Saturday, January 29, 2011

NEW STUFF: The Herring Seller's Apprentice – L.C. Tyler

Surprise! Every now and then I like to remind myself I'm living in the 21st century. I'll be posting reviews of notable contemporary writers whose work is largely influenced by the guys and gals I love and whose books I think you ought to check out as well. Here's the first in a new category aptly called NEW STUFF.

I remember coming across in the Rue Morgue Press catalog this new series featuring a sardonic writer of mysteries, thrillers and romance novels. When I learned that the second book Ten Little Herrings earned an Edgar nomination I thought it was time to acquaint myself with Ethelred Tressider, the hack writer, and Elsie Thirkettle, his literary agent. So, of course I started with this one - the first book.

The book begins with a "Postscript" and ends with a section titled "In The Beginning."  I thought I was in for a 21st century spin on the old inverted detective novel so masterfully handled by R. Austin Freeman and made popular on TV in "Columbo".  But I was wrong.  There is a hint that the reader knows that Tressider is up to something other than just tracking down a murderer, but the book does indeed follow the format of a traditional whodunit.

After an opening chapter introducing the jaded Tressider and his brash, vulgar agent Elsie (whose outbursts seem forced and not too funny) the book settles in for an intriguing blend of whodunit and con game thriller.  Tressider's ex-wife Geraldine has apparently committed suicide.  The police find a rental car in her name parked near the shoreline, inside the car an oddly written suicide note signed "Cordially yours, G Tressider (Mrs.)," and some clothes set out on the beach.  When a strangled woman's body is found nearby and Tressider is asked to confirm its identity, he has a compulsion to discover what really happened.  The plot takes a very strange turn with the introduction of a serial killer targetting blond women and the discovery of a secret Swiss bank account in Geraldine's name.

Tressider likes to talk about the construction of his books, how he misleads readers and his mixed feelings about "red herrings" to which the title alludes.  He tells of how he built his first novel All on a Summer's Day out of a very simple premise - the misinterpretation of how a date was written - and how his hero Sergeant Fairfax in a single day solved a case ready to be filed as unsolved.  That any novel could hinge on something as seemingly insignificant as whether 6/7 means July 6 or June 7 seems to poke fun at the minutiae that tend to flood traditional whodunits.

I'm not really sure if Tyler has an affection for the crime novel or if, like Tressider, he is plain fed up with all genre fiction. Because of his unmarketable multisyllabic name, Tressider writes all his books under appropriate pseudonyms: Amanda Collins for romance, J.K. Elliott for historical novels, Peter Fielding for mysteries. But as he tells us of each one he systematically condemns each genre. He belittles the detective novel and its obsession with plot gimmickry. He calls romance novels phony, insults the audience that devours them, and mentions how much he loathes writing sex scenes. He chose the end of the 14th century as the topic for his historical novels because "[it] is a well established fact that nobody had sex between 1377 and 1399." An embittered writer? Yes. The voice of the author L.C. Tyler himself? Unclear. But to be sure there are valid points made in all the digs. There are also playful and knowledgeable allusions to authors and fictional characters from the Golden Age plus a few mentions of contemporary writers so Tyler definitely knows his stuff. But does he really love the genre? I began to wonder if it was all play or if there was an undercurrent of ridicule rippling through his ideas.

Whether or not Tyler thinks well of the detective novel is probably a moot point. It certainly doesn't detract from the book as a whole. It is soundly written, cleverly plotted and very funny (often coarsely so). If the reader catches on to Tressider's game early (as I did – at the exact moment the game occurs to him, in fact) this should not deter from finishing the book. There are several surprises in store. Not the least of which, as Tressider says to Elsie, is this:

"…I have to point out that here was your other mistake. You thought this was a detective story. In fact, it was love story all along."

L.C. Tyler's Mysteries (all dates are from the UK editions)
The Herring Seller's Apprentice (2007) - Edgar nomination as "Best Paperback Original"
Ten Little Herrings (2009) - Edgar nomination as "Best Paperback Original"
The Herring in the Library (2010)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Candidate for Lilies - Roger East

Here's my first post for Friday's Forgotten Books, the weekly homage to books of yesteryear hosted by Patti Abbot. Or, rather this week the guest host is Kerrie Smith.

Seemingly omniscient and slightly sinister Uncle Arnold who has been estranged from his nephews and niece invites them all for a weekend at his enormous mansion.  During dinner he reveals to them secrets they thought were private, insinuates unflattering traits, often insults them, and finally informs them that his will is about to be changed.  Shortly thereafter he is shot dead with one of his French dueling pistols.

Although the plot sounds like hundreds of other similar whodunits, East's sophisticated prose style and intelligent characters raise it a notch above what might have been ho-hum and run-of the-mill.  The arch tone and comedy are soon abandoned when it is discovered that Herbert, one of the nephews, seems to be slowly losing his mind.  An alienist is consulted who believes at first there is a biological or hidden genetic component as the root cause of the madness, then he believes that guilt is manifesting itself physically.  But Sophy, Herbert's sister, soon comes to the conclusion that her brother is being poisoned by an insidious means.

The revelation of the killer may not be a huge surprise but the motive is and makes perfect sense in the context of the story which is about inheritance, family honor and family history.  In this regard it reminded me of Death on Tiptoe (see my review here), but in East's case his ending is far from melodramatic. In fact, it is one of the saddest and most poignant endings I have encountered in a detective novel from this era.  How East manages to change the tone of the book and get the reader to empathize with the murderer is nothing short of brilliant.

Roger East is a very underrated - and largely forgotten - writer deserving of reissued books. Candidate for Lilies (1934)  is his third book.  It was preceded by the bizarrely titled The Mystery of the Monkey Gland Cocktail (1932) and Murder Rehearsal (1933), a intricately plotted novel in which a mystery writer learns that one of his books is being eerily reproduced in a series of supposed suicides that turn out to be cleverly disguised murders. As far as I can tell none of his books were reprinted in paperback and only one (Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors) received a hardcover reissue. His last three books are more crime novels and thrillers than detective novels and can be found every now and then. But out of his six books written in the 1930s only three can be found from the usual online bookselling sites.  The others seem to be extremely scarce - perhaps even genuinely rare books.

Roger East's Detective Fiction
The Mystery of the Monkey Gland Cocktail (1932)
Murder Rehearsal (1933)
Candidate for Lilies (1934)
The Bell is Answered (1934)
Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935)
Detectives in Gum Boots (1936)
Pearl Choker (1954)
Kingston Black (1960)
The Pin Men (1963)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Death Turns the Tables - John Dickson Carr

Here Carr blends into his story some tricks that are the favorite plot motifs of other mystery writers.  We get a story of an attempted murder in the past, a missing murder weapon from that crime, an actual murder, a faked murder and the disappearance of a tramp accidentally run down. The business with the murder weapon reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner's obsession with switched guns and missing bullets and all the rest of the dizzying ballistics games found in his Perry Mason novels.  And the final twist of where the victim was actually killed as opposed to where he was found is something that turns up quite often in the novels of Anthony Wynne.  The re-enactment of the faked murder towards the end of the book, however, is pure Carr. It is simultaneously one of the most preposterous and clever bits in the books of this period when he was at his most creative.  Only a reader equipped with an arcane knowledge of Canadian geology and taxidermy could possibly figure it all out.

Dr. Fell is much more somber here and less of his usual blustery, pontificating self.  We still have Fell's cries of "Archons of Athens!" and "Oh, my ancient hat!" but, with the exception of some antics at a pool party, the book is fairly devoid of the usual farcical excesses.  Since Dr. Fell is engaged in a mental game of chess with the most arrogant of Carr's villains, Fell adopts a new persona.  He is, in effect, acting as Nemesis in the classical meaning of the word.  He knows full well who is responsible very early on and is determined to give the culprit what he fully deserves.  How Dr. Fell doles out his retribution, however, surprises not only the murderer, but the reader as well.

The Cut Direct - Alice Tilton (1938)

Leonidas Witherall is a dead ringer for William Shakespeare.  Much to his disgust people find it necessary to show off their knowledge of the Bard's works by quoting passages whenever they can.  Is it any wonder he allows them to call him Bill just to dispense with the "Guess That Allusion" game everyone seems to want to play with him.  With a character like this you can be sure that the stories are going to be a little less than serious.

Tilton was one of the earliest practitioners of the screwball mystery.  Even moreso than Craig Rice's booze laden romps Tilton's books are better deserving of the term screwball because she employs the standard elements of stage farce which her books resemble more than they do detective novels.  Impersonation, disguises, story telling (or rather elaborate lying), and car chases are teeming in the books featuring Witherall and the denizens of Dalton, Massachusetts.

In this second outing, Witherall is struck by vehicles no less than two times in the opening chapter coming to consciousness in a strange house only to find a corpse as his only companion.  The zany plot will have a crew of two servants, one secretary, a wise acre businessman, a socialite and her friends running between houses; donning servants' uniforms and shucking them just as quickly; popping into taxis; hiding in laundry baskets and under beds and in closets all in an effort to avoid the police and find the person responsible for putting the carving knife in the chest of Bennington Brett.  It's as fast paced as a Warner Brothers' cartoon and often just as funny.

The Poison Fly Murder (1940) - Harriet Rutland

"Butcher" - a trout fly
The original title of this book is the far more evocative Bleeding Hooks. It also happens to be an exclamation uttered frequently by Major Jeans, one of the most colorful characters in the story. An intriguing and devilish puzzler Harriet Rutland's debut mystery novel set in a Welsh sporting lodge that is host to a group of fly fishing Britishers on holiday. One day during the lunch break, on a small island several miles from the lodge, the body of Mrs. Mumsby, a middle-aged woman more interested in the men at the lodge than the fish in the lake, is discovered on the beach. Her face is blue, her body contorted, and in her palm a fishing fly has become deeply embedded. It is thought she died of a stroke or heart attack. Among the group is Mr. Winkley, Rutland's series Scotland Yard detective, serving as yet another policeman on a "busman's holiday," who almost immediately suspects foul play.

"Munro's Killer" - a salmon fly
There is lots of talk about fly fishing, the role of the ghillie (a fisherman's guide and oarsman, I gathered from the reading), the art of fly tying, the difference between fly fishing and regular angling, and the difference between trout and salmon fishing. I thought this would get dull, but none of it was. On the contrary, Rutland manages to make fly fishing rather fascinating. As an example, when talking of fly tying Major Jeans refers to his flies by the macabre names he gave them: "Avenging Murderer," "Blinkin' Bastard," and "The Bloody Butcher."

These mini lectures on fly fishing, and all its arcane skill and art, are interspersed throughout the narrative with much of it being vital to the story of the unraveling of Mrs. Mumsby's strange murder. Mr. Winkley conducts his own legitimate investigation gathering evidence to prove the death is, in fact, a nasty murder. He is convinced that the fishing fly was poisoned then somehow dragged into Mrs. Mumsby's palm perhaps by a skilled fisherman with a rod. While this is going on, two young people step up and try their hand at amateur sleuthing and do their best to discover the killer on their own. In the process, one of the amateurs' life is endangered and another attempt at murder is made. Adding to the oddness is a young man aspiring to be a stage magician who owns a pet monkey that mysteriously disappears shortly after Mrs. Mumsby's death.

"Reid's Assassin" - another trout fly

There are a couple of neat twists in this clever plot, many secrets revealed and a finale that gives three surprises one right after the other. Most surprising -- to both Mr. Winkley and the reader -- is the final chapter in which it is revealed that the murderer has perhaps pulled off a perfect crime. The last bit makes this book something of a little masterpiece in my opinion.

My only criticism is the author's penchant for cutesy character names. The young couple, a 21 year old woman and man of the same age, acting as amateur detectives are named Pansy Partridge and Vyvyan Gunn, but the reader gets to know them by their nicknames:  Pussy and Piggy.

The Saltmarsh Murders - Gladys Mitchell (1932)

Author's 4th book.  Includes the gimmick of Mrs. Bradley's notebook as an Appendix and the last time this appeared in a Mrs. Bradley book. Why is this considered one of the best?  I found much of Mrs. Bradley's cackling and poking Noel Wells, her dense aide in sleuthing, in the ribs to get old very fast.  Granted the inclusion of an unmarried pregnant woman as the murder victim seemed to be ahead of its time for 1932, but the detective elements of the story bothered me.  Rather the lack of them.

How did she know that Burt was a pornography dealer?  That just came out of nowhere – no clues, no evidence, nothing!  She knew Mr. Gatty was in the church crypt based on a single sentence by the "mad" Mrs. Gatty (something about a wolf being caged in a sheep fold) and it seemed like a guess.  All of Mrs. Bradley's Freudian "psychological observations" seem incredibly dated and judgmental.  That they serve as the primary evidence from which she draws her conclusions seems forced.

I read these books to be entertained because Mitchell can be wickedly funny and unforgiving in her character portraits.  Many of her early efforts in the genre are clearly meant as satires and often parody the work of her contemporaries.  Speedy Death makes fun of Sayers' Whose Body?  The Mystery of the Butcher's Shop is thought to be a send-up of the work of Agatha Christie.  In this book we have yet another English village very reminiscent of St. Mary Mead in Murder at the Vicarage. The difference is Mitchell's vicar might be a lecherous murderer, there is a loony woman who thinks everyone is an animal, and the couple who run the local pub might be baby killers.

I guess I'm not a big fan of Mitchell, though there are a handful of her books that are very well done. Merlin's Furlong, written in the late 1950s, is one I highly recommend.  It was one of the few Mitchell books I have read without being annoyed repeatedly.

Murder on Wheels - Stuart Palmer (1932)

Looks like it's turning into "Author's Second Book Challenge".  Three in a row (Brady, Biggers and now Palmer)  Also the third book in three months with a parrot that swears! And the second book in which the swearing parrot is killed.  What the hell kind of synchronicity is going in my reading selections?  In this one the parrot -- an ancient, ugly, featherless bird -- is the former companion of an ancient pirate who apparently swore up a storm. Onto the mystery…

Opens with a car crash in which the driver is missing.  He is found dead a few blocks north of the crash site, a noose (or more accurately, a lariat) around his neck.  A cab driver claims that the guy was lifted straight up out of the car and flew backwards.  A rodeo happens to be in town.  Anyone can guess how the seemingly puzzling but outlandish murder was done at this point.  The victim also happens to be the identical twin of rich Manhattan playboy Lew Stait.  For purposes of the story they dress in identical clothes.  Can you guess what's going on?  I did.  I found the book slightly amusing but pretty much unoriginal.

Palmer's books are being reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, but I can see why this one was skipped over.  As much as I am willing to accept the bizarre and the fanciful in murder mysteries of this period I was unwilling to accept the murderer's method.  It's rather preposterous.  In addition to the bizarre murder method which relies heavily on luck and chance, Palmer asks us to believe that a killer would be able by suggestion alone to get someone to do something unnatural and a little bit loony so that his plan could succeed.  I find that part of the story utterly contrived.

Finally, the use of the twin brother motif is unoriginal and cliché.  Any reader well versed in the tricks of the trade will see through the obvious "twist" almost immediately as I did.  I'll try a few more but this one is not recommended.

UPDATE December 1, 2012:  TomCat tells me that Rue Morgue Press has released their edition of Murder on Wheels.  My opinion of the book still stands. But right now I'm chowing down on my words in the second to last paragraph. And I was so looking forward to a blueberry scone.

The House of Strange Guests - Nicholas Brady (1932)

The house of the title is the home of Maurice Mostyn and the strange guests are the various people who he invites there to discuss private business.  All of the guests show up under aliases, and according to the butler Summers often forget their name and sign checks under different names.  The book opens with the report of the death of Mr. Mostyn who is found dead in his bath in a gas-filled bathroom.  Suicide is almost immediately ruled out based on the position of his body and the discovery of rubber gloves the maid used in a place where they shouldn't be.  Interrogation of the suspects reveals that they are all glad the man is dead. After some prodding from Inspector Hallows and Rev. Buckle (who was among the guests in disguise) we learn that all the guests were victims of an intricate blackmail scheme.  The autopsy reveals that Mostyn was poisoned with a rare toxin called strophanthin and that it was administered in his toothpaste.  After some routine grilling of the suspects the story takes an interesting turn when Buckle starts his own investigations.

Die Fremden Gäste (The Strange Guests)
German ed., (Wilhelm Goldmann, 1938)
He is fascinated with the household accounts, the manner in which the bills are paid, and three hidden safes in the Mostyn home.  One of these safes is custom made and its odd combination lock requiring two separate combinations (one with letters, one with numbers ) as well as a key piques Buckle's interest.  He tracks down the safe maker and learns several interesting things that only confirm Buckle's suspicions and eventually lead to the discovery of the murderer.  If the denouement unveils one of mysterydom's most groan inducing clichés the writing and the story are lively enough to forgive Brady's lack of invention.

John V Turner (aka Nicholas Brady)
Reverend Buckle is one of the more interesting least known detectives in the genre.  He has an almost macabre interest in the criminal mind but is also an avid gardener and will often be found perusing the latest gardening catalogue which he always seems to have ready in one of his many pockets.  He reminds me of Gideon Fell.  In fact the last two chapters in which he more or less lectures to Inspector Hallows explaining the solution in detail and also eliminates all but one of the suspects proving that only person left has to be the killer is very reminiscent of the kind of lecture that Dr. Fell delivered in Carr's books.  This seems to be more run-of-the-mill than other Brady detective novels featuring Rev. Buckle all of which tend to have an element of the bizarre in the plot.

The Chinese Parrot - Earl Derr Biggers (1926)

I thought this was great fun.  Instead of Hawaii the action moves to the mainland. It opens in San Francisco then moves on to a Southern California desert town called El Dorado.  Biggers has created some very American characters here and his gift for snappy dialogue makes the book all the more enjoyable.  Chan has a much larger role here and as mentioned above is undercover in the role of a Chinese "boy of all work" called Ah Kim who cooks, tends to fireplaces and even acts as chauffeur. He teams up with the son of a jeweler, Bob Eden, to uncover some obvious criminal doings at the home of P. J. Madden, a millionaire intent on buying the valuable pearl necklace.  The most baffling of the events is an apparent murder without a body.  Tony, the African gray parrot of the title, is quite a mimic and in addition to spouting forth Chinese phrases he also squawks out, "Help! Help! Murder! Put down that gun!"  Chan is convinced the bird was a witness to a murder.

Discovery of a missing antique gun with two chambers empty, and an attempt to hide a bullet hole in a wall by covering it with a painting, both support the theory of a murder having taken place in Madden's home.  But just who was killed and where did the body go?  Chan may have two white men as his aides in detection in this book, but it is he alone who will unmask the killer in a great finale where we see "his eyes blaze in anger" while covering the villains of the piece with two guns, one in each hand.

Truly, here is an excellent book not only in the series, but in all of early American detective fiction.

NOTE:  A longer review appears here at Mystery*File, where I am a regular contributor.

A Year in Books

I have succumbed to the blogosphere -- for the second time in my life. This time with a true purpose.  I have been keeping a reading log for several years now and this year I joined one of those reading challenges.  I thought this ought to be a snap.  Read 16 or more vintage mysteries in a year?  I read nothing but vintage mysteries year in and year out.

Amazingly, I am surpassing my goal of books read per month. This most likely will change as we hit spring and summer and the outdoors calls me away from my couch and space heater.  I have been writing reviews as a guest contributor on another blog as well as a wiki site, but I thought:  Why not start my own blog?  Instant gratification is everything.

So here I am. And here you are. As Jackie Gleason used to say:

"And away we go!"