Murders in Pastiche – 1

The Affair of the Blood Stained Egg Cosy (James Anderson)

A country house party is used as a cover for a diplomatic meeting; one of the diplomats is Anderson Egg Cosy.jpgshot; and another guest could be a jewel thief, “the Wraith”.

This is set in the 1930s – and was written half a century later.

It seems to be a pastiche of Agatha Christie, but the only Christie it’s pastiching is The Secret of Chimneys, an entertaining but unrepresentative book. Chimneys is Christie’s gleeful parody of the E. Phillips Oppenheim country house party, with diplomats and spies galore, the sinister organization of the Red Hand, and the murder of the Crown Prince of Herzoslovakia (no doubt somewhere near Ruritania).

Although Anderson skilfully imitates Christie’s simple but effective character sketches, tells the story through dialogue, and the heroine is one of Christie’s poor but plucky girls in a ghastly job (like Midge Hardcastle, Jane Grey and Victoria Jones), the book lacks Christie’s lightness and pace.

Much of the book is plodding and dull, particularly Chapter 24 with its ‘Who was where when?’. The plot is complicated, and far too much so to follow easily. The murderer’s confession is long winded and hyper elaborate, and the following explanation laborious. One could claim that its hypertrophic complexity is a parody of Golden Age plots, but Golden Age plots were less mechanical. The solution is a) obvious and b) pins the crime on the least likely person – a gambit Christie used twice. The Christie murderer is nearly always a prominent character whom the reader does not consider a suspect, rather than the type Anderson makes the murderer.

What, though, is the point of this book?

The pastiche is neither clever, funny nor accurate. Anderson contributes to a false impression of the genre: that Golden Age detective stories were set in country houses. Few Golden Age detective stories were set in country houses. Contemporary critics felt that the country house was hackneyed, and that Ngaio Marsh’s use of it in Death and the Dancing Footman was beneath her.Marsh - Dancing Footman.jpg

When detective writers did set their books in country houses, they had a hook – something intriguing that makes the reader want to read – and a brilliant high concept solution. In Marsh’s novel, the country house is the scene of a dramatic experiment; all of the guests have reason to hate at least one other guest, and the Mephistophelian host delights in prodding his guests with pins and watching them jump. An unadorned country house mystery of the kind Anderson offers simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

The detective story was more sophisticated, more modern, than the dull country house. Writers had the exciting contemporary world to explore. Think of Van Dine’s art collectors, Egyptologists, stockbrokers and physicists; Ellery Queen’s theatres, department stores and hospitals; or Helen McCloy’s psychologists, journalists, publishers, actors and designers. Christie herself, the writer most associated with country houses and villages, used the large country house murder once (as opposed to an upper middle class family murder); she set most of her books abroad – in the Middle East, in Egypt, on the Continent, on trains and planes and boats – or in London.

For all that characters include aristocrats, politicians and foreign diplomats, the story takes place in an political and historical vacuum. Anderson’s book doesn’t draw on his experience of anything other than reading detective stories and LeRoy Panek. His book does not reflect life, and has little to say about the world.

A Fishy Business

I was going to call this review “Angling for Praise”, and boy, was I going to praise the Rutland Bleeding Hooksbook!

I was going to say that Rutland reminded me of Christie and Marsh in all the best ways. Bleeding Hooks (1940) is crisp, witty and highly readable; has an unusual setting, a striking murder, and excellent characterization; and shows an author gleefully manipulating the reader’s suspicions. I thought Rutland was playing me on the end of a line and that she’d reel me in gasping; and that I’d fallen for it hook, line and sinker – but that was my gaffe.

That was what I thought – until I came to the end. What Rutland’s book lacks – and which the Crime Queens’ had in abundance – was an ingenious plot.

Mrs. Ruby Mumsby is the least popular guest at the Fisherman’s Rest, a Welsh inn where all the guests are keen fly fishermen. The other guests think she’s flashy and vulgar, with her peroxide blonde hair and riding breeches, and the only thing she wants to catch wears trousers. So when she’s found dead, a fly-hook stuck in her hand, everybody’s happy to think that she died of shock and get back to the trout and salmon.

Everybody, that is, except for Mr. Winkley, who works for Scotland Yard, and a nice young couple named Pussy and Piggy.

They discover that the fly hook was doctored with prussic acid. This remMarsh Death at the Barinded me of Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar, which was also published in 1940, is set at an inn, and is about a character who is stuck through the hand with a poisoned dart. Which book came first, I don’t know, or even if they influenced each other.

And oh, Rutland is clever! She knows that the experienced reader will suspect everyone. Not just the obvious suspects – General Sir Courtney Haddox (a fishy name) and his sister Ethel; the galloping Major Jeans; the Westons, an artistic eighteen year old conjurer and his doting father; and the Pindars, a honeymoon couple – but the main characters who appear in other roles and the minor characters who aren’t suspects.

Rutland knows this. She gives the reader long enough to think he’s very clever to suspect all the least likely people – and then turns them into suspects. She then turns her attention back to the main group of suspects. In the space of four chapters, I suspected the four different people whom Rutland wanted me to suspect. And I was delighted. It reminded me of reading Christie as a kid. This, I thought, is a writer who juggles suspects and motives with the skill of a born detective writer.

Rutland has obviously studied how Christie draws characters; both how they interact with each other, and what their inner thoughts are.  She takes the reader into the characters’ heads in Chapter 6, and at the funeral in Chapter 19.

After reading a lot of pure detective stories in which a policeman is more interested in railway timetables and measuring footprints than people, or amateur detectives sit around and theorize, this was manna from heaven.

Then we hit the end. It’s acceptable, but my expectations were set a lot higher. I wanted a solution that would make me leap six feet out of my chair in surprise and bang my head on the ceiling. There aren’t any surprises; the murderer turns out to be one of the suspects. ‘Oh, so that’s who the murderer is. Okay.’

FIN

salmon.jpg

 

What are the great detective stories?

“You will never find the great masterpiece without [ingenuity].  Ingenuity lifts the thing up; it is triumphant; it blazes, like a diabolical lightning flash, from beginning to end.”

– John Dickson Carr, “The Grandest Game in the World” (1947)

 

This is a work in progress.  At the moment, it’s dominated by a few great authors: Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Gladys Mitchell.  Over the next few months, it will expand!

In the meantime, why not have a look at Curt Evans’s lists of British and American writers, Mike Grost’s syllabus and list, or Tom Cat’s 150 best mysteries?

 

The Must-Reads

Brett Holmes.jpgThe Complete Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
especially:

  1. “The Speckled Band”
  2. “The Devil’s Foot”
  3. “The Five Orange Pips”
  4. “Silver Blaze”

 

The Complete Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton)
especially:

  1. “The Dagger with Wings”
  2. “The Sign of the Broken Sword”
  3. “The Mirror of the Magistrate”
  4. “The Invisible Man”
  5. “The Sins of Prince Saradine”
  6. “The Queer Feet”
  7. “The Flying Stars”
  8. “The Hammer of God”
  9. “The Eye of Apollo”
  10. “The Duel of Dr Hirsch”
  11. “The Chief Mourner of Marne”

 

The Ellery Queen Omnibus

includes The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934) and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen (1940)
especially:

  1. “The African Traveler”
  2. “The Bearded Lady”
  3. “The Invisible Lover”
  4. “The Teakwood Case”
  5. “The Glass-Domed Clock”
  6. “The Seven Black Cats”
  7. “The Mad Tea-Party”
  8. “The Lamp of God”
  9. “The House of Darkness”
  10. “Mind Over Matter”

 

Great detective novels

  1. At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason, 1910)
  2. The Eye of Osiris (R. Austin Freeman, 1912)
  3. Trent’s Last Case (E.C. Bentley, 1913)
  4. The Cask (Freeman Wills Crofts, 1920)
  5. The House of the Arrow (A.E.W. Mason, 1924)Mason House of Arrow
  6. The Death of a Millionaire (G.D.H. & M. Cole, 1925)
  7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie, 1926)
  8. Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (Freeman Wills Crofts, 1927)
  9. Unnatural Death (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1927)
  10. Freeman As a Thief in the NIght.jpgAs a Thief in the Night (R. Austin Freeman, 1928)
  11. The Case with 9 Solutions (J.J. Connington, 1928)
  12. The Prisoner in the Opal (A.E.W. Mason, 1928)
  13. The Greene Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine, 1928)
  14. The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley, 1929)
  15. The Piccadilly Murder (Anthony Berkeley, 1929)
  16. The Bishop Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine, 1929)
  17. The French Powder Mystery (Ellery Queen, 1930)
  18. Strong Poison (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1930)TheGreekCoffinMystery.jpg
  19. The Documents in the Case (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1930)
  20. The Scarab Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine, 1930)
  21. Police at the Funeral (Margery Allingham, 1931)
  22. The Five Red Herrings (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1931)
  23. Cut Throat (Christopher Bush, 1932)
  24. The Saltmarsh Murders (Gladys Mitchell, 1932)
  25. The Greek Coffin Mystery (Ellery Queen, 1932)
  26. The Tragedy of X (Ellery Queen, 1932)
  27. Have His Carcase (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1932)
  28. Death Under Sail (C.P. Snow, 1932)
  29. Jumping Jenny (Anthony Berkeley, 1932)
  30. Lord Edgware Dies (Agatha Christie, 1933)
  31. Death by Request (Romilly & Katharine John, 1933)
  32. The Siamese Twin Mystery (Ellery Queen, 1933)
  33. Murder Must Advertise (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1933)Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_First_Edition_Cover_1934.jpg
  34. Shadow on the Wall (H.C. Bailey, 1934)
  35. The Blind Barber (John Dickson Carr, 1934)
  36. The Plague Court Murders (Carter Dickson, 1934)
  37. Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie, 1934)
  38. Death at the Opera (Gladys Mitchell, 1934)
  39. The Nine Tailors (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1934)
  40. The Sullen Sky Mystery (H.C. Bailey, 1935)
  41. The Three Coffins (John Dickson Carr, 1935)
  42. The Red Widow Murders (Carter Dickson, 1935)
  43. The Unicorn Murders (Carter Dickson, 1935)
  44. Obelists Fly High (C. Daly King, 1935)
  45. The Devil at Saxon Wall (Gladys Mitchell, 1935)
  46. Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1935)
  47. Heir Presumptive (Henry Wade, 1935)
  48. Thou Shell of Death (Nicholas Blake, 1936)
  49. Case for 3 Detectives (Leo Bruce, 1936)
  50. The Arabian Nights Murder (John Dickson Carr, 1936)
  51. The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie, 1936)Christie Death on the Nile
  52. Murder in Mesopotamia (Agatha Christie, 1936)
  53. Cards on the Table (Agatha Christie, 1936)
  54. Death at the President’s Lodging (Michael Innes, 1936)
  55. Dancers in Mourning (Margery Allingham, 1937)
  56. Black Land, White Land (H.C. Bailey, 1937)
  57. Trial and Error (Anthony Berkeley, 1937)
  58. The Punch and Judy Murders (Carter Dickson, 1937)
  59. Death on the Nile (Agatha Christie, 1937)
  60. Murder at Government House (Elspeth Huxley, 1937)
  61. Hamlet, Revenge! (Michael Innes, 1937)
  62. Carr Crooked Hinge.jpgCome Away, Death (Gladys Mitchell, 1937)
  63. The Fashion in Shrouds (Margery Allingham, 1938)
  64. The Crooked Hinge (John Dickson Carr, 1938)
  65. Death in Five Boxes (Carter Dickson, 1938)
  66. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Agatha Christie, 1938)
  67. Murder on Safari (Elspeth Huxley, 1938)
  68. Lament for a Maker (Michael Innes, 1938)
  69. St Peter’s Finger (Gladys Mitchell, 1938)
  70. Death from a Top Hat (Clayton Rawson, 1938)
  71. The Case of the Crumpled Knave (Anthony Boucher, 1939)
  72. The Problem of the Green Capsule (John Dickson Carr, 1939)
  73. The Reader is Warned (Carter Dickson, 1939)
  74. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)
  75. Suicide Excepted (Cyril Hare, 1939)Brazen Tongue
  76. Death of an Aryan (Elspeth Huxley, 1939)
  77. Stop Press (Michael Innes, 1939)
  78. Overture to Death (Ngaio Marsh, 1939)
  79. Nine – and Death Makes Ten (Carter Dickson, 1940)
  80. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (Agatha Christie, 1940)
  81. Brazen Tongue (Gladys Mitchell, 1940)
  82. The Case of the Abominable Snowman (Nicholas Blake, 1941)
  83. Evil Under the Sun (Agatha Christie, 1941)
  84. The Emperor’s Snuffbox (John Dickson Carr, 1942)
  85. Death and the Dancing Footman (Ngaio Marsh, 1942)
  86. Murder, M.D. (Miles Burton, 1943)Death and the Maiden
  87. She Died a Lady (Carter Dickson, 1943)
  88. Five Little Pigs (Agatha Christie, 1943)
  89. Green for Danger (Christianna Brand, 1944)
  90. Towards Zero (Agatha Christie, 1944)
  91. Colour Scheme (Ngaio Marsh, 1944)
  92. The Rim of the Pit (Hake Talbot, 1944)
  93. The Rising of the Moon (Gladys Mitchell, 1945)
  94. From London Far (Michael Innes, 1946)
  95. What Happened at Hazelwood (Michael Innes, 1946)
  96. Final Curtain (Ngaio Marsh, 1947)
  97. Death and the Maiden (Gladys Mitchell, 1947)
  98. Death of Jezebel (Christianna Brand, 1948)
  99. More_Work_for_the_Undertaker.jpgMore Work for the Undertaker (Margery Allingham, 1949)
  100. Head of a Traveller (Nicholas Blake, 1949)
  101. A Murder is Announced (Agatha Christie, 1950)
  102. Smallbone Deceased (Michael Gilbert, 1950)
  103. The Devil in Velvet (John Dickson Carr, 1951)
  104. Fog of Doubt (Christianna Brand, 1952)
  105. The 9 Wrong Answers (John Dickson Carr, 1952)
  106. The Echoing Strangers (Gladys Mitchell, 1952)
  107. The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov, 1953)
  108. Merlin’s Furlong (Gladys Mitchell, 1953)
  109. Murder in Pastiche (Marion Mainwaring, 1954)
  110. Tour de Force (Christianna Brand, 1955)
  111. Scales of Justice (Ngaio Marsh, 1955)
  112. Withered Murder (Peter & Anthony Shaffer, 1955)
  113. The Naked Sun (Isaac Asimov, 1957)
  114. Off With His Head (Ngaio Marsh, 1957)
  115. The Slayer and the Slain (Helen McCloy, 1957)
  116. The Twenty-third Man (Gladys Mitchell, 1957)Halter 7eme hypothese
  117. The Widow’s Cruise (Nicholas Blake, 1959)
  118. The List of Adrian Messenger (Philip MacDonald, 1959)
  119. Singing in the Shrouds (Ngaio Marsh, 1959)
  120. The Merry Hippo (Elspeth Huxley, 1963)
  121. Wolf to the Slaughter (Ruth Rendell, 1967)
  122. The Tattooed Potato & Other Clues (Ellen Raskin, 1975)
  123. The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin, 1978)
  124. La septième hypothèse (Paul Halter, 1991)
  125. Recalled to Life (Reginald Hill, 1992)
  126. Le diable de Dartmoor (Paul Halter, 1993)
  127. Pictures of Perfection (Reginald Hill, 1994)
  128. The Wood Beyond (Reginald Hill, 1996)
  129. On Beulah Height (Reginald Hill, 1998)
  130. Dialogues of the Dead (Reginald Hill, 2002)

 

Short stories

The Mr. Fortune short stories (H.C. Bailey)
especially:

  1. “The Broken Toad”
  2. “The Long Dinner”
  3. “The Yellow Slugs”
  4. “The Dead Leaves”
  5. “The Holy Well”
  6. “The Little House”
  7. “The Unknown Murderer”
  8. “The Bicycle Lamp”

Christie Mr Quin.jpg

Agatha Christie short stories
especially:

  1. The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930)
  2. The 13 Problems (1932)
  3. The Labours of Hercules (1947)

 

Lord Peter Wimsey short stories (Dorothy L. Sayers)
especially:

  1. “The Abominable History of the Man with the Copper Fingers”
  2. “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face”
  3. “The Image in the Mirror”
  4. “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey”

 

John Dickson Carr short stories:Carr Department of Queer Complaints

  1. The Department of Queer Complaints (1940)
  2. The Third Bullet & Other Stories (1954)
    1.  “The House in Goblin Wood”
  3. The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963)

 

  1. The Singing Bone (R. Austin Freeman, 1912)
  2. Max Carrados (Ernest Bramah, 1914)
  3. Exeunt Murderers (Anthony Boucher, 1983)
  4. Buffet for Unwelcome Guests (Christianna Brand, 1983)
  5. The Pleasant Assassin (Helen McCloy, 2003)

 

  1. “In a Telephone Cabinet” (G.D.H. & M. Cole)
  2. “Solved by Inspection” (Ronald Knox)

 

 

The Grandest Game in the World

I have been improving my mind with sensational fiction for twenty-odd years. I started with Sherlock Holmes, as a lot of people do, at the age of ten; went on to Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, and later to John Dickson Carr. I came to Doyle and Christie from Tintin and Doctor Who (set in China, Mexico or Tibet as much as in outer space), at a time when I was reading Gerald Durrell.

I liked adventure stories that were set in other places and increased my knowledge of the world.

That, to me, was one of the great appeals of the detective story.

There was a bizarre crime, a clever detective who said things like ‘The game is afoot!’ or ‘Six hours in the spiritual abyss, and all because I never thought of the dentist!’, and a surprise solution; they were set in exotic places, or described life in different settings; and there was a gripping story.

And, of course (this is very important and very easy to forget) they were fun to read.

So, of course, when I was eleven, The Big Four was one of my favourite Agatha Christies. Christie BIg 4This is the one in which Hercule Poirot stops a Chinese mandarin, an American millionaire, a mad French woman scientist and “the Destroyer” from taking over the world. There are lots of good murders, narrow escapes from death, and globe-trotting.

(At that age, I also liked Biggles Hits the Trail, about death rays and giant centipedes in Tibet  – which must make me one of the few kids of the ’90s to have read W.E. Johns!)

As a teenager, I read a lot of fair play puzzle plot detective stories. Later, I read a lot of English humdrum mysteries. I’ve drifted in and out of detective stories for the last few years.

“In discussing ’em, gentlemen, I am not going to start an argument by attempting to lay down rules. I mean to speak solely of personal tastes and preferences. We can tamper with Kipling thus: ‘There are nine and sixty ways to construct a murder maze, and every single one of them is right.’ Now, if I said that to me every single one of them was equally interesting, then I should be – to put the matter as civilly as Carr 3 Coffinspossible – a cockeyed liar.”

So why do I like detective stories, and what do I like about them?

“I like my murders to be frequent, gory, and grotesque. I like some vividness of color and imagination flashing out of my plot, since I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened. All these things, I admit, are happy, cheerful, rational prejudices, and entail no criticism of more tepid (or more able) work.  I do not care to hear the hum of everyday life; I much prefer to hear the chuckle of the great Hanaud or the deadly bells of Fenchurch St Paul.”
(John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins)

I like surprise solutions. I want to be fooled – not just mildly surprised, but floored. As Chesterton wrote: “The detective story differs from every other story in this: that the reader is only happy if he feels a fool… The essence of a mystery story is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true.”

A Chesterton Father Browngood detective story should give me the same feeling of amazement and disbelief that a magic show does. When I see a woman levitated to the ceiling or sawed in half, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, and my jaw’s somewhere around my ankles. That’s what I want from a detective story. I want to shout “WHAT?!” and burst into applause.

I want the same stupefied joy I got from Ellery Queen’s Tragedy of X, Anthony Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case, Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, or from Chesterton’s own Father Brown stories.  Read “The Mirror of the Magistrate”, “The Sign of the Broken Sword” or “The Dagger with Wings”, for choice.

And the complete works of John Dickson Carr. When the solution hinges on the audacious premise that the murderer has no legs;Carr Unicorn Murders when Sir Henry Merrivale’s arithmetic proves that there are Nine—and Death Makes Ten; when Dr Gideon Fell explains the true meaning of the “Hollow Man” and the three coffins in Transylvania, all I can do is gape in astonishment – and heartily applaud. (Hell, even H.M. sticking his head out of a car in the middle of a French swamp in The Unicorn Murders is cause for celebration.)  In these books, and in a score or so of others – including The Plague Court Murders, The Red Widow Murders, The Unicorn Murders, Death in Five Boxes, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Emperor’s Snuffbox, The Reader is Warned and The Nine Wrong Answers – the solution is one that I never considered, but which is both breathtakingly simple and obvious – once I know.

The whole point, of course, is that I don’t know. If I read the book again, I should be able to spot all the clues I missed. But I shouldn’t spot them the first time I read the book. I should be led by the nose up the garden path.

A good detective story is also a good story. Look at Sherlock Holmes. Despite the great detective’s objections, the stories are not coldly clinical descriptions of bravura displays of reasoning. They’re adventure stories.

Hansom cabs hurtle through the foggy London streets. American gangsters chalk dancing men on the sunHolmes Speckled Banddial and send orange pips to their victims. A whistle is heard in the night, and a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India, slithers down the bell pull onto the bed where a young woman is sleeping. European confidence tricksters add beautiful women to their collections. South American dictators are hiding in the depths of the English countryside. Bonhomous blackmailers with the cold, unblinking eyes of the snakes in the reptile house at London Zoo stalk London society. African ordeal poisons conjure up the most terrifying, phantasmagorical visions and drive men mad.

Unrecorded cases smack of the grotesque, with “some underlying suggestion of the tragic and the terrible”. Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duelist, was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.  The repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker.  The Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow.  The cutter Alicia, which sailed one morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew.  The shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, which nearly cost Holmes and Watson both their lives.  The dreadful business of the Abernetty family, and the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.  And, of course, the giant rat of Sumatra.

And what does Holmes do when the world thinks him dead at the foot of the thundering Reichenbach Falls? He goes to two countries closed to Westerners. He spends two years in Tibet, disguised as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson; and, following in the footsteps of Johann Burckhardt and Sir Richard Burton, becomes one of the few non-Muslims to visit Mecca. He also goes to Persia and visits the Khalifa at Khartoum.

That love of travel, that interest in the world, is one of the distinguishing features of the detective story. The detective story is cosmopolitan. It says that the world is a big place, full of adventure and mystery, that the world can be experienced, and that people can use their brains to solve mysteries.

Agatha Christie lived half her life on archaeological digs in the Middle East, achieving her Christie Murder in Mesopotamialifelong dream of travel. Two of her most famous books are set in Egypt and the Balkans, while the Mr Quin short stories and The Labours of Hercules are set on the Continent.

Father Brown travelled to South America, the United States, France, Germany and Italy – where he solved such black businesses as the fantastic duel of Dr Hirsch, the garden where died the man with two heads, and the curse of the monkey’s tail.

John Dickson Carr believed wholeheartedly in “Adventure in the Grand Manner” in the style of Dumas, Stevenson and Doyle, and was disappointed he couldn’t find it in the world after WWII. His heroes are men of the world – writers, historians, journalists – who know their way around Europe and the States. He detested realistic and naturalistic novels which “claim to depict life as it is” – particularly those of such Modernist idols as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Proust and Joyce. They were cynical, depressing and unimaginative, and dealt only with the mundane and the banal.

Leslie Charteris said much the same thing in his Saint stories.  I’m reading my fifth Saint book in a row, having joined Simon Templar Around the World, in Europe, on the Spanish Main, and now Under the Sun. 

“I’m mad enough to believe in romance. 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.”

The detective story, at its best, celebrates curiosity, open-mindedness, tolerance and an interest in the world. Detective writers are intellectual in the best sense – not abstract theoreticians, but cultured and cosmopolitan, shrewdly observant and worldly, and interested in their fellow human beings.

A.E.W.Afrique en avion.jpg Mason’s sophisticated Hanaud thrillers are set on the Riviera and in the vineyards of the Gironde. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley is in Greece when a crazed archaeologist tries to re-enact the Mysteries of Eleusis, and in the Canary Islands when a modern victim joins the mummified kings in a mountainside cave. Elspeth Huxley’s four detective stories take the reader to East Africa in the 1930s and ’60s. C. Daly King’s Obelists books show what it was like to travel by steamship, train and aeroplane across America. S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen show New York in the Jazz Age.

Ngaio Marsh, Helen McCloy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen and Nicholas Blake set their detective stories in the world of theatres, museums, art galleries and artists, writers, poets and publishers.

Philo Vance, in the twelve novels by S.S. Van Dine, is a polymath and an aesthete. “He had reconnoitered the whole field of cultural endeavour. He had courses in the history of religions, the Greek classics, biology, civics and political economy, philosophy, Philo Vanceanthropology, literature, theoretical and experimental psychology, and ancient and modern languages. But it was, I think, his courses under Münsterberg and William James that interested him the most.”

Vance is a connoisseur of art – “not art in its narrow, personal aspects, but in its broader, more universal significance. And art was not only his dominating interest, but his chief diversion. He was something of an authority on Japanese and Chinese prints; he knew tapestries and ceramics; and once I heard him give an impromptu causerie to a few guests on Tanagra figurines…”

“His apartment in East 38th Street … was filled, but not crowded, with rare specimens of oriental and occidental, ancient and modern art. His paintings ranged from the Italian primitives to Cézanne and Matisse; and among his collection of original drawings were works as widely separated as those of Michelangelo and Picasso. Vance’s Chinese prints constituted one of the finest private collections in this country. They included beautiful examples of the work of Ririomin, Rianchu, Jinkomin, Kakei and Mokkei….

“Vance’s catholicity of taste in art was remarkable. His collection was as varied as that of a museum. It embraced a black-figured amphora by Amasis, a proto-Corinthian vase in the Ægean style, Koubatcha and Rhodian plates, Athenian pottery, a sixteenth-century Italian holy-water stoup of rock crystal, pewter of the Tudor period (several pieces bearing the double-rose hall-mark), a bronze plaque by Cellini, a triptych of Limoges enamel, a Spanish retable of an altar-piece by Vallfogona, several Etruscan bronzes, an Indian Greco Buddhist, a statuette of the Goddess Kuan Yin from the Ming Dynasty, a number of very fine Renaissance wood-cuts, and several specimens of Byzantine, Carolingian and early French ivory carvings.

“His Egyptian treasures included a gold jug from Zakazik, a statuette of the Lady Nai (as lovely as the one in the Louvre), two beautifully carved steles of the First Theban Age, various small sculptures comprising rare representations of Hapi and Amset, and several Arrentine bowls carved with Kalathiskos dancers. On top of one of his embayed Jacobean book cases in the library, where most of his modern paintings and drawings were hung, was a fascinating group of African sculpture—ceremonial masks and statuette-fetishes from French Guinea, the Sudan, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and the Congo.”

Vance is an amateur psychologist, “gifted with an instinctively accurate judgement of people, and his study and reading had co-ordinated and rationalized this gift to an amazing extent”. He is fluent in several languages, including French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Ancient Egyptian. He is, in addition, an expert fencer, golfer, archer, poker and chess player, a keen marksman, and musician. “He went occasionally to the more modern operas, and was a regular subscriber to the symphony concerts and chamber-music recitals.”

Be still, my beating heart.

I’ve always wanted to live in one of those houses in early 20th century adventure stories (Tintin, Blake and Mortimer) with a private art collection, full of objects from around the world – Tibetan masks, totem poles, African fetishes, Chinese vases and jade horses, Maya stelae, and Egyptian sarcophagi.  And, of course, jivaro tsantas!  (Shrunken heads to the uninitiated.)  They had several at a château outside Brussels I visited as a kid, and I thought they were awesome.

H.C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune, scientific adviser to Scotland Yard, is the supreme generalist. “It is his opinion that the specialist is inevitably a rather absurd and unhappy person, doomed to narrow thought and incomplete appreciation of the world. In pensive Bailey Mr Fortunemoments he will mourn the fate which made him one. But against specialization he has steadily protected himself, keeping touch with all kinds of knowledge and everything which the natural man enjoys.”

“The modern specialization which exalts criminology into a separate science he smiles at as a pedantic and delusive arrangement. All the sciences from astronomical physics to palæobotany, he will maintain, are required in criminal investigation, and in addition every other department of human knowledge, millinery or mountaineering, from the garden of Eden to Russian films. The real specialist in criminology would be omniscient.”

Fortune is civilized, and delights in nature, food, music and poetry. The stories in which he appears appeal to the senses; they dwell long and lovingly over light and color. The descriptions of the Alpenglühen in Shadow on the Wall are particularly fine.  Fortune and French policeman Dubois talk of pictures and music, of poetry and sculpture – “a lesson in the art of life”. He listens with pleasure to Rossini (who would appeal to his gourmet hedonism); he makes a marionette play of Tannhäuser; and goes into raptures over Swiss hazel ices and cakes made with saffron and filled with clotted cream and fresh berries.

Many detective writers had progressive views. S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Anthony Boucher, Helen McCloy and Stuart Palmer were (as Mike Grost discusses) American liberals, committed to civil rights. In Britain, G.D.H. and M. Cole were prominent British Socialists; their detective stories deal with white collar crime, Fascism and Communism, factories, and profiteers. Bailey was probably a Socialist; his works side with the working class against the Establishment; politicians, businessmen and the aristocracy use blackmail, drugs, slander and vice to destroy their rivals; while the police are often agents of officialdom and the ruling classes. Nicholas Blake (C. Day-Lewis) was a Communist in his youth. E.R. Punshon denounced Fascism and the Nazi treatment of the Jews as early as 1933.

And, finally, the detective story is Protean.  So long as there’s a murder and a fairly clued solution, it can do anything.  Do you want literate comedies of manners or wild tales of skulduggery among mad Scottish lairds or vanishing horses in the middle of the Amazon?  Do you want a sober look at life in a lawyer’s office c. 1950?  Do you want a tale of nail-biting suspense, a drunken screwball comedy, a swashbuckling Satanic adventure in the court of Charles II, a ghost story, a science fiction story set in an over-crowded world of claustrophobes, or a psychological study of unpleasant people being nasty to each other in suburbia (why would you, but it’s there)?

Or do you simply want a good, baffling problem, with a dozen or so well drawn characters, a plot that twists and turns like an anaconda having an epileptic fit, clues that mean nothing to you and everything to the detective, and a couple of chapters that’ll leave you reeling as though you’d just done five rounds in the ring with the Chicago Kid?

Then look no further than a detective story.