Friday 19 August 2016

The Mummy Case (1933) - Dermot Morrah

Dermot Michael Macgregor Morrah was one of those academics who wrote a detective novel just for fun. Born in 1896, Morrah earned a scholarship in Math at the New College of Oxford in 1914. After participating in the First World War, he changed his path and started dedicating to Modern History. In 1921 he became Prize Fellow of All Souls College and undertook an academic career. Shortly after though, he got married and had to interrupt his researches. From 1928 onwards, Morrah wrote leaders for the Daily Mail and The Times, as well as books about royalty and speeches for members of the Royal Family, including the Queen. As we may guess from the biography, Morrah was a very talented and eclectic man. Unfortunately, he wrote only one detective novel, The Mummy Case (1933), which I found very entertaining and amongst the best academic detective novels  I have ever read. 

As someone may expect, the story is set in Oxford, mainly in the fictitious Beaufort College. At the heart of the tale, there is the academic rivalry between two eminent Egyptologists, Peter Benchley and Feodor Bonoff. One night, a dreadful fire occurs in the rooms of Professor Benchley, who has recently purchased from Bonoff an highly valuable mummy. The fire completely destroys his room and only one body is found inside, which is impossible to identify, along with a wristwatch and a set of keys. The University rapidly calls it an accident, and Benchley is named as the charred corpse. Two professors though, Considine and Sargent, are skeptical about this explanation, and start to investigate on their own. If the body is Benchley’s, after all, where is the mummy? 

The Mummy Case is one of those novels clearly belonging to the Golden Age of detective fiction: the tone is lighthearted, the emphasis is always on the intellectual activities of the two sleuths, there is a lot of British humor and a group of well-depicted characters. Morrah reveals a pleasant wit and humor in his dialogues, but he is also capable of coming up with an intriguing plot. The story is filled with clever clues and some good red herrings, and the final explanation is very good as well. The main twist is allegedly guessable, but the (academic) motive of the culprit is wonderfully intellectual and ingenious. 
Unfortunately, the narrative rhythm is not always driving: some passages, especially when the two sleuths talk about the case, are too long and wordy (with the exception of chapter 4, where Sargent applies his professional skills to analyze the case, and chapter 9, which is a good example of recapitulation). In the second part, the book starts to flag, but the final two chapters are so amusing that you have to forgive the author.
As Mike Grost points out, we may find traces of the Realistic School writers, including Richard Austin Freeman (whose The Eye of Osiris (1911) involves mummies and Egyptology). The solution of the story involves the 'breakdown of identity', although not for the purpose of alibi construction.
Ultimately, this is one of my favorite academic detective novels, along with Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937). Morrah is much more able than Boucher to convey the atmosphere of a College, with its customs and traditions, its rules and conventions.

Thursday 11 August 2016

The Howling Beast, 1934 - Noel Vindry

More than a year ago, I wished for the publication of a new novel by Noel Vindry, one of greatest French Golden Age writers. At that time, Locked Room International had just published The House That Kills, Vindry’s debut, originally published in France in 1932 and translated by John Pugmire. This is the reason why, a month ago, I hailed enthusiastically the publication of The Howling Beast (1934), originally published as La Bête Hurlante, which is unanimously considered one of the best books of the French writer.
Although I enjoyed The House That Kills, it was somewhat contrived and a bit farfetched, at least with regard to the explanation of the second crime. On the contrary, The Howling Beast is truly a masterpiece which I strongly recommend. Structurally, it is very different from the typical Anglo-American Golden Age novels: Pierre Herry, wanted for murder, comes cross examining magistrate M. Allou and, after a moment of hesitation, decides to tell him the incredible story in which he is involved. Starting from the very beginning, Herry gives an account of a series of bizarre events which are set in a creepy castle, nearby Versailles, inhabited by Saint-Luce, a cynic and violent big-game hunter. The novel also involves a dangerous menage à trois, a guest disappearing into thin air, eerie creatures howling during the nights, and, of course, an impossible crime. Herry is pretty sure he has already lost his mind: after all, if he is not the murderer, who could have committed it? And, mostly, how?

The story is told through a long dialogue, which emphasizes the concision of Vindry’s style of writing. His prose might seem too simple and sharp, but it is actually very powerful. The author is able to create a subtle but vivid atmosphere of terror, which sets the ground for the account of the two impossible murders, whose explanation is absolutely brilliant. The novel reaches its climax in the final part, so you cannot stop reading and have to turn the pages as quick as you can to realize what really happened. 
As I noted in many French Golden Age novels, the microcosm is way more important than the single characters, which are usually roughly drawn. Here the cast is very tiny, but Vindry is mainly interested in the interaction between the characters and how this can strengthen the tension. A strong point is that although the tale is consciously set in another world — an isolated castle with no contacts with the outside —  the story is credible and realistic, and sometimes I even sympathized with the characters.
If I had to make a comparison with an Anglo-Saxon writer, I would choose Ellery Queen. The sharpness of Vindry’s prose, the tight construction of his plots, as well as the slightly gothic overtones might recall the early Queen of The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) and The Lamp of God (1935). I already cannot wait for another Vindry to be translated, but I also hope John Pugmire will be able to publish other French Golden Age novels such as Herbert & Wyl’s La Maison Interdite (1932) and Gaston Boca’s L’Ombre sur le Jardin (1935).
Thanks John!

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.