Recently I purchased a couple of boxes of mystery paperbacks; the editions ranged from the 40s to the 90s and the novels themselves were a mixed bag of good, bad, and indifferent. (They included about 15 of the works of Leslie Ford, so expect something about her oeuvre at some near future point.) Almost all of them I’d read before, just wanted to have them on my shelves. I was dipping into one and then another, for a quick skimming re-read, hoping that some volume would strike a chord of excellence or failure and I could get a blog post out of it.
I do intend to get a couple of blog posts out of this box of books, but I had an experience that was not quite my normal reaction to a single mystery, and I thought I’d share it. Essentially I hit four books in a row that all had children in them as featured characters, ranging from plot complications to murder victims. I had so much to say I had to divide it into two parts; I won’t be long delayed with the second part, I assure you.
Please be warned that this essay concerns works of crime fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about (1) Death and the Dutch Uncle, by Patricia Moyes; (2) Spinsters in Jeopardy, by Ngaio Marsh; and perhaps some others. I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words. If you haven’t already read these novels, reading this essay means they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this rant about?
This started when I picked up an old volume of Patricia Moyes that I dimly remembered having read 20 or 30 years ago; Death and the Dutch Uncle (1968). I read most of Moyes’s novels about Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard and his charming wife Emmy when they were brought out in a uniform paperback edition in the early 80s by Henry Holt (see left); I’ve written about her first novel here. Most of the details were gone — frankly, this is why I re-read things, because it takes me a while to remember the book and I enjoy the process. But I did remember that this particular volume had left me with a bad taste in my mouth; just not why that was.
“Hmm,” I thought as I progressed. “This isn’t the standard Golden Age style mystery, this is more like a mild espionage story, or perhaps a tale of international intrigue. Not really suited to Henry and Emmy, but Moyes is not being too serious here so it manages to keep me reading. I wonder what it was that annoyed me so much the first time? I don’t see any signs of it.”
Then I hit the character of little Ineke de Jong, a Dutch child who is “eight and a half” and the grand-daughter of an important character, and the whole book came back to me with a rush. She is pushy, arrogant, demanding, and has “rosy cheeks, china-blue eyes, and flaxen hair tied with two blue ribbons …”. Her presence in the novel as a character is designed, I think, to allow various bad guys the chance to put pressure on her grandfather. I expect it’s entirely possible that many people would regard this precocious and aggressive child as being charming and cute; I can’t think of anyone I’d try to get away from faster.
Certainly there is a point to creating a character that you think your audience is going to enjoy. As the cover blurb for this novel suggests, Patricia Moyes put the “who” back in whodunnit, according to the Chicago Daily News at least. You get to convey information or build a platform for a plot point, and divert the reader by giving her a likeable character to provide that information/be that platform. From my point of view, though, when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work at ALL. The remainder of this book was irretrievably spoiled for me because the damn kid set my teeth on edge and I hated reading about her.
This is a bit of a self-indulgent book in more than this way. As is evident from many of her other books, Moyes liked to write about European locations and, frankly, she usually does it well. She has a nice way of giving you knowledge without making you think you should have brought a guidebook along. Apparently there is something that she found charming about the Netherlands, both urban and rural; the urban part was fine, but her take on the countryside was saccharine and kind of insulting. There’s a moment where three elderly Dutch bumpkins misunderstand Henry that is not quite pleasant to read even though it’s supposed to be comical. Moyes is also kind of condescending about the general level of intelligence of London-based petty criminals and doesn’t find much to like about hotel staff either — these are two major threads in the early part of the book. And in a move that might have seemed cute and meta (but given the level of grumpiness that had already been provoked in me by little Ineke I found merely annoying), Moyes has represented Henry’s police contact in the Dutch force as being Inspector Van Der Valk. Ooh, meta and intertextual. I might have been prepared for that in a different context, but not this book, it seems.
So I ploughed through to the end and, yes, it was just as annoying as I’d remembered. Henry and Emmy perform feats of courage and athleticism that are perhaps somewhat beyond the norm. The story line is complicated by people who perform criminal acts of needless complexity and extent, and Ineke (of course) gets kidnapped with Emmy. Everyone is saved, the young lovers are reunited, and there’s an epilogue that neatly ties off all the loose ends. Nothing here is really what I’d call a mystery, it’s more like the sedentary middle-aged version of a light espionage novel. Three out of ten; most of her others are better.
Next I turned to Ngaio Marsh’s Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953); I’ve got a number of copies of this lying around, I’m sure, but I always try to pick up my favourite edition with the posed photograph of the “corpse” whenever I see one (see left). This book may well be familiar to a large percentage of my regular readers and there’s a bit of background here. Marsh’s series detective, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, gets married during the course of the 32-novel series to the impossibly perfect Troy Alleyn; together they produce little Ricky Alleyn. I’ve already had quite a bit to say about 1977’s Last Ditch, in which a young adult Ricky gets involved in a drug-smuggling plot; it’s part of my series called 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, found here. That book is absolutely horrible. This earlier volume features Ricky as a ghastly young tyke of about six, and is very close to that level of awfulness.
The plot finds Alleyn and his family traveling in Roqueville, France because Alleyn has unaccountably decided that he can better investigate the origins of a narcotics ring while trailing his wife and child. Ridiculous, of course, but necessary to the story. Troy, his wife, wants to visit a local cousin, the oddly-behaved P. E. Garbel. As they travel to Roqueville by train, a coincidence occurs that is downright miraculous; a blind flies up at just the right moment and Alleyn witnesses what appears to be a murder in the very chateau he seeks to investigate in connection with the drug ring. In another astonishing coincidence, one of the Alleyn family’s fellow train passengers (one of the titular spinsters) needs an emergency operation for appendicitis and all the other doctors in the area are at a conference (don’t you hate when that happens?). Dr. Baradi, one of the leaders of a witchcraft cult headquartered at the Chateau of the Silver Goat, must perform the operation. And yes, the plotting is just as ruthlessly utilitarian as I’m making it sound. If something is interfering with Alleyn getting involved with the witchcraft cult, whoosh, away it goes, on the headlong way to Act II.
The chateau is filled with drug addicts of the upper levels of British and French society; one of Troy’s fellow painters, a raddled movie star whose career is on the downhill slide, the cult’s other leader Mr. Oberon, a pair of brainless but nice young Brits (Robin and Ginny), etc. Among these cultists are a couple of rather odd spinsters, to make the title work. Everyone lies around all day in a stupor induced by the overuse of cannabis, to which they are all “addicted” (hereabouts it appears to have qualities much like heroin). Very shortly after Alleyn first investigates the chateau, little Ricky is kidnapped. Through an exhibition of … I’ll call it astonishingly intuitive police work, Alleyn rescues his son with the assistance of a local chauffeur, Raoul, and Raoul’s fiancee, the voluptuous and faintly moustached Teresa.
Meanwhile the book has been building to Act III in which the witchcraft cult is going to spend Friday night getting hopped up on marijuana and sacrificing the one virgin left in the building; Ginny, the youngest spinster of all. You will not be surprised to learn that Alleyn penetrates the witch cult and reveals his presence at the most dramatic moment possible; he solves a murder, proves who’s behind the narcotics ring, and rescues everyone who needs to be rescued.
There’s a lot to dislike about this book, I found. The helpful locals, Raoul and Teresa, are “simple peasant types” and while it’s not overly emphasized, it’s clear that they’re in the book as comic relief; their language is nowhere near as hilarious as Marsh seems to think. The drug ring, as I’ve noted before with Marsh, is ridiculously conceived. It just doesn’t seem very sensible to try to camouflage a heroin factory by running it out of a crumbling chateau where you sacrifice virgins on the weekends; someone is bound to notice something, you know? The masterminds, for whom the penalties for their crimes may include death, are remarkably unwilling to confront or challenge Alleyn and rely upon kidnapping little Ricky at an early stage of proceedings — to give him something to worry about. If there’s anything more designed to draw attention to your operation than kidnapping the son of the detective investigating you, I cannot imagine what it might be (it would have to involve fireworks LOL). And it’s actually unpleasant to think that Inspector Alleyn could allow his family and especially his extremely vulnerable child to be involved with a den of Satanist drug dealers. I mean, come on. The kid gets kidnapped and rescued and the family still hangs around. This story requires more suspension of disbelief than a bungee jump.
Little Ricky, as you can imagine, represents one of the reasons I’ve never had children. I actually do think Ngaio Marsh is a writer of considerable skill and intelligence, and she has a great deal of ability to make the reader see her characters as people. I believe that she is showing Ricky as a six-year-old, subject to the emotions and reactions of a child — and it’s that that I don’t like about this book. Marsh is working hard to make this child appealing and realistic and what it makes me want to do is close the book, pour myself a Scotch, and go confirm the restrictive covenant with my condo management company that guarantees no children and no pets. The child is chatty, follows his parents around like a homing pigeon, and requires constant reassurance about nearly everything in his environment, like a recently housebroken cocker spaniel. Now, to be fair, he actually gets kidnapped and might be expected to be a bit needy upon his return. But Ricky’s is the kind of anxiety that shows up whenever Marsh wants to make Troy and Alleyn look like good parents; when the action truly starts, he’s conveniently and thoroughly asleep. (And he’s only six, but he’s absorbed the British principle of the stiff upper lip.) If I had found myself stranded with the Alleyn family in that situation, by the hundredth repetition of “Why, mummy?” I would have joined the witchcraft cult and sacrificed Ricky.
My next two lucky dips I’ll chronicle
in the very near future; in one, a young girl is killed in an excellent Nigel Strangeways mystery by Nicholas Blake, and in the other, the reader only wishes the young girl is killed in a less than excellent Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth.
Meanwhile, in the comments below, who are your favourite awful children in detective fiction?