Chalice in Blunderland : Margery Allingham – “Look to the Lady” (Albert Campion #3)



“The Gyrth Chalice Mystery,” or “Look to the Lady,” as it was re-titled in its American edition, is number 3 in Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries, (after “Mystery Mile.”) There is very little “Cherchez La Femme” going on here, but the original British title is accurate: there is definitely a quest for some unholy Grail, as Campion blunders his way into the life of the Gyrth family, the proud possessors of a supposedly millennia-old Chalice. Some editor thought that fancy words like “Chalice” might put-off the unsophisticated American readers, who presumably might be more interested in “looking at ladies,” a wide-spread and appealing occupation. Kinda of how “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” got changed into “The Sorcerer’s Stone” on its way to ‘Murica, because everyone knows we don’t philosophe over here. (Ok, ok, Gyrth is an ugly word.)

Anyway, the Gyrth’s family cherished Medieval chalice disappears just before the Scion’s 25th Birthday, and a woman is found dead with her face frozen in horror. Gypsies and witches might be involved. In comes Albert Campion and his untrustworthy butler, Magersfontein Lugg, finally defined as characters. Because Allingham’s reputation ties her to Christie, and specially Sayers in the mystery pantheon, I keep on expecting Campion to be a proper detective, and these books are yet yo measure up. Here’s how he “arrives at deductions”:

“How on earth did you know?” she said.

Mr. Campion sighed with relief. “The process of elimination,” said he oracularly as he picked up the suitcase and trudged back to the car with it, “combined with a modicum of common sense, will always assist us to arrive at the correct conclusion with the maximum of possible accuracy and the minimum of hard labour. Which being translated means: I guessed it.”

I have to accept him as some sort of roguish, malapropism-happy adventurer. Campion’s disreputable butler, Lugg, is the actual outstanding hero of the series: closer to the tough, knuckle-bruised Alfred of the more recent Batman incarnations.


Independent Woman : R. Austin Freeman -“Helen Vardon’s Confession” (Dr. Thorndyke Series)

I know it’s been almost a century, but I still found it on the unclassy side when Dean Koontz casually spoiled the epochal twist in Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in the first few pages of “Odd Thomas”. Fine, everyone knows what happens there. But do they know what happens in “Helen Vardon’s Confession”?


This addition to the Doctor Thorndyke series was published in 1922, four years before Christie’s more famous novel, and I can not help but think of it as a direct precursor, in that here we have the first-hand account of a crime (or a couple of crimes) from the perspective of a female narrator (unusual enough for the genre) who is not the investigator, or a Watson to the investigator, and who may even be a suspect.

Helen Vardon is a studious young woman who, while innocently questing for a particularly trenchant article from Addison and Steele’s “The Spectator” on the issue of Queen Anne, overhears that her father is on the border of economic scandal… And that the villainous blackmailer, a Mister Otway several decades her senior, will let it go if Helen agrees to marry. Her father refuses, but Helen bravely accepts the deal to save Dad from prison.

If this was a romance, she might grow to love the beastly blackmailer. Instead, Helen’s father dies right away under suspicious circumstances, making her sacrifice pointless, and the novel goes to some non-mystery places, as Helen separates from her new husband and learns to make a living for herself in a community of female artists. In fact, fans of Freeman’s previous whodunits were probably puzzled by the many pages devoted to Helen making new friends, learning a trade as a silversmith, developing an interest in the hypnosis fad of the time, and rekindling a relationship with a friend of her youth.  Only at the end does Thorndyke make much of a presence. This is Helen’s story; the story, to all extents and purposes, of a divorced woman standing on her own, and the bulk of the novel is constructed so that the reader of the 1920s can’t help but sympathize with what at the time was still shocking behavior.

As a mystery, the novel is much too long, and yes, Thorndyke is missed. Since Freeman tries to support the efforts of Helen to “self-actualize,” the forward-thinking thought in display is tampered by Helen’s perfect propriety.  The modern eye is upset by the idea that a century ago, people (men and women) could not get legally divorced without meeting any number of extreme legal requisites, whereas the one requisite needed is: “I no longer wish to be married to this person.” (We’re still working on this area.)

Also upsetting to the modern eye: Freeman’s many anti-Semitic barbs. Here, any number of Jewish characters conspire in greed, as though somehow the pure, civilized Anglican character is above the petty matter of money.

Different Times! : James Hadley Chase – “12 Chinks and a Woman”


You have to get past the hilariously suggestive / offensive title. “12 Chinks and a Woman” is NOT about what you’re picturing. Still, it’s easy to understand why James Hadley Chase has been erased from print, while still lamenting the amnesia that condemns former masters of the genre to complete obscurity. The culturally-appropriating British hard-boiler reuses Dave Fenner, from  “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”.  Here, a concerned dame gets Fenner to investigate a vicious human trafficking ring Cuban gangsters are shipping in Chinese workers in search of the American Dream through Key West… and they do so by the dozen. (Spoiler!) So there you have your 12 fellows from China and your whistle-blowing woman. While it’s not as lurid as the title or the cover, the hard-boiled snappy dialogue will still shock the modern reader, which alone might be a good reason to revisit Chase’s work.

Not Easy Being Greene : S. S. Van Dine – “The Greene Murder Case” (Philo Vance #3)

“Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ”-

“Hamlet,” William Shakespeare


Society detective Philo Vance is still best described as “puckishly pedantic” ( S. S. Van Dine’s words!) but I enjoyed book 3 in the series, “The Greene Murder Case.” Here, the endangered folk are the wealthy, entitled, vitiated members of the Greene family, (a family where legacy has turned into degeneracy.)

Initially, it appears that an intruder has broken into the Greene mansion and, during a highly unconvincing attempt to make off with the china, has tried to murder 2 of the Greene sisters. Does anyone believe in the “random outsider” theory? It is not a spoiler to say that, like in that old Carol Kane flick with the pre-caller ID babysitter, the problem is always Coming from Inside the House.


ABOVE: For the classicists.


ABOVE: For the rebooters.

Up to this point, S. S. Van Dine, (through Vance and District Attorney Markham) has extolled a world in which wealth and witty quotes from Bartlett’s are the standard to admire. But something odd happens in “The Greene Murder Case,” and suddenly New Yorker socialites seem downright scummy:

“We’re not an ideal home circle, by any means. In fact, the Greenes are a queer collection. We don’t love one another the way a perfectly nice and proper family should. We’re always at each other’s throats, bickering and fighting about something or other. It’s rather a mess—this ménage. It’s a wonder to me murder hasn’t been done long before. And, of course, all of us are too rich to know how to contribute to society or make a decent living. A sweet paternal heritage!”

Things go the “And Then There Were None” way soon, but who could miss the Greenes? They’re assholes one and all! In contrast with this sneering look at high class, the series is ahead of its time in extolling the work of blue collar (literally?) cops. This is atypical for even the best Golden Age whodunits: cops are nameless plebeians to Christie and Sayers, but Van Dine takes time to credit all the lowly interrogators, forensics doctors, and beat cops who may serve no big intellectual role in solving the puzzle but who help gather the pieces for Vance.  This is distinctively democratic for the times, interpreting police work as the result of a number of individuals and not just the work of one main officer like Superintendent Japp or Inspector Lestrade in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.


P.S.: But here are some demerits. The number of woodcuts, room maps, and footnotes that S. S. Van Dine clutters his plot with may be intended to provide verisimilitude, but the passage of time has not been kind to them. Tell me if you see anything in this list of References below other than a desperate need to prove the author spent some fruitful hours in a trip to the New York Public Library.

“Among the volumes of Tobias Greene’s library I may mention the following as typical of the entire collection: Heinroth’s “De morborum animi et pathematum animi differentia,” Hoh’s “De maniæ pathologia,” P. S. Knight’s “Observations on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Derangement of the Mind,” Krafft-Ebing’s “Grundzüge der Kriminal-Psychologie,” Bailey’s “Diary of a Resurrectionist,” Lange’s “Om Arvelighedens Inflydelse i Sindssygedommene,” Leuret’s “Fragments psychologiques sur la folie,” D’Aguanno’s “Recensioni di antropologia giuridica,” Amos’s “Crime and Civilization,” Andronico’s “Studi clinici sul delitto,” Lombroso’s “Uomo Delinquente,” de Aramburu’s “La nueva ciencia penal,” Bleakley’s “Some Distinguished Victims of the Scaffold,” Arenal’s “Psychologie comparée du criminel,” Aubry’s “De l’homicide commis par la femme,” Beccaria’s “Crimes and Punishments,” Benedikt’s “Anatomical Studies upon the Brains of Criminals,” Bittinger’s “Crimes of Passion and of Reflection,” Bosselli’s “Nuovi studi sul tatuaggio nei criminali,” Favalli’s “La delinquenza in rapporto alla civiltà,” de Feyfer’s “Verhandeling over den Kindermoord,” Fuld’s “Der Realismus und das Strafrecht,” Hamilton’s “Scientific Detection of Crime,” von Holtzendorff’s “Das Irische Gefängnissystem insbesondere die Zwischenanstalten vor der Entlassung der Sträflinge,” Jardine’s “Criminal Trials,” Lacassagne’s “L’homme criminel comparé à l’homme primitif,” Llanos y Torriglia’s “Ferri y su escuela,” Owen Luke’s “History of Crime in England,” MacFarlane’s “Lives and Exploits of Banditti,” M’Levy’s “Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh,” the “Complete Newgate Calendar,” Pomeroy’s “German and French Criminal Procedure,” Rizzone’s “Delinquenza e punibilità,” Rosenblatt’s “Skizzen aus der Verbrecherwelt,” Soury’s “Le crime et les criminels,” Wey’s “Criminal Anthropology,” Amadei’s “Crani d’assassini,” Benedikt’s “Der Raubthiertypus am menschlichen Gehirne,” Fasini’s “Studi su delinquenti femmine,” Mills’s “Arrested and Aberrant Development and Gyres in the Brain of Paranoiacs and Criminals,” de Paoli’s “Quattro crani di delinquenti,” Zuckerkandl’s “Morphologie des Gesichtsschädels,” Bergonzoli’s “Sui pazzi criminali in Italia,” Brierre de Boismont’s “Rapports de la folie suicide avec la folie homicide,” Buchnet’s “The Relation of Madness to Crime,” Calucci’s “II jure penale e la freniatria,” Davey’s “Insanity and Crime,” Morel’s “Le procès Chorinski,” Parrot’s “Sur la monomanie homicide,” Savage’s “Moral Insanity,” Teed’s “On Mind, Insanity, and Criminality,” Worckmann’s “On Crime and Insanity,” Vaucher’s “Système préventif des délits et des crimes,” Thacker’s “Psychology of Vice and Crime,” Tarde’s “La Criminalité Comparée,” Tamassia’s “Gli ultimi studi sulla criminalità,” Sikes’s “Studies of Assassination,” Senior’s “Remarkable Crimes and Trials in Germany,” Savarini’s “Vexata Quæstio,” Sampson’s “Rationale of Crime,” Noellner’s “Kriminal-psychologische Denkwürdigkeiten,” Sighele’s “La foule criminelle,” and Korsakoff’s “Kurs psichiatrii.”  


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

murder on the links


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?