Monday, March 24, 2014

Swan Song, Edmund Crispin

Gervase Fen makes his 4th appearance in Edmund Crispin's Swan Song (1947), which proves to be as much of a romantic comedy as a murder mystery, though Fen does solve an ingenious mystery.

Barzun and Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime (1971) says:
Educated at Merchant Taylors' and St. John's, Oxford, Edmund Crispin is a man of letters and a musician (organist and composer) as well as one of the masters of modern detective fiction since his 22nd year. Reserved in manner, but a charming conversationalist and as witty in life as he is in his books. His true career is in music, by which he lives as well as courts fame [as Bruce Montgomery]. His preferred composer is Brahms. His first detective novel, The Case of the Guilded Fly (1944), was written in fourteen days. Like those to follow, it features an Oxford professor of English literature, Gervase Fen, who is not at all donnish.
A production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger provides Swan Song's setting and gives Crispin a chance to draw on his musical background.

A good example is this throwaway line on the Oxford Opera House, "About it are ranged busts of the greater operatic masters -- Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Gluck, Mussorgsky. There is also one of Brahms -- for no very clear reason, though it may perhaps be a tribute to his curious and fortunately abortive project for an opera about gold-mining in the Yukon."

World War II had only just ended when Swan Song first came out and so this quote, from the producer of the opera in the book, carried much more of a sting: "When the Nazis came I was too old for their ideas, and I hated that such fools should worship the Meister, I had preferred that they banned his performances. So I worked here, and then there was the war, and fools said, 'Because Hitler is fond of Wagner we will not have Wagner in England.' Hitler was also fond of your Edgar Wallace, with his stories of violence, but no one said that they were not to be read."

Crispin slips in a comment on British post-WWII austerity as an character explains that she had been "In America. Playing Boheme and dying of consumption five times weekly. As a matter of fact, I nearly died of overeating. You should go to America, Adam. They have food there."

The best thing about Swan Song, though, remains our hero, Fen:
The significance of these recurrent utterances had at last penetrated to Fen's understanding. He became irresponsible.

"There's a diamond tiara gone," he said sternly. "And the specification of the atomic bomb. So if we're all reduced to molecular dust before we have time to turn round it will all be your fault."

"Oh, sir," said the chambermaid. "You're 'aving me on."

"You just wait and see," said Fen, wagging his forefinger at her, "you just wait and see if I'm having you on or not."
And Crispin is not adverse to a little slapstick when necessary:
"Now, Lily Christine [Fen's car]," he muttered, "you can do something for your living."

In this, unfortunately, he proved to be over-optimistic. Nothing he could contrive would start the car. He tampered with the levers, and wound the handle, until he was exhausted. Finally, in an access of vengeful fury, he hurled an empty petrol-can at the chromium nude on the radiator-cap, seized his wife's bicycle, and wobbled frantically away on it.
For this reader, Swan Song ended all too soon.

Three and seven-eights daggers our of four.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The G-String Murders, Gypsy Rose Lee

When The G-String Murders (1941) hit the bookstore shelves, Gypsy Rose Lee, then only 28 years old, shined as the brightest start in burlesque. The book promised not only a titillating look backstage but also an exciting murder mystery.

As Sherrill Tippins explains in February House (2005), "Lee decided to "write a murder mystery set in the world of burlesque.... The murder weapon would be a chorus girl's G-string. She would call the book The G-String Murders. She was sure it would make a fortune and enhance her reputation as an "intellectual stripper" -- if she could only get it written."

Karen Abbott in American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, the Life and Time of Gypsy Rose Lee (2010) points out that in 1940 Lee moved into 7 Middagh Street in New York city "with some of the most important writers and artists of the time: Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Chester Kallman, and George Davis, the openly gay fiction editor of Harper's Bazaar and an old friend -- the only one who knew her before she became Gypsy Rose Lee."

Tippins says:
Lee read the stack of murder mysteries that [her editor Lee] Wright recommended, met with Craig Rice, a Chicago beat reporter and best-selling female mystery writer who soon became a close friend, and bought herself a new typewriter ("I thought the blue ribbon was sexy"). Then she got back to work.

The trouble was, Gypsy didn't know how to write a novel.... [She hired] Dorothy Wheelock to write a first draft. But Gypsy found that no matter how hard Dorothy worked, the material failed to satisfy her. It was obvious to the younger writer -- and finally clear to Gypsy as well -- that calling herself an author wasn't enough. She wanted to write the book as well.

George suggested that Gypsy begin by simply dictating some of her favorite stories to him. As she talked, he typed her words on [an] old typewriter....
After much discussion, they decided to approach the book like a jigsaw puzzle: first write down all of Gypsy's anecdotes, character descriptions, and entertaining burlesque details, then arrange them into a rough story line.

If the action threatened to slow down, Gypsy could always sprinkle a few professional terms into the dialogue, such as "pickle persuader," "grouch bag," and "gazeeka box."

[Gypsy believed] that any publicity was good publicity. So the creation of a "literary Gypsy" spurred her to finish her book more quickly, before the public grew tired of the idea.

Gypsy and George, no strangers to the publicity machine, had systematically amassed all the forces of book promotion to ensure its success. By winter, The G-String Murders had become the biggest-selling mystery since Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man.
Unfortunately, Lee's lack of familiarity with the genre makes for a pretty dull mystery with an overly complicated solution. The peek backstage, however, makes the book well worth reading.

Here's a long excerpt that I think shows off Lee's literary skill quite well. If this were a scene from, say, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust undergrads would be still be puzzling over the symbolism. A Chinese waiter gives Gypsy a ginseng root, and tells her that “it only grew under the gallows where men had died,” and that “if I ate it I’d live forever.”
The girls gathered around [Gee Gee] as she broke the seals. The first one was brittle and snapped off easily. The second she had to pry off with a nail file.

I suddenly wanted to get out of the room. My common sense told me that my fears about the box were stupid and childish, but I couldn’t help it. I was frightened. “What if there is one flower in it?” I thought. “One flower that would disappear like dust when the air hit it.” Then there would be a sickening sweet odor, bitter almonds maybe, and before we knew what happened, we would be dead.

She had removed the lead foil and held up a tin box for the curious girls to examine. The tin box was also sealed. Great chunks of brick-red wax were on either side.

I wanted to stop her, but already she had begun to lift the top. There was no flower, no needle dipped in poison, no bomb; just a cotton-lined box with two long, dried roots embedded in the fluff. The roots were tied at the top with a piece of cord.

It was by this cord that La Verne lifted the gift from the cotton. She held it for a second a watched it sway back and forth. “Look! It’s shaped like a man,” she said.

Alice shivered. “Ugh. It’th dithguthing. Put it back in the box.”

La Verne still stared at it, her green eyes wide and glistening. “Not so much like a man,” she whispered. “More like the skeleton of one.” With a cautious finger she touched the bleached, bonelike root. The pupils of her eyes dilated. She pushed the root and set it in motion again. Her heavy breathing was the only sound in the room.
Two daggers out of four.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Gyrth Chalice Mystery (aka Look to the Lady), Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham's The Gryth Chalice Mystery (1931), marking the third appearance of Albert Campion, features the seemingly inevitable car chase in an early chapter rather than as a climax. But worry not as Campion himself ultimately rides to the rescue on horseback!

Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hartig Taylor's brief review in A Catalogue of Crime reads: "An early story with good scenes and relieved from murder by elegant robbery and clerical personages, but somewhat touched by the excessive lightheartedness of the period. Fortunately short, and thus worth an hour's inspection."

JB & WHT seem to have forgotten the death of Mrs. Dick -- which, putting Barbera's cart rather ahead of Hanna's horse, might make one think of Scooby-Doo --, and of a "clerical personage" in the novel I have no memory. Maybe, confusing scholarly with clerical, they meant the American professor?

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," and that is certainly the case here, so much so that the death of Mrs. Dick, once resolved is simply forgotten.

For all of its absurdities -- did someone mention Gypsies? -- The Gryth Chalice Mystery has some nice exchanges such as:
The girl looked at him incredulously. "What is that man Lugg?" she said.

[Campion] adjusted his spectacles. "It depends how you mean," he said. "A species, definitely human, I should say, oh yes, without a doubt. Status -- none. Past -- filthy. Occupation -- my valet."

Penny laughed. I wondered if he were your keeper," she suggested.
And here's Campion on the art of detection:
"The process of elimination," said he oracularly [...], "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."
Two daggers out of four.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Comedian Dies, Simon Brett

Detection takes a back seat to satiric commentary on the business of show in Simon Brett's fifth Charles Paris novel, A Comedian Dies (1979).

Television producers take the brunt of the skewering here while stand-up comedians and variety shows receive a rather gentler lampooning:
Paul Royce looked petulant. "I thought the idea of this show was to try out something new, to bring you up to date."
"Try out something new, yes. But I'm still Lennie Barber. It's got to be new material, but new Lennie Barber material. I haven't spent a lifetime building up my own comic identity to have it thrown over like this. Listen, that sketch might go all right in Monty Python or whatever it's called--"
"Oh, so you don't think Monty Python's funny?" asked Paul Royce, leading Barber into a pit of impossibly reactionary depths."
As usual with the Charles Paris series, once a dead body finally hits the ground what had been a breezy, gossipy entertainment becomes more of a forced march to a solution. In A Comedian Dies, Paris's skill as a detective matches his lack of success as an actor as he accuses nearly every other character of being the murderer and never does get it right.

Paris also never does bring to justice a character who doles out an horrific beating in what turns out to be a red herring. It's almost as though Brett added the description of the aftermath of the beating to placate a publisher calling for more violence in the book.

Two daggers out of four.

[Note: Just learned that this March 8 marks the 37th anniversary of the transmission of the first radio episode of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" written by Douglas Adams and produced by none other than Simon Brett.]

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Murder in the Ball Park, Robert Goldsborough

Murder in the Ball Park (2014), Robert Goldsborough's ninth Nero Wolfe mystery since the Stout estate gave him the keys to the franchise in 1986, fails on every level.

Most unsatisfactory.

Zero daggers out of four.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsey makes his fifth novel-length appearance in Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison (1930). Having read (1) the series out of order and having read the eleventh book -- Busman's Honeymoon (1937) -- most recently, it came as something of a shock to find Wimsey's confederate Miss Climpson hanging the jury trying Wimsey's beloved Harriet Vane for the arsenic poisoning of her former lover (2). As it turns out, of course, Vane and Wimsey are only just beginning their long courtship.

Even though Sayers was only 37 when Strong Poison was published, she reveals an interesting concern about growing older. At one point, Wimsey says
"Give me good food and a little air to breathe and I will caper, goat-like, to a dishonourable old age. People will point me out, as I creep, bald and yellow and supported by discreet corsetry, into the night-clubs of my great-grandchildren, and they'll say, 'Look, darling! that's the wicked Lord Peter, celebrated for never having spoken a reasonable word for the last ninety-six years. He was the only aristocrat who escaped the guillotine in the revolution of 1960."
At another point, the omniscient narrator says, "when [Wimsey] was an old man," which begs the question: From whence is Strong Poison being narrated?

I suppose Sayers was trying to distance herself from her time, which as this scene from a Bohemian musical performance illustrates, Sayers found rather silly:
"Bah!" said a voice in Wimsey's ear, as the cadaverous man turned away, "it is nothing. Bourgeois music. Programme music. Pretty! -— You should hear Vrilovitch's 'Ecstasy on the letter Z.' That is pure vibration with no antiquated pattern in it. Stanislas -— he thinks much of himself, but it is old as the hills —- you can sense the resolution at the back of all his discords. Mere harmony in camouflage. Nothing in it. But he takes them all in because he has red hair and reveals his bony structure."
Strong Poison features Miss Climpson perhaps a little too much -- though her Ouija board endeavors are amusing (and certainly seem to have inspired Patricia Wentworth's 1941 Weekend With Death, reviewed below) -- but moves along a quite a brisk pace and sets the scene for better books to follow, i.e. Gaudy Night.

Three daggers out of four.

(1) Counting here having listened to the audiobook of The Five Red Herrings as having "read" it.

(2) As much as a plot-summary as I intend to do in the reviews on this blog.