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.