As I had occasion to remark recently, I haven’t been enjoying the Golden Age of Detection lately. I suspect that after decades of diligent and obsessive reading, it may well be that I’ve read everything worth reading and now there’s nothing left but the dregs … or it could be merely that I’ve had a long run of bad luck with book acquisition and book choices.
Rather than spend a lot of time going into just one volume I disliked and why, I thought I’d sum up a few recent disappointing experiences. I hasten to add that, as a contributor to DorothyL once furiously reminded me, yes, I am aware that people worked hard on these books and what novels did I ever publish anyway? How dare I not like specific books, and for … reasons? It may well be that the book that did not please me would please you, and possibly for the same reasons. So please take these comments with a grain of salt. My belief is that my opinions don’t change anyone’s mind who would have purchased (or not purchased) a particular book anyway. And from most of these authors I have had pleasure in their other works, so there’s that.
Nearly Nero, by Loren D. Estleman (2017)
This is a volume of comedic short stories about “Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe”. Essentially a wealthy and overweight man who is fascinated by the Nero Wolfe stories tries to emulate the great detective by setting up an equivalent household and solving cases for nothing. The short stories are amusing but slight; the humour is vulgar and obvious.
Although it’s clear that the author is immensely knowledgeable about the Wolfe stories, and I understand that he is taking a humorous approach rather than a reverent one, there’s a certain quality of intellect that is sadly lacking. Without getting into detail, there’s a Wolfe novel where he reflects upon the use of a diphthong and thereby solves a case. There’s also a “continuation” novel by Robert Goldsborough in which the solution depends upon a linguistic connection occasioned by a suspect’s last name. The first story in this book has to do with an error occasioned by a homophone, and it’s just so damn crass and obvious, I nearly lost my will to continue. The remainder was pretty much a series of “single trick” stories; once you realize the trick, the story is over. They are not dependent on, or interactive with, the relationship between pseudo-Archie and pseudo-Nero, and indeed the stories could be about anyone.
Stout wielded a rapier and Estleman is swinging a large and very blunt instrument. My judgement is NOT Nearly Nero.
Ripped (A Jack the Ripper Time-Travel Thriller), by Shelly Dickson Carr (2012)
This is a book by the granddaughter of GAD Grandmaster John Dickson Carr. Where he wrote for adults, she is writing for pre-teens. Where he had magnificently researched historical detail, she has apparently memorized the contents of a dictionary of Cockney rhyming slang and uses it obsessively. Where he added a delightful smell of Satanic brimstone to his time-travel mystery novels, she merely knocks off the central premise of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. In short, he could write and she cannot.
I have to say that I took into consideration that the target audience for this novel is a “young adult” and I am certainly not that. It’s not fair to dislike a book for not being written to your level when it wasn’t meant to be. As well, I was sort of hoping that his talent had made it down to her generation, and I think it’s difficult to justify blaming an author for not being her grandfather. That’s a bit unfair. However, I note that Ms. Dickson Carr uses a different name with which to copyright her works; she’s deliberately inviting the comparison and has to live with the consequences.
Anyway, the book is just … relentlessly okay. It has an overall air of moral correctness that is something adults fondly imagine that children like; children are, happily, not usually fooled. The author confesses that she has taken liberties with details of the Ripper’s victims. She has also somehow managed to sanitize the gruesome details without really doing so, if that makes sense; there are descriptions of slashed throats, etc., but you get the feeling the author would really rather be focused on something much nicer. Characters are constantly grimacing and gesturing with their fists to express emotion, because the author has apparently been told it’s not writerly to merely tell the reader what’s happening. But what that emotion is precisely is not clear, and so everyone strides around like a bunch of demented mimes, making no sense. People just don’t act like this; even young adults will know better.
I believe this book to have been self-published, or the equivalent in production from a tiny press. The cover bears an announcement that the book was awarded the “Benjamin Franklin Award” by the “Independent Book Publishers Association”; I was sufficiently curious to look up the website for this and stopped reading when I read “Winning an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™ expands your marketability and solidifies your credibility.” It certainly may expand your marketability but trust me, your credibility just went down the tubes. This award is worse than meaningless, it’s misleading; as near as I could tell, the marketing materials are more important than the literary merit. It will be a mark in the future of a book to avoid, for me.
The Maze: An Exercise in Detection by Philip MacDonald (1932)
I’d been looking forward to reading this for years; an obscure but well-regarded novel by a favourite author, republished in 2016 as part of the Detective Club reprint series from Collins that has been so successful lately. For a long time, I’d been hearing about this novel as being a triumph of the “pure” detective story. Well, this latest reprint has lifted a 1980 introduction to the novel by Julian Symons, who accurately if incautiously remarks, “… The Maze has the weakness inherent in that desire for a wholly logical crime story, the weakness that we take an interest in the solution to the crime but not in the people who may have committed it.”
Here’s how MacDonald put it in his own introduction from 1932: “In this book I have striven to be absolutely fair to the reader. There is nothing—nothing at all—for the detective that the reader has not had. More, the reader has had his information in exactly the same form as the detective—that is, the verbatim report of evidence and question.”
This is absolutely the case. And the result is a book that balances an exquisitely boring plot with a lack of characterization or, indeed, anything much of interest at all. It’s certainly a fair book, as I’d heard for years, but so is Sudoku. The solution is somewhat unusual, principally because it breaks one of the “rules” that I associate with the Golden Age, but it is neither satisfying nor ultimately interesting. This is why Symons called them Humdrums; it’s a book-length game of Cluedo.
I know Philip MacDonald wrote many, many more interesting books and I recommend any of them except this one. Similarly this seems to be one of the few clinkers in the otherwise excellent choices of Collins’s Detective Club editors. Possibly it’s that it had been difficult to get for a long time and they bowed to pressure for a choice from what is essentially their own backlist. But some of my readers are fond of the pure puzzle form and I am sure they will enjoy this; no distracting characterization or description to get in the way.
All the Little Liars: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery by Charlaine Harris (2016)
This is #9 in the long-running Aurora Teagarden series of cozy mysteries by Charlaine Harris, who still feels compelled to write these despite the flood of huge royalty cheques from True Blood and her other works which would allow her to retire in comfort. And in what is surely a coup of genius, she’s created yet another series (the Midnight, Texas books and upcoming TV programme) that seems designed as a kind of rest home for the subsidiary characters from her other series who will not die. Please GOD let this be the last Aurora Teagarden novel she writes.
All the Little Liars is a festival of minor characters from the previous books in the series, which seems to be the mainstay of this writer’s career. There is so much nonsense from other volumes weighing down this book that one has to focus really hard on the slight and ridiculous criminal plot. Occasionally Harris’s work has a freshness and energy, not to mention excellent characterization, but this is just tired and tiresome. The plot concerns a teenage girl who identifies as LGBTQ — the young woman is treated respectfully but the protagonist’s young male relative is sexually assaulted by a trucker while hitchhiking, which seems to happen for no plot-related reason that I can grasp. It’s contradictory and vaguely unpleasant to contemplate. The book is pretty much unreadable, at least to me. I know that Harris has many, MANY fans who will take this amiss, and they would possibly suggest that perhaps I have not tried hard to appreciate her work. Believe me, I have tried. But over the years her books have become slighter and slighter in plot and heavier and heavier in characterization to no purpose that I am no longer able to shovel aside the heaps of bumph to get to the meat that is barely there.
There have been six low-budget Vancouver-based made-for-television productions of books from this series and doubtless this is meant to be fodder for yet another film. Aurora Teagarden is impossibly perfect and so it was apparently appropriate to have her portrayed by the impossibly perfect Candace Cameron Bure. This actress is a former child star and there’s just something ABOUT her — she’s like a Stepford wife who’s practised hard and learned how to smile a lot, and I find her impossibly creepy to watch. The films themselves are fairly close to the novels, but there’s a smell of bologna in the air at all times and you just know that nothing unpleasant will ever happen that isn’t completely resolved by the two-hour mark.
As I was checking the dates, etc., for this piece I learned to my horror that a tenth volume in the series is expected in September of 2017. I may wait for it to come out in paperback before I avoid it 😉
The Velvet Hand, by Helen Reilly (1953)
This book has been sitting staring at me to one side of my desk now for months. I’ve been trying and trying to think about something nice to say about this book, and I can’t. It’s been out of print almost since it was published, and for once, I think the paperback market was correct to refuse it. It’s another book of which I’d been aware for years and never come across a copy; just disappointing, that’s all. Rather a waste of time for Inspector McKee and me.
It’s a poor example of what I have elsewhere called the “brownstone mystery”, where the main function of the plot is to carry the reader through observations about how upper-class people live, complete with details of clothing, furniture, and bitchiness. The mystery here will not trouble anyone with experience in reading Agatha Christie; in fact the solution was so obvious that I discarded it early on and was working my way through exactly how the answer had been double-twisted. Pfui, as Nero Wolfe says. SPOILER ALERT: This is, in fact, a variation on the Birlstone Gambit, and since that was last successfully done by Ellery Queen in 1935, it’s long past time in 1953 that it was retired. END SPOILER
Death in the Middle Watch, by Leo Bruce (1974)
I really, really like a lot of Leo Bruce’s novels about schoolmaster Carolus Deene, but I cannot warm up to this at all. There’s a lot of satirical material here. This includes the promotion to the main stage of the repellent Mr. and Mrs. Stick, the married couple who “do” for Deene, whose low-class antics are usually relegated to the sidelines. Most of this stuff just isn’t funny and I constantly wanted to fast-forward through the comedy. Almost all of the characters are played for laughs and the detective spends most of his time sneering at how bloody awful all the suspects are being. The plot itself is — well, it’s sort of an inside-out version of a rather famous story by Agatha Christie. The reason that Deene and the Sticks are on a cruise is completely unbelievable, the characters are shuffling through the timetable one-dimensionally … the late great Mr. Bruce seems to have phoned this one in. The shipboard comedy mystery combination inevitably brings to mind John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber, which I personally believe is an awful book by a great writer; perhaps the comparison is more accurate than I’d realized.
The Big Grouse, by Douglas Clark (1986)
Elsewhere I have talked about the “police procedural” form as being novels about the activities of a group of police officers, who work together on one or many cases simultaneously. Their personal lives are usually intertwined with their cases. This series is a long-running one about the activities of Chief Superintendent Masters and his team who investigate murders in a matey and jokey way, except when it comes to the crunch. Many of their cases have to do with strange poisons and scientific/pharmacological backgrounds.
I’ve enjoyed a bunch of these in the past, notably Premedicated Murder, The Gimmel Flask, Roast Eggs and a few others. This one, though, is where the 70-something author takes on what doubtless he called “women’s lib”. The team receives its first female member, Detective Sergeant Tippen. Masters, of course, is supportive and correct; however one middle-aged member of his team is of the old school which calls women “petal” and expects them to automatically make tea and clear the table after. The distasteful part of this is that it seems to be suggested that if DS Tippen doesn’t play along with this, she’ll have made an error.
Usually Clark’s mysteries are complicated and subtle; everyone is baffled until CS Masters Figures It All Out from One Tiny Clue. This one is rather odd; almost of the Intuitionist school, as I understand it. Masters is convinced, for no real reason that I can see, that a man has been murdered. He deduces the general whereabouts on very slender evidence, and figures out that there is a body, and precisely where it is, on what amounts to magical thinking. Then there’s one clever bit of scientific information about ducks nibbling the body and being poisoned by the substance that poisoned the human. It’s absolutely obvious who the killer is, as it usually is in Clark’s stories (hint: the one who has access to the weird chemicals).
On a recent re-reading, I realized near the end that I had been skimming through the less-than-pleasant personal interactions of the detectives to get to the mystery plot, and then skimming through the mystery plot because it wasn’t very believable. That’s a bad combination of instincts to skim. This particular volume is relatively inoffensive, it’s just more than a little dull, and with a tinge of unpleasant social attitudes towards women in the workforce. I’ll call this one “less than recommended”.
I hope to have not offended my regular readers too much; ultimately what these things all boil down to is questions of taste. I’m not unhappy that yours might vary from mine, but I do hope you find these notes useful.