Friday, August 18, 2017

Death Can Be Dynamite: Trio for Blunt Instruments (1964), by Rex Stout

Anthony Boucher, longtime dean of American crime fiction critics, opined that Rex Stout's best productions in mystery fiction after the Second World War were not the Nero Wolfe novels but rather the Nero Wolfe novellas.  I don't know that I agree with this, in fact I'm pretty certain I don't, but I have to admire Stout's mastery of this shorter length, which many people have considered ideal for the mystery form.(See the long detective tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman.)

Some of the Stout novellas are better than others, to be sure, but the quality level of these works is remarkably high, given the author's fecundity for more than three decades.  Of course he had ample incentive to produce these works, as the serializations were quite lucrative!

Trio for Blunt Instruments [TFBI], the last collection of Nero Wolfe novellas, appeared in 1964, in between the novels Gambit (1962) and The Mother Hunt (1963) and A Right to Die (1964) and The Doorbell Rang (1965), a time when he seemed to be responding the the times by introducing some more overt "youth" references and political content into his works.  (Heads up: a review of The Doorbell Rang is coming this month, I hope.)

The three novellas in TFBI are Kill Now-Pay Later, which was first published in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1961; Murder is Corny, original to the volume and the last novella Stout wrote; and Blood Will Tell, originally published, two years after Kill Now-Pay Later, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

I often hear people dismiss Stout as a plotter--"he's no Agatha Christie," etc.--but a serviceable plot with genuine ratiocination is something I always look for in a work billing itself as a true detective story; and Stout rarely disappoints me in this regard.  He certainly doesn't disappoint in TFBI.

First Instrument: Kill Now-Pay Later

"I must tell you.  To my father you are a great man, the greatest man in the world.  I must tell you."

There are few men who would not to like to be told they are the greatest in the world, and Wolfe isn't one of them....

The first novella in the collection, Kill Now-Pay Later, is very much in Stout's classic mid-century mode, with Wolfe pursuing a case involving some high-toned corporate shenanigans.  The first murderee in the novella is Dennis Ashby, vice-president of Mercer's Bobbins, in charge of sales and promotion. He was quite the whiz kid, and had elevated the company's fortunes in the ever-spinning world of bobbin manufacture, but he was disliked by rather a number of people as well.

Ashby dies from a fall from his tenth-story office, though he had been bashed on the head first, which I suppose adheres to the title of the collection, if only barely.

Next to go is Nero Wolfe's shoe shiner, Pete Vassos, who also shined shoes foe the execs at Mercer's Bobbins; he's dead from a fall from a cliff, a suspiciously similar death to that of Ashby. The easily (mis)led police conclude, however, that Pete killed Ashby (believing that his daughter, Elma Vassos, a secretary at the Bobbin concern, had been "seduced"--their word--by Dennis, who had quite the roving eye), then, with the cops closing in, killed himself.

Elma shows up to hire Wolfe to exonerate her father and find his killer (and incidentally Ashby's), touchingly offering all her father's savings from his shoeshine jobs for Wolfe.  Archie warns her, not to get up her hopes, confiding, "It's December, and his tax bracket is near the top": but Wolfe, whose heart is not entirely stone it seems, agrees to take the case--though he glares malevolently at Archie for bringing this doom upon him:

I had let her in, I admit that, but from his look you might have thought I had killed Ashby and Pete and had seduced her into the bargain.

Admittedly, Wolfe later avows that he took the case to spite his egregious series semi-nemesis, Inspector Cramer, but I think Wolfe is a bit softer than he allows.  An interesting aspect of this story is the way it highlights how a "small" man, a hardworking Greek immigrant who believes in the American Dream, is abused both by the corporate world and the police yet finds an avenger in the man he so admired.  Wolfe himself enjoyed talking about ancient Greece with Vassos, though Wolfe did most of the talking on the subject, as he is wont to do.

"Wolfe's line," explains Archie, "was that a man who had been born in Greece, even though he had left at the age of six, should be familiar with the ancient glories of his native land, and he had been hammering away at Pete for forty months."  Later on he wisecracks, "Pete and I would have known each other a lot better if it hadn't been for ancient Greece."

Wolfe finds the solution to the crimes through some solid deductions.  The mystery is fair play and satisfying.  In essence, Kill Now-Pay Later reads very much like a shortened Nero Wolfe novel (one of the better ones) with some nice characterizations (the Vassos father and daughter and the tipsily pithy widow of Dennis Ashby) and good byplay among the crew of regulars, including Fritz, Wolfe's superb and devoted chef, who at one point has to serve as a sort of reluctant hall monitor, if you will, shepherding suspects in Wolfe's brownstone while Archie has been away:

Mr. Wolfe...said to put them in the office and stay in the hall.  I told him I was making glace de viande, but he said one of them is a murderer.  I want to do my share, you know that, Archie, but I can't make good glace de viande if I have to be watching murderers.

A delightful tale.  Read now--You'll enjoy it both now and later.

Second Instrument: Murder Is Corny

"Mr. Cramer.  Knowing your considerable talents as I do, I am sometimes dumbfounded by your fatuity.  You were so bent on baiting Mr. Goodwin that you completely ignored the point I was at pains to make."  He pointed at the piles on his desk.  "Who picked that corn?  Pfui!"

"By God.  Talk about stubborn egos."  Cramer shook his head.  "That break you got....You know, any normal man, if he got a break like that, coming down just in the nick of time, what any normal man would do, he would go down on his knees and thank God.  Do you know what you'll do?  You'll thank
you...."

Murder Is Corny
is the second mystery story concerning corn I have reviewed here. (Make sure you check out the first, since reprinted by Coachwhip.)

This one's the story of the farmer's daughter who implicates Archie in a murder and how Archie gets extricated from Inspector Cramer's clutches--by Nero Wolfe, of course, to whom Archie, it musr be conceded, is even more useful than was Pete Vassos.  It's an enjoyable enough tale, though the suspects are forgettable and the farmer and his daughter much less interesting, I would say, than Pete and Elma from Kill Now-Pay Later. The daughter, Susan McLeod, now a New York model (!), is an amiable egoist played for laughs but, like Archie, I got a bit tired of her.


The stand-out part of this book for me concerns, yes, corn.  Farmer Duncan McLeod of Putnam County, New York supplies Wolfe with sixteen just-picked ears of corn every Tuesday from July 20 to October 5; and Wolfe is rather particular about this corn.  Wolfe's following "corny" exchange with Cramer is, I think, one of the best in the series (including novels and novellas):

"Do you eat sweet corn?"

"Yes.  You're stalling."

"No.  Who cooks it?"

"My wife.  I haven't got a Fritz."

"Does she cook it in water?"

"Sure.  Is yours cooked in beer?"

"No.  Millions of American women, and some men, commit that outrage every summer day.  They are turning a superb treat into mere provender.  Shucked and boiled in water, sweet corn is edible and nutritious; roasted in the husk in the hottest possible oven for forty minutes, shucked at the table, and buttered and salted, nothing else, it is ambrosia.  No chef's ingenuity and imagination has ever created a finer dish.  American women should themselves be boiled in water...."


All this superb harumphery leads up to some excellent deductions on Wolfe's part.  This one was televised in the Maury Chaykin-Timothy Hutton series.  The literally explosive climax of the tale is well-suited to television drama. (I'm not giving anything away here, as the image of dynamite mixed with ears of corn has been used on the covers of paperback editions of the book for a half-century now.)

Third Instrument: Blood Will Tell

"She deserved--No, I won't say that.  I believe it, but I won't say it."

"Pfui.  More people saying what they believe would be a great improvement.  Because I often do I am unfit for common intercourse."

In Blood Will Tell, Archie's receipt in the mail of a bloodstained tie leads to another murder case for him and his boss.  Anthony Boucher proclaimed this possibly the finest Nero Wolfe case since the excellent Prisoner's Base (Out Goes She in the UK), from a dozen years earlier. (At least I presume this is the book of which Boucher was thinking.)

Although the case is rather simply solved, what gives this story the resonance to which Anthony Boucher responded so strongly is the character of a man who is desperately, inarticulately in love and very grateful indeed to Archie Goodwin.  The last two lines pack an emotional punch unusual for the series, paying fine tribute to one of the finest characters in American mystery fiction.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Upstairs (1925), by Mrs. Victor Rickard

"There is no real security anywhere.  We pretend that there is.  Things like railway time-tables and regular hours keep up the fiction, but behind that little defence life is waiting in ambush.  Let me tell you this much, Mr. Herrington, I am not afraid of death, but life has moments of stark terror for me."

What sort of woman was Mrs. Chance, he wondered. Did she belong to the type who played elegantly with the dangerous passions of men, and was dismayed when reality insinuated itself into the game, and ended it on the crashing realism of death?

"....he was shown into the big drawing-room, where everything was so quiet, serene and impeccably respectable.  "Crime," he thought to himself, "can happen anywhere, but it is much stranger to think of with this kind of background."

"One reads of  a murder and is told that it was first discovered by the man's wife, but of the real drama and the terrible intensity one realises very little.  Yet these things happen...they actually do happen to people one may have met or seen.  If one reads of them in a book one immediately says 'Melodrama,' but the drama of life goes far beyond anything one has ever read."

All the strange secrecy which surrounds the lives of people living in towns was complete here [in Hamilton Street] as elsewhere in London.   Hardly anyone knew who their next-door neighbours were; they were divided by a gulf as wide as though miles separated them, and to this rule, which included almost everyone in Hamilton Street, there was but one solitary exception.

                                                                          --Upstairs (1925), by Mrs. Victor Rickard

This exception, in Mrs. Victor Rickard's crime novel Upstairs, is Daniel Harrington, a bachelor in his early forties, lately returned, "temporarily crippled," from work on the Gold Coast (then a British African colony, today Ghana). Like Jimmy Stewart's obsessed voyeur character in Rear Window, Daniel spends a lot of his time observing his neighbors, including a beautiful woman who lives across the street, in a house with "outside shutters in which little crescent moons were cut," which "added to the delicate hint of mystery which surrounded her."  Daniel "had seen her several times wearing a close-fitting red hat, which attracted him."

Then there's mysterious Miss Garrett from upstairs:

It tantalised him to feel that he could never see the other people in his own house....The opposite side of the street at least gave the objects of his interest a background.  He could not put a window, a door, a garden, or anything whatever, behind the name of Garrett.

Late one night the voyeuristic Daniel espies a a man letting himself into the house opposite and later yet a man and the sometimes red-hatted woman alighting from a chauffeur-driven car and entering the house, the woman seemingly not desirous of having the man accompany her. Daniel falls asleep before seeing anyone coming out of the building.  Unbeknownst to him, a ship of mystery has been launched, which will engulf the lives of a goodly number of people on Hamilton Street and elsewhere.

In the next chapter we learn that Sir Hector Montague has not returned to his home in Shelton Gardens from his visit to a certain house in Hamilton Street, outside of which he had left his chauffeur spinning his heels in his car. (Eventually tiring of this, the chauffeur in a show of proletarian spirit returned to Sir Hector's abode alone.)  Just what has happened to Sir Hector?


The sense of urban alienation and anomie that Mrs. Victor (aka Jessie Louisa, or "Louie") Rickard captures at times in Upstairs reminds me of the superb crime novels which Ruth Rendell began publishing some half-century later, like A Demon in My View (1976).  What I'm not reminded so much of is detective novels of the 1920s.

For Upstairs is a crime novel too, with a relatively simple mystery but plenty of melodrama, making it more reminiscent not only of modern crime novels but of Victorian mellers.  Emphasis is laid on the characters impacted by murder more than the mechanics of murder investigation, though there is a Scotland Yard inspector and private detective, floridly named Cosmo Rouselle.  Now, there's a name that needed a mystery series to go with it!

In The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards wonders why Ianthe Jerrold and Louie Rickard were admitted to the Detection Club when what he terms "several more gifted and interesting writers," like Philip Macdonald and Josephine Tey, were not.  Of course readers of this blog will know that I think Ianthe Jerrold's detective novels are rather good ones, though, to be sure, there are only a few of them.  Mrs. Rickard presents a knottier problem, however. 

Whatever we may think of the merits of Upstairs as a crime novel, as a detective novel (and detection supposedly was the raison d'etre of the Detection Club in those days), it's simply not remarkable. Was Mrs. Rickard really a distinguished detective writer in any meaningful sense, and, if not, why was she invited to become a charter member of the Detection Club?

I think the cases of both Ianthe Jerrold and Louie Rickard, like those of some other early Detection Club members I might name, such as Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane, offer evidence that even in its natal days, the Detection Club was susceptible to the "Great Writer" lure.  One of the reasons Jerrold and Rickard and Simpson and Dane--successful mainstream writers all--were invited into the Detection Club, I posit, was that they had added prestige to the mystery writing genre simply by taking it up for a time and after a fashion.  Even in 1930, mystery writers were sensitive to the charge that theirs was a lesser literary craft, perhaps not true literature at all!

More on Mrs. Rickard's crime fiction coming soon.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"That Mysterious Individual Mrs. Victor Rickard": Jessie Louisa Rickard (1876-1963), Crime Writer?

In the summer of 1939, as Europe sped toward a calamitous conflagration, English mystery writer John Street (aka John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye) was undergoing an ordeal of his own: editing the Detection Club anthology known as Detection Medley. (Street chose this title over such doozies as Detective's Ditty-bag and Detection Pie, phlegmatically writing Dorothy L. Sayers of that last precious pair and some others, like Here's to Jack Ketch,"I can't say that I am personally in love with any of them.")

As editor of the collection, Street was tasked with trying to track down all of the current Detection Club members (nearly forty people), seeking from them contributions to the, erm, ditty-bag.  Street had particular trouble locating several members, including the person he dryly termed "that mysterious individual Mrs. Victor Rickard." Just as Mrs. Rickard was to her fellow Detection Club members in the 1930s, she has remained an elusive presence today within the mystery fiction genre, being far better known for her marriage to Victor Rickard and her Great War fiction than for her crime writing.

Jessie Louisa Moore Rickard
1876-1963
Mrs. Victor Rickard was born Jessie Louisa ("Louie") Moore in Dublin, Ireland, in 1876.  She was the daughter of Reverend Canon Courtenay Moore (1840-1922)--a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, enthusiastic cyclist and amateur archaeologist and, during Jessie's youth, rector of Mitchelstown in County Cork (he later became Canon of Cloyne)--and his wife, the native Scottish Jessie Mona Duff, a granddaughter of Garden Duff, 8th Laird of Hatton and master of Hatton Castle.*

*(Canon Moore was not a fortune hunter, for some time before her marriage Jessie's father, Captain Benjamin Duff of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, had been disinherited by his father, who, in classic terminology, was "dissatisfied with his conduct.")

Hatton Castle was in the news recently when the Duff family put it up for sale after over three centuries of ownership. Some news sources pointedly noted at the time that the family was deeply displeased with the actions of the SNP, or Scottish National Party.

Hatton Castle

Courtenay Moore was, notes John Hayes (in "C. S. Lewis and a Chronicle of the Moores," Irish University Review, 2009), a progressive man for his time in some ways, advocating "change in respect to Irish land tenure...Home Rule, and the fostering of Gaelic, in public lectures and articles."

Moore published two novels, served as vice-president of Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland and edited the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, the Anglican newspaper in Ireland. Rather less progressively, he also opposed his daughter Louie's divorcing of first her husband to marry the Catholic Victor Rickard, and left her out of his will.  (Louie Moore would herself convert to Catholicism in 1925, three years after her father's death.)

The youngest of Courtenay and Jessie Moore's children, Louie Moore had two brothers and a sister (another sister died in infancy), the brothers being Alexander Duff Moore, future Archdeacon of Glendalough, and Courtenay Edward Moore, a civil engineer who married Jane ("Janie") King Askins, daughter of Reverend Canon William James Askins.

CS Lewis
Before their separation in 1907 Edward Moore and his wife Janie had two children, Edward ("Paddy") Francis Courtenay Moore and Maureen ("Daisy") Helen Moore.

Paddy Moore was a roommate of author and theologian C. S. Lewis during the pair's wartime army training at Keble College, Oxford; and at the altogether too young age of 19 he was killed in France during the last year of the Great War.

After the war Lewis lived with Paddy's mother Janie Moore (many Lewis authorities believe Lewis had a sexual relationship with the more than two decades older Janie, who never returned to her husband, Louie Moore's brother, whom she bluntly dubbed as "The Beast") and her daughter, Daisy, a future baronetess (one of only four in British history) through her Duff family lineage.

C. S Lewis, it has been pointed out by scholar John Hayes, shared a markedly similar personal background to the Moores: the Lewises and Moores, he notes, "were Irish, Anglican, markedly clerical, and literary."

Let's move on to the most literary Moore, Jessie Louisa Moore, future crime writer.  In 1901 Louie Moore married Robert Dudley Innes Ackland, but the couple divorced in 1907 (provoking a rift with her father), after Jessie had given birth to a daughter. A lieutenant in the King's Liverpool Regiment in September 1914, Ackland was dismissed, for reasons unknown to me, from the service the next month, rejoining the army as a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Whatever his personal faults, he gave his life for his country, becoming one of the last soldiers killed in action at Gallipoli in 1916.

Victor Rickard
1873-1915
Louie Moore next wed Lieutenant-Colonel Victor George Howard Rickard in 1908 and the couple had a son together.  He too would die in action in the First World War, in France in 1915.  Louie married one more time, this time to Tudor Fitzjohn, whom she divorced. In contrast with Louie's first two husbands, he survived the Great War, in which he fought valiantly, passing away a year before Louie at the age of 87.

At his death on May 9, 1915 at the Battle of Aubers Ridge, characterized as an "unmitigated disaster for the British" (in part because of the poor condition of British artillery and ammunition, a fact which precipitated the so-called Shell Crisis of 1915), Lt-Col Victor Rickard was leading an advance out of the trenches by the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, which he had commanded since February 6. 

Fifteen paces from the British lines he was killed instantly by a bullet to the spinal column in his neck. Despite 151 deaths of officers and men, the battalion managed to capture German trenches, the only unit to manage this feat on that day, though they soon were forced to withdraw.

The day before the attack Rickard had halted his men at Rue Du Bois, before a roadside shrine (the altar of a war-shattered family chapel), in order to speak to them about the forthcoming battle; afterward the men received absolution from their pastor, the beloved Father Francis Gleeson, a moment commemorated in a famous painting commissioned by Jessie Moore Rickard, "The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois," by Italian artist Fortunino Matania.

Last Absolution of the Munsters
Father Gleeson on horseback in foreground
Lt.-Col.Victor Rickard on horseback in background

Widowed and with a daughter and son to support, Louie Rickard, nearly forty years old, turned to her pen to make her way.  She had actually published two novels before the outbreak of the war: Young Mr. Gibbs (1912), a comedy, and Dregs (1914), described as a "psychological" novel.  In 1915 she published The Story of the Munsters, about her husband's battalion, following it with a trio of popular and critically well-received war novels: The Light above the Crossroads (1916), The Fire of Green Boughs (1918) and The House of Courage (1919).  She became a great friend of Hazel, Lady Lavery, an American-born artist and the second wife of celebrated Irish portraitist Sir John Lavery.

Louie's novel A Fool's Errand (1921), introduced crime and adventure elements into her oeuvre, yet it was not until the mid-Twenties, with Upstairs (1925) and Not Sufficient Evidence (1926), the latter drawn from the real life Charles Bravo case, that Louie Rickard really made a splash in crime fiction.  Other novels by her with definite criminous aspects are The Mystery of Vincent Dane (1929, The Baccarat Club in the US), The Dark Stranger (1930), The Empty Villa (1930) and Murder by Night (1936).

Jessie Moore Rickard published at least 26 novels between 1912 and 1936, roughly one a year.  After the publication of Murder by Night, however, Louie's production declined drastically.

On the strength of her small output of crime fiction (excluding Murder by Night), which probably accounted for less than a fifth of her novels, Louie Rickard was invited to become a charter member of the Detection Club: a testament, surely, to the respect her fellow authors (or at least some of them) had for her reputation as a serious writer. 

The crime novels by her that I have read are works more reminiscent of mature Ruth Rendell than, say, Agatha Christie; and I'll have more to say about them this month.

As John Street's letter indicates, Louie Rickard seems to have had little, if anything, to do with the Detection Club in which she had accepted membership.  Like other older Detection Club members in the 1940s, she suffered from increasing infirmity and in 1948 she returned to her native Ireland, settling in Cork.  She died in 1963 and since then seems to have been almost entirely forgotten by posterity, except as a Great War lady novelist and as, as her official author name suggested, the wife of the fallen hero Victor Rickard.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Not a Blah": Plot It Yourself (1959), by Rex Stout

"There is something about the idea of a very successful author stealing his material from an unsuccessful author that seems to appeal to ordinary people, and juries are made up of ordinary people."

                                --Thomas Dexter, publishing executive, Plot It Yourself (1959)

"....I can't dismiss the possibility that one or more of the supposed victims is a thief and a liar.  'Most writers steal a good thing when they can' is doubtless an--"
"Blah!" Mortimer Oshin exploded.
Wolfe's brows went up.  "That was in quotation marks, Mr. Oshin.  It was said, or written, more than a century ago by Barry Cornwall, the English poet and dramatist.  He wrote Mirandola, a tragedy performed at Covent Garden with Macready and Kemble.  It is doubtless an exaggeration, but it is not a blah.  If there had been then in England a National Association of Authors and Dramatists, Barry Cornwall would have been a member."

                                --Plot It Yourself (1959)

In Plot It Yourself The National Association of Authors and Dramatists, or NAAD, is in a pickle, and has come to Nero Wolfe, Great Detective, to get them out of it.  Several of their more successful members have been hit with plagiarism allegations and are being sued for heavy damages by their accusers.  NAAD, and the accused individual members, insist the claims are fraudulent, but there is, or seems to be, considerable damning evidence against them, in the form of similar manuscripts that were written by the accusers and submitted to the publishers of the later, successful, works.  Did the authors and publishers shelve and then steal this intellectual property, or are they the victims of a clever criminal enterprise?


The more I read of Rex Stout, the more I'm convinced that of all the writers working within the mystery genre it was he who was the greatest chronicler of elite corporate culture in mid-century America--what we might call "Mad Men culture," though I think Stout can be said to have written, with a few exceptions, his best books before the 60s (at least, surely, before Woodstock).  Perhaps this is why academics and literary critics have tended not to be that interested in him, in contrast with enduring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin fans.  He doesn't write so much of dark mean streets, but of scheming corporate cheats.  And I find it fascinating.

As social history and simply as pure entertainment, I don't rank Plot it Yourself as highly as I do And Be a Villain (1948), Stout's delightful and hilarious take on commercial radio and corporate sponsors, but it's still a satisfyingly solid and engrossing entry into the Wolfe canon.  The first half of the novel moves a bit slowly, but in the second half the bodies begin really to pile up, as a ruthless killer seeks to block every one of Nero Wolfe's gambits by mercilessly sacrificing human pawns on the crime chessboard. It's a bit like Game of Thrones even!

Rex Stout named one of his Wolfe novels Gambit and they really do feel like chess games, as Wolfe from his brownstone fastness shrewdly maneuvers to collar a killer and collect his fee.  I've read commentators dismiss Stout as a plotter, but PIY has a good plot, and it's a fair play plot.

Late in the novel Wolfe's legman, Archie, even essentially offers us what is in effect an Ellery Queenian "challenge to the reader," where he tells us that he, Archie, should have seen the solution as his employer has, because the main clue was presented to him, and he assumes the reader has had the sense to see it. (I hadn't!)  This is the definition of fair play.  Frugally clued fair play, to be sure, but still fair play.

Plagiarism--the use of another's words, ideas and work without attribution--is an interesting subject to me, as I have mentioned previously, and Stout treats it much more authoritatively than Josephine Bell would two decades later.  (Had someone ever tried to accuse him of it?  He was certainly a successful author!) 

I enjoyed seeing Wolfe spotting similarities in author's texts by checking for duplicated usages of phrases and other matters of style.  This was what convinced me a few years ago that Anthony Gilbert was the woman who completed Annie Haynes' The Crystal Beads Murder (1930).  I believe this still, even though I have been challenged by the eminent modern crime fiction writer and critic Martin Edwards.  Gilbert really liked the phrase "flotsam and jetsam," I'm just telling you!  I believe Nero Wolfe would agree, and, as Archie says, he's a genius.

see Keble College, Oxford
In PIY Wolfe reviews at length how the phrase "not for nothing" is used repeatedly in the supposedly plagiarized manuscripts, leading Archie to quip, "Not for nothing did you read the stories."  This is main reason why, in the eyes of most fans, the Wolfe canon has endured: Archie and Nero and their wonderful, witty banter. 

Without that (and Archie's narration) PIY would be a solid enough plotted example of a mid-century American mystery, but it wouldn't be nearly as memorable as a novel, even with the asides about plagiarism.  With Archie and Nero it is memorable indeed. 

There's also a splendid burn Wolfe blasts Inspector Cramer with, but I'll leave you to spot it yourself, if you will (if you haven't read the book already).  As much as I dislike Wolfe's self-centered eccentricities sometimes, the perpetually blustering, stogie-chomping Inspector Cramer is vastly more objectionable and I always enjoy seeing Wolfe (and Archie, though his victim seems more often to be Sergeant Purley) score off him.

Coming soon on the subject of plagiarism, possibly the most egregious example of it in the history of mystery publishing.  And it happened at the height of the Golden Age of detective fiction!  Stay tuned, I shall blog it myself.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Gathering of Gumshoes: Murder in Pastiche (1954), by Marion Mainwaring, Part Three

For the previous post on Marion Mainwaring's Murder in Pastiche, see here.

Before saying a fond goodbye to the Florabunda--where, you will recall, hateful syndicated columnist Paul Price has been murdered--and coming ashore, let's look at the last two detectives to investigate the case.

Mallory King
Most recent Ellery Queen novel at the time
The Scarlet Letters (1953)


searching for a pattern
The meaning of the scarf and pipe found under Price's body was incontrovertible.  They were symbols--the pipe in a punning way.  The murder was symbolic!

Mallory grinned at him.  "I haven't gone crazy.  At least I don't think so.  I'm just working on the suspects' names anagrammatically.

"I see..."

But Mallory, out of kindness, explained: "I mean, I rearrange the letters....Often names provide vital clues, you know.  They can influence character.  In one of my cases there were two brothers, called Kane and Judah:
their real names were Cain and Judas!

Turning from Spike Bludgeon (Mike Hammer) to Mallory King (Ellery Queen) in Murder in Pastiche is apt to give one whiplash, but it's truly striking, to be sure, how well Marion Mainwaring captures the styles and themes of both authors.

With Spike she gave us a typical Mickey Spillane revenge plot, with the tough guy dick--whose profound sense of disgruntlement with his lot in life and resentment against elites and "others" would have made him a wonderful focus group voter in last year's election--punching his way to a solution (though his paranoia leads him utterly, hilariously astray).

I feel so symbolic....
For his part, Mainwaring's cerebral Mallory King immediately starts searching for obscure symbols and strange patterns in the case. As he explains to the First Officer:

"My cases...always have some underlying pattern; some theme, some motif which unites and gives meaning to details which, on the surface, seem merely arbitrary and fantastic."

The first officer nodded intelligently.

"For instance, in one case the killer used the concept of the chain of evolution, working up from the murder of frogs, and dogs, and so on, to Man.  Another, with an Old Testament complex, used the scheme of the Ten Commandments. This time--"

"Yes?" Mr. Waggish asked eagerly.

"This time--Darn it," Mallory said plaintively.  "I simply don't know."


But Mallory sticks with it, and he begins to see the light, or what he fervidly imagines is light.

Concerning Ellery Queen, the ex-academic Mainwaring has a lot of fun with EQ half Frederic Dannay's obsession with patterns and symbols, so manifest in then-recent EQ fiction, like The Origin of Evil (1951), specifically referenced above by Mainwaring. Recalling another recent EQ novel, Double, Double (1950), the nursery rhyme The Farmer in the Dell even gets a workout--a very thorough workout!  It's a bravura performance by Mainwaring, even if EQ's brilliance leads him astray. Mainwaring leaves it to another detective to resolve the affair.

Lord Simon Quinsey
Most recent Lord Peter Wimsey novel at the time
Busman's Honeymoon (1937)


the gentleman is cogitatin', don't you know
A fleeting melancholy crossed Quinsey's long face.  "I know.  Et ego in Arcadia, Mr. Waggish."

Lord Peter comes out of a seventeen year retirement (fifteen if one counts the few Lord Peter stories in the collection In the Teeth of the Evidence) in Murder in Pastiche, in the guise of Lord Simon Quinsey, accompanied by his loyal manservant, Bunter--er, I mean Punter.

This is another smart Mainwaring appellation, recalling Simon Peter, of course; and, as for the surname Quinsey: "The crest of the ducal family" is "a domestic cat crouched as to spring" and its motto is "Lest Quinsy take me." Clever woman, that Marion Mainwaring!

Pastiche Artist
Marion Mainwaring
Mainwaring, whom I suspect was a particular Peter Wimsey fan, has the aristocrat put his finger on the essential clue, making the solution of the case possible.  I wonder whether Dorothy L. Sayers ever read Murder in Pastiche?   Lord Peter's creator died three years after the original publication of Mainwaring's second detective novel, never having brought Lord Peter back into print with a new adventure, much to the disappointment of her loyal mystery readers.

However, thanks to Marion Mainwaring's brilliance as a pastiche writer, mid-century detective fiction fans got once again to see Lord Peter--or a close facsimile thereof--in sleuthing action, along with eight other famous British and American detectives who were still active at the time of Pastiche's publication.

Today, over six decades later later, Murder in Pastiche indeed reads like a return to Arcadia, to what many of us see as, if I may borrow the title for a brief moment, the Golden Age of Murder.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Gathering of Gumshoes: Murder in Pastiche (1954), by Marion Mainwaring, Part Two

For the previous post on Marion Mainwaring's Murder in Pastiche, see here.

The fifth detective to horn in on the most perplexing murder case aboard the Florabunda (the slaying of obnoxious syndicated columnist Paul Price) is

Trajan Beare
Most recent Nero Wolfe novel at the time
The Golden Spiders (1953)


It wasn't the group you'd have selected if you wanted a party, unless you hoped for another murder. Pictorially, it had a wide range, from Win and Dolores Despana, neither of them open to any real criticism, to Homer T. Anderson at the other end of the spectrum, looking like something from a 3-D horror film.

Yes, it's an excerpt from the notebook of Archie Goodwin--I mean Ernie Woodbin--right-hand man of Nero Wolfe--make that Trajan Beare.  Mainwaring really captures Archie's pricelessly snappy patter and the structure of the chapter, with Ernie having to cajole Beare into taking up the case and Beare getting all the suspects into his cabin before he announces his deductions, is pure Rex Stout.  Of course by all rights Beare should never have left his New York brownstone domain at all, but, Stout himself managed to break this rule of character a number of times too.

I have the same reaction to that man too sometimes.

Another example of how good Mainwaring is at capturing the authentic nature of "her" sleuths can be seen in the contrasting attitudes of some of the sleuths toward "exotic" actress Dolores Despana. Here's Ernie on the alluring subject:

Beare glared.  He may have recognized her [Dolores] from things I'd said, or he may not.  It didn't matter.  What with his general feeling about women, which is not favourable, and his being away from solid ground, I half expected him to say outright to get out; but he only looked at me in a way that meant I was to say it.

But I ignored him and looked at Dolores.  You could tell that two years ago she'd been buying clothes on Fourteenth Street, and that one year ago she kept a wad of chewing-gum in her cheek; but she was coming along fast and there was certainly nothing wrong with what the eye could see.  I said, "This is Miss Despana," and got her settled in a chair.


Sure Ernie gets in his digs at Dolores, but you get the feeling he might be willing give the actress a whistle, and certainly Ernie knows how to put his lips together and blow.  Broderick Tourneur (aka Roderick Alleyn), on the other hand:

The coarse mockery [from Dolores Despana] grated on Tourneur: nothing else in her composition, he thought, quite matched the miraculous finish of her complexion.  But he sensed something deep underneath the vulgarity.  She is afraid, he told himself.  She is truly, pitifully afraid.

This is in the style of classic Ngaio Marsh, I think: an author for whom murder was not so much a sin, as an error of taste, a social faux pas. Dolores is just too tacky for her oh-so-fastidious sleuth. (Of course by this time he has found a fitting mate in artist Agatha Troy.)

As for Spike Bludgeon's (aka Mike Hammer) reaction to Dolores, read on!

a nice cup of tea
Miss Fan Sliver
Most recent Miss Maud Silver novel at the time
The Silent Pool (1954)


Mr. Waggish looked at Miss Sliver with profound respect.  He asked: "How did you guess it?"
Miss Sliver coughed.  "It was not precisely 'guessing,' Mr. Waggish."


For the record Miss Fan Sliver coughs eleven times in twenty pages, so she more than lives up to her model in that respect.  Mainwaring again captures her sleuth well, but there is less humor in this chapter, probably because Miss Silver just doesn't seem that easy to broadly parody.  I mean, who on earth would dare?

Spike Bludgeon
Most recent Mike Hammer novel at the time
Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)


From the memoirs of Spike Bludgeon:
The fog was like sweat, great and damp and beady, and the ocean was like the grey cold gravy you get in Bowery hash-houses.  Looking in from the deck, the lights in the Lounge were warm and pretty, like twinkly bulbs on a Christmas tree, till you thought about the ship and you saw what it really was, a rotten tub with a cargo of dirt.  Human dirt.  A floating sewer.  The Florabunda.  A place where murder had been done.


Going from Patricia Wentworth to Mickey Spillane is like going from nibbling sandwiches at a ladies church tea to nibbling strippers at the Gold Club, but Mainwaring manages the feat with aplomb.  Her Spike Bludgeon (aka Mike Hammer) chapter is probably the most uproariously funny in the entire book, but then Spillane's psychotic Mike Hammer mysteries virtually compel parody.

All the other sleuths in the story make some contribution to actually solving the case, but Spike Bludgeon...well, read it for yourself.

Spike/Mike sure knows
how to charm a girl
Mainwaring allows Spike to violently twist the mystery into the usual Spillane revenge tale and of course that damn dame Dolores soon falls hard for Spike's irresistible attractions.

"You're so wonderful, Spike," she muttered, "All those ugly scars....your broken nose...and the ear that's chopped off...How could they do it, Spike?  How could anyone bear to hurt you?"
"The ones who did it are dead," I told her.  "People who cross me usually end up that way."


Mrs. Chip-Ebberly is another story, giving Spike "a look a that would have congealed a blast-furnace," so Spike decides to give the haughty Englishwoman "a good lesson in democracy."

Stay tuned for a look at the last two sleuth chapters, which detail the incredible deductions of Mallory King and Lord Simon Quinsey, as well as the novel's amazing conclusion.  Don't worry, it's all spoiler-free!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Gathering of Gumshoes: Murder in Pastiche (1954), by Marion Mainwaring Part One

My late internet friend, Helen Szamuely, with whom I had political disagreements in the last year I'll admit, wrote what I found a fascinating piece for the essay collection Mysteries Unlocked, titled Parody, Pastiche and Presentism in Mystery Fiction, in which she distinguished parody from pastiche as follows:

Detective fiction parody is a relatively straightforward affair.  As long as there is some memorable feature to the detective that can be exaggerated, there is potential for parody.  Leo Bruce's classic mystery novel Case for Three Detectives (1936) mirthfully parodies, as the title indicates, no less than three renowned Golden Age sleuths: Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown and Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.  Yet among M. Poirot, Father Brown and Lord Peter, only the latter character to date has figured in pastiche novels.  [This was written before the advent of Sophie Hannah and HarperCollins' Poirot venture--TPT].  Of these two literary forms, parody and pastiche, arguably it is pastiche that offers the more daunting prospect.

While the literary parodist exaggeratedly portrays the work of another author in order to make the author's characters look ridiculous, the writer of pastiche attempts literally to accomplish what is proverbially the sincerest form of flattery, imitation....There no doubt can be true creative genius in pastiche; yet...there is also a pitfall to the form, namely its stifling of originality....


In his introduction to the 1989 edition of Marion Mainwaring's Murder in Pastiche: Or, Nine Detectives All at Sea (1954), mystery scholar Robin W. Winks (1930-2003) writes that the novel "is, quite obviously and entertainingly, a parody."  I don't disagree that the novel is extremely entertaining, but is it parody, or pastiche, or both?

Helen's distinctions are valuable here, I believe. I go as the title suggests: Murder in Pastiche is pastiche, for the most part, and a remarkable case of it at that.  However, there are moments when parody intrudes, most mirthfully.

New York Times book reviewer Anthony Boucher, undeniably one of the top authorities on the crime novel in mid-century America, put it well in his notice of Murder in Pastiche:

...no multiple [mystery fiction] pastiche has ever succeeded in dissecting each of its subjects with such wickedly flawless accuracy.  That anyone can catch each flaw and each virtue of the prose styles of authors as disparate as Michael Innes and Earle Stanley Gardner all but passes my belief--or that anyone can think a plot in precisely the manner of, in turn, Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen.  The fullest enjoyment of this wondrous book may be limited to those who know intimately the annals of all nine detectives; but if you know even so much as one of them, I think you'll agree that this is a permanent addition--both as criticism and entertainment--to the detective bookshelf.

Inevitably, as Boucher indicated, your enjoyment of Pastiche should be directly related to your familiarity with the detectives who are the subjects of the pastiches, but the mystery plot itself is clever (if, just as inevitably I think, bookish) and the writing and characterization lively and fun; so any classic mystery fan, however experienced, should give the book a try, in my opinion.  You should have a fun time aboard this lively (and deadly) murder cruise. 

ship of sleuths
Yes, Murder in Pastiche is a mystery set on an ocean liner, RMS Florabunda, en route from Liverpool to New York. (Records show that Mainwaring herself traveled this route several times in the 1950s.)

I must say, incidentally, that I love cruise and train mysteries. Have I ever read a bad one? The only one I can recalling ever feeling meh about is Ngaio Marsh's Singing in the Shrouds, which, come to think of it, followed Mainwaring's novel by a only few years.  Indeed, I found it about as dull as Marsh's Seventies tour group mystery (another subgenre to itself), When in Rome.  But back to the review!

By some miraculous coincidence (?), there are no less than nine famous detectives on board the Florabunda:

Atlas Poireau
Sir Jon. Nappleby
Jerry Pason
Broderick Tourneur
Trajan Beare
Miss Fan Sliver
Spike Bludgeon
Mallory King
Lord Simon Quinsey

You likely can guess just whom all these people represent. (It's also a striking indicator of the times how few women Great Detectives are represented, though the Americans to British ratio among the sleuths is close indeed.) Who would be the nine 'tecs chosen today for a parody, I wonder?)

Pastiche is divided into three parts, the first part introducing the characters (with amusing introductory vignettes devoted to each detective) and ending swiftly with the murder of the most objectionable one. (Well, most objectionable after Spike Bludgeon, actually; more on him later.)  This dead 'un is the extremely influential and utterly noxious American scandal columnist Paul Price. (Walter Winchell?)

Potential suspects among the passengers and crew are numerous indeed and include, from the crew, the captain, who may or may not be insane; the ingenuously Watsonian first officer; the quite passionate purser and the ship doctor, a literature enthusiast who prefers devoting his time not to any patients but rather to the composition of his massive and passing awful classical epic poem, Tipptoppus and Gazella (Mainwaring includes hilarious extracts throughout the book). 

Among the dubious passengers there are the dead man's amateur psychologist niece, Winifred; a haughty English countrywoman, the Hon. Mrs. Chip-Ebberly; an exotic film actress, Dolores Despana; and an obnoxious American millionaire businessman (complete, in classic fashion, with unnecessary initial), Homer T. Anderson.

The middle section of the novel is devoted to the investigations each detective makes into the murder,  with one chapter devoted to each sleuth.

Atlas Poireau
Most recent Hercule Poirot mystery at the time
After the Funeral (1953)


Poireau was pained.  "But," he declared, "there is no such things as 'mystery,' mon cher.  There is only disorder!  To solve a crime, is only to use the logic: to restore misplaced details to their proper position."
...."And the details that will not fit? that are illogical?"
Poireau said severely: "In my cases there are no such things."

when it comes to killer cruises this ain't the little Belgian's first trip to the rodeo

Atlas Poireau's section reveals that Mainwaring, who later in life controversially finished Edith Wharton's unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, would have been admirably well-suited to continuing Agatha Christie's Poirot saga, now in the hands of crime writer Sophie Hannah.  Not only does Mainwaring get the Belgian's mannerisms just right, she fashions the chapter in shipshape Christie fashion, with Poireau focusing on the pretty young girl in the case, Winifred Price, and her shipboard love interest, the passionate purser.

Sir Jon. Nappleby
Most recent Sir John Appleby mystery at the time
A Private View (1951)

"And how did you discover what he was up to?...Did you use logic, and simply put misplaced details into place in the proper system?"
"It was rather a matter of pursuing certain themes from Wordsworth and Gray."
...."It must be hard to be a detective until one has read a great deal of poetry?"
"It is difficult to solve a case without a thorough knowledge of the classics and of modern European literature."  Nappleby considered.  "Indeed, I suspect that crime and indagation are not only inherently arcane, fantastic, and polysyllabic, but quintessentially allusive."


This is a high point of the novel, with the academic Mainwaring perfectly capturing the academic Michael Innes' learned, if not to say pretentious, style in his Sir John Appleby detective novels. Obscure, polysyllabic words and copious literary references are frequently found.  Indeed, Mainwaring shows she is no slouch herself in the highfalutin' vocabulary department:

you might need one of these
noumenally
lacunose
verecund
poetastrical
infuscation
speluncar
verjuice
titubating
sanguinolent tripudiation (whew!)

How many of those did you know?  It made me feel smarter just knowing they were in a book I was reading!

Mainwaring also brings in an espionage element (whether red or red herring I won't say), which dovetails with some of the Appleby fiction from the Forties and Fifties.

Jerry Pason
Most recent Perry Mason novel published at the time: 
The Case of the Fugitive Nurse (Feb. 1954)
The Case of the Runaway Corpse (June 1954)
(Erle Stanley Gardner was nothing if not prolific!  He would publish an additional Mason novel that year, in October: The Case of the Restless Redhead.  He seems to have been into ambulatory titles that year.)

Jerry Pason said cheerfully: "Well, it won't be long now, Stella.  One more week, and we'll be back in the good old U.S.A."
Stella Deet, Pason's attractive secretary, nodded.  They stood looking into the fog from the promenade deck of the R.M.S.
Florabunda.
"You certainly got a lot done in England, Chief," she said.  "No one but you could have handled that case so well!"
"I
had to do it well," Pason said, "when they sent to Los Angeles for me all the way from Peckham, England!"

"I've found out a lot about my client.  Enough to clear him!"
"Did you use poetry to find out?"
"Poetry?  Hell," said the lawyer.  "None of my cases have anything to do with
literature!"

but I only have eyes for you....

Of all the sleuths Mainwaring parodies I am least familiar with Perry Mason, in book form anyway. But the pastiche here seems solid to me.  Pason immediately gets a client, wealthy Homer T. Anderson, and determinedly sets out to clear him, with worshipful Stella Deet in tow.  The clear and convincing contrast between the ornate writing style of Innes and the penny plain (but plenty profitable) style of Gardner is a tribute to Mainwaring's astonishing mastery and versatility in this form.

Broderick Tourneur

Most recent Roderick Alleyn case published at the time
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953 in the US)


The tall man stood back to let the others go by, top-heavy in their inflated rubber vests.  He himself retained his customary air of aloofness, elegance, and breeding; his delicately chiselled head emerged from the life-jacket like the head of a Velasquez nobleman from a ruff.

"....I love an English accent.  You're what they call a bobby, aren't you?"
Mr. Waggish was scandalized.  "Mr. Tourneur is a gentleman," he said, with an apologetic glance at Tourneur's superlative tailoring.  "
Everyone knows that!  Why, he went to Oxf--"
Tourneur lifted a thin hand in deprecation....

Is that the most important qualification for being a detective, would you say, Mr. Tourneur?
Tourneur reflected.  "That, and breeding.  One always has to ask oneself, 'How does a gentleman behave in this particular situation?'  Or--better still--'How would a lady consider that a gentleman ought to behave in this particular situation?"  And no handbooks, no rules, no police colleges can teach such things, he thought.


yes, I'm talking about you, my good man

For the surname of this detective Mainwaring presumably drew on Cyril Tourneur (not Jacques Tourneur!), a Jacobean English dramatist, thought by some to have been the author of The Revenger's Tragedy (1607).  for her part author Ngaio Marsh took "Alleyn" from Edward Alleyn, the prominent Elizabethan actor.

Mainwaring's portrayal of the painfully posh and precious Broderick Tourneur is another high point of this mountain range of a novel.  Some might see this portrayal as parody, but I think it's a perfectly pitched pastiche of Ngaio Marsh's crime writing, in my view easily the most affected of the English Crime Queens.  Marsh's Alleyn really is like this.

There are five more detectives left to look at, plus the conclusion of this very clever novel.  I'll be back soon!