as well as the crime story uses to which they are put. Another ingenious tale that looks at appearance and its changes: "Was He Morton?" (1954). Doubles motifs also appear in "Appleby's First Case", and "Beggar with Skull".
"The Flight of Patroclus" and "The Secret in the Woodpile" (1975) take place against long careers of people involved in the arts. Such careers contain ingeniously hidden secrets.
"A Change of Face" (1957) and "Jerry Does a Good Turn for the Djam" (1958) take place against the politics and deadly intrigue of a small country, recalling the backgrounds of such Chesterton classics as "The Fairy Tale of Father Brown" (1914). The solution of the puzzle plot of "Jerry Does a Good Turn for the Djam" is also Chesterton-like, recalling those Chesterton tales in which "melodrama is brought to life", often through deceptive means. In Chesterton, such melodrama tends to serve the hidden purposes of a bad guy, often disguising his schemes. In "Jerry Does a Good Turn for the Djam", by contrast, the melodrama is something of a coincidence.
One can also see echoes of some individual Chesterton stories. "Who Suspects the Postman?" (1958) has a background of theft at a traditional English Christmas Pageant, at a stately home. This setting recalls Chesterton's "The Flying Stars", although the mystery puzzles are otherwise quite different.
"The Furies" has an original plot idea. But the overall structure of the mystery plot, and its basic approach, recalls Carolyn Wells' The Curved Blades (1916). "The Furies" has borderline impossible crime aspects.
"The Key" (1950) has a somewhat similar mystery structure, although its plot ideas are used to create an alibi, rather than an impossible crime. "The Key" has a clever-enough mystery plot, but its characters and situations are unpleasant.
Innes wrote two burlesque impossible crime tales, "The Sands of Thyme" and "A Derby Horse". These have way-out solutions, and a tongue-in-cheek tone. One wishes Innes had taken the impossible crime tale more seriously. Of the two, "A Derby Horse" shows more imagination. Its solution is more workable, and it has some decent moments of surrealism in its second half. These moments too can seem "impossible", in addition to the main impossible disappearance puzzle.
"The Cave of Belarius" is also couched as an impossible disappearance. The simple explanation should be obvious to everyone. But the storytelling and setting have charm.
"The Clock-face Case" is a clock mystery, broadly in the tradition of the clock puzzles in Dorothy L. Sayers' Montague Egg short stories of the 1930's - although Innes' plot is new and original. Like some of Sayers, "The Clock-face Case" shares the disadvantage that it is based on clock technology that is now obsolete and obscure to modern readers. "The Clock-face Case" is also an anomaly among Golden Age mysteries, in that it does not fully solve its whodunit mystery. It merely clears up the clock puzzle of the title, followed by a brief statement by Appleby at the end that he did in fact solve the case eventually.
Science or technology play a role in 11 of the 23 stories in Appleby Talking. These include "Pokerwork", "The Furies", "Eye Witness", "The Key", "The Clock-face Case", "Tragedy of a Handkerchief", "A Nice Cup of Tea", "The Sands of Thyme", "The X-Plan", "Lesson in Anatomy", "A Derby Horse". In addition, "Dead Man's Shoes" has a scientist character, like "The X-Plan", although science plays little role in the mystery plot. Their plots can be classified as follows:
The novella "Dead Man's Shoes" (1953) is much longer than the other tales in Appleby Talking. It shares elements with other Sheercliff-set tales in Appleby Talking:
"Grey's Ghost", "Enigma Jones" and "A Very Odd Case" form a series, whose clever solutions have a certain overall approach in common. "Grey's Ghost" and "A Very Odd Case" are borderline impossible crime tales, while "Enigma Jones" does similar things to create an alibi rather than an impossible crime. "Here Is the News" is somewhat in the same mode, but more distantly related. Also linked: such tales from The Appleby File as "Poltergeist" and "The Exploding Battleship". SPOILER: These tales involves ideas related to stage magic.
The novella in Appleby Talks Again, "A Matter of Goblins" (1954), is not much considered as a mystery. The plot twists and solutions are mainly not ingenious, and the mystery elements eventually peter out into a shaggy dog story. A few bits in the subplot about clergyman Mr. Buttery are somewhat better. Rather than mystery, much of "A Matter of Goblins" concerns an old English country house in ruins. The house and its activities are described in atmospheric detail. There are lots of readers of Golden Age mystery fiction whose main interest actually seems to be traditional British life and country homes - and they might enjoy reading "A Matter of Goblins". Innes had previously included a detailed account of a ruined Scots castle in his novel Lament for a Maker.
The mystery plot of Lament for a Maker is derivative. It is multiple-solutioned, like E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). Both the first solution (given by lawyer Wedderburn) and the book's ultimate solution, are straightforward imitations of two of the solutions in Trent's Last Case. In between, Lament for a Maker includes solutions that derive from mystery material that was already cliched by 1938, although this material is not from Trent's Last Case. All of this makes for a mystery plot that is admittedly complex, but unfortunately not very original.
Better than the plotting is the book's long opening section, leading up to the murder. This includes the lengthy opening narrated by traditional villager Ewan Bell. This section is written in a Scots version of English, and is full of local color. One has to admit Innes' verbal skill, with the complexly styled English prose. The opening has vivid accounts of weather and landscape. It also has much description of traditional Scots rural life.
The first half of the narrative of Noel Gylby also shows literary style. Gylby, a character who also appears elsewhere in Innes, is a literary wit and intellectual sophisticate.
One suspects that these sections enhanced Innes' reputation as a "literary" mystery writer, one who was bringing mainstream literary values to mystery fiction.
Lament for a Maker contains much "gothic" material: a ruined, spooky castle, and its creepy, half-mad owner. A little of this stuff goes a long way with me. The evil owner and his Byronic posturing is especially not my cup of tea. Villains-with-psychological-problems are one of the most overrated parts of mystery fiction.
Lament for a Maker suffers from the distasteful sexual situations in which the women characters often find themselves, or are rumored to be participating in. These situations are not really consensual. This is also a problem with Innes' The Daffodil Affair.
In the first Miss Phipps tale "Author in Search of a Character" (1937), Miss Phipps seems to be a mainstream author, like Phyllis Bentley herself: the story she is writing seems to be about a heroine and her romance. But in later tales Miss Phipps is portrayed as a detective novelist.
An Intuitionist Detective. Miss Phipps shows the standard approach of the Intuitionist detective: she solves crimes through pure thinking and reasoning - instead of using, say, police procedure or scientific methods.
Intuitionist sleuths can be professionals, such as a cop or lawyer. But many are amateur sleuths: like Miss Phipps.
Armchair Detective. In her early tales, Miss Phipps serves as an armchair detective: a sleuth who solves cases simply by hearing about them, rather than investigating on scene. Armchair detectives are a highly specialized subcategory of Intuitionist sleuths.
A famous predecessor: Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who solved cases as an armchair detective in her first collection of short stories. Both Miss Phipps and Miss Marple are single, older women, as well. The Marple stories were collected in book form in 1932 as The Thirteen Problems; they would have been well-known when Bentley created Miss Phipps in 1937.
Background: People in the Arts. Some Intuitionist writers have backgrounds of intellectuals and people in the arts. Some of the Miss Phipps tales do as well:
These settings also reflect Bentley's personal experience:
The mystery in "Miss Phipps Improvises" (1961) is set in the same fictitious town of Laire as "Chain of Witnesses". But in "Miss Phipps Improvises", Laire is explicitly described as being in Yorkshire, with the imaginary county of Northshire forgotten. "Miss Phipps Improvises" is also set in the textile industry, like the previous tale. While there is nothing objectionable about it, the local color depiction of textile manufacturing in "Miss Phipps Improvises" is not as rich or interesting as that in "Chain of Witnesses". The strong feature of "Miss Phipps Improvises" is instead its experimental structure.
Miss Phipps' niece and family, prominent in "Chain of Witnesses", are pleasantly revisited in "Miss Phipps Is Too Modest" (1971). This tale is also set in Laire, but has only a little local color. The story has a feminist angle, commenting on the symbolism of women's hair.
Experimental Structure. Several of the Miss Phipps tales have self-referential features. These add greatly to the interest of the tales. These features vary from story to story. They are inventively different.
Orlando, a reference project about British Women's Writing from Cambridge, describes Bentley's early mainstream novel Carr (1929): "a book which she takes great pains to present as a scholarly biography, though it is in fact the story of a fictional character written by another fully-realised fictional character." Clearly, experimental structure was something Bentley created from early stages of her career.
Two print sources on Christianna Brand (not available on-line) are highly informative:
Mystery Plot: Emerald. The best part of Shadowed Sunlight is the subplot about the emerald. This is both imaginative and ingenious. It has several good features:
Mystery Plot: Poisoning. The main murder mystery in Shadowed Sunlight is an impossible crime. The characters get together for a group meal. One of them is poisoned, but it looks impossible for anyone to have done it. At the end, the book comes up with a credible solution to how the crime was done.
How good is this solution? The solution is simple. I would rate the solution as sound, decent, but not brilliant. If it were graded, it would get a B, and not an A.
Only one character had a chance to pull this solution off. This indicates the murderer. In fact, this seems like the only clue to the identity of the killer.
Brand's later "Cyanide in the Sun" (1958, 2019) has features in common with Shadowed Sunlight. Both:
Characters. Shadowed Sunlight has some very nasty characters as suspects. I didn't enjoy reading about them. And found much of the story depressing. This is perhaps just my own personal taste. But Shadowed Sunlight seems to me like a book with some good mystery plot ideas, embedded in a narrative that is often no fun to read.
By contrast, the police characters are charming. As in Brand's "The Man on the Roof", the police are seen with welcome humor.
Shadowed Sunlight has the virtue of readability. I read it all in a single sitting.
The main murder problem in The Disappearing Corpse has an ingenious solution. So does the subplot about the antiques the hero is brought in to investigate. Both mystery puzzles have antecedents in Agatha Christie: not exact re-uses of plot ideas, one hastens to add, but plots in broadly similar kinds of traditions. (SPOILER: The antiques subplot recalls such Christie tales as the Mr. Quin "At the Bells and Motley" (1925) and the Miss Marple "Ingots of Gold" (1928). END OF SPOILER.)
But there are also some plot problems:
Publisher. A year after its British publication, The Disappearing Corpse was brought out in the United States. There is a comment on the back of the book jacket from the Denver Post, describing its U.S. publisher: "Ives Washburn has recently launched the Chanticleer series of mystery novels, at the rate of one a month. The covers are sturdy and attractively designed; the print is large and legible. The novels remind one of Christie or Queen. Intelligence, individuality of style and plotting."
Influence of Ngaio Marsh. Boiled Alive shows the influence of Ngaio Marsh. Like Marsh's Colour Scheme (1943), Boiled Alive is set in an exotic resort area centered around hot springs. Both novels mix international characters and visitors with members of the host country (New Zealand in Colour Scheme, Mexico in Boiled Alive). Both novels mix international intrigue with mystery fiction.
Boiled Alive seems Marsh-like in its literate storytelling and characterization. Boiled Alive also resembles in Marsh in that it:
Don Pancho has a servant Crisanto, who aids Don Pancho with the sleuthing by mingling with the other servants and gathering information. Such servants-helping-the-sleuth were staples: see Bunter in Dorothy L. Sayers, Lugg in Margery Allingham and Wiggar in Lee Thayer. Crisanto hero-worships Don Pancho, and is thus also a bit of a Watson.
Characters. The flighty Hollywood starlet has a highly competent friend who takes care of her. The friend is nicknamed Butch, and it is easy to see her as a Lesbian character, although this is never made explicit. The spinster Miss Cloud also comes in for some speculation involving gender (start of Chapter 29, explained away in Chapter 32).
Boiled Alive has two young men, who are highly attractive to the women in the novel. Both men engage in romantic display, that seems especially convincing to the females they hope to attract: the engineer wears a white tuxedo (Chapter 11), the young Englishman shows off his athletics skills with a dive in the pool (end of Chapter 10). The women they are with make their own displays in these encounters, too.
The "virile young engineer, working in remote locales" had been a staple of adventure and crime fiction since the days of Richard Harding Davis and Francis Lynde. The engineer in Boiled Alive is less rough hewn and less on his own, than many of his predecessors.
Mystery Plot. The solution of Boiled Alive is not clever. SPOILERS. The big plot twist about where the body was hidden, is an old dodge, used by everyone from R. Austin Freeman to Craig Rice. Boiled Alive does wrap it in some unusual contexts, though.
The hero is a British conductor, on an ocean rest trip. Too Much of Water makes the exciting world of classical music sound boring. The hero's enthusiasm for Romantic composers like Chopin, Brahms and Bruckner comes across as a sort of Lowest Common Denominator for classical music. The few details we get about the world of classical music do not constitute a Background about the subject. Just about any non-fiction account on classical music is much more informative.
Eden Phillpotts is a writer difficult to classify today. The best work I have read by him is "The Iron Pineapple", a little story of an irrationally obsessed man who commits murder. Full of irony and bizarre humor, this story comes off remarkably well. Unlike much of his fiction, this is not a mystery story.
"Prince Charlie's Dirk" (1926), although it moves s-l-o-w-l-y, is a not badly told novella of a murder investigation at a dismal country house. Many of Phillpotts' books seem to be country house murder mysteries of a pure Golden Age style, much closer in approach to Agatha Christie than to R. Austin Freeman, although Phillpotts could not plot anywhere as well as either. In fact, it is unclear that Phillpotts' writings even have a "plot" in the sense of a unified, logically meaningful entity, as opposed to a mere succession of events. Phillpotts was Christie's neighbor in Devon, and is today well remembered for encouraging her literary ambitions. His work doesn't seem to have much in common with Bailey and his followers, either, and Phillpotts should probably be labeled as a minor intuitionist.
The wanderings through the half closed off mansion in "Prince Charlie's Dirk", and the antiquarian museum contained in the building which the detective views from above, reminded me somewhat of later passages in the early John Dickson Carr, such as The Bowstring Murders (1933). Phillpotts' The Grey Room (1921) also shows subject matter similarities with Carr's The Red Widow Murders (1935). Neither of these books is in the top level of Carr's achievement, and Phillpotts can hardly be considered a major influence on him. Still Phillpotts, like A.E.W. Mason, combined the whodunit with a grim, sinister atmosphere, unlike the realistic police school or the cheery country houses of A.A. Milne, thus anticipating the tone of Carr's stories.
Phillpotts' chief critical champion was the intuitionist writer S.S. Van Dine, so this completes the circle of intuitionist associations of this author: Carr, Christie, Van Dine. Phillpotts' The Red Redmaynes (1922) deals with the murder of an entire family, like Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928), and Van Dine also sometimes had private museums in his tales as well: see The Winter Murder Case (1939). All of these potential influences deal with subject matter, not with detectival technique. I'm not sure Phillpotts had any detectival technique.
A.E.W. Mason was a once famous mystery writer whose reputation seems problematic today. The author of a famous war story, The Four Feathers (1902), of no attraction to a pacifist like myself, Mason intermittently wrote tales about French policeman Inspector Hanaud in between his other, non-mystery fiction.
Where does Mason fit into mystery history? Both Dorothy L. Sayers and S.S. Van Dine tagged him unhesitatingly as an intuitionist. His influence certainly was mainly felt in this world (the intuitionists); I think his influence on John Dickson Carr was unfortunate, but it was real. One suspects he also influenced Carr's Bencolin, and the sinister French crimes he investigated. Mason seems like a none too great intuitionist writer, allied to Christie and Carr. He published long before either: At the Villa Rose (1910) and the novella "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel" (1917?) follow Chesterton and Freeman, but predate Milne, Christie, Carr, Van Dine, Sayers and the rest of the Golden Age.
At the Villa Rose. At the Villa Rose and "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel" share plot elements in common. Both contain:
The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel. "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel" is included in Mason's story collection, The Four Corners of the World (1917). One can easily find on-line copies of this book. The tale is notable for its vividly described settings. First a masquerade ball, then the opera in London, come across with painterly vigor. Both are backgrounds that will reappear in Agatha Christie.
The plot contains two twists, part way through, that mark it as a "logical satire" on detective fiction - ideas that seem to subvert basic concepts of the detective tale. Then Mason rejects both ideas, and keeps exploring the mystery.
Mason instead develops the story as a study in psychology. These psychological ideas are not "fair play": the reader cannot deduce them ahead of the solution through clues. But the psychological detection is moderately interesting. It links "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel" to the Scientific detective story, as practiced by Arthur B. Reeve and others. A metaphor that appears in both At the Villa Rose and "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel": comparing a mental image, to a developing photograph.
The House of the Arrow. The House of the Arrow (1924) takes place at a French country house. It is full of creepy atmosphere, and seems to be the origin and literary model for those John Dickson Carr tales featuring a totally evil woman who is up to Satanic villainy. There is a sense in all of these books, Mason's and Carr's, of a household full of emotionally disturbed people, a place where something is Really Wrong, and sick impulses dominate, having erupted into at least one murder already. These Carr novels, such as He Who Whispers, Below Suspicion, and The Burning Court, are much admired by some critics, but have always inspired in me an immense distaste. They are hardly especially ingenious as detective stories, being vastly simpler in plot than Carr's masterpieces, and I cannot understand critics' fascination with their central characters. It is all part of the cult of horror fiction to which I am so blind. In any case, I like Mason's original even less than Carr's work, which at least shows that master's excellent craftsmanship.
The Four Feathers. The misogyny of The House of the Arrow is the flip side of the macho posturing of The Four Feathers. It shows a writer who was deep into the most mean spirited sexual stereotypes of his era. The idea that men would stand around and give white feathers to other men, branding them as cowards for refusing to fight in war, strikes me as utterly appalling. I admire today's Lithuanians infinitely more: 92% of them refused their induction notices in the Russian army, with the collaboration of virtually their entire society. They had no stomach for butchering innocent Moslems in Afghanistan, and other enemies of the Soviet state.
The Ginger King. The House of the Arrow does not show great ingenuity as a mystery plot. Much better in this regard is the little short story, "The Ginger King" (1940). This tale seems especially Agatha Christie like, with a clever criminal scheme exposed by its detective, a well constructed plot, and a welcome vein of Christie like humor throughout the tale. It would perhaps have made a good anthology piece, with the exception of its big problem: lots of racist gibes against its Arab villain. Mason just can't help flogging his distasteful world view in his tales. Let's face it: this man was a mess.
Commentary on Marten Cumberland:
Best feature of the story: the amateur detective, Argentine pianist and bon vivant Loreto Santos. Santos believes in preventing crimes before they happen. He is opposed to both prison sentences and capital punishment. In that same year (1929), Hercule Poirot would also flirt with the idea of crime prevention in "Wasp's Nest", and Miss Marple would do the same in one of The Tuesday Night Club Murders in 1930. See also Christie's story "S.O.S." (1929). So something was in the air. This is a good idea that has never really been explored in depth in crime fiction. It could combine liberal politics with some real ingenuity. (One might point out that Hildegarde Withers is always talking about this too, and often starts snooping around on cases before anything has happened, in the name of crime prevention. However, she is none too successful, because the corpses always start piling up!)
The Diary of Death. "The Diary of Death" (1928) is a locked room story starring Santos. It uses a familiar approach: any locked room fan will easily guess who did it and how. The story can be found in the anthology The Best English Detective Stories: First Series (1929).
The story gives a lively account of a musical soiree. Such intellectual parties are a staple of intuitionist writers.
The story also gives an interesting portrait of obsession, both in the diary, and its mental portrait of the killer.
Another character sums up Santos' views in this tale: "Modern society is the greatest criminal of all. Distribution of wealth notoriously unjust. So-called 'justice' a mockery. Organized society makes criminals by the hundred, and then revenges itself upon them - if they're poor. Big thieves get off and get honours. All wrong. Prevention of crime is the great thing - not punishment."
Scott's Giglamps tales (collected 1924) are highly recommended by Douglas G. Greene, and his three 1920's novels featuring the detective Disher are also prestigious.
Valentine's "An Exploit of The Adjusters: The Man Who Scared The Bank" (1929) deals with a group of anonymous amateurs who fight crime. The Adjusters were born long after Edgar Wallace's Four Just Men (1905). They bear a family resemblance, as a multi-talented team who solve crimes and capture criminals that cannot be touched by the police, but seem to be far less political than Wallace's heroes. Valentine's characters are all well bred, upper class Englishmen, too, unlike the more cosmopolitan Wallace's foreigners. This Wallace-Valentine tradition of lively teams of amateur crime fighters would last in Britain at least into the 1960's, with The Avengers, one of my favorite TV shows as a kid (I watched them when they first came out). The Adjusters mix detective work with adventure. This mix of genres, and their fun, upbeat approach, seems similar to Agatha Christie in such light hearted works as the Tommy and Tuppence stories, and Why Didn't They Ask Evans?
The Adjusters use their diverse talents to launch complex schemes that trick criminals into trapping themselves. Their approach also seems similar to another 60's TV show, Mission Impossible. However, the ingenious scheme of The Adjusters in "The Man Who Scared The Bank" is closer to the puzzle plot tradition than are the gambits of the IMF Force. Their device to trap the criminal involves a "logical analysis" of his crime itself, and an attempt to counteract this. It shows a Borges like cleverness, and functions almost as a critical commentary on the criminal's actions.
Valentine is a pseudonym. He later changed his pen name to the more macho sounding "Mark Cross", publishing a large series of books about The Adjusters. He is not to be confused with Valentine Williams, who was one of the writers spoofed by Christie in Partners in Crime. Valentine Williams had created the Okewood Brothers, two young men who work for the Secret Service, and it is these tales that Christie affectionately burlesques. Nor should Valentine be confused with Valentine Davies, the author of the story on which the film classic Miracle on 34th Street was based. Nor with the Hungarian Renaissance composer Valentine Bakfark, whose harpsichord music is delightful. Nor with silent screen idol Rudolph Valentino. Be my Valentine...