Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Notes on a detective story binge

Taking a short break from War And Peace, I took advantage of a Kindle Unlimited offer to fill my 
boots with Golden Age classics (and an Agatha Christie short story collection). 

Some thoughts below for the murderati. 

Beware spoilers - in (3), (4), (5), (6) and (10)!

(1) Tuesday 17th January
The 12.30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Very good inverted whodunit. Like other works in the sub-genre, it follows a man who is, at least initially, weak and foolish and desperate rather than wicked. There is something pitiful and very human in Charles Swinburn’s attachment to the obviously unworthy and unpleasant Una Mellor and his determination to hang on to his upper middle-class respectability, at any cost. That’s not to say that Crofts – who was a fairly stern moralist – ever suggests that the murders committed are justified, only that he paints a plausible picture of the kind of thought processes by which a murderer might justify his actions to himself. There is a tantalising ambiguity in whether we are meant to take seriously the purportedly selfless aspects of Swinburn’s rationalisation of the first murder, i.e. his worries that if he does not get the money to save the works from his uncle his workers’ lives will be ruined.

One thing the book does very well is show, without laying it on with a trowel, how irreparably and inevitably the act of murder separates a person from their fellow humans, and how the demands of conscience are inescapable even for a man who thinks he is beyond the mere bourgeois morality that values each life equally above and beyond utilitarian concerns (I think we might infer Crofts’ view of utilitarianism from this book). I was reminded when reading of this of how much the spectre of the gallows mattered in creating the dramatic and moral force of the classic mystery. The stakes are very high, and take on a near-religious dimension, when the price of detection for a murderer might very well be an appointment with Pierrepoint – to be followed, perhaps, by an encounter with another Judge, even more fearsome than those found on the bench of the Old Bailey.

(2) Saturday 21st January
Mystery In The Channel
Freeman Wills Crofts
Another enjoyable FWC book. Very well put together, a solidly engrossing if not especially intricate mystery following Inspector French’s painstakingly thorough hunt for the perpetrator, or perpetrators, of a gruesome multiple murder committed on board a yacht in the Channel. The final reveal is perhaps a little heavily signposted if you’re familiar with the genre – and the author – but as a Golden Age police procedural this is a palpable hit, despite FWC's occasionally plodding style.

(3) Friday 27th January
The Cheltenham Square Murder
John Bude
Diverting and colourful but frustrating crime novel from Bude. It’s written with a certain amount of style and humour, and the setting is good, but the plot stumbles and shudders. The investigators are aided by at least one very convenient accident of fate.

Supt. Meredith seems to take a long time to solve the case: not really investigating the business of the sheep used for target practice; ignoring the obvious (and correct) candidate for perpetrator of the second killing; taking a very long time to work out how the fake alibi worked. I thought the method of murder stretched credibility – a forty foot shot to the head with a bow and arrow, anyone? – but that was less of a problem than the egregious crimes against the genre. A major clue, the fact that Miss Boon left her door ajar while walking her dogs, was simply not mentioned to the reader until almost literally the last page, and yet was apparently known to Meredith. Similarly, one of the murders is committed with a very unusual device whose nature is barely explained, whose origin remains mysterious, and whose very existence is entirely unclued, though I suppose it might be inferred. Someone is identified through that creaky old device, finding the butts of their preferred cigarette brand. And my old adversary, phonetically rendered colloquial speech, puts in a lot of appearances, mostly in the mouth of the datedly comical figure of Inspector Long, who of course has a nagging and difficult wife etc. etc.

Still though, there is entertainment to be had here.

(4) Sunday 29th January
Verdict Of Twelve
Raymond Postgate
Not really a whodunit as such but a tense, clever and well-written courtroom drama, of sorts, with a rather cynical edge and a blackly comic ending which I suspect was rather daring for its time – it was written, and is set, in the late Thirties. The book has three parts: a series of pen portraits of the jury, a narrative of the events around the alleged murder (this section is deliberately ambiguous about what exactly happened), and an account of the trial itself.

Postgate’s main idea, it seems to me, is exploring how the idiosyncrasies of individuals feed into their assessment of facts and how vulnerable the jury system is to the accumulated prejudices, experiences and preoccupations of individual jurors. The woman who has literally got away with murder knows how easy it is to kill. The widow of a murder victim is desperate for the law to assert itself against wrongdoers. The religious fanatic convinces himself that the defendant is of the Elect and being persecuted by the Devil.

Postgate would probably have stated the problem in a political way, if the quote from Marx with which the book opens is any guide: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but [that] on the contrary their social existence determines their consciousness”. In other words, the political systems under which we live constrict the kind of thoughts and feelings and relationships we can have. Which is true, I suppose, up to a point, but I see no reason to think that Marxism would resolve this problem, if problem it be, or that the kind of social relations which would exist under Marxism would be any more authentic, any less hampered by “false consciousness”, than those that exist in liberal economies.

But that is politics; and this is not a political tract – it’s actually quite humanist in its way, with all kinds of human frailty drawn with sympathy and understanding. Ambiguities and tensions swirl throughout, notably the question of just what we are meant to make of Rosalia van Beer. Her post-acquittal confession, which marks the end of the book, is delivered in a naïve, stupid, roundabout way; are we meant to take this at face value? Does she really not understand that she is morally guilty of murder? Or is she a scheming, unrepentant, ruthless killer taunting her legal team now that she is safe from the gallows?

(5) Monday 30th January
The Secret of High Eldersham
Miles Burton
After a pretty good run of British Crime Classics I hit a dud, with this muddled attempt to straddle the genres of murder mystery and crime thriller. It starts brightly with a country innkeeper found stabbed to death in the public bar, and then gets bogged down in an almost entirely different plot that is by turns melodramatic, incoherent and boringly predictable. The narrative focus drifts away from the original murder, which is never investigated properly and eventually solved most perfunctorily, into a rather overdone story about a drug smuggling ring restarting a coven of witches and wizards to cover up their activities. No, really. It’s never satisfactorily explained how the ringleader, whose identity is fairly obvious from an early stage, persuaded lots of people to join him in fake witchcraft in England in the 1930s. It’s also very obvious where the author is going with the witchcraft thing, since the “seemingly occult activities as a cover for entirely mundane crime” device is a very common trope in fiction of the era.

No-one’s motivations are really explored properly. Characters are under-developed. The love story is tedious and has the usual faults of the time – ripe dialogue, implausible speed at falling in love, a poorly realised female character, and annoyingly stupid assumptions about her ability to handle difficult truths.

(6) Thursday 2nd February
The Lake District Murder
John Bude
I don’t think anyone would ever have occurred Bude of being all style and no substance. To use a footballing metaphor, he is very much a hardworking midfielder who keeps the ball and tackles back, rather than a pacy winger who whips the ball into the box or a dazzling striker with a crowd-pleasing box of tricks.

This is an intermittently intriguing but rather leaden mystery. As with Bude’s other works it can feel like Meredith makes rather heavy weather of solving the central murder – there are a couple of really honking clues that pass him by completely. It seems wildly implausible that he should have taken so long to tumble to the fake alibi established by impersonation. I can’t work out whether it’s a sign of Bude’s clumsiness as an author or my over-exposure to the genre that the part where someone mentioned in passing that a suspect was a brilliant mimic was a veritable foghorn to me.

In Bude’s defence it might be said that his books reflect how the police really operate, with lots of boring, painstaking routine work and repetitive discussion of who might have done what with whom and when, and few moments of individual intellectual brilliance. There’s something to that, and perhaps as usual I’m being a little unfair in judging a police procedural by the standards of a conventional murder mystery. The Lake District Murder does not really qualify as the latter in my view, as the motive is not really “personal” in the classic sense (it’s basically a falling-out among thieves).

But his storytelling art is underdeveloped. Villainous characters are not drawn with any great subtlety, they always look shifty or ugly or have their eyes too close together or drink too much. Several interesting and rather important plot strands are oddly neglected, notably the solution to an earlier murder in the case, the character of the main villain (whom we never actually meet), and how the criminal scheme at the heart of the book was actually set up and organised. What was Clayton like? Why did he get involved in the scheme? We never find out. Bude attempts to tie up a lot of loose ends in a final chapter summary describing the fates of the characters, but this feels perfunctory, rushed and unimaginative. He can be a great one for telling rather than showing, and for making his characters fail to see the obvious for reasons of plot. The usual difficulties with female characters arise.

But the tale is well situated and a strong sense is conveyed of place and community.

(7) Monday 6th February
The Poisoned Chocolates Case
Anthony Berkeley
With tongue pressed firmly in cheek, Berkeley (who under the name Francis Iles wrote the very good Malice Aforethought) has some fun with the conventions of the amateur detective story. Six members of the Crimes Circle offer a possible solution to a recent murder that has, to use the traditional expression, “baffled Scotland Yard”. Each has the sort of intuitive brilliance and appeal that often characterises the big reveals of the Golden Age, but just as we are nodding along saying to ourselves “of course that’s how it must have been done”, Berkeley whips the carpet out from under our feet. The other characters pull the proposed solution to pieces, by pointing out that it is far from definitive, that most evidence can be made to fit any number of theories, that real facts are few and far between, that clever “psychological” explanations often ignore how odd and unpredictable people are. Anyone who’s ever thought “hang on a minute…” while reading the denouement of a mystery will recognise what Berkeley is satirising here. It’s fascinating that as early as 1929 the tropes of the Golden Age were becoming so hackneyed as to be satirised in this way (see the discussion of locked room problems in Dickson Carr’s 1935 work The Hollow Man). 

Despite the talky and arch style, it works pretty well as a straight mystery. The central case is an intriguing one, though with a high level of artifice befitting the book’s satire on the sometimes wildly implausible and baroque plots of classic detective fiction. The two newer attempts to provide an account of the crime, one from a US magazine in the 1970s and one by Martin Edwards, the BLCC editor, add to the fun.

(8) Wednesday 8th February
The Dead Shall Be Raised
George Bellairs
Another of the humdrum school. A good start, with a Scotland Yard man arriving by train in a small town in the Dales on a freezing Christmas Eve in 1940, but it runs out of steam plot-wise despite some entertaining episodes and a good evocation of place and time. There is no real detection as such and not much mystery. Some of the narration is rather plodding and many of the era’s clichés are present. The “Whatever Happened To Them All?” section in the last few pages feels rather unimaginative and dull. And, as usual, the portrayal of women leaves much to be desired.

(9) Friday 10th February
Death Of A Quack
George Bellairs
Middle-of-the-road village mystery – in many ways the archetype of the unremarkable village mystery. Competently written, some good local detail, even funny in parts, but nothing in the writing or the plot or the characters make it stand out from a dozen other books of the same kind. It has the same faults that you so often find in these novels: one-dimensional feckless yokels and nagging wives straight from central casting, obvious villains, and the reliance on criminal conspiracy as a motor for the plot, rather than the properly personal motives that mark the best of the classics.

(10) Sunday 19th February
Death Of An Airman
Christopher St John Sprigg
This could have been so good. Once again we have a very sprightly opening and a unique setting. An Australian bishop learning to fly at a small flying club in rural England encounters a cunningly-disguised murder, and decides to do a little investigating. There is even some good if rather broad comic stuff, but it tails off into a generic plot about drug-smuggling and a criminal gang with a head called The Chief. Unsatisfying.

(11) Wednesday 22nd February
Miss Marple’s Final Cases
Agatha Christie
Posthumous short story collection with a handful of Miss Marple tales and a couple of spooky tales. The Miss Marple stories are good on the whole, with a couple that might have been expanded to novel-length – indeed The Case Of The Caretaker, though not one of my favourites in this collection, is clearly the ancestor of the very good and unsettling late Christie novel Endless Night. The supernatural yarns are oddities. I’m not sure Christie was really at home in that genre and other writers might have done her good ideas more justice. 

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