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Sunday, 26 July 2020

Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar directed by Sam Yates.

Oh, my God. I quite enjoyed Agatha and the Truth of Murder in 2018, which most people hated. So, when everyone said Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar (2019) was awful too, I took that with a pinch of salt. Well, everyone was right.

Agatha Christie (Lyndsey Marshal) travels to Iraq in 1929, meets her future husband Max Mallowan (Jonah Hauer-King), and solves a murder involving a curse.

Agatha’s first line is a joke about penises. Max is a hunky cockney. The Murder at the Vicarage is apparently a Poirot novel. The Mary Westmacott novels are “about romance” (aaaargh!!!). There’s a massive missed opportunity in the decision to turn Katherine Woolley (look her up) into a sex-mad degenerate (this is a shame because she is played by the superb Katherine Kingsley; if you ever get a chance to see her on stage, do it).

And then there’s the plot – suffice to say that, two days after watching it, I can’t remember who died, who did it, or why. Yes, of course I’ll be watching the third instalment, Agatha and the Midnight Murders, this Christmas.

But If you want a better-researched and more compelling mystery starring Agatha Christie on a dig with the Woolleys in 1929, check out Andrew Wilson’s Death in a Desert Land, also released in 2019. 

Saturday, 18 July 2020

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

A fun tribute to the Sherlock Holmes canon, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (2019) is set in a fantasy world of magic, steampunk, and LGBTQ equality, within the straits of Victorian social mores.

Captain John Wyndham returns from war to his homeland and takes up rooms with an eccentric consulting sorceress, Shaharazad Hass, only to be confronted with a case involving an old flame of hers.

I came to this after reading Hall’s forthcoming gay rom com, Boyfriend Material, which is cute if upsetting in its honesty at times. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is well worth the time of any queer Sherlockian.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Who Killed Robert Prentice? by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links

Another mystery dossier by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links – you get the physical clues and sift through them to solve the crime – Who Killed Robert Prentice (1937) is huge fun as

Reading as I did the bound printed 1980s edition, I unfortunately missed out on some of the clues/experience (scented paper!) but it was nonetheless a great afternoon diversion. The solution to the mystery bears a striking resemblance to that in an early Agatha Christie novel but (is this heresy?) I think it’s done better here.

Wheatley, it turns out, is not averse to self-promotion. Whenever a newspaper clipping appears, on the back or in the corner is some form of advertisement for his work, and there’s even an “interview with a local writer” that is basically his CV followed by “Mr Wheatly thought it unwise to comment on the case”!

It was interesting to learn from these materials, though, that “arranged by J.G. Links” means that Links comes up with the stories and decides on the clues, and Wheatley just writes them up.

Monday, 22 June 2020

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

Subtitled “A Harlam Mystery”, The Conjure-Man Dies was first published in 1932, just two years before its author’s early death. It is the first example of a detective novel with an African American author, and explores in a unique way the black American experience in the early 1930s. The detective is Perry Dart, one of the ten black police detectives in Harlam, who is called to investigate the murder of a conjure-man (fortune teller and witch doctor), N’Gana Frimbo, who appears at one point to have brought himself back from the dead. In his investigation, he is assisted by the capable Dr John Archer and constantly has to deal with two over-enthusiastic young men, Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins who provide a great deal of comic relief.

It’s a complex and character-driven mystery with plenty of surreal-but-illuminating moments, which tell audiences about traditions they may not be familiar with in the format of a popular puzzle entertainment. The crime itself is sufficiently theatrical to delight the most seasoned mystery reader. And, perhaps uniquely in golden age crime novels, all the characters are black.

Fisher once said in an interview that Harlem “itself is mystery – outsiders know nothing of Harlem life as it really is … what goes on behind the scenes and beneath the dark skins of Harlem folk – fiction has not found much of that yet. And much of it is perfectly in tune with the best of the mystery tradition – variety, color, mysticism, superstition, malice and violence.” This understanding, and the wish to communicate, are why The Conjure-Man Dies worked at the time as both a novel and a popular entertainment and why it still works on both counts.

This was not the author’s first novel – that was The Walls of Jericho (1928) – but it was his first, and sadly last, murder mystery. He also wrote a short story featuring Dart and Archer, “John Archer’s Nose”, which is included in the edition I have. This 2017 reprint is part of the Collins Detective Club vintage-style hardback series, and is a treat – although the book has never been published by Collins before.

The edition also reprints a 1971 introduction by Stanley Ellin which is, if anything, more of its time than the actual novel. Ellin acknowledges the writers who inspired Fisher’s foray into detective fiction – notably SS Van Dine and Dashiell Hammett – and concludes that while Van Dine may have influenced plotting decisions, the majority of influence goes to Hammett, something demonstrated by the fine and nuanced characterisation. I’d suggest that Van Dine and the Golden Age are much bigger influences here, as both the plot and the light-but-thorough approach to character, the clever balance of comedy and pathos, are hallmarks of both a broad education in the puzzle form and Rudolph Fisher’s own skill.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The D. Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini (and Charles Dickens)

Together, Carlo Fruttero (1926-2012) and Franco Lucentini (1920-2002) wrote several crime novels, short stories, and collections of criticism from the 1960s until Lucentini’s death. I’m not familiar with their work, but understand that they have a fair following in Italy and that The D. Case, or, the Truth about the Mystery of Edwin Drood (1989) is unusual, even given their trademark humour and strangeness.

In some ways, The D. Case is a work of criticism masquerading as a novel. In others, it’s a parody of detective fiction and the shoe-horning in of social commentary. Mainly, though, it’s just a weird and fascinating read.

There are two narratives here: Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, famously unfinished at his death, is republished chapter by chapter and interspersed with a ‘contemporary’ narrative in which multiple detectives from the pages of fiction gather together at a conference to try and determine the ending.

I have probably missed some, but these are the fictional detectives I spotted: Sherlock Holmes (and Watson), Hercule Poirot (and Hastings), Dr Thorndyke (and Astley), Nero Wolfe (and Goodwin), Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer who form an amusing double act, basically doing the same thing at all times – with one being famously considered a rip-off of the other, Father Brown, Superintendent Battle, Sergeant Cuff, Hercule Popeau, Toad-in-the-Hole (the anti-hero in Thomas de Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’), Porfiry Petrovich(!), Inspector Bucket, Gideon Fell, Dupin, and Maigret.

The detectives bicker and divide themselves into cliques – including over the question of whether The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a mystery novel or a psychological thriller. Plagiarism is a constant discussion, as character quarrel over whether Dickens plagiarised Wilkie Collins and whether Robert Louis Stevenson plagiarised Dickens. Hercule Poirot is forced at several points to confront the fact that he himself exists as a result of Agatha Christie plagiarising Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau (there’s no mention of M. Poiret). Yes, the characters are perfectly happy in their own fictionality – including Inspector Bucket, who knows he was created by Dickens. Sherlock Holmes remains oddly silent because he knows that Arthur Conan Doyle contacted Dickens in a séance and asked for the solution. So, he already knows the truth.

Throughout, existing (real-life) theories and proposed solutions to Dicken’s novel are brought up and evaluated before Poirot presents the ‘truth’ – not only about how the novel should end but also why it was never finished. This theory, so outlandish and like something out of a crime novel that it works in a work of fiction and not in a work of literary criticism, is universally accepted and, at the end of the book, universally hushed up. The 'D.' in 'D. Case' turns out to stand for three things: Drood, Dickens, and the fourth solution proposed.

Since plagiarism forms such a lively element of the discourse throughout – including being at the heart of Poirot’s solution – it is interesting that Fruttero and Lucentini seem not to have been too bothered about copyright infringement. Perhaps this can be classed as parody, but I don’t really know enough about copyright law to know how it works. In my English translation (but not, a friend tells me, in the original Italian), Agatha Christie Limited is thanked for permission to use the character of Poirot – but no other author or estate is thanked, and there is no reference to the other Christie characters: Hastings and Battle. Nonetheless, The D Case counts technically as the first authorised Hercule Poirot continuation novel. Mystery upon mystery!

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Mini reviews #34

A quick note: I've been trying to respond to comments, but for some reason haven't been able to. I really do appreciate them, and it's nice to think that someone other than me reads this blog!

Laura (1943) by Vera Casparay. Several narrators tell the story of the death and reappearance of the elusive Laura Hunt. Rightly considered a classic of American noir, Laura is an uneven novel but an absorbing one. The first narrator, Waldo Lydecker, is one of the most unlikely and intriguing narrators in the genre. Casparay’s great strength is in characterisation, and she shines showing the effects that one person, or the idea of one person, can have on the individual psyche.

Green for Danger (1946), directed by Sidney Gilliat. A nice old-school whodunit, set in a hospital during the Second World War and starring Alistair Sim. I haven’t read Christianna Brand’s novel (sorry, please don’t exile me) but have been told that this is a great if not entirely faithful adaptation. Adaptations shouldn’t be entirely faithful and, whatever its source, this works well as a classic mystery film.

Dear Murderer (1947), directed by Arthur Crabtree. An example of British noir, based on a play by St. John Legh Clowes. Eric Portman stars as an angry businessman who discovers that his wife (Greta Gynt) is a serial philanderer. He comes up with a plan to get rid of not one but two of her lovers… The film is great fun with a strong albeit reductive plot and no frills or distractions.

The Railway Detective (2004) by Edward Marston. A light read, full but of but not overloaded with information about trains and railways in the 1850s. Although it’s advertised as ‘the first Inspector Colbeck mystery’, it is more a police procedural set in the mid-nineteenth century. There is no question as to who committed the crime(s). It begins with a train robbery and follows through a kidnapping and a criminal conspiracy in the murkier parts of London. No cliché is too tepid for this author, but it works.

Herring in the Smoke (2017) by L.C. Tyler. Reliable fun, as always. Roger Vane, a well-known novelist, missing for twenty years, is officially declared dead. At the memorial service, struggling writer Ethelred Tressider meets a man who introduces himself as Roger Vane. The story ambles along nicely with all the fun and shameless clichés you expect, although I found the ending a bit disappointing. It’s hard to explain why without giving the whole thing away.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

I was very excited to get a hold of Martin Edwards’ Mortmain Hall (2020), the sequel to his highly successful Gallows Court, and his second novel featuring amateur criminologist Rachel Savernake and journalist Jacob Flint. The novel was originally sent to me because I was supposed to be interviewing Martin as part of the Golden Age of Crime conference at the University of Chester earlier this month, but unfortunately the national situation has disrupted this and so many other events.

Nonetheless, missing out on the event should not deprive one of associated pleasures, so I dug into this book with eager anticipation, and I was not disappointed. Indeed, I don’t think it is actually possible for Martin Edwards to disappoint: he is the authority on Golden Age crime fiction in addition to being a justly garlanded mystery novelist in his own right – and he’s one of those rare and wonderful people who writes to a consistently high standard while consistently embracing and celebrating the fact that they are working in genre fiction. A brilliantly escapist novel in the Golden Age vein, with a healthy body count, Mortmain Hall contains enough contemporary suspense to keep readers of all stripes interested.

Set in 1930, the action starts with a funeral. One of the attendees is a man who’s supposed to be dead. When Rachel Savernake tells him he’s in danger of dying a second time, he ignores her and boards a train. Then he falls from that train to his death. From this premise, we plunge into a murky world of justice miscarried and high-level conspiracies as the myth of the ‘respectable, middle-class murder’ comes under scrutiny.

An eccentric woman, with a taste for the ‘depraved, exotic’ side of life invites a select party of people who have been accused and acquitted of murder to her decaying country house. Before the party starts, and while it is taking place, the murders keep coming. Night-clubbing, birdwatching, dining, playing cricket, strolling along the clifftop, or visiting a lion enclosure… none of these activities will end well for this excellently drawn and thoroughly unpleasant cast of characters.

There are definite touches of the Gothic here – especially the denouement in the crumbling Mortmain Hall as a storm rages and a villain is unmasked in a manner familiar to readers of Arthur Conan Doyle. There is also a nice nod to the Christie back catalogue, most notably Cards on the Table, which is one of my favourites. There are consistent moments of gentle humour and some great insight into true crime which – without wanting to give too much away – blends seamlessly with fiction. I also enjoyed educational asides, including a reflection on the cadaver of James Hogg, an elderly murderer from the early nineteenth century, whose body was flayed after hanging and attached to a cross to settle an artistic debate about the crucifixion of Christ.

One really nice feature of the book comes as the very end in the form of a ‘cluefinder.’ A cluefinder is a list of clues with page references as they appeared in the preceding text. As the author explains in a Facebook video, the cluefinder was a device to enhance the game-playing aspect of Golden Age crime fiction, and to drive home an element of fair play. It was a popular feature from the late 1920s and was used by such luminaries as J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, Elspeth Huxley, Rupert Penny, John Dickson Carr, C. Daly King, and Edmund Crispin, but fizzled out fairly quickly. As someone totally unfamiliar with cluefinders, I’m very grateful for its return in 2020, and think a revival of interest is definitely in order.
If this summary sounds chaotic, that’s misleading, because the whole thing is as neat, polished, and readable as you could ask for. It is a vibrant and complete journey into the escapist world of Golden Age crime fiction with a contemporary edge that enhances rather than labours the enjoyment. I am already looking forward to the next in the series!