Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Cask, 1920 - Freeman W. Crofts

It takes 219 pages before reading the word “humdrum” inside The Cask, the first novel written by Freeman W. Crofts. He did not know that such a word would be his nightmare. It is known that Julian Symons, inside his mystery genre survey Bloody Murder (1972), deemed as “humdrum” the work of some of the most famous British detective writers of the 1920s: alongside Freeman W. Crofts there are J.J. Connington, John Rhode, R.A.J. Walling, Henry Wade and many others. Symons used the term as a way of dismissing British detective writers he saw as dull and tedious, for they were focused more on the construction of the plot rather than on characters. 
Symons had probably read a few novels by Crofts, but his judgment influenced many generations of scholars. Only in 2012 Curtis Evans published Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, a very good essay in which he revealed the real value of such authors as novelists: not only they produced fine fair-play mysteries, often well-written and well-planned, but their tales could be read as interesting social documents of the England post-WWI. 
Freeman W. Crofts played a major role in the evolution of mystery. Born in 1879, he was an Irish engineer who wrote his first detective novel, The Cask, in 1916, during a long convalescence from illness. The novel appeared in print in 1920 and gained immediately a huge critical and popular success. At this time Crofts had obviously not invented yet Inspector French, but The Cask is considered one of his best novels. Together with Agatha Christie’s masterpiece The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1915 and published in 1920, The Cask launched the Golden Age of detective fiction, usually delimitated between the two World Wars. 
According to the scholars, one the one hand Christie celebrates the Edwardian era, introducing the figure of an eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot, who investigates on a murder at an English country-house; on the other hand, Crofts writes a police-procedural, where three different sleuths (two police-officers and one private detective) investigate on the murder of a woman, whom body has been discovered in a cask. I think this distinction between the two texts is hasty and superficial. 
Christie’s novel is the triumph of the eccentric and the bizarre: characters and clues are ambiguous and the logic of surprise rules the whole story. Croft’s approach, on the contrary, is quite the opposite: it is iper-realistic. With Crofts the readers go at school of detection, the real detection, conducted by methodical but fallible experts. The book follows the step-by-step investigation of the three sleuths, which continually find new informations, but at last they are not able to solve completely the mystery. It needs a confession by the murderer to answer all the questions the plot has posed. 
The bigger difference between Christie and Crofts concerns the whole point of view about the mystery as a literary genre. Christie creates unusual situations in order to challenge and confound the readers through clues and red herrings. She plays the reader. Crofts has no intention to challenge the readers, he is constantly fair with them (also Christie is fair with readers, but in her own way). The character-drawing is not the strong point of Crofts, but he is very good at evoking the atmosphere of the 1910s (I loved the descriptions of Paris viewed through the eyes of an English-man, with its polite and kind people). 
In Christie’s novel there is the unity of time and place and all the events are told through the distorted eyes of Hastings, whereas Crofts in The Cask changes the locations (London, Paris, Brussels) and he modifies continually the narrative point of view. Christie is influenced by Bentley, whereas Crofts follows in the footsteps the work of Richard A. Freeman, adding details and method. 
Basically, there is nothing stagey and contrived in Crofts’ novels: his plots are logical and strictly believable and his solutions are always satisfying. We have to track the movements of the characters, talk to witnesses, analyze railway timetables and collect the evidences in order to break an apparently solid alibi. The Cask, indeed, contains the first of what will be a Croft speciality: the alibi plot. A suspect has a bombproof alibi and it seems impossible he has committed the crime, but the solution shows it actually is possible. 
The Cask is neither a whodunit, for there are only two suspects, nor a howdunit (there are not impossible situations). Instead it is a pure novel of detection, accurate, well-written and enjoyable. It is an enormous work but never boring, rich of details and really well-constructed. The plot is ingenious and complex, but Crofts is able to handle it, and at last almost every detail fits solidly and smoothly. Crofts has a flowing prose style, clear and relaxing. The book could appear old-fashion nowadays, and the final chapter is probably rushed, but it is a great work, written when the ingenuity, fortunately, was a good thing.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Red Right Hand, 1945 - Joel Townsley Rogers

Joel Townsley Rogers, from Sedalia (Missouri), was a very prolific American writer: he wrote hundreds of short-stories and novellas for the pulps over several decades (science fiction, air-adventure, western, mystery etc). The majority of his corpus is now almost forgotten, but he wrote at least two or three great novels that should not be ignored. We have to thank Ramble House Books, which has made available many of Rogers' rarest novels.
Alongside The Hanging Rope (1946), an exciting locked-room novella praised by such scholars as Robert Adey and Jack Adrian, the best-known novel of Rogers is The Red Right Hand (1945), which won the Gran Prix de Littérature Policièr in 1950.
According to the French scholar Roland Lacourbe, The Red Right Hand is “un roman d’un brio éblouissant et l’un des deux ou trois grand chefs-d’œvre incontestables et incontestés de toute la littérature policièr”.
The narrator is Henry N. Riddle Jr., a brain surgeon from New York, who tells the creepy story of a two lovers close to getting married who decide to help an hitchhiker. And they suddenly disappear. Who is “corkscrew”, an evil-looking tramp with short legs and two terrible red eyes? Where is the right hand of Inis St. Erme, the young guy who was supposed to get married with Elinor Darrie? And who really is Henry N. Riddle Jr.?
From the beginning, this novel is an attack to the nerves of the readers, a breath-taking tour de force in which Rogers shows his talent as storyteller, creating a bizarre and hallucinatory universe where everything seems possible.
Rogers combines William Faulkner with John Franklin Bardin and Frederic Brown so as to create a baroque and surreal mix of stream-of-consciousness, torrential prose and flashes of pure terror. 
The Red Right Hand is not a pure detective story, because there are neither the classic element of detection nor a sleuth, but the complex construction of the plot, full of clues and red herrings, is that of the greatest Golden Age novels. It is not an hard-boiled novel, but the mixture of action, violence and rhythm is powerful. It is not  a noir, but it is alike disturbing and shocking. It is not a novel of suspense, but throughout the story there is an incessant tension and a blur of unforeseen developments that lurk behind a thick veneer of horror.
In brief, The Red Right Hand is an exciting and clever “game of mirrors”, as well as a great lesson of misdirection.

Influenced by Carr (the impossible situation, the creepy atmosphere) and Christie (the perfidy of the narrator, the ambiguous conclusion), Rogers adds a sense of death and terror which will take your breath away. A masterpiece.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Layton Court Mystery, 1925 - Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley Cox was one of the great innovators of the Golden Age of detective fiction, an enigmatic and bizarre man who wrote detective stories from 1925 to 1939 under several pen-names, including Francis Iles. The Layton Court Mystery, originally published anonymously in 1925, was written in honor to the father, a great fan of detective fiction. Berkeley wrote it for pure entertainment and he introduced his most famous detective, Roger Sheringham: anti-Semitic, rude, fallible and pretentious, Sheringham was founded on an offensive person that Berkeley once knew, but he shared some characteristics both with his creator and the amateur detective Philip Trent, created by Edmund Bentley in Trent’s Last Case (1913). 
As Berkeley wrote in the dedication:
"I have tried to make the gentleman who eventually solves the mystery as nearly as possible as he might be expected to do in real life. That is to say, he is very far removed from a sphinx and he does make a mistake or two occasionally. I have never believed very much in those hawk-eyed, tight-lipped gentry who pursue their silent and inexorable way straight to the heart of things without ever once overbalancing or turning aside after false goals." 
Apparently, The Layton Court Mystery is a classic country-house mystery: it takes place in a English country house, a property rented for a week end by the rich and ambiguous Victor Stanworth; there is a group of guests and a murder perpetrated in a locked room. Alec Grierson, a Sheringham’s friend, takes on the role of Watson. Moreover, the detection rules the whole story: Berkeley reports interrogations, researches, discoveries, true and false deductions, physical and psychological clues. Because of these reasons, some parts of the novel appear long-winded, with many useless conversations between Roger and Alec that add nothing to the plot. The story contains funny situations (the wrong deductions, the "dispute" with the bull), but has also many ingenuousness and improbabilities (how could a man kill himself shooting a bullet in his forehead?). 
As yet, the novel seems a simple whodunit, but I think there is more. Berkeley had probably read Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913), Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922) and MacDonald’s The Rasp (1924), but he did not copy anything: even though the story is not very original, the novel is well-plotted and fair with the reader, who has all clues to solve the mystery. Playing with the rules of the game and creating a detective who is an antithesis of Sherlock Holmes, Berkeley reveals both the qualities and the limits of the “whodunit” frame, and seems undermine (unconsciously?) the “scaffolding” of the classical mystery. The book shows the mastery of Berkeley as a plotter, in which you can see the bones of a revolutionary talent, even if it is far from being a masterpiece. The locked room problem has a disappointing mechanical solution, but the identity of the murder is a real surprise, which discloses the parodic nature of the novel. Especially in 1925 the solution must have been astonishing, and it is certainly the best device of the book. Martin Edwards has brilliantly pointed out that “Berkeley’s knack of coming up with an ingenious mystery solution that proves mistaken was unparalleled, and afforded him endless opportunities to indulge in ironic reflection on the nature of detective work” (Anthony Berkeley's Golden Age Gothic Follies, in Mysteries Unlocked, 2014, p. 102). I subscribe to his claim.
The ploy will be brilliantly modified, some months later, by Agatha Christie in her superb The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

Sunday, 31 May 2015

A new awareness?

The time for break the rules is ripe. The Golden Age is coming back.
I’m glad to see the recent increasing interest in reprinting forgotten Golden Age mysteries, mostly thanks to the British Library. Among the garbage that we are forced to see every day in the bookcases, the great novels of such authors like Crofts, Farjeon and Bude are finally back in the shelves. But the most important impulse comes from the work of the scholars: Martin Edward’s The Golden Age of Murder (2015) and Curtis Evan’s The Spectrum of English Murder (2015) are two landmarks that readers should not neglect. In their works, Edwards and Evans show that the Golden Age was a richer affair than much of modern mystery scholars would have us believe.

Modern scholars often don’t care about the complexity of the Golden Age period. They have divided this Era in two separated worlds: Hard-Boiled fiction and clue-puzzle mystery. This dichotomy came to be regarded as a sex war: American males on one side, British females on the other. The most part of influent mystery scholars claims that there was neither communication nor link between Hard-Boiled and mystery. They see the mystery as a genre dominated by rules and norms, unable to reach a literary value. This is a very incomplete part of the picture, which masks the strong cross-pollination of mystery during the two World Wars.

The recent studies of such critics as Lucy Worsley or P.D. James didn’t take into account the variety of nuances of the period, and they lost the opportunity to say something new about the Golden Age. Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) by James, for instance, is not as intensively-researched as I expected and I often disagree with her point of view. First of all I don’t find a real sense of being so selective in the history of the genre. There is no space for the great male Golden Age writers, for instance Anthony Boucher or S.S. Van Dine, which had a fundamental role in the evolution of mystery. Ellery Queen is never mentioned, and it is totally unacceptable. Secondly, I think that the idea of the “rules of the game” (those written by Van Dine and Knox) has been totally exaggerated by the scholars in the past, and James seemed having a fixation on Knox’s commandaments. She took them far too literally and I honestly don’t understand why. I recommend reading the superb essay of John Dickson Carr, The Greatest Game in the World (1946), in which he wrote: 
“Those who nail a manifesto to the wall, saying, “The beginner will do this, and must under no circumstances do that”, are in many cases quoting not rules but prejudices. [...] With all due respect and admiration for those who have compiled lists, it would not be difficult to show that they were often giving dubious advice and sometimes talking arrant nonsense”.
Thirdly, in the James’s book there are too many mistakes: for instance, the perpetrator of The Purloined Letter by Poe is not the most unlikely suspect, and the James’s claim that the detective novel was not intellectually respected until Sayers wrote Gaudy Night (1935) is simply absurd, how Curtis Evans has perfectly revealed in the essay Murder in The Criterion: T.S. Eliot on Detective Fiction (2014).

Many scholars probably think that every Golden Age novel was set in a Country House, where people spoke like Maggie Smith in Downtown Abbey, detectives were snobbish gentlemen and a murder was a little inconvenience. This is nonsense: of course, there were writers for which the novels were simply entertainment, but for many others the reality was totally different. Honestly, though, there is nothing wrong in writing a simple good and well-plotted story, without implied messages. Many crime writers write bad stories nowadays having nothing to say about life, death and people.
James privileged realism and credibility over ingenuity, but I think these are wrong criterions to analyze a fiction novel, mostly a crime novel. “Realism" is the curtain for those who are not able to write clever stories, and “credibility” has the duty to cover the lack of genius.
Many myths of the Golden Age have been unmasked yet: for instance, in the brilliant Evans’s essay The Amateur Detective Just Won’t Do: Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction (2014), he revealed not only that the Hard-Boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler had great affinity with classical mystery, but also that the american writer, despite what he wrote in his The Simple Art of Murder (1950), actually enjoyed the detective fiction of Freeman W. Crofts and Richard A. Freeman. 
Yes, there is still a lot to do, but the time is ripe.

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Third Bullet, 1937 - John Dickson Carr

The Third Bullet is one of the most astonishing but undervalued works written by John Dickson Carr. Carr, an american detective writer who published over seventy novels in his superb career, was one of the most important exponents of the Golden Age of detective fiction, as well as the king of the locked room mystery. He introduced an essentially american view into a literary genre dominated by British writers: because of these motives he is almost forgotten by the genre scholars nowadays, with the exception of such critics as Roland Lacourbe, S.T. Joshi, and, obviously, Douglas Greene, who wrote the Carr’s biography in 1995. In a world in which scholars have divided the Golden Age between male American hard-boiled writers and female British writers, there is no space for Carr, who led the British detective novel to an unreachable level of ingenuity and complexity.
In 1937, for the first time in his career, Carr decided to follow the 20 rules written by S.S. Van Dine: in The Third Bullet there are no descriptions, no atmosphere nor characterization, but only the exposition of the events. 
Mr. Justice Mortlake was murdered in a pavillon, apparently by Gabriel White, a member of a radical society called the Utopians. He wanted the revenge against the Justice who had convicted him to a terrible corporal punishment for a banal steal (or probably because White was in love with Ida, one of the Justice’s daughters). 
When the corpse of the judge was discovered by Inspector Page, White was holding a caliber 38 gun from which one bullet had been fired. But the bullet shot by his gun missed the target and struck the wall behind Mr. Mortlake. In a vase was found another gun, from which one bullet had been recently fired. But the impossibilities were not enough: the post-mortem shows that neither the gun in the vase nor the caliber 38 had fired the fatal bullet. It’s impossible!   There is clearly no way that anyone else could have entered and exited, except White. Who did it? Where did the third bullet come from?
The deus ex machina is the Colonel Marquis, described by Carr as “a mental forerunner of Colonel March”, who appeared in nine fantastic short stories signed by Carter Dickson starting from 1938. As Douglas Green points out in the Carr’s biography, “the only similarity between Marquis and March is their name […] Carr based the personality and physical appearance of Colonel March on his friend, the detective story writer John Rhode” (John Dickson Carr: The Man who Explained Miracles p. 225). 
In The Third Bullet, Colonel Marquis is capable to explain with pure reason one of the most ingenious impossible crimes devised by the master in the 1930s: the plot is incredibly elaborate, full of psychological and also physical clues. It’s the triumph of impossibilities, as well as a superb challenge to the reader: even though some explanations are very Machiavellian, the final result is brilliant.
The story, written under the Carter Dickson pseudonym, was published in 1937 for a short-lived paperback series called New-at-Ninepence. After this publication, the novella was essentially forgotten. In 1946 Frederic Dannay made arrangements with Carr to print it in the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: the text was abridged by about 20 percent and it was printed in the January 1948 issue of the review under the John Dickson Carr name. 
Douglas Greene in the biography claimed that Carr not only gave Dannay permission to abridge the story but even begged him to do so! Carr wrote to Dannay: “Look here, don't you think you had better do a lot of cutting in The Third bullet? I haven't seen the story since I wrote it; but I remember being uncomfortably verbose in those days”. (see John Dickson Carr: The Man who Explained Miracles, p. 224).
For the majority of the critics, the shorter version is not as good as the longer: Barzun & Taylor deemed the shorter version as “ingenious but told without vim” (A Catalogue of Crime, p. 592); S.T. Joshi wrote that Marquis “remains nebulous through-out the work” (John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study, p. 55), and Douglas Greene claimed that Dannay “omitted large chunks of the story, including in several instances entire pages. Character descriptions, detail of the murder site, red herrings, and even some clues to the solution - all disappeared” (Fell and Foul Play, p. 293).
The story is very rare: when Carr decided to reprinted it in 1954, in The Third Bullet and Other Stories, only the shorter version was available. Only in 1991 Douglas Greene published the complete edition in the excellent book Fell and Foul Play. In France the story appeared inside Mystère À Huis Clos (2007), translated by Maurice-Bernard Endrébe. The French scholar Roland Lacourbe defined the story “un essai brillant, confondant d’habileté, et un chef-d’œuvre expérimental” (p. 569).
Needles to say, I subscribe to Lacourbe’s claim.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Rasp, 1924 - Philip MacDonald

Between 1918 and 1926, in these eight years, some of the greatest mystery writers of all time made their first appearance: Agatha Christie, Freeman W. Crofts, Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and S.S. Van Dine.
In 1924 it was the time for a brilliant, innovative and undervalued master: Philip MacDonald. MacDonald was born in London in 1900 and made his debut* at 24 years with a classic whodunit puzzle, The Rasp, which was influenced by Edmund Bentley (for the setting and the characters), Richard A. Freeman (for the use of clues) and Freeman W. Crofts (for the importance of alibis). Some elements remind me  of The Red House Mystery (1922) by Alan A. Milne, a classic country house mystery which was the model for many further English detective novels.
The Rasp is far from being a masterpiece, but it is a good first novel, with some interesting and clever elements. It is the first appearance of Colonel Gethryn, special correspondent for a London newspaper, «The Owl». He is very similar to Philip Trent, the protagonist of Trent’s Last Case (1913), but we can also find traces of Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, the detective created by Dorothy Sayers. First of all, the Colonel falls in love with Lucia, an enigmatic girl, like Trent did, but her innocence, unlike Evelyn from Bentley’s novel, is sure from the beginning of the story. Secondly, Gethryn is a depressed man, like Holmes, always in crisis when he doesn’t have any mysteries to solve. Thirdly, the Colonel has some features of Lord Peter Wismey: he is an artist, but also a mathematician, strong, smart and confident. 
The love story between Laura and Gethryn through the story has a melodramatic tone, and this is one of the reasons why currently the novel appears a little old-fashioned. Although MacDonald is able to handle the whodunit elements (clues, detection and interrogations), the characters appear little defined and some explanations are absurd. The solution is logic, but the murderer is guessable and, as Nick Fuller says, «his resulting descent into madness [is] unconvincingly melodramatic». Gethryn, by the way, destroys the murderer’s alibi through skills that simulate Croft’s Inspector French.
This novel is highly recommend by such critics as John Dickson Carr (at first he included The Rasp among his 10 favorite detective novels in the essay “The Greatest Game in the World”), and Barzun & Taylor, which deemed The Rasp as «classic and epoch making» (A Catalogue of Crime, p. 365). Recently the quality of the novel is called into question by scholars such as Roland Lacourbe, Philip Fooz and Vincent Bourgeois, which wrote without mercy: “une brochette de personnages stéréotypés, un mobile de crime peu original, un détective auquel nul indice n’échappe, un assassin qui se laisse aisément diviner et une solution de crime impossible […] bien décevante (1001 Chambres Closes, p. 341). 
In my opinion MacDonald didn’t get the notoriety that he deserved due to the negative judgment that Julian Symons gave him in his essay Bloody Murder (1972). I totally disagree with him: he was not only a very talented mystery writer, but a superb novelist, who exhibited an astonishing mastery across a range of fiction genres. MacDonald wrote some of the finest British detective novels of all time, and the book Murder Gone Mad (1931) is one of the best crime novels I have ever read.

*Actually he had previously co-authored two novels with his father, Ronald.

Monday, 4 May 2015

La Maison qui Tue (The House that Kills, 1932) - Nöel Vindry

The House that Kills is the first novel written by Noel Vindry, one of the greatest French Golden Age writers, originally published in France in 1932 as La Maison qui Tue. This novel, that has never been reprinted in France since its first edition, is now available in English thanks to John Pugmire, who has translated and published it by Locked Room International. I read only the English version, and I think that the translation by Pugmire fits perfectly Vindry’s style of writing: very simple, with a great flow and enjoyable. 
Noel Vindry, almost forgotten outside France, is actually one of the best mystery writers in Europe during the Golden Age period: he wrote twelve locked room novels between 1932 and 1937, and he was called the “poète du roman-problèm” by Thomas Narcejac, “the French John Dickson Carr” by Roland Lacourbe and “the French Ellery Queen” by Igor Longo. Moreover, as John Pugmire says in the introduction of the book, Boileau and Narcejac spoke of his “unequalled virtuosity” and “stupefying puzzles”, at the expense of the coldness of his prose. 
Starting from such a premise, it’s apparent which was the talent of Vindry: the creation of clever and brilliant plots, grounded on strange and impossible events, at last explained by means of the power of deductive reasoning.
Vindry, who was born in Lyon in 1896, after 1915 became an examining magistrate (juge d’instruction) and was appointed to serve in Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful place in the south of France. The detective of Vindry, Monsieur Allou, who made his debut in La Maison qui Tue, is a juge d’instruction as well. He is a pure thinking machine, a figure about whom the readers learn almost nothing. 
This novel, a very good example of locked room mystery, contains three impossible situations. At first, in a remote villa, despite police presence in the house, two people die in impossible circumstances. The first is killed in a locked and watched room; the second is murdered in the presence of many witnesses. Subsequently M. Allou is shot inside his locked apartment. The witnesses outside the door hear something but they don’t see nothing. But the apartment is empty with the exception of M. Allou. 
With Vindry we understand which was the typical French approach to the detective novel during the Golden Age period. There were many differences with the Anglo-Saxon writers: the focus is not on whodunit but rather on howdunit. Indeed, as I noticed, in many French Golden Age mysteries is easy to identify the murder: it happens in La Maison qui Tue, but also in other novels such as Six Hommes Morts by Steeman and Six Crimes Sans Assassin by Boileau. The real focus inside the French mysteries is on the plot, and this feature is led by Vindry to the highest level of complexity and ingenuity. Although the second murder has a very complicated explanation, with some coincidences, the first crime is well orchestrated and solved with cleverness. Vindry reveals to know Zangwill and Leroux very well, mostly because the first impossible crime is a good variation of those contained in The Big Bow Mystery and The Mystery of the Yellow Room. 
Surprisingly for the Anglo-Saxon standards, M. Allou solves the case by the midpoint of the novel (after 70 pages) and then is himself attacked. Although it’s apparent that the first part is the best of the book (it contains a creepy atmosphere, nice sense of the rhythm, bizarre events and a lot of clues), I have also appreciated the second part, so I don’t agree with Soupart, Bourgeois and Fooz which said: “le rythme est soutenu jusq’à l’attentat contre le juge Allou qui rompt malencontreusement le charme”. 
At the end, we can conclude that La Maison qui Tue is a very good novel and it is a must-read now that it is finally available in English. I really hope that other Vindry’s books will be published in English in the future, at least his two masterpieces, La Bête Hurlante (1934) and À Travers le Murailles (1936). 

The cover design by Joseph Gérard, by the way, is beautiful.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Trent's Last Case - Edmund C. Bentley, 1913

One of the most important pre-war detective novels was created for entertainment.
Edmund C. Bentley published Trent’s Last Case in 1913, to make his friend G.K. Chesterton, who was a great fan of mystery, happy.
We have to admit that Trent’s Last Case was a sort of divertissement,  a little parody of Conan Doyle’s detective novels.
The journalist and amateur sleuth Philip Trent was called by his newspaper to investigate the murder of a rich and hated businessman, Sigsbee Manderson. Trent is smart but not infallible, he is not able to solve the mystery and subsequently falls in love with Manderson’s widow, who is one of the suspects.
It’s apparent the influence of Eugene Valmont on Philip Trent. Valmont debuted in 1906 in The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont, book of tales written by Robert Barr.
Trent’s Last Case, even though it conveys the feeling of an extemporaneous literary experiment, it has the ability to create themes, situations and characters which will be cliché in the Golden Age period: the murder of a rich but hated businessman, who had been killed before the beginning of the book; the villa as setting; the journalist-detective ready to solve the mystery basing his deductions on clues scattered the whole story; and, finally, an unexpected solution of the mystery. All these things are narrated by an enjoyable and elegant style of writing. 
This novel will influence authors such as Philip MacDonald and Anthony Berkeley, which make the debut in 1924 and 1925.
The writing of Bentley is ironic and sharp, even if in his prose lacks  the sense of paradox which is typical of G.K. Chesterton. Especially, Bentley is able to break the boundaries with the sensation novel: he takes out the sensational elements which characterized the Eighteen Century and he sets the ground for the detective story based on fair-play-puzzle, as claimed by Thomas Narcejac.
It’s hard to say who was the first to set the ground for a detective story like a game or a match between author and reader. Whether it was Bentley, Chesterton or Freeman, it’s complicated to say it for certain, but without doubt the moment was ripe between 1905 and 1914.
Howard Haycraft, in Murder for Pleasure (1941), deemed Trent’s Last Case as an essential link between the Romantic Era and the Golden Age of detective fiction, which began in 1920 with the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie and The Cask by Freeman W. Crofts. After Bentley, in the opinion of Haycraft, mystery writers had a better awareness of the differences between mystery and sensation novel.
However, the contemporary literary criticism has softened the enthusiasm about the Bentley’s novel observed in the thought of authors such as Sayers, Christie and many others during the 1920s: yet Carr, in 1946, wrote that Bentley had arrived after writers like Chesterton, Mason and Freeman. Then came the critics of Chandler and others, and also Keating didn’t include Trent’s Last Case in his 100 best crime novels list in 1986. 
In spite of everything, this novel can be defined an exciting tour de force, full of tricks and deceptions, that surprise the readers page after page. There are many holes, for sure, the minor characters are badly drawn, and one of them, Murch, suddenly disappears; also some tricks are implausible and some parts of the book are long-winded. But the plot is very good, the clues are well provided, and the solutions (yes, there are many solutions, and one of them will influence Carr for The Ends of Justice, 1927), are fantastic.
Not bad for a novel created for entertainment. 

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Egyptian Cross Mystery - Ellery Queen, 1932

On Christmas morning, in the city of Arroyo, in West Virginia, a murder was discovered. The victim, Andrew Van, an eccentric teacher, was found decapitated and crucified in order to form a huge T. Ellery Queen was present at the trial, but the whole story seemed absurd and totally obscure, and he was forced to come back home.
Six months later, a former professor of Ellery, Mr. Yardley, who lived in Long Island, called Ellery to come to Long Island because it was discovered the corpse of Thomas Brady, a rich businessman. The victim was found decapitated and crucified to a Totem, again in order to form a grim T.
What can link two murders, committed in two different and distant towns? Probably these murders are linked by the name of a mad killer called Velija Krosac. The nightmare, for Ellery, starts now.
The fifth Ellery Queen novel contains vendettas, decapitations and crucifixions, it is full of darkness and sense of death. This novel is very different from the previous ones: if the three early novels are deeply influenced by Van Dine, and the fourth (The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1932) is the triumph of plotting and the utmost level of whodunit, with The Egyptian Cross Mystery Queen starts to move away from the writing style of Van Dine. The prose is less magniloquent and more enjoyable than Van Dine's, the plot is more clear, the atmosphere is more vivid and the characters are more believable. The method of Queen is also more logical than Vance’s, less tied to psychological elements.
In this novel Ellery is different from the previous books: he feels badly, powerless in front of the absurd profanation of the human body. Francis Nevins claims that the novel is so full of death and blood because it represents the metaphor of war. The reasons of vendetta are grounded on trivial but horrific elements, and these explain why the novel could become a war book: death rules uncontested.  The atmosphere is dark and oppressive; Danny and Lee studied the reaction of people to the present of the evil in the world, and they prepared the ground for novels like Cat of Many Tails. The interesting climate of the novel is also an important starting point for the future creation of Wrightsville, «a small tight-knit American community that with the outbreak of war in Europe has become a boomtown» (Nevins).
What astonishes the readers is the departure from the whodunit frame: first of all, in the introduction Dannay and Lee distance themselves from the Egyptology, theme overdone by authors like Van Dine and Freeman; secondly, the writers give few clues to the reader (even though the one in the last chapter before the "challenge to the reader" is brilliant), the suspects are few and the whole atmosphere is imbued with death and it recalls some paintings by Bosch. Surprisingly, there are more holes in the plot here than in the previous novel, The Greek Coffin Mystery, which was more complex, full of clues and red herrings. 
The reason behind the murders is very complicated, some explanations are hard to believe for the readers and many events don’t have any link with the story. Even with these issues, the novel is exciting and the solution, even if it has some holes, is amazing, a clear lesson of misdirection. It will influence writers like J.T. Rogers (The Red Right Hand) and Thomas Harris.

Velija Krosac, the crazy killer, reminds me of Keyser Soze, character of The Usual Suspects, a masterpiece directed by Bryan Singer in 1995.

Friday, 17 April 2015


I don’t like the word “whodunit” very much. It is a restrictive term that explains nothing. This word was coined around 1935 by Wolfe Kaufman and it pointed out the importance of “who-done-it” in the mystery fiction, the identity of the murder, reducing the detective stories as “mere puzzles”.
In the mystery fiction between World War I and World War II, when the Golden Age is usually delimitated, there was a real emphasis on plot, clues, thinking and puzzle, but they were virtues, not defects.
The term "whodunit", actually, doesn’t explain the real essence of Golden Age mystery: the power of ingenuity, the purpose of the writers to surprise the readers, with complex plots, bizarre problems, eccentric characters and unexpected solutions.
Many of the best-known writers of so-called whodunits were British - Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes - but there were some great American authors that in few years revolutionized the genre: S.S. Van Dine and his followers, like Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbot, Charles D. King, and other masters like John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout and Clayton Rawson. The real question to pose in their novels is: howdunit? Locked room murders, people, houses, things that vanish into thin air and other impossible events: this is the Golden Age mystery.

If we analyze the works of these authors, we could conclude that there is much more than simple “who-done-it” in their books: most of the Golden Age writers were brilliant highbrows and talented writers. As the great Igor Longo said years ago, speaking of ingenuity, plot and misdirection, even the third-class mystery Golden Age novels, if confronted with crime stories of nowadays, would win hands down.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


There are some good reasons for having a blog on mystery and detective fiction. I have a blog already, but in Italian, and it is very difficult to communicate to the Italian audience of readers and students of the field. I realized that the world of academia and  popular critics (all the indipendent-scholars) are totally separated. There is no communication between these two different universes. And it is a real problem.
In Italy, but not only here, we are tied to old and wrong ideas: the Golden Age novels as “mere puzzles” and “cozies”, the dichotomy between English Crime Queens and American detective novelists, and so on. In Italy, unfortunately, few academics know the opinions of great scholars such as Douglas G. Greene or Curtis Evans. 

Writing a blog in English is a hard challenge for me, but I will try. I would like to share ideas, opinions and thoughts about mystery and detective fiction, speaking in particular about the great representatives of the Golden Age, the best and the most undervalued period in the history of crime fiction.