Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Bill Morris offers his thoughts on the magazine and an exhibition of it in the Butler Library at Columbia University.
In a land where most magazines have the lifespan of a fruit fly, how is it possible for one magazine to survive — and thrive — for 75 years? Janet Hutchings has a theory: “The great power that Frederic Dannay gave this magazine was its variety and its reach.”
For the first time in American publishing, the magazine published any good mystery it could: “hard-boiled stories, classic English mysteries, noirs, suspense, cozy mysteries, the work of literary writers.” It broke down barriers to what was acceptable to publish. “Now, writers of every stripe gleefully plunder one or more genres, stitching together scraps or horror, pulp, crime, fantasy, ghost stories, mysteries, westerns.”
Martin Edwards follows his nose from one clue to another within The Detection Club, a London dinner society of British detective fiction writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and R. Austin Freeman.
Edwards crams many facts into this work, but his primary goal is “to refute the charge of ‘cozy’ that has hung over the Golden Age writers since a rebellious Englishman named Raymond Chandler moved to California and took to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly to denounce the whole project of British detective fiction in a famous 1944 essay called ‘The Simple Art of Murder.'”
Joseph Bottum concludes, “Of course, the actual argument of The Golden Age of Murder is almost beside the point. The book is too enjoyable, too enthusiastic, to live or die by the success of its thesis.” (via Prufrock)
It’s been a week or two since I finished reading the D. C. Smith mystery novels, and I’d better review them before I forget them completely. Not that they’re forgettable — they were quite impressive.
D. C. Smith is an interesting continuing detective character, and has been compared to another English police detective, Inspector Morse, by reviewers. But after reading An Accidental Death, But For the Grace, and Luck and Judgement, I would say that a closer parallel would be the American TV cop, Columbo. Smith is the kind of man who tends to be underestimated by suspects, witnesses, and even other cops. He’s small, shabby, and unprepossessing. He knows this and uses it to his advantage. In fact he’s generally the smartest person in the room, and has commando fighting skills. He also plays a mean rock guitar, though not often since the loss of his beloved wife to cancer.
His name is kind of a joke. “D.C.” in English police slang means “Detective Constable.” This is what everyone calls him, but he’s actually a Detective Sergeant. He used to be a Detective Inspector, but voluntarily took a demotion to be closer to street-level puzzle solving.
As is my wont, I was more interested in the character than in the mysteries as such. I found the D. C. Smith books very enjoyable. No great moral lessons here — Smith the character is an open skeptic about religion, and But For the Grace deals with the question of assisted suicide in a pretty ambiguous manner.
One odd thing is that I found the books very slow in places. Sometimes I wanted to tell the author to just move things along. Nevertheless, I liked the books and stayed with them to see what Smith would do next. I recommend them with the usual cautions.
Crime novelist Phyllis Dorothy James, also Baroness James of Holland Park, died today in her home. She was 94.
Her publisher states, “This is a very sad day for us at Faber. It is difficult to express our profound sadness at losing P. D. James, one of the world’s great writers and a Faber author since her first publication in 1962. She was so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all. It is a privilege to publish her extraordinary books. Working with her was always the best of times, full of joy. We will miss her hugely.”
In this interview last year, Lady James talked about growing old with this, “All things rather close down eventually. I was waiting for the old brain to shut down, but I do hope that is the last thing to go.”
In the third installment in J. Mark Bertrand’s excellent crime series about Houston police detective Roland March, we find March examining the body of a man dumped on a basketball court. The body’s head is missing, and both hands have been skinned. March’s former enemy – now his friend and partner – Jerry Lorenz, thinks there might be some significance in the fact that one of the fleshless hands is arranged as if pointing. March jumps a ditch to investigate, falling and injuring his back. And there don’t seem to be any clues in that direction.
But it’s early yet.
Nothing to Hide takes March on a dangerous and tragic ride that reintroduces him to antagonists from his own past, and forces him to push the edge of the law in order to pursue the impartial justice he demands for every victim, and for which he’s willing to put his life and freedom on the line. An interesting sideline is that part of the plot anticipates the ATF’s disastrous “Fast and Furious” program, although the book was written before that scandal was made public.
Strong stuff. I salute Bethany House for publishing a series so far beyond the usual standard of Christian fiction, both in quality and in subject matter. The Christian elements are there, as an integral part of the story, but the purpose here is to tell stories about the truth, not to present a gospel tract to the reader.
The book works fine as a stand-alone, but there’s a definite story arc in connection with the previous novels in the series. I’m contemplating re-reading them all to get the sweep of the thing. Highly recommended, with cautions for disturbing content.
It’s my judgment as a translator in a different Scandinavian language that the English title of Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson’s Icelandic novel The Flatey Enigma was poorly chosen. The Flatey Riddle or The Flatey Puzzle would have better expressed the idea (I found much, frankly, to criticize in the translation in general). On top of this, the use of the name “Enigma” in World War II codebreaking suggests to the reader that this book is probably some kind of thriller. But that’s not what it is at all.
It’s actually hard to assign The Flatey Enigma to a category. It seems to resemble the “Cozy” school of mysteries, but that’s misleading. Cozies are generally set, as the name implies, in comfortable settings. Middle or upper class homes, tea in the afternoon, that sort of thing. The setting for this book, on the other hand, is what we Americans would call “hardscrabble.” It’s the Icelandic island of Flatey, in the Breidafjord (I think I saw it from a distance on my one visit to Iceland), only a little more than a mile long, where the locals eked out a meager existence in the early 1960s (the time of the story) by fishing, hunting seals, gathering eiderdown, and anything else they could do to get by. Radio service was limited and electrical power almost unknown.
When a skeletonized body is found on a nearby islet, Kjartan, the hero (so to speak) of the book is sent to investigate. He’s not actually a policeman of any kind. He’s an assistant to the district magistrate, a summer job he took because he’s a law student and wants experience with legal documents. In fact he’s extremely shy with people, and dreads going around asking lots of questions of strangers. Continue reading The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson
‘Look,’ she said wearily from the stairs. I was leaning against the stove, studying her stupid sneakers. My arms crossed, my soul leaden with sorrow. ‘I just don’t want to approach you too fast. I know you don’t like journalists. I saw you on TV: slamming the door? That’s why I was watching…’
‘Oh, admit it: you were being mysterious and romantic.’
‘Jesus!’ One of her little sneaks gave a little stomp. ‘You sound just like my father.’
Fortunately, this arrow went directly through my heart and came out the other side, so there was no need to have it surgically removed, which can be expensive….
Back in 1985, the young author author Andrew Klavan had a novel published in England which didn’t find a home in the U.S. This novel is Agnes Mallory, which is now, thankfully, available in a Kindle edition from Mysterious Press.
The narrator of the story is Harry Bernard. Harry lives in a secluded cabin, outside the New York suburb of Westchester. He is a recluse, a broken man, a disbarred lawyer who has left his family behind.
He wants nothing to do with the young woman who follows him home one evening, in the rain. Klavan introduces her in such a way that the reader isn’t sure at first whether she’s real or a ghost. And that’s appropriate, since this is a kind of a ghost story—but the ghosts are the memories we carry with us and the dreams we’ve buried in the cellar. Continue reading Agnes Mallory, by Andrew Klavan
Tampa Burn, by Randy Wayne White, struck me as a fascinating study in excellent story set-up and development, capped by a middling resolution. The amateur psychological wiseacre in me suspects that the author himself must be ambivalent about the kind of stories he writes, and that ambivalence is working itself out in the reader’s sight.
If you’re not already familiar with him, Marion (“Doc”) Ford, White’s continuing hero, is a semi-retired US government commando and assassin, now living in happy obscurity in Florida, making his living as a marine biologist. His peace is frequently disturbed, however, sometimes by other people’s problems which can only be solved with his special skills, and sometimes by a call from his espionage handlers, who still keep him on a slack string.
In terms of creating and building dramatic tension, Tampa Burn is admirable. I thought, as I read, that I’d rarely come across a suspense novel so well plotted. At the beginning, Doc is contemplating proposing to his long-time on-again, off-again girlfriend, Dewey Nye. Suddenly his life is invaded by his old lover Pilar Fuentes, the one other woman he’s never been able to quite get over. She has recently informed Doc that her teenaged son Laken is in fact his (Doc’s) son. Doc has been keeping in touch with the boy, but Pilar has kept him at a distance. Up until now.
Now Laken has been kidnapped, apparently by a mysterious figure known across Central America as Incendiaro—the Burner. He has that name because he is horribly disfigured by burn scars himself, and gets pleasure from watching other people burn. Continue reading Tampa Burn, by Randy Wayne White
I recently finished P.D. James’ The Murder Room (2003) beautifully read by Charles Keating. It is a straight-forward detective novel with enjoyable depth, but not really twists and turns. I see The Complete Review has reviewed it more, um, completely than I plan to here.
The story reveals the three siblings who are trustees of a small, unique museum named Dupayne in the London area opposing each other on whether to sign a new lease and allow the unprofitable museum to continue. Several others associated with the museum are walking around, and, of course, someone gets torched. No, it isn’t an accident, even though some characters want to believe it was suicide.
As I listened, I kept thinking about how the second murder yet to come would change the way I interpreted the details. I thought two or three people could have murder the first person, having motive and opportunity, but why would they kill someone else? I didn’t figure it out ahead of time.
I wonder if James’ mysteries have more to offer in the side trails than on the main road. The Murder Room has a warm chapter with the two of the detectives interviewing one of the fringe couples out of routine. It was a young couple with a baby, the husband being connected to a Paul Nash painting in the Dupayne museum. James’ choice of words in this chapter impressed me as geared toward highlighting the life of the child and this poor couple. They had very little, but they were tied to the past by the husband’s father and grandfather’s interest in that painting, and somehow it seeded hope for them. More so, some words appear to be inspire the reader to reflect on what is being aborted when that ugly choice is made.
Detective Inspector Kate Miskin’s wrestling with British class conflicts and arguments about the nature of girl’s education enrich the story as well.
Dark Light is another installment in Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford series. I was quite pleased with it. The author has positioned this series so as to let his marine biologist/covert ops agent hero play around in both the international thriller and the mystery genres. This one’s a mystery, with the intriguing addition of a (possibly) supernatural element.
In the wake of a devastating hurricane that wreaked havoc on the economy and ecology of his Sanibel Island, Florida home, Ford gets drawn into a dispute between an acquaintance—an old fisherman he doesn’t even like a whole lot—and a property developer. The developer, as it turns out, is not only a crooked businessman but a serial rapist and killer. Ford and his friends end up competing with the developer and his henchmen in the exploration and salvage of a World War II wreck. This attracts the interest of an enigmatic neighbor, an beautiful old woman who sometimes doesn’t seem old at all, but is disturbingly seductive either way.
The supernatural element was what intrigued me most, fantasist that I am. Is the old woman the goddaughter of a famous beauty supposed to have drowned in the shipwreck, as she claims, or is she the woman herself, some sort of ghost?
Doc Ford and his friend Tomlinson are like the extreme poles famously described by Chesterton—one doesn’t believe in God; the other believes in anything. Ford’s unsettling experience with the mystery woman can be satisfactorily explained in purely materialistic terms. And yet, even Doc himself doesn’t entirely believe that.
You used to see this sort of story more than you do now, I think. Stories framed as realistic, but with the door left open just a crack for other possibilities. I like such stories.
Dark Light was an engaging mystery, with a pleasant aftertaste. Cautions for language and adult situations.
Author P.D. James has a book about detective fiction with an excerpt here. She writes:
And why murder? The central mystery of a detective story need not indeed involve a violent death, but murder remains the unique crime and it carries an atavistic weight of repugnance, fascination and fear. Readers are likely to remain more interested in which of Aunt Ellie’s heirs laced her nightly cocoa with arsenic than in who stole her diamond necklace while she was safely holidaying in Bournemouth. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night doesn’t contain a murder, although there is an attempt at one, and the death at the heart of Frances Fyfield’s Blood from Stone is a spectacular and mysterious suicide. But, except in those novels of espionage which are primarily concerned with treachery, it remains rare for the central crime in an orthodox mystery to be other than the ultimate crime for which no human reparation can ever be made.
Speaking of P.D. James, I love some of her opening sentences.
The Children of Men: “Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty five years, two months and twelve days.”
Death In Holy Orders: “It was Father Martin’s idea that I should write an account of how I found the body.”
A Certain Justice: “Murderers do not usually give their victims notice. This is one death which, however terrible that last second of appalled realization, comes mercifully unburdened with anticipatory terror.”
Original Sin: “For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard.”
Maxine is calling for suggestions on strong detective novels written by women in response to David Montgomery’s list, 10 Greatest Detective Novels, which did not have one female author. Block, Chandler, Crumley, Hammett, Stout, and others make Montgomery’s list, and he explains in the comments on Petrona that he doesn’t like P.D. James and further: “My favorite contemporary female detective writers are probably Laura Lippman and Denise Hamilton. I think they’re both great writers, but neither quite cracked the list.”
An interesting discussion has begun. One commenter notes the dominance of American writers. That seems only natural to me. We, Americans, are the best in the world at everything, except maybe soccer and automobiles, so naturally we write the best detectives novels.
We blog better than anyone else too.
I will be ducking and running now.