Classic detective fiction is so tedious. It’s all the same formula, over and over again, and then the Bad Guy gets captured, the world returns to Sunny Delight, and it’s all crumpets and plum jam for tea.
Not so fast. In the first place, O Beloved Hard-Boiled Fan, your own corner of the mystery world is rich in its own formulas, from the man of honor forced to walk the mean streets to the faithless broad and the bottle of Scotch in the drawer. And in the second place, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
First published in 1929, it came out during the heyday of the Golden Age, when that formula – the erudite, upper-class sleuth who views murder as a game, the comical members of the lower orders, the over-arching assumption that all will be returned to blissful order as soon as the one bad actor has been apprehended – did indeed dominate the genre. But Anthony Berkeley Cox (who also wrote as Francis Iles) was a smart fella, and with Poisoned Chocolates he both bows to the formula and sticks a (very polite) thumb in its eye.
Here for example is the upper-class milieu: A meeting of the ultra-exclusive Crime Circle, a group of (never more than) six toffs united in their belief that murder is the jolliest puzzle of all. And at their center is their newest member, Roger Sheringham, who has persuaded his friend Chief Inspector Moresby to present the Circle with the outline of an unsolved case. In a week’s time, Sheringham suggests, they will reconvene, and each member will explain how he or she would solve the case in question.
A week later, and all the members have indeed solved the case. The only problem: Each of them has fingered a different killer. The great fun in this novel lies in allowing oneself to be persuaded by a given theory, only to see that theory comprehensively demolished, and another set in its place. While The Poisoned Chocolates Case would indeed be a clever diversion for any reader, it will perhaps best be appreciated by fans of classic crime fiction, who know – and love – the books that Berkeley was so deftly satirizing.
Maggie’s favorite is Hide My Eyes, a “chilling yarn about a psychopath and the aging woman who loves him.” Together with The Tiger in the Smoke, widely-regarded as Allingham’s best, Hide My Eyes resembles less classic golden era mysteries than the psychologically inflected writing of authors like PD James and Ruth Rendell.
During the phony war, Campion is knocked on the head and wakes with almost complete amnesia in a hospital. He spends the whole, taut novel not knowing who he is – nor who Amanda is, nor who Lugg is.
It becomes clear that he alone is in possession of a dreadful secret that threatens his country. He has to foil a plot at the same time that he has to discover who he is.
Because he is vacant he forgets to look vacant – “almost intelligent”, Amanda says he looks. Because he forgets to act a part he becomes a man of action. Because he forgets Amanda he realises he loves her. And of course he foils the plot. If I had to vote for the single best detective story, this would be it.
British writer H.R.F. Keating, in a 2004 article for Mystery Scene, declared More Work for the Undertaker, the first of the postwar Campions, to be his favorite (he listed it as one of the 100 best crime and mystery books in 1987). What Keating appreciates most is that novel’s impressive “galaxy” of characters, all of whom come across as “altogether lifelike, if a bit skewed by the chance oddness of their circumstances.”
Clearly, I have pulled on my curmudgeon pants today. I say this because my brain has been offering up a near-ceaseless litany of “things were better in the old days” – better when people drank COFFEE rather than “coffee drinks,” better when restaurants weren’t so noisy, better when a ticket to a Broadway show didn’t cost the equivalent of six months’ rent. (Ah yes, the old days. When black people couldn’t vote, single women couldn’t get bank loans, and gay people were routinely arrested. Let’s definitely go back there!)
Aside from coffee and affordable tickets, what else was better in those golden good old days? Espionage. Or rather, espionage fiction. Don’t get me wrong: Spook books have long had a trashy side (what, you thought James Bond was high literature?). And you know, I loves me some good trash. But over the past couple of decades, espionage has tilted so far toward the action end of things that, as a genre, it has become, mostly, hard-boiled with international settings. Take a snarky 35-year-old guy who knows how to shoot, put him in Istanbul, and hey presto.
I say “as a genre,” because of course there are exceptions to the rule (waving to Olen Steinhauer). And the truth is, I can enjoy one of those plot-driven, pedal-to-the-metal yarns as much as anyone. But my heart is really with somewhat slower-paced, more intricate stories, with more complicated characters and, often, a sense of the past extending its sticky fingers into the current chess-game. And those stories…I don’t see a lot of them being published.
Which is why I’m so happy to have reissued Michael David Anthony’s quiet, quirky trilogy, beginning with The Becket Factor. The books are quiet because, well, they’re set in and around Canterbury Cathedral, where folks tend to talk in hushed, reverent tones. And also because the gent at the heart of the story is well past his shouting years: After a long career in the Secret Service, Colonel Richard Harrison has retired to Canterbury to work a cushy Cathedral job and take care of his disabled wife.
If the wish for a peaceful retirement were ever to be granted, we’d be out of mystery fiction. Harrison is soon co-opted by his former boss into some freelance sleuthing, picking apart the web of intrigue that ties together a Bishop’s scandalous diaries, a murdered Canon, the highly contentious election of a new Archbishop, and the bones – dug up by a crew of construction workers – of Thomas Becket, the 12th-century martyr and onetime Archbishop of Canterbury.
“Echoes of Le Carré abound in this elegantly written first novel,” said Kirkus. And we say that for one week only, it’s on sale.
This has been a week of big news in the mystery world. The last week of April is, every year, Edgars Week, when the Mystery Writers of America hands out its prestigious awards for some of the best books of the year. As always, this year saw some familiar and beloved names taking the trophies – (may we say congratulations, Mr. King?) and also some newcomers. The Edgars has an entire category devoted to first-time novelists, so the five writers on the shortlist are guaranteed to be unknowns – well, known to their friends and families, sure, but not to the wider reading public. The Edgars banquet, with its glitter and evening gowns (for real!) and its setting at a fancy-pants Manhattan hotel, has got to be the dandiest possible welcome for the five newbies, even for the four that don’t ultimately win. Nobody can guarantee them a career, but that Edgar nomination states clearly, in New York-neon letters, that they have earned the right to try.
That full-throated Hello is on my mind right now because this week was also the occasion of a significant Goodbye, with the death of Ruth Rendell, herself the recipient of three Edgar awards, along with a host of other prizes (including a CBE and a life-peerage; she was properly Baroness Rendell of Babergh), in a writing career that spanned more than half a century. The Web is full of passionate farewells to Rendell, appreciations of her work, and fond remembrances; I won’t intrude on what others are better placed to say. In truth, Rendell was never my writer. While I have often used “creepy” as a term of approbation – when discussing Sarah Rayne’s chillers, for example – Rendell’s brand of creepiness didn’t ring my chimes, though I read a number of her books if only to stay on top of important trends in mystery fiction. Because of this antipathy, I had to be coaxed and prodded and almost shamed into reading Anna’s Book (UK title: Asta’s Book), which Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine.
I’m so glad I gave in. Anna’s Book retains all of Rendell’s trademarks – the keen intelligence most of all, but also the quirky characters, the pinpoint settings, the plot twists – but wraps them, unusually, in sunlight. This is Rendell – and crime fiction – we’re talking about, so that sunlight is not the pure, scaldingly redemptive glare of an August afternoon. Rather, it’s a sort of dusty gold, an elegiac gilding that softens the cruelty of the story the way a sepia-toned photograph lends a beauty to even the stoniest features. I have no idea what was going on in Rendell’s life when she wrote this, if some blessing had fallen into her hands, a gift of warmth that she had never expected. But the book does read, to me, as though it’s a response to some new, fragile joy. It’s a delight. I plan to reread it this week, both as a tribute to a difficult, never compromising, ferociously intelligent writer – and as a real personal pleasure. And to follow, some of the Web’s great cache of Rendelliana. (more…)
Even as a small child, I found something incongruous in the friendship between the tall and imposing Ngaio Marsh, with her resoundingly deep voice and wide, dramatic gestures, and my much-loved fluffy pink marshmallow of a godmother, Joanie Pullen.
Ngaio, a cousin on my father’s side of our extensive New Zealand family, appeared and disappeared from our London life with comet-like regularity and drama, as she met with publishers, received awards, gave talks and went, as often as she possibly could, to the theatre.
Art, writing and the theatre were Ngaio’s driving passions, and, much as she adored New Zealand, she also loved coming to England as often as she could, to meet with colleagues, family and friends, and to see new plays, new productions, new paintings. (more…)
Last fall we talked to Ben Winters, author of the “Last Policeman” trilogy of mysteries set in a near future in which the end of civilization is near, courtesy of an asteroid set to collide with earth. In the midst of the chaos the ensues, the hero of the trilogy, Henry Palace, a newly promoted detective, somehow continues to do his job, solving cases even as the world falls apart around him. Henry is a quietly determined, profoundly decent young man, the sort of person you would want around as the apocalypse approaches. Last summer Julia read through the entire trilogy at speed and, having enjoyed the books, interviewed the author via Skype. Below is that interview, split into two parts. Winters is up for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original tonight, for the last novel in the trilogy, World of Trouble; we wish him the best of luck.
A while back we talked to Sarah Rayne about her choice of the early 20th century as a favorite time period to set her novels in. It was the voice, she said: Because recordings from that time exist, we know what people sounded like back then in a way that we don’t with, say, the Victorians. There is indeed something charming about hearing what a person sounds like. True, Ngaio Marsh was turning out “Inspector Alleyn” mysteries into the early 1980s, and is thus much more of a contemporary than one imagines at first given her association with the Golden Age of mystery. Even so, hearing her voice in a scratchy, casual recording not intended for publication is an experience of both historical distance and intimacy. In other words, we think it’s pretty cool to listen to Marsh’s voice. Here, for example, is a collection of audio bits and pieces from Radio New Zealand. And here is Ngaio Marsh describing how rain and boredom led to her writing A Man Lay Dead, from Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
That photo, by the way, is Ngaio Marsh as Hamlet, taken by William Baverstock (courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa).
A very happy 122nd birthday to Ngaio Marsh! She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1966, but according to one British newspaper, she “stands out as Empress among the queens of crime” (the queens, you understand, being Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al.). We’ve got heaps of interesting Marsh tidbits for your reading (and listening!) pleasure, including a lovely memory-essay by one of her nieces, and a fascinating grab-bag of interviews from Radio New Zealand (dig that exquisite diction!), and we’ll be running items all week. We feel that if you hit age 122 with all your books still in print, you deserve more than a happy birthDAY; you’ve earned an entire birthday week.