I am indebted to the insightful critic (and Gladys Mitchell expert) Nick Fuller for the impetus that produced this post. His post of today’s date (found here) wherein he talks briefly and concisely about a number of different books, very few of which found sufficient favour with him to generate a full-on blog post, seems to have unblocked a mental logjam for me, and I thank him.
This summer has been a tumultuous one for me; for a long string of reasons but principally that in a few weeks I will execute my second full house-move of the summer. For various real estate reasons I’ve had to live out of bags and boxes for eight weeks and it hasn’t been productive of much in the way of considered thinking about any individual novel. Now, however, the final resting place is imminent; I’ll have enough space to put in enough bookshelves for all my books and a swimming pool around which to sit and read them. Life will be good. 😉
In the meantime, I’m still reading and re-reading dozens of books as they pass through my hands. (I acquire paperbacks like other people acquire beer; dozens at a time, and I leave the empties all over the house.) Not much has stood out as being exceptionally good or bad; very little has made me think, “Oh, that’s a good example of that school,” or “That was his worst book EVER.” Not much has impelled me to settle in for 1,500 words on any particular topic. But Nick Fuller has confirmed for me that, yes, I can just talk about a lot of books very briefly, if only to prove that I haven’t stopped reading the damn things and thinking about them.
So here’s what I’ve been re-reading on my “summer vacation”.
Emma Lathen‘s first novel, Banking on Death (1961), and a couple of others of hers (one of which is one of the few things I *did* want to talk about at length, so expect a piece about Death Shall Overcome in the near future). I found what I think is a first printing of the first paperback edition of this charming book (not shown) and was happy to see it. A good mystery and a good introduction to John Putnam Thatcher, vice-president of the third-largest bank in the world, and his cast of subordinates.
Nicholas Blake, The Whisper in the Gloom (1954). Nicholas Blake wrote great puzzle mysteries and lousy spy thrillers; this is a spy thriller and it is to say the least uninspired. It features a group of young boys mixed up in a spy plot; it finishes up with an assassination attempt at a concert at the Albert Hall that is far too reminiscent of the ending of Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much. A young male adolescent might enjoy this.
Ellery Queen, in his earliest years; The
Roman Hat Mystery (1929), The French Powder Mystery (1930). I picked up a copy of Greek Coffin (1932) but I read that so intensely for a piece a few years ago I still know it off by heart. Roman Hat and French Powder are just as exquisitely boring as I remembered. The word that keeps coming to my mind is “inexorable”. There may be nothing interesting going on, but by golly we’re getting to the finish, like it or not, and you WILL understand why the answer is the answer, or else.
Phoebe Atwood Taylor: Out Of Order (1936), Punch With Care (1946), Figure Away (1937), and a bunch of others. At my most media-free point, when everything was off to storage and the television and internet hadn’t been installed yet, my sister brought me a bag of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries, and I was bloody happy to see them. For me these are comfort food. Absolutely first-rate mysteries if you’re not asking for much beyond amusement and diversion; well-plotted, amusing characters, wacky plots, tight solutions, and a fast-moving story line that carries you to the end. What’s not to like?
Leslie Ford: Three Bright Pebbles (1938), All For the Love of a Lady (1944), Honolulu Murders (1946), The Woman In Black (1947), Ill-Met By Moonlight (1937), and a handful of others I can’t be bothered to dig out, about Washington widow Grace Latham and the soldierly Col. Primrose. There might have been a piece here about how this writer’s two different series (the other is the Mr. Pinkerton novels as by David Frome) are both
completely different and both rather awful, but … ugh. I don’t mind Mrs. Latham’s cook Lilac as much as others seem to — some novels of the period don’t have any characters of different skin colours at all, and while it’s not the best characterization ever, at least it’s friendly and well-meant. However, Leslie Ford writes pretty much the same book over and over, and silly remarks about coloured servants are just one of the cliches; white people don’t come off well either. Beautiful young girl, handsome young man, someone did something stupid and cannot tell anyone what, romantic entanglements, evil businessman wants to do something wicked, stupid middle-aged women with too much money, Had I But Known, social position, wartime Washington DC, silly Mrs. Latham and strong-jawed nonentity Colonel Primrose and the very unfunny Sergeant Buck, semi-surprising ending. There, I just saved you a lot of money.
Dorothy Simpson, Wake the Dead (1992). Just … bland. The occasional spark of interesting writing but truly I’d rather watch Midsomer Murders. A boring detective investigating upper-class twits. If you follow the principle that the most morally upright people end up to have done the worst things, you will anticipate the ending easily.
Josephine Bell, Easy Prey (1959). Such a well-written book, I almost did a piece about it but it’s rather out of the GAD mold.
This is domestic suspense, not usually my thing but wow, such a tight and smart book. An elderly spinster moves in as the lodger with a nice young couple with a young baby and becomes part of the family, until they find out she’s just out of prison on a charge of murdering a baby. But then absolutely not what you’d expect from there on; the young couple doesn’t believe Miss Trubb could’ve done it and proceeds to investigate, with surprising results. Perhaps the best thing by Bell I’ve ever read; this is a strong mystery plot with strong writing and very strong characterization to make Miss Trubb so believable. Not at all a happy ending but a very right one. This made me think of Patricia Wentworth in that this is the kind of story Wentworth understood; there’s a set of nested fears in this novel about being elderly and female and poor and homeless and powerless that will be most powerful to a female reader, I think.
Philip MacDonald, The Polferry Riddle (1931). A terrible book by this excellent writer; his worst ending that I can remember. A waste of Anthony Gethryn. A waste of my time. Always a bad sign when you begin to re-read a mystery and have a sinking feeling … “Oh, this is the one where X, Y, and Z that annoyed me so much the first time.” It still does.
Kenneth Hopkins, Dead Against My Principles (1960). I picked this up, although I hadn’t heard of this author, because it was in the Perennial Library
line and they’ve been a source of good reading in the past. I have to say, this one just stopped me dead. It’s not once in five years that I fail to finish a book, but this one was too ghastly to continue. The author is trying to be funny and apparently our mutual senses of humour are completely incompatible. It’s about three people in their 80s investigating a crime and I cannot think that the author likes elderly people very much. Two old professors and their elderly lady friend dither and dissemble and say enigmatic things and go off on highways and byways and it’s just patronizing and annoying and anti-elderly. Once I stopped focusing on the annoying characterization, the simplistic plot allowed me to skip the middle of the book and proceed to the end, where I confirmed that, yes, I had figured out what was going on. I almost never do that, but I just couldn’t stand another minute of this one.
To my surprise I find I have another stack of books that I’ve gone through this summer that seem to deserve the same terse treatment. I’ll try to bring them to you soon. In the meantime … this is where I’ll be for most of August.
I’ve read some absolute shockers so far in 2018, and it’s easy to forget that you’re not alone after trekking through some abominable dreck. The occasional dump of “gaaaah, this s not gooood!” is chicken soup for the soul.
Out of interest, how does Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s stuff under her own name compare to her Alice Tilton novels? I read one of the latter and hated it — the book itself exploded in my hands with about 70 pages left and I took that as a sign — and I own an Asey Mayo book that I’ve been wondering about for a while. Is there some distinction between them, or are we in JohnRhode/Miles Burton territory?
If I may jump in, the books under the PAT penname are much more conventional amateur sleuth mysteries, with slight Murder She Wrote ambience. They aren’t screwball comedies like the Tilton novels. Out of the two pennames I much preferred the Tiltons, so that should mean you really love the Taylors.
The PAT novels are certainly more classic mysteries and I think Asey Mayo is more of a “character”. I enjoy the repetitive elements and the Cape Cod background and cast of characters. The books themselves are much of a muchness, in that there are not any that stand out as being superb, but anything from about the WW2 period should give you the flavour. The mystery plots are clever and sometimes very clever.
I’m also fond of the Alice Tilton novels but those are absolutely an acquired taste. I don’t blame you in the slightest for not wanting to continue; it’s either your thing or it isn’t, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.
Of course you may! Many thanks for making this so clear; I shall get to the PAT on my shelves post-haste!
For my money, the last few Taylor mysteries, say from Six Iron Spiders onwards, are a lot closer to the Tilton books than the earlier ones. Much more in the way of wacky goings-on – I think it may have been a reaction on the author’s part to World War Two, trying to lighten the mood in the face of a grim global situation.
I agree — also I think the earliest ones have something of the feeling of having lived through the Great Depression. And the first Tilton book, Beginning With A Bash, has Leonidas Witherall at about his lowest economic point. I think of PAT as having been kind of a cheerleader during WW2, encouraging her readers to do things like first aid and spotting and the like by having Jennie Mayo dive into them.
Interesting idea, but she wasn’t exactly Chekov before WW2…or was she? The impression I get from above is her books were more Murder, She Wrote than Murder, As An Inevitable Consequence of the Crushing Systems In Place to Deny Us Our Fundamental Freedoms.
Oh, you should read The Mystery of the Cape Cod Tavern. Not Chekhov, no, but as noir in places as a Raymond Chandler book. I think she intended it as a parable about the dangers of fascism.
Only read 3 of your list, though you’ve certainly been a busy reading bee! Definitely agree that the Blake and Macdonald reads are not that great.
😉 I wanted to get across that while I may not have been posting a lot, I’m ALWAYS reading a lot. Just not productively sometimes.
I enjoyed your mini-reviews, which luckily (and unusually for my visits over here) didn’t make me rush out and buy any books, and am very jealous of your swimming pool. Look forward to a second round of this soon…
One of the Leslie Ford titles, The Woman in Black, involved a young woman who bought a “Copran Freres” evening dress, filmy and sea-green, for $225 and told her husband it cost $75 — I thought of you. There are also disguises and wigs and one woman impersonating another. If you’re looking for a good entry point to Leslie Ford, that title will give you everything you need.
I love the format, you should do more of these in the future.
Your comments on The Roman Hat Mystery and The French Powder Mystery provided my laughs for the day!
The Emma Lathen novel caught my eye – hope to see a more detailed post on her series soon. If her novels are fair-play puzzles, I’d be interested to dip into the series.
Emma Lathen wrote what I call “information mysteries” where you get a low-key murder mystery story set against the backdrop of huge amounts of information about a specific industry. Banking On Death, for instance, has lots about the industrial felting industry, although that first book hadn’t yet got the formula quite right. Green Grow the Dollars has tons about the workings of the biotech industry and the race to grow a “tomato tree” — Murder Without Icing is about the financing of pro hockey teams. The murders are what I would call fair-play puzzles, although I’m wary about describing books like that.
If you’re looking for Lathen at her more informationally intense, try Murder To Go, about the management of a chain of fast-food restaurants. You find out how it all works, painlessly and rather enjoyably.
Lathen mysteries do generally play fair with the reader, although many of them are rather thin on the clues.
The team who were Emma Lathen also wrote a series as by R.B. Dominic, very similar except the detective is a Congressman. They too fall squarely into Noah’s useful category of “information mysteries” (nuclear power, the Supreme Court, professional lobbyists, etc.) and anyone who likes Lathen ought to check them out.
For me, the best Lathen books are the ones written in the first decade or so of the partnership. They really hit their stride with the third one, Accounting for Murder, and then wrote a whole string of good ones up to and including Murder Without Icing. There were a lot more after that, but somehow the books from the mid-seventies onwards weren’t the same. The team were running out of steam somehow, although some among the later ones were still well worth reading (East is East, A Shark Out of Water).
I can’t put my finger on exactly why I feel that way, but I think part of it is that John Putnam Thatcher and his crew, who stayed the same age throughout, belonged in the 1960s in some way. As the years went by, they seemed increasingly out of their proper time, kind of like Philip Marlowe or Nero Wolfe toward the ends of their runs.
I very much agree with your assessment of the arc of Lathen’s career; it’s always seemed to me that one or the other ran out of steam with the later books but I have no idea which one or why. I’ve also been a long-time R.B. Dominic fan — almost the very first book I ever reviewed on this blog was one of the adventures of Congressman Ben Safford. (https://noah-stewart.com/2012/09/04/unexpected-developments-by-r-b-dominic/) If anyone is looking for a little-known author who has some well-written and amusing titles, check out that series.
Like a few others, I very liked the ” bite size” or “vignette” format of the latest postings by Nick Fuller and yourself.
So much enjoyed this, Noah. I am a great fan of Emma Lathen. And how nice to think of you by the swimming pool with your books.
I’m very much looking forward to that part of it in a few weeks!!