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Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Double Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, and others

A few years ago, I was doing some private research in estates and came across a title that was wholly unfamiliar to me: Double Death (1939) by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Valentine Williams, F. Tennyson Jesse, Anthony Armstrong, and David Hume. Wow! I thought. This is a must-read! So I quickly bought a copy, and over a year later, finally got round to reading it.

The Detection Club’s round-robin novels have received renewed attention since HarperCollins reprinted the most famous one, The Floating Admiral, nearly a decade ago. But many still languish in obscurity: The Scoop (not very good, but containing an Agatha Christie contribution), Behind the Screen (very good, and again featuring pre-Dame Agatha), Crime on the CoastNo Flowers by Request, and more. All of these are items I got hold of in my teens and enjoyed, but, somehow, Double Death passed me by.

There are six chapters to this novel, each written by a different distinguished crime writer. The story was written as a newspaper serial and later tidied up with a fresh prologue by John Chancellor before its original publication. In 1939, it was reprinted in book form, along with each author’s notes on how the story should continue, which appear – fascinatingly – at the end of their respective chapters (rather than in an appendix). This aspect, the inclusion of the notes, is by far the book’s most interesting feature.

The story concerns Mrs Farland, a wealthy hypochondriac who might, for the first time in her life, be truly ill. She believes that she is being poisoned and keeps changing her will to inherit, then disinherit, various relatives and hangers-on, including her soon-to-be-married nephew John. When a nurse, who has experience of poisons, is sent for, someone decides to act. The nurse is drugged and killed in the railway station.

Dorothy L. Sayers, who needs no introduction, sets the scene in her chapter. She introduces various characters, each of whom, she explains in her methodical notes, could be the murderer, and gets slightly caught up in the topography and railway timetables of the imagined village of Creepe. She also introduces a real, over-the-counter and quite lethal sleeping draught, which the editor wisely fictionalises as Sleepine, and kills off Nurse Ponting.

Freeman Wills Crofts has Chapter Two, which is largely devoted to reproducing Sayers’ notes on poison in the mouth of a police doctor, and which culminates in a second death. I’ve always found Crofts quite boring but in a single chapter format, where he’s clearly annoyed at having to beboring, he shines and I found his contribution highly entertaining.

The third chapter is by Valentine Williams, the only contributor I’d never heard of, and, based on this contribution, I’m not keen to check him out. However, I did find hugely exciting the politics of his chapter.  To set the scene, Williams has decided that John, the romantic hero, will be the murderer, so he sets up a secondary love interest for John’s fiancĂ© (more on this later).  Of this other chap, John says: ‘he hates me. He’s hated me ever since we blackballed him at the Conservative Club as an out and out Bolshie.’ In his notes, Williams explains that the aim of this is to make the rival appear ‘honest-minded’ and in touch with ‘the plight of the poor’ on a subconscious level, and to make John appear (again subconsciously) as a bully so that the reader is prepared, if still surprised, when he is unmasked.

F. Tennyson Jesse, author of the fourth chapter, displays such bitterness towards her peers and the whole task in general in her notes that I’ve gone off her for life! In her chapter, she decides that it would be cool and totally unexpected to make the young beautiful woman the murderer (yeah, that’s never been done before), so everything she writes is devoted to blackening this character’s name. So much so that, if anyone had taken up her suggestion, the reader would have felt hugely cheated at such an obvious outcome. While the three-quarter point is probably the easiest part to write in a collaborative mystery (you need suspense and action, you already have the characters and the big clues should have been dropped by now), Jesse insists that it’s the hardest – and her chapter makes it look that way.

The penultimate chapter is by Anthony Armstrong, an author I’d heard of but never read, and it aims to move everything towards the solution that Armstrong has devised. This is probably the most skilful chapter in the entire book and I do hope one day to check out more of Armstrong’s work.

As stated, though, the notes are really the interesting thing here. I love seeing the petty egos, the thinly-veiled contempt for other writers, and the sense that everyone is slightly afraid of Sayers. Everyone refers to each other with initials – FWC, FTJ, etc. – but Sayers is always ‘Miss Sayers.’ In the preface, John Chancellor can’t resist a swipe at ‘one or two of the authors’ who ‘would not permit their manuscript to be altered’ or who were ‘ignorant of, or indifferent to, the peculiar needs of newspapers.’ Several of the contributors express their ardent hope for a very good copyeditor, who is eventually named ‘The All-Seeing Eye of God (ASEOG).’

Each writer approaches not only the text but also the explanation of process and ideas differently: Armstrong highlights all his clues with page references. Sayers gives an essay on poison and a map. Crofts draws the map to scale and goes through each character methodically. Williams and Jesse state outright that that’s too much to get their head around and that maps and timetables can be red herrings, best ignored.

The romance angle is what struck me most. Over a decade earlier, Sayers herself had decried the need for romance in crime fiction as a ‘fettering convention’. In her notes, though, she explains that she has introduced a young couple purely in case John or his fiancĂ© Penelope turn out to be guilty – the couple ‘may supply the love-interest (since the murderer obviously can’t have the love-interest)’. It seems that all her hopes of reinvigorating the genre retired with Lord Peter Wimsey. When Williams identifies John as the murderer, he introduces another young man for Penelope, as stated. Jesse goes for Penelope, writing: ‘I admit that if Penelope is the guilty one we are left without a love interest (which is not a thing that interests me personally in a detective story).’ However, she introduces another young woman (late on and unnecessarily sharing a Christian name with Sayers’ alterna-interest) for John, and spends a great deal of this chapter comparing that woman’s ‘natural beauty’ to Penelope’s obvious ‘golden’ sexiness. If all these writers felt so fettered by the convention, I just wish they’d had the guts to spice it up a bit!

A final point of interest in the notes is each writer’s proposed solution to the case, and how they’ve tried to present clues towards it; also how they’ve manipulated the previous information to serve it.  Recently, on a Facebook page where I lurk more than I post, someone asked the question: have you ever read a Golden Age book and come up with a better solution than the author, which still fits all the clues? Several replies to the question came from writers who had been convinced they’d solved a mystery, found themselves proved wrong, and then determined to write a new story along the lines they’d thought of. Often when I read crime fiction from the 1920s and 1930s I feel like Agatha Christie might have had a similar idea. And here, I think, one of the solutions Armstrong proposes is almost certainly the basis for the solution to Sad Cypress, Christie’s 1940 novel. 

David Hume’s final chapter is supposed to tie everything together. Instead, Hume picks a character no one else has suggested as the murderer, and then introduces a load of new evidence to incriminate them! This is not at all a satisfactory ending to the story as a story – and necessitates a fresh prologue by John Chancellor so that there is at least some basis for such an ending.

Written on the verge of war, Double Death comes at the end of crime fiction’s playful Golden Age and its publication with private notes shows some of the magic wearing off the genre. As a story, it’s frankly a mess, but as a curiosity and an insight into the workings of these writers’ minds, it’s of greater value than all the other round-robin novels put together.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Actor's Guide to Greed by Rick Copp

As you may know, I don’t tend to enjoy gay detective fiction. I find the wish-fulfilment, the nostalgia, the cliquiness, and the attempts to imitate and seek approval from ‘straight’ crime fiction at best disappointing and at worst painful. Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve found a series of three American gay detective novels I don’t hate.

A couple of weeks ago, at a spiritual festival (of all things) in Norwich Library, I noticed a copy of Rick Copp’s The Actor’s Guide to Greed (2003). It looked so camp and colourful and bloody American that I thought I’d look it up. So I did, and learnt about Copp’s series featuring Jarrod Jarvis, a former child-star in Hollywood. Copp is a screenwriter, so I figured that there’d be a bit more nuance than usual to the actor-hero trope. Besides, I have always thought that a former child star would make a great detective: it solves the problem of them needing to be young and rich enough to go anywhere, but also without having the obstruction of a day job and with access to closed communities and enough of a chequered past to be interesting.

Thinking, ‘why not?’, I ordered all three books in the series, of which The Actor’s Guide to Murder is the first and The Actor’s Guide to Greed is the last. I read them all quickly and enjoyed the escapism. The writing is slightly cynical but mostly very gentle and not technically very good. It sounds odd, but sometimes, if I’m after sheer escapism, I don’t want good writing. I don’t want to be sticking post-it notes on pithy phrases or rereading immersive passages, I just want to rattle along with the story. So shoot me: I’m middlebrow.

The plot in this third book sees Copp’s bag of tricks starting to wear thin, and I understand why he turned to other things at this point. It’s a kind of fusion of the first two plots with some ambitious elements underpinning the story. Jarrod and his LAPD boyfriend Charlie find themselves drawn to London’s West End, as Jarrod’s latest hope for a comeback rests on a supporting role in a new murder mystery drama. There is camp humour in abundance here, but the thing that really tickled me was how completely and utterly bizarre the atuhor’s idea of England is. The idea that the West End would be jumping at the chance to stage a play called Murder Can Be Civilised, the first line of which is ‘More tea and crumpets, sir?’; that they could assemble a cast full of Hollywood a-listers, Bollywood a-listers, a thinly-veiled Judi Dench, a thinly-veiled Emma Thompson, and a thinly-veiled Ian McKellan; that they would then put up every single cast member in a private suite at the Savoy for the whole three month run … it’s just hilarious!

Before long, of course, one of the cast is murdered. On stage (how else?), and Jarrod finds himself falling under suspicion.  A strange thing follows. In Britain, we view American media coverage of crimes with horror – in the name of ‘free speech’, people spew their hot takes on whatever crime is in the news, regardless of facts or defamation. My boss, Sophie Hannah, was so affected by this in the case of the kidnapping of Casey Anthony that she wrote a book about it (Did You See Melody?). But, apparently, at least some Americans think that we do it worse in Britain?! I think based on all the stuff that appeared after Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, Copp has the British tabloid relentlessly pursuing our intrepid hero, splashing about direct accusations of murder on their front pages – something that’s not only never done, but is also completely illegal.

Anyway, he survives it and uncovers the truth. Now – I solved the first two Copp/Jarvis mysteries simply by fixing on the least likely suspect, rather than looking for evidence. Since that method had served me well, I tried it again here… and got it wrong. In this book, Copp does something that Ruth Rendell mastered: the double-twist. By this, I mean, he gives us a big twist that we have probably seen coming, and then, while we’re patting ourselves on the back for having got one up on the author, he throws another twist at us, catching us completely off-guard. In fact, the least-likely-suspect  theory wouldhave served me well, if I hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of completely overlooking someone as a suspect.

Gayness is woven into every fibre of the plot here and in Copp’s other two books. However, they do not explore or engage with gay communities. Not at all; in fact, it’s a very homonormative set-up: Jarrod is in a monogamous long-term relationship, living comfortably with a dog (child-substitute). His best friend is a straight woman who talks through boy troubles with him. These books are never going to rally the queer revolution. One thing that interests me about the detective’s domestic arrangement, though, is that – for no apparent reason – he lives in an inverted house. That is to say, the living area is upstairs and the sleeping area is downstairs. I’m not overly sure of the point of this, but it’s almost as if there’s something self-consciously imitative about this actor’s straight-American-dream aspirations.

This book (and the two that came before) were just what I needed at a stressful time. They made me smile, not always for the right reasons, and I enjoyed them very much. However, it is the gayness that makes them interesting, so I will not be rushing out to buy Rick Copp’s straight mysteries, written under the name Lee Hollis.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Mayfair Mystery by Frank Richardson

I regret having listened to this as an audiobook, as I wish I’d noted down some of the one-liners, and I’d love to have a copy I can keep and consult (luckily, under its original title, 2835 Mayfair, it is available online here). I’m grateful to those of my friends who recommended Frank Richardson’s The Mayfair Mystery (1906) to me.

An eminent Harley Street doctor has been murdered – or has he? A valet discovers his master dead and summons the authorities – but, when he returns to the scene, the body has gone …

The Mayfair Mystery was the first title republished in those gorgeous Collins Crime Club editions in 2015. It’s an interesting choice, as the original publication predates the traditional parameters of the Golden Age, and the puzzle aspect (with which the renaissance seems outwardly obsessed) is not strong. Indeed, supernatural explanations for the crime are routinely flirted with and – arguably – not wholly abandoned.

It’s also not well-served by HarperCollins’ blurb, which makes it sound like a straightforward brain-teaser. In fact, the prose is absorbingly witty and satirical – as is the story architecture. Almost every other line is some loaded throwaway comment about the hypocrisies of the well-to-do, particularly those in pursuit of marriage.

I still might buy myself a copy because I am keen to read David Brawn’s introduction to the text. In particular, I’d like to find out more about Frank Richardson, who committed suicide in 1917. He was well-known as a satirist with, bizarelly, an obsession with facial hair (he is said to have coined the term ‘face fungus’), and it does not take a supersleuth to understand the moustache-obsessed hack novelist Frederick Robinson within these pages as a self-portrait.

As I listened to this book (you may have gathered, audiobooks are relatively new and not quite comfortable territory for me), I was struck by a feeling of pleasure: normally, when I ask people for recommendations, they just fish about in their favourite canons and recollect one with a gay character or LGBTQ themes.  Often these are great, but often they’re not the most enjoyable part of the canon, and I get a bit peeved that people just think, ‘oh, yeah, Jamie likes gay stuff, so the gay stuff is for him’ (I was nearly put off Kerry Greenwood by being told I’d love to start with Murder and Mendelsohn, one of her worst). So, I was delighted that people seemed to have grasped that I’m interested in society satire etc etc etc…. until I got to the ending. Oh, well! Still, it’s very interesting and put me in mind of Dorothy Bowers, who wrote some 30-40 years later.

There's one mystery I cannot solve. At the end of the audiobook, the narrator announced that authorial copyright for this novel is held by none other than David Brawn, and Google tells me it was registered in 2015. Surely, 101 years after an author's death, their work cannot be copyrighted by anyone. Now, is this simply a muddle -- i.e., is it merely David's introduction that has been copyrighted? Or has he adapted the text?

Monday, 27 August 2018

Mini reviews #19

Poirot Investigates (1924) by Agatha Christie. It's been said that Arthur Conan Doyle should have stuck to writing short stories and Agatha Christie should have stuck to novels. The mysteries are too complex, people claim, to work in a 4,000 word format. Maybe. This was Christie's first collection of stories, originally published in the trendy Sketch magazine and featuring Hercule Poirot, who was becoming a household name. Poirot's on top form here, and the faithful Captain Hastings is wonderfully idiotic. Christie is still trying to write like Doyle, which can be grating. But 'The Mystery of Hunter's lodge' is melodramatic and keyed in, satirically, to debates around psychoanalysis. 'The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb' is full of entrancing period detail.

Raffles' Crime in Gibraltar (1936) by Barry Perowne. Perrowne, a pseudonym for Philip Atkey, was appointed by the estate of E.W. Hornung to write new novels and stories featuring gentleman thief A.J. Raffles. This is one of his two novels pitting Raffles against the ever-popular poor man's Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake. Raffles' Crime in Gibraltar is par-for-the course pulp. It's enjoyable enough, with obvious padding in places... and cigarettes are lit whenever dialogue needs breaking up. Full of sinister foreigners and implausible chases, it is forgettable. As it was designed to be.

Endless Night (1967) by Agatha Christie. A masterpiece. A psychological thriller, a literary novel, and everything they say she couldn't write. It's hard to believe Christie was 77 when Endless Night came out. Slap a random name on the cover, change a few details, and release it to day: it would become an instant bestseller and then a classic in its own right.

Monk's Hood (1980) by Ellis Peters. 'It was now imperative to find the murderer, otherwise the boy could not emerge from hiding and take up his disrupted life.' The third Brother Cadfael novel features a mysterious poisoning. Try as I might, I cannot get into these books. The writing style fails to engage me, although I have enjoyed some of Peters' short stories, historical or otherwise. However, I shan't be giving Cadfael another chance any time soon.

The Actor's Guide to Murder (2003) by Rick Copp. A mostly fun, campy crime novel about a former child star in Hollywood and his police detective boyfriend solving another former child star's murder. They are put onto the case by the main character's personal psychic warning that someone close to him will die. Reading it, I developed two theories as to whodunit: one was based on logic and the other on the least-likely-suspect theory. The latter was correct. The solution tries to veer into social commentary which is, perhaps, a mistake, as the author is not as informed on the issues as the glamorous setting. Also, a reference to 'an Agatha Christie pot-boiler' irritated me! But I plan to read the second in the series, The Actor's Guide to Adultery.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) would not like being featured on this blog, as she strongly resented the label 'crime writer', and, if we interpret crime fiction and detective fiction as roughly synonymous (as Highsmith Certainly did), A Suspension of Mercy (1965) is an anti-crime novel. While the central character, Sydney Bartleby, is responsible for three deaths, only the third is actually a murder, and it's the only one of the deaths for which the authorities don't investigate him. A fantastically tense and unsettling read,   A Suspension of Mercy is Highsmith at her lucid, cynical, and misanthropic best.

The tagline on my paperback edition -- 'Who hasn't imagined killing his wife?' -- cannot fail to draw you in. The fact that the image on the cover shows a woman's legs in a rolled up rug only piqued my curiosity; just the other week, my own spouse returned home with an unexplained new rug. It's also set in Suffolk, the English county where Highsmith lived for a while and where I currently live. So, yeah.

Sydney is a struggling writer, unhappily married to Alicia and more fulfilled by his creative partnership with a young man, Alex. While he struggles with creative block -- or, with channeling his creative vision to fit commercial demands for clear plot and structure -- Sydney spends every spare moment fantasising about murdering Alicia. He has it all planned out: the push down the stairs, the disposal of the body, and the cover story. One day, Alicia disappears without a satisfactory explanation, and Sydney sees his private fantasies playing out in the minds of everyone he meets.

One big theme throughout the novel is the problem of trying to narrate and give shape to real life. It doesn't fit. Sydney is proposing a new television series about an antihero called The Whip, who is more AJ Raffles than Tom Ripley. The Whip robs, maims, and kills, but in the service of justice. However, network after network rejects it, repeating that there is too much unfettered immorality on TV and that what the stories really need is a crime-solving detective hero. As Highsmith points out, in various voices, crime-solving heroes are ten-a-penny and real antiheroes are hard to come by.

As Sydney finds his imagined life becoming a reality without his direct agency, his writing takes off and -- although he never realises it -- he starts to sell out; to write in market-ready stencils.  At the end, with fame, riches, and no wife, he's able to separate his work from his unfettered and partway realised fantasies. As the novel concludes, 'everything [i]s a matter of attitudes.'

There is nothing I dislike about this book, and if you haven't read any Highsmith, I'd recommend it as an excellent introduction to her twisted, unique, and vital prose.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Mini reviews #18

The Allegations (2016) by Mark Lawson. Lawson’s novel provides an inevitable response to what the author considers the age of trial-by-public opinion. It’s exactly what you’d expect, and, if you agree philosophically with Lawson, you’ll probably enjoy it. He is a satirist for those who don’t wish to challenge the status quo. They might as well have one.

Fallet (STV, 2017). This 8-part Swedish television is the inevitable parody of Nordic Noir, and, while there are some missed opportunities, the overall result is inspired. An incompetent Swedish detective, the tortured, introspect Sophie Borg (Lisa Henni) teams up with an even more incompetent English policeman, the overly polite and reticent DCI Tom Brown (Adam Godley) to solve a ritualised and apparently religious murder with links in their own disparate pasts. There are a great many English and Swedish puns (some of which I certainly didn’t get, as my Swedish is poor), in the title sequence and throughout – the police chief is called Klas Wall, for instance, and a chunk of the plot is spent chasing around after a product called McGuffin. There’s also a great set of characters, my favourite of which is a dark, death-obsessed forensic scientist from Finland. A strong supporting cast includes Dag Malmberg of The Bridge fame. I hope there will be another series; I know that the Americans are planning to remake it although I can’t imagine that will end well. ‘Fallet’, by the way, means ‘The Case’. Which is perfect.

100 Greatest Literary Detectives (2018) edited by Eric Sandberg. I was thrilled to contribute to this volume, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory, and can’t do better than linking to fellow contributor (and superior blogger) Kate Jackson’s review. 

The Death of Mrs Westaway (2018) by Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware evokes Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier in this excellent fourth novel, proving herself the heir to both. The plot concerns an unscrupulous tarot-card reader who comes into an unexpected inheritance – unexpected because it seems to have been meant for someone else. The Westaway family at the heart of this novel is full of secrets and dilemmas, unravelling as quickly as one turns the pages. A highly recommended mystery thriller.

Social Creatureby Tara Isabella Burton (2018). Marketed as ‘[t]he missing link between Bret Easton Ellis and The Secret History’ (Emma Flint) and ‘[a] Ripley story for the Instagram age’, the influences on Burton’s debut are plain for all to see. The plotting is highly indebted to Patricia Highsmith, the characterisation to Bret Easton Ellis, and the graceful unfurling of the story to Donna Tartt. There’s also a very deliberate Gatsby vibe. Take four pastiches and mix in a truly unique social media-influenced type of language (everything is ‘so’ something and/or introduced with ‘Here’s the thing’) and you have Social Creature. It’s very good (but not original enough to be great), and it sticks with you. The central character is excellent. I can imagine this being filmed. I have no idea what the author will do for her second novel, because she can’t really repeat the tone here. But, as a debut, Social Creatureis hugely promising.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Mini reviews #17

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893) by Arthur Conan Doyle. This collection of short stories was supposed to provide the final word on the great detective – and, of course, it didn’t. For reasons we may never deduce, Arthur Conan Doyle brought back the character who got him paid-by-the-word less than a decade after killing him off. But Holmes dies here, in ‘The Final Problem’, which has an excellent concluding line. There are twelve stories in all, including ‘The Gloria Scott’, in which Holmes recounts his first case in his university days, and ‘The Greek Interpreter’, in which we meet his brother. Rereading in order, I was surprised to remember how socially functional the original Sherlock Holmes was. That charm that Basil Rathbone captured on-screen, so pointedly sublimated in later adaptations, is certainly there in the stories.

4.50 From Paddington (1957) by Agatha Christie.  The buoyant Elspeth McGillicuddy boards a train after a hard day shopping. As the 4.50 rushes past another train, she glances through the woman and sees, in the other train, a woman being strangled! When the police dismiss her as a lonely biddy, she calls on Miss Marple… This is Christie in her element, writing about a fantasy England and a changing world. Characters – from the grandiose patriarch who made his fortune in biscuits to the domestic helper with a triple first from Oxford – are quirkily realised and the plot is silly enough to class as genius.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966) by Patricia Highsmith. Don’t read this as a ‘how-to’ guide, but do read this for the fascinating insights into Highsmith’s own creative routines. Very accessible and very humane.

Dark Corners (2014) by Ruth Rendell. Rendell’s final novel showcases her ambitions and her weaknesses, especially when she tries to be edgy. I wish she had set this novel in the 1960s, as that’s clearly where her imagination has strayed to and the use of ‘the Internet’ (with a very capital ‘I’) at the heart of the plot is slightly awkward. Had all the action taken place in the 1960s, I think this could have been as taut and compelling as vintage Rendell.

Bring Me Back (2018) by B.A. Paris. Paris has a knack of writing compulsively readable prose. You can sit down with her debut, Behind Closed Doors, and not look up until far into the night. She established a formula with that book and largely stuck to it in her second. This is her third and it’s different. For one thing, Paris is trying a male narrator for the first time (there are two narrators here, and a bit of a Gone Girl vibe), and for another the twist is supposed to be unexpected. One thing that made Behind Closed Doors so great is that you know the entire plot, everything that’s going to unfold, more or less from the off – and you know that the author knows that you know. The only person who doesn’t know is the narrator. And that’s compelling. Here, the twist comes right at the end. The problem is that twists are hard to pull off. I saw it coming as soon as the plot had been established, and found myself increasingly frustrated. I turned the pages quickly, but that was to escape some unfortunate writing. The kind of rookie errors I missed – despite their being there – in the first book, and noticed but forgave in the second. B.A. Paris has a genuinely talent but I really, really want her to take more than a year to produce each book, in order to do that talent justice.