OH YOU CAN GET A MAN WITH A GUN: Christie and the Cad

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Ninety years ago today, Archibald Christie argued with his wife and walked out of the house, revealing to her that he was leaving her for another woman. This sort of domestic tragedy happens all the time, but when it happens to the world’s most successful mystery writer, the repercussions are bound to affect the work she produces. After all, most authors write about what they know, and it makes sense that their own experiences and feelings will affect how and what they write. At the same time, marital discord, adultery and divorce are fodder for many a murder tale. Christie had included these matters in her books long before her own marriage took a darker turn. Still, looking back at the Christies’ marriage and holding that up to the light of seven subsequent titles creates a fascinating and illuminating portrait of the merging of the public artist and the private woman. It is a discussion that will necessitate spoilers throughout, so new readers of Agatha Christie’s work had best maintain a wary distance.

The series of incidents that led to Agatha Miller’s first marriage was, as you must imagine, the stuff of a good novel, at least according to her autobiography. A pretty girl who was popular with the boys, she had gotten engaged to Reggie Lucy, a “shy and retiring” Major with the Gunners who grew close to her by offering to improve her golf game. Agatha didn’t do very well, but as she describes it, Reggie “was extremely patient, and he was the kind of teacher who did not mind in the least whether you improved or not.” He was slow and gentle in this and all matters, and their visits together were full of “restful pauses. It is the way I most like holding a conversation. I never felt slow or stupid, or at a loss for things to say, when I was with Reggie.” Here is how Agatha remembers Reggie’s proposal to her:

“You’ve got a lot of scalps, Agatha, haven’t you? Well, you can put mine with them anytime you like.” I looked at him rather doubtfully, not quite sure of his meaning. “I don’t know whether you know I want to marry you,” he said, “you probably do. But I may as well say it. Mind you, I am not pushing myself forward in any way; I mean there’s no hurry . . . Just bear me in mind, and if nobody else turns up – there I am, you know.”

And so they embarked on an “understanding,” and while Reggie was stationed abroad, he urged her to have fun, go to dances, “go out and see people.” So Agatha decided to attend a dance that the Cliffords of Chudleigh were giving for soldiers, and there she met an Air Force subaltern named Archibald Christie:

“He was a tall, fair young man, with crisp curly hair, a rather interesting nose, turned up not down, and a great air of careless confidence about him . . . he danced splendidly and . . . I enjoyed the evening thoroughly. “

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Agatha was swept away by the fact that Archie flew planes; Air Force recruits had a romanticism about them that, for her, Army men lacked. Still, she thought no more of him until a week or so later when Christie dropped in unannounced at her family home and wangled an invitation to dine on Christmas leftovers with the family. Agatha invited him to be her date to the upcoming New Year’s Ball. There she found him in a “peculiar” mood that made her wonder if he even liked her. So you just know what’s about to happen in the middle of the ball:

Then he said fiercely, “You’ve got to marry me, you’ve got to marry me.” He said he had known it the first evening he danced with me . . .                                                                                 I told him it was impossible, that I was already engaged to someone. He waved away engagements with a furious hand.                                                                                                       “What on earth does that matter?” he said. “You’ll just have to break it off, that’s all.” “But I can’t. I couldn’t possibly do that.”                                                                                             “Of course you could! I’m not engaged to anyone else, but if I was I’d break it off in a minute without even thinking about it.”                                                                                               “I couldn’t do this to him.”                                                                                                          “Nonsense. You have to do things to people. If you were so fond of each other, why didn’t you get married before he went abroad?”                                                                                          “We thought – “ I hesitated – “it better to wait.”                                                                               “I wouldn’t have waited. I’m not going to wait either.”

Agatha broke off her engagement to Reggie, who took it like a gentleman and whose only concern was that Archie was not financially equipped to give her the life she was entitled to. It took another year and a half before they were married, a period that Agatha describes as “a tempestuous time, full of ups and downs and deep unhappiness, because we had the feeling that we were reaching out for something we would never attain.”

Let this be a lesson to all kind, patient, and gentle men of fair to middling looks who find themselves on the opposite point of a triangle with a reckless, ruthless “golden boy.” Gentlemen, you don’t stand a chance.

The Christies were married from 1914 to 1928. Wikipedia claims, in Archie Christie’s biography: “During that period they shared many happy times; and Agatha wrote some of her best novels.” The first part of this description is certainly true: the couple had a daughter whom they adored and then rather neglected as they traveled extensively around the world as part of the Tour as part of Archie’s job to promote the British Empire Exhibition. They surfed together in Hawaii. They returned to England and Agatha wrote her novels in their flat while Archie worked in the world of finance and played a lot of golf. During this time, Agatha wrote one of her best novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. For this, and for the rest of her body of work, she was earning her position at the top of the mystery writing profession.

In 1925, Agatha sat on a committee to design and organize a children’s section of the Exhibition in Wembley. She worked with the wife of another friend of Archie’s boss, a woman named Nancy Neele. Nancy was a great golfer, while Agatha, if you recall, was not. So if you are looking for evidence that one can find that romantic spark on the golf course, I would turn away from Agatha and Reggie and set your sights on Nancy and her new golf partner, Archie Christie.

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The book Agatha was working on as she went through the throes of separation and divorce was The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). Christie claims to have always hated the book. She developed it before and after her famous disappearance, after the death of her beloved mother, and after her separation from Archie. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a very good one either. The combination of a thriller featuring a “bright young thing” as its heroine with a traditional mystery presided over by Hercule Poirot feels labored. On the plus side, the heroine, Katherine Grey, is a very attractive character, and Christie makes us care about her finding happiness, even if her involvement in the murder and with all the significant characters seems forced.

Significantly, the victim in this tale, Ruth Kettering, is unhappily married to a highly attractive but weak man, Derek, who is having an affair with an exotic dancer. Ruth is hurtling out of the frying pan on that train, so to speak, to meet her lover, a truly odious gigolo named the Comte de la Roche. There seems no chance here for Ruth to find romantic happiness, so perhaps it’s fitting that she is brutally murdered before she has to make a choice.

That choice is bequeathed to Katherine, who becomes emotionally involved with both Derek and with Major Knighton, the personal secretary to Ruth’s millionaire father, Rufus Van Aldin. This triangle bears some resemblance between that of Agatha, Archie and Reggie: a bright, capable woman, a gentlemanly former army man whose leg was injured in the line of duty (Knighton) and an attractive but unstable adulterer. In the end, it turns out that neither man is worthy of Katherine, since Knighton turns out to be a notorious jewel thief and a murderer. (Even his battle injury is fake.) The only male characters who merit respect are the father figures, Poirot and Van Aldin.

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The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is of significance mostly as the novelistic debut of Miss Marple, but it fits into this discussion well. The victim is another retired military man, Colonel Protheroe, who is despised by everyone in the town, including the vicar! There is nothing attractive about the Colonel, yet he has managed to marry two beautiful women. He drove his first wife away with his cruelty, and now he is himself being cuckolded by his wife with the artist Lawrence Redding. Naturally, the two lovers are the first to fall under suspicion when the Colonel is found murdered in the vicar’s study. However, a combination of events proves that neither could have done it. Moreover, Christie presents a sympathetic portrait of a couple in love. The conversations both of them have with Miss Marple and the police have the same ring as Archie’s proposal to Agatha at the Cliffords’ dance back in 1912. There’s a tone of fierce devotion, a streak of ruthlessness, as if doing anything for the one you love is all that mattered.

And you have to ask yourself just how Agatha sits on the matter of sexual and romantic passion. Is it possible that she would have been happier married to Reggie? But then, if she had been a satisfied wife, would that have had a deleterious effect on her professional life? Was the pain she endured throughout the span of her relationship with Archie Christie worth it?

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Whatever the answers to these questions – and yes, it’s not really any of our business – the situation can only have inspired Christie as she examined the eternal triangle in some of her best work. Looking at Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941), Christie’s life might be seen to imbue the characters with certain qualities, but it doesn’t stop her from exercising remarkable ingenuity in coming up with different twists on the same relationship. (The 1937 novella Triangle at Rhodes fits perfectly in this category as well, and many of its significant plot twist would work their way into both Nile and Sun.)

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Interestingly, the victim in all four of the works named above is the wife, depicted as an alluring yet vain, self-serving, creature who ultimately falls prey to the man to whom she has committed herself. In Murder in Mesopotamia, the killer has a dual nature that makes him akin to both Archie Christie and Max Mallowan, Agatha’s second husband with whom she has a less tempestuous, but evidently full and happy marriage. Louise Bosner Leidner found herself married at a young age to a man in the U.S. State department who turned out to be a German spy. With him she had a life of adventure and danger that recalls the thrill a young Agatha felt when she learned that Archie flew planes for a living. When the first husband dies in a train crash, Louise marries a second time to a noted archeologist, a gentle and loving man, perhaps someone quite like Max.

Agatha may have been fascinated by the intellectual mystery solving of the archeologist, but Louise is just bored, and she engages in an affair with her husband’s colleague, Richard Carey. This marks her for death by her husband’s hand, and, in one of the most unbelievable twists in all of Christie’s canon, Leidner turns out to be Frederick Bosner, whose obsessive love for his wife has led him to assume an entirely different life. It’s too hard a twist for most readers to believe, and thus it detracts from the elements of the romantic triangle that square with Christie’s own experience. Christie is definitely not Louise, in temperament or interests. But the combination of the reckless spy with the erudite scholar is one that bears notice.

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Linnet Doyle and Arlena Marshall of, respectively, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun are both sexually predatory and worthy of the enmity they engender in folks around them. Our perceptions of Arlena are reversed at the end as we discover that she is not the object of desire in a romantic triangle that she was presented to be. Her husband Kenneth (a retired Army captain, by the way) has come to believe he married the wrong woman. Her lover Patrick (whose striking good looks and athleticism are emphasized throughout) is not in love with her at all but with with the money she pours into his bank account. His true lover, who poses as his wife, far from being mousy and weak, is a games mistress with great strength. (I’ll bet she plays a mean golf game, too.)

Far more interesting to me is the relationship between Linnet Doyle, her husband Simon and her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. Simon is another one of Christie’s strikingly handsome and athletic young man, and Jacquie is the impoverished daughter of a French count and his American wife. (Agatha’s father was American.) We meet these two through Hercule Poirot’s eyes when they are engaged and dining at the same restaurant as the detective. Poirot wonders, looking at Jacqueline, if maybe she loves Simon too much.

Again, we receive a warning about the dangers of passion. When Linnet steals her best friend’s lover away and marries him, Jacquie undergoes the same sort of breakdown that Agatha had when Archie left her. How else do you explain following your ex and his new wife around the world, terrorizing their honeymoon?

Once you have finished the novel, you come to understand that Jacquie’s “breakdown” is quite different in nature, yet no less real. This was a time when a couple, no matter how much in love, had to give serious consideration to whether they could afford to marry. This is the issue that delayed Archie and Agatha for over a year causing them to reluctantly comply with her mother’s wish that they delay marriage until Archie could better provide for her daughter. That wait was an unhappy time for the couple, and it’s clear that Jacquie is placing all her hopes on the wealthy Linnet giving Simon a job on her estate in order to set the couple up for wedded bliss. It puts all the sympathy on Jacquie and Simon from the start.

So what to make of their subsequent plans? In suggesting that he could marry Linnet and bump her off, Simon demonstrates a complete lack of the moral fiber one hopes a good man will have, (the same deficiency that might prompt a war hero to leave his wife for another woman.) The true tragedy, one that Poirot senses with his from the first time he lays eyes on Jacquie, is how love will cause her to assume the role of guiding hand in planning Linnet’s murder. In robbing her best friend of her soulmate, Linnet has sparked the Latin passion for hatred that imbues Jacquie’s character. She underestimates her friend’s response, and she completely misreads the shallow signs of love that Simon bestows upon her. People can complain all they want about the artificiality of the murder plot. I disagree with that viewpoint, and I think that the underlying motivations of this central trio of characters make Death on the Nile one of the best Christies of them all. And I think this power arises from Christie’s own depth of understanding about how love can turn.

In the next two titles up for consideration, the romantic triangle is maintained, but the husband becomes the victim. Significantly, in both cases, the triangle is much more straightforward, and Christie sets no traps to make the reader misconstrue the parts that husband, wife, and mistress play.

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Five Little Pigs (1942) is almost a cautionary tale against basing a relationship on sexual passion. Amyas Crale is an artist and a sensualist. The author makes it abundantly clear that he absorbs pleasure from others and returns the best of himself through his art. Such selfishness causes a lot of people to suffer, nobody more so than his wife Caroline. Unlike Christie, Caroline Crale is not a professional woman. What she shares with her creator is a strong maternal instinct, both for her baby daughter and for her younger sister. (Christie’s sister was older, but they were extremely close.) It is those instincts that prompt Caroline to follow the course of action that she does, leading her to her death in a prison cell.

Amyas’ mistress, Elsa Dittisham, possesses none of these caring instincts. In her, Amyas recognizes a fellow creature of passion, but he fails to understand how dangerous this, combined with her youth, makes her. Ultimately, the blame for all the unhappiness engendered in this story falls on Amyas, who comes off as a compelling and attractive, but unsympathetic, character. Five Little Pigs can be seen as one of Christie’s most feminist works, with the two women in this triangle the prime agents for change. Both undergo similar transformations of sacrificing their freedom to protect the most important women in their lives. Caroline saves her sister by going to prison for her. Elsa saves herself, frames her rival, and winds up in a sterile marriage, stripped of her capacity for love or passion. One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is that Caroline, an innocent, even noble woman, dies, but Elsa essentially gets away with murder, and Poirot condones this because he realizes that Elsa, like Caroline, is in a prison of her own making. This imbalance at the end of the book strikes a much more powerful emotional chord than any tradition “all wrongs made right” situation that you would find in most traditional mysteries.

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The Hollow (1946) flips the situation found in Five Little Pigs. The man at the center of the triangle is no less an egoist as Amyas Crale, but John Cristow (a name with a remarkably familiar ring to it) is also a doctor engaged in important research that will save many lives. His relationships with his wife and mistress pretty much reverse that found in Pigs: his wife, Gerda, provides him with the appearance of respectability and with children, but her timorous, rather stupid, nature makes her totally unsuitable as a physical or emotional support. Henrietta Savernake, John’s mistress, is also the most complex and admirable character in the novel. She is a sculptor, and like Amyas, she has a tendency to blend and confuse her passion for her lover with her need to create art. But it is in scenes between John and Henrietta that we see the man most at peace. We can assign elements of the author’s life to both women: the dutiful wife who can’t satisfy her man and the committed artist who uses her art to literally work through the loss of her love. The plot ties these three together in an extraordinary way when John, recognizing that his philandering has driven his wife to murder, begs Henrietta, with his dying breath, to protect Gerda. Gerda’s self-protection derives from pure animal instinct, while Henrietta becomes the perfect intellectual foil to Poirot. So while the two women in Pigs remain rivals to the bitter end, their counterparts in The Hollow join forces, or at least, Henrietta becomes Gerda’s protector out of their shared love for John.

Perhaps the situation found here has less in common with Christie’s own romantic history than some of the others.

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The last title to consider, 1948’s Taken at the Flood, has some interesting points worth noting. Coming twenty years after Christie’s divorce, it also is the last of her mysteries that has a romantic triangle emblazoned at its center (although there are plenty of hidden relationships to uncover in later titles.) Like Christie, Lynn Marchmont, the heroine of Flood, bridles at the idea of being just a wife and mother. Her experiences as an Army nurse have set her apart from the rest of her family, whose economic dependence on their patriarch and benefactor, Gordon Cloade, leads to a series of disastrous events for the whole clan after his death during the London Blitz.

Lynn left for service with the understanding that, upon her return, she would marry her cousin Rowley, a gentleman farmer. Unlike both Archie Christie and Reggie Lucy, Rowley was unable to serve in the war due to his job, and that inability to fulfill his patriotic duty rankles and affects his relationship with Lynn. Enter David Hunter, a former war Commando, who bristles at civilian life and has his eye on protecting his sister, Gordon Cloade’s widow, from her new, predatory relations. He also turns his interests toward Lynn, and although from a family standpoint they are at odds, they are also attracted to each other out of past experience and a mutual love of adventure.

Once again, Christie presents romantic passion as a dangerous, life-altering condition that eliminates all good sense. Gordon Cloade marries a much younger woman out of the blue, and his head is so turned that he forgets to rewrite his will to provide for the family whom he has manipulated to rely on him for financial support. Lynn’s passion for adventure leads her to view resettling back at home with a dubious eye. It also takes her further from Rowley and into the arms of David, who proves to be, to say the least, an unsuitable match even though his love for Lynn may be the one honest feeling David possesses. Finally, the stolid Rowley is all but destroyed by passion: he seems to possess the same stolid patience and understanding as Reggie did, but the prospect of losing Lynn inspires such rage that he causes one man’s death and almost ends Lynn’s life.

I make no claim that Agatha Christie’s troubled marriage to Archie drove her creative mind down any particular path. I have always respected her wish to separate her private life from her professional. Her autobiography is honest but hardly sensational; it maintains a fondly nostalgic tone coupled with an emotional reticence throughout. And yet it is interesting, on the anniversary of that sad day marking the end of her first marriage, to consider how certain of her books seem to spring from Christie’s own romantic life. How daring she was to allow those experiences to serve as the springboard for some of her most striking and successful murder plots. And how lucky for us that she did!

GIVE ‘EM A RIGHT HOOK: Carr vs. Christie on Roping In the Readers

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Only yesterday my buddy JJ, on his insightful blog site, InsultingAgathaChri-, oops, I mean, The Invisible Event, celebrated the 110th birthday of his favorite author, John Dickson Carr – an author, I might add, whom I also count among my favorites. Among his many moments of praise for the Locked Room Master, JJ asserted the following:

“There is a density in Carr’s plotting that few ever matched — even Christie, who was never much of a hook-writer in her plotting (maybe Peril at End House, Hickory Dickory Dock, and…something else; the joy in Christie is not so much the setup as how it plays out from conventional beginnings) suffered longueurs in many of her books — and there was incident and intrigue aplenty to be found.”

Now, JJ and I are dear friends: I took all the photos at his quinceanera, and he staked me a loan so that I study to be a goatherd. So there’s a bond here that stretches way back. But when a blogger confuses matters of taste with matters of quality, well, them’s fighting words, pardner. (JJ’s gentle admonition to my protestations that “I should not get my knickers in a twist” only fanned the flames of my rage.)

Being the erudite, compassionate scribe that I am, however, I let this slight roll off my back (JJ, if you’re reading this, don’t open the anonymously sent smallish brown package wrapped in plain brown paper and reeking slightly of camphor which should arrive in about six days . . .) and I began to think: Christie and Carr are two of my favorite authors because both are masters of obfuscation and misdirection, yet they arrive at similar amazing results in wholly different ways. You really can’t mistake one for the other in terms of style, plot or atmosphere, so it’s understandable that some fans might prefer Carr or Christie for those elements that distinguish them, despite the fact that both of them, to paraphrase Cole Porter, “do do that voodoo that they do so well.”

I have never been one to claim that Christie does a certain thing better than Carr does; she just does it differently, and I like her more. But I have always maintained that one thing Christie really mastered is the narrative hook. Thus, it puzzled me that JJ would refute this. In getting ready to argue back, I first asked myself: what exactly is a hook? What forms does it take, and how does it work? And more specifically, how does it work for Christie and Carr?

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On her site helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com, K.M. Weiland offers this thought:

“Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.”

Wikipedia defines a hook as “a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep on reading. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally it is the opening sentence.” If a mystery reader is not hooked by the end of chapter one, chances are he will peek at the solution and then put the book down forever. In fact, the website Writers to Authors suggests, with some credence, that in this modern age of short attention spans:

“You don’t have time to build up to your main point any more. The days of long entry exposition are gone, the reader wants to know why they should spend their hard earned cash on your book and the hook — if done correctly — can be that reason . . . More than likely, an editor is going to be the first person to read your story and they are just looking for a reason to put yours down. They have hundreds of entries to go through so placing that beautiful scripted hook in yours and getting them drawn in quickly is crucial. But how soon or how far into the beginning should the hook be? The sooner, the better! Actually if you can place your hook in the first line of the first page that is great and you are well on your way to having that first reader — the editor — thumbing the next page and the next as they ask themselves “What happens next?”

A number of factors contribute to hooking a mystery reader, including the author’s name, the title, the illustration on the cover, the blurb on the back or inside cover, and, of course, the text itself. Let’s examine the effect on the reader:

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The author’s name goes a long way toward hooking me. The need to purchase that “Christie for Christmas” meant that I own – and have read – Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate with no questions asked. Were these reading experiences interminable? Of course! But the name “Agatha Christie” was emblazoned in letters above, and as big as, the title. So I read them. (Only once – never again.) And if I saw a title on the bookstore shelves by Carr that I had never heard of, the excitement blazed up in me and I grabbed it. My familiarity with the product associated with the author was enough to ensure a sale.

The title doesn’t have that much of an effect on me. Both Carr and Christie mostly created titles that plunged us directly into the genre (Death on the Nile, The Problem of the Green Capsule), while some referenced the classics (Taken at the Flood, In Spite of Thunder), and a few were just plain odd (The Hollow, The Crooked Hinge). One is more likely to find an element of humor in some Carr titles (He Wouldn’t Kill Patience) or an element of horror (The Three Coffins, The Demoniacs). I imagine that some first-time readers, upon examining the bibliography of either of these prolific writers, might select a book by its title. But this doesn’t explain why someone would first break bread with Christie over, say, Third Girl or At Bertram’s Hotel, as some fellow bloggers claim to have done to their dismay. More likely, accessibility and not title choice prompted these rash and unfortunate decisions.

Cover art is a matter of taste, but there’s no denying that a well-designed book jacket may attract the visually inclined. The influence of geography, culture and the era is unmistakable, as these contrasting editions of Carr’s Death Watch prove.

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And who can argue against Agatha Christie’s luck when Tom Adams was commissioned to design her covers.Honestly, though, in the U.S. all we needed was Christie’s name on the cover to guarantee sales. And the Tom Adams covers were hard to find when I was growing up, so I made do with far inferior designs by Pocketbook and Dell.

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I have to admit: I am all about the blurb. I love checking out the back or inside front cover of a mystery to whet my appetite before I purchase it. The well-written blurb has hoodwinked this reader many a time, so I know the power of this marketing tool. I threw out a question on Facebook to writers on the Golden Age Detection page and learned that the author themselves is often asked to supply the blurb, but often an editor insists on writing them or engages in a back and forth with the author to create the best blurb possible. One responder quoted Stephen King on this very question: “Whatever your editor suggests, they’re right!”

Let’s examine the back cover blurbs for one of my favorite novels by each author: first, here’s the one for Christie’s After the Funeral:

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“When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered with a hatchet, the extraordinary remark she made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it . . . But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” In desperation, the family solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery . . . “

 

And now here’s the back cover blurb for my favorite Carr mystery, He Who Whispers, from the Langtail Press edition (which this cover is not):

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“Outside the little French city of Chartres, industrialist Howard Brookes is found dying on the parapet of an old stone tower. Evidence shows that it was impossible for anyone to have entered at the time of the murder, however someone must have, for the victim was discovered stabbed in the back. Who could have done it? And where did they go? When no one is convicted, the mystery remains unsolved for years until a series of coincidences brings things to a head in post-war England, where amateur sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell is on the scene to work out what really happened.”

 

Reading these, I can understand why author David Marcum told me today, ”I don’t read cover text or reviews any more ever. I learned the hard way . . . (that) it gave away 80% of the plot, including all of the big along-the-way reveals and surprises.”

Both of the blurbs above introduce a fair amount of plot to the prospective buyer in an informative if mundane way; the reader would be much better served with either novel to ignore the write-ups and just read the books. But people love those spoiler-ish coming attractions at the movies for the same reason: they want a guarantee that they are going to like something they are about to invest time and money in. Significantly, both blurbs mention the detective to lure fans of Poirot or Dr. Fell. Still, I wonder if the tag line under the title – “An Hercule Poirot Mystery” or “A Case for Dr. Gideon Fell” – would have served the purpose without spoiling the plot!

Which brings us to the text itself. If there is a general pattern to be found with the start of either author, Christie is more likely, as JJ puts it, to spin intrigue “from conventional beginnings” while Carr likes to start in medias res or at the end. Let’s look at the first chapters of the same two novels. The opening of After the Funeral introduces us to the Abernethie family through the eyes of the elderly butler who is taking care of them after the patriarch’s funeral. We are given a good look at several generations of the family, of both their inter-familial relationships and of the tenuous position of the mansion now that death taxes are about to rear their ugly heads . . . all before daffy Aunt Cora drops her bombshell. A lot of information is given to us, but with warmth and humor – and then something deliciously off shakes everything up.

The start of He Who Whispers has its share of charm too but also a more mysterious and unsettling atmosphere, as the young hero attends a meeting of The Murder Club at the invitation of Dr. Fell himself . . . except there’s no sign of the good Doctor or any of the other club members. Only the guest speaker and another newcomer are present – and the speaker insists on giving his lecture about an old, unsolved impossible murder, one that will have enormous repercussions on the lives of these three.

The approach into the mystery and the tone of the writing are quite different for both novels, but each manages to hook us into a fascinating mystery. If you demanded I pick which of these novels work better, I simply could not do it. After the Funeral hinges on a wonderful reversal and one of the best motives in all of mysterydom! But He Who Whispers packs a much deeper emotional punch and left me gasping at the end for completely different reasons.

 

This is not to say that Carr can’t be prosaic and Christie can’t be sensationalistic. Appointment With Death opens with a statement: “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” To pique our interest further, Hercule Poirot himself overhears these words in a hotel in Jerusalem. He states to himself that he will remember that voice when he hears it again, and we just wait for the moment when this statement is proven correct.

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Carr’s The Burning Court opens normally enough with a man journeying home from work on a train. He’s feeling happy because his beautiful and loving wife is waiting for him, and he has money and a good job in publishing. Yet Carr weaves in certain details to warn us that things might not be as normal as they seem, such as the fact that the book in the man’s valise is a manuscript about murder trials or that a couple of odd things had happened at work today or that the local undertaker was so mysterious or that his friend Mark’s father had died or gastroenteritis recently. Even asserting the normality of this trip becomes a moment of retrospection at the beginning of a long and terrifying journey:

“Such, baldly stated, are the facts. Stevens now admits that it is a relief to state facts, to deal with matters that can be tabulated or arranged. It must be emphasized, too, that there was nothing unusual about the day or the evening. He was not stepping across a borderland, any more than you or I step across it. He was simply going home.”

I asked myself if there is a certain pattern to the ways these authors open their novels. I pulled down a half dozen Carr titles from my shelf, and nearly all of them plunged me immediately into the case. In fact, most of these books began at or near the end of the story. The Arabian Nights Murder opens with Dr. Fell and his cronies sitting at a table examining the evidence of the case that has yet to unfold. The clues are placed on the table to tantalize the reader. The Hollow Man begins after the case is over and allows Carr to exercise one of his favorite tricks by making bold assertions that readers trust are true (why would an omniscient narrator lie?), but which are easy to misinterpret and send us off in the wrong direction from the start. The Mad Hatter Mystery does the same thing; so does The Nine Wrong Answers.

Other titles plunk us directly – and melodramatically – into the action. It Walks by Night sends Bencolin into a lurid setting and throws in a beheading before the first chapter is over. Dark of the Moon begins in a twilit garden in Charleston as a Southern belle sneaks out of her father’s house and engages in passionate lovemaking with her unnamed suitor, a tryst that will lead to murder! Carr is all about setting an unsettling tone from the beginning, while Christie’s openings tend to spring from more domestic situations and moods. In most of her books we first see the cast of characters – or even the detective – interacting with each other or with the environment before the inciting incident takes place. Part of the reason for this may be that Christie tends to work with a larger cast of characters than Carr, but you can also chalk it up to style, and neither one’s style, to my mind, is better, only different.

In fact The Burning Court goes about its business in a similar manner to Christie’s And Then There Were None and 4:50 From Paddington, which also begin on a train but allow us to meet and savor the persons involved before things get tense. We learn what type of person Elspeth McGillicuddy is – muddled and charming – and then she witnesses a murder in the window of the opposite train. We watch a group of strangers, all of whom we’ve learned something about, converge at the beginning of an awkward house party . . . and then Mr. Owen springs the bad news on them, and we learn a whole lot more.

This method tends to work better for Christie than her rare sojourn into sensationalism: the meeting between a master jewel thief and his fence that starts The Mystery of the Blue Train or the dying spy who stumbles into Poirot’s apartment in The Big Four make an uncomfortable fit. The jolly chap who runs into a dying man while playing golf in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is amusing and intriguing at the same time.

Now, if I happen to prefer watching characters establish relationships before a murder occurs, I still maintain that Christie offers plenty of juicy hooks to reel her fish in. I would go so far as to aver that she has created some of the best hooks in mystery fiction.

To that end, I offer those familiar with Christie’s work a chance to test their knowledge of the traps she uses to lure us into some of her best stories. It’s not a particularly difficult quiz, so I hope that as you attempt it, you – yes, you, JJ, damn your eyes – take a moment to appreciate the skill with which Christie introduces her tales.

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK, A Christie Quiz

Below you will find descriptions of fifteen Christie novel openings, followed by fifteen titles. Match the correct title to each opening. Savor them as you proceed!

  1. At a senior center, a sweet old lady tells a visitor that a dead infant is bricked up behind the fireplace.
  2. A gorgeous secretary makes tea for her boss, only to walk on him dying from poison.
  3. A couple awaken to hear their maid screaming that a corpse has been discovered in their favorite room in the house.
  4. A young woman begs a detective to prove that, sixteen years ago, her dead mother did not kill her father.
  5. During the Blitz, a bomb hits the London home of a tycoon, making a rich widow of his new young wife and sending his relations to the brink of ruin.
  6. An ad appears in the local paper inviting the neighbors to a murder that evening.
  7. At a séance, six people contact the spirit of a man who appears to have been murdered at that exact moment in a village miles away from them.
  8. A man offers to show a woman a picture of a murderer he keeps in his wallet . . . and then recognizes the killer standing over her shoulder.
  9. A man’s perfect secretary makes several mistakes typing a letter.
  10. An airplane lands and one of the passengers is found murdered in her seat without anyone seeming to have come near her throughout the flight.
  11. A man returns from a long journey to tell a family that the son who died in prison after being convicted of killing his mother is innocent.
  12. Poirot runs into a sinister acquaintance who offers to introduce him to his collection . . . of murderers.
  13. A little old lady tells a young man on a train that she can identify a serial killer by the look on their face before they kill.
  14. Onhis way home from taking a strange confession, a priest is clubbed to death in the street.
  15. A little girl brags about seeing a murder . . . hours before she is herself murdered.

TITLES

  • a. A Caribbean Mystery
  • b. Hallowe’en Party
  • c. Cards on the Table
  • d. The Pale Horse
  • e. Murder is Easy
  • f. Hickory Dickory Dock
  • g. The Sittaford Mystery
  • h. Death in the Clouds
  • i. Five Little Pigs
  • j. By the Pricking of My Thumbs
  • k. The Body in the Library
  • l. Taken at the Flood
  • m. A Pocketful of Rye
  • n. Ordeal by Innocence
  • o. A Murder Is Announced

A CELEBRATORY HODGEPODGE HONORING JOHN DICKSON CARR

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Happy 110th birthday, John Dickson Carr. Two months ago, JJ at The Invisible Event invited everybody to share a post on this day of days for his favorite author, the Master of the Locked Room Mystery. We could write anything we wanted: a review, a poem, a celebration of the author. I had great intentions, but this has been a lousy couple of months for me. And yet, Carr was an important author in the early formation of my preference for mysteries, and so I offer a true hodgepodge of personal reflection, a “Best of “ list, and some creative writing to honor him.

PERSONAL REFLECTION

I read mysteries throughout my teens and 20’s with feverish abandon. Author after author came my way, and since these were the days when 1) the bookstore shelves were teeming with Golden Age writers, freshly re-published, and 2) there were tons of bookstores in my city, I ran through many authors and many titles. Three writers became my favorites – Christie, Carr and Queen – and, fairly or not, I tended to hold the work of others up to the high standards of this prolific trio.

A lot of literary water has passed under the bridge since my first eager days as a mystery fan, and here is what has happened:

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Christie has become my Number One. The constant re-reading of her works through the page or through audio books, coupled with a close examination of multiple film and TV adaptations and many of the books written about her has solidified my memory and understanding of her work. I am by no means an authority, but I feel I can discuss Christie’s work, down to the minute details, with some confidence.

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Queen’s luster has faded a bit for me. Going back to his older work, I’ve found that his prose is tougher to wade through – I’ll blame that on my waning attention span in the Internet Age – and he had a steeper slide in quality toward the end. Yet Queen’s central plotting ideas are bursting with cleverness. Some titles, Cat of Many Tails, Calamity Town, and There Was an Old Woman among them, remain favorites. I also maintain that, of my top three, Queen excelled most at the short form, evidenced in both the short stories and a lamentably small selection of radio plays.

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The Carr Experience is a different kettle of fish for me. I read and enjoyed most of the Dr. Gideon Fell novels without reservation. In fact, I gobbled them up. Oddly enough, this did not endear me to the impossible crime sub-genre as a whole. I can almost never remember the “howdunit” aspect of Carr’s books, although I bow to their skill. It was the element of surprise in terms of “who,” coupled with an excellent sense of atmosphere and my enjoyment of Dr. Fell, who made me laugh, that kept me coming back for more.

The problem was that Carr was not adapted for film or TV. His output of his own work on radio is small and not easily accessible. (The original scripts he wrote for radio are available, and they are wonderful.) His works were not put on audio books; instead, they started to disappear from the bookstore shelves, even the used bookstores. And while Christie is widely read, even by non-mystery fans, and is therefore open to discussion, Carr seemed to appeal to more eclectic tastes. I’ve never met a friend who has even heard of Carr, and that is appalling, given how much he contributed to the genre.

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What that means is that I haven’t revisited Carr like I revisit Christie. There are a few Dr. Fell novels that I read for the first time only recently, along with my first (and only) Carter Dickson novel featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. Other than that, my memories of the books I have read are rather fuzzy. I think a real resurgence in the availability and discussion of his works would help. Talking to some true fans like JJ and other bloggers has been a great start toward my renewed interest in Carr. Yet his books remain hard to find. Since Carr is a much better writer than many of the authors who are even more forgotten but who have been republished anyway, I have to assume that there are estate issues involved in the continued lack of available titles. What a shame if legal complications or family greed is stopping somebody from introducing Carr to a whole new generation of readers. The alternative answer is too awful to ponder: that today’s readers simply don’t want to read anything “old” except Christie. And even this huge Christie fan finds that incredibly sad.

 

“BEST OF” LIST

No, no, no, that’s the wrong title for this section. I don’t have the authority to name Carr’s best. Let’s call this list my five favorites, and remember that since some of these haven’t been read for decades, this list is necessarily a fluid one:

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NUMBER 5: The Arabian Nights Murder (1936): I don’t remember much about the mystery, except that it was my first, and I am a sucker for stories told from multiple points of view as this one is. I bought four Signet editions at once: this one, The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Blind Barber and The Case of the Constant Suicides. Of the four, I only remember who the killer is in Mad Hatter, I remember laughing at Suicides and not laughing so much at Barber. But Arabian Nights was my first Carr, and I loved the multiple points of view of several narrators. I’m sure I should reread it based on my memory of how much I enjoyed it.

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NUMBER 4: The Burning Court (1937): Eleven years before this, Agatha Christie published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which prompted cries of “Unfair!” and “Oh no, she didn’t go there!” It changed the way people perceived the author: she was not only a master of the game, she was a rule breaker; long may she wave! I believe a similar thing happened when The Burning Court hit the shelves. It’s finale was extremely controversial, and it was the first Carr to send a shiver down my spine on the final page. The central mystery is perhaps a trifle pedestrian but eminently enjoyable. It’s that kick at the end that raises this title to a favorite.

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NUMBER 3: Dark of the Moon (1968): This will probably be the title more fervent Carr fans than I will balk at the most. I think a lot of people hate this final adventure of Dr. Fell, but I loved it. First of all, it takes place in South Carolina, and “Fell out of water” is a wondrous thing. Then there’s the conceit of a Southern belle canoodling with her beau that forms the central mystery of this tale, and as the revelations of that partnership unfold, the whole mystery up-ends in a fabulous direction just as any good mystery should. Maybe it wouldn’t hold up to re-reading, but I loved this one when I first read it.

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NUMBER 2: The Crooked Hinge (1938): For most of my life, this was my favorite Carr title, only recently supplanted. I loved the whole “which is the true heir” question. I loved the final revelation of “who” and “how”, which is summed up by the killer in a four word sentence. Most of all, Carr weaves in the supernatural element in a shocking way here. He is the best author at doing this. I wish Paul Halter, the modern author who tries to emulate Carr, had half the skill his idol possessed at incorporating the supernatural into his plots; instead, they feel disconnected or worse, extraneous. It’s not enough to say that a castle is haunted or that witchcraft abounds in the neighborhood. You have to put that backstory to good use, and I think Carr does that here very well.

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NUMBER 1: He Who Whispers (1946): Oh my goodness! How did I miss this title when I first began to read Carr? On the other hand, I’m sorta glad I didn’t get to it until I was a more mature reader. It’s a great mystery with a wonderful series of reversals. What’s more, to me it presents Carr’s best set of female characters, topped by the mysterious Fay Seton. Is she good or evil? Is she a vampire and a killer? Carr’s answer to these questions form one of the most sophisticated and shocking revelations in classic detective fiction. What’s more, once we have uncovered the killer, Carr does something extraordinary: he provides a shocking twist in the final line of the book that has absolutely nothing to do with the murder mystery but with the mysteries of the heart. In doing so, Carr reminds us that mystery fiction can shine a light on the human condition when it wants to. (Read my entire review here.)

I end this section with a plea: I have only read one Carter Dickson novel, The Judas Window (1938). I liked it well enough. I thought the courtroom scenes were hilarious. But the Merrivale books seem more firmly centered on the impossible aspects and less fully formed in terms of atmosphere and novelistic quality than the Dr. Fell books. That’s just my opinion. I would still love to read the very best of Sir Henry’s adventures. I tried The Reader Is Warned, which I know many people admire, but I wasn’t taken by it. I ask readers who are more familiar with this side of Carr’s canon to offer their suggestions, along with a justification about why I should read that one. I appreciate anyone willing to take me up on this request, and I’m sure JJ will have posts on the matter for me to peruse.

 

CREATIVE WRITING

You can stop here if you wish, but Kate at Cross Examining Crime wistfully said only the other day that it would be great if someone wrote a poem about Carr. I immediately took up the challenge. Not only would I write a poem, I would create an entire whodunit in doggerel to honor Carr. Well, I got sidetracked, and I got to the murder but nothing else. So I offer it here, and if you are so inclined, please feel free to finish it for me and solve the darn mystery of who offed Lord Burlington Brown.

 

Lord Burlington Brown

Was a man of renown,

Finding modern age devils

And hunting them down.

 

“Evil lurks,” so he said.

“I have stalked the undead!

I’ve seen sights that would fill

Any mortal with dread!”

 

At his club he held court.

And although he was short,

He weighed full twenty stone

And would not give up port.

 

There he sat like a whale,

And each member regale

With his exploits so grim

That the others turned pale.

 

Though one man you could tell

Thought the stories were swell

‘Twas Lord Burlington’s pal,

Dr. Gideon Fell.

 

“Good Lord, Brown!” Fell would say,

“I admire the way

You dispatched twenty zombies

Ere night turned to day.

 

“Now please tell me again

How you drew up the plan

To lay waste to the werewolf

Who walked like a man.”

 

“Listen, Fell,” said old Brown,

“No, sir, put your drink down,

And accompany me

Back to old Camden town.

 

“I’ve invited some friends

For a quiet weekend.

There’s a serious matter

To which I must attend.

 

“Would it give you a fright

If I told you outright

We’ll encounter the Devonshire

Vampire tonight?”

 

Fell let out a great wheeze

And cried, “Burlington, geez,

If you do know the Vampire

Then out with it, please!

 

If this isn’t a jest

And the Vampire’s your guest

Name him now! I’ll call Hadley

To make the arrest.”

 

“I will not name the ghoul.

Sorry, that is my rule.”

To which Fell simply spluttered,

“Brown, don’t be a fool!”

 

“I don’t think that I can

Quite accede to your plan

Till the last piece of evidence

Falls in my hand.

 

“With the skill of a lover

I’ll blow the fiend’s cover

By tomorrow at midnight

I’ll hand the man over!”

 

Thus, with feelings of dread,

Dr. Fell shook his head

For he sensed by tomorrow

His friend would be dead.

 

And he knew by the time

We were half through this rhyme

That he’d soon have to face

An impossible crime!

*     *     *     *     *

Fell repaired to Brown’s manse

By the seat of his pants.

He would capture the Strangler

If given the chance.

 

But his train journey led

To a dark night of dread

For the lord of the manor

Fell soon learned was dead.

 

In a hut in the wood

In that same neighborhood

They discovered Lord Burlington

Finished for good.

 

In a chair he was sittin’,

His throat had been bitten,

And the door was too small

For the late Lord to fit in.

 

And standing outside

Of this strange homicide

Were four guests who insisted

They’d nothing to hide:

 

The dead man’s stepson Mark

His fiancée Miss Park

And two builders, both brothers,

Named John and Jim Park.

 

One of this fine quartet

Had killed Brown, Fell would bet.

Were they also the Vampire?

He wasn’t sure yet.

 

That’s all I got, folks! If you have an idea of a) who killed the guy, and b) how they got this enormous man in this small room, and c) what the marks on his neck signify, then go for it! Let me know below. I can’t wait to hear what you come up with.

That concludes my discombobulated musing on the great John Dickson Carr. JJ, I wish I could have straightened out my act here, but the month was rough for me. Carr deserves better!

MAGPIE MURDERS: The Silver Age and the Modern Era Collide

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“It’s one thing reading about detectives, quite another trying to be one.”

This brand new novel by Anthony Horowitz is making the rounds amongst the mystery blogging community. Already my buddies Kate at Cross Examining Crime and JJ at The Invisible Event have written about it. It hasn’t even hit America yet, so thank you, Book Depository! I’m not sure I can add much insight to what Kate and JJ have already said, but this is November, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are discussing Mystery and History, and as for the Horowitz novel, well . . . I . . . ate . . . it . . . up!

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Magpie Murders is very much an example of meta-fiction, a self-reflexive book that is at once a whodunit and a book about whodunits, and I love that kind of stuff in books and movies. (Sunset Boulevard, anyone?) We’ve seen mystery authors incorporate facsimiles of themselves as characters in their books, and it makes us wonder how much of a glimpse this fictional creation has given us into the actual thoughts and processes of its creator. Is there any doubt that Mrs. Ariadne Oliver reflects, however humorously, the mind of Agatha Christie, from her intense shyness around reporters and fans to her creation of a highly mannered foreign detective who has brought her much success – and whom she comes to despise?

Magpie Murders purports to be the ninth and final entry in the acclaimed Atticus Pünd series of mystery novels. Pünd is a German-Greco refugee, a survivor of the WWII concentration camps, whose understanding of the nature of evil based on his experience provides him with the wisdom to assist the British police with their inquiries and beat them at their game every time. The year is 1955, the place a charming English village called Saxby-on-Avon. The novel opens following the death of a noted citizen, Mary Blakiston, who had served for many years as the housekeeper to Sir Magnus Pye. The hours leading up to her funeral introduce us to a variety of characters, all recognizable to Golden and Silver age mystery readers: Sir Magnus’ household, the dead woman’s rebellious son and his fiancée, the vicar and his wife, the doctor and her artist husband, the fishy couple who run the antiques shop. The characters are charming, and the plot unfolds with the same precision you expect to find in a classic mystery. (I think it was JJ who asked what the heck Sophie Hannah is doing getting hired to re-create the world of Poirot when Horowitz does it so effortlessly. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment!)

And so we have this lovely classic tale that barrels along to its . . . oh wait! The conclusion isn’t there! Oh my goodness, the final chapter is missing, and we will never find out the solution to Magpie Murders!!!

Which is really cool . . . because the novel is also about Alan Conway, the modern day (fictional) author of the Pünd series, and Susan Ryleland, Conway’s editor, who receives the incomplete manuscript, shares it with us, the readers, and then plunges us into a second murder mystery which she must solve so that she – and we – may return to Saxby-on-Avon and get the resolution we crave. What follows in the modern day narrative, on the surface, is a series of puzzles within puzzles as Susan begins to realize the sick cleverness underlying her client’s imagination, the parallels between his novels and real life, and how deeply her own well-being is tied in with Conway’s life and work.

One of the cleverest things about the book is the stark difference in style between the modern day mystery and the classic pastiche. Conway may be, to say the least, a difficult personality, but, like his creator Horowitz, he is adept at rendering a 1950’s village in the throes of change. I just wrote about two villages in Christie’s works, both dealing with the ramifications of modernization, and Saxby-on-Avon is facing this as well: its beloved Dingle Dell is about to be razed for housing – a circumstance that provides a number of people with motives. Meanwhile, the modern day tale unfolds like so many modern day mysteries do, with an ill-equipped heroine in the middle of romantic complications thrown into a mystery and having to figure out, well, how to figure things out! Consequently, I enjoyed Susan’s story a shade less than the Pünd tale precisely because Horowitz renders both styles so well and I simply don’t enjoy the more rambling, less ordered structure of most modern mysteries.

the-old-vicarage-morwenstow                                  A typical vicarage, like the one found in Magpie Murders

True, there is some “leakage” between the styles. Since Conway is a modern author penning historical mysteries, he delves a bit more deeply into sexual matters than you would find in an actual mystery of the 1930’s. And while Susan’s investigations are more linear than Pünd’s, and a whole lot messier, there are some classic clues leading to the killer that would fit right at home in an Ellery Queen puzzler. We are even provided with actual evidence in the form of certain documents – like in one of those Dennis Wheatley murder dossiers – that we can examine and whose significance we can hopefully discover if we’re clever enough.

To balance out the exemplary job of conveying the classic mystery style in the novel-within-a-novel, Horowitz provides us with some delicious “meta” moments in the Susan part of the novel dealing with the workings of a classic mystery, from the concept of where an author gets his ideas (and the sly way he uses them) to an understanding of a fictional detective’s significance in the reader’s life:

“In just about every other book I can think of, we’re chasing on the heels of our heroes – the spies, the soldiers, the romantics, the adventurers. But we stand shoulder to shoulder with the detective. From the very start, we have the same aim – and it’s actually a simple one. We want to know what really happened and neither of us in in it for the money.”

When it comes to sleuthing, Susan feels that she has gotten in over her head, but that’s because she doesn’t know what she’s looking for while “fictional” mysteries make it easier on their heroes by providing them with clear-cut clues:

“. . . there’s the handprint in the earth, the dog’s collar in the bedroom, the scrap of paper found in the fireplace, the service revolver in the desk, the typed letter in the handwritten envelope. I might not have any idea what they add up to but at least, as the reader, I know that they must have some significance or why else would they have been mentioned?”

So it’s a bit ironic that, with all the clues presented in the Pünd case, the solution (which I sussed out by recognizing certain classic mystery tropes) comes together largely through conjecture, while the modern day mystery is solved by one of those classic clues you find in every other Christie novel (and yes, I’ll shout it out to the skies, I noticed that one too and solved that crime as well! Oh, the cleverness of me!)

It’s a credit to Horowitz that I wish I could read the other books in the Atticus Pünd collection. We do get some tantalizing glimpses into these other works, and as different cases were discussed, it reminded me of the joy I get talking about Christie or Carr or Queen with other readers who are really “in the know.” My friend Moira said it the other day: how fun it is to discuss these works, solutions and all, with people who deeply admire the skill that goes into creating them. Horowitz has the skill, and he’s clearly a fan of the genre. Here, he has written a valentine to mystery fans everywhere.

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One last note: Horowitz is well known, not only as a prolific author, but as a television writer, having created the brilliant Foyle’s War, the endless run of Midsomer Murders, and some of the Poirot episodes for ITV. In true cinematic style, he gives us a wonderful “Easter egg” (like those scenes you find at the end of the credits for most super hero movies) via a final chapter spoofing an interview between authors Anthony Horowitz and Alan Conway. Heed my advice and take your time with this chapter. By the time you get there, you will have come to understand a lot about the workings of Conway’s mind, and there are layers of puzzles within these last few pages that are deeply rewarding. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

Next week marks a new month for the Tuesday Night Bloggers and a whole new category: Foreign Mysteries. Just like this month’s topic, we found many interesting ramifications to the next one. Hopefully, you’ll join us, and as always, your participation as a reader or a writer – or both – is most welcome.

COMING HOME: Two Examples From Agatha Christie’s Post-War England

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Critics of classic mysteries complain that these tales lack any grounding in reality. People die horrible deaths – sometimes a great many people during the same country weekend – but nobody seems particularly put out, unless you count the irritation one feels about having to put off one’s golf game in order to be interrogated by the police. Then, once the killer is caught, everyone reverts back to what they were doing before the murder occurred without much ado. Often enough, if the murderer was married or engaged, another character is waiting in the wings to soothe the briefly ruffled feelings of the aggrieved (and newly single partner. Case solved! Order restored!

Now, on the one hand, that simply isn’t true. Or at least it’s a gross generalization. On the other hand, Golden Age mysteries thrived between the Wars precisely because they helped readers escape their all too real life problems. (I can’t tell you how much my own reading helps distract me from our current presidential nightmare.) Still, a close examination of many GAD writers offers a paradise of socio-political trivia of the era, and some titles even center their stories around a location or event of strong historical significance. (I am told that there is a quite good whodunit floating about that is set in a German concentration camp.)

Since the Tuesday Night Bloggers are exploring the ties between mystery and history throughout November, and since I am the consummate Agatha Christie fan, it was only time before the twain should meet. Now, I’m not here to argue that Christie was a particularly topical author. One can read her novels and learn about the life of the times for middle class Englishmen, but rarely does she center her tales around real events. Oh, the sinking of the Lusitania jumpstarts 1922’s The Secret Adversary, the first Tommy and Tuppence novel, and the Beresfords reappear to fight Nazi spies in 1941’s N or M. Yet, that particular title is about as non-indicative of life in England during World War II as you can get, except for the fact that many people left the dangers of city life for the countryside.No, N or M comes across very much as a light-hearted escapist romp. More significantly, it is the only novel between 1939 and 1945 that directly addresses the war, even with tongue in cheek.

Even after D-Day, the next few novels exist in a sort of political vacuum, with none of the characters referencing the war at all. One of these novels, Death Comes at the End, takes place 2,000 years before Hitler even struck! This tour de force is a strong reminder that, in terms of referencing actual history, Agatha Christie, the archaologist’s wife, was more fascinated by the doings of the ancient world than of her own.

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Yet, there are two novels that immerse us in post-war British society to marvelous effect. One of them, 1948’s Taken at the Flood (published in the U.S. as There Is a Tide), probably succeeds more as a chronicle of post-war family life than it does as a mystery. The other novel, 1950’s A Murder Is Announced, it succeeds in every fashion, as a puzzler and as a chronicle of the changes happening in villages all over England after World War II. What’s more, this sociological reality provides much more than background; it figures significantly into the murder plot.

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The inciting incident for Taken at the Flood occurs during a brief preface on a specific date: October 5, 1944. I looked up that date and saw nothing of significance occurring in England. In the novel, however, the Nazi blitz onLondon destroys the home of financier Gordon Cloade, killing him and changing the fortunes of his extended clan in an instant. Cloade enjoyed playing the role of family benefactor, and his largesse had seen his two brothers, his sister, and their families through the worst sacrifices of the war with room to spare for some speculative ventures. Then, just prior to his death, Gordon had found a wife, a young widow named Rosaleen Hunter. Her survival from the attack makes her a very rich widow and signals an end to the gravy train for Cloade’s surviving relatives.

The book cuts to two years later, and the action shifts to the countryside where we see the changes that modernization has wrought. Warmsley Heath is a thriving new community that:

“. . . consists of a golf course, two hotels, some very expensive modern villas giving onto the golf course, a row of what were, before the war, luxury shops, and a railway station. Emerging from the railway station, a main road roars its way to London on your left . . . “

But, in an ominous sign for the Cloade family, they live to the right of the railway station in Warmsley Vale,:

“It is in essence a microscopic old-fashioned market town now degenerated into a village. It has a main street of Georgian houses, several pubs, a few unfashionable shops and a general air of being a hundred and fifty instead of twenty-eight miles from London. Its occupants one and all unite in despising the mushroom growth of Warmsley Heath.”

With Rosaleen ensconced in Furrowbank, the family mansion, the rest of the Cloade family is scrambling to survive. The most independent of them is Lynn Marchmont, Gordon’s niece, who has recently been “demobbed from the Wrens.” Lynn is easily the most sympathetic member of this family to the modern reader, fiercely independent and sensible, while the rest of the family resembles a Dickensian menagerie of helpless eccentrics, unable to find or afford passable servants, running into debt at every turn, and trying to charm their respective ways into Rosaleen’s good graces.

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Lynn’s cousin Rowley (who also happens to be her fiancé) is trying his hand, not very successfully, at running a farm he started with his friend Johnnie. Rowley’s absence from war service is addressed thusly:

“What a queer topsy-turvy world it was, thought Lynn. It used to be the man who went to the wars, the woman who stayed at home. But here the positions were reverse. Of the two young men, Rowley and Johnnie, one had been perforce to stay on the farm. They had tossed for it, and Johnnie Vavosour had been the one to go. He had been killed almost at once – in Norway.”

 

The tension between the engaged couple, one of whom has seen the world in service to her country while the other was forced to remain behind, begins to affect their relationship, especially when Lynn meets Rosaleen’s brother David Hunter, one of those ex-soldier adventurers who figure prominently in several of Christie’s novels. Men like David – or Ralph Paton from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Philip Lombard from And Then There Were None – tend to morally suspect but highly attractive to women, having channeled their need for danger into war service and now finding themselves at loose ends. Lynn and David clash at first, yet their shared experience during wartime bonds them together as it drives a wedge between Lynn and Rowley.

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Another character who illuminates the effect that wartime had on the upper classes is Frances Cloade, married to Gordon’s brother Jeremy. In describing Frances’ upbringing as the daughter of a lord, Christie paints a brief but trenchant picture of a noble house in financial trouble:

“Money to her was a toy tossed into one’s lap to play with. She had been born and bred in an atmosphere of financial instability. There had been wonderful times when the horses had done what was expected of them. There had been difficult times when the tradesmen wouldn’t give credit and Lord Edward had been forced to ignominious straits to avoid the bailiffs on the front doorstep. Once they had lived on dry bread for a week and sent all the servants away . . . If one had no money one simply scrounged, or went abroad, or lived on one’s friends and relations for a bit. Or somebody tided you over with a loan . . . “

Frances finds financial stability with Jeremy – until Gordon’s death. The couple’s growing desperation as the need for money tightens around them is so firmly grounded in the realities of the time that it seems more real than the usual grubbing for money one finds in murder mysteries. How unfortunate that this promising set of circumstances becomes mucked up with an overly complicated mystery plot that never quite comes together. And Hercule Poirot’s entrance into the whole affair is one of the most artificial aspects of the plot from beginning to end.

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Moving from the fair to the sublime, we find Miss Jane Marple at the peak of her powers in A Murder Is Announced, her first mystery since 1942’s The Body in the Library. From the delicious opening – a newspaper ad inviting all the neighbors in the village of Chipping Cleghorn to Miss Blacklock’s house to witness a murder – to the final twist, it’s a mystery that I relish revisiting each time I pick it up for the cleverness of its clueing and the delightful assortment of characters that populate its pages. But Christie also weaves elements of British life after the war into the story, and she is too pragmatic to waste this on mere background detail. No, many of the changes wrought in your typical English village as a result of the war figure significantly into the plot and signal a change in the tone of this type of novel.

No longer does everybody know your name on the village streets. Long standing rich families have seen their homes broken up or sold. Young working class men have either died as soldiers or, buoyed by their adventures in the military, have left the family business seeking better opportunities. Newcomers have replaced the old guard in Chipping Cleghorn, and, as Miss Marple points out, that makes it more difficult “to find out if people are who they say they are:”

“(Chipping Cleghorn is) very much like St. Mary Mead where I live. Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was . . . They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment or served on the same ship as someone already there. If anybody new – really new – really a stranger – came, well, they stuck out . . . But it’s not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.”

This is honest fact about England in 1950; it’s also an important clue in the story. So is the fact that citizens are still rationed, and to help each other make ends meet, they trade goods as needed. And to make that easier, every neighbor keeps his or her back door unlocked, making it easier for someone to drop off some black market sugar, or butter, or a bunch of beets . . . or to set up a cottage for murder!

 

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Many characters have had their lives touched significantly by the war. Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s cook, belies her comic figure with a tragic past: her Eastern European family was wiped out by the Nazis, and her tendency to lie to policemen stems from the cruelties inflicted on her during the war. Miss Blacklock’s lodger, Phillipa Haymes, is a war widow with a small child. Edmund Swettenham, barred from service due to defective eyesight, espouses Communist doctrine. At least one of these people is either central to the unraveling of the murder plot or provides a juicy red herring to this murder feast.

In neither novel does Christie hammer over our heads with world events, nor does she cheat us out of her clever plotting with an over-emphasis on history. But her subtle depictions of post-war life and, in the case of A Murder Is Announced, the clever way she interweaves this reality into her mystery plot, make both these books fascinating chronicles of the past.

ELEGY FOR BEAU

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“Someone who holds you too close/Someone who hurts you too deep/Someone who sits in your chair and ruins your sleep/And makes you aware of being alive . . . “

Animal lovers are unabashedly unapologetic about it. Too bad for you if you don’t get it, we say. People measure their lives in significant chunks. Perhaps it’s the relationships we have, or the homes we live in, or the jobs we work at. I break down my life into pet dynasties, beginning with the dogs of childhood (Colonel, Jay Jay, Peppy, Joshua and Gabriel) and moving forward to the cats who have allowed me to share the room with them. First, there was Buni (college graduation and first steps into adulthood), then Marty (finding my way as a teacher), and then Nick and Lily (coming into my own professionally and buying a home).

After Lily died, I was so bereft that I knew I couldn’t mourn alone for long. A colleague told me about a breed of cat called a Ragdoll, which some refer to as a “puppy cat.” I heard stories about Ragdolls who greeted you at the door, who loved lying in your lap, and who bonded with you in ways that you don’t normally find in as independent an animal as cats tend to be. So I sought out a breeder and purchased my first pair of purebred cats. I had to register them! I had to sign a contract promising not to show them and to neuter them immediately. I met the breeder, who was also a realtor, at a showing of the ugliest condo I had ever seen in my life. He brought along five cats, and I chose a boy and a girl. All Ragdoll kittens are basically white for several months, developing more distinctive markings over a four-year period. As far as looks went, it was basically a crap shoot as to whether I had chosen well. I christened my new family Elizabeth and Darcy, after one of my favorite novels, and took my them home.

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The breeder told me that I should put them in an enclosed space for a while so that they could acclimate to their new surroundings. Faced with few choices, I let them stew in my bathroom for a couple of days. I shut the door on them and went to get some water. When I returned and opened the door, they were gone. Literally gone. I looked everywhere in that little space: the bathtub, the inside of the toilet, the cabinet that they were far too tiny to open . . . completely gone. I called their names: “Darcy! Elizabeth!” as if they might respond, and I got . . . nothing. I panicked.

Examining the floorboards more closely, I discovered that my sink and cabinet were built on a sort of ledge and that in both corners of that ledge were small openings that formed unbelievably narrow, small tunnels extending four feet or so to the wall. With difficulty, I slid my arm into the first hole . . . and met with furry resistance. More panic, until I finally grabbed onto a tuft of torso and pulled as gently as I could. There was a freaked out, dust-covered Ragdoll in my hand. I got the other one and then used whatever I could to temporarily block the holes, shut them back in and went to find better materials to fill in the holes.

I returned to discover that these tiny monsters had pushed aside all forms of barricade and reinserted themselves into the narrow tunnels. This time, they squirmed away as I attempted to pull them out, and I pulled out my arm, bleeding from scraping through that narrow aperture, and gave vent to my frustration. If one thing was clear here, it was that the cats hated me.

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I called my brother – they have cats, too – and told them what was going on. My sister-in-law got on the phone, and as they both tried to calm me down and give me advice, I kept calling out, “Darcy! Elizabeth! Please come out.” My sister-in-law said, “Well, there’s your problem right there. Change those goddamned awful names!”

And that’s how Beau and Mimi were born . . . and borne away from the tunnel under the bathroom sink.

 

“Someone who kneads you too much/Someone who knows you too well/Someone who pulls you up short and puts you through hell/And gives you support for being alive . . . “

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The kittens would have nothing to do with me, and I began to think that this Ragdoll phenomenon was either the biggest hoax perpetrated on the public or that I was doing something wrong. One night about a week into this non-relationship, I went to bed, feeling dejected. The kittens had basically hidden from me for several days, and the only evidence as to their existence was a dent in their food and small tracks in the litter box.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to the sound of two people talking in my living room. I live alone, and even I know that cats don’t converse in English, so I knew that someone had broken into my house. I could see a faint light coming from outside my bedroom. I did not sneak out of bed and close and lock my door and call the police. I did not grab a weapon and slowly advance on the culprit. I jumped, stark naked, out of the bed, took a deep breath, and walked into the living room.

The kittens were on the sofa, staring at me. They had jumped on the remote and turned on the TV. An old movie was playing. They looked at me as if to say, “Rick and Ilsa may always have Paris, but you mean nothing to us, bub!” I went back to bed and waited for my heart to slow down.

I took them to the doctor for their shots and discovered that they both had eye infections (probably caught from hanging out in that dusty bathroom tunnel.) I would have to put a salve in their eyes several times a day. I brought them home and grabbed a squirming Beau to dose his eyes. And that’s when the miracle occurred: Beau went limp in my arms and began to purr the loudest purr I’ve ever heard. His eyes rolled in their sockets as if he was in ecstasy. (I think – if you want to know the truth – my eyes did the same thing.) Our bond was formed then and there, and it strengthened with each passing day.

 

“Someone you have to let in/Someone whose feelings you spare/Someone who like it or not/Will want you to share a little a lot . . . “

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Over the course of the next few years, it became clear that these were going to be beautiful cats. As their markings took form, Mimi developed an “M” on her forehead in honor of her name and beautiful chocolate feet. She had the thick coat of a lioness that blossomed like you wouldn’t believe in the winter months.

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Beau’s eyes sparkled a deep blue. A diamond grew in the center of his forehead, expressing how precious he was to me. In terms of personality, Mimi pretty much resembled, well, a cat: totally aware of her beauty, finicky when you needed her not to be, and doling out meager helpings of affection on her own terms. Beau, on the other hand, was pretty much everything a guy could want in a boyfriend: languorous and affectionate when I came home, very good at the give and take of attention-giving and getting, appreciative when I cleaned the box or dished out the tuna, and just clingy enough to remind me that I was the most important man in his life.

I won’t bore you with the ways I shower affection on my cats. Those who know me well are aware of the Munchkin voice, the little songs, the nicknames (“Bodie Beast,” “Boodie,”, “Pooper Cat,” “Meemers,” “Ma” and “Mommie” were just some of them). Just like we crinkle our noses at the affection other people shower on each other, I expect you are squirming uncomfortably at this TMI moment over how Brad deals with his cats. Okay, I’ll tell you anyway: Beau and I would spoon. He would watch me shave at the counter, and I would watch him eat. He would greet each return home, each meal, each bedtime, with utter delight. My cat was my love and my protector. When things got tough in the outside world, I would often think of him and his sister waiting at home. When I had pneumonia, he understood. When I was anxious, he was my rock. Some call this endowing of animals with traits of human-like empathy, at best, pure silliness. Call it what you will, and frankly, if you don’t get it, I don’t really care. Because I’m setting you up for the fall, and I need you to understand what my baby boy meant to me for seven and a half years.

 

“Someone who crowns you with love/Someone who’ll force you to care/Someone who’ll make you come through/Who’ll always be there as frightened as you/Of being alive/Being alive/Being alive/Being alive.”

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Beau got sick. I had been run through the mill by this horrific election season, and Beau was there to belly rub and kiss and talk smack about the other side with. His joy when I came home or fed him or got into bed calmed me down through all the ugly political rhetoric . . . until he stopped eating and stopped being joyful.

It all happened so fast that I am still wrapping my mind around it. One day you’re together, and a week later you’re fulfilling the final clause of that contract you signed in your head when you took this relationship on. It’s not a mortgage, where the house is yours for life if you keep up the payments. It’s not a marriage, where if you work hard together there’s an even chance you stay together (and the fact that you are the same species helps.) But with a cat, you make a promise: when the time comes that he cannot be happy, you let him go. So that’s what I did today with Beau. I let him go for his sake, not mine. Because what I’m feeling right now is nothing I want to get into with you here. It wouldn’t be fair to take you to that place. What I’m feeling takes time to pass, I know. I’ve been through it before, many times. It’s the price you pay for unconditional love.

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Except with Beau, it feels different. The fact that he’s only seven makes it feel unfair. The fact that it’s so sudden, and that it’s Thanksgiving, and I wanted a miracle that I didn’t get – – – well, it makes whatever I try to write seem utterly inadequate.

So that’s my elegy to Beau, imperfect as it is. It’s not a blog about mysteries or movies or the one about Trump that lost me two readers. It’s not a call for sympathy. It’s me writing to myself in honor of that most glorious of things, true love and true friendship.

I don’t tend post personal things, but I did when Beau became ill, and I received wonderful support from people who share this kind of bond and people who don’t. I know I’m not ready to say goodbye. I know I have kind friends. I have my house and my job. I have my Mimi, and we’re processing this loss together as best we can. For one thing, she clings to me at night like nobody’s business. I cling right back. We feel incomplete together. I have my family, and there’s nobody who understands this bond like my dad does. I have so many memories of this wonderful companion, and one of the skills you have to learn is how to channel the memories in order to heal. I have that process to look forward to.

What I don’t have anymore is Beau.

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HISTORY CROSSES PATHS: The Picture From the Past

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This month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers tackle a sprawling subject: the relationship between mystery and history. It’s a topic one can examine from many different angles. So far, members of the group have shared insights about mysteries set in specific historical eras, or examined how historical context plays into, or is revealed, in Golden Age or modern mystery fiction. I love this latter idea, and my buddy Kate did a fine examination of Agatha Christie’s dabblings into history at the start of the month over at Cross-Examining Crime.

I hope to hone in on this aspect of Christie in two of her best post-war novels next week, and I plan to round off the month with another attempt to kill two birds: a re-reading of one of my favorite John Dickson Carr novels that will connect the author to history and help celebrate his 110th birthday over at JJ’s place, The Invisible Event. All Carr fans should join in here.

But today, I’m merely going to look at one novel, although it is perhaps the oddest Paul Halter mystery I have read to date. I’m not sure if you can call Halter a historical mystery writer or if he just writes pastiches of Golden Age detective novels set in earlier times. All I know is that he is one of the few of this sort I read with any regularity, which is odd because I tend to complain mightily about him. Of the forty or so novels Halter has written, over half of them feature the detective team of Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst and are set roughly between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. His other series detective, Owen Burns, is a Victorian sleuth whom I haven’t yet tackled, but even the Dr. Twist novels often hearken back to earlier times, tapping in on Twist’s obsession with the unsolved Jack the Ripper case, for instance, or adding supernatural overtones to impossible crime cases by attaching old legends of witches and monsters to modern cases as a form of misdirection.

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The Picture From the Past (published in France in 1995 as L’Image Trouble – The Blurred Image) is a Dr. Twist novel, but the sleuth is not much in evidence through much of the story. Or should I say stories! For the novel is seemingly divided into two separate narratives: a “present-day” (1959) tale of the troubles plaguing a young newlywed named John Braid, and a story of multiple murders taking place in a London slum in some vague “olden time”. The cast of characters is so large, for Halter at least, that we are given a list for each story at the start of the novel, and from this moment Halter teases us with hints of similarities between the two narratives through names, occupations and character descriptions.

For a long time, however, what the connection between the diverse tales could be is cloaked in obfuscation and, with all that’s happening in the “modern day” narrative, I kept asking myself why the second one was even there. In 1959, John Braid is drawn to a picture on the cover of a romantic novel, a photograph of a street, which causes him great unease and vague feelings of familiarity despite the fact that the picture comes from a time before Braid was born. All this is wreaking mild havoc with his recent marriage to the beautiful Andrea, although the fact that Braid is clearly lying to his bride about, well, everything might be a contributing factor to the tension between them. And in the background of this picture of domestic non-bliss is the unfolding story of the “Acid Bath Murderer,” a serial killer of whom Hurst and Twist are in hot pursuit. The murderer seems to be following the pattern of one of the mystery novels written by Andrea’s favorite author, a book that every character in the present day seems to have read. Do the troubles facing the Braids and their neighbors have any connection to the serial killer? And what of the impossible disappearance that occurs three quarters of the way through the story? What does that have to do with the larger picture?

And that’s just Narrative #1. In Narrative #2: Halter provides us with the tragic tale of the Jacobs family, who live in a bad part of, I think, London town and get involved in one death after another, including, of course, yet another impossible crime. It’s harder to hang onto any particular character here because they all keep disappearing or dying. Hovering over all the mysteries generated here is the big question: why the heck is Paul Halter giving us two cases for the price of one? What is the connection between the present case and a story set so far in the past that nobody from the present could be alive or involved . . . unless, as is hinted at one point, one could travel back and forth in time!!!

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So listen: I love a good story where the author successfully connects a present day mystery to past incidents. The room at the top of the stair where nobody who spends the night has survived, the presence of a ghost with a grudge against the current residents of a house or village, the modern vendetta against a wrong from the distant past, the building of a home on an ancient burial ground . . . All of these have proven to be fodder for some great mysteries.

But not here. Frankly, this book is a mess. Central to the problem for me is the behavior of John and Andrea Braid toward each other, which simply makes no sense yet has to happen so that Halter can push the plot along. That is one of my main complaints about this author: people act without rhyme or reason merely to serve the demands of the plot. And if the plot is iffy, then the actions of the characters become muddled to the point of nonsense. Another of my confusions is technical: the Victorian plot is narrated by a third person omniscient voice, while the present day plot is told in the first person by John Braid . . . except when it’s not. Halter switches points of view in a harrowing way, sometimes mid-chapter. And there’s no reason why Braid would share his thoughts with the reader the way he does, except that Halter wants to dangle suspicion over certain characters this way. It’s a technique he uses in book after book, and it’s growing tired, if you ask me!

We even get a third narrative going, one that I don’t want to go into detail over so that I won’t spoil things too much, but once the smoke clears at the end, there are all sorts of loose ends from three different tales that don’t add up so well. I will say that it involves a little meta-work on the part of Halter, but without the success of, say, the locked room lecture in Carr’s The Three Coffins or the dying message lecture in Ellery Queen’s The Tragedy of X.

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The link between the separate histories is finally explained, not in an illogical way but in one that left me unsatisfied. Still, I can forgive a lot if the mystery itself is a good one, with a villain who is well-concealed. This has been another of my complaints about Halter: I usually spot the culprit very early on in the proceedings. Here, I will say, I did not solve either case, but the quality of the solutions was mixed. The past case sorted itself out more satisfactorily than the one in the present. The emotional aspects of the Jacobs’ tragedy were clearer and easier to latch onto than the problems brewing in the Braids’ marriage because I simply couldn’t buy the latter. And the impossible aspects were more clever in the older tale. Finally, while the connection between one era’s crimes to the other had a haunting aspect to it, the identity of the “Acid Bath Killer” and the murderer in Braid’s neighborhood ultimately left me cold, and the intricacy of this double or triple plotted novel finally collapsed in on its own weight. Funny, I don’t remember this happening in the actual mysteries of the old days with the regularity with which it seems to happen to Halter.