Featuring the Saint

(Continued from here.)

With 12 novels, 34 novellas and 95 short stories (collected in 24 volumes), the sheer volume of Leslie Charteris’s work can be daunting.

The beSaint Plays with Fire.jpgst Charteris novel I’ve read is The Saint Plays with Fire (1938).  ‘Retired Generals, great financier, and ex-Cabinet Ministers couldn’t conspire to cover up murder: it was one of those things which simply did not happen.’  Thrillers are often thought of as right-wing, pitting square-jawed Englishmen against dastardly foreigners.  Charteris was definitely liberal.  Here, the Saint fights the Establishment.  Charteris suggests that the people who run Britain (and France and Germany) – the politicians, the army, the businessmen – are the enemy of their country’s citizens.  Kane Luker (Cain Lucre) owns newspapers and armament factories in all those countries, and tries to start a major European war to line his pockets.

Saint Around the WorldThe later short story collections, The Saint in Europe (1953), On the Spanish Main (1955) and Around the World (1956) are great.  As the titles suggest, the Saint is a globe-trotter, who finds adventure as far afield as Canada, Haiti, South-east Asia, the Middle East and Europe.  Charteris is equally venturesome, and tries something new with almost each story.  One story might be a whodunit or an action piece, another is a character piece about the reformation of a spoilt heiress (the delightful “Golden Journey”), the next is a domestic murder drama influenced by Somerset Maugham (“The Pluperfect Lady”), and a fourth puts the Saint in an ethical dilemma.  Among the best are “The Rhine Maiden”, in which the Saint deals with a crooked financier on a German train; “The Black Commissar”, set in Jamaica, and which shows the half-Chinese Charteris’s dislike for racism – Simon horrifies a dowager by shaking hands with a black man; and “The Questing Tycoon”, with a respectful treatment of voodoo.

Best of the Saint.jpgThe Best of the Saint (2008), two volumes of short stories, will give you both The Saint in Europe and Around the World, as well as Enter the Saint (1930) and stories from The Saint vs. Scotland Yard (1932), The Saint in London (1934), The Saint Goes On (1934), The Happy Highwayman (1939), Follow the Saint (1939) and The Saint in the Sun (1964).

The earliest Saint stories, written in Charteris’s early twenties, are exuberant but unpolished; although the dialogue is bright and clever, the prose can be luridly purple and the plots are sometimes a confusing blur of gunplay and fast cars.  So far, the best of the very early ones is “The Wonderful War”, in which Simon and three friends bring down a Latin American dictatorship.  Simon pretends to be a Spanish peon, gets thrown in jail, escapes after months, and takes a bath in the president’s bathroom.  Chutzpah!

Moore Saint gif.gifThe TV series (1962-69) featuring Roger Moore (a decade before 007) as “the infamous” Simon Templar is fantastically entertaining – an adventure series with a witty, cosmopolitan tone and the production standards of a movie.

Moore is in his element as the debonair Saint: charming and roguish, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of menace.

The cast reads like a who’s who of 1960s actors.  There are big film stars: Oliver Reed, Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Anthony Quayle.  There are stars of Doctor Who, The Avengers, and the James Bond movies: Patrick Troughton, Roger Delgado, Honor Blackman, Nicholas Courtney, Ian Hendry, Jean Marsh, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell.  And there are character actors: André Morell, Julian Glover, Warren Mitchell, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Philip Madoc, Judy Parfitt, William Gaunt, Andrew Keir, Nyree Dawn Porter, Peter Wyngarde, Nigel Davenport, Geoffrey Bayldon, Robert Hardy, Peter Bowles, Peter Jeffrey, Michael Gough, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Stock, and Freddie Jones, to name but a few.

Even the minor episodes are never less than entertaining.  There are gritty, film noir episodes: “The Contract”.  There are witty episodes, often set on the Riviera: “The Persistent Patriots”, “The Lawless Lady” and “The Spanish Cow”.

Best episodes include:

“The Pearls of Peace” (8 November 1962)

Pearls and girls in Mexico.


“The Element of Doubt” (22 November 1962).

A clever biter-bit story about a crooked defence lawyer in the States.


“The Saint Plays With Fire” (28 November 1963)

This is strong stuff.  The political angle of the original is absent; Simon’s enemy are neo-Nazis rather than big business, the army and politicians in cahoots to start a war and take over Europe.  From the opening at a Nazi rally in 1960s Britain, there isn’t a single dead minute.  Joseph Furst plays Kane Luker; unfortunately, he doesn’t shout “NUZZINK IN ZE VORLD CAN SCHTOP ME NOW!”.

“The Wonderful War” (2 January 1964)

The Saint in the Land of Black Gold!  Was this actually filmed in the Middle East?  There are Arabian palaces with doorways and pillars; markets with donkeys; townspeople in robes and keffiyeh; helicopters; and camels.  The Saint disguises himself as an objectionable American oil millionaire, J. Pierpoint Sykes.

“Sibao” (25 February 1965)

The Saint in the West Indies, in an adventure involving voodoo and murder.  This is almost a dry run for Live and Let Die, one of the best 007 movies.

“The Old Treasure Story” (26 August 1965)

Who can resist a story about the lost treasure of Blackbeard?

“Locate and Destroy” (16 December 1966)

Not based on a Charteris story.  The Saint in Peru, helping the Israeli secret service bring a Nazi to justice.  Enough thrills for a movie.




The Infamous…

Occasionally a series clicks.

Exotic locales; a cosmopolitan, man of the world attitude; hairsbreadth escapes from death; plenty of good fights; diabolical masterminds and ingenious plots – and a belief in adventure and excitement for their own sake.

For someone who has subconsciously had Hergé’s Tintin as his yardstick since the age of four, The Saint is manna from heaven.

SaintLogoThe Saint, for the uncanonised, is Simon Templar, a suave, globe-trotting adventurer and modern Robin Hood – and possibly the coolest fictional character ever.

He travels the world, enjoying the company of beautiful women, and thwarting the ungodly – war profiteers, crooked businessmen, spies, blackmailers, frauds and murderers – and the occasional giant ant.

Not, like James Bond, because his government orders him to, but for the sheer giddy fun of it.

He is, his creator Leslie Charteris wrote,

a rambunctious adventurer … who really believed in the old-fashioned romantic ideals and was prepared to lay everything on the line to bring them to life.  A joyous exuberance that could not find its fulfilment in pinball machines and pot.  I had what may now seem a mad desire to spread the belief that there were worse, and wickeder, nut cases than Don Quixote.

Even now, half a century later, when I should be old enough to know better, I still cling to that belief. That there will always be a public for the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades.

The Saint does have fun, and so does the reader of the 37 books published between 1930 and 1963 and the viewer of the screen adaptations, particularly the TV series starring Roger Moore.  The younger Saint lives for the sheer joy of living.

Moore Saint

He ought never to have been let loose upon this twentieth century. He was upsetting. Far too often, when he spoke, his voice struck disturbing chords in the mind. When you saw him, you looked, instinctively and exasperatedly, for a sword at his side, a feather in his hat, and spurs at his heels. There was a queer keenness in the chiselling of his tanned face, seen in profile—something that can only be described as a swiftness of line about the nose and lips and chin, a swiftness as well set off by the slick sweep of patent-leather hair as by the brim of a filibustering felt hat—a laughing dancing devil of mischief that was never far from the very clear blue eyes, a magnificently medieval flamboyance of manner, an extraordinary vividness and vital challenge about every movement he made, that too clearly had no place in the organization of the century that was afflicted with him. If he had been anyone else, you would have felt that the organization was likely to make life very difficult for him. But he was Simon Templar, the Saint, and so you could only feel that he was likely to make life very difficult for the organization. Wherefore, as a respectable member of the organization, you were liable to object…

He, of all men living, should have known that the age of strange adventures was not past. There were adventures all around, then, as there had been since the beginning of the world; it was a matter for the adventurer, to go out and challenge them. And adventure had never failed Simon Templar—perhaps because he had never doubted it. It might have been luck, or it might have been his own uncanny genius, but at least he knew, whatever it was he had to thank, that whenever and wherever anything was happening, he was there. He had been born to it, the spoilt child of a wild tempestuous Destiny—born for nothing else, it seemed, but to find all the fun in the world.

(The Avenging Saint, 1930)

The nature of the Saint is irrepressible.  Even when staring down the barrel of a gun, he makes up limericks about his enemies and gets riotously drunk on language.

Farnberg’s gun levelled accurately at the pit of the Saint’s stomach.

“How did you get here?” he rasped, and the Saint actually simpered.

“Don’t you think I’m a peach?” he said.

The eyes of the other two ranged behind him, to the packing-case that stood against the wall.  The lid was open, and it was beautifully empty.

“Of course, I’m not canned,” said the Saint, in his earnestly conversational way.  “That’s very important.  And I’m full of heroism, but absolutely void of heroin.  Perhaps she arrives in the next chapter.  You haven’t by any chance got a sister, have you, Jack?”

The Saint of the post-WWII stories and the TV series is older and shrewder, less flippant and more a worldly wise traveller, at ease wherever he goes, from high society to Central American villages, but still with the same hatred of injustice.

On his first appearance, in The Saint Meets the Tiger (1930), we learn that

He had won a gold rush in South Africa and lost his holdings in a poker game twenty-four hours later.  He had run guns into China, whiskey into the United States, and perfume into England.  He had deserted after a year in the Spanish Foreign Legion.  He had worked his passage across the Atlantic as a steward, tramped across America, fought his way across Mexico during a free-for-all revolution, picked up a couple of thousand pounds in the Argentine, and sailed home from Buenos Aires in a millionaire’s suite – to lose nearly all the fruit of his wanderings on Epsom Downs.

Charteris & MooreHis creator led almost as adventurous a life.  Charteris, the Singapore-born son of a Chinese doctor and an Englishwoman, travelled three times around the world before he was twelve.  He worked as a gold prospector in South-east Asia, fished for pearls, and worked in a tin mine in Malaya, while he was a bartender and a bus driver in the UK, played bridge professionally and toured England with a carnival.  Once he had made his name as a writer, he headed to Hollywood, while in later life, he and his fourth wife moved around the Caribbean.

Charteris believed that life should be a swashbuckling adventure, and detested both the dreary, mundane 9-to-5 grind, with its ‘routine office hours’ and ‘ranks of honest, hard-working, conformist, God-fearing pillars of the community’, and highbrow, introspective novelists.

‘I’m mad enough to believe in romance,’ Charteris said in a 1935 BBC radio interview.  ‘And I’m sick and tired of this age – tired of the miserable little mildewed things that people racked their brains about, and wrote books about, and called life.  I wanted something more elementary and honest – battle, murder, sudden death, with plenty of good beer and damsels in distress, and a complete callousness about blipping the ungodly over the beezer.  It mayn’t be life as we know it, but it ought to be.’

Hear, hear!

His first heroes were ‘the Knights of the Round Table – the Chevalier Bayard, Roland and Oliver, D’Artagnan as interpreted by Douglas Fairbanks’.  He wrote episodes of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes radio series, the same series for which Anthony Boucher would later write.  He dedicated The Saint’s Getaway (1932) to his friend P.G. Wodehouse.

Oh, and he admired G.K. Chesterton.

He chose a Father Brown story for the MWA treasury Murder by Experts (1947).  References to the creator of Father Brown abound in the Saint stories, from “The Man Who Could Not Die” and “The Covetous Headsman” to a pastiche of Chesterton, complete with Indian mystic, light and colour, in “The Arrow of God”.  (Is there a more Chestertonian title?)

Would it surprise anyone to learn that, in that same story, Charteris calls John Dickson Carr a ‘genius’?

McCloy, Sardou & Paladilhe


Cue for MurderIn Helen McCloy’s Cue for Murder (1942), a young man is murdered during a revival of Sardou’s Fédora (1882) – a play written for the great Sarah Bernhardt, and which is remembered today, if at all, for Giordano’s opera (1898).

The tone is cool and sophisticated; characters are sharply and sympathetically observed; and one gets a good insight into theatre in 1940s New York.  The solution may not be earth-shattering – there are only a handful of suspects – but the clueing is excellent.

In its quiet way, a triumph.

Sardou, a disciple of Eugène Scribe (the master of the well-made play and the go-to man for opera libretti, including all four of Meyerbeer’s grand opéras and La Juive for Halévy), wrote historical plays (the Revolution, the court of Louis XIV, Byzantium, mediaeval Greece, 16th century Spain) – several of which were turned into operas.

affiche.pngAlthough the most famous is unquestionably Tosca, the one I am desperate to hear is Patrie!, about the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish in the sixteenth century.

Paladilhe’s 1886 opera was a major hit, but, like so much of the French repertoire, has vanished.  (For more information, see Carnets sur Sol’s excellent article.)

Arthur Pougin raved about the work in his supplement to Félix Clément’s Dictionnaire des  opéras.

“The poem of this work is the musical adaptation of M. Sardou’s moving and superb drama performed at the Porte-Saint-Martin on 18 March 1869.”

“Moving and superb”!  Bernard Shaw dismissed the playwright as mere Sardoodle-dom – but Shaw liked Ibsen and Wagner.

“This skilful adaptation inspired the composer in the happiest way. … From a superb libretto, he wrote music full of grandeur, passion, emotion, and poetry…

“What strikes me as particularly remarkable in the score of Patrie, considering it as a whole, is the monumental solidity of its construction; the sureness and firmness of the attaches, which show neither weakness nor lack of care; the beautiful sonority of the orchestra, an orchestra truly dramatic and never symphonic (which is not the same thing); the elegant cut and beautiful order of the musical phrase, whose ripples sometimes take a powerful richness; it’s a collection of qualities that are at once very musical and very dramatic and which denote a true man of the theatre, apt to seize all the situations and translate them into music with the greatest fidelity and the greatest effect possible.”

I have heard three pieces from the work, which are all sublime.



And yet the entire work has never been recorded.

Detective story fans think they have it tough!  All they need is a publisher and copyright.  Opera needs singers – who can sing; an orchestra; staging; and that rarest of things, directors who don’t destroy the work.






Queen and Commoners

“What is it you suspect, gentlemen—a bomb in my right pocket and a copy of The Daily Worker in my left?” HalfwayHouseElleryQueen

That’s Ellery Queen talking to the bloated plutocrats, snobbish bluebloods, frigid viragoes, and living corpses who govern New York.

Halfway House (1935) is the most class-conscious Ellery Queen novel so far.  The early books were brilliant fair play detective stories, but their backwards rooms, crucifixions, nude men, Siamese twins and bearded ladies were hardly realistic depictions of American society.

Here, Queen the writer tackles the class system “in the fifth year of the depression”.  And Queen the sleuth devotes as much time to awakening class consciousness and compassion in the ingénue as he does to solving the murder.

A man with two identities is killed in the “halfway house” in Trenton, New Jersey.  Was he murdered as Joseph Kent Gimball, wealthy New Yorker, or as Joseph Wilson, lower middle class Philadelphian commercial traveller?  Lucy Wilson is arrested for her husband’s murder, and Gimball’s stepdaughter Andrea knows more than she’s telling.

To make her speak, Ellery takes Andrea out of her sheltered upper class world, and shows her how the other half live.

He takes her to a settlement house on Henry Street, the city lodging house, and Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty; gives her William Faulkner’s Pylon to read; and jestingly suggests they visit the Rand School of Social Science, founded by the Socialist Party of America in 1906.

And then he takes her to the jail where Lucy Wilson has been imprisoned.

This is a remarkable scene.  Queen shows Lucy’s numb anguish; the shocked compassion of Andrea, realising for the first time just how harsh life can be; and the callousness of the Amazonian warder.  The closest Queen had come to this grim, naturalistic depiction of misery was in The Tragedy of Y.  That novel was too overblown to convince; the York family, that clan of syphilitics in thrall to a hellish matriarch, owed more to S.S. Van Dine and the Julio-Claudians than contemporary American life.  Here Queen depicts an average American woman in a realistic but unusual situation, and the result is powerful.

“It is not Lucy Wilson who is on trial for her life, it is Society,” writes an energetic woman reporter.

Society, which makes it possible for a man of wealth and position to marry a poor girl of the lower classes in another city under a false name, take ten of the most precious years of her life, and then—when it is too late—decide to tell the truth and confess his hideous sin to her.  Society, which makes it possible for such a man to commit bigamy, to have a poor wife in Philadelphia and a rich one in New York, to spend his time calmly between the two wives and the two cities like a commuter.

Innocent or guilty, Lucy Wilson is the real victim, not the man who lies buried in a Philadelphia cemetery under the name of Joseph Wilson, not the heiress of millions who took his real name of Gimball in vain at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in New York in 1927.  Will Society protect Lucy from itself?  Will Society make amends for the ten years it took from her life?  Will Society see that the crafty forces of wealth and social power do not crush her beneath their cruel heels?

All that keeps the novel from a place in the first rank is the mystery.  Ellery’s explanation is enthralling—but I anticipated most of the solution, including the murderer’s identity and motive, and the significance of the Swedish matches.  It’s lucky for Ellery’s logic that he didn’t meet Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg; seeing her indulge one of her many vices would have seriously dented his beautiful theory.

Bulls Like Death

Out cameDowning Last Trumpet 2 the matador,
Who must have been potted or
Slightly insane, but who looked rather bored.
Then the picadors of course,
Each one on his horse,
I shouted “Olé” ev’ry time one was gored.

The moment had come,
I swallowed my gum,
We knew there’d be blood on the sand pretty soon.
The crowd held its breath,
Hoping that death
Would brighten an otherwise dull afternoon.

– Tom Lehrer, “In Old Mexico”


Speaking of dull afternoons, it’s surprising just how dull one spent with Todd Downing can be. And The Last Trumpet is a siesta of a book.

The guy was a gay, part-Choctaw, fan of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, who set his detective stories in Mexico. But he wasn’t a lively writer; he had no apparent sense of humor; his storytelling meanders; and his plot construction is loose. (Carr and Christie’s books were tight – and so was JDC himself!)

To his credit, the basic premise is good. SomeoDowning Last Trumpet.jpgne is removing the witnesses to a railway crash—but why were all the victims left-handed? And why did the crimes take place at Christmas? This is a classic Ellery Queen set-up: what is the hidden pattern?  Downing plays fair; the solution is based on a proper “ladder of clues”.

So he obviously had some idea of what to put in a detective story.

Only little idea of how to tell it.

Halfway down the first page, Downing gives us this beauty. “The echo took a long, long time to die in the crooked shimmer of heat which rose from the arena toward the hard blue sky and the dazzling white clouds wandering in from the Gulf of Mexico.”

That sentence, reader, is a brick wall. You back out of your driveway, you turn into the street, you start to accelerate – and collide with three sentences jammed into one, without a comma in sight.

You pick yourself up, feeling slightly shaken, but no bones broken.

And then the prose turns purple.

“It rang in the girl’s ears, and she thought: It’s a tiny live thing that wants to escape, but can’t! She had a momentary nightmarish sensation of being trapped there too – in an inverted glass bowl which was lined by tier upon tier of dark, strange faces and clamped down tightly upon a round floor of yellow sand. Sand that was furrowed deeply and splotched by damp red stains.”

Clunkety-clunk goes Downing’s prose. Elsewhere, the writing is flaccid – although I doubt Downing was when he wrbullfighting.jpgote this:

“The Spanish say that the heart of a bullfight crowd is a woman’s heart, captivated by color and pomp and more than all else by blatant maleness. Campos must have known this, for he moved his legs so that the sunlight played upon his tights and loins and revealed the rippling of the muscles under the tight trousers. The amphitheater grew still again, filled with the orgiastic tremor of heavy breathing and hot, tense bodies perspiring under the sun.”

Campos the tight-trousered matador is about to become shish kebab – penetrated by that most potent and masculine of creatures, a bull. It doesn’t take Krafft-Ebbing or Havelock Ellis to spot a subtext.

It’s astonishing how gay this book is. In 1937. A sadistic cripple is in a curious relationship with his blond Viking right-hand man.  The cripple describes how he saw the Viking whip a peon:

“What a lusty young stallion he was that morning! Standing stiff-legged and solid in flaring riding-breeches, brand new-boots and polished spurs. It was dank and cool in that adobe room. But his face gleamed with sweat. For he had been working hard and long. One whip had come to pieces during the preliminaries. He was giving himself a few capricious moments with the left hand as he got the feel of a new one. Exploring with the beaded tip and testing his knowledge of anatomy—”

Hugh Rennert, Downing’s detective, flirts with his partner, Sheriff Peter Bounty: “I’d like to have you in either event.  You’re a bachelor, too, aren’t you?”

And he solves the case by checking out his partner’s muscled, blue serge-clad ass.

On another note, as early as 1937, characters say that solar heat will replace fossil fuels. Downing mentions C.G. Abbott’s demonstration of a ½ hp solar-powered engine at an International Power Conference in Washington, D.C. in 1936. Nearly eighty years later, and we’re still largely reliant on oil, coal and gas.

No Hay

If this were a tour, I’d be asking for my money back!

I was hoping for a murder mystery that took me through Mexico, from Mexico City down Downing Murder on Tour.jpgthrough Oaxaca, Puebla, Palenque, Campeche, Merida, and Playa del Carmen, to Chichen Itza.

One wonders what Todd Downing’s real life tours were like.

He takes us to Mexico City – and shows us its hotels. Xochimilco chalupa.jpgSure, we go to a few of the main sights – the Alameda, Teotihuacan and Sanborn’s – but when he goes to Xochimilco, he doesn’t describe what the “flower-decked chalupa” looks like.

It’s telling that although the story is set around the famous Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), he doesn’t describe the parade. This is the same parade that you would have seen in the trailer for the latest James Bond film, SPECTRE, and which inspired the computer game Grim Fandango.

Day of the dead.jpg

Hugh Rennert, Downing’s bland customs agent detective, only joins the “guests” at the end of the tour. One of them strangled a Customs agent in San Antonio, Texas. When the other guests go to Cuernavaca and Taxco, Rennert stays in the hotel to search their rooms. As another guest says, “You missed the most wonderful trip, dearie!”

There are no important Mexican characters. The only Mexicans with speaking parts are a police chief (in only one chapter) and unnamed hotel staff, while the only Spanish character is the enigmatic, dishonest Argudin.

Anyone expecting the immediacy of Gerald Durrell or Ian Fleming will be sorely disappointed. Downing doesn’t convey a sense of Mexico in the ’30s the way Gladys Mitchell did Greece or Agatha Christie did Egypt or Jordan – let alone Graham Greene or Tennessee Williams.

We get facts about Mexico, but little sense of Mexico itself. What did Mexico City smell like? What does the food taste like? What about the light, the heat, the colors, the Mexico poster 2.jpggreenery, the flowers, the crowds? More concrete sensory detail, please, Mr Downing!

And what a waste! This is Mexico! A country where the Aztecs, the Olmecs, the Toltecs and the Maya once lived! A country whose capital is one of the biggest cities in the world – with museums, temples, and cathedrals! In the 1930s alone, National Geographic ran articles on Mexico City as North America’s oldest metropolis (1930); an archaeological dig that unearthed Zapotec and Mixtec artefacts (1932); ChapultTezcatlipoca.jpgepec Park, and a journey by donkey through Mexico disguised as peasants (1934); the flying Otomi Indians, the Aztec Empire (1937); the Maya Empire, and the Rio Coatlicue.jpgGrande (1939).

Then there’s the Mexico of sensational fiction. Think of the opportunities a detective story writer could have with Mexico! Victims stabbed with obsidian sacrificial knives; pyramids with blood running down the stairs from the altar; a victim found dead in front of the polished mirror of Tezcatlipoca; archaeologists killed off one by one by the curse of Coatlicue…

Any of these would have been fertile material for a detective story.

Downing gives us a US Customs agent strangled with a pair of black silk stockings in a hotel in San Antonio, Texas, USA, and an undercover man out to catch the murderer.

It’s pleasing that Downing is against the appropriation by other countries of Mexico’s archaeological heritage.

However, he shoots himself in the foot from the start. Since Rennert is undercover, he can’t detect. He has to pretend to be a tourist, and can only ask questions in normal conversation. There is no in-depth investigation of the crime scenes, as there are in Carr or Queen. Nevertheless, Downing plays fair. The solution is hardly earth-shattering; it lacks ingenuity and inspiration, but the clues are there throughout the novel – and those listed on p. 179 I really should have spotted.

Still, this is Downing’s first novel. The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky and The Last Trumpet are supposed to be excellent.

Murders in Pastiche – 2

Murder in the Mummy Case (K.K. Beck)

The chief merit of this book is that it can be read in an hour and a half. While reading Beck Mummy CaseAnderson’s Case of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy was like chewing on a cement pudding, this is light to the point of insubstantiality – not a soufflé but a froth.

It’s yet another pastiche, this time set in 1920s California rather than an English country house, and feels like the sort of mystery B-movie churned out by 20th Century Fox, Columbia or Tiffany Pictures in the 1930s. Well below the level of the Philo Vance films, and more likely to feature Reginald du Kink.

The heroine, narrator and detective is Iris Cooper, a student who stays at the house of a young EDagger of Amon Ra.pnggyptologist to whom she is attracted. Anyone who expects something like the wonderful Sierra game The Dagger of Amon-Ra – also set in the 1920s and involving Egyptology – will be disappointed. There’s a séance, and a corpse found in a sarcophagus, but no atmosphere and no archaeology.

The tone is “cosy”. “Should I wear the white tulle and pearls,” Iris wonders on the first night, “or start out with the Nile-green moire silk right off?” Everything (except for the murder) is pretty or delicate or charming.

There was a bed with a satin eiderdown in periwinkle blue and a collection of delicate French Provincial furniture and a white bowl of lilacs. At the diamond-paned windows was an inviting window seat framed by chintz draperies in a rose pattern. My suitcases had been unpacked; my dresses hung in a cedar-lined coset, and my other things were neatly folded in a highboy with gilt pulls.

The book’s saving grace is its mild satire. Beck is not a fan of business or capitalism. There’s a grim joke about investing in the Stock Market (rather than in Palm Springs) and how everything will be wonderful when Hoover comes to power—shortly before the 1929 crash.

The wealthy family are indolent. The young Egyptologist lives off his mother, and is surprised by his heroine’s suggestion that he fund the expedition himself rather than sponge off his mother. The heroine chooses the working class journalist over the upper crust Egyptologist.

Characters are prepared to murder for social respectability. The butler is a wealthy man who owns a night club. The aunt and her fiancé – a Russian grand duke – use their money to set up a tea shop; Iris believes that losing his social position and working as a major-domo gave him more empathy for and understanding of the working class.

The last three reviews have been negative.  Whoa, man, those vibes!   Like my chakras are unaligned.

Ellery Queen will be coming this weekend.

In the meantime, opera.