Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ngaio Marsh's Death in a White Tie

Ngaio Marsh is celebrated as one of the famous crime queens and I’ve always been rather sceptical of the crime queens. Christie certainly deserves her reputation but to my way of thinking Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham are wildly overrated. I must admit I don’t have enough familiarity with Ngaio Marsh’s work to have any strong opinion. I thought Death in Ecstasy was OK and so perhaps the generally well regarded 1938 novel Death in a White Tie will turn me into a fan?

Death in a White Tie is very much a society murder mystery. Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s mother has decided that it is time for Roderick’s niece to be launched into society. Lady Alleyn has the whole debutante thing planned out. Sir Herbert and Lady Carrados are similarly occupied with the coming out of Lady Carrados’s daughter Bridget. Meanwhile General and Mrs Halcut-Hackett are launching yet another fortunate young lady into society. The Carrados’s are planning a ball which will be the social event of the season and that ball will have (literally) fatal consequences.

Chief Inspector Alleyn is at the same time busy on a blackmail case. He employs Lord Robert Gospell as an unofficial undercover operative. He has apparently made use of Lord Robert’s society connections on other cases. That ball will play a significant part in Alleyn’s blackmail case - it’s where he’s hoping the blackmailer will be trapped. It does not work out the way Alleyn had hoped. It ends in disaster. In fact it ends in murder.

The first thing to note is that this is a rather long detective novel. The pacing is leisurely, to say the least. That’s not necessarily a problem. Seeing a complex plot gradually take shape and build towards a successful conclusion can be very satisfying. In this instance the plot is certainly complex, but I’m not so sure about the successful conclusion. To my way of thinking a good murder mystery is one in which the solution, once the detective has explained it, seems self-evident. The reader is left thinking that of course it had to have happened that way. No other solution would fit all the known facts. In this book, when the murderer’s identity is revealed, I was left thinking that yes that person could have been the killer but so could half a dozen other people.

I also think that in a good mystery we can see the detective slowly putting the pieces of the jigsaw together. In this book I never really got that feeling.

The detective in all of Marsh’s novels is Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Like so many detectives of this era Alleyn is upper-class, well educated and extremely erudite. But unlike most such fictional detectives Alleyn has no real personality. We know that he’s very upper-class and very clever and he’s an awfully decent fellow and everyone admires him. Perhaps that’s the problem. He has no quirks. He’s perfect but he’s terribly dull about it. And we get no insights into what makes him tick. Detectives don’t need to be larger-than-life to be interesting. Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French is a very ordinary fellow who relies entirely on routine police procedures to solve his cases but French is a living breathing human being. Alleyn is simply a void.

The other characters are mere stereotypes but that’s no problem. The whole point of golden age detective fiction is the plotting, not the characterisation. Trying to make the subsidiary characters three-dimensional merely slows down the action for no worthwhile purpose.

Unfortunately Marsh cannot resist the temptation to introduce a romantic sub-plot. This is always a very bad idea. Even when the detective is an interesting character I have no desire to hear all about their romantic yearnings and when the detective is a bit of a bore (as Alleyn is) I’m even less interested. To make matters worse the target of his affections is  a lady artist who also has no discernible personality. The whole romance thing is poorly and unconvincingly handled (Marsh clearly knows nothing at all about men) and becomes tedious and embarrassing.

Marsh seems to have been one of those detective story writers with literary aspirations (she was entirely besotted with the arty/literary/theatre world). Like Dorothy L. Sayers she seems to have liked the idea of combining detective fiction with the comedy of manners. Unfortunately Marsh’s writing is rather pedestrian and so the first part of the book, before the murder, lacks any real sparkle. Once Alleyn’s investigation gets into full swing one might have hoped that things would get a bit more interesting but alas it doesn’t happen.

I wouldn’t say that Death in a White Tie is a terrible book. It’s just thoroughly mediocre. There’s no really strong reason that I can think of to read this novel.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

C.S. Forester’s The Happy Return

The Happy Return marked the first appearance in print (in 1937) of the last great old-fashioned English hero of fiction, Horatio Hornblower. It also established naval fiction as a very popular and lucrative sub-genre.

C.S. Forester’s dozen Hornblower novels cover the hero’s entire naval career but the publication order does not coincide with the chronological sequence of the stories. In The Happy Return Hornblower has already achieved the exalted rank of post captain and is commander of the 36-gun frigate Lydia. Later books in the series recount his earlier adventures as a midshipman and as a lieutenant.

The book opens with the Lydia making landfall in Central America after a seven months’ voyage, her stores dangerously exhausted. Captain Hornblower’s sealed orders have caused him some anxiety. He is to arm and support a rebellion against the Spanish and at the same time he is to capture or destroy the Natividad, a Spanish 50-gun warship which on paper at least totally outclasses the Lydia. It’s the sort of task that no captain would welcome. Fomenting rebellion and meddling in politics can so easily backfire and involve countless opportunities for disaster and if he fails it won’t be the men at the Admiralty who came up with the hare-brained scheme in the first place who will have to shoulder the blame, but Captain Hornblower. The chances of failure are very high and failure will spell the effective end of his career - he does not have the money or influence to weather such a storm.

Hornblower’s fears are soon realised when the situation changes radically and everything he has achieved so far turns out to have been all wrong. He has to start from scratch, and he has to fight the same battles over again.

To add to his woes he has acquired a passenger, a lady. That’s bad enough in Hornblower’s eyes but to make things much much worse she is a member of a family with the potential power to break the career of an impecunious frigate captain should that captain somehow offend her. His relations with Lady Barbara Wellesley (the sister of the future Duke of Wellington) are uneasy and they get more uneasy.

There’s as much action as you could want including an epic two-day sea battle in the middle of a gale.

Forester however was more than just a writer of stirring adventure tales. Although his books all fall within the boundaries of genre fiction he brought a definite literary sensibility to these works. There’s excitement and adventure in the Hornblower novels but there’s some real psychological insight as well.

Hornblower is a genuinely fascinating character. On the surface he is the ideal commander, a man of supreme self-confidence who always knows exactly what to do. He is a man of few words, which reinforces the impression of decisiveness and complete control. He is a strict but just disciplinarian. He has a knack for gaining the confidence and affection of those under his command.

That’s the appearance. In fact it’s all elaborately contrived. Hornblower is in reality a seething mass of self-doubts and self-recriminations. He is painfully uncomfortable in social situations. He is all too aware of his relatively humble birth and of his very modest financial circumstances. Being a member of the lower middle class he is not comfortable with the aristocracy or with the common people, which means he is at ease neither with his officers nor with the men. He is not a natural leader of men. He has had to school himself to become a leader.

In this endeavour he has succeeded. He knows how the ideal captain, the natural leader of men, should behave and he can mimic this behaviour with extraordinary success. And he has one great advantage - he really does know his job. He is a skilled navigator, he is a master tactician and however contrived his methods might be he is a superb leader of men. When the chips are down he is decisive and bold and his boldness is backed up by intelligence.

Hornblower sees himself as a fraud, almost as an actor playing the part of the great frigate captain but the irony is that he really is a great frigate captain. He is sure that the officers and men under his command despise him but in fact they admire him a great deal. Hornblower is in some ways a transitional figure, halfway between the old-fashioned heroes of swashbuckling romances and the new breed of introspective psychological complex heroes.

The Happy Return manages to be both intelligent and extremely entertaining. You can’t ask for more than that. Very highly recommended.

Friday, April 13, 2018

H.C. Bailey’s Mr Fortune Speaking

If you’re the sort of reader who has an allergic reaction to detectives such as Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance then you might well feel some trepidation at the thought of sampling H.C. Bailey’s Mr Fortune stories. Even by the standards of languid, affected upper-class amateur detectives Reggie Fortune is particularly languid and particularly affected. And yes, he does quote poetry. In some ways he’s an even more extreme version of Lord Peter Wimsey.

By now I’ve probably convinced most of you to take active steps to avoid the Mr Fortune stories. Which would be a great pity as they do have their own distinctive flavour and they’re actually very enjoyable.

Despite the superficial resemblances to Wimsey and Vance the Mr Fortune tales are considerably more cynical and they do tend at times to be quite dark.

Reggie Fortune is a qualified medical practitioner who has gained a considerable reputation as a detective. He is sometimes called in by other physicians, at other times by Scotland Yard, and his services are often retained by the prosecution in particularly difficult cases. Curiously enough although he does not appear to hold any official police rank he often refers to himself as a policeman.

Bailey enjoyed enormous popularity during the 20s and 30s but become unfashionable in the postwar years and these days languishes in obscurity. Bailey wrote several Mr Fortune novels but has always been admired more for his short stories. Mr Fortune Speaking, published in 1930, is one of the many Reggie Fortune story collections.

You have to remember that these are short stories so the plots don’t have the complexity you’d find in a detective novel but the stories are still well thought-out and clever.

Zodiacs is a crime story but the crime is not at all what it appears to be. It all starts with Zodiacs, Zodiacs being the last share craze that all the best people are investing in. You just can’t lose by buying Zodiac shares, at least that is until the shares unexpectedly slump. And then murder follows.

The murder itself is quite straightforward, except that the victim was soaking wet which worries Mr Fortune a little. Mr Fortune would also be a deal happier if he could see the dead man’s hat.

This is a very neat little story which has a good twist and then there’s another twist which is the one that really counts.

In The Cat’s Milk Mr Fortune’s assistance is requested by a doctor who is not entirely happy about an accident that has befallen an elderly lady. It doesn’t take long for Mr Fortune to be very unhappy about the case as well. He would not have been particularly concerned had the cat not refused his milk. In its essentials it’s a fairly straightforward story in which one or more family members may or may not be planning to do away with an elderly person in order to gain an inheritance. Mostly straightforward as I said, but done with a great deal of style.

The Pink Macaw begins with a businessman who has received a threatening letter. The threat is a puzzling one and the businessman claims to have no idea of the identity of the person making the threats or even the exact nature of the threats. Scotland Yard is concerned but it’s all so value there’s really nothing they can do. Nonetheless it appears that the threats had some substance after all as they lead to a man’s death. It seems a straightforward case of self-defence, until the case takes a very surprising twist.

The Hazel Ice involves a tragic mountaineering accident, the circumstances of which seem just a little odd. Bailey makes good use of the alpine setting. A very good story.

The Painted Pebbles is an amusing tale about an archaeologist of advancing years who believes he has made an extraordinary discovery. It’s clearly a fake but Mr Fortune is not sure why the old professor believes it. Someone may be influencing him and there are several possible candidates. And what could the motive be? A fun story.

The Woman in Wood is one of my favourites from this collection. Reggie Fortune is rather entranced by a wooden statuette he finds in an antique store. The proprietor claims it’s medieval but Reggie can see that it’s clearly a modern work. And yet it has the feel of a medieval work. Reggie unfortunately misses out on buying the statuette but it’s not the last he will hear of it. A letter from his sister (married to a bishop) alerts him to an ecclesiastical drama in the country. A stolen kiss and a burglary in which nothing is taken add further mystification.

The various threads come together very nicely, there’s some danger and suspense and Mr Fortune is in fine form.

The German Song is a fairly strong story. To unlock the mystery behind a spectacular robbery Reggie must first break a cipher and it’s a cipher that is almost unbreakable, unless of course you happen to know your Goethe. Luckily Reggie knows his Goethe very well.

The Lion Fish confronts Mr Fortune with two violent murders, murders which appear to have little in common except that both are seemingly motiveless. One clue points to a family named the Landomeres, but they’ve all been dead for five hundred years. There are some decent twists in this tale and we get to see a rather determined and rather ruthless Fortune in action. A fine story.

Despite his affectations and his occasional indulgences in ennui and a kind of resigned pessimism I like Reggie Fortune very much. He’s more complicated than he seems to be. He does take crime quite seriously and when confronted by wanton cruelty he responds with surprising ruthlessness.

The Mr Fortune short stories are much more highly regarded than the novels (although Shadow on the Wall is actually very good). Bailey is a much neglected master of golden age detective fiction. Mr Fortune Speaking is immensely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Horror on the Links, Seabury Quinn

The Horror on the Links is the first volume issued by Night Shade Books in their complete collection of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories. The stories in this first volume were all published in Weird Tales between 1925 and 1928. Seabury Quinn was an incredibly prolific contributor to Weird Tales. While his Weird Tales contemporaries like H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard continue to have strong followings Quinn’s reputation has not lasted anywhere near as well. In his day he was however the most popular of all the Weird Tales writers.

Some of de Grandin’s cases have supernatural explanations. Those that have rational explanations are possibly even more bizarre.

The Horror on the Links introduces the two main characters who appear in all the stories. Dr Samuel Trowbridge is the portly and rather staid American doctor who acts as narrator and generally plays the Dr Watson role. He meets colourful French doctor/scientist/occult detective Jules de Grandin when mysterious murders take place in Trowbridge’s home town of Harrisonville. A young man has survived a savage attack with serious injuries which provide a vital clue. Several young women were not so lucky. Trowbridge is the sceptic who cannot believe de Grandin’s crazy theories about the crime.

The Tenants of Broussac moves the action to an ancient chateau in France. The tenants of this crumbling pile all seem to come to extraordinarily grisly ends. It’s a haunted house story but with some fairly effective and atmospheric moments.

In The Isle of Missing Ships de Grandin has been employed by Lloyds of London to investigate the loss of a disturbing number of ships. This story features a memorable villain  and an extremely clever setting beneath the sea (with perhaps just a hint of Captain Nemo). The political incorrectness level of this story is absolutely off the scale.

I can’t say very much at all about The Vengeance of India without risking spoilers. It’s a tale of sudden, very sudden, death and vengeance long delayed.

The Dead Hand employs the fairly well-worn device of a disembodied hand. It’s made more interesting by the fact that in Quinn’s de Grandin stories you never know if the solution is going to involve the supernatural or not and the explanation is quite clever.

Quinn could be quite grisly at times and The House of Horror is very grisly indeed. Lost at night in driving rain de Grandin and Trowbridge take refuge in an old mansion and what they find there shocks even de Grandin. This one is perhaps just a bit too reliant on sheer gruesomeness and really that’s about all this story has going for it.

In Ancient Fires we discover that love can survive even the greatest sacrifice. It’s a kind of ghostly romance story.

The Great God Pan deals with what today would be called a cult.

The Grinning Mummy deals, obviously, with a mummy and naturally enough there’s a curse.

The Man Who Cast No Shadow is a very old central European nobleman. Very old indeed. But perhaps not always quite so old.

The Blood-Flower is pretty obviously a werewolf story but it demonstrates Quinn’s ability to come up with intriguing twists on old ideas. In this case a knowledge of botany is required to combat the lycanthropic menace. We also discover that modern technology can be just as effective as older methods of disposing of werewolves.

A woman who fears she is losing her husband to another woman might not seem like the sort of case that would interest Jules de Grandin but this other female is no ordinary woman, if she is a woman at all. The tale of The Veiled Prophetess all started with a visit to a fortune-teller, and with an Egyptian statue.

The Curse of Everard Maundy is a story of a voodoo curse, but a curse with an unusual twist. It’s almost as if those afflicted curse themselves.

Creeping Shadows begins with a man who has been dead for several days, except that he can’t have been since he was seen alive by three reliable witnesses just a few hours earlier. And it’s a story of death stalking men whose greed tempted them into a very unwise theft indeed.

The White Lady of the Orphanage is a rather grisly story of children who mysteriously vanish from an orphanage. It relies a bit too much on shock value for my tastes.

The Poltergeist tells of a young woman afflicted by strange and frightening manifestations which threaten her sanity and her very life. A poltergeist certainly, but what is more interesting is the origin and nature of this ghostly menace. Jules de Grandin comes to suspect that the answer lies in the past, but whose past?

The Gods of East and West is a duel for the possession of a woman’s soul, fought out between the monstrous Indian goddess Kali and the spirits of the Dakota people of North America.

Mephistopheles and Company, Ltd offers a particular challenge, de Grandin’s adversary being the Devil himself. Or at least a representative of that gentleman. A young Austrian woman is the victim of demonic possession although de Grandin suspects it’s not quite so simple as that.

It was inevitable that sooner or later de Grandin would come up against a case involving ancient Egypt and mummies. The Jewel of Seven Stones is almost a stock-standard mummy story but with a few crucial differences. For one thing the mummy is a Christian mummy. The stones themselves are a nice touch. This is one of Quinn’s more ambitious and complex stories and it’s one of his best, combining horror, suspense and romance.

In The Serpent Woman de Grandin takes on the case of a woman suspected of murdering her child. Is it murder, kidnapping or could it really be a giant snake?

Body and Soul is a tale of Egyptology and an attempt to provide evidence of life after death which unleashes  killer from beyond the grave. Quite a creepy story.

Restless Souls is a story of love and vampires, and love after death. One of the best of the de Grandin stories, and one of the few that adds just a little depth to the hero.

The Chapel of Mystic Horror is an ancient villa that had been dismantled, transported from Cypus to America and reassembled. The evil that was in the villa was brought to America along with the stones.

These stories are fairly consistent in quality. None are truly great stories but they’re all clever and entertaining. There are only a couple that are a little weak and there's a handful (such as The Jewel of Seven Stones and Restless Souls) that are particularly good.

They are also pure pulp. In fact they’re remarkably trashy, although they’re trashy in a good way. Jules de Grandin is a character entirely lacking in subtlety or depth. He’s like a hyperactive Hercule Poirot with none of the qualities that make Poirot interesting. None of this really matters. It’s the plots that matter and they’re gloriously ingenious. Quinn takes just about every horror cliché you can possibly think of - vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, voodoo, witchcraft, ancient curses, mad scientists - but he always seems to manage to give these old ideas fresh new twists. And for all their trashiness these tales are fast-moving and entertaining and they have the vitality and manic energy of pulp fiction at its best. Quinn is certain not the equal of a Lovecraft or a Robert E. Howard but his stories are inventive and they’re great fun. Recommended.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (AKA The Hollow Man)

John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (also published as The Hollow Man) is a 1935 Dr Gideon Fell mystery and it is of course a locked-room mystery. And a very celebrated one.

Carr was rather unusual among golden age crime writers in combining a love for the rigorous plotting and implacable logic of the detective story with an equally intense love for the more outré elements of gothic fiction. The remarkable thing about Carr is that he consistently managed to combine these two somewhat contradictory elements so successfully.

The Three Coffins begins in classic gothic style. Professor Grimaud has devoted his life to the study of the occult but he is a very convinced skeptic on the subject. A rather strange individual accosts him at his favourite tavern. This man, Fley, makes some extraordinary claims, claims which appear to be most definitely of an occult or at least a paranormal nature. The claims also sound decidedly like threats.

Then we switch to the classic locked-room genre, Grimaud is murdered. The murderer could only have left the room in which the slaying took place by one of two exits. A quick glance at the window makes it clear that he could not possibly have left by this means. Therefore he must have left by the door but the door was found locked from the inside and was for the whole time during which the murder took place under direct observation by two independent witnesses. Therefore he did not leave by the door either. All this is bad enough but there’s also the matter of the footprints which must be there but they aren’t.

The second murder is even more impossible. A man is shot at close range in the middle of a public street in front of three witnesses but no-one sees the murderer.

Meanwhile the gothic atmosphere keeps creeping back in, with hints of dark deeds in Transylvania (!) and freshly dug graves.

There are magicians, acrobats, amateur criminologists, dusty scholars and mathematical whizz-kids and there are mysterious females with shady backgrounds and any one of them could be the murderer.

This book contain’s Dr Fell’s famous locked-room lecture. Dr Fell justifies this lecture by reminding the other characters that they are after all characters in a detective story so why shouldn’t they discuss the mechanics of detective fiction?

In fact the whole book can be thought of as a detective story about detective stories. There’s a good deal about stage magic in it and a locked-room or impossible crime mystery is after all essentially an exercise in stage magic. The writer is an illusionist, practising the various facets of the craft of illusionism (such as misdirection). Carr is in a sense letting us in on some of the secrets of the trade. It’s a measure of just how confident he’d become by this time - he felt sure he could tell us how his tricks were done and that he could still deceive us.

Magic really is a major theme here, with Grimaud being the expert in real magic (which doesn’t exist) and Fley being the expert in fake magic (which does exist). Illusionism crops up in countless golden age mysteries but I can’t recall any other examples of the theme being explored with the same mixture of intelligence, perceptiveness and playfulness that Carr brings to the subject.

One of the points made in Fell’s lecture is that readers are often disappointed when a really intriguing locked-room mystery turns out to have a simple explanation. There’s no need to worry about that in the case of The Three Coffins - the solution is fiendishly complex. But does it actually work? It was certainly a gamble on Carr’s part - one false step and the whole edifice of the plot would have come crashing down around his ears. I think he gets away with it, although it’s a close-run thing. Which in some ways makes the book even more impressive, since Carr was challenging himself as well as the reader. You get the feeling that Carr loved writing puzzle-plot detective fiction not because it was easy (as so many foolish critics then and now seem to think) but because it was something that was exceptionally difficult to do well.

The Three Coffins is breathtakingly ambitious and it’s also hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.