Cards on the fable: Mysteries written by bridge players

acedeathcardfrontI’m a bridge player and a mystery reader, and to me it doesn’t seem odd that there should be a natural affinity between playing serious bridge and appreciating a well-written mystery. (And doing difficult crosswords, but that’s another article.) Both require similar skill sets; the ability to notice small clues, draw inferences from them and form a theory that leads to a conclusion. Yes, really, playing bridge is like that if you’ve done it a long time. “Hmm, my left-hand opponent didn’t even twitch when I played the queen of diamonds, so I deduce his partner has that particular king. Therefore Lefty is more likely to have the spade king, and I’m going to finesse him for it.” That’s the same kind of thought pattern that solves fictional mysteries. There’s a similar pleasure in both milieus; the “Aha!” response to solving a problem can be very enjoyable.

4912745286_8d10008dd8Contract bridge was in its infancy during the Golden Age of Detection, of course, since it was invented in 1929. But immediately upon its introduction into polite society, contract bridge became extremely popular among writers of detective fiction and hence among their characters. How often, for instance, do an ill-assorted set of houseguests in a country-house mystery stand up from quarrelling at the dinner table to play bridge for a few hours, with people taking their turn as dummy and wandering in and out of Sir Cedric’s library accompanied by an astonishing variety of weapons and motives? Agatha Christie was a good social bridge player, or at least to my mind she knew enough about it to know the vagaries of how different people keep score, and what happens when you bid and make a lucky grand slam. Cards on the Table is where she has most to say about bridge, but there are many other mentions.

james_bond_03_moonrakerIn fact a number of fairly well known writers (both of mysteries and general fiction) were bridge players to greater or lesser degree, either known to us biographically or merely by things they say in their books. Somerset Maugham, for instance, was a bridge fiend and an excellent player; to a lesser degree, but apparently very highly skilled, was Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery). Philip MacDonald is said to have been an enthusiastic player. Ian Fleming thought so much of bridge that he inserted a well-known bridge problem into one of his James Bond novels (the “Culbertson hand” in Moonraker, where one player has the majority of
34549face cards yet cannot take a single trick). A couple of mystery writers have set a book against a background of the game; Georgette Heyer‘s Duplicate Death (1951) (discussed in detail by me here) is better known than Anne Archer‘s 1931 Murder at Bridge but both take place at a large card party. And well-known Sherlockian pastiche writer Frank Thomas wrote two elementary (sorry) textbooks on contract bridge using Holmes and Watson as a bridge partnership. They’re actually good textbooks for a beginner.


Omar Sharif at the table

Writers as a category, though, have not produced any great bridge players, it seems. Politics (Dwight Eisenhower and Deng Xiaoping), business (Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) and cinema (Omar Sharif, a top-ranked player who has represented three countries in international competition, and Chico Marx) have all generated great bridge players. But although certainly there are good writers who are good bridge players, no one appears to have reached the top rank of bridge players after achieving success in writing.

btmThe other way of going about it is to start as a bridge expert and write a great mystery. And believe me, folks, that’s never happened. I’m not sure why it is, but expert bridge players seem to have the writing equivalent of a tin ear when it comes to generating detective fiction or indeed any kind of fiction at all. Matthew Granovetter is a well-known American bridge player now living in Italy, and has written many interesting bridge texts and columns, but his three bridge mysteries have been ghastly. GHASTLY. I discuss his 1989 novel I Shot My Bridge Partner here; suffice it to say it made my list of “Mysteries to die before you read”.  There are many others equally awful, now that self-publishing is more common, even more of them, and I’m not sure why. Is it that bridge players think that mysteries are a kind of formula fiction, where you flesh out the activities of a game of Cluedo and meanwhile throw in a bunch of backstage information about bridge tournaments? I’ve seen that a number of times and it never works. I’ve talked before about how minority groups find it useful to use a mystery as a way of telling a story set in their particular milieu, in what I call the “information mystery” format. But those information mysteries have some “guts” to them because the minority stories are fresh and important and dramatic. The maximum stakes of winning or losing a bridge tournament were pretty much exhausted in that antique variety of film, the college football movie of the 1930s, and the two plot threads seem impossible to balance in intensity. Ah well.

41R4aESvkYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Being as obsessive as I am about reading all the mysteries, of course over the years I’ve tracked down dozens of mysteries about bridge written by bridge players. Unfortunately there are no really good ones. In fact the more famous the bridge player the more horrible the mystery, it seems. Terrence Reese and Jeremy Flint are two very famous bridge players who both competed for England at the highest international level, but their 1979 bridge/mystery/thriller novel, Trick 13, is tooth-grindingly painful to read. Reese was well known to be incredibly focused at the bridge table (there’s a famous story about his friends hiring a woman to walk nude around the table while he was playing a hand, and he didn’t notice) and wrote dozens of bridge textbooks; this novel reads as though it was written by someone who had been told how humans tend to act but who had never actually met any. Except for the parts where a woman is spanked with a hairbrush, which are regrettably salacious and smack of someone’s personal knowledge. Ugh.

268678Don Von Elsner was a very good bridge player and it may well have been that he would have found success as a mystery writer if he’d found a way to focus on the puzzle mystery. He had most of what he needed; a sense of how to sprinkle humour through his plots, an understanding that you had to tell a story before you gave bridge lectures, and the ability to occasionally create a reasonably good character.  Unfortunately in the early 60s when he was writing, what publishers wanted was spy novels, so he wrote spy novels with a bridge background about the adventures of one Jake Winkman: bridge player, low-level spy, and enthusiastic heterosexual. He achieved publication in mass-market paperback by a major publisher, so someone was reading these back in the 60s, but they don’t stand up well. The books focus more on sex than violence and the spying is minimal. (One of his plots, about a Commie code being transmitted via the spot cards in newspaper bridge hands, is just ludicrous.)

353927812Dorothy Rice Sims certainly stands out in the history of bridge, although unfortunately not especially for her contribution to mystery writing. Mrs. Sims may indeed have become famous to bridge players originally because of her marriage to a national bridge champion, P. Hal Sims, and their subsequent winning of the second national mixed-pair championship in the US (and then their shared participation in a very important public bridge competition). But her fascinating biography — read the bare bones of it here in Wikipedia — includes the invention of an entire area of bridge theory, that of the “psychic” bid. She played literally at the dawn of bridge when no one really knew what they were doing, but everyone was anxious to discern what the best “rules” for bidding and play were; except Mrs. Sims. Her philosophy was literally to make things up on the spur of the moment (she wrote a book called How to Live on a Hunch, or, the Art of Psychic Living) and her ground-breaking book, Psychic Bidding, was published after her multiple championships. The next year she collaborated on 1932’s Fog, a thriller taking place aboard an ocean liner, with experienced thriller writer Valentine Williams; I don’t think it’s going too far overboard to suggest that Mr. Williams did most of the heavy lifting. The book is interesting; I’m hampered by not having a copy at hand to refresh my memory, but I recall thinking it was at least competent and enjoyable reading.

2595722This brings me finally to the most successful writer of mysteries and writer on bridge, S. K. (Skid) Simon. Skid Simon collaborated with Caryl Brahms, a newspaper writer and ballet columnist, on the first of eleven comic novels in 1937, A Bullet in the Ballet. This novel immediately catapulted them to the front rank of a writing style which they pioneered, the madcap mystery — Julian Symons would have categorized them as Farceurs. A murder takes place in the eccentric ranks of the ballet company of Vladimir Stroganoff, a zany Russian-born impresario, and Inspector Quill of Scotland Yard must untangle financial, political, and unusual sexual motives before solving the crime. The book was a best-seller in the UK in its year (partly because it was unusually frank about the sexual preferences of certain of the ballet dancers) and generated a career for the pair writing comedic takes on various historical situations before Simon’s untimely death at age 40. I’ve never cared for this particular four-volume series about Quill and Stroganoff, because they seem a little overwrought to me, but they certainly have their adherents.

Skid Simon, though, is much better known to the bridge world than the mystery one; he was one of a small group who created the British-born bridge bidding system known as Acol. I’m not sure how to describe the magnitude of this achievement; it was a revolutionary thing in its day and created the foundation for decades of competition at the highest levels of international play, including the foundations of the careers of Terence Reece and Jeremy Flint.  Simon also wrote a brilliant bridge textbook in 1945, Why You Lose At Bridge, that is still useful today; it focuses on the psychology of bridge players and how they learn what they know about bridge. And it does so in a very amusing way; Simon invents humans like the garrulous Mrs. Guggenheim to take the place of the faceless Easts and Norths that populate many bridge texts.  His text will last a long time; it even has utility for games other than bridge.

41KMA5WMC6LAnd I have to say, in terms of a mystery with bridge in it, the Brahms/Simon collaborations are not on the map; there’s literally no bridge at all. So if you’re looking for a murder mystery that is set against a background of duplicate bridge, I have nothing to offer that I think you’ll really enjoy, I’m sad to say. If you want to read a mystery that has bridge in it that isn’t by a professional player, I recommend the works of Susan Moody about bridge teacher Cassandra Swann; there is a nice balance between bridge and mystery, Susan Moody has a great sense of humour, and she can actually write — she knows how to structure a book to make it flow, without being predictable. Okay, it’s a bit hard to imagine why a bridge teacher keeps getting involved in murders but I personally have been able to suspend my disbelief; I wish she’d write a few more.

Please, please, do not write and tell me about your cousin’s former bridge partner in rural Wisconsin who self-published a bridge mystery. I’ve read a couple of those, perhaps even that specific one, and trust me — I am doing the authors a favour by not reviewing them. So far the field of self-published bridge mysteries has been marked by a uniform awfulness, in my experience, and the experience of shooting those particular fish in that small barrel is not one I relish. Yes, it is impressive to have mastered the strip squeeze; I haven’t managed it. The place for that sort of anecdote is half-time break at a tournament, not grinding the action of a murder mystery to a complete dead stop while you explain your brilliance for ten pages. And, generally speaking, if one wants to write a murder mystery it helps to have read a couple first. Don’t whip out the unreliable narrator gambit or the long-lost twin brother as if I’ve been living under a rock for fifty well-read years. I went through three or four of these no-hit wonders a few years back and until someone writes the breakout novel, you can safely avoid everything that’s not from a major publisher.

1081529Similarly, I am absolutely not interested in any of the handful of cozy bridge mysteries in various series, some of which I’ve also read. On The Slam by Honor Hartman about the little old widow (#1 in a series!) who decides to learn bridge until an unpleasant neighbour is murdered at the table will stand for all of them, as far as I’m concerned. It might possibly be of use if you were having trouble understanding some of the most basic principles of bridge, since it handles them lightly and clearly and for the most part leaves them alone. The mystery itself might trouble a bright fourteen-year-old to solve before the police do; you will not be unduly strained. I gave this book to a dear friend who was very elderly at the time, and in roughly the same situation.  She returned it to me almost immediately with a withering glance, saying, “What PAP.” I have to agree. Generally, any book whose cover proclaims “Bridge tips included!” is suggesting a paucity of attention to the mystery in the process.  And all the Goodreads comments that suggest the positive virtue that you don’t actually have to know anything about bridge to read this book — are missing the point. That’s a bug, not a feature. The book should make you want to learn, not be pleased that you don’t know how.

If you are a bridge player who wants to read a mystery, I suggest that you either go with Susan Moody or avoid the topic of bridge entirely as a basis for a mystery. And if you want to know how to play a better game of bridge, I emphatically recommend S. J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge.

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

Last Ditch, by Ngaio Marsh (1977)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #007


Ngaio Marsh, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is 29th in a series of 32 novels written between 1934 and 1981 featuring Inspector Alleyn of the C.I.D. in England. At the time of publication, Ms. Marsh — later Dame Ngaio — would have been 82 years old. (Her final book was published when she was 87.)

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Collins Crime Club, 1977. This novel has been continuously in print since its first publication, to the best of my knowledge, and a number of paperback editions have been widely distributed in both the United States and Great Britain: I am aware of at least a Dutch translation and there are almost certainly more. My review is based on an electronic edition of recent date; I own a couple of paperbacks but couldn’t lay my hands on them.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery AND it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

6f141e67aa75ebe1c19d6cab332bb8beThis book was published 43 years, and 28 novels, after the first publication of an adventure of Inspector Alleyn. At this point we are reintroduced to Ricky, Mr. and Mrs. Alleyn’s first-born and only child, who was about five in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954). Ricky has now graduated from university and intends to become a writer — of fiction, it seems, although of what sort is not made entirely clear. In order to allow himself some time and space to work on his book, Ricky has, during the “Long Vacation”, taken a rustic room in the fishing village of Deep Cove, on a small island on the far eastern coast of the UK, in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Ferrant and their son, young Louis.

How this situation came about was that Ricky’s parents, Inspector Alleyn and his wife, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, traveled on a sea voyage with a family called the Pharamonds, a moderately wealthy and somewhat outré family who live year round in Deep Cove for taxation purposes. Jasper, a mathematician, is the head of the family; his wife Julia is beautiful and zany, and their young daughters Selina and Julietta are somewhat undisciplined. Jasper’s young brother Bruno also lives in their large house, as do Louis Pharamond and Carlotta, his wife. Louis is an overly well groomed gentleman of leisure with unspecified business interests in Peru. The Alleyns learned that Ricky wanted to find an out-of-the-way spot in which to write, and they ask the Pharamonds to arrange it. Since Mrs. Ferrant does fine laundry for the Pharamonds, they know her and recommend her.

Also in the small village is a riding academy headed by Cuthbert “Cuth” Harkness and his niece Dulcie, a large-built young woman with wide-ranging tastes in sexual partners. Among them seems to be one Syd Jones, a New Zealand import who lives in a “pad” on the outskirts of town.  Dulcie is a talented equestrienne (Marsh’s word, not mine) and maintains the riding stables because Cuth is more interested in a local primitive Christian-esque religious movement of which he is the leading light. Syd does menial work around the stables and, as we later learn, is one of Dulcie’s sexual partners.

As the story begins, Ricky is being introduced to the limited delights of Deep Cove by the Pharamonds (and is instantly besotted with the married Julia). As they arrive at the stables, Cuth is in the process of ejecting Dulcie from his household, because she is both pregnant and uncommunicative about the responsible male. The Pharamonds spontaneously take Dulcie in and give her lunch and offer her a place to stay. Ricky leaves after lunch and encounters the repellent Syd, who invites him back to his pad. Ricky is surprised to meet Dulcie there.  Syd is, we learn, a painter with a great deal of opinion about his talent; Ricky’s mother, of course, is Agatha Troy, and Syd ends up scraping acquaintance because he supports himself by, we are told, offering free samples of a certain brand of paint to celebrated painters like Troy. In further travels on the tiny island, Ricky also becomes suspicious of his landlord, who appears to be too wealthy for a plumber and is doing something mysterious off the island, in private conference with the oleaginous Louis Pharamond. Some days later, Ricky has a run-in with Syd and accidentally steps on a tube of paint, to Syd’s enormous dismay. Syd has made an appointment to see Troy and offer her paint, and of course is dragging along his own crude work for her to see. Syd is ill, with what might be the after-effects of drugs, and Troy ends up feeding him lunch and introducing him to her husband, incognito as a CID officer.

Ricky is invited by the Pharamonds to go riding; immediately upon arrival, they learn that Dulcie has returned to her uncle’s home and they are fighting again. Young Bruno takes the opportunity to do a daring thing and jumps the stable’s prize horse over an extremely difficult fence, without permission or supervision; Cuth is scandalized at the potential for damage to his valuable horse and the family party rides away sedately. They ride off to a local pub some distance away and return in a leisurely way, only to learn that Dulcie has apparently ridden her own wild-eyed mount over the same difficult jump and been trampled and killed in the process.

The stage is now set for Inspector Alleyn to take a hand (having been kept informed of all relevant events by dutiful and frequent letters from Ricky); he wishes to investigate the death of Dulcie Harkness because the police force believes that Syd is involved in a drug-smuggling gang that is using his tubes of paint in order to transport quantities of “hard drugs” (either heroin or morphia). Before Alleyn takes a hand, though, Ricky decides on his own account to find out what Syd is up to and trails him to a nearby seaport, where he is discovered peeking at Syd through a hole in a newspaper by Mr. Ferrant, his landlord, who seems amused. After a violent thunderstorm, Ricky is pushed into the water between a boat and its dock and is very nearly killed.

Inspector Alleyn arrives and begins to investigate. Dulcie’s death, it seems, may have had something to do with a length of wire that may or may not have been stretched in a way that caused her horse to fall. Alleyn and Fox, though, are much more interested in drug smuggling and only seem to get to know the Pharamonds as interesting locals. Ricky continues to investigate on his own and is taken captive by Syd and Mr. Ferrant, who plan on exchanging Ricky’s continued good health for inactivity on the part of Inspector Alleyn and the police. Due to some cleverness of Ricky in the wording of the note he is compelled to write, the police soon figure out that he is at Syd’s, break in, and arrest Syd and Mr. Ferrant. They plan on more arrests in connection with the drug smuggling, but first all the dramatic personae have been bidden to a command performance at Cuth’s religious establishment. During another violent thunderstorm, Cuth preaches an incoherent and mostly inaudible sermon; the guilty party then rushes off and commits suicide. Syd, in need of a fix, implicates the main head of the drug smuggling operation, who promptly disappears. And Alleyn packs up his son and takes him home to his family.

6774801408Why is this book worth your time?

This book is not worth your time. In fact it’s not really worth having in the house, unless you have a wobbly piece of furniture that needs propping up with a book to be level. To paraphrase Monty Python, “This is not a book for reading. This is a book for laying down and avoiding.”

As to exactly how and why this is the case — well, there are three major problems with this book, in the general areas of plot, characterization, and writing. But the problematic overarching aspect is why this book exists in the first place. I propose to deal with the three large problems and then address the supervening issue of concept.

There are three elements that combine to produce the plot of this novel. The first is the drug-dealing/drug-smuggling efforts of Syd, Mr. Ferrant and Louis Pharamond; second, the activities of the riding stable and its denizens Dulcie and Cuth; and finally the actions of the Pharamond household.

I’ve recently remarked in the course of a review of Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death, found here, that Golden Age detective writers seemed to have a haphazard grasp of the economics and mechanics of drug smuggling. This book is a perfect example; what’s happened is that Marsh decided to have a drug-smuggling plot and invented the details of how one works — unfortunately without any reference to reality. Folks, this book was written in 1977. In 1971, “The French Connection” was showing people how drug smuggling actually works; literally, tons of drugs were being shipped into port cities disguised as shipments of canned vegetables or tanker-loads of liquid sugar. It was common knowledge that the economics of drug-selling on a large scale made it necessary for drug-dealers to find ways to bring huge quantities into their home countries; we’re talking 16-wheelers, airplanes and container ships devoted to drug smuggling, and tens of millions of dollars were changing hands in the process. And here, Syd Jones is transporting a quantity of drugs that would literally fit into a capsule — perhaps the size of a couple of cold capsules — inserted into the bottom of a paint tube and carried around by hand. In Heyer’s book, I remarked that her drugs were ten times too expensive, worked ten times as effectively, and is ten times as addictive. Here, the drugs are about a thousand times too expensive, being depicted in one-one-hundredth the quantity that would actually do anyone any good to smuggle, and the smuggling operation is being managed by people with a blithe disregard for any potential legal consequences. It’s all complete bullshit.

To begin; this mythical island is at the extreme eastern edge of Great Britain, close to the French coastline. No one in either country apparently bothers with more than perfunctory customs operations — bullshit. The head of this organization is apparently willing to stake his unincarcerated future on the transportation mechanism of having tiny capsules of drugs being hand-carried around by Syd Jones, who might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says, “Evil Drug-Taking Hippie”. More bullshit. The economics of the situation require the ownership of an entire company that does nothing but produce artist-quality paints and pay someone to give them away to professional artists as a kind of promotional scheme. Great steaming PILE of bullshit; in fact, ridiculous bullshit. If you own a company that legitimately produces paint, and the economics of the situation are such that it’s cost-effective to insert tiny capsules of cocaine or heroin into the bottoms of some of the tubes — why on earth don’t you just ship the damn tubes of paint where you want them to be? If the British customs authorities are sufficiently stupefied as to ignore activities on an island just about within swimming distance of France, why would you expect them to be able to detect parcels containing drugs sent by a legitimate business? Everyone in this operation, in fact, is acting like a complete nitwit. The drug barons don’t kill Syd, which would actually be sensible; they try to kill an innocent bystander, Ricky, who might be getting too curious about their operation. Mr. Ferrant’s activities would undoubtedly be of great interest to anyone taking even a remote interest in the detection of smuggling and other such crimes; he travels around for no reason at all and spends far more money than would be available from his putative plumbing business. Yet someone who is depicted as an intelligent and promotable police officer, living in the same town for four years, Constable Plank — no idea. And no one even considers for a moment that his significant lack of acuity is due to his having been bribed or subverted. Bullshit. Meanwhile Louis Pharamond swans about in perfectly tailored riding clothes like some Colombian drug baron, with unspecified “business interests” in faraway Peru, and everyone just buys it. Bullshit, bullshit, BULLSHIT.

So the drug-smuggling plot is bullshit. Considering the riding stables — there is barely a reason why they would be able to economically exist. We see the Pharamonds and Ricky having lunch at a kind of resort which is like night and day to the village (it made me think of the playground of the wealthy in northern Sardinia as compared to the horrible reality of hardscrabble farming in southern Sardinia), so apparently visitors to the resort might like to go riding. But that’s not how I’d like to put my economic future at risk, on the off-chance that tourists might drop by. Nothing is said about transporting horses back and forth off the island (which would actually be a more useful way of transporting drugs) but a riding stable on an island is starting from a deep economic well; food, hay, tack, all has to be shipped in at some expense. In fact it’s clear to me that Marsh didn’t actually give this any thought. She wanted a riding stable to be there, so there was one, regardless of the economic circumstances that would have to be in place for it to exist. It is intimated that Dulcie is a good rider who could somehow compete, but she seems uninterested in anything except her wall-eyed horse, which is a motivator for the plot. In fact Dulcie is pretty much there to be a sex addict and get murdered. Cuth is there to be a non-specific religious nut. His motive for killing Dulcie is that she “revealed her nakedness to him”; this might actually have been a worthwhile subplot if Marsh had thought to mention it before Cuth kills himself. The entire riding stable subplot is just more bullshit.

And then we have the Pharamond family. They are certainly interesting and vivid characters, but what is their function in the novel? Not very much at all, unless you count their acting as protective coloration for Louis — but that’s supposed to be a secret. The key to their existence is revealed in the last sentences of chapter 8, where Julia Pharamond reveals that she is a Lamprey by birth. Ah, yes, the Lamprey family, subject of Surfeit of Lampreys (1940) and apparently so favoured by Marsh as examples of her characterization skill that she brings Mike Lamprey back in later books as a constable and here suggests that the Pharamonds are just Lampreys in disguise. Well, yes, the Lampreys/Pharamonds are vivid. But what they also are, in plot terms, is useless until required. They are zany and unpredictable, and Marsh apparently feels that this allows her to suggest that they’ll do just about anything, and that gives her convenient ways of moving the plot forward. (Young Bruno unaccountably decides to jump an impossible fence on a borrowed horse, which is his entire function in the novel.) Other than that, the entire family has nothing to contribute to the plot; they are, in fact, colourful background decoration.

So — all three major plot elements are just so much bullshit. What about characterization? As I’ve just noted, the Pharamonds are vivid and unusual and dramatic. But characterization is supposed to be contributing not only to the atmosphere but to the plot, to the design of the novel as a whole. They have to be real people with real motives and intelligence, and those motives and intelligence have to be merged with the activities of the plot in a realistic way. And in that sense, every character in this book is complete cardboard. Everyone in the drug-smuggling end is ridiculous, and acting against their own best interests in a way that serves the plot but not themselves. The Pharamonds are literally dragged in from a different novel where their cognates, the Lampreys, spend the whole book being giddy and witty and charming. (If you recall the original novel, the Lampreys actually have nothing to do with the murder plot as it all ends up.)  Marsh couldn’t be bothered to create a new family so she reworked an old one. Do you have any inkling of Jasper’s mathematical background? Neither do I, because all that happens is that Marsh says he’s a mathematician.  Cuth’s preoccupation with primitive Christianity and his raging alcoholism are his only personal characteristics — we don’t see him ride or manage the stables or do anything except drink and orate — which provides the motive for murder and the relaxed moral standard that allows it to happen simultaneously. In fact, everyone is said to have an occupation but no one ever does it in front of us. Most tellingly, Dulcie is implied to be a young woman of extreme sexual availability; what 1977 would have called a “nympho” and we in 2014 might describe as a “sex addict”.  She wouldn’t really have an idea of who the father of her child is. And yet is it not remarkable in the book that she leaves Ricky Alleyn completely unsullied by any sexual advance? Handsome upper-class young man, reasonably virginal, unaccompanied by a female partner — should be easy pickings for the voracious Dulcie. But she leaves Ricky alone. That’s because her nymphomania is the convenient kind that gets the plot going and then disappears.

The only people who are reasonably well-rounded and fully depicted characters, in fact, are Ricky and — that’s it, Ricky. The Alleyns are sketches to remind us of their previous appearances, Fox is almost off-stage, and everyone on the island is a cardboard phoney. And even Ricky has little in the way of fleshing out.  We know a little bit about his emotions, there is information about how he finds Julia Pharamond completely entrancing, but as a living human, he’s at least half cardboard. And for someone who is supposed to be likeable, I found him quite priggish and uptight. There are a number of descriptions of him writing, and we gather that he is writing a novel, but we know nothing about it. My experience of young men who are writing their first novel is that they will buttonhole complete strangers and bore them to exhaustion with the complete story of their work to date, but no, Ricky says nothing. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but for now just remember that even the most completely detailed character in the book is not quite as real as he could have been.

So far, the plot is bullshit and the characterization is cardboard. What’s left is the writing. Here, because Marsh has been doing this for 29 books, she has some tricks upon which she can fall back. Twice, Marsh embraces the pathetic fallacy and has an actual rainstorm start when trouble is brewing. There are occasional vivid turns of phrase, nice moments of description, cleverly-chosen descriptive words that give the reader a picture in an economical way. Mrs. Ferrant, for instance, is described as a blanchisseuse de fin, a fine antique phrase that sums up her work (and at one point we actually smell ironing, which is more believable than most of the characters get). “Ladies a basket” is a phrase that you must read the novel to grasp, but believe me, this phrasing is effective. There is a charming description of a painting upon which Troy is working that actually rings true; we have the picture of what she’s doing and we see it.

For the most part, though, the dialogue is awful and completely overwritten. Ricky’s internal monologue — which is necessary since for most of the novel he is alone and has no one to whom to speak aloud — is especially awful, ridiculous old-fashioned metaphors more suited to an elderly person than a young recent graduate. “Blow me down flat,” thought Ricky, “if I don’t case the joint.” Ugh. This is indeed slang, but slang from another day and time. There are a number of such instances, including Syd’s insistence on calling his home his “pad”, over and over again. I was about that age in 1977 and, believe me, the word “pad” never crossed my lips in any context outside of ice hockey. This might have been an appropriate locution in, say, 1959 or 1962, but 1977? We were long, long past that “groovy” point then. Any time there is slang, it rings false. (At one point Fox compares Dulcie to a “tom”, which would I think have been dated slang even in 1959.) What is clear is that Marsh appears not to have bothered to listen to anyone of the correct age speaking aloud for at least a decade and maybe longer. She was at this point 82 years old and chose to depict characters of this age of her own volition, so full bad marks for getting it so totally wrong. So March’s writing style is not, like her plotting and characterization, wholly abysmal. But her inability to capture the speech patterns of anyone under 60 years old causes as many sticking points as her other issues.

So — plotting zero, characterization zero, writing about 20 percent. This brings me to the overarching question — why exactly was this book written? What was Ngaio Marsh trying to accomplish?

The simplest answer, of course, is that she was trying to earn money by writing. I have to say that in my experience it is unusual for an author of any description in any genre to have any other motivation for writing a book; writing is a time-consuming and thankless task (especially when you have people like me looking at your work closely, which must be unpleasant) and I have only ever known people to do it for money. But if one looks at her most recent output, her previous 20 years of writing has been spent writing standard straightforward detective novels — with the exception of 1968’s Clutch of Constables, which has Troy as its viewpoint character for the only such novel other than 1947’s Final Curtain. Why should she suddenly bring Ricky Alleyn to full existence as opposed to something which would have been incredibly easy — write another Roderick Alleyn novel? Why should she take the chance of failure, which she actually, to my mind, experienced here, when she had a clear path to an easy solution?

I think I have an idea of what happened. I am indebted for the key thought that inspired this idea to a lady named Lucy Sussex, a member of a Facebook group devoted to Golden Age mysteries to which I belong. Ms. Sussex (a stranger to me) posted as follows: “Met someone who knew Ngaio Marsh. ‘She was so mannish.’ And stylish, turning up for rehearsals of the student theatre she directed at the University of Canterbury in a Daimler, and wearing furs. ‘But she was only interested in the boys.'”

I was turning that over in my head. “But she was only interested in the boys.” Yes, that’s believable. She certainly started her career by being in love with her creation, Roderick Alleyn, although she rather took away his obvious halo in later years … And then it hit me. Of COURSE she wanted to write about Ricky; she wanted to have the experience of a love affair with a 25-year-old man.

Once I conceived of the idea that Marsh was trying to create another young man with whom to be in love, this whole novel clicked into place for me. Of course the plotting is ridiculous — its only function is to display young Ricky in various heroic lights, such as spontaneously deciding to investigate suspicious drug-related goings-on, and his final kidnapping and mild torture at the hands of Syd and Gil Ferrant. Of course the characters are cardboard; they’re only there to create situations in which Ricky can be admirable. Ricky falls in love with a slightly older woman and forgets himself so far as to make a physical pass at her? Quite understandable, if you look at it from the point of view of an elderly lady who wants young men to act like that around her. Ricky is a fledgling writer? Perhaps we now know why. Ricky is dutiful to his parents (he writes home about every day or so, it seems), morally upright (bordering on priggish), intellectually gifted, handsome, well-dressed, polite — a young man with every conceivable virtue. This idea also explains a number of things that do not happen in this book, principally among them Dulcie’s inexplicable disinterest in Ricky’s sexual availability. Of course it never crosses her mind — Ricky must remain unsullied because Marsh is in love with him. The only purpose of every action and every person in this book is to display Ricky Alleyn in a good light. Ricky’s love for a married woman means he remains single. Ricky’s Scooby-Doo-level investigative failures can get cleaned up by his dad; Ricky’s involvement with an unpleasant hippie type can be cleaned up by his mom. I even foresee that Ricky’s entry-level fiction was meant to be mentored in a future volume by, say, a glamorous middle-aged established writer of charming appearance with whom he falls somewhat in love …

And, of course, this doesn’t work. Marsh may have been delighted with her creation, but the reader really is not and cannot be. That’s because Marsh’s idea of a 25-year-old man is someone who is apparently 50 and a moralistic prig. Ricky does not appear to be rebelling against his parents in any way, as is common among children of authority figures like police officers; he doesn’t for a moment consider trying drugs or having sex with Dulcie. He doesn’t daydream about how to get Julia Pharamond drunk and have sex with her. He treats his parents like best friends and police officers like jolly chums — like no 25-year-old ever. He goes away to a picturesque location that contains a delightful woman, and manages to stick to his working schedule.

There is one peculiar moment in this novel that amused me greatly, but for all the wrong reasons. Ricky decides to take a little holiday and follows Syd on his drug-smuggling routine. Ricky ends up in a cafe and, insanely, cuts a hole in a newspaper so that he can putatively observe Syd’s movements without being seen or noticed. Syd comes into the cafe, sits himself at a distance and apparently injects himself with heroin surreptitiously at the table. (I leave it to your common sense to decide if that is the most unrealistic action ever; for me, it’s close. Cafes have bathrooms in which such things can be done and most people would be aware of this.) As Syd is leaving, Ricky’s arrangement with the newspaper is discovered by his landlord, M. Ferrant, who is also on the scene. Ferrant joins Ricky for a drink, and the following exchange takes place:

He took the copy of Le Monde out of Ricky’s nerveless grasp and stuck his blunt forefinger through the hole. “Quite fascinating what you was reading, seemingly. Couldn’t take your eyes off of it, could you, Mr. Alleyn?”

“Look here,” Ricky said. He put his hand up to his face and felt its heat. “I expect you think there was something a bit off about–about–my looking–about. But there wasn’t. I can’t explain but–”

“Me!” said Ferrant. “Think! I don’t think nothing.”

He drained his glass and clapped it down on the table. “We all get our little fancies, like,” he said. “Right? And why not? Nice drop of ale, that.” He was on his feet. “Reckon I’ll have a word with Syd,” he said. “Quite a coincidence. He come in the morning boat, too. Lovely weather, isn’t it? Might turn to thunder later on.”

Now, when I read this passage, I immediately thought that Ferrant had decided that Ricky was gay and sexually attracted to Syd; it’s the only thing that makes sense. Because it couldn’t possibly be that Ferrant was telling Ricky that he was about to warn Syd that Ricky was actively investigating their drug-smuggling activities, could it? That would be insanely stupid. I agree that Syd is perhaps too rough and uncultured for the priggish aristo Ricky, but that’s why Ferrant says, “We all get our little fancies, like.” Ferrant is a man of the world and understands the exigencies of gay relationships in 1977; sometimes you have to scope out a prospective partner through a hole in a newspaper as you sneak around observing his actions.

Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person to whom this interpretation occurred. It certainly does not seem to have occurred to Marsh, because she means Ferrant’s comments to be menacing and full of foreboding, judging by subsequent events. And it wasn’t until I realized that Marsh was in love with Ricky that I realized she couldn’t possibly conceive of him having a homosexual attraction, since Ricky was meant to be saving himself for Marsh herself. In many ways it makes perfect sense that Ricky is gay. Overprotective parents in the extreme — a kind of delicate feminine quality to his nature — priggish, uptight, and only willing to be seen to be sexually interested in unavailable married women. My version of how this book continues is that Ricky decides that Syd is his perfect bit of rough, makes a pass, gets beaten up for his pains, and then spends the rest of the book dragging his father into the drug plot so as to exact revenge. That is a less priggish and more realistic Ricky, just not one that an 82-year-old woman in love with her character could contemplate.

So once I realized that this entire novel was a love song written to, and about, the impossibly perfect Ricky Alleyn, I understood it in a different light. It is still unrealistic, unattractive and annoying; now, though, it has those qualities for different reasons.  It is incredibly creepy to read when you realize that an 82-year-old woman is creating a 25-year-old love object for herself and disguising the love letter as a murder mystery. It is essentially a fraud upon the mystery-reading public; it is meretricious and inappropriate and makes me feel a little bit sick to my stomach. And for the life of me, I don’t know why she didn’t continue. From the point of view of a mystery reader, she could have continued to write Ricky novels; she produced three more atrocious novels about Alleyn Sr. in the next five years. I can only hope that her publishers insisted that she return to writing mysteries that had a chance of selling.

I suppose I should have merely left this lie as being a poor mystery novel written by a very elderly lady at the end of a long, long career. But now that I’ve dug into it and given it quite a bit of thought, I realize that it’s not just a poor mystery novel. It’s an atrocious mystery novel that reveals more about Ngaio Marsh personally than I EVER wanted to know, and I feel like I need a long hot shower. I feel like I’ve just accidentally found her stash of porn in a bottom drawer. Do yourself a favour; if you have an unread copy of this lying around the house, throw it away.

pd407Notes for the Collector:

A Near Fine copy of the 1977 first edition, from Collins Crime Club, will cost you somewhere between $30 and $40 plus shipping. I looked at a couple of other Marsh novels from the same period, and this seems like a reasonable range of prices, nothing out of line. I should say that I have generally found that bad books by well-known authors are sometimes more difficult to find and therefore more expensive; in this case, Marsh’s last six or seven books were quite poor so they all seem to be trading in a similar range.

I cannot really say that there is a distinguished edition of this book; nothing really stands out in terms of design over its entire history and multiple paperback editions. (I rather like the Dutch paper edition shown here, but it’s nothing special.) You might as well buy yourself a first, if you feel you must own a copy of this awful book. I’d offer you mine, but I’ve already tossed it.


Duplicate Death, by Georgette Heyer (1951)

Duplicate Death,  by Georgette Heyer (1951)

UnknownAuthor: Georgette Heyer was a prolific author of romances (44) and detective novels (12). Wikipedia tells us that she “essentially established the historical romance genre and its sub-genre Regency romance”. I understand that it’s difficult to know much about her life, and the reason is clear; she’s quoted as saying, among other things, “as for being photographed at Work or on my Old World Garden, that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary. My private life concerns no one but myself and my family.” Since she lived before the days of TMZ, she appears to have managed her personal information quite effectively. I urge you to try the Wikipedia article, found here; they have collected more information than I had ever heard, and the material about her tax problems and her plagiarists, apparently including Barbara Cartland, is fascinating stuff.  This is probably as good as it gets for personal information.

In her dozen mysteries, four feature Scotland Yard Superintendent Hannasyde, four feature his one-time subordinate Inspector Hemingway, and four are non-series.

41h2V+596TLPublication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Heinemann (UK), 1951; a number of paperback editions exist, mostly from England, and an electronic version is available today on Amazon. I have a couple of paperback copies of this book, and an e-book, but I relied primarily upon an audio book version that I got from the library (I use them as company when I go walking for exercise).

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

thThe book starts by taking a leisurely chapter to introduce Mr. James Kane and family; Mr. Kane is not particularly a character in this book, believe it or not. This is actually a re-introduction since I gather that Mr. Kane first appeared as a teenager in They Found Him Dead (1937) (I’ve been unable to check this with an actual copy of the book), as did his younger brother Timothy. Timothy will be considerably more prominent in this book. In fact, Timothy is now 27, a Cambridge graduate and a fledgling lawyer, and is in love with a young woman who has an extremely mysterious background, named Beulah Birtley. Miss Birtley, at the beginning of Chapter 2, refuses Timothy’s hand in marriage, apparently because she doesn’t wish to discuss her background or “her people”. Beulah is employed as a secretary by Mrs. Lilias Haddington, a wealthy bonne vivante who is much in society and is bringing out her 19-year-old daughter Cynthia, a spectacular beauty. Since Timothy has both money and aristocracy in his family (I can’t figure it all out, but his mother’s name is Lady Harte) the predatory Mrs. Haddington had considered him as a potential suitor for the vacuous Cynthia; indeed, Timothy met Beulah while pursuing the acquaintance of Cynthia, and soon changed his mind. The full extent of their involvement is not known to Mrs. Haddington, but it’s hard to imagine how she could be any more bitchy about it than she already is. Beulah, in fact, is the subject of constant verbal abuse from Mrs. Haddington, and it is obvious to everyone, including Timothy, that Beulah would have resigned a long time ago if she were able. Something funny is going on.

We spend the next while observing the vaguely squalid details of the Haddington home, which has been established with much more money than taste. There is a full staff, including a supercilious butler, Thrimby, who toadies to Mrs. Haddington in return for a handsome salary. Mrs. Haddington is something of a social mystery; we get the picture of an extremely polished and completely emotionless — save for viciousness and self-interest — lady who came from nowhere. Her sister Miss Pickhill, a minor character, establishes that Lilias (or “Lily”, as the sister tells us she was born) has hauled herself out of mediocrity by her bootstraps; her husband Hubert is deceased, but his estate is said to have been very large. She does keep a man around the house, one Dan Seaton-Carew; a kind of well-dressed hair-oiled lounge lizard who appears to be the romantic interest of both mother and daughter simultaneously. Mrs. Haddington has somehow managed to attract the friendship and assistance of former society flapper Lady Nest Poulton and has thus been catapulted into the higher reaches of society; although it’s speculated that Mrs. Haddington somehow bought her way in, Lady Nest’s husband, a financier, is enormously wealthy. She seems to have sponsored a society ball for the debutante Cynthia out of the goodness of her heart.

7787166296_a5e29fee0cThe story truly begins upon the day that Mrs. Haddington is preparing to give a duplicate-bridge party at 9 PM, and the day is not going well. Beulah has a series of errands including to Covent Garden to buy flowers, and to go to see Miss Spennymoor, the household’s on-call alterationist, to come and make adjustments to Cynthia’s frock for the evening’s party. Mrs. Haddington learns that one of her card players has to cancel, and she determines, much against her better judgment, to invite Mr. Sydney Butterwick to take his place.  Mr. Butterwick is a high-strung and eccentric “homosexual” who appears to have a crush on Dan Seaton-Carew and the last time he was in the Haddington home, caused a scene. Next Beulah and Thrimby get into a fight about her having left the tools of her flower arrangements misplaced, including a coil of wire that ends up in a bathroom. And then Beulah is seated with Miss Spennymoor the alterationist; Miss Spennymore has plenty of old gossip including some about one of Cynthia’s suitors, Lord Guisborough. The day lurches from disaster to disaster, but finally settles down and the card-party begins.

Duplicate bridge involves a number of tables of four players at a time who all play the same hands, and compare the scores. As you can imagine, the four players at the table are focused quite strongly upon the bidding and play of the cards. So although there were 51 people in the house, including servants, most of them were in constant view of other people who would be very certain of precisely who was at their table. Dan Seaton-Carew is called to the telephone midway through the game; when he is discovered to have been strangled with a piece of picture wire, there are only a few people who could reasonably have committed the crime.

2302468569Chief Inspector Hemingway arrives with his subordinate, Inspector Grant, a Scot who sprays words of Gaelic throughout his conversation. Hemingway re-establishes that he knew Timothy years ago and soon begins a penetrating investigation. The circle of suspects soon reduces to a few, Mr. Butterwick chief among them. (Mrs. Haddington, Beulah, Lord Guisborough and Thrimby are most of the remainder.) Mrs. Haddington reveals that the victim had recommended Miss Birtley’s services to her; the police soon realize that Miss Birtley has recently done nine months for embezzlement and forgery, and that Mrs. Haddington and Seaton-Carew had been holding this fact over her head for unspecified reasons of their own.

The investigation continues; Hemingway interviews everyone and they continue to interact among themselves. We learn that Seaton-Carew is implicated in the “white drugs” trade (at which point the reader begins to realize why Cynthia Haddington has been so annoyingly insistent upon getting back her favourite petit-point compact, which has been missing for days). The next day, Lady Nest Poulton goes into a nursing home for reasons that her powerful husband will not mention, but are obviously to do with cocaine withdrawal. We meet Lance Guisborough at home with his Communist sister Beatrix (“Trix”), who asks to be called “Comrade” and wants her brother to give up his title, which he cherishes. Beulah continues to skirmish with Mrs. Haddington. When she forgets her employer’s cheque and has to return to the house one evening, Thrimby insists upon telling Mrs. Haddington, but discovers that Mrs. Haddington has been murdered in the same way in the same place in the same room.

075510885xAt this point, the investigation goes into high gear. Lilias’s censorious sister Miss Pickhill is called in to be Cynthia’s guardian; Cynthia, however, may have more problems with drug withdrawal after her supply is cut off. Hemingway and his staff re-interview a number of people and learn two interesting things, that are mostly buried in a morass of tiny details; Mrs. Haddington said an odd thing to her lawyer at her last visit, and Miss Spennymoor’s chatty ramblings have actually contained a tiny kernel of useful truth. Armed with the might of having put two and two together, Hemingway calls all the suspects together at the scene of the crime and reveals a quite unexpected solution. We finish with Mr. Kane, the vanished subject of chapter 1, observing that Timothy and Beulah are about to get married.

Why is this book worth your time?

To be honest, I’m not absolutely sure that this book is worth your time. My general feeling is that any book by an important author is worth your time; Georgette Heyer is certainly an important author to the historical romance genre, but not especially so to connoisseurs of detective fiction.  I have to say that this seems to me to be a second-rate mystery by a second-rate mystery writer.

I can definitely defend “second-rate mystery”. If you’ve read the extensive plot summary, above, you’ll see that there are a couple of major plot threads that can be summed up by the knowledge that Dan Seaton-Carew was somehow in league with Lilias Haddington to circulate drugs among the wealthy members of high society. There is a problem that seems common among detective stories of this vintage; the writers seem not to understand the economics of drug-taking in any reasonable way.  In chapter 11, for instance, Hemingway remarks, “The stuff’s worth a blooming sight more than its weight in gold …” He is referring to cocaine, and from references to the way that valuable amounts of it are concealed within cigarettes, tiny packets of “boric acid” for eyewash, and Cynthia’s powder-compact, it would seem to be worth — perhaps $500 per gram in present-day terms. (My understanding is that that is ten or so times the current street price, some 60 years later.) It’s hard to tell, but there’s definitely the idea that it’s only very wealthy people who can afford any of the stuff to begin with. The thing is, though, that the users who are depicted are somehow using about 1/100th the effective dose to produce the same effect. Cynthia’s powder-compact might hold two or three grams of cocaine; it’s lasted her what might be six months of constant use. My understanding of the present day is that an experienced user can go through a gram in a weekend or less. Something is just not adding up. The stuff costs ten times as much as it should, and it lasts ten times as long as it should, and it seems to be about ten times as addictive. (Cynthia is not quite addicted after using perhaps two grams, it seems.) I have to admit that the economics of drug-taking in the 1950s were certainly based upon a much, much smaller supply chain than is presently in operation, and no doubt prices were considerably higher; but really the whole thing to me is sounding like those police departments in the 1970s who used to announce that they had seized half a pound of marijuana with a street value of nearly a million dollars.

Added to which, it does seem quite stupid of a criminal who is apparently making as much money out of his situation as Dan Seaton-Carew to risk breaking it off with his partner in crime by dint of not only romancing his partner’s daughter but addicting her to cocaine in the process. It is perfectly obvious to everyone that Cynthia uses drugs — the author makes this quite clear to even the most unacute reader — and thus this would be a bone of contention between Lilias and Dan. Why would a drug dealer go out of his way to addict an overwrought and spoiled young girl who would immeasurably increase his chances of being caught? I don’t believe it. I really don’t believe most of this book; I don’t believe that Georgette Heyer knew anything much about the economics of drug-taking or its circumstances, and never bothered to think through the protective actions that a professional criminal would take to conceal his activities. In fact, she means the entire drug plot to be fairly obvious.

I’m also finding it very difficult to believe the plot with respect to Beulah Birtley. She is presented as being an unjustly convicted criminal whose innocence was not believed; and then, it seems, Dan Seaton-Carew had some sort of idea that he would enlist her to assist in his drug-dealing schemes. It’s not clear, but it seems as though he felt she was too instinctively honest and so passed her over to Lilias Haddington to use as a slavey. The part that is especially difficult to believe is that a 27-year-old small-time aristocratic lawyer like Timothy would fall in love with a convicted criminal. There is vague talk about having the case reopened to demonstrate her innocence, but really, it seems as though nobody cares. Lady Harte is said to be ready to welcome the girl into the family and Timothy has no shred of thought that marrying a convicted criminal could be a bad idea for his legal career.

This, to the modern eye, is not all that much. I’m sure most of us know someone who’s been convicted of something; it’s no longer the impediment to one’s social and professional life that it once was. So Beulah is a criminal, and apparently that doesn’t matter to society, which is accepting.

The problem with this is that it goes directly against another major development in the plot, and I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t discuss this without being very clear about the identity of the murderers — yes, the two crimes were committed by different people. Lilias strangled Dan Seaton-Carew precisely because he was addicting her beloved daughter to cocaine and taking the chance of ruining their drug-selling career. Lilias’s one concern in life is to make a good marriage for her daughter, and she wants her to have a titled husband. But Lilias, on the afternoon of her death, has consulted a lawyer and asks an odd question about the details of the Legitimacy Act. In fact, Lord Guisborough’s parents were not married at the time of his birth, as Miss Spennymoor has rattled on about with no one listening, and his birth certificate is stamped “legitimated”. It’s hinted at that this would ruin his social career, and that he should take good care to keep the information from Lilias Haddington. The trouble is that according to the Legitimacy Act, he cannot inherit the title and, when he learns that Lilias Haddington has worked this out and intends to prevent the marriage to a title-less gentleman, he murders her and tries to make it look as much as possible like the first killing.

But you see the problem. Beulah’s criminal acts are easily redeemed by society — the mere circumstances of Guisborough’s birth are ruinous to his future. It’s as though Heyer is trying to make two contradictory points about similar sets of circumstances. Either society is forgiving or it’s cruel, but trying to indicate that it’s both at the same time is not very sensible.

For the rest of it, the solutions are so completely out of the blue that — well, it’s fair, it’s just not structured properly. The attentive reader wise in the ways of detective fiction will have been paying attention to Miss Spennymoor’s rambling chatter, but unless you have specific knowledge of the contents of the Legitimacy Act (U.K.) as at 1951, you’re pretty much out of luck. I have to say this is very, very much like Cyril Hare’s An English Murder of the same year, but where His Honour worked the details of the relevant legislation into the story gently and intelligently, Heyer just plops the answer into place, like it or lump it. Admittedly it is reasonable that Lilias should have killed Dan. One problem on that score is that there are very few other people who can seriously be considered, at least the way Heyer shapes the novel. The only real suspects are Beulah and Mr. Butterwick. But Mr. Butterwick is so completely over the top effeminate that it seems impossible that he would strangle a man whom he is said to love, and Heyer has spent so much time building Beulah into a sympathetic character that it would be ridiculous to undo all that and make her the surprise murderer. Lilias is the only character who has the nerve and the desire to kill her partner in crime, so it really sticks out a mile from the outset. It’s then clear that someone has killed her for a different reason, one that shouldn’t have anything to do with drugs. Heyer just pulls in the Legitimacy Act out of the blue. If I had been more familiar with the relevant legislation, it would have been obvious. After all, how many peers of the realm do you know who are strongly determined to keep their inherited title, even in the face of sharing a house with a Communist sister who constantly berates you for the inequality? We even see the distaff branch of the family, who have plenty of money but no title. It stands out a mile because it’s such a huge stretch of the social structure. When you have a character whose only claim to a beautiful girl is the title he has to offer — it’s very likely that the potential loss of that title would lead to murder. No one else seems to have any secrets worth keeping; Beulah has told all, all the drug addicts are packed off to rest cures, and Mr. Butterwick seems unconcerned that the Superintendent has problems dealing with homosexuals.

I have to say that I was surprised to see a character in a 1951 detective novel referred to so casually as a homosexual. The police express distaste for him, but it seems to be concerned with his potential for hysterics and dramatic scenes than any possible illegality inherent in his non-existent sex life. He is a figure of fun, start to finish, and it’s quite distasteful to see a caricature this grotesque offered as being even remotely believable. I understand that this was the social tone at the time, but so was Stepin Fetchit considered funny in his milieu, and today we find him extremely distasteful. I’m actually happy to say that this is one of the few distasteful appearances of the comedic homosexual in detective fiction; by and large, Golden Age detective fiction seems to have avoided this cliche. Whether that’s merely for fear of not amusing the audience, or sheer ignorance, I can’t say, but I’m happy that my favourite authors have by and large avoided this offensive solecism. This instance is quite ugly, and it spoiled a lot of my enjoyment immediately.

Another reason why this is a difficult book to enjoy is the writing style. As I understand is common in Heyer’s writing, almost the entire novel is told in the form of conversation, with most major events described in flashback in later speech. This is good, in the sense that you have plenty of opportunities for people’s speech to reveal their character. After a while, though, it becomes quite maddening that one never really gets to see anything happen. The discovery of the body, for instance, in both cases, is re-told by a character some hours later, and I’m not sure why. Is it that Heyer felt she couldn’t write action scenes? Is it that Heyer felt she was wonderful at writing dialogue? (Well, she sort of is. She has a good ear for the way people actually speak, and then she takes it one step further.)

In fact, as my regular readers will know, I have a feature in my blog called “100 mysteries you should die before you read”, and I seriously considered this novel for inclusion in that august category. What stopped me is that there are two features about this book that, taken together, seemed to me sufficiently redeeming as to lift the book from the truly awful to the merely very poor. One is, as I noted, that Heyer has a good way with dialogue. The other is that this book has some truly good work with respect to, of all things, the descriptions of furnishings. Just like she uses dialogue to show character, she also uses portraits of living spaces to show character, and it’s very effective.

Here is a very long passage, for which my apologies, but I thought it built so effectively that you should have it all. This is our first view of the expensive but not excellent house against which Mrs. Haddington displays the beauty of her daughter.

“The house in Charles Street which was rented by Mrs Haddington differed externally hardly at all from its neighbours, but was distinguished internally, according to young Mr Harte, by an absence of individual taste which made it instantly remarkable. Nothing in the furnishing of its lofty rooms suggested occupation. From the careful arrangement of expensive flowers in the various bowls to the selection of illustrated periodicals, neatly laid out on a low table before the drawing-room fire, the house reminded the visitor of nothing so much as an advertisement of some high-class furnishing emporium. Sofas and chairs of the most luxurious order were upholstered in the same material which masked the tall windows, and were provided with cushions which, embellished with large tassels, were exactly placed, and incessantly plumped up, either by her butler, or by Mrs Haddington herself.
The entrance hall and the staircase were carpeted with eau-de-nil pile. A Regency sidetable stood under a mirror framed in gilt, and was flanked by two Sheraton chairs whose seats were upholstered in the exact shade of green to match the carpet. A door on the right of this broad passage opened into the dining-room – mahogany and wine-red brocade – and beyond the discreet door which gave access to the basement-stairs was one leading into an apartment built out at the back of the house and furnished as a library. Two tall windows, fitted with interior shutters, and draped with curtains of studious brown velvet, looked out at right angles to the dining-room on to a yard transformed into a paved garden with a sundial and several flower-beds, which displayed, at the appropriate seasons, either daffodils, or geraniums. Standard authors in handsome bindings lined the walls; a massive knee-hole desk, bearing a blotter covered in tooled leather, a mahogany knife-box converted to accommodate writing-paper and envelopes, and a silver ink-stand, stood between the two windows; and all the chairs were covered with oxhide leather. Above this apartment, and having access on to the half-landing between the ground and first-floors, was a similar room, dedicated to the mistress of the establishment, and known to everyone except Miss Birtley (who persisted in calling it Mrs Haddington’s sitting-room) as the Boudoir. It was of the same proportions as the room beneath, but decorated in quite another style. Diaphanous folds of nylon veiled the two windows by day, and opulently gathered ones of lilac brocade, drawn across the shallow embrasures, shut out the night. A low table of burr walnut, bearing an alabaster cigarette-box and an ashtray en suite, stood beside a day-bed furnished with cushions of lilac and rose silk. There were two arm-chairs, upholstered in lilac satin; several others, described by their creators as incidental, filling gaps against the panelled walls; a carpet of purple pile; and, in the corner between the door and the first of the two windows, a spindle-legged table bearing on it a telephone (cream enamel) and a reading-lamp, shaded in rose silk. Thoughtfully placed beside this table was a low, cabriole-legged chair, its lozenge back and sprung seat upholstered in the same delicate shade of lilac brocade which hung beside the windows. The floral decoration of the room was provided by an alabaster bowl on a torchére pedestal, filled in summer with roses or carnations, and, in winter, by honesty and sea-lavender.”

Now, the other reason I provided such a huge wad of description is that, deeply buried in this enormous mass of detail of colour and use and household routine, there is a tiny piece of useful information. In the final few lines, you learn where the telephone is, and the circumstances of its situation on a table; that becomes important later when both victims are strangled while seated at the telephone. And this is how a good writer buries that information.

If you really had to, you could draw a diagram of what you’ve seen, and put into position such colours as the eau-de-nil carpeting in the entryway and the studious brown curtains in the library. And that magnificent attention to insignificant detail is what separates this book from the truly awful. Yes, the plot is silly and uninspired, and turns on a trick the basis of which would be known to few. Yes, the characters range from uninspired to cardboard. But the dialogue runs from good to sparkling, and the descriptions of rooms and furniture border on the obsessive, and that’s kind of interesting. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone actually read this book, but at least if they do, they will find some interesting information about domestic furnishings in the middle of the 20th century, as opposed to nothing worthwhile at all.

As a postscript: I originally picked out this book for review because I am a dedicated bridge player and wanted to know what Heyer had to say about bridge. There is no bridge in this book, not even a description of people actually playing a card. There is a delightful moment just before the first body is discovered when two women get into a quarrel about the play of a hand, and this will be painfully familiar to every bridge player; it is this that makes me think that Heyer may have actually seen the game played, for nothing else gives any indication. I think it would be enormously difficult and expensive to set up approximately 11 bridge tables in a private home and have a duplicate bridge movement, but not impossible; I wish we could have seen more of how it was arranged. (Miss Birtley is required to refill the cigarette boxes halfway through the evening, which to me would have meant that the rooms were unbearably smoky, but that’s an entirely 21st century perspective.) Many of the book’s cover artists in the past seem to have assumed that “duplicate” has to do with the duplicated circumstances of the two corpses, both seated in the same place. If you’re coming for a bridge mystery, though, look elsewhere.

5322336455_3136414e02_zNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is Heinemann, 1951 and is apparently difficult to get with a decent jacket, as is so often the case with books of this and earlier vintage. The best two copies of this book on abebooks as of today are each just under US$100, including shipping and handling; the jackets are VG+. If you don’t insist on a jacket and merely wish a first edition, that might set you back $10 or $15. Interestingly enough, I selected a romance title of hers from the same period and the best first on the market is — just under US$100. I can’t say this is definitive, but it makes me wonder; I’d always thought first editions of her romances were worth much more than her detective stories. There are some peculiar outliers in the pricing; some recent and undistinguished hardcover editions are selling for twice the price of a first. I expect there’s a reason for this, I just don’t know what it is. Libraries?

There are many paperback editions but none of them very distinguished, save perhaps an early Pan edition with a cover by Carl Wilton which I’ve shown you here.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1951 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “E”, “Read one book set in England.” This book is set in England and wouldn’t have worked under any other legal scheme. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.