Friday, January 31, 2014

Murder à la Stroganoff, Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon

Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon's Murder à la Stroganoff (1938; U.K. title Casino for Sale) is the second of three novels to feature the Ballet Stroganoff and inspector Quill, late of Scotland Yard.

Malcom J. Turnbull in “Inspector Quill: Sleuthing in the Ballet and the Balkans” quotes Jane W. Stedman, “It is likely... that readers of these works find less pleasure in clues and unravelment than in the ebullient collusion of fantastically comic characters.”

Turnbull continues, “Certainly the authors persistently subordinate puzzle and sleuthing to humour, yet all three books contain orthodox whodunit properties and conform in a number of regards to classic and Golden Age norms. Brahms and Simon offer readers the obligatory corpses, circles of suspects (all with motives for mayhem), recountings of the investigation process, and climactic revelations of the culprits’ identities.”

Brahms and Simon even poke a little fun at those classic norms, "Quill sighed. Here he was at last presented with one of those cases with all the doors and windows locked which every hard-pushed author resorts to sooner or later."

Brahms and Simon have a great time with characters such as impresario Vladimir Stroganoff, who seems to have succeeded in spite of his efforts, and Quill, who succeeds because of his hard work and in spite of obstacles continually thrown in his path.

Stroganoff speaks in tortured English with a soupçon -- rather a large soupçon, actually -- of French phrases tossed in: "To call the police tout de suite it is not wise. They will ask the question, they will learn that it is I who see Citrolo last and then I will be in prison. At all costs, I say, I must prevent that. The Ballet Stroganoff it need me too much."

Brahms and Simon proceed from the premise that if a joke is funny the first time it will be even funnier the third or fifth time. 

Towards the end of the book, as various plot threads begin to come together, I was reminded of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Toole has a Brahms & Simon fan.

I bought a Polygonics International, Ltd. reprint via for 75 cents plus shipping.

Three-and-a-half daggers out of four.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Weekend With Death, Patricia Wentworth

Weekend With Death (1941) by Patricia Wentworth is her penultimate stand-alone mystery novel. Silence in Court (1945) was her final stand-alone but she wrote 29 more Miss Silvers novels before her death in 1961.

Weekend With Death is more of a spy thriller with an unwilling civilian protagonist that a cozy whodunit. Wentworth supplies the novel with an interesting cast of characters, especially a pair of paranormal investigating siblings, but the plot has appalling logical gaffes.

Still, Wentworth creates a great deal of suspense and manages to pull off a couple of nifty surprises (though it could be argued that she doesn't completely play fair).

As Weekend With Death was published during World War II, it seems strange that the bad guys are only obliquely identified as Germans until Hitler's name is finally mentioned in the book's final pages. Not an especially rousing book for propaganda purposes. Were Wentworth and the publishers, J.B. Lippincott in the U.S. and in the U.K., under the title Unlawful Occasions, Lythway Press, hedging their bets? Seems unlikely, but the question begs for further research.

Taking a cue from Past Offences blog, I'm going to start mentioning where I found the book under review and how much I paid for it. Weekend With Death was a bargain at just a quarter from the University City Public Library book sale. Considering that prices on-line range from $60 for a vintage paperback (see below) to $750 for the hardcover first edition I'd say I got quite a deal. My first edition hardcover has some bent pages in the middle, lacks a dust cover (see above), and has a loose spine so it's not a particularly prime specimen.

Two-and-a-half daggers out of four.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The White Priory Murders, Carter Dickson

The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson (a pseudonym of John Dickson Carr) is the second novel to feature Sir Henry Merrivale.

Unfortunately, it's overly talky and fails to live up to the potential promised by the clash of cultures as Hollywood meets British academia.

Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor's review in A Catalogue of Crime (1971) says it best:

"Sir Henry Merrivale is caught up in the murder of a wilful actress; it's done inside a pavilion, snow is on the ground, and there are crowds of candidates for her favors and for the role of murderer. ... The telling is done in Carter Dickson's usual long and diffuse talk which he thinks conversation; oddities are added for pseudo suspense; people shout, whirl, say "What!" in italics, and generally the thing is irritation unrelieved even by a second murder."

Merrivale is an entertaining character but after a brief appearance in the early pages doesn't return until the last quarter of the book. My theory that he owes more than a little to Rex Stout is bolstered by Merrivale saying not only "flummery" but also "phooey," in the Archie Goodwin spelling, though, rather than Nero Wolfe's "pfui." [A theory not borne out by facts, however. See comments section.]

Dickson has Merrivale point out early on that another character is "talkin' like a fool detective in a play. This is real. This is true." Later on, he says, "I must 'uv read a dozen stories like that, and they were funnier than watchin' somebody sit on a silk hat."

One-and-a-half daggers out of four.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dancers In Mourning, Margery Allingham

Dancers in Mourning (1937), Margery Allingham's 9th Albert Campion novel, is not, as described in the blurb in the Crime & Mr. Campion omnibus, a "novel about the world of the ballet."

The titular dancers, rather, are of the musical revue sort, and the first third of the novel functions as something of a satire of the genre, as well as providing the template for Simon Brett's Charles Paris series.

Dancers in Mourning loses narrative steam in the second half as a suicide becomes more and more obviously a murder and the novel moves from backstage intrigue to a police procedural set in a country manor.

As a premonition of the coming war, Allingham shakes up the proceedings with a truly unexpected murder by grenade. And if three deaths weren't enough, Allingham adds a brutal bludgeoning by spanner.

Lugg appears only briefly but manages to say this about Campion:

"Got yourself mixed up in a suicide now, I see. People lay themselves open to somethink when they ask you down for a week-end, don't they? 'E's a 'arbinger of catastrophe."

In addition to trying to solve the murders, Campion also must come face to face with a moral dilemma. As a police inspector comments, "Right's right and wrong's wrong. He knows that."

Three-and-a-half daggers out of four.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Flowers for the Judge, Margery Allingham

Flowers for the Judge (1936) is Margery Allingham's 7th novel to feature amateur detective Albert Campion.

Combining not only a locked room mystery but also a 20-year-old missing person case with courtroom drama, Flowers for the Judge is a delight.

Campion, and his gentleman's gentleman Lugg, are something of a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter, but for all of Flower for the Judge's humor it is serious and ultimately more than a little moving.

I hope I'm not spoiling anything by suggesting that a better title might have been Tears of a Clown.

Flowers for the Judge's publishing-firm setting gives Allingham a chance to comment on her own chosen vocation:
"Mr. Campion, who thought privately that all young persons who voluntarily shut themselves up half their lives alone, scribbling down lies in the pathetic hope of entertaining or instructing their fellows, must necessarily be the victims of some sort of phobia, was duly sympathetic."
Four daggers out of four.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Four False Weapons, John Dickson Carr

The Four False Weapons (1937) is the last of five novels to feature John Dickson Carr's French sleuth Monsieur Bencolin.

Fairly run-of-the-mill locked room puzzle enlivened by a totally unexpected high-stakes card game.

It takes Carr until very late in the book to make the de rigueur for the era joke that one of the characters "worked out this plot with a loving ingenuity, exactly in the style of his favorite detective fiction."

Will Cuppy, in his "Mystery and Adventure" column in the New York Herald Tribune Books on October 10, 1937, said:

"Just as [one of the characters] is unjustly accused on the murder, who should arrive but Henri Bencolin, the greatest detective in France, who has been milling around in an old corduroy coat for just such an entrance. The return of Bencolin, indeed, after an absence of some seasons is the talking point of this complicated and exciting yarn."

Two daggers out of four.