Thursday, December 31, 2015

best non-crime books read in 2015

These were my favourite non-crime reads of 2015 (I’ll do a separate post for my favourite crime books of the year).

Stanley J. Weyman, Under the Red Robe (1894) - intelligent swashbuckling.

Leslie Charteris, Enter the Saint (1930) - three very entertaining novellas.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jungle Girl (1933), not a lady Tarzan but a fine lost civilisation tale.

Perley Poore Sheehan, The Red Road to Shamballah (1933), a great pulpy adventure story.

Edison Marshall, Dian of the Lost Land (1935), a fine lost world tale.

John P. Marquand, Thank You, Mr Moto (1936), an unusual spy thriller

Berkeley Gray, Miss Dynamite (1939), an outrageous and immensely enjoyable thriller.

Manning Coles, Drink to Yesterday (1940), a thoughtful and rather dark Great War spy tale.

John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), chiling alien invasion story.

Alistair MacLean, The Dark Crusader (1961), a superbly crafted adrenaline-rush thriller.

And of these ten which would be my pick as the best book I read in 2015? I think I'd have to go for Berkeley Gray's Miss Dynamite - so much fun in one book.

Monday, December 28, 2015

revisiting Sherlock Holmes

I’ve been rereading some of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve been a fan of these tales for very many years and returning to them is like revisiting an old and dear friend.

While Conan Doyle certainly did not invent the detective story he put it on the map as a major popular genre. He also established a few of the vital ground rules which differentiated the detective story from the popular sensation novel of the Victorian era. Sensation novels dealt with crime but the crime-solving process was never the main focus and was often ignored altogether. Conan Doyle made it the core of his stories.

Conan Doyle also established the rule that the process of detection should be logical. Relying on inspired guesses or luck was not acceptable. The detective’s chain of reasoning had to be logical. They were not always strictly fair-play stories in the sense that the term is understood in relation to the detective fiction of the golden age. Holmes sometimes makes use of evidence that the reader is not aware of until the final revelation. They are however fair to the reader in the sense that the solution hangs together satisfactorily and we feel that based on the evidence he had available to him Holmes really could have solved the crime.

An absolute adherence to the later fair-play conventions is in any case more applicable to novels, which had stated to dominate the field by the 1920s. It’s not quite so important in the short story which is the format Conan Doyle mostly worked in. And some of the stories certainly are fair-play. In The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier (which I have just read) Holmes has largely solved the case after his first interview with his client. When at the end of the story he explains his reasoning it has to be admitted that his initial theory, which turned out to be correct, really was the only plausible solution and that an alert reader did have all the clues needed to solve the mystery.

Another convention that Conan Doyle established is that it’s the solution of the puzzle that matters. Once Holmes has solved the crime to his own satisfaction the business of arresting the culprit and bringing him to trial is not his concern. In quite a few stories the police are not involved at all since no actual crime has been committed, or any crime that has been committed is not sufficiently serious to warrant an arrest. The story is simply concerned with the unravelling of a mystery.

Conan Doyle made the detective story intellectually respectable. He made the genre into something that an educated person did not not need to feel overly embarrassed about enjoying. The detective story acquired a degree of intellectual respectability that other popular genres such as thrillers or spy stories or adventure stories did not achieve. This was largely due to the emphasis that Conan Doyle put on crime as a problem that could be solved by scientific inquiry and by the exercise of reason. Perhaps equally important he demonstrated that stories of detection could be rational while still being highly entertaining.

It’s highly significant that Conan Doyle was a doctor, and therefore a man of science. In the late 19th century that in itself helped to confer respectability on the Sherlock Holmes stories.

My recent Sherlock Holmes reading has included quite a few of the later stories and also several of the small number of stories not narrated by Dr Watson. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier is narrated by Holmes himself. This is one of the very last batch of the Sherlock Holmes stories (it dates from 1926) and Watson does not appear at all. His Last Bow is the only story in the canon to feature third-person narration. It’s a very disappointing spy story. Conan Doyle was a master of a bewildering number of genres. He wrote extremely good horror stories, tales of sea-faring adventure, excellent science fiction and was the finest writer of historical fiction of his generation. His Last Bow suggests that that the one genre he did not master was spy fiction. Written in 1917, it’s a very patriotic story with Holmes coming out of retirement to battle German spies. I can understand the desire to write such a patriotic tale in 1917 but it just doesn’t work and it also shows that Conan Doyle had no understanding of spy tradecraft. It’s interesting mostly in being the Great Detective’s final case (although it was far from being the last Sherlock Holmes story to be written).

The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger (from 1927) is, sadly, another disappointment. There’s no detection whatever in this story. Which is a pity because it contains the germ of what could have been an entertaining mystery in a carnival setting involving a murder possibly committed by a lion.

The Adventure of the Three Garridebs is another late story (from 1924) and it’s a much more typical Holmes adventure. It’s also a very much better story. It utilises a device that Conan Doyle seemed to be quite fond of - a very simple crime that seems on the surface to be incredibly complex and totally mystifying and quite bizarre. It’s a technique that he used with considerable skill in more than one story. It’s an amusing tale centred on the coincidence of three unrelated men with the same very unusual name and it’s a satisfying mystery. In fact I’d rate it as one of the most underrated of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman is another solid story. An elderly man with a young attractive wife is always a recipe for trouble and Josiah Amberley certainly has troubles. His wife has run off with a handsome young doctor and the couple have taken all of Josiah Amberley’s very considerable life savings with them. The young doctor is an expert chess player which, as Holmes points out, is always the sign of a scheming mind. Holmes happens to be fully engaged on another case of international importance so he asks Dr Watson to conduct the preliminary investigation. Watson of course can make nothing of the case although he does unwittingly uncover the two most vital clues, clues which allow Holmes to solve the puzzle.

I’m inclined to agree with Julian Symons that while all of the stories in the first two collections (The Adventures and The Memoirs) are classics the stories in the final three collections (The Return, His Last Bow and The Case-Book) are somewhat uneven although each collection contains some gems.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Plague Court Murders

The Plague Court Murders, published in 1934, was the first of the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries written by John Dickson Carr under the pseudonym Carter Dickson. It boasts a fiendishly complex plot and yes, it is a locked-room mystery (Carr being universally acknowledged as the most enthusiastic practitioner of the locked-room mystery among all golden age writers of detective fiction).

There was something else Carr was noted for - his fondness for combining detective stories with very strong elements of the gothic. There is no shortage of gothic tropes in this novel.

Sir Henry Merrivale does not make his appearance until halfway through the book but once he arrives he takes centre stage. 

The narrator, Ken Blake, worked for a top-secret branch of military intelligence during the Great War. Now he’s been drawn into some curious events in the life of Dean Halliday. Dean is now middle-aged but in his youth he was a bit of a hell-raiser. His now deceased brother James had an even more unfortunate history. These curious events concern James. Dean’s aunt and his fiancée have become involved with a psychic named Darworth. Dean doesn’t know what to think of all this. He is concerned and disturbed. Blake is willing to help but he feels this is a situation in which his friend Chief Inspector Masters may be very interested indeed. Masters has a special interest in phony mediums and other psychic scams. Masters is very anxious to become involved since the Darworth situation may be tied in to a strange theft from a London Museum - a dagger alleged to belong to a 17th century hangman’s assistant with a sinister reputation.

Blake, Masters and Dean Halliday set off for the grim house known as Plague Court, a house that has bee in the Halliday family for several hundred years and which they have never been able to sell or to rent. The ruined house is a suitably gothic setting for occult occurrences and Darworth is supposed to be exorcising it. In the grounds is a smaller single-room house which will be the setting for a murder, a house locked from both the inside and the outside with no possibility of entry by any other means.

There are a number of human suspects belonging to the circle of believers that had gathered around Darworth but there are inhuman suspects as well - some at least of those  involved believe that spirits of the dead were responsible for the crime. This horrific crime may well be the sequel to equally terrible events in the 1660s.

Chief Inspector Masters, his sergeant and Blake are all on hand at the time the murder occurs but they can make nothing of it. Finally Blake realises it’s time to take the obvious step - to call in his old chief at the counter-espionage unit, Sir Henry Merrivale. It’s a difficult case but Merrivale has unbounded confidence in his own ability.

Merrivale is a delightful character. He’s wildly eccentric, rambunctious, rude, vulgar, opinionated, abrasive and has no social skills whatsoever. He is a qualified barrister, physician and rabid socialist. He is large and he is loud. Fortunately his confidence in himself is justified.

Phony spiritualists use many of the same tricks that stage magicians use. Writers of detective fiction use those tricks as well. Misdirection is the key to a successful stage illusion and Carr pulls off some pretty impressive misdirection in this story.

Carr lays out all the clues for us, but is this really a fair-play mystery? The plot is so twisted and the solution is so off-the-wall that I can’t imagine many readers solving the puzzle. They may certainly solve parts of it, but not the whole thing. There are also one or two plot points which really stretch credibility to the limit. Having said that it’s undoubtedly a tour-de-force of grandiose and grotesque ingenuity.

It was quite common in golden age detective fiction for characters to remind us of the essential artificiality of the puzzle-plot mystery school by saying things like, “This isn’t a detective story you know.” I don’t think anyone pushed that tendency further than Carr - at one point Sir Henry Merrivale dismisses one proposed solution on the grounds that the suspect in question can’t be the murderer because he was introduced too late in the story and that’s against the rules of detective fiction.

Carr is regarded as one of the masters of plotting but while the plot of The Plague Court Murders is indubitably impressive it wasn’t the element that impressed me most of all. For me the highlights of this book are Carr’s superb gift for creating gothic atmosphere and his  magnificent creation of the outrageous, deplorable but immensely entertaining Sir Henry Merrivale. 

The Plague Court Murders is a treat. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Under the Red Robe by Stanley J. Weyman

Stanley J. Weyman (1855-1928) was an extremely popular writer of swashbuckling adventure novels. While other writers of such works from that era (like Anthony Hope and Rafael Sabatini) still retain a following for some odd reason Weyman is now entirely forgotten. His biggest success came in 1894 with Under the Red Robe, a tale of adventure set in France in 1630, during the Thirty Years War.

The book’s hero, M. de Berault, is a bit of a rogue. Which is putting it mildly. He’s a gambler and a notorious duellist. He has now killed yet another man in a duel. As it happens Cardinal Richelieu is determined to stamp out duelling. Anyone guilty of duelling is to be hanged. He is looking for someone to make an example of and de Berault would be ideal. M. de Berault can almost feel the hangman’s rope tightening about his neck. However de Berault did at one time dave Richelieu’s life so the cardinal decides to give him one last chance - on the condition that de Berault does as small favour for him.

This small favour turns out to be extremely dangerous and rather complicated. He has to bring M. de Cocheforêt back to Paris. M. de Cocheforêt has been involved in the plottings of Richelieu’s enemy, the duc d'Orléans (the brother of the king). M. de Cocheforêt will certainly not come willingly and the cardinal wants him alive. 

It is with some misgivings that de Berault sets off for Béarn to carry out the task. On arrival his misgivings are strengthened considerably. Somehow he will have to find a way to gain admittance to de Cocheforêt’s house and at a time when the man is actually there - de Cocheforêt is in hiding in Spain but he is known to be crossing the border secretly at regular intervals to visit his wife. It will be necessary to gain the trust of Madame de Cocheforêt and her sister but the women and their servants are understandably very much on their guard.

As de Berault feared things do not go smoothly and there is a further problem. Our hero might be a gambler and a ruffian and even a bit of a scoundrel but he is still a gentleman. In fact he is very conscious of his honour and taking advantage of a lady is something that in normal circumstances her would never consider doing. These are however not normal circumstances - if he fails in his task he knows that the hangman’s rope awaits him in Paris. Of course he could simply slip over the border to Spain, but running away is also something that a gentleman cannot do and moreover he has given his word to Richelieu and breaking his word is yet another thing that a gentleman cannot do. Being a gentleman is not always easy, and being a scoundrel and a gentleman can get very complicated indeed.

There’s not a huge amount of actual action but it’s a well-plotted tale of betrayal, divided loyalties and political intrigue with a dash of romance. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 11, 2015

S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case

The Kennel Murder Case was the sixth of S. S. Van Dine’s twelve Philo Vance mystery novels. It appeared in 1933. Opinions have always been divided on the merits of the Philo Vance detective novels. Personally I am very much a Philo Vance fan.

Van Dine was very much a devotee of the complex puzzle plot and The Kennel Murder Case certainly has some extraordinarily baroque plot twists.

The book opens with a collector of Chinese ceramics found dead in his bedroom with the door locked from the inside. Superficially it appears to be suicide but Vance blows that theory out of the water very quickly (and very neatly). It is clearly murder. At this point the reader may well be expecting this to be a classic locked-room mystery. This is an entirely erroneous assumption. There is indeed a locked-room mystery here but it is merely one element in a much more complex plot. In fact the mystery of the locked room is the least puzzling aspect of the case and one which Vance disposes of almost as an afterthought.

The biggest puzzle is that the body was found in the bedroom when clearly it should have been found in the library. All the evidence points to the murder having been committed in the library and there is simply no way the body could have ended up in the bedroom. The snag is that the bedroom was where the body was in fact found.

This is in fact much more of an impossible crime story than a locked-room mystery and it’s a very clever variation on the impossible crime idea.

Almost as puzzling as the whereabouts of the body is the discovery of a badly injured Scotch Terrier in the house. The presence of a dog in a household comprised entirely of people who dislike dogs is certainly odd, and even odder is the fact that someone apparently attempted to murder the wee beastie. No-one can see how the presence of the dog could possibly be significant. No-one, that is, apart from Vance. He is convinced the dog is a vital clue, and fortunately he happens to know a very great deal about Scotch Terriers. He knows almost as much about this breed of dog as he knows about Chinese ceramics, and his knowledge on that subject is positively encyclopaedic.

I am always delighted by golden age detective stories that include floor plans so you can imagine my joy when I discovered that this novels includes two floor plans, a map and a diagram of an ingenious criminal device!

Whether you enjoy the Philo Vance books depends to an extremely large extent on how you respond to Vance himself. He is either, depending on your tastes, exasperatingly pompous and affected or delightfully erudite and witty. I think he’s a wonderful character but this is a case where your mileage may vary very considerably.

Van Dine’s books sold in immense quantity during the late 20s and early 30s but by the time of his death in 1939 his popularity was starting to decline and after his death he fell from critical favour in a spectacular fashion (although critic Julian Symons in his 1972 study of the genre Bloody Murder had very high praise for the first six Vance mysteries). Van Dine’s eclipse has never been satisfactorily explained. It may have been a change in public tastes or it may simply have been due to his early death. Of course it might also have something to do with the fact that for some reason critics who disapproved of puzzle-plot mysteries seemed to take a particularly violent dislike to Van Dine’s books and to his detective hero (with Symons being an honourable exception to this rule).

The Kennel Murder Case does incorporate a certain plot device that might disturb readers who like detective stories to adhere very strictly to the rules (the rules as laid down by Van Dine himself). This element does not disqualify the novel as a fair-play mystery but it might be seen as sailing a little close to the wind. 

The Kennel Murder Case is typical of Van Dine in his prime - it features a truly byzantine plot with some characteristically outrageous twists and it gives Vance the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of everything from Chinese ceramics to small dogs. It’s all great fun. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

John Creasey’s Redhead

Redhead was the second of John Creasey’s Department Z thrillers, appearing in 1933. It’s a roller-coaster ride of mayhem and action. Subtle it isn’t, but in its own way it’s entertaining enough.

Department Z, run by Gordon Craigie, is a secret British intelligence and counter-espionage outfit although from time to time they also assist Scotland Yard in criminal investigations, if the crime is on a sufficiently spectacular scale. And in this case the crime certainly qualifies as spectacular. A series of daring large-scale robberies is bad enough, but it appears that American gangsters are now operating in England. American gangsters with machine-guns are not the sort of thing His Majesty’s Government wants to see on the streets of England.

Department Z itself is not much in evidence for most of the book. The action centres on the  adventures of two wealthy well-born young Englishmen, Martin Storm and his cousin Roger Grimm. Martin and Roger are keen, and rather skillful, pugilists. On a trip to the United States they run afoul of the mysterious but feared red-haired gangster known only as Redhead. Run afoul of Redhead means being attacked by hoods with machine-guns, an attack the two cousins survive. Martin and Roger are advised by the American authorities that for the sake of their health it might be a good idea for them to return to Britain. On the sea voyage home they encounter a young red-haired American tough and a rather pleasant youthful brother and sister, Letty and Frank Granville.

Martin and Roger are invited to the Granville’s country house, Ledsholm Grange. It should be a quiet weekend in the country but it leads to murder, kidnappings, gassings and copious amounts of gunplay. They are caught between two rival gangsters. Both gangsters   have big plans and Martin and Roger seem likely to be irritating obstacles standing in the path of those plans. 

Naturally Ledsholm Grange is honeycombed with secret passageways which will play a crucial part in the action, but the role of secret radio transmitting station is not quite so obvious.

For the most part this novel falls into the category of thrillers dealing with decent upper-class Englishmen who find themselves drawn into a web of intrigue, danger and deception, all of which provides just the sort of recreation that they enjoy. It’s the sort of formula Dornford Yates used very successfully, although Yates was a rather more polished writer than Creasey. What Creasey lacks in polish he makes up for in non-stop action. Redhead has no literary pretensions - this is pure entertainment but it delivers the goods effectively enough.

Martin and Roger are not exactly complex protagonists. They like a fight, they like adventure, and they can be relied on to do the right thing. Creasey could create far more complex heroes, as he did in his thrillers featuring the Baron and the Toff, but in this book he is content to concentrate mostly on thrills.

The fear that the violence and lawlessness of America during the gangster era would spread to Britain may not have been justified but it was certainly understandable in 1933 and anxiety about organised crime is a theme that appears in quite a few British thrillers of the time.

Redhead is not in my view as interesting as Creasey’s Baron and Toff novels but it’s a pretty enjoyable and rather outrageously over-the-top action-filled thriller. Worth a look.