Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ellery Queen and Lord Peter Wimsey on TV

There have been some pretty good television series based on the detective novels of the golden age. Recent attempts have generally been conspicuously unsuccessful or even outright disasters but back in the 1970s these things were often done surprisingly well.  

Two of my favourites were the Ellery Queen series starring Jim Hutton which aired on NBC in 1975 and 1976 and the 1970s BBC adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. 

For anyone who’s interested I’ve reviewed both the Ellery Queen and the Murder Must Advertise episode of the BBC Lord Peter Wimsey series on my Cult TV blog.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios

Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel The Mask of Dimitrios (published in the US as A Coffin for Dimitrios) is a true classic of the crime/espionage genre. 

Charles Latimer is a mild-mannered writer of detective stories on holiday in Istanbul. He makes the acquaintance of the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, who happens to be a fan of crime fiction. Colonel Haki shows him the body of a real murderer, a mysterious man known as Dimitrios who has been sought by the police in half a dozen countries over the course of the preceding two decades. Latimer becomes obsessed by the idea of doing some real detective work on his own initiative, trying to untangle the truth about the life and crimes of Dimitrios.

Latimer’s amateur detective work takes him to various European cities, where he meets an assortment of shady but fascinating characters who have been associates of the dead criminal. Dimitrios has dabbled in white slaving,  drug dealing, robbery, political assassinations and espionage. Latimer’s quest turns out to be more interesting than he expected, but also a lot more dangerous. 

Although Dimitrios is dead, he dominates the book, as Latimer slowly pieces together the details of his lively but violent career. Latimer is a great character as well, in a book that abounds in colourful characters like the enigmatic Mr Peters. 

It’s a stylish, gripping and highly entertaining tale, brilliantly plotted and executed with tremendous elan. An absolute must-read.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

John Rhode's The Davidson Case

The Davidson Case, published in 1929, was one of the early Dr Priestley detective novels written by Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) under the pen-name John Rhode. It illustrates some of the author’s great strengths as a mystery writer while also suffering from some fairly serious weaknesses.

John Rhode was one of the authors contemptuously dismissed by critic Julian Symons as belonging to the Humdrum School of detective fiction. My own view is that Symons was quite wrong about these writers in general and very wrong about Rhode in particular. I’ve found the Dr Priestley mysteries to be anything but humdrum. The Davidson Case is not however one of his better efforts.

Sir Hector Davidson is the head of a chemical engineering firm. The firm was built up by his father and grandfather but Sir Hector is running the company into the ground. He cares about nothing other than extracting as much money from the company as possible in order to finance his dissolute lifestyle. His cousin Guy Davidson has been watching Sir Hector’s activities with despondency for several years. Guy really does care about the company and about its employees. He is a research chemist himself and has a genuine passion for the subject.

When Sir Hector is found dead no-one is very upset. In fact there is a general sense of relief. His cousin Guy Davidson, who now succeeds to the baronetcy and who will now control the firm’s fortunes, is as relieved as anyone.

The circumstances of Sir Hector’s death are peculiar. He had been returning to his country house. On arrival at the railway station he had been surprised that his servant was not waiting for him with the car. He engaged the services of a local carrier to transport him in his van to his home. He was found dead in the back of the van, stabbed to death by a rather curious improvised stiletto.

It is not an impossible crime but finding a theory that will adequately account for the circumstances is a challenge even for Dr Priestley. The local police are baffled. When Chief Inspector Hanslet of Scotland Yard is called in he can make little progress either until Dr Priestley puts forward a theory that seems watertight. Or is it?

The murder method is certainly ingenious. It’s exceptionally complex but it is worked out in intricate detail and it hangs together remarkably well.

The problem lies in the solution. There are a couple of factors in this case that are just a bit too obvious. Rhode is careful to provide most of the clues necessary for the solution but the alert reader is almost certain to spot the main points of this solution. It also has to be said that the story relies a little too heavily on the police failing to follow up certain very obvious lines of inquiry, and in order to keep the issue in doubt the author perhaps is guilty of holding back some important information until rather late in the day. Once this information is revealed the solution is straightforward. Rhode was usually very skillful in his plotting but on this occasion he was obviously aware that had he not held back this information the explanation of the crime would have been all too obvious.

One interesting feature of Dr Priestley as a detective is that his only interest in crime is the purely intellectual interest it provides. If he is able to solve the crime to his own satisfaction he is perfectly content. Whether the criminal is brought to justice is of no concern to him. The Davidson Case provides an example of this approach that is slightly startling for a novel published in 1929. A Hercule Poirot would certainly not have approved of Dr Priestley’s indifference to the matter of seeing that justice is done.

If you have not sampled any of John Rhode’s Dr Priestley mysteries then I strongly urge you to do so but The Davidson Case is definitely a lesser effort. The Venner Crime, The Claverton Mystery and The Motor Rally Mystery are on the other hand quite superb examples of golden age detective fiction while Dr. Priestley Investigates is rather outrageous fun.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Mrs J. H. Riddell's The Uninhabited House

The Uninhabited House was originally published in Routledge’s Christmas Annual in 1875 and thereafter remained fairly obscure until it turned up in the 1971 E. F. Bleiler-edited anthology Five Victorian Ghost Novels (published by Dover Books).

The author, Mrs J. H. Riddell (1832-1906), enjoyed considerable success in her lifetime. She wrote around fifty novels and short story collections and this output included a respectable number of tales of the supernatural.

The Uninhabited House is, not surprisingly, a haunted house story. The narrator is Patterson, a young clerk in the London solicitor’s office of the kindly Mr Craven. Mr Craven’s most extraordinary, and most troublesome, client is the formidable Irishwoman Miss Blake. Miss Blake is imperious, querulous, selfish and manipulative. Most solicitors would have urged her to take her business elsewhere but Mr Craven cannot bring himself to take this step. Oddly enough his clerks, although all have suffered at Miss Blake’s hands, would be very disappointed were he to do so. The truth is that Miss Blake makes life a lot less dull than it might otherwise be. She is strangely repellant but strangely fascinating.

Miss Blake would be a challenging client in any circumstances but matters are made more exasperating by the matter of her house. The house was left to her by her widowed sister and the letting of this house provides the bulk of the modest income on which Miss Blake and her niece subsist. It is easy enough to find tenants for the house. It is, on the face of it, an attractive and desirable residence. The problem is that no tenant ever stays more than a few weeks, and several have vacated the house within a few days. 

The house displays all the symptoms of a classic haunted house - unexplained noises, doors that mysterious open and shut, lights that go on and off in impossible circumstances and worst of all apparitions for which no explanation can be found. 

Matters come to a head when the latest tenant flees the house and a law suit ensues over the matter of the lease. In desperation young Patterson volunteers to stay in the house himself in order to solve the mystery. He has been offered fifty pounds to do so but he has a stronger motivation than money - the chance to prove himself to a certain young lady.

The plot is, to be honest, a fairly routine Victorian ghost story. Its saving grace is that it is a particularly well written story. Mrs Riddell is skillful enough at creating atmosphere but more importantly she has a ready, one might even go so far as to say sparkling, wit. 

In the person of Miss Blake she has created a grotesque but perversely engaging comic character of almost Dickensian proportions.

A modern reader is unlikely to find this short novel to be in the least terrifying but it is consistently amusing. The Victorian ghost story, and even more particularly the Victorian ghost story written for publication in one of the special Christmas editions of popular periodicals, was after all intended as civilised family entertainment. Judged in this light The Uninhabited House succeeds quite well. Recommended for fans of the traditional ghost story.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Second Chance

In a career spanning more than four decades Christopher Bush (1885-1973) wrote sixty-three mystery novels featuring his series detective Ludovic Travers. His books were published in the US as well as in his native Britain and were translated into various European languages. He was clearly a very successful writer in his day. He is now, sadly, almost completely forgotten and all his mysteries are out of print.

The Case of the Second Chance was the thirtieth of the Ludovic Travers novels, appearing in 1946. 

Travers belongs to the category of what might be called semi-professional fictional detectives. As a gifted amateur he had assisted Detective Superintendent George Wharton on several cases and had demonstrated his usefulness to the point where he ended up working with the police in a semi-official capacity. In fact in The Case of the Second Chance he becomes a more or less official policeman.

The structure of this story is interesting. The investigation takes place, intermittently, over the course of no less than four years. It all starts during the war. Travers is serving in the British army. In 1942 he is home on 14 days’ leave and naturally he looks up his old friend Detective Superintendent Wharton. Things are quiet at Scotland Yard, but not for long. Soon Wharton is called in to investigate the murder famous actor-producer Charles Manfrey. Naturally enough he suggests that Travers might like to tag along and Travers jumps at the chance. 

This is one of those murder cases in which the police are faced with too many suspects. Everyone who knew Charles Manfrey disliked him, and most of those who knew him disliked him enough to kill him. The problem is that all the most promising suspects have watertight alibis. The investigation looks promising for a while but eventually leads nowhere. The case is not closed but it is put on indefinite hold and unless some startling new evidence turns up it seems destined to remain unsolved.

This is however a case that never quite goes way. A couple of years later some new evidence does turn up, but it proves to be another dead end.

In 1946 both Wharton and Travers have more or less forgotten the Manfrey murder case. Travers is now back in civilian life and he plans to start a private inquiry agency with his old friend Wharton. Actually they are intending to take over an existing agency. Wharton had always intended to retire once the war was over but he had no intention of being put out to pasture altogether. With Wharton’s retirement from Scotland Yard still a few months away Travers has already started to learn the ropes of the private detective business. His first case seems fairly routine - a woman who is being blackmailed is afraid to go to the police so she puts the matter in the hands of Travers. Much to his surprise Travers soon realises that this case may have some connection to the long-dormant Manfrey murder case. In fact the link seems promising enough to bring Wharton in on it in his official capacity.

This is a fairly standard example of the golden age detective story and fits neatly enough into what Julian Symons disparagingly called the Humdrum School. In fact the writers of the Humdrum School were generally speaking extremely proficient practitioners of the art of the detective story, with the emphasis being very much on plotting (which accounts for the disdain of misguided critics like Symons). Christopher Bush was a very proficient practitioner indeed of this art and here he gives us a delightfully intricate puzzle plot with the added bonus of multiple unbreakable alibis.

Travers serves as the narrator and he offers us an Ellery Queen-style Challenge to the Reader. He goes further than that - he repeats the challenge several times. An author has to have a remarkable degree of confidence in his plotting to do something like that and Bush’s confidence is not misplaced.

Bush does employ several plot devices that modern critics would regard as being rather dated. Even in 1946 they were devices that seemed a little old-fashioned (and I’m not going to offer any hints as to what these devices are). Personally I don’t find this to be  problem. What matters is the skill with which they are employed and Bush has the requisite skill. I’d go so far as to say the novel’s old-fashioned feel is a definite asset - it adds to the fun.

Travers and Wharton make an effective and engaging detective team. Travers is wealthy, well-educated and decidedly upper-class and he holds the fashionably radical political views that go along with these attributes. Wharton was a working-class boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and he naturally holds unfashionably conservative views. They are polar opposites in style, outlook and temperament but this has only served to strengthen their friendship and their mutual esteem. The good news is that Bush does not allow politics to intrude into the story at any point and the even better news is that this book is entirely free from social comment. 

The Case of the Second Chance shares the theatrical setting of the author’s earlier (and superb) The Case of the Tudor Queen. In both books this setting is more than just a colourful background - it plays a crucial part in the plot. 

The Case of the Second Chance is top-notch entertainment and can be highly recommended to fans of the golden age detective novel.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Man Who Found Zero

The Man Who Found Zero, edited by Gene Christie and issued by Black Dog Books, is an anthology of early science fiction stories originally published in the American magazine The Black Cat between 1896 and 1915.

Science fiction has a longer history than most people imagine. Some people indeed trace its beginnings back as far as 1657, to Cyrano de Bergerac's Journey to the Moon. Early tales such as these were generally closer to being fantastic adventures or satires than to what we think of as science fiction. True science fiction is an invention of the early 19th century, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 being the genre’s first masterpiece. The term science fiction would not come into general usage for another century, with terms like scientific romance being favoured in the 19th century.

By the end of the 19th century a considerable body of work had already been produced the genre, mostly in France. American authors had made their mark as well with both Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne writing important and excellent science fiction stories (Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter is a particular favourite of mine).

It was not until the 20th century that space exploration became the genre’s dominant theme. This was perhaps an advantage to the genre’s pioneers since they could unleash their imaginations in virtually any direction they chose. The stories in The Man Who Found Zero illustrate the extraordinary diversity and interest of the stories that resulted.

Some of these tales are quite whimsical. Thomas F. Anderson’s A Mental Mischance is a mildly diverting story of mind-reading gone wrong. Sam Davis’s Bigler’s Barometer is a very whimsical tale indeed of a man who finds an unusual method for predicting the weather. Charles E. Mixer’s The Transposition of Stomachs is an amusing prediction of organ transplants. W. George Gribble’s A Man and a Mermaid manages to combine whimsy with a touch of romance.

Others are rather more grim. In Jack London’s A Thousand Deaths, one of the best stories in the anthology, a man finds himself being used as a scientific guinea pig and he really does suffer a thousand deaths. It’s very creepy and it includes some fun pseudoscience. Katharine Kip’s My Invisible Friend concerns a young man seeking the secret of invisibility. It was published in 1897, four months before H. G. Wells published The Invisible Man.

In Cleveland Moffett’s fine but grisly tale On the Turn of a Coin a man has a vision of a woman being murdered and a murderer is convicted on the evidence of a dead woman.

Other stories are surprisingly (although often amusingly) cynical. Clifford Howard’s excellent The Annihilator of the Undesirable deals with a company that offers an unusual service - they will, for a very reasonable fee, entirely remove from existence anyone whom their clients find irritating or inconvenient.

And then there are stories that are simply bizarre. John Durworth’s very imaginative In an Unknown World concerns a man who sees sounds and hears sights. Ethel Watts Mumford’s When Time Turned is a gently melancholy tale of a man living his life backwards, which proves to be an oddly heart-breaking experience. Newton Newkirk’s In the Sierra Madres is particularly strange. A Mexican scientist, a man in early middle age, tells his story. It involves volcanic eruptions, the mysteries of liquid air and the adventures of three daring highwaymen half a century earlier. Wildly far-fetched but wildly original.

In Eugene Derby’s Tunnel Number Six miners in New South Wales hear a voice pleading for help - a voice that comes from behind a wall of rock where no human being could possibly be. Is the mine haunted? The explanation is extremely far-fetched but it certainly qualifies as original. Bert Leston Taylor and  Edward Ward’s The Cross of Fire is also far-fetched, dealing with an extraordinary optical invention discovered in the backwoods of Maine. Eva L. Ogden’s The Cold Storage Baby is another real oddity - a missing diamond and a baby that shouldn’t be there but is and may have been in cold storage for twenty-nine years. It's a story that might possibly be too clever for its own good.

Given the popularity of hypnotism and the new “sciences” of psychology and psychiatry in the 19th century it’s not surprising to find stories here dealing with the powers of the mind. I. Crane Clark’s Where Is Robert Palmer? is such a story, and a decidedly odd one. Frank Lillie Pollock’s The Invisible City concerns an anarchist terrorist (anarchist terrorist outrages being an all too frequent feature of the late 19th century) who is also a brilliant but megalomaniacal madman with extraordinary powers of mind control. Don Mark Lemon’s The Mansion of Forgetfulness also deals with the mind although in a very different manner. Is forgetfulness better than pain? Perhaps, but not always. This is probably the single best story in the anthology, with a nice twist ending and a considerable emotional punch.

Some of the stories here are more in the style of what Lovecraft would later describe as weird fiction, with some definite hints of horror. Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s A Witch City Mystery gives the initial impression of being very much in the Lovecraft mould, with an elderly chemist conducted some very arcane researches into the mysteries of life itself. The story ends up being not quite what we were led to expect but fascinating nonetheless.

Cleveland Moffett’s The Mysterious Card is an exceedingly clever piece of weird fiction. An American visiting Paris is handed a card by an unknown woman. Since he does not speak French he  cannot read the message on the card but when he tries to have the message translated the effects are extraordinary to say the least.

Don Mark Lemon’s A Bride in Ultimate is also what I would call weird fiction and it’s a fine slightly creepy story. It opens with an American trying to explain to a French border guard that he absolutely must cross the frontier into Spain to find the man who has stolen his wife. The border guard informs him that the man in question was journeying alone but the American explains that the man was carrying a diamond and the diamond is his wife. Not in a figurative or metaphorical sense, but quite literally. It’s an unsettling and very effective little tale. Octavia Zollicoffer Bond’s story, A Rule That Worked Both Ways, is an intriguing science fictional ghost story.

Lon Arnold’s The Man Who Found Zero is the closest thing here to a space exploration story - a suicidal man is sent to the very edge of space to find the temperature of absolute zero. Frank Lillie Pollock’s The Skyscraper in B Flat is science fiction of an even more inventive bent. The moral of the story would seem to be that skyscrapers and music are a very bad combination. Surprisingly perhaps to modern science fiction readers Harry Stephen Keeler’s John Jones’s Dollar is the only story in the anthology to be set in the distant future. Compound interest might seem an unlikely subject for an SF story but that is in fact what the story is about.

The Man Who Found Zero is a remarkably diverse and interesting assortment of stories. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

August Derleth's The Return of Solar Pons

The writing of Sherlock Holmes pastiches seems to have an extraordinary appeal to writers both good and bad, professional and amateur. Not surprisingly this cottage industry has given the world some very forgettable and often very embarrassing fiction. Among the fairly small number of writers whose work in this field is fairly well thought of is August Derleth.

August Derleth (1909-1971) was an American writer best remembered as being the man (in his rôle as publisher and editor) largely responsible for bringing the work of H. P. Lovecraft to the attention of the public. Derleth wrote quite a few Lovecraft-inspired stories in the Cthulhu Mythos as well as work in a variety of other genres. His horror stories are uneven but often excellent. As a very keen Sherlockian he naturally tried his hand at writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches, with considerable success.

Being unable to use the Sherlock Holmes name Derleth renamed the great detective Solar Pons and relocated him from 221B Baker Street to 7B Praed Street. Pons is however quite obviously Sherlock Holmes and all the other familiar characters (all suitably renamed) appear in his stories. The only major change is that the setting is moved forward to the 1920s. Derleth’s knowledge of London was derived almost exclusively from his reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories, a circumstance that could have been a disadvantage but in fact becomes something of an asset. Derleth might have been a little hazy at times on London geography but he had absorbed the atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s stories and he reproduced it quite faithfully.

There’s no need to say anything at all about the character of Solar Pons since he is a exact replica of Sherlock Holmes. Dr Parker performs the Dr Watson function as assistant and narrator.

The Return of Solar Pons is a collection of some of Derleth’s later Solar Pons stories.

The Adventure of the Lost Dutchman does have a genuinely Sherlockian feel to it, with an odd setup that that only the great detective can make sense of. It also has an effective use of the ever-popular “clue of the dying man” trope.

The Adventure of the Devil’s Footprints, concerning the disappearance of a clergyman leaving behind only footprints apparently left by a man with cloven hooves, is less successful and with a plot that doesn’t quite convince but it’s still reasonably entertaining.

The Adventure of the Dorrington Inheritance is a straightforward but enjoyable enough story involving the consequences of skullduggery on the diamond fields years earlier.

The Adventure of the “Triple Kent” is a disappointingly obvious and entirely unconvincing triple murder story.

The Adventure of the Rydberg Numbers introduces us to the brother of Solar Pons, Bancroft Pons, who is of course the equivalent of Mycroft Holmes. It’s an enjoyable and quite inventive espionage tale involving kidnapping and an eccentric young scientist who may be a genius or a madman or both. It’s an excellent little story.

August Derleth
The Adventure of the Grice-Paterson Curse concerns a series of mysterious deaths in a house on an island, deaths that seemed likely to be murder and yet without any real evidence or any explanation as to how the murders could have been committed. Dr Parker has his own theory, much to the amusement of Pons. Derleth really has some fun with this story, with a delightfully outré solution to the puzzle (a solution that seems appropriate from an author who wrote Cthulhu Mythos stories) and a clever nod towards Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories. This one is great fun.

The Adventure of the Remarkable Worm is excellent and nicely offbeat as well, with a monstrous caterpillar and a clue involving a dog although there is no dog. 

The Adventure of the Penny Magenta presents Pons with the challenge of solving an attempted robbery although the object of the robbery appears to be quite worthless. This story includes an homage to Poe (one of several in this collection).

The Adventure of the Trained Cormorant is another good espionage tale, with a cormorant playing a key role in uncovering a German spy ring.

In The Adventure of the Camberwell Beauty Solar Pons has a rather extraordinary client - none other than Dr Fu Manchu! He isn’t actually named (presumably for copyright reasons) but there’s not the slightest doubt as to his identity. His organisation is even explicitly referred to as the Si-Fan. So this story counts as both a Sherlock Holmes pastiche and a Fu Manchu pastiche. What’s interesting is that Pons is very well disposed towards Fu Manchu. Apparently he owes the Doctor a very big favour. Even in Sax Rohmer’s stories Fu Manchu it was always emphasised that Fu Manchu was a man of honour and in Derleth’s story he becomes rather sympathetic.

The Adventure of the Little Hangman is a very nifty little story about the murder of a murderer. It’s one of the best stories in the collection.

The Adventure of the Swedenborg Signatures relies on a plot device that never really convinces but was popular in early detective fiction and was used by Conan Doyle himself.

What distinguishes these stories from the usual run of Sherlock Holmes pastiches is that Derleth was a very capable writer with a genuine flair for the writing of detective stories and a considerable talent for plotting. Even more importantly he had the ability to create plots that really do have an authentic Sherlockian flavour. The references to the works of other writers are what you’d expect from a member of Lovecraft’s literary circle, all of whom constantly referenced each other’s works. Some might find this habit annoying but given that the whole point of writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches is  to have some fun I find that it adds to the enjoyment.

I’m generally not a fan of pastiches but Derleth’s Solar Pons stories are well-crafted and very entertaining. Derleth doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be too clever and he wisely avoids giving the stories a tongue-in-cheek flavour. They capture enough of a Sherlockian feel to appeal to fans of the real thing. All in all they’re a good deal of fun. Recommended.