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.

 

The Tragedy of Z (1933) by Ellery Queen

The Tragedy of Z by Ellery Queen

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“A murder’s no place for a young girl.”

Patience Thumm is back from her grand tour of Europe and eager to jump into the family business—which happens to be murder. Her father, the former Inspector Thumm, has left the New York City Police Department to become a private investigator. The Thumms are hired to look into the shady activities of Senator Joel Fawcett. Their misgivings are justified when Fawcett is found murdered, clutching a broken toy box in his dead hand.

A case this challenging calls for a master detective. Thumm calls upon his old friend Drury Lane, who is lured out of retirement to investigate the murder. In Patience, Lane recognizes a budding detective whose skills might equal, or even surpass, his own. And despite her father’s misgivings, Patience is determined to prove that a woman’s place is at a crime scene.

The Tragedy of Z by Ellery QueenWith The Tragedy of Z, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee continue to bring together all of the lessons they learned in their previous books. This is an atmospheric, well-paced, meticulously plotted detective novel, winningly narrated by Patience. You can even tell the characters apart (not always a given with early Queen). One dazzling feat of deduction follows another. And I dare you to find another mystery that stages its denouement in an execution chamber—during the execution. It’s a tight story with a wonderful sense of showmanship; the only thing it lacks is the emotional payoff of its predecessor Tragedy of Y. All of the suspects and victims are at least a little grotesque, so it’s difficult for the reader to feel too invested in the outcome.

The Queens seem to have figured out early on that their Drury Lane mysteries were at their best when they featured Drury Lane the least. The Tragedy of Z, which takes place ten years after Lane’s previous adventure, at first seems to take the radical step of omitting him altogether. Seventy-year-old Lane is essentially retired, a frail old man who stays close to his Elizabethan compound, the Hamlet. Even when he does join the Fawcett investigation, he keeps a low profile; there is a sense that he may be passing the torch along to Patience. Lane still has a few tricks up his sleeve, however, and the solution results from a true collaboration between the two.

Patience is young and inexperienced as a detective, though she catches on very quickly. When Senator Fawcett is killed, she is apprehensive about visiting her first murder scene. The corpse turns out to be surprisingly mundane, the still point around which a frenzy of activity revolves.

Of those present, he was the most serene, the least concerned […] Through the dancing haze before my eyes, I looked, and looked, and thought that it was indecent for a dead man, a murdered man, to sit so quietly and unconcernedly while all the world scuttled about his room, invading his privacy…

Patience often indulges in an arch, rather pretentious style of narration that allows her to elide over situations that might prove embarrassing, like her budding romance with Jeremy Clay, their client’s son. She insists that his attentions are “inane” yet, reading between the lines, it is clear that she is enjoying the relationship more than she would like to admit. Still, she never gets carried away. Her career as a detective comes first. Her biggest challenge on that score is convincing the men in the room that she belongs there at all, starting with her overprotective father.

You think you’re back in the days of crinoline and nine petticoats, don’t you? You think women oughtn’t to vote, and smoke, and curse a damn, and have boy-friends, and raise hell, eh? And you still believe birth control is a device of the devil, don’t you?

While some of her “showing off” is youthful impulsiveness, much of it is an effort to demonstrate her competence to a skeptical audience. Patience is especially nervous to meet her idol, Drury Lane, and has prepared a monologue to explain some of her deductions thus far. It’s a bravura performance that wins him (and the reader) over completely.

The Tragedy of Z by Ellery QueenThe Thumms need Lane’s help because they believe an innocent man is being railroaded for Senator Fawcett’s murder. The small town of Leeds, New York, is dominated by the grim facade of Algonquin Prison. A recently released prisoner named Aaron Dow has been accused of the crime: he was the one who built the toy box Fawcett was holding, the broken piece marked “HE.” There are countless others who wanted the crooked senator dead, however, including Jeremy’s father, Elihu Clay, local vice queen Fanny (who smokes cigars and wears beautifully tailored men’s suits), and even the Senator’s equally shady brother, Dr. Ira Fawcett. Despite the Thumms’ best efforts, however, the town has closed ranks against the outsiders. A powerful political machine controls everything in Leeds.

The prison casts an ominous shadow over the story, an ever-present reminder of what awaits Aaron Dow if he is wrongfully convicted. Patience worries that she is “impotent to save that poor creature from jerking out his cheap little life in the embrace of the electric chair.” A visit to the prison does nothing to allay her fears.

It was empty, silent, lifeless. Even the walls here leered and muttered to me soundless tales of horror, and these were the walls not of cells, but of offices. I wondered what shrieking phantasmagoria inhabited the terrible structures all about us.

Later, Lane attends an execution which disturbs him enormously. He describes it to the Thumms in excruciating detail. This is a haunting monologue which also incorporates important clues. Later, in the hair-raising denouement, Lane will crash a second execution to present the solution. This is the scene that makes the entire book worthwhile, as Lane fires off a series of airtight conclusions, casually eliminating dozens of suspects on the spot before zeroing in on the guilty one. It’s an absolutely brilliant spectacle.

The Tragedy of Z demonstrates that the Queens are continuing to hone their craft. Like Patience, they’ve done a lot of growing up, but their fertile imaginations and youthful zeal remain unabated. And some things never change—rest assured that, even at seventy, Drury Lane still has a great body.

Second Opinion

Ho-Ling

The Tragedy of Z is overall weaker than The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y, there’s no doubt to that in my mind. But the conclusion of Z is perhaps the strongest of the three Tragedies, providing a much better showcase of how clues and deductions are handled in Ellery Queen novels. The rest of the book isn’t bad per se, but the star of the book is definitely the final chain of revelations made by Mr. Drury Lane.

Availability

The Tragedy of Z is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press.

 

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

Love, when you get fear in it, it’s not love any more. It’s hate.”

Frank Chambers has always been a drifter. He’s never found anything worth staying in one place for, until the day he stumbles into a roadside diner and sees Cora Papadakis working the grill. Though their chemistry is undeniable, so is her husband, Nick. There seems to be one easy way to solve their problem, but for Frank and Cora, murder is just the beginning.

For those who find elaborate locked-room mysteries unrealistic, James M. Cain poses the opposite question: What happens when two idiots try to commit the stupidest murder imaginable? The Postman Always Rings Twice is really two books in one. It starts out dumb and sleazy, before turning into a surprisingly ingenious trap that only squeezes tighter the more Frank and Cora struggle to escape it. That second part is worth the price of admission on its own, but the lead-up is a little too sordid for me.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain In a book this terse, there’s no time to waste. No sooner has Frank gotten an eyeful of Cora than he accepts a job at the diner, where he is so overcome by lust that he can’t even keep his food down. “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” The fact that he works for her husband Nick, and likes him, does not bother Frank at all. Indeed, the kind and innocent Nick is the only likable character in the book. The only person who doesn’t love him is his wife, who finds his Greek heritage distasteful. Early on, she blows up at Frank for suggesting she might be Mexican. Frank knows why she is so offended at the thought—“It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.” Charming. Soon, the two acknowledge their attraction (i.e., Frank mashes Cora’s lips in for her) and start to dimly consider how Nick might be gotten out of the way.

However, the same lack of impulse control that draws Cora and Frank into an affair to begin with also threatens to derail their murder plot. This luckless pair plunges into a comedy of errors they are ill-equipped to handle. When they attempt to plot a locked-room murder in the best detective story tradition, it feels all wrong. If you or I tried to pull off a John Dickson Carr-style impossible crime in real life, it would probably play out exactly like this, with a victim who doesn’t cooperate with the timetable, unreliable technology, nosy neighbors, and a cat that won’t leave the evidence alone.

The early part of Postman isn’t always much fun because it involves stupid people doing stupid things. It becomes much more entertaining when Frank and Cora start having to deal with people who are actually intelligent; to their indignation, they are in danger of becoming pawns in other people’s games. And game is the right word. Everyone else seems to be having a lot fun with Frank and Cora’s situation. Their crisis becomes someone else’s puzzle, or even just a bad joke, triggering a domino effect of fear and betrayal in the easily confused couple.

The relationship between Frank and Cora also grows more thoughtful as they must convince themselves they share a deep enough bond to justify the sins they’ve committed. After all, Cora points out, she’s no “hell cat.” She’s really a good person. And a good person like her would only consider murder in the service of a great love. Even Frank, who has fewer illusions, spends a long time trying to sort out his feelings about Cora.

What did she have that makes me feel that way about her? I don’t know. She wanted something, and she tried to get it. She tried all the wrong ways, but she tried. I don’t know what made her feel that way about me, because she knew me. She called it on me plenty of times, that I wasn’t any good. I never really wanted anything, but her. But that’s a lot. I guess it’s not often that a woman even has that.

However much Frank and Cora speak of love, though, it’s clear from the start that, for them, sex and violence are intermingled. Their moments of passion are frenzied and brutal, the wounds they inflict upon each other foreshadowing the savagery to come. Murder seems like a natural extension of their brutal sexuality, an ecstatic peak that can never again be reached. The reason it’s so difficult to convince themselves that they are killing for love is because it is actually the other way around—the murder is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, a perverse consummation of their affair.

“We’re chained to each other, Cora,” Frank tells her. “We thought we were on top of a mountain. That wasn’t it. It’s on top of us, and that’s where it’s been ever since that night.” The Postman Always Rings Twice begins as the unpleasant tale of a seamy affair before ending up in some unexpected places. Its two illicit lovers learn that there’s no such thing as getting away with murder—it’s only a question of how and when it catches up with you.

Second Opinions

Crime Fiction Lover

This classic novel by James Cain is full of flawed people, violence, lurid sex, bad choices and doomed people. It’s one of the earliest examples of noir and a book that was both successful and notorious when it was published in 1934. Despite its age, The Postman Always Rings Twice still holds up and is something that any fan of this edgier type of crime fiction should read.

Library of Congress Blog

How The Postman Always Rings Twice got its “sort of crazy” name.

Availability

The Postman Always Rings Twice is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

The 1946 film version is available for streaming rental. It’s very effective, though, as befits a glossy MGM production starring Lana Turner, it scrubs away much of the book’s grime.

A more recent film adaptation was made in 1981, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, also available for streaming rental. I haven’t seen this one, but it is reportedly more faithful to the book.

The Ha-Ha Case (1934) by J.J. Connington

The Ha-Ha Case by J J Connington

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Nothing like a little shooting to blow away the cobwebs.”

Johnnie Brandon has a lot to celebrate on his twenty-first birthday. Even though he is the youngest son, an obscure law has made Johnnie heir to what remains of the family estate. Now that he has attained his majority, he can begin carrying out grand plans for the inheritance, guided by his tutor Thomas Laxford.

His older brother, Jim, is determined not to let that happen. He doesn’t trust Laxford, who has inserted himself so neatly into Johnnie’s life. Before Jim has a chance to talk his brother out of his plan, however, the weekend’s shooting party goes terribly wrong. Sir Clinton Driffield has a cunning killer in his sights, but, as any hunter knows, it’s one thing to spot your quarry, and quite another to bring it in.

The Ha-Ha Case is a solid country house detective novel with an intriguing setup and a solution that genuinely surprised me. The mystery itself, though detailed, is clearly explained and rarely dry. It also features an unusual structure, but this serves the book less well. This is my first experience with J. J. Connington, so I’m not sure whether it is typical for Driffield to enter the story at the last minute as he does here. Most of the investigation is handled by Inspector Hinton before his boss, Chief Constable Driffield, brings the spark of genius needed to the solve the case. In theory it’s an interesting idea, showing that even if you can spot all the evidence, it takes a special gift to be able to put it together. In practice, however, it just means going back over the same ground again and again.

The Brandon Case (The Ha-Ha Case) by J J ConningtonThe opening is nice and mysterious, as Jim Brandon arrives at his brother’s country home, Edgehill, without knowing whether he will be welcome there. For that matter, he isn’t sure how Johnnie can afford to live at Edgehill at all, given that he has no money of his own and their father cannot even pay Laxford’s tutoring bills. Jim has no idea who or what he will find in his brother’s house.

Nothing about the setup makes any sense. Johnnie is distant and evasive about both his finances and his relationship with Laxford. He seems far too close to Laxford’s wife Diana, who has “good looks of a rather hectic type and curiously disturbing hot eyes.” Johnnie is quite naive even for his age. When Jim tries to press him for details of his life, he closes off, especially after Jim blunders by criticizing Johnnie’s idealistic plan to turn their father’s estate into housing for the poor (“Think of the slums, Jim”). Jim senses Laxford’s fingerprints all over this scheme; the only thing he can’t figure out is what Laxford might be getting out of it.

It’s a small party this weekend. The only others present are the Laxfords’ governess, Una Mentieth, and a mysterious character named Hay. There is something about Hay that bothers Jim, though he can’t put his finger on exactly what.

[Jim] himself moved now among people to whom dressing for dinner was an event, and he knew the symptoms. They fumbled in the wrong pockets for their cigarettes or their pince-nez, they groped after diaries or papers they had left at home, or in extreme cases they grew embarrassed in the search for pocket-handkerchiefs. In a dozen different little ways they betrayed that they were clothed in unaccustomed garments. But Hay had none of these troubles. His hand went automatically to his cigar-case when he wanted it. He carried his dinner-jacket as though it were part of his habitual wear. And yet in some subtle way the coat and the man inside it failed to harmonize.

Una seems to be on Jim’s side, as the two share many snobbish laughs together making fun of the lower classes. In fact, she appears to have a lot more money than most governesses. And right from the start, Una seems to be steering Jim in a particular direction, with unclear motives.

As the sun rises on Johnnie’s twenty-first birthday, the four men head out on a hunting expedition that will end in tragedy. This chapter is marvelously titled “The Ha-Ha of Death,” and Johnnie will indeed meet his demise at that ironically named location. (“The junction of high and low ground was demarcated by a ha-ha,” Connington helpfully shares, “a four-foot stone wall forming a tiny cliff, its top flush with the slope and its base resting on the horizontal stretch below.”)

Police must determined whether Johnnie’s death was an accident, suicide, or murder. This task falls to Inspector Hinton, an ambitious detective who has been waiting for this kind of big chance, though “it never crossed his mind that he might not be equal to the emergency when it came.” As an investigator, Hinton certainly has feet of clay. Though competent and thorough, he seems to lack the imagination needed for such a complex case. His arrogance and unwillingness to collaborate makes him unpopular with colleagues.

In his rare moments of expansion, Inspector Hinton would impress upon his subordinates that a member of the police force should function like a perfect machine, smoothly, efficiently, and without emotion of any sort. “Like me, you understand?” he would add modestly, to make the matter perfectly clear.

Hinton is dogged in pursuit of evidence, but takes a narrow view of what information might be relevant to the case. While The Ha-Ha Case would never be mistaken for a character-driven mystery, there are a few vividly drawn characters, including Hinton. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, yet he’s not a bad detective, so there is some suspense in wondering just how close he is getting to the truth.

Another entertaining character is the Laxfords’ maid, Miss Tugby. This rather downtrodden figure, sneeringly nicknamed “Beauty” by Inspector Hinton, devotes herself to gossip with the intellectual fervor of a Marie Curie.

It cannot be denied that she habitually listened at doors, and that no letter escaped her perusal if its owner left it within her reach. But these practices were not dictated by any hope of personal advantage. Indeed, much that she overheard through the keyhole of the servants’ hall was greatly to her disadvantage, for the cook had decided views about her efficiency.

Miss Tugby, in fact, like many a distinguished scientist, “wanted to know about things.” The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, without ulterior design, was her object…In most scientists the thirst of knowledge is accompanied by a desire to publish to the world the results which they have acquired…Here the orthodox scientist had a decided advantage over Miss Tugby, who had no Journal or Transactions in which to record her discoveries. But Nature ever finds a way. In addition to her sharp nose and receptive ears, Miss Tugby had a mouth and a mother.

Driffield’s willingness to listen patiently to anyone, to seek help on topics he is unfamiliar with, and to think outside the box serve him well in this case. He is at pains to point out that Hinton actually has gathered all the evidence needed to solve the crime. This is technically true, but it would take an expert to know some of the obscure information required to interpret these facts.

If Driffield had entered the case a bit sooner, The Ha-Ha Case would be tighter and less repetitive. Even so, however, Connington keeps things fairly lively—this is not the first time I’ve been surprised at how nimbly a “humdrum” mystery author is able to introduce and explain highly detailed information while keeping the reader’s attention. The situation brings some unusual legal elements into play, setting the stage for an excellent solution.

Second Opinions

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

So, a decent read, and I wish I’d been in a better state of mind to concentrate on the fiddlier aspects (although it’s all explained clearly enough at the end). Another example of why Connington shouldn’t be overlooked, as this book certainly isn’t Humdrum. Well Worth A Look.

Martin Edwards

The snag is that here (as compared, for instance, to the superior The Sweepstake Murders) Connington allowed plot contrivance to dominate the book. As a result it is rather awkward in construction, and the trickery used to disguised the surprise solution is not entirely satisfying. These are significant criticisms, yet the flaws did not destroy my enjoyment, because I find Connington’s ambitious and sometimes unorthodox approach to be rather admirable. He was trying to do something different, yet play fair with the reader, and these are excellent aims for a writer of traditional mysteries.

The Grandest Game in the World

Although not a sensational SURPRISE! story, this is thoroughly satisfying, and highly recommended to all who enjoy old-fashioned detective stories.

Availability

The Ha-Ha Case is available in paperback from Coachwhip under its American title, The Brandon Case.

Mr Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (1934) by David Frome

Mr Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard by David Frome

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Guilty knowledge is something that human beings cannot successfully cope with, and the more intelligent they are, the more it betrays them.”

The sun is shining on this August bank holiday. Mr. Pinkerton is surrounded by happy crowds. He should be happy himself, but he can’t help worrying about a foolish wager he made with his friend Inspector Bull. The Inspector is certain Scotland Yard could never mistake a murder for natural death. Mr. Pinkerton suspects otherwise. Now he is near the end of the betting period, however, without a single case of murder to show for himself.

The last thing Mr. Pinkerton expects is for a murder case to sit down right beside him on a park bench, but that is just what happens. Old Mrs. Ripley is dying. Local gossips suspect poison. Mr. Pinkerton isn’t sure what to think, but he knows one thing for sure: unless he discovers the truth, innocent lives will be destroyed.

Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard is an amusing light mystery, revealing dark secrets hidden behind closed doors. It takes place in Richmond which, in spite of its proximity to London, is portrayed as a bucolic small town, where everyone knows everything about everyone else…until murder shows just how little they really know.

The story opens with a vivid portrait of the bank holiday festivities, with Mr. Pinkerton feeling lonely amidst the crowd.

Mr. Pinkerton stood in the middle of the terrace, looking wretchedly down on the bright holiday crowd. It seemed to him that some venomous foul thing was waiting above them, poised, ready to strike and blot out all the laughter and color and innocence…and it seemed to him that it was up to him to stop it.

Despite his comic eccentricities, Mr. Pinkerton is at times a poignant character, leading a small and isolated life. Ironically, it takes the suspicion of murder to make him feel he has a place within this happy throng.

A family poisoning is an intimate crime, so the investigation focuses on Mrs. Ripley’s nearest, who are not necessarily her dearest. A miserly chronic “invalid,” Mrs. Ripley used her imaginary ailments and her money to control her three children, threatening to cut them off financially if they marry. “The people who stood to gain the most by Mrs. Ripley’s death each needed money,” says Inspector Bull. “They each needed freedom.”

Evelyn is the dutiful daughter who prepares all of her mother’s food. She is in love with (but unable to marry) Portus Ladysmith, vicar of a slum church that always needs money. Charlotte actually did elope, with tragic results. Now a penniless widow, she has only recently started reconciling with her mother—by sending her a gift of food. Hugh is in love with Linda, the girl next door, but will not risk his mother’s wrath by marrying her. As a result, Linda is now engaged to Monty Paget, “pots of money and no brains. Delightful fellow, complete jackass.” Monty says things like, “Oh, I say, Inspector! You’re not tryin’ to say we put arsenic in the cocktails? Oh, I say, that is jolly!”

Mr Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard by David FromeMr. Pinkerton manages to track down this family on the basis of his overheard conversation. He warns her physician, Dr. Freebody, that his patient may be in danger. Unfortunately, it is already too late. Mrs. Ripley dies that very day, and Mr. Pinkerton’s best friend, Inspector Bull, is on the case.

There have been some big changes in the lives of these characters since their first appearance in The Hammersmith Murders. Inspector Bull, who was once the star boarder in the Pinkertons’ rooming house, is now married and living in a home of his own, though he and his former landlord remain close. Mr. Pinkerton still lives in the big house in Golders Green, but under very different terms. His emotionally abusive wife has died, leaving Mr. Pinkerton a small fortune that she had secretly stashed away over the years.

The shy and self-effacing Mr. Pinkerton still hardly knows what to do with his new freedom. After so many years of harsh treatment, he finds it difficult to spend a few shillings on the little luxuries that mean so much to him without imagining some kind of reprisal from his wife. The late Mrs. Pinkerton remains very much on her husband’s mind, controlling his life from beyond the grave. Mr. Pinkerton’s attempts to shake off the effects of his oppressive marriage, as well as his own natural anxieties, can be rather sad. He is afraid of nearly everything, castigating himself for spending sixpence on an ice and panicking as he tries to decide where to sit in a large tearoom. Mr. Pinkerton can only forget his inhibitions when he is investigating a case. He will do anything, suffer any affront to his dignity, in pursuit of a suspect. As silly as his adventures can be, they are important for his emotional development.

Here, he is thrilled to be asked to join the official investigation for the first time; his other efforts have all been undertaken purely on his own. All this ends up meaning, however, is that Mr. Pinkerton gets to be in the room when some of the suspects are questioned. He is too self-conscious to do much else. The book is therefore split into two halves: first, Mr. Pinkerton’s mildly zany amateur sleuthing, then Inspector Bull and the vast machinery of Scotland Yard take over.

I will admit to finding Mr. Pinkerton’s inquiries more entertaining than Inspector Bull’s, but both suffer from the same problem—they are so focused on a particular suspect that the investigation becomes lopsided. Most of the story deals with this single suspect, only to sort of cram in the others quickly near the end. Though the culprit is not too surprising, the denouement is expertly done. The pleasures of the book come less from the mystery itself than from the details of ordinary life and striking characters, like the Ripleys’ neighbor Mrs. Coburn-Smith, whose eyes “contracted wickedly, like an old parrot’s preparing to swear dreadfully in front of the parson.”

Overall, Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard is a droll, easygoing detective story. Like the endearing Mr. Pinkerton himself, the book has modest ambitions and achieves them all, providing a perceptive, humorous look at life and death among the middle class.

Second Opinions

In so many words

I enjoy whodunits and this is a pretty good one even if the reasoning in the end is a bit faulty.

Availability

Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (also published as Arsenic in Richmond) is out of print, with a few used copies available. It was reprinted as part of the omnibus Mr. Pinkerton and Inspector Bull, which can be viewed at

 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Beware! Peril to the detective who says: ‘It is so small—it does not matter. It will not agree. I will forget it.’ That way lies confusion! Everything matters.”

Captain Hastings can’t think of a more peaceful spot to recover from his war injuries than Styles Hall, the country home of his old friend John Cavendish. He soon learns, however, that life at Styles is now very different than it was before the war. John’s marriage is in turmoil. He and his brother have grown apart from their stepmother Emily, who controls the entire estate. Worst of all, Emily has remarried to the horrible Alfred Inglethorpe. Even the normally stolid Hastings is uneasy about this volatile situation.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha ChristieHe is soon proven right. When Emily Inglethorpe is poisoned, the family is quick to point fingers at her husband Alfred, until a series of shocking revelations makes it clear that every one of them has a motive for the crime. Unfortunately for the murderer, there is also one recipient of Emily’s kindness who is determined to bring her killer to justice—a Belgian refugee by the name of Hercule Poirot.

One hundred years after publication, The Mysterious Affair at Styles has lost none of its charms. Agatha Christie’s debut novel is a wonderfully clever country-house mystery, demonstrating that her ingenuity and talent for misdirection were present from the very beginning of her career.

This also marks the debut of Hercule Poirot, whose persona is already fully established. He is provided with a poignant backstory, as an elderly former chief of police forced to flee Belgium as a war refugee; he is now billeted in communal housing with other refugees, living on charity. The villagers view these “foreigners” in their midst with suspicion, but Hastings is delighted to recognize his old friend.

Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His mustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.

While Poirot does have a few moments here that seem out of character, his essential philosophy of detection remains unchanged: everything matters. If your theory cannot explain every piece of evidence, then the theory is wrong.

The friendship between Poirot and Hastings is delightful. Hastings is an endearingly clueless sidekick who manages to innocently misconstrue nearly everything. While Poirot recognizes his shortcomings, he also appreciates Hastings’ kind nature, as well as the unique insights his naivete can provide.

“Yes, [the killer] is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”

I acquiesed.

“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

“Yes,” he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, “you will be invaluable.”

The murder of Emily Inglethorp is marvelously constructed, with many enticing clues (missing coffee cups, pieces of torn-up letters, mysterious scraps of fabric). It would take some period-specific knowledge to discern the significance of some clues, but the overall outline of the crime is perfectly solvable, relying more on human nature than on technical information.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha ChristieThe family circle at Styles revolves around Emily’s whims. As her companion Evelyn Howard explains, “She was very generous, but she always wanted a return. She never let people forget what she had done for them—and that way she missed love.” Though her stepsons John and Lawrence are outwardly affectionate, they are highly aware that she controls their father’s estate. It rankles that they are dependent on Emily for money that should rightly be theirs. Her marriage to Alfred, who fawns over her in his eccentric clothing and ridiculous black beard, terrifies them. What if she leaves the Cavendish money to this interloper?

The female characters are far more interesting than the men, who don’t show much personality. Evelyn’s blunt manner and clipped way of speaking sometimes get her into trouble; unlike John and Lawrence, however, she has the gumption to leave Styles rather than hang around grumbling. John’s wife, Mary, struggles to fit in. She lived an independent life before marriage and now chafes at her lack of freedom. Her unhappiness may be leading her into a dangerous friendship with toxicologist Dr. Bauerstein. (Hastings’ infatuation with Mary is a source of comic relief throughout.) Emily’s ward Cynthia is working as a hospital pharmacy assistant, the same post Christie held while writing The Mysterious Affair at Styles. There are several amusing scenes related to her work.

“We are really thinking of bestowing a prize on the first individual who does not say: ‘What a lot of bottles!’ And I know the next thing you’re going to say is: ‘How many people have you poisoned?'”

I pleaded guilty with a laugh.

“If you people only knew how fatally easy it is to poison someone by mistake, you wouldn’t joke about it.”

There are a few first-book wobbles here of the sort that would later be smoothed over as Christie became more confident in her style, including two lengthy courtroom sequences that slow down the plot. Styles also features some overt snobbery that undercuts the fun. There is a great deal of class-based judgment toward Alfred and xenophobic resentment of Dr. Bauerstein, attitudes that seem to be shared by the author. When the Cavendishes talk about these characters, they sound like spoiled brats, so it’s not very pleasant when Christie seems to agree with them.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is so enjoyable overall that even its few missteps don’t detract from the pleasure of reading it. It fits seamlessly into Christie’s ouevre, a fitting start to the distinguished careers of Hercule Poirot and his creator, Agatha Christie.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is simply wonderful.  It captures everything that I love best about Christie – the country houses, the characters, the misdirection, the changing society.  If Christie simply wrote this book over and over again for the next three decades, I’d be perfectly happy.

My Reader’s Block

Christie is one of the few detective novelists who can–if it has been long enough since I last read the book–manage to pull the wool over my eyes more than once. She is a master of misdirection and even in her debut novel, she is quite good at making the reader look at this when they really ought to be looking at that

The Grandest Game in the World

All things considered, an excellent début.

The Book Decoder (review contains spoilers)

Overall, it was a disappointing read. If you are new to Poirot series then I do not recommend you to start with this book.

Superfluous Reading

It took me a while to warm up to the narrator’s impression of Poirot, I really enjoyed re-reading this book. Probably more than the first time or so that I read it.

A Crime Is Afoot

In any case its worth reading and it’s a fine introduction to Poirot book series.

Availability

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is in the public domain, and a free ebook is available at Project Gutenberg

 

Criss-Cross (1934) by Don Tracy

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“What a succession of double-crosses had led up to all this […] Double-cross on double-cross. So many of them piled on top of each other. Double-cross on double-cross until the jumble became a big crisscross.”

It’s been said that there are only three motives for murder: love, money, or revenge. Some crimes are caused by all three. Johnny Thompson is a down-on-his-luck former boxer, trying to support his mother and brother by working as an armored car driver. Since they were kids, Johnny has loved Anna. Anna likes Johnny, but what she really loves is money. So she marries Slim, who always has plenty of dough and isn’t too particular about where he gets it.

Then Johnny sees a chance of getting everything he’s ever dreamed of. It’s not moral, and it’s not legal, but a smart guy like him could get away with it. Johnny thinks he knows all the angles. By the time he realizes what kind of game he’s really playing, he’s already in way over his head.

Criss-Cross by Don TracyBe careful what you wish for, because you may get it. Criss-Cross is the hardboiled tale of boxers, prostitutes, and petty criminals trying to get by in a working-class area of Baltimore. At the center of this tough story, however, is a raw, bleeding heart. Johnny’s yearning for Anna colors every aspect of his life, eventually leading him down a very dark road. In a world of crime and violence, love may be the deadliest weapon of all.

From the beginning, Johnny knows that Anna is no good. She’s happy to go out with him when he has the money to show her a good time, but during the Depression, those moments are few and far between. When Johnny can’t afford to take her out and asks if they can simply spend an evening at home together, she laughs in his face. “I must have had it bad, you see, knowing she was only playing me for a good thing and still letting her get away with it.” Even as he becomes more disillusioned with Anna, Johnny’s love for her never wavers. It’s like an addiction. He spends most of his time trying not to think about her, trying to keep away from her, only to be drawn back into her orbit by forces beyond his control.

I put on my blue suit and began walking around town, trying to find something to do that would keep me away from Anna. I walked around in a circle that kept getting narrower and narrower until it was just around the block in which Anna’s apartment was. And then I began to tremble and I walked fast and straight to the doorway of her place.

It soon becomes clear to Johnny that Anna will never feel the same way about him as he does for her. By then, it no longer matters. His obsession has taken over. He is determined to win Anna by any means necessary, though “it isn’t easy to accept a bum imitation of something you’ve wanted a long time. But I was going to have everything she could give anybody. I was going to pay for it, but I was going to have it.”

Johnny’s chance comes from an ironic source: Anna’s husband, Slim Dundee. Slim is planning to rob an armored car, and he needs an inside man. Johnny is reluctant to work with a man he can’t trust, unsure of what Slim knows about his relationship with Anna.

I was afraid of him. I knew it and I knew he was the first man in my life I’d ever been afraid of. When you’re afraid of a man, he doesn’t have to be a better fighter than you. You beat yourself.

Despite his misgivings, Johnny decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. However, what should be a straightforward crime becomes tangled in a series of betrayals and misunderstandings, with shocking results.

The Cheat by Don TracyCriss-Cross is the terse story of a man who thinks he understands the worst about human nature (his own and others), only to learn that he still isn’t aiming low enough. Though he’s still very young, Johnny has been knocking around for a long time. One of the book’s pleasures is its matter-of-fact portrayal of a rough neighborhood in which the “respectable” poor like Johnny’s family are brought into constant contact with criminals, slowly eroding their values. (You know your protagonist is living in a noir world when the nice girl who really loves him is a prostitute.) In such an environment, it’s difficult to know who’s straight and who’s crooked. Johnny thinks he knows the score, but, as he gets in deeper and deeper, his story takes some unexpected turns. The deceptively simple first-person narration sounds objective, lulling the reader into accepting Johnny’s version of events. Only later does it become clear that there’s more to Johnny than he’s letting on—perhaps even more than he’s aware of himself.

The simplicity of the prose makes Johnny’s naked longing all the more powerful by forcing him to express the most profound feelings in the starkest possible terms, boiling them down to their basic essence. Sometimes there is nothing more tragic than a simple statement of fact.

She was always saying “I love you” now. When we were together, she’d say it over and over again. It would have been fine, if I hadn’t always the idea that she was trying to convince me of something that wasn’t true. Like a kid repeating a lie over and over again, hoping that if it was repeated enough times it would be true. I knew Anna didn’t love me, and the sound of her voice saying “I love you” all the time got to be almost as bad as the times she had laughed at me when I asked her to love me.

The characters all remain a little sketchy, leaving the reader to fill in the details. We are as much in the dark as Johnny is, unsure who can be trusted—if anyone.

Criss-Cross opens with a dossier, Johnny’s employee file from the armored car company.  Here are the facts, Don Tracy seems to be saying, and now here’s the truth, the real story of Johnny Thompson. It’s a short and brutal one that sometimes goes in a very different direction than he (or the reader) expects. In the end, the tragedy of Johnny is that he may be the person least capable of understanding his own story.

Second Opinions

Bill Crider

This is a neat little noir, told in the flat, objective style that was coming on strong in the ’30s. If you’ve only seen the movie, you might want to check it out.

Criminal Element

Tracy may not have been James M. Cain, but judging by this novel, he wasn’t all that terribly far behind. Honestly, if someone new to the world of classic hardboiled fiction asked me for a good example of such a book, I would be perfectly comfortable pointing them in the direction of Criss-Cross. 

Vintage Hardboiled Reads

Well written and sharp. I really enjoyed the novel and it’s atmosphere of the struggling times of 1930s Baltimore.

Availability

Criss-Cross (also published as The Cheat) is out of print, with used copies available. The 1949 film version, starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo, is highly recommended.

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart (1934)

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart

6 stars (6/10 stars)

So this was murder. This was murder, and it happened to people one knew, and it did indescribable and horrible things to them. Frightened them first, perhaps. Fear of murder itself came first—simple, primitive fear of the unleashing of the beast. And then on its heels came more civilized fear, and that was fear of the law, and a scramble for safety.”

The Cases of Susan Dare collects the adventures of a young author who writes “murders…lovely, grisly ones with sensible solutions,” but doesn’t see why her fictional sleuths should have all the fun. Aside from her series detective, Nurse Sarah Keate, Mignon G. Eberhart’s work usually focuses more on romantic suspense than crime-solving, so it’s a nice change of pace to see both elements combined in these stories.

Over the course of the stories, Susan develops from a reluctant amateur, to an aspiring detective learning confidence in her skills, to a serious professional investigator. It is a clear through-line, yet Eberhart seems uncomfortable presenting a young woman as a competent detective.

Susan has a gift for spotting things that don’t quite fit and looking for connections between them. Her methods are supremely logical—even if she instinctively suspects a particular individual, she will not act in the absence of physical evidence. At the same time, she is quick to downplay her own abilities. It’s frustrating because no matter how intelligent she is and how skilled at crime-solving, there is always some little moment that undercuts her success, trying to make her smaller and softer. Her boyfriend Jim compares one of her solutions to an algebra problem, for example, only for a horrified Susan to interject that it’s actually like a patchwork quilt: not intellectual work, but domestic and unthreatening. The moment a case heats up, Susan runs off to make tremulous phone calls begging Jim for help, and at the conclusion of a successful investigation, it is happily noted that “the woman was home where she belonged.” It’s especially irritating because Susan doesn’t need Jim’s help to solve her cases. He only provides moral support, but she acts as if she can’t do anything without him. The stories themselves are otherwise enjoyable, and several are even quite superior, so it’s a bit depressing to see a smart, independent career woman being undermined in this way.

Introducing Susan Dare (6/10)

Susan has been enjoying her visit with Christabel Frame, until Christabel’s brother Randy turns up. Randy is spending far too much time with fellow houseguest Michela Bromfel, and her husband Joe is taking notice. Everyone can see that Randy and Michela are asking for trouble. But when trouble comes, it is more horrible than anyone could have expected. Susan feels helpless, until newspaper reporter Jim Byrne makes a fateful suggestion: “Now, here’s your chance to try a real murder mystery.”

After a long time Susan moved to the writing table and drew a sheet of yellow manuscript paper toward her, and a pencil, and wrote: Characters; possible motives; clues; queries.

It was strange, she thought, not how different real life was to its written imitation, but how like. How terribly like!

Lots of unusual clues and a good introduction to Susan and Jim, but the solution is not exactly fair play unless you have expertise in a certain field.

Spider (8/10)

“You can’t just be afraid,” insists Susan. “You’ve got to be afraid of something.” But that’s what Caroline Wray is. She’s just afraid. At Jim Byrne’s suggestion, Caroline invites Susan to the Wrays’ gloomy Chicago residence to get to the bottom of it. Susan soon learns what Caroline is afraid of: her forbidding cousin Jessica, her nephew David, and, most of all, her sister Marie.

It must be Marie Wray—the older sister; the adopted Wray who was more like old Ephineas Wray than any of them. Her face was in shadow with the light beyond it, so Susan could see only a blunt, fleshy white profile and a tight knot of shining black hair above a massive black silk bosom. She did not, apparently, know of Susan’s presence, for she did not turn. There was a kind of patience about that massive, relaxed figure; a waiting. An enormous black female spider waiting in a web of shadows. But waiting for what?

A wonderfully sinister tale of family menace in a creepy Victorian mansion—and there’s a monkey.

Easter Devil (5/10)

Susan Dare is in search of devils as she investigates the murder of a servant at the country estate of Gladstone Denisty. Working undercover, “Nurse Dare” finds many strange clues, like her patient Felicia’s obsession with broken glass, and the ominous Easter Island statue that is believed to be a harbinger of death. There’s plenty of spooky atmosphere here also, but the mystery doesn’t come together as well. This is one where Susan holds back for a long time due to lack of evidence, and the evidence never really does coalesce.

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart 2The Claret Stick (6/10)

They say a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night. If that’s the case, than the Kittiwake community theater’s next show should be a smash hit, as leading man Brock Cholster is bludgeoned to death during the rehearsal. With the theater doors locked, the only people who could have killed him are his fellow cast members. They include his wife Jane, his sister Adelaide, and their next-door neighbor Tom Remy, not to mention the show’s director Dickenson. An intricate closed-circle mystery with a well portrayed theatrical setting.

The Man Who Was Missing (5/10)

It’s news to Susan that Chicago has a French Quarter, but that is where her latest case has taken her. School friend Mariette Berne, a French immigrant who has fallen on hard times, needs Susan’s help. Her boyfriend André vanished from his locked room during the night. The moment Susan arrives at Madame Tousea’s boarding house, she knows that Mariette’s suspicions are correct—there is something wrong about this house. But does the sense of unease come from Madame herself, or one of the other boarders? As usual, Eberhart nails the atmosphere, in this case the hot, stifling feel of a run-down boarding house in the dead of summer. The solution is less convincing, however; in fact, it’s completely ridiculous.

The Calico Dog (8/10)

Twenty years ago, little Derek Lasher was kidnapped. His mother Idabelle has never given up hope that her son was alive, and her prayers have been answered twice over—two men have come forward claiming to be Derek. Both claimants, Dixon and Duane, seem like such nice young men, but they have a great incentive to lie: the real Derek is heir to a thirty-million-dollar fortune. The bewildered Idabelle turns to Susan Dare for help in determining which one is her missing son.

Until their identities are confirmed, both men are living in the Lasher mansion. Susan thinks this is “an invitation to murder,” and she’s right. One family’s private tragedy results in a public murder, right in the middle of a crowded charity ball. Despite dozens of witnesses, no one can identify the killer. An irresistible premise and good clueing make up for Susan holding back a significant fact from the reader.

Second Opinion

A Penguin a Week

Susan Dare is not an unappealing character, and taken one at a time these stories are probably fine, if a little unlikely, but grouped together like this it is impossible to miss their formulaic quality.

Availability

The Cases of Susan Dare is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.

The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“I mean to say, bygones are bygones and all that and one hates digging anything up, what? But when it comes to dead bodies in other people’s graves and so on, well, sometimes one gets wondering about them and all that sort of thing, don’t you know.”

Old ways still endure in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. Sir Henry Thorpe presides over his estate, the harvest festival is always observed, and the church bells—the nine tailors—are rung to announce a death in the community. Between New Year’s Eve and Easter, the nine tailors will ring out three times as fresh graves reveal old sins. In order to stop the deaths, Lord Peter Wimsey must discover what long-ago secret is hidden within the peals of the bells.

The Nine Tailors has the reputation of being half mystery, half bell-ringing. That’s not entirely accurate. It’s more like forty percent mystery, forty percent bell-ringing, ten percent rural dialect, and ten percent drainage. For most readers (including me), that will still be far too much specialized bell discussion for their taste. It’s especially unfortunate that so much of it is concentrated in the first section of the book—I’ve tried reading The Nine Tailors before and never even made it to the murder because my mind was so dazed by passages like: “The ninth lead should bring Queen’s change–let me see, let me see–51732468, 15734286–that’s the first thirds and fourths all right–51372468, 15374286–and that’s the first fourths and thirds–13547826…” It turns out there’s an interesting mystery buried in here somewhere; it’s just that Sayers makes it awfully difficult to find.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L SayersThat long prologue finds Lord Peter Wimsey and his man, Bunter, stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul when their car breaks down during a New Year’s Eve snowstorm. They seek shelter with the local vicar, a bell-ringing enthusiast whose plans to ring a complicated sequence for the new year are threatened by the illness of one of his ringers. Wouldn’t you know, Wimsey once swung a mean bell himself. He happily steps in, endearing himself to the villagers. One would think the opposite, since if he had not offered his services, they would not have had to listen to nine hours of church bells in the middle of the night.

Sadly, the bell-ringers are back in the church tower sooner than anticipated. Lady Thorpe, the squire’s wife, has died. It’s an unexpected death, but, everyone believes at the time, a natural one. A few months later, however, a headless, handless corpse is found buried in Lady Thorpe’s grave. Wimsey learns that nearly twenty years ago, on the eve of Sir Henry and Lady Thorpe’s wedding, one of their guests was robbed of a priceless emerald necklace. Reimbursing the cost of the necklace ruined the Thorpes financially, and the stones have never been located. Wimsey becomes convinced that the new murder is connected to this long-ago crime. Over the course of the year, he sort of pokes around at both mysteries in a leisurely fashion.

He is especially intrigued to learn that the dead man had been asking around the village for a Paul Taylor, since “Tailor Paul” is the name of one of the church bells. On the basis of this rather flimsy evidence, Wimsey begins haunting the church, much to the confusion of Superintendent Blundell, who can never keep track of whether he’s talking about a bell or a person. (Join the club!) While Sayers wrings quite a bit of menacing atmosphere from the bells, which at times seem to come alive with malevolent—and even murderous—intent, it’s just an awful lot about bells.

He passed up through the great, bare clock-chamber, released the counterpoise and climbed again till he came out beneath the bells. There he stood for a moment, gazing up into their black mouths while his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness. Presently their hooded silence oppressed him. A vague vertigo seized him. He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him. Spell-bound, he spoke their names: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams. Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: “Tailor Paul!” and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L SayersThe investigation itself is intriguing, as the threads of both the murder and the jewel theft extend across great expanses of time and place. The more Wimsey finds out, the more confusing the situation becomes. There is a lot of information that is not properly straightened out until the end, resulting in a mysterious but somewhat frustrating atmosphere. Suspicious people and circumstances keep piling up, as no one can be definitively ruled in or ruled out. Along the way, Wimsey meets many suspects and witnesses whose lives have been torn apart by these crimes; their positions are tragic, yet ambiguous. It’s worth noting, given Sayers’ soft spot for the aristocracy, that the only entirely innocent victims here are the landed gentry. The poor must make compromises that lead them into dangerous positions, and perhaps even murder.

Although she is hard-up by the standards of her class, the one character who never has to compromise is the appealing Hilary Thorpe. Fifteen-year-old Hilary doesn’t mind the loss of her inheritance because she intends to earn her own living as a best-selling author. “You’ll want a bit of experience before you can write novels, old girl,” her father cautions. “Rot, Daddy,” she replies. “You don’t want experience for writing novels. People write them at Oxford and they sell like billy-ho. All about how awful everything was at school.” At first, it seems Hilary is being set up as a girl sleuth and sidekick to Wimsey. He is certainly impressed by the clues she spots, and gives her some advice that may come from the author’s own hard-won experience.

“If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day […] Because you have the creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently of yourself. You’re lucky.”

“Do you really think so?” Hilary looked excited.

“Yes—but your luck will come more at the end of life than at the beginning, because the other sort of people won’t understand the way your mind works. They will start by thinking you dreamy and romantic, and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times—but they won’t ever know it, and you won’t know it at first, and it’ll worry you.”

Far too soon, however, Hilary vanishes from the story. Just as she has planned, she is off to boarding school, with Oxford in the future. Despite the hand-wringing over how the theft of the emeralds ruined the Thorpes’ lives, they’re not really poor. There’s enough money for Hilary to live her dream. She gets to rise above the messiness of crime, while other characters have no choice but to keep living in that dirt, however much they may want to leave it behind.

The Nine Tailors is a strange mixture. A crime of the past reaching into the present is a classic premise that always works. When Sayers sticks to this, the book is at its most effective. Though the circumstances of the crime are complicated, the solution has a wonderful simplicity. The portrayal of the bells is also fascinating: far from being the background noise of daily life, in this village they have a dangerous physicality that must be respected, even appeased. The bells are ominous and omnipresent, ready to turn on anyone who enters their lair. Little of that research about bell-ringing that drags down the book so much is actually needed. The bells are frightening enough on their own, but their horror is muted by the sheer weight of all the technical details. The Nine Tailors is an ambitious effort, and certainly something different in the mystery genre. Unfortunately, it is trying to do so many other things that it sometimes forgets to be a mystery at all.

Second Opinions

A Crime Is Afoot

It’s beautifully written and is a very fine literary mystery; the plot is extremely interesting and the story is well-developed; the characters are properly drawn and interact credibly; the resolution is flawless and it has a good sense of time and place.

The Grandest Game in the World

One of Sayers’ best novels. The Fen country village, with its church, is magnificently drawn, and the church services show as much feeling and power as the powerful bells, at once beautiful and menacing.

Availability

The Nine Tailors is available in the US as an ebook from Open Road Media and in the UK as a paperback or ebook from Hodder & Stoughton.

The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr

The Eight of Swords by John Dickson Carr

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Of all the motiveless and unenterprising sluggards to gather up as suspects, the rest of us are the worst! At least, in a crime story, you get a lot of motives and plenty of suspicious behavior. You have a quarrel overheard by the butler, and somebody threatening to kill somebody, and somebody else sneaking out to bury a blood-stained handkerchief in the flower bed. . . . But here we’ve nothing of the kind.”

The Bishop of Mappleham has lost his mind. This worthy gentleman, previously known only for his interest in criminology, has turned the country home of his host Colonel Standish upside down with his antics, from sliding down the bannisters to throwing inkwells at the vicar. No one seems to know whether the Bishop is going mad or there’s a poltergeist on the loose. Still, it’s hardly a matter for Scotland Yard, until the Colonel’s neighbor, Septimus Depping, is found murdered in his study after a late-night thunderstorm, with all the windows wide open.

Dr. Gideon Fell doesn’t think it’s his kind of case. It seems far too ordinary. His interest is piqued, however, when he learns that a card depicting the eight of swords was found beside the body. Dr. Fell sets out to investigate, along with a host of fellow sleuths that include the crime-loving bishop and a detective story author, but will too many cooks spoil the murder?

The Eight of Swords by John Dickson CarrThe Eight of Swords is a delightful romp that is also a change of pace for Dr. Fell. John Dickson Carr is famous for impossible crimes, but here there is not a locked room in sight. What seems impossible is fitting together a collection of clues that all seem to contradict one another. Despite the many twists and turns of the investigation, Carr is equally focused on character-based comedy. This is not always his forte (Exhibit 1: The Blind Barber). Here, however, he hits most of the right notes.

Much of the comedy springs from the odd assortment of would-be detectives who attach themselves to the case. Dr. Fell’s regular sidekick, Inspector Hadley, makes a brief appearance at the start of the book, but is otherwise absent, correctly noting that “it hardly seems to concern us if a clergyman goes mad and slides down the banisters in Gloucestershire.” Dr. Fell soon picks up a number of eager assistants to fill his place. Of course there is the crime-mad Bishop of Mappleham, who is so keen on criminology that he sent his son Hugh to New York to study the subject at Columbia University. Hugh made it to New York, all right; the problem is that he never quite managed to get to class. While he has learned a great deal about blondes and bathtub gin, Hugh is uneasily aware that his knowledge of criminal investigation cannot stand up to a real murder case.

Another amateur sleuth is mystery novelist Henry Morgan, “the creator of John Zed, diplomatist-detective.” He and his wife Madeleine live in a picturesque cottage, drinking cocktails, playing jazz records, and wearing lounging pajamas as he cranks out best-sellers for Colonel Standish’s publishing company. Usually it’s Dr. Fell who provides meta commentary about detective novels, but here Morgan fills that position. Hugh prefers the exciting John Zed series to “the ones that are supposed to be very probable and real, where all they do is run around showing photographs to people.” Morgan turns out to be the author of that series as well, but, as he explains,

They’re written for the critics’ benefit. You see, the critics, as differentiated from the reading public, are required to like any story that is probable. I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever—that’s very important—(3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction. Digressions are the curse of probability . . . which is a funny way of looking at life in general; and the detective may uncover all he can, so long as he never deduces anything. Observe those rules, my children; then you may outrage real probability as much as you like, and the critics will call it ingenious.

Freeman Wills Crofts, do you need some ice for that burn?

Several of these amateur sleuths are hampered in their detection by the awkward fact that they are also suspects in the crime. Depping, who appeared to be a harmless, scholarly gentleman, managed to make a number of enemies during his short time in the village. In particular, Depping had a reputation for bothering young women, including Madeleine Morgan. Business partner Colonel Standish appreciates Depping’s investment in the publishing firm, but does not approve of his son marrying Depping’s daughter Betty. Depping’s roving eye had also landed on the Colonel’s daughter, Patricia—and maybe even his formidable wife. (One recurring bit that does not work is the strategy her family uses to stand up to Lady Standish, which is to tell her, “Nuts, Maw!” Imagine the hellish life this woman lives, with her husband and children constantly and inexplicably bellowing, “Nuts, Maw!” in response to everything she says.) There is one suspect everyone hopes is the killer: a visiting American whom the Bishop has identified as notorious blackmailer Louis Spinelli.

Meeting Patricia Standish changes Hugh’s whole outlook on the case. Patricia, you see, is a ginch. As Carr helpfully explains, the problem with modern detective novels circa 1934 is that there are just too many independent women running around firing revolvers and acting as if they are equal to men. But don’t worry, he has no intention of ruining his book by introducing any such “heroine” to the story when what readers really want is a ginch.

[Patricia] was not cool-headed or strong-minded. She could no more have accompanied the detectives with a gun than she could have brought down the villain with a flying tackle. Quite to the contrary, she was content to leave that sort of thing to the proper people; to beam up at you as though she were saying, “What a man!”—and you threw out your chest, and felt about nine feet tall, and said, “Ha, ha.” Nor, in her case, were there all those persistent attempts to freeze or embarrass the hero until the very last. She tumbled into Hugh Donovan’s arms from the start, and stayed there, and a very good thing too.

I am fascinated by Carr’s assertion that most mysteries of the time were too feminist, as in my experience of these works, ginches far outnumber intelligent heroines. As the relationship between Patricia and Hugh progresses, however, it becomes clear that her most ginchlike quality is her tactful acceptance of Hugh’s endless boozing. He is itching for a cocktail or a pint more or less constantly, and his lady love sympathizes.

If possible, that last remark of hers drew her closer to him than ever, a powerful, unspoken, dazzling sympathy. “He must be dying for a dri—” She knew. This must be the sort of thing Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote about in the sonnets…Such a glamour must have attended all the great sirens of the ages. In its absence there are unfulfilled romances. If, when Dante met Beatrice that famous time on the what’s-its-name bridge, Beatrice had smiled at him and whispered, “Look here, I could do with a slug of Chianti,” then the poor sap would have tried to find out her address and telephone number, instead of merely going home and grousing about it in an epic.

There is a lot of confusion leading up to the denouement, but the solution is a classic looking-glass crime. It’s one of those cases where nothing makes sense until you change your perspective, just a little, and then it all becomes clear. The one weakness of the solution is a particular piece of evidence that is accepted without question throughout the novel, only to be casually overturned at the end. It’s a bit of a cheat—it’s a very obvious thing to have checked (I certainly wondered why they hadn’t), yet if readers had been made privy to the results, the crime would have been solved instantly, so the result must stay hidden. The solution explains every strange clue so simply and elegantly that I’m willing to forgive this lapse, but it’s not quite fair play.

Aside from this moment of annoyance, The Eight of Swords is a rollicking mystery that skillfully keeps a number of pots on the boil. The puzzle is genuinely mystifying, with revelations about Depping’s secret life coming at a steady pace, and the solution is one of those rare ones where the moment the identity of the killer is revealed, the fog lifts and everything hits the reader at once. Though it may not be altogether fair, it is lots of fun.

Second Opinions

Bedford Bookshelf

This was an engrossing read with a well plotted mystery, fabulous writing, and injections of humor.

The Grandest Game in the World

This is one of Carr’s lesser books, and a disappointment after the two previous Fells.

The Green Capsule

It’s very strange.  It’s almost like Carr wrote an excellent novella, didn’t quite know where to take it, and then padded it out to full novel length.  Had the story maintained its original pace throughout, I’d be placing it on the mantel alongside The Four False Weapons and Death Watch.  As it is, it’s merely a good mystery novel – a strong effort by most other authors but a bit short for Carr.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Without a locked room or impossibility in sight, the book gets put to one side when talking about the best or the worst of the Fell stories, sort of falling through the cracks. Which is a shame as it’s really worth a look to show Carr’s skill at constructing a non-impossible puzzle.

Availability

The Eight of Swords is out of print, with used copies available.