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 clichĂ© 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

Whodunit?

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

Introduction

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.