Tread Softly (1937) by Brian Flynn

Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“This case is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts,’ Mr. Bathurst. I don’t like it because of that. Doubts about everything everywhere. No—I don’t like it.”

Everyone dreams, but what if your dream is one of murder? That is the case for Claude Merivale. The handsome actor walks into Scotland Yard one morning to turn himself in for the murder of his wife Vera. His extraordinary defense is that he killed her in his sleep, while dreaming that he was fending off an attack.

As Merivale’s trial draws near, Anthony Bathurst and Chief Inspector Andrew MacMorran have only three weeks to investigate his story. The stakes are high: if the dream defense is successful, “only about two and a half percent of married women will be safe o’nights.” Could Merivale be telling the truth? Or are his dreams even darker than he claims?

Tread Softly provides a welcome twist on the inverted mystery. It is a remarkable detective story that at first seems to have no mystery about whodunnit—what Bathurst must answer is how and why Claude Merivale killed his wife. He soon suspects, however, that there is more to this case than meets the eye. The question of Merivale’s guilt, which at first seems ironclad, becomes wonderfully ambiguous as Bathurst sifts through the smallest details of the crime in search of answers. 

The story Merivale tells police is a simple one. After a day of filming, he returns home from his club at 11:22 pm, being careful not to wake his sleeping wife. After a fitful slumber, troubled by violent dreams, he awakens to find Vera strangled to death. Merivale can only assume that he himself is responsible. After carefully locking up the crime scene, he heads to Scotland Yard the next morning, never mentioning his dream until much, much later. If a jury believes his story, Merivale will walk free.

At first, Bathurst’s inquiry seems to be going nowhere. The few scraps of information he does pick up are inconclusive. As he persists, however, Bathurst can’t help noticing that, wherever he goes, someone else has always been there first. Anything worth that much trouble to hide is something Bathurst very much wants to find. If he can catch up to this mysterious man, he’s certain it will solve the case. The only concern is whether he can do so before the end of the trial.

“I’m better off than I was, Andrew,” continued Mr. Bathurst. “A shadowy suspicion has become something much more like a certainty. While there’s life, you know, there’s hope.”

“There’s not much life about Mrs. Merivale.”

“That isn’t fair. She was dead before I came into it. You can’t reproach me with that.”

In addition to more traditional sleuthing by Bathurst and MacMorran, the narrative includes correspondence between some of the vivid characters who pass through the case. Housemaid Eva Lamb is a self-proclaimed good girl who remains fiercely loyal to her dead mistress, who might not have been so good. Claude Merivale’s sister Jill writes of her devotion to her brother, yet fails to recognize him in a photograph. Fellow actor Peter Hesketh assures Claude the whole film company is behind him, even as he gossips about how easily they have managed to write Merivale out of the movie he was shooting. Taken together, their letters reveal intimate details of the Merivales’ lives while also cleverly slipping in clues whose importance will become obvious only in retrospect.

The start of the trial adds a new group of characters, as Brian Flynn provides glimpses into the minds of the twelve jurors. Some are so preoccupied with their own concerns that they barely notice that they hold a man’s life in their hands (the jury foreman, for one, is “undeniably proud to be a dentist and usually thought in terms of dentures and fillings”). Others are only too aware, like the juror Mrs. Adamson.

Claude Merivale, watching anxiously from the dock, saw her, looked hard at her, and partly understood her immediately. He thought that her face was cruel in its impassivity. As he looked and wondered, the bells of a near-by church rang. Their music struck into his heart, and a strange ghastly suspicion took a hold of him. If his suspicion were correct there was but one way that the verdict could go. The certainty of that, the cold certainty took hold of him and gripped him. He saw Mrs. Adamson’s breast heave and her face drawn into the network of wrinkles that were not the wrinkles that age had begotten. For she, too had heard the bells of the church as Merivale had heard them, and a sharp pang of memory had shot through her…Claude Merivale saw her smile and the cruelty of her face slowly faded from it and lo, there was kindliness there in its stead.

Entertaining in some spots, long-winded in others, the trial sequence does not fit the traditional mold of courtroom drama. Instead, just when the reader thinks they know where Tread Softly is heading, Flynn sends it roaring down an entirely different road, raising intriguing new possibilities. The solution is clever and plausible, and the reasons behind some of Bathurst’s choices are fully explained (even if the reader may not agree with all of them). 

I was drawn to Tread Softly by its unusual premise. While Flynn does full justice to the idea of a dream that results in a real murder, he also does a great deal more, using readers’ assumptions to lead them down a more complicated path. Tread Softly maintains an air of mystery throughout, but not even the worst nightmare can stand up to the relentless curiosity of Anthony Bathurst.

Second Opinions

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

As the picture begins to clear, the motive definitely eluded me and yet Flynn performs what I took to be a minor miracle and at the end of the day, the plot made sense. And a beautifully simple sense that really appealed to me. 

Crossexamining Crime

So if you enjoy a good puzzler when it comes to your mystery fiction then I cannot help but recommend this one to you…

Beneath the Stains of Time

What it is, is another fine example of the creative versatility of Brian Flynn who continues to emerge as one of the most unjustly forgotten mystery writers of the genre’s Golden Era. 

Availability

Tread Softly will be available in ebook and paperback formats from Dean Street Press on October 5, 2020. Review copy courtesy of Dean Street Press.

It’s Her Own Funeral (1951) by Carol Carnac

It's Her Own Funeral by Carol Carnac

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I regard this house as a nightmare, no more, no less. It belongs to a past period, and no family is ever likely to live here again. If Anne had any sense, she’d sell it and go and live in the Mediterranean; but she prefers this house and arthritis with it, and it’s her funeral, isn’t it?”

As Inspector Julian Rivers acknowledges, “Some houses are a problem.” In the case of Dene House, that’s an understatement. Massive and ugly, it molders away in the Devonshire countryside. It’s the only place elderly invalid Anne Tempest is willing to live, to the annoyance of her niece Isobelle, who is dying to get back to London. Then Isobelle has a brainstorm. Her young niece and nephew, Jane and Roland Tempest, have been at loose ends since the end of the war. With the housing shortage, they might be willing to move into the servants’ cottage and help with Anne’s care.

Isobelle’s plan works a little too well. Anne’s fondness for the young people makes her maid jealous and her other relations nervous for their inheritances. It will be Anne Tempest’s funeral, all right, and that funeral is coming sooner than she thinks.

It’s Her Own Funeral is another excellent mystery from Carol Carnac, steeped in rural misery. Early on, the reader, like Jane and Roland, is drawn in by the golden glow of the countryside in early autumn: the simplicity of a freshly white-washed cottage, a garden of one’s own, a charmingly eccentric old aunt, a mansion lit by candles.

In the mellow sunshine, beech and wild cherry, oak and maple, blazed in a riot of gold and rose and orange and purest yellow. [Roland] turned and looked at her. “It simply can’t be true,” he said.

With the approach of November, however, things start getting very real, from the freezing, damp air of Dene House (where the boiler is always broken) to Rivers’ endless woeful tramps between the homes of his suspects. In fact, it gets a little too Cold Comfort Farm at times, as the list of potential killers expands to include tenant farmers, gypsies, and feral children.

The beginning of the book is quite cheerful, as Jane and Roland take over the cottage and carry out all sorts of improvements to the house and farm. Of course there are tensions. Their grandfather, Anne’s brother, became estranged from the family after attacking his father with a knife, but the entire Tempest clan is famous for their temperamental natures. The pampered Isobelle is like “a luxurious cat,” spending hours before the mirror each day tending to her face as she tries to stretch the remnants of her youth out for a few more vital years. She is always most scrupulously fair to those she most dislikes. Her cousin—and possible lover—Guy can’t keep his hands or his fists to himself, which leads to fireworks when the equally impulsive Roland is around. Even Anne is a controversial figure in the area, shunned by the neighbors for her arrogant, domineering ways.

“The Tempests. ‘Like name, like nature,’ they say around here…They’ve been famous for two qualities, tantrums and generosity. Unfortunately, the tantrums were remembered when the generosity was often forgotten. But there’s a bad streak in them, and you never know when it will emerge…”

“When you say a bad streak, what do you mean, exactly?” asked Rivers. “Arrogance, or something deeper?”

“Something deeper—and uglier.”

Anne’s servant Maggie Paling, though devoted to her, is deeply resentful of Jane and Roland. Not only have they displaced her and her husband from their cottage, forcing them to move into the main house (“if you’d lived in this house, you wouldn’t have stayed a month”), Jane replaces Maggie’s faithful oil stove with a new-fangled gas cooker. Maggie is convinced it will be the death of them all, and she’s nearly right. Someone leaves the gas tap on overnight, leading to the Palings’ illness and Anne Tempest’s death. The more Inspector Rivers investigates, the more convinced he is of murder.

It's Her Own Funeral by Carol CarnacThis is all quite enjoyable until the introduction of Kathie Bolton, the wild young daughter of the Tempests’ tenant. Kathie’s backstory is chilling: the child got lost in the woods one night and came out different. Her parents, spooked by the change in her behavior, avoid their changeling daughter as much as possible. Unsuprisingly, considering that she is neglected and even outright abused at home, Kathie prefers to hang around Dene House, where her presence is at least tolerated. She could be a valuable witness if Rivers can earn her trust. As sad as Kathie’s situation is, she and her parents take up far too much of the story. A potentially intriguing investigation gives way to endless streams of dialect, domestic drama, and backwoods superstition.

The solution has some interesting aspects (though it’s not at all clear how Rivers manages to learn where a vital piece of evidence is hidden). Even this, however, is overshadowed by the Boltons, as they wind up at the center of a dramatic, action-packed climax, shrouded by fog. It’s an effective scene that throws a wrench into what the reader thinks they know about the mystery—yet it’s so much more vivid than the actual solution that I had to stop and really think to remember the minor detail of who the killer turned out to be.

It’s Her Own Funeral is at its best when focusing on Dene House and its inhabitants. Both the grandeur and the ruin of the moldering old house are splendidly evoked, as are the various Tempests who love and hate the place. It’s hard not to root for Jane and Roland, a pair of orphans trying to make a life for themselves in a strange postwar world. Even the tragedy of Kathie and her family is sadly realistic; I could just do with a little less of it. All of these characters lead complicated lives, and few of the complications are wrapped up neatly at the end. It’s Her Own Funeral is highly enjoyable as it is, but it could have been even better if more attention had been paid to the murder itself.

Second Opinions

Anthony Boucher, New York Times, July 20, 1952

Miss Carnac is so associated with just this type of unspectacular but satisfying Scotland Yard story that her admirers will feel no disappointment in her latest. Under both this name and that of E.C.R. Lorac she has produced a long and steady series of books solidly rewarding in quality, with a wise blend of ingenuity and plausibility, a nice balance between the detective problem and the subtler problems of character and background.

Saturday Review, November 22, 1952

Characters agreeable or nicely disagreeable; slow-motion in spots, good pace at the end. Plodding but pleasant.

Availability

It’s Her Own Funeral is out of print, with one used copy available at this time. It was reprinted as a Detective Book Club volume along with Dead Men’s Plans by Mignon G. Eberhart and Death Begs the Question by Lois Eby and John C. Fleming.

Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie

(10/10 stars)

“At half an hour after midnight, we ran into the snowdrift. No one can have left the train since then.” Monsieur Bouc said solemnly, “The murderer is with us–on the train now…”

A snowbound train. A man lying dead in his compartment. Thirteen suspects, thirteen alibis, and clues that each seem to point to a different killer. Hercule Poirot has never been so close to murder before. As he faces the most baffling case of his career, Poirot must decide what it really means for justice to be served.

After eighty-six years, millions of copies sold, and multiple film and television adaptations, what more is left to say about Murder on the Orient Express? Everything Agatha Christie does best is right here, including one of the most iconic solutions of all time. It is simply a masterpiece, not only within Christie’s formidable body of work, but as a cornerstone of the entire mystery genre. Here are just a few of the things that keep me coming back to Murder on the Orient Express time after time. (Though I have tried to avoid spoilers, except where clearly marked, passengers board at their own risk.)

The Train

It’s an irresistible setup for a crime. On his way back to England after clearing up “a little affair in Syria,” Poirot attempts to reserve a compartment on the Orient Express. However, the train is fully booked–strange, considering that it’s the dead of winter. Only the intervention of company director Monsieur Bouc manages to squeeze Poirot in.

The following night, as the train lies still, trapped in the Balkans by heavy snow, the passenger in the next compartment is stabbed to death. Cut off from the outside world, it is up to Poirot to solve the crime before the killer strikes again.

Trains are a popular setting for golden-age mysteries, but it’s rare for the train itself to play such an integral role in the crime. Not only is this is a murder that could not have happened anywhere else, committing a murder on a train requires nerves of steel. The killer must spend several days living alongside both the victim and a dozen witnesses, not to mention committing and covering up a murder in close quarters with very little privacy. The schedule and layout of the train, the random nature of its passengers–all of this is embedded into the very fabric of the crime.

“All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities of all ages. For three days, these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”

“And yet,” said Poirot, “suppose an accident […] Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together–by death.”

Murder in the Calais Coach by Agatha Christie

The Victim

Ratchett must be one of the most despicable victims of all time. Even before Poirot learns about his past, which Ratchett has excellent reason to hide, it’s clear this man is no good. Before boarding the train, he tries to hire Poirot to protect him from threats against his life. Poirot refuses, saying, “Frankly, Monsieur, I do not like your face.” Later, he elaborates: “I could not rid myself of the impression that evil had passed me by very close.”

All his life, Ratchett has trampled over others to get what he wants, using any weapon at his disposal–money, threats, even violence. In retrospect, Ratchett’s fear during the last few days of his life feels like justice served as he slowly realizes that safety is the one thing money can’t buy.

The Suspects

If there is one drawback to Murder on the Orient Express, it is the sheer number of suspects. Though Christie handles her large cast well, moving through the interviews that make up the central section of the book surprisingly briskly, it’s impossible to keep track of this many potential killers. Though we get do get a few glimpses into their thoughts here and there, for the most part the suspects remain just as mysterious as the murder itself.

That being said, one of Christie’s greatest gifts is her ability to evoke a real, recognizable person with just a few neat strokes. The Princess Dragomiroff, for example, is “one of the ugliest old ladies [Poirot] had ever seen. It was an ugliness of distinction–it fascinated rather than repelled.” Ratchett’s air of being a “respectable American gentleman” only makes him all the more threatening, as if “through the bars, the wild animal looks out.”

Christie also excels at exploring the ways in which strangers view each other through the lenses of stereotypes, and how a clever person can manipulate that tendency to hide their true nature. Monsieur Bouc’s repeated insistence that the Italian-American passenger Foscarelli must be guilty, as a stabbing points to a fiery Latin nature, is presented as comedy, but Christie skillfully leads the reader to draw conclusions about all of the suspects based upon their outward appearances. Mrs. Hubbard seems like the typical pushy American tourist, Colonel Arbuthnot is a soldier with a stiff upper lip, Masterman is the portrait of a stuffy English valet. Or, at least, they all look that way.

Gender and class come into play as well. Everyone accepts that Countess Andrenyi is a delicate young lady who cannot be questioned without the protection of her husband. Likewise, no one questions Princess Dragomiroff’s right to have her own way in everything. She looks and behaves like an aristocrat, so everyone treats her as such. When Colonel Arbuthnot insists that governess Mary Debenham could not have committed the murder, as she is “pukka sahib,” Poirot and one of his sidekicks, Dr. Constantine, share a telling exchange.

“What,” asked Dr. Constantine with interest, “is pukka sahib?”

“It means,” said Poirot, “that Miss Debenham’s father and brothers were at the same kind of school as Colonel Arbuthnot.”

“Oh!” said Dr. Constantine, disappointed. “Then it has nothing to do with the crime at all.”

“Exactly,” said Poirot.

In countless other mysteries of the era, it would have had everything to do with the crime. An attractive young woman from the right kind of background would never even be considered as a suspect. Here, however, everyone is fair game.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The Clues

The crime scene seems, at first glance, like a detective’s dream, offering up an astonishing array of clues. There is the body itself. Its many stab wounds suggest a crime of passion, but upon closer examination that theory becomes murkier. Ratchett’s watch has stopped, which would seem to fix the time of death–except that he was heard speaking to the conductor an hour later. A woman’s handkerchief, a man’s pipe cleaner, a button, a strange man and woman wandering the corridors (or maybe they are the same person).

Aside from these obvious pieces of physical evidence, Christie is also playing a larger game. Murder on the Orient Express is impeccably constructed. The solution is so powerful not only because it is surprising, but also because, once it is revealed, it feels so inevitable. The foundation has been laid perfectly, with real clues seamlessly sprinkled in among false ones. The moment Poirot lays out his theory, everything suddenly clicks. That is what makes Orient Express so so compulsively re-readable. The ending is presented less as a shocking twist than as a moment of discovery, a wonderful secret between Christie and her readers.

The Detective

Poirot is at the top of his game here. His fussiness and vanity provide moments of comic relief, even as his powers of observation are at their sharpest throughout. The reader gets to see what Poirot is experiencing throughout the novel (without, of course, being privy to what goes on inside those little gray cells). His ego may be slightly bruised by the knowledge that a murder was being committed in the next compartment while he slept, but that is easily brushed away in the face of such a meaty intellectual puzzle.

What to my mind is so interesting in this case is that we have none of the facilities afforded to the police. We cannot investigate the bona fides of any of these people. We have to rely solely on deduction. That, to me, makes the matter very much more interesting. There is no routine work. It is a matter of the intellect.

Poirot’s attitude toward the crime, which he views as a marvelous riddle, is especially notable. There is no sense of a serious moral dilemma here. Instead, he is excited by the prospect of an exercise in pure detection, especially as it starts seeming more and more likely that his outrageous theory of the crime may be the real solution. Most intriguingly, Christie begins laying the groundwork early on for Poirot’s ultimate choice. Far from making a difficult decision on the spot, he calmly carries out a course of action he has already decided upon.

The Documents

Do you love lists and diagrams? Orient Express has ’em. There is a map of the train car (with everyone’s berths marked), there are dossiers on all the passengers, there are lists of questions that must be answered in order to solve the crime. All of the little bits of ephemera that are so pleasing to a puzzle-lover are present and accounted for.

The Nostalgia

I was eleven years old when I read Murder on the Orient Express. It was either the first or second Christie novel I read (Death on the Nile being the other contender) and it has shaped my reading ever since. Over the years, I’ve read it dozens of times. As a result, there are certain details that are burned into my brain forever.

For my money, the most mysterious scene in the entire book takes place when Poirot reconstructs the charred fragment of a letter found in Ratchett’s compartment. Searching the passengers’ baggage for an old-fashioned hatbox, he removes “humps of wire netting.” With these, “a small spirit stove,” and curling tongs (“I use them for the moustaches”), Poirot carries out the following operation:

He flattened out the two humps of wire, and with great care wriggled the charred scrap of paper onto one of them. He clapped the other on top of it and then, holding both pieces together with the tongs, held the whole thing over the flame of the spirit lamp […] The metal began to glow. Suddenly, he saw faint indications of letters. Words formed themselves slowly–words of fire.

Okay, but…how? What is even happening here? As a kid, I thought this might be one of those things that would make more sense after I became an adult and was setting pieces of wire netting on fire all the time myself, but it’s still inexplicable.

There are countless other moments that I look forward to every time I read, watching for them like landmarks along a familiar route, half afraid that they might have changed since the last time I passed through these parts. Mrs. Hubbard’s sponge-bag, for instance. As a young reader, I could only assume that this was a bag made entirely of sponges, and it fascinated me. (How anticlimactic to learn years later that a sponge-bag is simply a waterproof toiletry bag.)

Another minor pleasure, but one I always enjoy, is the description of all the ladies’ dressing gowns, from Greta Ohlsson’s sensible wool to Countess Andrenyi’s glamorous “corn-colored chiffon” negligee. Best of all, of course, is the scarlet kimono embroidered with dragons, glimpsed briefly by Poirot on the night of the crime, which inspires him to root through all the women’s nightclothes in the first place.

The Solution (includes spoilers)

One of the greatest solutions of all time, or the greatest solution of all time? Murder on the Orient Express may be a victim of its own success, as its astonishing twist has seeped into popular culture. Luckily, there is more to this ending than the element of surprise. The construction of the novel is flawless, as Christie juggles an astonishing number of clues and suspects with ease. It’s exhilarating to watch how it all comes together so perfectly at the end, even if you’ve seen it before.

Recent adaptations have tended to focus on the more thoughtful aspects of the solution, the questions of fair play and justice that arise. But what struck me most on this reread is how much fun Christie is having upending the conventions of the golden-age detective novel. After all, if an author can construct a mystery plot and rewrite it when things go wrong, why can’t her characters? Elaborate murder schemes are nothing new, but this has the feel of a full-on dramatic production. At times Poirot’s account of the crime sounds like a murderous version of a door-slamming farce, with suspects popping in and out of their compartments all night. This is one mystery I would love to read an inverted version of, as there is so much going on behind the scenes.

The denouement also underscores the basic artificiality of the genre as a whole. A self-proclaimed “great detective” tries to fit number of disparate elements into a single pattern. This, he says, is the truth, the only possible solution. Almost from the beginning, golden-age authors have gleefully chipped away at this infallibility, but rarely do they go as far as Christie does here. Poirot presents two solutions derived from the same evidence. One, he believes, is false. The other is true. He knows that whichever solution is put forth by the brilliant Hercule Poirot will be accepted as correct. Poirot’s choice will depend on whether his ultimate allegiance is to the law, or justice.

This raises a fundamental question: Can we trust our detectives? Readers are willing to accept some secrecy from a detective, on the assumption that all will be revealed at the end. What if it isn’t? What if Poirot had simply presented his false solution without ever sharing the real one? If Poirot can lie to the world, not with the mental agony depicted by David Suchet on television, but as easily as he does in the novel, then nothing is stopping him from lying to the reader at any time. Here, we are let in on the secret, but we can no longer feel certain this will always be the case.

(end spoilers)

The Verdict

It is ironic, yet somehow also quite fitting, that the two best-known mysteries of the golden age, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None are also two of the most atypical. Anyone new to mystery reading is likely to begin with one of these, the famous titles, the ones that are available everywhere. While it could be argued that the “best” mystery novels are actually the worst place for a beginner to start, since they are least representative of the average detective story, I can think of no better way to begin a lifelong journey than by going first-class. Murder on the Orient Express is simply the best the genre has to offer, precisely because it shows how much is possible. It immerses readers in a world where the truth is complicated, evidence can lie as easily as a person can, and absolutely anything can happen.

Second Opinions

ahsweetmysteryblog

When I was twelve, I got to the final pages of this book and dropped it on the floor in profound surprise at its revelation. It became the moment by which I measured the success or failure of every other mystery I ever read. 

Bitter Tea and Mystery

Reading this book, I was paying more attention to how the story is told, how the author fools the reader until the very end. The fact that I could enjoy it so much, even though I knew the ending, speaks to how well Christie tells a story and entertains us.

A Crime Is Afoot

Superbly written and with excellent characterization. A highly entertaining read and a good example of ‘fair play’ in my view. 

Crossexamining Crime

I love the atmosphere and world Christie creates. I love Poirot’s investigation, now spotting more of the subtleties and verbal clues that I missed on first reading it. I found new layers to many of the characters. They are more than character types. 

The Grandest Game in the World

This legendary classic shows Christie at the top of her powers. 

My Reader’s Block

I remember being amazed by the solution the first time I read it. Christie certainly knows how to surprise and mystify. Express is one of the Christie novels that I can read over and over. It doesn’t matter that it is one of the “big” Christie stories–one that once you’ve read it, you’re not likely to forget the solution. There are always new bits and pieces to notice and think about. 

Availability

Murder on the Orient Express (also published as Murder on the Calais Coach) is available in paperback, ebook, and audio formats from HarperCollins.

The Casino Murder Case (1934) by S. S. Van Dine

The Casino Murder Case by S S Van Dine

(5/10 stars)

“Do you believe that there’s a tragedy hanging over your family?”

“Isn’t there one hanging over every family?”

Philo Vance is not a gambler by nature, but he knows when to play a hunch. So when he receives an anonymous letter warning him that something is going to happen to wealthy playboy Lynn Llewellyn at his uncle’s casino that very night, Vance doesn’t hesitate to act. He learns that, when it comes to the Llewellyn family, anonymous letters are just the beginning. The only question is whether Vance can solve an epidemic of poisonings before his own luck runs out.

Once wildly popular, today S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance series is remembered today, if at all, for inspiring the worst excesses of early Ellery Queen. Wordy, pretentious, much given to quotations and footnotes, Vance was a polarizing character even at the peak of his popularity, immortalized in verse by Ogden Nash with the words, “Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance.”

On the basis of The Casino Murder Case, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about either way. On a scale of one to Lord Peter Wimsey in Whose Body?, Vance ranks as quite affected but not unpleasantly arrogant. Maybe Van Dine has toned things down by this point in the series. In any event, The Casino Murder Case is a readable, nicely tricky puzzle mystery that hums along steadily without having any real energy behind it.

While enjoying breakfast with his narrator sidekick Van (who never says a word during the entire novel), Vance receives a panicked, poorly typed letter. “Horrible black clouds are hovering over a certain household in New York,” it insists. “All those involved are abnormal and tricky. Don’t under-estimate them.

They are the members of the Llewellyn family. Mrs. Llewellyn is a social reformer whose “one ambition in life is to have a hand in every one’s affairs and to be at the center of every disturbance.” She also controls the family purse-strings, which is inconvenient for her children. Daughter Amelia is a neurotic artist who hesitates to choose between two suitors, the devoted but dull Dr. Kane and genius chemist-turned-croupier Morgan Bloodgood. “There’s too much rotten money in this family,” she complains. Son Lynn is deeply devoted to his mother, yet he, too, rebels against her wishes. Unhappily married to chorus girl Virginia Vale, he spends his nights playing roulette at the casino owned by Mrs. Llewellyn’s brother Richard Kinkaid.

Vance decides to visit the casino to observe Lynn. He finds that the letter writer is correct. Before the night is over, not one, but three members of the Llewellyn family will be poisoned. Some will survive, others will not. The sheer number of poisonings makes it hard to see the forest for the trees. It’s difficult to determine which ones are genuine murder attempts, suicide attempts, or simply red herrings to throw police off the trail. Vance even starts to suspect that poison is not intended to be the real murder weapon–he is.

What I was tryin’ to say is that this case is a crime within a crime: we are supposed to commit the final horror. The ultimate chord in this macabre symphony is to be our conviction of an innocent person. The entire technique is based on a colossal deception. We are supposed to follow the specious and apparent truth–and it will not be the truth at all, but the worst and most diabolical lie of the whole business.

It doesn’t help that nobody seems very upset about the crime wave that has suddenly hit their family. Every one of them is “tangential to the norm,” Lynn informs Vance. “Like all old families with too much money and no object in life but to incubate hatred and hatch plots.”

All of the characters sort of fade into one another. Many of them are obviously recurring characters from previous Vance mysteries, including district attorney Markham, Sergeant Heath, and medical examiner Dr. Doremus. It’s understandable that Van Dine would not waste much time fleshing out characters who should already be familiar to his readers. There is nothing especially distinctive about any of the suspects, however. Each one receives an exhaustive list of attributes. Despite that, they all act and sound exactly the same. I’m especially fond of this description of Morgan Bloodgood, who is meant to have some appeal, yet sounds like a person worth crossing the street to avoid.

He was a tall, slight man with a high, somewhat bulging forehead, a thin straight aquiline nose, heavy, almost flabby lips, a pointed chin, and prominent Darwinian ears with abnormally large tragi and receding lobes. His eyes were hard and smoldering and of a peculiar gray-green cast; and they were so deeply sunken as to appear in almost perpetual shadow. His hair was thin and sand-colored; and his complexion was sallow to the point of bloodlessness. Yet he was not an unattractive man.

If you say so…

In addition to toxicology, there are some deep dives into the logistics of gambling and running an illegal casino, as well as the new scientific discovery of “heavy water,” which is used today in nuclear reactors. While these lectures can be dry, it’s interesting to learn about topics that would have been in the news at the time.

Philo Vance himself doesn’t come off too badly, though it does take a special person to sincerely compare a bathroom medicine cabinet to a Picasso painting. (The point he’s trying to make, that empty space can be just as important as what’s actually there, is fair; it’s just that Vance always seems to choose the most pretentious analogies possible.) His fastidiousness is often quite funny, as when he “disgustedly” confronts the murderer: “So you’ve added eavesdropping to your other accomplishments! You’re not an admirable character.”

The Casino Murder Case is fine. It’s clear that most of the author’s attention has gone to constructing the mystery plot, which is indeed clever. It’s just that the characters seem to exist simply to carry out the plot rather than having any thoughts or feelings of their own. The result is a quick and fairly pleasant read that runs as smoothly as a machine. Though there’s nothing very human about The Casino Murder Case, it is a good puzzle with some wryly amusing moments.

Second Opinion

The Grandest Game in the World

Contrary to assertions often made about Van Dine’s decline in the thirties, this tale is enjoyable reading today, 75 years after it was first published.

Availability

The Casino Murder Case is available in paperback and ebook from Felony and Mayhem.

The Line Up (1934) by Helen Reilly

(6/10 stars)

“Telegraph Bureau? Inspector McKee. Homicide. Timothy Arden, Hotel Grantham, Fifth Avenue off the Square, Apartment Thirteen A.”

That was all. It was enough. In that long room at the top of Police Headquarters, Operative Eighteen, a green eyeshade tilted over his forehead, repeated the same message over and and over and over again. To the commissioner himself, the borough commander, the deputy chief inspector, the precinct, the district attorney’s office, stenographers, fingerprint men, photographers, in a voice as empty as a train announcer’s: “Homicide, Timothy Arden…” The New York police had been presented with another case.

There is nothing surprising about Timothy Arden’s death. After all, he was an elderly man with a bad heart. Still, Inspector Christopher McKee finds it strange that Arden should die just as the New York City police are about to ask him about a $10,000 check, bearing his signature, that was presented by a man who fled the bank the moment he was questioned. Strange that Arden’s children should be in such a hurry to cremate their father. And, strangest of all, why Arden, a nonsmoker, would have four cigarette butts hidden in his bedroom—all different brands. In fact, nothing seems quite right with this household. McKee is starting to think that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

The Line Up is one of the earliest police procedurals published in the United States, but it’s not as tough as that might suggest. We are still firmly in the world of traditional detective stories, with murder threatening a wealthy, dysfunctional family and McKee revealing the killer in a dramatic summing-up scene. These are the mean streets of Park Avenue, not exactly Ed McBain or Joseph Wambaugh territory. The Line Up is more successful as a plush murder mystery than as an example of 1930s policing. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing glimpse at the beginnings of this subgenre.

The circle surrounding Timothy Arden is a small one. It includes his playboy son Eric and Eric’s beautiful wife Diana, whose looks don’t impress McKee.

Beauty like this left his pulses unstirred. It was a matter of form and color, had nothing to do with the woman herself, and made an effective barrier behind which the reality could hide, distorted, ugly, even deformed, without arousing the slightest suspicion.

There’s also Daisy, the emotionally disturbed daughter of Timothy’s second marriage. (The fact that Daisy’s mother abandoned her strict husband many years ago suggests that another suspect may be lurking unseen.) Finally, that $10,000 check was made out to Arden’s secretary George Benson, who doesn’t have a very good explanation for it. As the police dig into their associations, the suspect list will expand a little more, but only a little. While some colorful side characters pop up, the main suspects themselves don’t stand out much.

McKee himself is also fairly colorless, though he surrounds himself with some interesting colleagues. This is where the procedural element really stands out, as, far from being a lone genius, McKee calls in a number of police officers, specialists, and consultants to assist him. The elegant pathologist Dr. Fernandez conducts the autopsy in a scene of hushed tension.

They reached their destination, the Morgue, its dark unyielding bulk standing stolidly against the faint glow of the city to the west. Tonight it was more like a charnel house than ever with the wind tearing and whistling round its walls. A flight of steps, doors opening and closing. They seemed to send out a fetid breath of desolation, decay, from those motionless inmates, victims of crime and tragedy and despair, beaten by the world and swallowed in this last refuge to be devoured by the intellectual curiosity of a science that had done nothing for them in life.

Two other assistants do nearly as much sleuthing as McKee himself. Sergeant Pierson is stolid and unimaginative, but absolutely dogged on the trail of a killer, and McKee has nothing but respect for his abilities. His other main ally is nurse Lucy Sturm, who goes to work inside the Arden house. Lucy is very much in the Sarah Keate/Hilda Adams mode, a no-nonsense professional who nevertheless has a soft spot for young lovers. Even with this bias, McKee knows she is someone he can count on.

Purely from an eat-the-rich perspective, it’s cathartic to see the vast, impersonal forces of the NYPD assemble against the Ardens, to their outrage. In this world, at least, their wealth cannot help them avoid the law. Even when they retreat to their country home, they never escape the watchful eyes of the police.

The hybrid nature of the story does not always sit easily, however. A large investigation involving many officers is realistic, but it doesn’t provide much of a chance to get to know McKee. Though he remains fairly inscrutable throughout, one thing that is clear about his character is that he is pragmatic and tries to administer the law as fairly and neutrally as possible. Yet he also sets up a big reenactment of a crime (one that may not even have anything to do with Timothy Arden’s death), while admitting that he doesn’t really have any evidence for his theories. The whole event is staged with the hope of pushing the culprit over the edge into a public confession. It’s an exciting sequence, but these are pure amateur detective theatrics that seem out of character for an otherwise by-the-book public servant.

The denouement does showcase Reilly’s gift for creating atmosphere, which is also displayed elsewhere in The Line Up. Lucy Sturm spends some long, tense nights in the Arden home, hearing footsteps in the hallway and wondering whether her patient is really as helpless as they appear. The Christmas setting also adds drama, as the family halfheartedly carries out holiday festivities, knowing all the while that their father has been murdered and one of their loved ones may have killed him.

They drove to the Grand Central through a dusk pierced with flashing signs, “Holiday Greetings from Knitted Underwear,” “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from the United Hosiery.” Near the Forty-second Street entrance a German band was executing “Holy Night” very badly indeed to an applauding crowd. The station itself was a mess, even the great main room jammed solid almost from the gates to the information booth. Trains were late. Everybody in the world was going home with ten children and the entire contents of a large department store. Voices echoed with false jollity. “Same to you, old man, and many of them. Remember me to Mabel. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”

The Line Up is an ambitious attempt to add modern, realistic police procedure to a classic detective plot. While the story of secrets and lies in an old-money New York family ultimately proves more compelling than the police element, it is an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Second Opinions

Only Detect

There are characters aplenty here, but very little characterization. Even McKee lacks the clear contours that enable other fictional detectives to catch and hold readerly interest. A smartly conceived puzzle does lie in wait for him, however, and he does unravel it, after a lot of harum-scarum action of the “Had I But Known” sort. What Reilly does best, meanwhile, is to evoke time and place.

Isaac Anderson, New York Times, November 11, 1934

If you have not already made the acquaintance of Inspector McKee, it is time you did. He is worth knowing and we hope that Helen Reilly will give us more stories about him.

Availability

The Line Up is out of print, with used copies available.

Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville

(7/10 stars)

“I mean, if someone came up to you and arrested you for the murder of two human beings bang in the middle of an enjoyable musical comedy, it would be a bit of a shock to the system, wouldn’t it?”

For days, audiences have been lining up for the opening night of Blue Music, the latest musical extravaganza from Douglas B. Douglas. And the show more than lives up to expectations, especially the attempted murder scene in Act Two. The shooting of leading man Brandon Baker is no act, however.

The case seems open and shut; after all, thousands of witnesses watched Baker’s costar fire the fatal shot. Inspector Wilson isn’t so sure, however. Along with his journalist son, Derek, the Inspector must enter the bohemian milieu of the theater in search of a killer who craves the spotlight.

Quick Curtain is an entertaining romp with a solution as audacious as the crime itself. The Wilsons make a delightful team of father-son sleuths, as their investigation takes them from the bright lights of London’s theater district to the darkness of a lonely country lane. There is about ninety percent more comedy than detection, but it all more or less comes together in the end.

From the start, the author has a simple explanation for the whole affair: “nobody is quite sane on a first night.” Melville devotes the first chapter to gleeful descriptions of Blue Music in all its demented banality. Hundreds of people exert the most strenuous effort on behalf of a ridiculous production that is, at best, no different than the show that’s already playing down the street.

The god of gods, the hero of the show, opens with a wrong entrance and is wildly cheered for five minutes. The leading lady sings her big number on a key quite unconnected with that in which the orchestra is playing the accompaniment, and the house rises to demand seven encores. The low comedian, realizing that his material is definitely on the thin side, introduces most of the old gags he put over when he made his first big success at the Gaiety in 1909, and the audience collapses under its seats, helpless with mirth.

So it is that very often those wise men, the dramatic critics, end their notices the following morning with the remark: “It is only fair to add that, in spite of the above remarks, the entertainment appeared to meet with the approval of the first-night audience.”

The ill-fated Brandon Baker is sharing the stage with supporting actor Hillary Foster (who helped him begin his career only to be left behind), much-married leading lady Gwen Astle, egocentric writer Ivor Watcyns, and stage manager Herbert, the only one who can keep his head amidst all the madness. That’s not to mention producer Douglas B. Douglas, whose presence anywhere in the theater would not be questioned. In addition, there is also a whole audience full of potential suspects. Despite these challenges, Inspector Wilson expects a swift resolution.

“Wasn’t it a funny thing to do, by the way? Shooting a man in full view of about two thousand people, and with not the chance of a lump of margarine in hell of getting away with it.”

“But he has got away with it, blast you,” said Mr. Douglas, exasperated.

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Wilson. “So he has. I’d forgotten that.”

Having a theater for a crime scene certainly offers unique challenges. “It’s not much use marking the spot where the body fell if the whole stage behaves like the planetary system and spoils everything, is it?” the Inspector laments as he tries to figure out the bullet’s trajectory from a revolving stage. With 110 chorus girls prancing through the murder site, little physical evidence remains.

The relationship between Inspector Wilson and his son is great fun; their friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) bickering may be a bit much at times, but it provides a recognizable human element in an otherwise arch narrative. Their desire not to lose face in front of one another spurs them on to new discoveries in some cases, but also hinders the investigation at other moments, as when they set out to interview a witness, only to miss the person entirely because they cannot agree on the best route to take.

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

Their interactions showcase the best qualities of Quick Curtain, the humor and characters. However, they also reflect its less pleasing aspects. There is very little real detection to be found here, something that Melville tends to plaster over by filling the “investigation” scenes with banter that, while funny in itself, obscures the lack of actual information-gathering. There is also a tendency to take a joke to absurd lengths. The repeated inside jokes between the Wilsons are particular offenders. As the story grows longer without really progressing, it sometimes feels like Melville is trying to stretch his material in order to pad out the page count.

Derek’s undercover investigation in the countryside, for example, is easily twice as long as it needs to be. It starts out very well, as Derek decides to masquerade as a cyclist, his resolve lasting until “he had a brief but animated argument with a four-ton lorry…There is a sort of discrepancy between a four-ton lorry and a pedal-cycle that makes a meeting of the two rather one-sided.” His attempts to keep a low profile in a quiet rural town instantly arouse the villagers’ suspicions. This is all quite funny at first, but then it just goes on and on, growing a little less funny each time until it is no longer amusing at all. The same events are repeated from multiple viewpoints with nothing much being added.

Luckily, Quick Curtain manages to shake off its third-act problems to roll out a bold solution that is perfectly in keeping with the fizzy, anarchic spirit of the story. Whether that solution is supported by the rest of the book is another question. For most of its length, Quick Curtain barely qualifies as a detective story, but I enjoyed it enough not to care.

Second Opinions

Crossexamining Crime

For all those who enjoy comic detective novels, which don’t take themselves too seriously I would definitely recommend this tale and the humorous investigative style and dialogue of Inspector Wilson and Derek make this an enjoyable read.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

I’m really disappointed. I enjoyed Death Of Anton by the same author, also from the British Library range, it was great fun. So I had high expectations of this one. But the problem is the wit. It’s incessant and clearly the author is enjoying himself, in part being able to take several shots at the theatre industry.  But the non-stop “cleverness” of the humour rapidly became wearing to me.

The Invisible Event

So as a tome filling in part of the history of detective fiction it finds itself significantly lacking.  But as a light, easy, and witty read you can do far worse for a few hours.  Which feels a bit like a back-handed compliment, but, in fairness, that’s all this really deserves.

Mysteries Ahoy!

Those who come at it expecting something lighthearted and diverting are more likely to put it down satisfied than those hoping for a good puzzle mystery.

Vintage Pop Fictions

As a detective novel it’s a washout. As a theatrical satire it might have been amusing at the time but the people it’s satirising are now long dead and the kind of theatre it’s satirising is also long dead.

Availability

Quick Curtain is available from British Library Crime Classics and Poisoned Pen Press.

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934) by Stuart Palmer

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart Palmer

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“You seem to know everything.”

Miss Withers smiled grimly. “I don’t—but I intend to.”

This journey across the Atlantic was meant to be the start of Rosemary Fraser’s independent life. The nineteen-year-old has grand plans for her trip around the world, but nothing is turning out the way she hoped. On the very first night of the voyage, she meets an attractive man who convinces her to tryst with him in a storage locker, only to be humiliated when a fellow passenger locks them in. Her partner leaves Rosemary to bear the shame alone.

Rosemary has become the laughingstock of the ship. And if her parents find out what happened, all of her dreams are over. So when Rosemary vanishes from the deck one foggy night, the other passengers assume she committed suicide—all except Hildegarde Withers. She suspects there is a killer on board, but will she be able to convince Scotland Yard?

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart PalmerThe Puzzle of the Silver Persian offers a little bit of everything. There’s a mysterious disappearance, a locked-room murder, young love, old ghosts, a spooky Welsh castle, and a cat who knows more about all of it than he chooses to reveal. It also includes plenty of Stuart Palmer’s trademark humor, but there is a bitter edge here as Miss Withers learns to face the realities of life as a detective.

In the aftermath of Rosemary’s disappearance, all of her fellow passengers become suspects, especially the men. The vulgar Andy Todd is humiliated to have been spurned by Rosemary, and arranged some cruel practical jokes to embarrass her in return. Tom Hammond is rumored to have been the one in the blanket locker with Rosemary; his wife Loulu certainly believes the gossip. Steward Peter Noel is never averse to a shipboard dalliance, but a public scandal would cost him his job.

Candida Noring, Rosemary’s traveling companion, is determined to avenge her friend’s fate. Still, her courage wavers when she comes to believe she is in danger herself. Candida wonders whether it might be better to forget Rosemary and concentrate on her romance with Leslie Reverson, coddled nephew of the Honorable Emily Pendavid. However, someone will do anything to keep Rosemary’s memory alive…even murder.

All of these characters are thrown at the reader rather quickly, but there is plenty to time to straighten them out, as this group inexplicably sticks together even after leaving the ship. Most of them wind up at the same London hotel, a place that doesn’t believe in locking the doors. However luxurious the amenities, this hotel is not, perhaps, the safest choice when there’s a killer on the loose.

A dignified personage wearing a handle-bar mustaches and three rows of medals across his chest approached to greet her, carrying an umbrella, although it had ceased to rain. Lesser persons seized her baggage, and she was ushered into a foyer almost as large as Madison Square Garden. The place was filled with marble pillars, deep-piled rugs of a bright carmine hue, many shining-topped tables and red-plush lounging chairs. Miss Withers was able to make out, after a time, that four or five human beings were lurking in the vastness, dropping cigarette ash upon the tops of the shiny tables or sipping from tiny glittering glasses.

Miss Withers doesn’t think much of the hotel’s security, nor is she impressed by her first encounter with Scotland Yard. “I know what you intend to do about this murder case,” she says to Inspector Cannon. “You’re going to wait until every person in the group has been killed but one, and then arrest that one, figuring that you can’t make a mistake.” She finds his eager young sergeant more congenial. Sergeant John Secker is fresh out of police college, having only held his post for a few weeks. This is his first big case, so he’s far more open to Miss Withers’ ideas than his boss (who finds both of them rather a nuisance). Secker’s misadventures often have an air of surreal comedy, as when he is nearly strangled by a lady’s scarf while testing a possible murder method. His pronouncements are Monty Pythonesque at times.

“Shuffling off his mortal coil,” said the sergeant. “When found an hour ago, he had completely shuffled. Popped off, y’know. Passed on, Gone West, and expired.”

Another source of comedy, one which turns unexpectedly dark, is the “terrible” Gerald Hammond, the son of Tom and Loulu. His parents’ progressive theories of childrearing have produced a little monster. Gerald is a deeply unpleasant child, with his reign of terror peaking during a hellish cross-country train trip.

Gerald left off his engraving and began to slam his heels against the seat. On a lucky inspiration he began to sing, in a shrill and quite tuneless soprano, a song almost recognizable as “The Big Bad Wolf.”

After half an hour of this, Leslie put down his newspaper. “I say, old chap, do you mind varying your repertoire?”

Gerald was growing a bit pettish. “Go to hell,” he said.

Bad as Gerald is, it’s shocking to see Miss Withers spank him soundly, nod approvingly as he describes the many beatings he receives at his new school, and advise his parents to simply abandon Gerald in England. She even suggests that they write off their young child as a hopeless case and have a new baby to replace him, one that might turn out better.

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart PalmerOf course, it has become clear by that point that Miss Withers is in a dark place. It is briefly mentioned at the start of the book that she is on medical leave from her job as a teacher; doctors have advised an ocean voyage to recover from nervous strain brought on by her last case in The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree.

At first, this seems like an excuse to explain why she is taking a vacation in the middle of the school year. As the case progresses, however, Miss Withers becomes more and more jittery.  The closer she comes to solving this new case, the more Miss Withers worries about the grave responsibility she has taken on. And, like her reaction to Gerald, she seems poised to take her ambivalence much further than the reader expects.

For a story that begins as a cutesy cat mystery, The Puzzle of the Silver Persian winds up in a much more disturbing place as a remarkably twisted killer is revealed. There are a lot of strange ingredients here, some of them funny, some of them sad, and some of them just bizarre. But it’s never boring or predictable and lends an interesting twist to the character of Hildegarde Withers.

Second Opinion

Crossexamining Crime

All in all I would say this was a good read and when I look back at it, the central puzzle and the surrounding mystification is far more complex than I first realised, with Palmer using certain expectations as rather successful red herrings.

Availability

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press.

Death of a Ghost (1934) by Margery Allingham

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“There are, fortunately, very few people who can say that they have actually attended a murder. The assassination of another by any person of reasonable caution must, in a civilized world, tend to be a private affair.”

After his death, the great painter John Lafcadio left behind a messy personal life and twelve unseen paintings. Each year, one of these works is unveiled in his old studio to cement his posthumous reputation.

This year, however, the mood is far from festive. His granddaughter Linda’s fiancé, Thomas Dacre, has just returned from Italy with a wife. Lafcadio’s widow Belle must deal with the squabbles of her husband’s former models and hangers-on. Sensing that a volatile situation is developing, she turns to her friend Albert Campion, who must scour London’s art world for a connoisseur of murder.

Death of a Ghost by Margery AllinghamDeath of a Ghost is a captivating story, more of a howdunnit than a whodunnit. Campion spots the killer fairly quickly and spends much of the book trying to prove his theory, though it isn’t clear until the very end whether his guess is correct. To do so, he must steep himself in the eccentric Lafcadio household in the heart of London’s Little Venice, rubbing elbows with a delightful assortment of artists, models, dealers, and rogues.

For some members of that household, the annual Sunday Showing of Lafcadio’s new work is a mild annoyance, but for others, it’s the highlight of their year. “We come alive on one evening of the year,” Belle says, “retast[ing] our former glory.” The warmhearted Belle, who understands a great deal and has the wisdom to keep it to herself, treasures the past but lives in the present. Likewise, her granddaughter Linda is more focused on her own artistic ambitions than on a grandfather she is too young to remember. Their housekeeper Lisa, once Lafcadio’s most famous model, resents being hauled out of the kitchen to recreate decades-old poses. Tommy Dacre is still trying to figure out his place in Linda’s life now that he’s switched to more commercial art and married his model, Rosa-Rosa. Campion can’t help wondering whether Dacre regrets his choice.

Rosa-Rosa had another of the perfect model’s peculiarities; she was unbelievably stupid. She had been trained not to think, lest her roving fancy should destroy the expression she was holding. For the best part of her life, therefore, her mind remained a complete blank.

Others thrive on the energy of the showings, however. In her ordinary life, Donna Beatrice is nothing more than an affected old woman babbling about auras to anyone she can corner. One day a year, however, the world remembers that she was once John Lafcadio’s “inspiration,” beautiful and brilliant. For the hopelessly untalented Tennyson Potter, who lives in the studio with his bustling wife Claire, this show is his only chance of exhibiting his work. (Potter depresses everyone. “There’s only one thing worse than an artist who can’t draw and who thinks he can, and that’s one who can’t draw and knows he can’t. No one gets anything out of it then.”) Then there’s art dealer and bon vivant Max Fustian, who owes his career to his association with Lafcadio.

His first book about Johnnie…was called The Art of John Lafcadio, “by one who knew him.” His eighth book on Johnnie came out yesterday. It’s called Max Fustian Looks at Art—”a critical survey of the works of John Lafcadio by Europe’s foremost critic.”

All of these people have their own reasons for attending the Lafacadio show that Sunday. One of them will not survive it.

Though Campion comes to believe there is little mystery about who committed the crime,  proving why and how the murder took place is much more complicated. Furthermore Campion admits to wanting to protect certain suspects, warning Inspector Stanislaus Oates, “I have no conscience in these matters at all. Conscience doesn’t come into it. If…I thought any good purpose could be served by throwing dust in your eyes, I should do so if I could.” This bias makes it uncertain just how objective Campion is capable of being. “Only the cold facts” are against his suspect, but in a court of law, cold facts are all that matter.

“What are you going to do? Drop it?”

“Good Lord, no!” The inspector looked shocked. “You ought to know more about police procedure than that. We shall go on snuffling about like an old terrier on a stale scent. We shall write each other coldly disapproving letters from department to department. We shall tell each other the facts in confidence and go on worrying round a little less week by week. Then something else will turn up and we shall all be very busy and this will get crowded out.”

Campion is convinced that he is involved in a cat-and-mouse game with a brazen killer. “For the first time in his life, he felt unequal to the situation and afraid of giving himself away.” In the process, he must grapple with two ghosts. One is the memory of the “flamboyant swashbuckling” John Lafacadio, which still casts a spell over those who knew him (and it is a testament to Margery Allingham’s skill that, from the start, Lafcadio’s personality is just as vivid as those of the living characters). The other is a murder victim who has not only been killed, but is being systematically erased after death. Someone is stealing every scrap of evidence the victim ever existed, right down to their dirty laundry.

This works because the characters and their relationships are so believable. The case is not solved by timetables or physical evidence, but Campion’s growing understanding of the suspects’ personalities. It is the human moments that are most memorable, like Claire Potter’s quiet devastation as she realizes, over the course of one agonizingly long day, how much she has sacrificed for a genius that her husband never actually possessed.

Death of a Ghost is a marvelously entertaining battle of wits that culminates in a nerve-wracking climax as Campion becomes more and more desperate to prove his suspect’s guilt. Campion’s vulnerability here is genuinely shocking. The details of the mystery, while complex to actually solve, are not very difficult to guess. In every other respect, however, Death of a Ghost exemplifies Margery Allingham’s gift for creating stylish mysteries rooted in people and places that feel utterly real.

Second Opinions

At the Scene of the Crime

Overall, I highly recommend Death of a Ghost. It’s my favourite Allingham to date, combining clever plotting with Allingham’s usual strengths. 

Bitter Tea and Mystery

I needn’t have worried about liking this book. I liked the story and the way Allingham tells it. 

Classic Mysteries

It’s a beautifully written book; Allingham makes readers care about her characters – even the truly horrifying villain of the piece. I recommend Death of a Ghost to you very highly.

Clothes in Books

Altogether, a really fine example of Allingham’s work, with her great sense of place and excellent characters.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

This is something different, even though it’s a lot closer to a traditional whodunit than Traitor’s Purse. The pacing is certainly not what I expected and a lot more emphasis is placed on finding evidence to prove the culprit’s guilt than Christie ever focused on. It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoiling things, but this is an entertaining tale.

Availability

Death of a Ghost is available in paperback and ebook from Agora Books.

 

 

 

 

 

The Man in Button Boots (1934) by Anthony Gilbert

The Man in Button Boots by Anthony Gilbert

3 Stars (3/10 stars)

“I begin to see why you’re so frightfully interested in him. A diamond millionaire in a Monte Carlo hotel. Trite, of course, but the public doesn’t mind that. All the same ingredients. Who have you picked on for the murderer?”

Julian Marks is a man of mystery. The South African millionaire burst upon the London scene just a few years ago, buoyed by a mysterious fortune. Economic downturns and extravagant spending have brought him down to his last diamond, but it’s quite a stone. Most men would hesitate to travel to the French Riviera with the largest diamond in the world sewn to their waistcoats, but Marks is confident he can handle any kind of trouble.

At the Hotel Fantastique, his fellow guests place bets on how long Marks will manage to stay alive. What no one expects is for Julian Marks to vanish into thin air. Inspector Dupuy must discover what has happened to Marks…and what has happened to his diamond.

The Man in Button Boots begins marvelously. A distinctive and entertaining group of suspects appear to be gathered at the hotel, including a pushy detective novelist, her bright young niece, a shady politician, and his talkative wife. Anthony Gilbert spends a great deal of time establishing these characters and their relationships, setting the stage for a fine whodunnit. However, the moment Julian Marks disappears during a Halloween night game of hide-and-seek, the book becomes a tedious and confusing mishmash. All of those fun characters at the hotel are abandoned in favor of murky gangland conspiracies.

The “man in button boots” of the title is not Julian Marks or Inspector Dupuy. Rather, it is one of the hotel guests, Increase Latymer. At first, Latymer is the subject of much speculation.

Above all, there was that extraordinary man who wore button boots and hung about on the edge of crowds, went for aimless little walks, smiled absently when spoken to, who didn’t seem to have an idea in his head, but had brought a neatly rolled mackintosh and a bowler hat in his luggage, and hadn’t thought of removing from his suitcase labels marked York, Eastbourne, and St. Leonards. No one knew quite was he was doing here: he was absolutely out of the picture and didn’t even seem to be enjoying himself. He never went swimming or surf-bathing, didn’t gamble, played no games at all except chess […] He looked like a typical minor civil servant.

Yet this awkward little man plunges into the mystery without hesitation, poking around all the most dubious corners of Monte Carlo in search of Julian Marks and his diamond. Between them, he and Dupuy uncover all kinds of strange characters who may be involved in the disappearance, recounted at tedious length. It is impossible to overstate the dullness of these scenes, which just go on and on.

This is even more disappointing because the early chapters are so promising. Julian Marks, with his mysterious origins and cometlike rise and fall, is incredibly intriguing. “He’s such an odd chap, like the fellow who couldn’t throw a shadow. It’s as if there was no substance to any life he lived before he came here, and yet even his erratic type of genius couldn’t build this kind of present on shadows.” What would prompt such a intelligent man to openly travel with a priceless gem? Is it recklessness, hubris, or something even more sinister?

The moment Marks disappears, however, Gilbert rudely yanks back the promise of a glamorous, sophisticated mystery novel. Instead, we have Latymer grubbing around muddy huts full of kerosene tanks and interviewing every shady jeweler in Monte Carlo at great length. The investigation drags on so endlessly that I didn’t even notice at first that the denouement had finally started—though there is plenty of time to catch up, as the summing-up goes on for so long. While the culprit is certainly surprising, this person seems to have been chosen for pure shock value; nothing in the narrative supports this person as the killer.

Inspector Dupuy makes little impression here. He does at least experience an endearing homesickness for Paris, however. I would certainly rather read about this version of Dupuy than the one who appears here:

Suddenly, he felt the need to be back in Paris, the hub of the world, where the great wheel of life revolved, that shining city full of passionate men and women, robbing and forging and uttering bad money, cheating insurance companies, murdering their neighbors, planning gigantic criminal coups, among whom he would thread his way, detecting their fine schemes, winning laurels, engaged in a perpetual battle of wits, achieving new triumphs, seeking fresh victories […] scurrying like a rat through the Paris streets, watching the city with a thousand eyes, the invisible vengeance, the man no evil doers should escape…

The Man in Button Boots is the first of a brief two-book series starring Inspector Dupuy, the other being the equally messy Courtier to Death. On the basis of these two novels, it’s easy to see why Gilbert abandoned the series. These books don’t know whether they’re mysteries or thrillers, so they end up succeeding at neither. Since Dupuy rarely shows any personality, there’s not much to hold these long, overly detailed investigations together. At the same time, it’s easy to spot some of the traits Gilbert would soon use much more successfully with the Arthur Crook series. Like Dupuy, Crook’s gifts are rooted in a sincere love of the rackety criminal world he rubs up against. Sometimes he barely appears in his own books, leaving much of the sleuthing to others, but (unlike Dupuy) he is such a charming and distinctive character that he can easily make an impression in a brief time. The Crook novels are also far more skilled at blending suspense with detection. If Dupuy needed to crawl so that Crook could run, then these novels have earned their right to exist. However, that does not mean they have earned a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Availability

The Man in Button Boots is out of print in the US. In the UK, it is available in paperback and ebook formats from the Murder Room.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope (1943) by C. W. Grafton

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by CW Grafton

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

This is Gil Henry. I’m in Harpersville. Does anyone want you to be dead?”

Gil Henry is the last person anyone would expect to become the hero of a hard-boiled mystery. A short, pudgy young man, he lives modestly at the YMCA and works as a very junior partner in a “law firm which trickles out to practically nothing by the time it gets to me.” He only gets the small clients, and Ruth McClure is just about the smallest there is. She has inherited some stock in Harper Products Company after the recent death of her father, who worked for the firm all his life. The owner of the company rouses her suspicions by offering to buy it back for far more than its value. Gil agrees to look into the transaction, only to find his quiet life turned upside down.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by CW GraftonThe Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope is another excellent entry in the Library of Congress Crime Classics series. This quirky small-town noir is enlivened by a main character who is inexperienced and prone to gaffes, but will stop at nothing when his detective instincts are alerted. The author, C. W. Grafton, is better known today for being the father of Sue Grafton than for his own offbeat mysteries. However, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope makes it evident that writing talent ran in the family.

Though Gil may not know much about crime, he knows when something is off. “He’s got more curiosity than an old maid,” says Ruth, “and his mind is so sharp it’s about to cut his ears off.” He sees plenty that is wrong in Harpersville, starting with an attempt on his life before he even hits the city limits. William Jasper Harper owns Harper Products Company, which means he more or less owns the whole town. Ruth McClure’s father John was one of the company’s longest-serving employees. Though he never earned more than thirty-five dollars a week, he drove a brand-new car every year and sent both of his children to expensive private colleges. Not to mention, where did McClure get the ten thousand dollars to buy that stock in the first place? If William Jasper Harper has his way, Gil won’t be staying in town long enough to find out.

In fact, Harper seems to have the entire town under his thumb. His reign over Harpersville goes beyond mere small-town cronyism, to a darker and more corrupt place. Everyone seems beholden to him, yet the relationships don’t play out in a way that makes sense. None of the numbers add up. Ruth cannot forget her father pointing at the factory as they drove past one day, telling her, “Remember this. There is more here than you can see from the outside.”

The unprepossessing Gil is less like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade than like a terrier with a bone. He has to keep gnawing at the mystery until it is solved. His narration hilariously details the many indignities that befall him along the way, starting with the near-fatal “accident” that destroys his only suit. “Every person has some cross to bear,” Gil laments. “Mine is that I am not shaped like people who are intended to get their clothes in ready-to-wear shops.” The hastily purchased replacement suit does nothing for his dignity.

I thought snug was hardly the appropriate word since my belt was already out of sight and I could tell that I would not want to sit down very often […] I regretted my decision when I crawled in under the wheel of the car. They say when you cut earthworms in two, the halves go about their own business and supply whatever it takes to carry on, but I am no earthworm and I had no faith in my ability to do the same.

Nor does it improve his standing in the eyes of Ruth, who instead seems to harbor an unsisterly affection for her adopted brother, Tim. The closer Gil gets to Harper, his invalid wife, and his secretive daughter Janet, the more perilous his situation becomes, especially as his law firm is deeply involved with the Harper family.

Gil spends almost as much time meeting with accountants and poring over dusty ledgers as he does dodging bullets. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of action. Grafton maintains a nonstop pace, and someone (usually Gil) is always running from the cops or getting slugged in dark rooms. Still, he ultimately solves the case using his legal abilities, not his fists, even as he takes to the hard-boiled atmosphere like a duck to water.

I said: “Listen little Bopeep, the sheep you are losing aren’t the kind that come home wagging their tails behind them. You have to go out and look for them and I may be just the guy who can do it whether you think I’m Hercule Poirot or Alias Jimmy Valentine. Now get up and wash your face and powder your beak and let’s start something.”

It didn’t go over too big. The look she gave me made it plain that in her blue-book the value of a ’41 model Gilmore Henry was lower than net income after taxes.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope is fast-paced and punchy, its short chapters tearing through one breathless twist after another. Gil’s ultimate destination is not likely to surprise—the solution is fairly obvious, though there are a few extra complications thrown in. The journey he takes to get there, however, is full of twists, absurdities, and double-crosses. All of it is anchored by Gil’s wisecracks, which keep things light even as the bodies are falling. Gil Henry may take the long way around, but it’s a pleasure to follow him there.

Second Opinions

Washington Post

Grafton’s novel is not simply a historical curio, but a genuinely offbeat and entertaining suspense story.

Publisher’s Weekly

The superior prose and logical but surprising plot twists amply justify this volume’s reissue as a Library of Congress Crime Classic.

Availability

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope is available in paperback and ebook formats from Library of Congress Crime Classics.