Redial M for Murder : Agatha Christie – “Murder on the Links,” “The Secret of Chimneys,” “The Seven Dials Mystery” (re-reads)

murder on the links

ABOVE: “OH NO!!! POIROT ATTACKS AGAIN!”

I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blase of editors, penned the following sentence:  
” ‘Hell!’  said the Duchess.”

The anecdote goes back to 1895, (with the full, still shocking opener is “Hell!” said the Duchess when she caught her tits in a mangle.”) But, as far as I am concerned, Agatha Christie successfully made the line her own for the opening of “Murder on the Links,” an early adventure of Hercule Poirot that includes lots of murders and only minimal amounts of golf.


I mentioned before how frequently I re-read some of these things. “The Secret of Chimneys” and “The Seven Dials Mystery,” the two “Superintendent Battle” novels, are relatively rare in Christie’s oeuvre in that they feature a recurring location (Chimneys and whereabouts) and a recurring cast (George Lomax, Eileen “Bundle” Brent, Lord Caterham). They are also thrillers more than whodunits. Christie’s thrillers can be silly, as Val McDermid, (the “Wire in the Blood” author) admits in a prologue to “The Seven Dials Mystery.” It is nearly impossible to be properly thrilled by the machinations of made-up societies with names like “The Comrades of Red Fascism” who are trying to nab heirloom diamonds from Ruritanian nobility.  But these books are comedies at heart, best understood as P. G. Wodehouse parodies.

That part is ageless. What hasn’t aged well are the cheerful xenophobia of Christie’s characters. Take this passage, which must have been pretty gross even in the 1920s. A few pages after hearing about the sinister plotting of “Hebraic, yellow-colored people,” we get this about “dagos”:

“I Just pulled a dago out of the river. Like all dagos, he couldn’t swim.”

“Wait a minute, has this story anything to do with the other business?”

“Nothing whatever, though, oddly enough, now I remember it, the man was a Herzoslovakian. We always called him Dutch Pedro, though.”

Anthony nodded indifferently. “Any name is good enough for a dago.”

Yikes! I’ll say this in Christie’s defense: at the end of the day, her jokes are aimed at puncturing British pomposity. Her shady foreigners are more bemusing than they are threatening. Silliest foreigners of them all: Americans, with their ridiculous American accents. What were THEY thinking, going independent?

RATING: COOL!

 

 

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That Would be Revenge : Craig Johnson – “The Cold Dish” (Longmire #1)

Here’s a Sheriff joke from “The Cold Dish,”  Craig Johnson’s first “Walt Longmire” novel:

Sheriff sees a car with a broken tail light, follows it just to let the driver know. “Just a warning about the left tail light, folks, have a good night,” says the Sheriff.

The driver exhales: “What a relief! I thought you were stopping me because I was driving without a license!”

At that point, the driver’s wife angrily shushes him from the passenger seat, then smiles at the sheriff: “Don’t listen to him, Sheriff. He’s too drunk to know what he’s saying!”

cold dish

ABOVE: If Tony Hillerman gives his blessing…

I watched a couple of seasons of the TV version of “Longmire,” and, decent show as that was, I don’t remember a heck of a lot of jokes in it. “The Cold Dish” may be the funniest, warmest murder mystery I’ve read in a while, and that despite being set in the cold, grim environs of Absaroka County, Wyoming. How does Craig Johnson accomplish that?

“The Cold Dish” doesn’t SEEM funny in its skeletal details. It’s borderline depressive stuff.  Sheriff Walt Longmire grieves for his wife, Martha. Secretary Ruby nags him into being on track. Eastern-transplant deputy Vic Moretti flips him off (lovingly of course). Daughter Cady keeps an eye on him. Bar-tending buddy Henry Standing Bear keeps him from blowing a fuse.

Life on Absaroka County is generally haunted by the legacy of a complicated history, both inside and around the Native American Rez. (There’s some informative bits, like the fact that the Government set up long-feuding Native American tribes in adjacent areas in a sneaky “divide and conquer” maneuver, or that the reservation’s “IP”, Indian Police, are called “Apples”: red outside, white inside.)

Walt has plenty of ghosts to deal with himself: his dead wife, his time in ‘Nam, the murder of the Vietnamese sex worker who was his only friend during his service. He’s also haunted by what happened to Melissa Little Bird, whose fetal alcohol syndrome didn’t stop four high-schoolers from raping and torturing her.  Lenient laws meant they’re out on the streets.

And now, years later, one of those boys turns up dead.

longmire

A real laugh fest, I know. But Longmire’s voice (that is, Johnson’s) is that of a self-deprecating man with a sense of humor that he uses as a pre-emptive defense against those who would point out his flaws and his depression. If you want to know why the book is much more rewarding than the detached series, here’s a simple example, (there is one like it in nearly every page). Walt has one malfunctioning Sony Trinitron. The Trinitron gets one channel, or rather its static:

“I hit the remote and surfed from automatic four to destination twelve: ghost TV. It was my favorite show, the one where the different-sized blobs moved around in a blizzard and didn’t make too much noise. Gave me plenty of time to think.”

That’s both FUNNY and sad, an example of how little Walt cares about earthly things like TV shows based on his life. But a visual equivalent of that scene would just show him catatonic, staring at the static on TV, and failing at the tonal dance that Johnson keeps up throughout.

So file THAT under “The Book was Better than the Movie / Show / Videogame” etc.

RATING: COOL! near MASTERPIECE!

Rules for Murder : S. S. Van Dine – “The Benson Murder Case” and “The Canary Murder Case” ( Philo Vance # 1 and 2)

benson

ABOVE: Benson and Hedges cigarettes were the cause of death.

Ah, the mystery of S. S. Van Dine (as the influential New York art critic Willard Huntington Wright preferred to call himself when he went slumming in the detective genre )! Most readers today do not learn about Van Dine through his art writing (he brought Cezanne to the attention of the American public) or through his once famous top-hatted, monocle-wearing investigator, Philo Vance. They first hear of him through his widely reprinted, canonical essay “Twenty Rules for Detective Writing,” which I include below.

“THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.”

Rules to be broken, surely. The Philo Vance novels, to all effects and purposes, have TWO detectives: Vance and District Attorney Markham, the lawman who facilitates Vance’s access to evidence and interrogations. (The police busies itself about but naturally they detect nothing). “Van Dine” himself is a character, a third wheel to the others, merely a chronicler. In that role, he’s so quiet that, while present in every scene, he’s all but effaced, and is only rarely invited into the conversation.

canary

ABOVE: William Powell and Louise Brooks in a still from the movie version of “The Canary Murder Case.” He is not even trying to pretend he isn’t a perv, is he? 

In the debut, “The Benson Murder Case,” a man is found on a sofa, toupee off, shot through the heart- the angle of the shot will determine the guilty party. In “The Canary Murder Case,” a woman is ALSO found on a sofa, clothes mostly off, strangled at the neck- a brilliant locked room mystery follows. Both of these puzzles are intelligently designed, and the writing is superior, but I have to say that Philo Vance himself is an insufferable prig, an unpleasant parody of affectation: he never lets a sentence drift by without finding occasion to insert a quote from Thucydides or a bit from Goethe, making Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion look like primary school dropouts by comparison. Like them, or like Sherlock Holmes, Vance also suffers from an excess of perfection, and there’s no topic too obscure for him:

“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, which, had it been transcribed, would have made a most delightful and instructive monograph.”

Whenever Vance goes off on a long-winded theory, we sympathize with the annoyed Markham as he says: “Anything to dam this flow of erudition!”

RATING: COOL! for the detection, SHRUG for the detective.

 

Lessons Learned : Edgar Wallace – “The Complete P. C. Lee”

I wasn’t overly won over by my first Edgar Wallace experience, but I wasn’t bored away either. “The Complete P.C. Lee” contains 24 frequently hilarious tales told by the titular constable, who chummily chats about his odder days at work. He’s an affable sort of chap, and so London’s nicer criminals don’t mind being doing a couple of clinkin’ weeks, long as he’s on the case.

pclee

Among Lee’s revelations:

  • If you’re a hangman, don’t advertise
  • Crime does pay, provided you get a good education first
  • An average citizen believes half the things they hear, a copper only believes a quarter
  • A chap can be a holy man without being an oily man
  • Never carry a bomb under your hat
  • Some of the best police work is done while in drag
  • The police force is just as good and just as bad as the good and bad people that make it
  • Never commit a crime when you can get someone else to do it for you
  • Many can help one, but one can’t help many; however, one can’t help hisself
  • Police officers are called splits or slops and if they cop you a fair one, you’ll be lagging
  • That, according to P. C. Lee, the reason police officers don’t go harsher on cases of spousal abuse is that they feel the wives would rather the husbands not go to jail
  • One should never aim their advertising at the shop-lifting crowd
  • Of all true sayings in this world the truest is that the more you get, the more you want
  • You shouldn’t shoot at the horse that you bet on
  • A life of crime is also known as “the other game”
  • Renting rooms to strangers is a liability
  • You should never be a witness in a trial if you are the actual culprit
  • There is no kind of theft in the world that cannot be carried on in a perfectly legal fashion if the thief has the intelligence to choose his profession wisely
  • The magnetic eye of hypnotism is all powerful
  • That true love is one dismissed conviction away

RATING: GOOD

Trigger Warnings : James Hadley Chase – “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” and “The Dead Stay Dumb”

noorchids

A once ubiquitous master of the hard-boiled shocker, British author James Hadley Chase burst into the scene with 1939’s “No Orchids for Miss Blandish.” This is a novel so stark and “noir” it makes most of today’s thrillers look as colorful as a flowering field. The plot couldn’t be more garden-variety, though: “a simple theft goes awry, then snowballs into an avalanche of murders.” But the fast-paced brutality of the events keep the pages turning into developments that are always shocking, and sometimes unpredictable.

Miss Blandish is a high-society debutante whose sole character trait is the impression she causes on every man: she is “the most beautiful woman they have ever seen.” A gang of sorta-harmless hoodlums tries to steal her valuable diamond necklace during a night on the town. Then, a considerably more harmful gang steps into the picture, one led by fearsome Ma Grissom and her shifty, sadistic son Slim. Slim has never been interested in women, it is well known. But something about Miss Blandish excites his interest, which is how the titular girl goes from being a victim of theft to a victim of a harrowing kidnapping and enslavement.

Drugged out of her gourd, subject to Ma’s beatings and Slim’s advances, Miss Blandish is too much of a cipher to count as a damsel in distress. She’s basically a warm, naked, tortured body-bag on a bed, waiting to be rescued by P. I. Dave Fenner, the Philip Marlowe of this tale. Fenner is a decent guy who loves to banter with his brassy secretary, Paula thusly:

“Perhaps you didn’t hear what I said,” Paula said ominously. “They’ll take all the furniture away tomorrow unless you pay the third installment. So what will I have to sit on?”

Fenner looked startled. “They’re not taking that away as well, are they?”

This is, to be honest, what passes for healthy male-female relations in Chase’s bleak world. There, if Fenner spanks his secretary, he’s not harassing her sexually: he’s merely showing his profound professional admiration.

“No Orchids for Miss Blandish” is still unpleasantly violent today; in 1939 it must have read like degenerate snuff. Chase achieves most of his effects by understanding that this material only works if the reader is first made complicit in its horrors. He can genuinely protest: “Hey, I merely said gangster A shot Gangster B’s nose off! It was YOU, the reader, who filled in that picture with your own perverse imagination, you sicko!”

Consider the (kind of masterful) rape scene below. Notice Chase merely sets the stage, and says very little; the reader provides the horror:

They looked at each other. She read the message in his eyes, and clutching the shirt to her, she backed away.

“No… please…”

Slim shuffled over to her and snatched the shirt from her. His mouth was pursed, his breathing suddenly violent, his eyes blank. 

Shuddering and unresisting, she let him lead her to the divan.

The clock on the mantel ticked busily. The minute hand crawled on across the ornate clock face. A large bluebottle fly buzzed excitedly over the bloodstain on Rocco’s coat. The traffic in the street below halted, moved on with a grinding of gears, then halted again.

Miss Blandish gave a sudden sharp cry.

As the minutes passed, the shadows in the room lengthened. Someone in the apartment below turned on a television set. An impersonal voice began to give loud instructions on how to bake a cake. The insistent, domineering voice woke Slim who slowly opened his eyes. He turned his head to look at Miss Blandish, lying flat on her back by his side. She was staring sightlessly up at the ceiling.

“That punk makes it sound like a cake is the most important thing in the world,” Slim said.


the dead stay dumb

Clay-faced criminal Dillon and his undergarment-averse moll Myra are the main characters in 1940’s “The Dead Stay Dumb” (the title is not a comment on the IQ of those who have passed away, but on their lack of snitching abilities). Unlike “No Orchids for Miss Blandish,” this thriller doesn’t even bother with anti-hero detectives: all of the characters are villains, some are simply more successful than others at their villainy. Any one who swears by “likable, relatable characters” will have a horrible time in this slum-diving tale. This one is for people who like their eggs boiled into tooth-breaking hardness.

Dillon, tough and unemotional, walks into a small-town the way a Jack Reacher might in a Lee Child book- except that Dillon is actively looking for trouble. He suggests to the local gamblers that he can fix a boxing match, and in the process meets Myra Hogan, the hellcat daughter of blind former boxer Butch Hogan, who still rules the ring from behind the scenes.

Myra Hogan is no Miss Blandish. She’s the sort of crime novel gal who poses against the sunlight in flimsy summer dresses, expecting men to notice she forgot her underwear at home. In a small aside that says a LOT about American life in 1940, (even if it was written by a British man who gathered what he could about the U.S. from books and movies), we learn that when temptress Myra walks down the street, “even the n****s hesitated in their work, but frightened to look up, keeping their heads lowered.” This was a time, of course, when if you were the wrong color and you looked at the wrong woman the wrong way at the wrong time, you could expect an outcome considerably more violent than her angry #metoo Tweets.

The fixed boxing match goes wrong, and Dillon and Myra are forced to escape into the Bonnie and Clyde life. But Bonnie and Clyde were genteel lovers compared to Dillon and Myra. James Hadley Chase’s great virtue is that you KNOW what will happen in his novels, (tons of people will die) but he made it impossible to guess when and how those deaths would happen. “Abruptly” and “surprisingly,” that’s for sure.

James Hadley Chase is due for a rediscovery, but it will happen in a less sensitive future. He never achieved the literary acclaim of peers like James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich- but then again, us fans of “Double Indemnity” or “Rear Window” probably over-estimate how “acclaimed” Cain and Woolrich were in their time. As it is, I suspect your local bookstore doesn’t carry any Cain beyond his three early hits (“Double Indemnity,” “Mildred Pierce,” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) – and I doubt it carries any Woolrich or Chase at all.

P. S.: Here’s George Orwell on “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”: “not, as one might expect, the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or jarring note anywhere.” Accurate!

RATING: MASTERPIECE! and COOL! respectively