Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) features Miss Marple (though she doesn't make her first appearance until nearly half-way through) in a novel for the sixth time.

As Vanessa Wagstaff and Stephen Poole say in Agatha Christie: A Reader's Companion "[Miss Marple] quickly forges a highly effective partnership with the unusually receptive and astute Inspector Nelle, who later assists Poirot in Third Girl (1966)."

Wagstaff and Poole also call A Pocket Full of Rye "one of Christie's best novels, with all the classic ingredients of a Miss Marple murder...."

On the other hand, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime say, "Rather tired Christie. Miss Marple officiates. The murder is of a gent in an office, by poison. The scene is full of housemaids and annoying indirections by Miss Marple."

Where JB and/or WHT fail to mention the two murders which follow the gent's in his office Wagstaff and Poole seem rather comically easy to please.

A Pocket Full of Rye notably shows Christie questioning the Golden Age's Taylorian obsession with time management. A character says, "One doesn't look at clocks the whole time."

I don't have any evidence to show that Christie ever read Marie Rodel's Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique (1952) in which she says, "Insofar as the rules of the game are concerned, an insane murderer represents cheating on the author's part, because the reader cannot be expected to figure out for himself the murderer's mental processes," but Christie seems as though she has taken the lesson to heart. Inspector Neele says, "I'm going by sober facts and common sense and the reasons for which sane people do murders."

Certainly not a bad book but sloppily put together -- characters and red herrings are introduced but are often allowed to simply slip away. Rather like the case of the four-and-twenty blackbirds, A Pocket Full of Rye feels half-baked.

One dagger out of four.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mystery Mile, Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham's Mystery Mile (1930) features Albert Campion in his first starring role, after having appeared in a supporting role in the previous year's The Crime at Black Dudley (see review below).

Campion exaggerates his importance in the foregoing case, though, saying "That's the Black Dudley dagger.... An old boy I met was stuck in the back with that, and everyone thought I'd done the sticking. Not such fun."

Allingham presents Campion as more than an amateur detective, less than a mercenary, and not quite a crook. And, throughout, Campion disguises his keen intelligence with nearly non-stop patter:
"What a gastronomic failure the British Burglar is," he remarked, reappearing. "A tin of herrings, half a Dutch cheese, some patent bread for reducing the figure, and several bottles of stout. Still better than nothing.... The whisky's there, too, and there's a box of biscuits somewhere. Night scene in Mayfair flat -- four herring addicts, addicting." 
As B.A. Pike points out in Campion's Career: A Study of the Novels of Margery Allingham, the chief distinction of Mystery Mile is that it introduces Campion's gentleman's gentleman Lugg:
Lugg is first brought to our notice as a "thick and totally unexpected voice" on the telephone, huskily announcing himself as "Aphrodite Glue Works".... His actual appearance is delayed until ... he is revealed as "the largest and most lugubrious individual ... a hillock of a man, with a big pallid face which reminded one of a bull-terrier...." His criminal antecedents are delicately hinted at -- he wears "what looked remarkably like a convict's tunic" -- and the special nature of his relation with Campion -- mutual derision veiling the deepest affection and trust -- is defined in the first of many entertaining dialogues.
Late in Mystery Mile, the villain, the head of a secret criminal cabal, reveals that Campion had been "once commissioned by us on a rather delicate mission in an affair at a house called Black Dudley." Allingham, however, lets this revelation waft off in the breeze and moves merrily along to the conclusion of the case at hand.

If nothing else, Allingham keeps these early Campion books moving along. One gets the sense that she is making them up as she goes along, often losing her way. For instance, once gangsters kidnap a female character the search for Mystery Mile's original missing person falls by the wayside, seemingly forgotten by all.

Phillip Youngman Carter, in his preface to the short-story collection The Allingham Casebook, says the early novels "reflect the mood of the time and into them she crammed every idea, every joke and every scrap of plot which we had gathered like magpies hoarded for a year."

Inconsequential, silly fun.

Two daggers out of four.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Topless Tulip Case, Lawrence Block

With the fourth, and final, Chip Harrison novel, The Topless Tulip Caper (1975) Lawrence Block pulls off a very entertaining Nero Wolfe pastiche. Chip Harrison makes a very satisfactory Archie Goodwin and Block provides a satisfactory Nero Wolfe in Leo Haig.

In an interview with Ethan Iverson on Do the Math, Block explains:
The first two [Chip Harrison books], of course, are sort of young man coming of age novels, and the only way they could be a series was if he changed somewhat, because you couldn’t have the same person coming of age forever. So, I put him to work for a Nero Wolfe wannabe and that was fun. But again, it was essentially a one trick pony, and two books and a couple of short stories was plenty.
David Vineyard, in "Fifty Funny Felonies + Fifty More" on Mystery*File says, The Topless Tulip Caper "is also cheerfully dirty minded without a smirk or a snicker -- a rarity in any American fiction."

Set for the most part in a strip club called the Treasure Chest, one would think that that would be sex enough for any reader but as Block writes in his memoir, Afterthoughts:
Joe Elder, whom I'd known back in the Scott Meredith days, was Chip's editor. At some point after he'd agreed to publish Make Out With Murder, I went in to meet Joe, who hadn't know who was lurking behind Chip Harrison's name.

He agreed that a fourth book would work out all right, and I went home to write it. I'd already made Haig an avid aquarist, with tropical fish serving him as orchids served Nero Wolfe. And, happily enough, I knew something about tropical fish.

When I delivered the book, Joe had a complaint I'd rarely heard in many years in the world of paperback fiction.

"There's not enough sex," he said.

In response, I went through the book page by page until I could find a place where I could wedge in a sex scene. And Chip, after recounting it in some detail, apologizes for it as having not much to do with the book; he explains that his editor, Joe Elder, insisted he augment the book's sexual content. So, although the incident really did take place, Chip thinks it's gratituous, and rather hopes Mr. Elder will change his mind and take it out again.
Four daggers out of four.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Case of the Crumpled Knave, Anthony Boucher

The supremely silly The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939) is Anthony Boucher's second mystery novel and the first of four to feature Fergus O'Breen. William F. Nolan, writing on says, O'Breen "was conceived as a kind of West Coast Ellery Queen with an Irish brogue."

Throughout the novel Boucher breaks the fourth-wall with characters commenting on the fact that they are characters in a book. Boucher, who is probably best known as an editor and critic, is also not adverse to dropping the names of other writers:

"As a private investigator," Fergus answered as they settled into a booth, "I'm as unorthodox as hell. Mr. Latimer [creator of Bill Crane, the drunk detective] wouldn't approve of me one little bit. I rarely drink on a case at all, and never before lunch."

"You got it all wrong... There's no John Dickson Carr touch to this -- no locked room problem at all. In a way I'm sorry. I've always wondered if those things happened in real life...."

This department isn't afraid to call in reinforcements to do the heavy lifting so here's Will Cuppy commenting on The Case of the Crumpled Knave in the April 16, 1939, edition of the New York Herald Tribune Books:

"Sure enough, Mr. Garnett is soon lifeless (prussic acid) beside a jack of diamonds.... Mr. Garnett was a collector of playing cards, much interested in the more scholarly and abstract aspects of same. He was much given to muttering, 'Which is the true symbol of life -- chess or cards?' and such things. (Chess probably is, if you call that life.)"

I was thrilled to find that the public library had a copy of the original Simon & Schuster hardcover. Nice to know that The Case of the Crumpled Knave has gotten checked out often enough to avoid the dreaded cull.

Two daggers out of four.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Murder on the Blackboard, Stuart Palmer

Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer features schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers and police inspector Oscar Piper for the third time.

As one of the characters jokes, "Schoolteachers rush in where detectives fear to tread, or something."

Murder on the Blackboard abounds with humor as well as the clues (and red herrings) necessary for a satisfactory mystery novel.

Palmer's sense of humor is well-illustrated by these two quotes:

"Then [Miss Withers, who was reading the letters section of the newspaper,] returned to Irate Citizen, who was openly in favor of legible house numbers and against dry-sweeping."

"Anderson was letting the words tumble forth, like a pent-up torrent. 'I play the stock market, I lose. I play the Mexican lottery, I lose. I play the Chinese lottery, I lose, again and again. I bet on Dempsey in Philadelphia, and on Al Smith in the election. Always I lose.'"

And who says mystery novels aren't educational? I learned that a cane like this is called a "whangee." Who knew?

I found my International Polygonics reissue of Murder on the Blackboard for only 75 cents plus postage. All Palmer's other books, however, are going for much more than that bargain price!

Three-and-three-quarter daggers out of four.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Crime at Black Dudley, Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) marks the introductory appearance of Albert Campion, who would feature in 18 future novels.

And quite an introduction it is:

"That's a lunatic.... His name is Albert Campion," she said. "He came down in Anne Edgeware's car, and the first thing he did when he was introduced to me was to show me a conjuring trick a two-headed penny -- he's quite inoffensive, just a silly ass."

Campion figures heavily in one plot thread -- involving a group of Bright Young Things being held captive in a country manor filled with secret passages -- but plays no role in the solution of a secondary murder mystery.

Those expecting a sedate country house locked room puzzle should look elsewhere. (The degree of seriousness with which The Crime at Black Dudley was written is indicated by the name of the villain: Eberhard von Faber!)

Phillip Youngman Carter, in his preface to the short-story collection The Allingham Casebook, says the early novels "reflect the mood of the time and into them she crammed every idea, every joke and every scrap of plot which we had gathered like magpies hoarded for a year."

Two daggers out of four.