Friday, December 14, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Rolling Bones

Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1939 Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Rolling Bones adheres closely to the formula Gardner had well and truly established. And it works beautifully.

Mason is hired by a young woman named Phyllis Leeds to protect the interests of her Uncle Alden. 72-year-old Alden Leeds made a fortune in the Alaskan goldfields at the beginning of the century and now he seems to be planning to marry. Alden’s relatives are not pleased as the marriage could spell the end of their expectations for hefty inheritances. They are trying to get the old boy committed to an asylum.

As is fairly usual in the Perry Mason novels there’s no question of murder, or any serious crime, until we’re a very long way into the book. There is however a definite puzzle. Or rather there are a number of puzzles. There are several intriguing questions of identity. There’s more than one marriage that is being obstructed. There’s also more than one missing person. And finally there’s the question of the loaded dice.

Of course all this does eventually lead to murder. Which raises those questions of identity again.

The timing of the murder should be straightforward. The apartment house in which the murder took place was under surveillance by the Paul Drake Detective Agency so the times at which various people arrived and left are known with complete certainty. But the timing still turns out to be problematic.

There are two major courtroom scenes. The first, in which Mason is attempting to block the family’s attempts to have Alden locked up in an asylum, is an absolute joy. Mason sets an exceptionally clever and devious trap for the opposing counsel who proceeds to walk right into it in the most eminently satisfying way. The second courtroom scene is perhaps not as amusing but it’s more dramatic.

In a Perry Mason story you expect Perry Mason to cut a few corners as far as legal ethics are concerned. Which is exactly what he does. You also expect the District Attorney’s office to be even less ethical, which is exactly what happens. The only real differences are that when Mason plays fast and loose with either ethics or the law he does so in order to protect the interests of his clients, and he does so with more skill than the D.A.’s office. As usual in Gardner’s novels the message is that if you’re accused of a crime you can’t trust the police or the D.A. to play fair so you’d better hope your lawyer knows all the legal tricks in the book.

This concern over the way that the legal system is stacked against the little guy is present in all the early Perry Mason novels but it’s especially marked in this case. In this story Mason pushes his ethical flexibility to the limit, but he does so because the D.A.’s office utilises outrageously illegal methods in attempting to entrap both his client and Mason himself. And Mason is prepared this time for a showdown on the matter - he’s prepared to put his career on the line to make his point.

Alibis play a major part in this mystery and if you’re a connoisseur of the art of busting unbreakable alibis you’ll be in bliss. Never use lamb chops as part of an alibi in a murder case - they can be treacherous witnesses.

Doubts about identity are a staple of detective fiction but this novel just keeps on adding more twists to the saga. Even Perry Mason has to admit he’s hopelessly confused about the identity of one key player. And every time the matter seems to be about to be resolved Gardner finds that he can extract one more twist from his plot.

Of course any Perry Mason story is going to be neatly plotted but this one is exceptionally strong in that area. There are colourful characters and some fascinating glimpses into the brutal life on the Klondike goldfields. It all adds up to a very entertaining novel indeed. Highly recommended.

The long-running Perry Mason TV series included some remarkably successful adaptations of Perry Mason novels sadly the adaptation of The Case of the Rolling Bones manages to eliminate all the really interesting elements of the book.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Finding of Lot's Wife by Alfred Clark

The Finding of Lot's Wife is a lost world adventure tale. The author was a certain Alfred Clark, of whom I know nothing whatsoever. I am more than a little addicted to lost world stories and this is a rather obscure example of the genre.

While the book was apparently published in 1896 there is some evidence that the events it purports to describe happened somewhat earlier. There is what appears to be a reference to the Crimean War as a contemporary event.

Hal Aylward is wealthy young Englishman who takes it into his head to go off travelling in the Middle East. He persuades his friend Noel Yorke, an artist, to accompany him. They eventually end up in Palestine where they hear a story that intrigues them. There is supposedly a Greek Orthodox monastery built on an inaccessible site in a hidden valley, a monastery that has not been visited by, or even seen by, any outsiders for centuries. The monks are reputed to live to an incredibly advanced age and to have lost the power of speech. They are fed, so the story goes, by ravens. There’s a suggestion that there is some connection between the monastery and the Biblical tale of Lot and his wife fleeing from God’s destruction of the Cities of the Plain.

It’s obviously a tall story but Noel is captivated by it and insists that they set out at once to find the lost monastery of St Lot.

They are deserted by their Arab guides but, suffering considerably from thirst and hunger,  are taken in by a wandering Bedouin tribe, the Beni Azaleh. The tribe has suffered misfortunes of its own. Some rather strange circumstances lead Aylward and Yorke to a remote valley and there, sure enough, is a monastery perched atop a pillar of rock.

This is indeed the monastery of St Lot but the monks are not unusually old nor have they lost the power of speech, nor are they dependent upon ravens for their food. It seems like a fairly ordinary monastery, except for its extreme isolation. The big surprise is that there are two guests already staying at the monastery, an American professor and his daughter (the daughter being disguised as a young boy).

There are however odd things happening at the monastery.Some odd things had also happened among the Beni Azaleh. The sheikh’s son had disappeared, and the sheikh had gone off to search for him, down a narrow defile in the rocks from which no traveler had ever been known to return. The sheikh did return, but at the cost of the loss of his reason. These various strange happenings are connected to the legend mentioned earlier. The two young English travellers will make the same descent that the sheikh had made, with frightening and horrible results.

I’m not sure if I’d call this an explicitly Christian adventure tale but obviously Christianity does play an important rôle. Of course in 1896 a writer would presume that most of his readers would be at least nominal Christians and would be reasonably familiar with Biblical tales, such as the fate of Lot’s wife. I don’t think a reader would actually need to be a Christian to appreciate this story.

There is some action, there’s a minor battle and there’s plenty of danger. The country itself is a bigger danger than any human foes, especially in the Valley of Madness.

The Arabs are treated in an even-handed manner. El Jezzar is certainly a true villain but the young Englishmen will owe their lives to the mullah of the Beni Azaleh who refuses to countenance cold-blooded murder. The story has two heroines, one an American girl and the other a Bedouin girl.

There’s some effective atmosphere in this story. The horrors of thirst, hunger, isolation and madness are palpable.

The Finding of Lot's Wife is perhaps a lost world story for lost world completists like myself but it’s a fairly entertaining book. If you are a lost world fanatic you’ll certainly want to add it to your reading list. Recommended.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch (The Spiral Staircase)

Ethel Lina White’s suspense novel Some Must Watch was published in 1933. In the 40s it was filmed as The Spiral Staircase and subsequent editions of the novel bore that title.

I was quite unimpressed with White’s The Wheel Spins (filmed as The Lady Vanishes) but since I own the Wordsworth edition which includes both novels in a single volume it seemed sensible to give this author another chance.

The heroine, Helen Capel, is employed by an odd family in a very remote house called The Summit. The house, located near the border between England and Wales, has an unfortunate reputation having apparently been the scene of several murders. And now there’s a homicidal maniac roaming the district, strangling young women.

There are things that are even more frightening than stranglers, such as old Lady Warren (who may or may not have shot her first husband). Her middle-aged son Professor Warren seems harmless enough. His unmarried sister seems decidedly strange. And then there’s the Professor’s son and his wife. This is not a marriage made in heaven and the young Mrs Warren has consoled herself with a series of young men. Now she has her eyes on the Professor’s pupil Stephen Rice, currently staying at The Summit. When the young Mrs Warren decides to pursue a young man she does not expect to be rejected but Stephen has made his lack of interest all too obvious.

The other inhabitants of the house are Lady Warren’s new nurse, the formidable and rather unpleasant Nurse Barker, and the two servants, Mr and Mrs Oates. The only regular visitor is the young Welsh doctor, Dr Parry.

The events of the novel take place on a dark and stormy night. As if that’s not enough to isolate the inhabitants of The Summit, on Dr Parry’s advice strict orders have been issued that no-one is to enter or leave the house until morning. This applies especially to the men, who have a duty to protect the women from the strangler. The strangler seems to be moving closer and closer to The Summit with each murder and everyone assumes that his next victim is likely to be one of the women in the house.

This book is very much in the Had I But Known mould. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of foreshadowing, in fact in a suspense story it can be quite a desirable thing, but it’s a technique that  needs to be handled with care and subtlety. White uses it in a particularly clumsy and obvious way and all it really does it to draw attention to her inability to build suspense effectively.

The basic structure is similar to the classic English country house murder mystery, with a small circle of suspects cut off from the outside world, but played for suspense rather than as a fair-play puzzle-plot mystery. While there are clues, and there are red herrings, nobody does any actual detecting and the solution is stumbled upon by accident.

Being a Had I But Known novel there is of course a romance sub-plot.

I’m not surprised that White’s novels were filmed, and filmed very successfully. She was quite good at assembling the ingredients for a fine mystery suspense story. It was her execution that was lacking. Her prose style is clunky, she has no ear for dialogue, she tells us directly what the characters are thinking rather than letting their words and actions tell us, and there’s that heavy-handed foreshadowing. These are all flaws that a good screenwriter could easily correct and the basic stories had plenty of potential in the hands of a really good director. And Alfred Hitchcock (who directed The Lady Vanishes) and Robert Siodmak (who directed The Spiral Staircase) were very very good directors indeed. In fact it’s a peculiarity of the thriller that some of the best movies in that genre have been based on mediocre source novels.

And Some Must Watch definitely qualifies as a mediocre source novel. Hard to recommend this one.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Rex Stout's Under the Andes

Rex Stout (1886-1975) wrote the first of his Nero Wolfe mysteries, Fer-de-Lance, in 1934. He would go on to wrote another 32 Nero Wolfe novels and a good number of other detective stories and would become one of the most celebrated mystery writers in America. But Stout’s literary career did not begin with Nero Wolfe. Between 1910 to 1916 he had written a considerable quantity of pulp fiction including a now almost forgotten lost world adventure story, Under the Andes. This tale was first published in All-Story Weekly in 1914.

Paul Lamar is a very rich young American, in his early thirties, fairly cultured and somewhat prone to fashionable ennui. His younger brother Harry seems to suffer from the same complaint but is more inclined to seek reckless solutions. Most recently he has been gambling heavily and foolishly. Paul is not worried by the money that Harry might lose. What concerns Paul more than anything else is the family name. It seems that Harry has learnt his lesson in regards to gambling but now a much more serious temptation has appeared. That temptation is Desiree La Mire. La Mire is a dancer. Her origins are shrouded in mystery. Her respectability is open to debate. Her beauty and the fascination she exercises over men are beyond dispute.

Paul decides that the most sensible thing to do is to indulge Harry’s obsession. La Mire will soon tire of the boy. Paul hires a luxury steam yacht and the three of them set out on a pleasure cruise. In Peru they take a detour. On a whim they set off into the Andes and there they discover a mysterious cave. Their guide assures them that the cave is well-known, it is connected to a legend of the disappearance of a large party of Incas transporting an immense quantity of gold, and he tells them that they must on no account the cave. Many have entered that cave in search of gold. None have returned. But of course they do go into the cave.

Getting into the cave was easy. Getting out again seems quite impossible.

What they find in the cave is a lost world, but it’s not exactly a lost civilisation. Or rather it was a civilisation but it isn’t one now. The idea of cultures regressing or degenerating was something that was a minor obsession in late Victorian times. This culture has certainly degenerated.

It’s also a world of darkness. Much of the terror in fact stems from the almost complete darkness. Mind you there are other things, real things, to be afraid of as well. There are people, or what used to be people, and they are not friendly. And there may be monsters as well.

The action is pretty near non-stop. No sooner have our adventurers escaped from one deadly danger than they are plunged into some new and ever more harrowing peril. The fact, in this world of darkness, the dangers are mostly unseen adds to the horror (and Stout uses the darkness as a source of terror and mystery with consummate skill).

There are some other interesting features to this novel. Paul Lamar is a man who believes he has exhausted all of life’s sources of joy and interest. He is bored and perhaps more than half in love with death. This novel was written in 1914 and it has a certain fin de siècle flavour to it. Paul Lamar could be the hero of a decadent novel of the 1890s. When faced with any new danger Paul’s first instinct is to give up and welcome oblivion. The problem he has is that he feels some responsibility to his younger brother so he has to keep fighting even though his heart is not in the struggle. Paul Lamar is a very unusual hero for a tale of adventure.

Desiree La Mire is also an unusual adventure story heroine. Like Paul she seems as if she would be more at home in a decadent novel.

So Under the Andes is a strange collision between the world of literary decadence and the world of pulp fiction. As an adventure story it works extremely well and its odd literary flavour makes it rather intriguing. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Murder by the Dozen

In the mid-1930s Hugh Wiley (1884-1968) wrote twelve short stories featuring Chinese-American detective James Lee Wong. The stories were later collected as Murder by the Dozen. From 1938 to 1940 Monogram Pictures made six very popular Mr Wong B-movies, the first five starring Boris Karloff as Mr Wong.

To be honest there’s not a huge amount in common between Wiley’s Mr Wong and the character featured in the movies. Both are western-educated but Wiley’s Mr Wong was educated at Yale while the movie version was English-educated. Wiley’s version works for the U.S. Treasury Department and has a slightly hardboiled air while the movie version is a rather genteel and cultured private detective.

In the movies the detective is always referred to as Mr Wong. In the short stories James Lee Wong is more often referred to simply as James Lee or Mr Lee.

Long Chance concerns an attempt to buy American bombing planes for the Chinese government, in a manner that is perhaps not entirely open and legal.

Ten Bells deals with murder in the movies. This particular movie includes a duelling scene but one of the pistols is loaded with live ammunition rather than blanks, with fatal consequences. The property man is a very obvious suspect, with a strong motive and ample opportunity. A fairly entertaining story.

A Ray of Light involves diamonds, which may or may not be real. There’s some interesting stuff about methods of telling real diamonds from fake. A reasonably good story.

The Bell from China is a bell from the Chou dynasty which has been donated to the Art League. Mr James Lee Wong is asked to translate the inscription on the bell, which proves to be a challenging task. The results are not those that were anticipated. And there’s more going on here than antiquarianism. A very good story.

In The Feast of Kali wealthy landowner Denman Hale decides it is time to deal with Sang Hop, who runs a floating brothel, gambling hell and opium den. Hale is tired of seeing his Indian and Chinese workers corrupted by Sang Hop. Sang Hop gets wind of Denman Hale’s plans and strikes first. Fortunately his loyal servant Chew Lim realises that there is only way to save his master - he must contact Mr James Lee.

Lee knows he has to move fast. He also knows he’s dealing with all manner of exotic evil - such as worshippers of Kali who practise various bloodthirsty rites. This is not by an means a fair-play detective story but Lee does do some actual detecting by means of some unusual clues. A very entertaining story.

Jaybird’s Chance takes Lee to the Payboy gold mine where there’s been a robbery. An elderly Chinese is the chief suspect. The sheriff has been giving him the third degree but so far has failed to get a confession. James Lee is not surprised by his failure. Lee manages to get in some good trout fishing and some good poker with the guys at the mine. Both poker and trout will prove to be helpful in solving the case. This is slightly more hardboiled than most of the James Lee stories but it’s still quite clever. It turns out that if you’re a detective it helps if you understand bluejays.  A very good story.

No Witnesses takes James Lee into the mountains for a well-earned vacation. But he discovers that crime will follow a detective wherever he goes. It all starts when a wealthy businessman decides he’d like to settle down in the picturesque little Sky Ridge community. What he’d really like to do is to buy a house there. A fine idea, but carrying round two thousand dollars in cash to make the purchase is perhaps less of a good idea.

James Lee gets the vital clue in this case from a Chinese cook at the local hotel. In fact Lee solves many of his cases with help from members of the Chinese community. Another fairly decent story.

Three Words is the story of the murder of a scholar. He may have been murdered for the sake of a treasure, but there are many different kinds of treasures. Things might have been simpler if only doctors took more care with their handwriting and their Latin. A fairly clever story, especially if you like solutions that hinge on literary scholarship.

Scorned Woman is one of several stories that explore the seedy but glamorous side of Chinatown including the various rackets - gambling, narcotics, white slavery etc. This sort of thing was extremely popular with American consumers of popular culture at this time. In this tale money is being raised for the Chinese government in Nanking by the sale of opium. James Lee Wong has to sort this out whilst also rescuing an American girl who has shown an excessive curiosity in the exotic Chinatown underworld and he also has a funeral to attend, a funeral in which the widow’s behaviour proves to be interesting and enlightening. One of the best stories in the collection.

Seven of Spades is pure pulp fun. A G-Man has been killed in Arizona. He had picked up the trail of notorious gunman Dutch Flint. The local sheriff has arrested the wrong man but James Lee is used to having to deal with less-than-efficient local lawmen. He really needs lots of backup on this case but there isn’t time so he’s going to have to rely on his luck, his nerve and his skill with a gun. Not exactly high art but very enjoyable.

The Thirty Thousand Dollar Bomb is a case that could plunge the world into war. A U.S. senator has bought some documents and they’re dynamite and they’re going to be published nation-wide and then nothing will be able to stop the inevitable slide to war. Nothing can stop this from happening, except for Treasury Agent James Lee Wong. Lots of breathless excitement in this story and it works pretty well.

Medium Well Done is the highlight of the collection. It’s the old spook racket. Young Helen King is a very rich woman after her father’s death but she’s easy prey to a phoney medium. Luckily she has a devoted Chinese servant in Wong Sung and even more fortunately Wong Sung is acquainted with Mr James Lee of the Treasury Department. This is a classic pulp tale done with style and Wong Sung gives the story a truly delightful finish.

James Lee Wong is in the Charlie Chan mould, a dedicated professional and a man of high moral qualities. He’s Charlie Chan with more of a pulp edge, although he’s a less complex and less well-developed character. Since he’s a Treasury agent he gets to deal with crimes that often go beyond the straightforward cases that a policeman would deal with.

These are somewhat pulpy and semi-hardboiled tales rather than puzzle-plot mysteries but if you accept them for what they are they’re quite good fun.

There is some gentle humour, much of it in the form of the staggering number of cryptic  old Chinese proverbs which Lee and every other Chinese character in the stories are able to quote.

Murder by the Dozen is highly recommended.

My review of the Mr Wong movie Mr Wong in Chinatown might also be of interest.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Monkey Planet (Planet of the Apes)

Pierre Boulle was a successful French author whose novel The Bridge over the River Kwai was turned into a blockbuster movie during the 50s. His 1963 novel La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) became a major pop culture phenomenon when it was filmed in 1968 as Planet of the Apes.

Surprisingly perhaps the film was fairly faithful to the novel. While the details have been subject to numerous changes the general plot outline is still more or less the same and the themes and even the tone remain substantially very similar. All of the really clever ideas that are to be found in the film were in the novel. The film-makers deserve praise for recognising the essential elements in Boulle’s story and hanging on to them, and for not trying to dumb down the ideas. They also deserve praise for realising that the movie would work best if played fairly straight. The novel is not always played straight and is clearly intended as satire but any attempt to copy the novel’s slightly jokey tone would have been disastrous in the film.

The novel has a framing story (which is utilised for a purpose which will be obvious to an alert reader and very obvious indeed to anyone who has seen the movie). A couple of space tourists find a message in a bottle in space. It’s an account of a voyage of exploration from Earth to the star Betelgeuse three hundred light-years away. It is a scientific expedition and on one of the planets orbiting Betelgeuse they find a society run by highly intelligent apes in which humans are mere animals, incapable of intelligent thought.

The narrator, who believes he is the only survivor, is captured and taken to a scientific institute where ape scientists carry out experiments on the lower animals, such as men.

He is able to convince some chimpanzee scientists that he is not an animal but is as intelligent as an ape. This causes problems since this ape society is likely to react rather negatively to the idea of intelligent humans. He is likely to be perceived as a threat, and the chimpanzee scientists Zira and Cornelius may be in danger as well.

Cornelius is at this very moment involves in an archaeological project which may also be very disturbing to the ape establishment.

Of course at some stage the book is going to have to explain exactly how the apes became intelligent while humans became dumb animals. There’s a great deal of dodgy pseudoscience and technobabble and it has to be said this aspect of the story is handled much more skilfully in the 1968 movie. The big shock revelations are also done much more effectively in the movie. As I said earlier, all the really good ideas in the movie are Boulle’s and are in the novel but they‘re all executed much more effectively in the movie. Overall the novel seems a bit clunky and a bit contrived compared to the film.

One of the more interesting ideas in the book is the difference between originality and imitation, and between civilisations that are original and those that are just imitative. This also touches on the nature of intelligence. There’s also interesting speculation on the rise and fall of civilisations and on the question of societal evolution versus societal degeneration. Boulle certainly tackles plenty of intriguing topics.

One element in the novel that is merely touched on in the movie is that there are three species of intelligent ape, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-outangs, and the three species are by no means equal. This is something that the film-makers obviously decided, no doubt wisely, to approach with extreme caution. In the novel it is quite a big deal.

Monkey Planet is interesting since it’s clearly intended as a satire but exactly what is it satirising? It would be tempting to see it as a satire on race but it is perhaps more a class satire than a race satire. Boulle also has a lot of fun at the expense of scientists. Monkey Planet is odd but interesting science fiction and is worth a read, but the 1968 Planet of the Apes movie improves on the novel quite a bit.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Sydney Fowler's Rex v. Anne Bickerton

English poet and novelist Sydney Fowler Wright (1874-1965) worked as an accountant in Birmingham before devoting himself full-time to writing. He wrote in various genres including science fiction. As Sydney Fowler he wrote quite a number of crime novels.

Rex v. Anne Bickerton, published in 1930, is not so much a police procedural as a legal procedural. We start off knowing nothing whatsoever of the curious events in the Hackett household. We are then treated to an exhaustively detailed account of the coroner’s enquiry into Belle Hackett’s death and we start to see the beginnings of a plot.

Mrs Hackett’s husband James had been away from home on a business trip. She had gone to great lengths to persuade him that she far too ill to be left alone. This was apparently something she did quite often. She was also prone to making vague threats of suicide. James takes no notice of her suicide threats and he takes no notice of her protestations of illness. He’s seen it all before. It always amounts to nothing.

This time Mrs Hackett really does die. She does not, however, die as the result of the almost-certainly imaginary illness she had been complaining of. She dies of arsenic poisoning.

There are three main suspects. All have what appear to be strong motives. James Hackett’s life has beeb made miserable by his wife and she is the one who has the money. Belle Hackett’s sister Anne Bickerton stands to inherit Belle’s fortune. Rose Dorling, employed as a species of governess to the two children, is in love with James Hackett and might well want Belle out of the way. James has an alibi but no reader who is widely read in golden age detective fiction is going to be overly impressed by an alibi. Of the three suspects it is Anne Bickerton against whom it seems easiest to make a case and it is clear that the police see her as the most promising suspect. Given the book’s title it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that it is Anne who ends up  being charged with murder.

We see the case entirely through the lens of the legal proceedings. Everything we learn about the case we learn from the evidence given at the coroner’s inquest and at the trial.

This is effectively a detective story without a detective. Inspector Taverton plays a very minor rôle. Any actual investigating that he does happens off-stage so to speak. He makes brief appearances in the courtroom scenes and even briefer appearances when he discusses the the very broad outlines of the case with his chief. We know his view of the case but we don’t really know how he has come to take that view.

This is a crime novel that is entirely focused on lawyers and legal proceedings. The lawyers, solicitor Mr Duff-Preedy and barrister Mr Rickard Salmon, seem to be cast as the heroes although they are not the slightest bit heroic in any conventional sense. They are motivated purely by self-interest. If they are not the heroes then they are certainly the protagonists.

This is also a book that takes a rather jaundiced view of the much-vaunted system of British justice. The police are not sure which of the three suspects actually committed the murder and they don’t particularly care, as long as someone gets convicted and hanged. Their main concern is that they should not end up looking foolish. Mr Duff-Preedy thinks Anne Bickerton is probably guilty. He doesn’t care. It promises to be a very high-profile case and the publicity will do wonders for his legal practice. The young barrister whom he briefs, Rickard Salmon, sees the case as a wonderful opportunity to make his reputation.

At one point Mr Duff-Preedy is vastly amused when he is reminded of the sacredness of the principle of the assumption of innocence. He regards this as a pathetically naïve notion. In practice once you’ve been charged with a crime you have to prove your innocence.

The coroner’s jury is a prize collection of fools and knaves. Juries in general are portrayed as being capricious, emotional and generally foolish.

And then there’s the judge. If anyone in this story deserves to be hanged it’s Mr Justice Ackling. There are plenty of unscrupulous characters in this tale, but he is a self-satisfied vicious sadist.

The plot has some nice twists and some neat misdirection. It’s reasonably fairly clued. The solution is plausible and the author certainly cannot be accused of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There’s also an odd touch at the end which I can’t say anything about but it’s yet another slightly offbeat element to an already quite offbeat novel.

There’s some sardonic humour and there’s a generally very sceptical if not outright cynical tone. The characters are a collection of very imperfect human beings. They all have serious character flaws but apart from Mr Justice Ackling none could be described as evil. And they all have at least some strengths to balance their weaknesses.

Putting so much emphasis on legal proceedings can be risky. You end up with very dialogue-heavy writing and there is the danger that the reader will grow weary of very very long courtroom scenes. If you want to utilise this kind of technique successfully you have to throw in some surprises and you need great skill to maintain an atmosphere of suspense and expectancy. The reader has to feel that something startling is likely to happen at any moment. Erle Stanley Gardner could get away with it but even Gardner did not dare to set almost the whole action of a novel in a courtroom. Surprisingly Fowler pulls it off pretty well.

Rex v. Anne Bickerton is a fine example of the diversity of crime fiction during the interwar years. Structurally it’s slightly out of the ordinary and it’s definitely unusually cynical in tone. I think it works and I’m going to highly recommend it.