A CENTENARY CELEBRATION (with special guests!)

Coming up just ahead of my first birthday as a blogger, I am excited to present my one hundredth post. A mere eleven and a half months ago, I was a mere shlub brimming with excitement to have discovered a community of readers, writers and thinkers who were just as obsessed with a love for classic mysteries as I was. I owe my entry into the blogosphere to Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp, who took a chance on guest-hosting a young, vital, handsome and enthusiastic wannabe writer (okay, the enthusiastic part is true) who just wanted to express his views on his favorite mystery author, Agatha Christie. Here I am, ninety-nine posts lighter, having talked about Christie and other old favorites (Carr, Queen, Brand) as well as “new” classic authors who have become favorites (Helen McCloy, Harriet Rutland, Norman Berrow) and not-so-much favorites (er, Paul Halter . . . . . )

Over the summer, my good buddy Kate, the Armchair Reviewer at Cross Examining Crime, got a bunch of us together to create a new occasional series of group opinions on various topics of interest. The premiere entry had to do with authors we wish had written one more novel. (Here’s that post.) This month, I have been given the honor of hosting, and I am thrilled to devote the hundredth post to the community of new friends I have made.

 

The question this time around stems from my recent analysis of Christie’s Destination Unknown, one of her lesser stand-alone thrillers. In the discussion that followed, folks wondered about other favorite authors who had written the occasional stinker. Inspired by this, I suggested that this become the next topic for The Verdict of Us All: What’s one mystery that you wish a favorite mystery author hadn’t written?

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Of course, Kate, wanting to be teacher’s pet, sent the first entry, choosing an author whom many bloggers have noted for the inconsistent quality of his work:

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This was certainly a tricky decision for me to make, as it is not just a case of picking any novel you can’t stand, but such a novel from an author you really like. I was tempted to pick Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (1934), being one of my least favourite Sayer novels. Yet many readers online extol its’ virtues and part of me wonders whether a re-read might make me see it in a better light. I also toyed with Manning Coles The Fifth Man (1946), but then I realised there were a few other poor reads of his that I had read, meaning this one didn’t stand out as an exceptionally bad book. I finally decided on Nicholas Blake’s The Morning After Death (1966), as this is the final Nigel Strangeways mystery and what an awful finale it is, making the endearing and likeable Nigel into a creep seamy old man who is dismissive of women, a transformation all the more radical, considering the fact that in earlier novels he affirms independent women. After all he did marry an explorer. Additionally, the investigation Nigel leads in The Morning After Death is also much poorer than say those in Thou Shell of Death (1936), There’s Trouble Brewing (1937) and The Beast Must Die (1938), with a marked absence of physical clues and the case itself fails to entertain. Suffice to say I think like Poirot, Nigel does not work well in a post 1960s world.

Next up, The Puzzle Doctor, host of the blog In Search of The Classic Mystery Novel, sent an entry that I bet will be the most controversial pick, since so many people consider it one of the author’s best:

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It’s an interesting question because most authors, especially those with long bibliographies, have produced more than one disappointment in their careers. You could identify Postern Of Fate by Christie, but there was more than just that one disappointment from the end of her career, for example. Ditto Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. I’m going to pick one by Carr, but it won’t be the one that you might expect. I wish Carr hadn’t written the book that he’s most renowned for, The Hollow Man.

I’ll explain my thoughts. I think more than any writer, Carr is famous for this one novel, and I don’t think it comes close to being his best work. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad book, but off the top of my head, The Judas Window, She Died A Lady, He Who Whispers, Til Death Us Do Part and The Black Spectacles (and a few more) are much better. But because of chapter 17 of The Hollow Man, the “locked room lecture”, that book always seems to get the attention. Without it, could more of Carr’s work be in print? Possibly…

I love the opinions of my fellow academic, Bev from My Reader’s Block. She picked a writer and novel that she actually reviewed on her own site, and I’m glad she included the link to the whole review:

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My choice for the mystery that a mystery author shouldn’t have written is Gently Go Man by Alan Hunter. Hunter generally provides very entertaining police procedurals with solid plots and a central investigator, Inspector Gently, who is intelligent and can take on a variety of situations. But Gently Go Man is like way out there, man.  Like the mostest in the way of late 50s/very early 60s talk.  Like maybe too much mostest.  You dig me, man? As I mention in my full review, I am solidly lodged in squaresville.  I just don’t dig this book, man.  It doesn’t reach me. Hunter seems to go out of his way to be over-the-top in slang and Inspector Gently and his investigation gets lost in the shuffle.

That was far out, Bev, er, thanks for the entry.

Next, Moira from Clothes in Books chose a novel from one of our more recent A-list mystery writers:

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I wish Ruth Rendell had not written A New Lease of Death. In general I much prefer her earlier books to her later ones, but this 1967 entry is a sad exception. It has a ridiculous plot, excruciating snobbish attitudes, and a final twist that screams out to most readers, surely, from very early on  – it’s an idle idea that might have made a reasonable short story, but has been stretched out to a novel while everybody catches up. Wexford and Burden are particularly rude and unpleasant to those around them, and the moral framework does not stand up to any examination. I did a blogpost on it here.

 

My blood brother JJ over at The Invisible Event has chosen for his author one of the fathers of the Golden Age. Those who originate the form that we all study and enjoy may have even more to answer for when they produce a lemon, as JJ notes here:

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Wiping a book out of history isn’t something to be done lightly, but I’d have to opt for Anthony Berkeley’s Not to be Taken (1938).  I consider it a stain on his otherwise exceptionally intelligent and perceptive output — this is a man who introduced the Gentleman Sleuth who keeps getting the solution to the central crime wrong, after all.  The characters are idiots, the sudden introduction of some intrigue is there to pad the pages and then drops away for no reason, someone changes their testimony at an inquest in a way that changes everything and no-one even blinks…the entire book seems to have been constructed on the hoof and never checked for consistency and reason.  The Challenge to the Reader is a particular low point, as Berkeley has the temerity to ask for a “dominant clue” and then reveal the solution by having two characters simply agree that a series of perfectly plausible solutions couldn’t have happened for no reason other than they say so, and makes his “dominant clue” something dropped into the dreary conversations you had to endure in the first 50 pages that could just as easily be dismissed or given a number of different interpretations.  Lazy, lazy garbage, and unbecoming for someone as talented and important to the genre as Berkeley was.

John from Pretty Sinister Books sent a post to which I can relate well:

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When I was a teen I devoured all the later Ellery Queen novels I could get my hands on.  But even while still in high school I was developing a distaste for the backward stereotyped portraits of gay men and lesbians in the books I read. The Last Woman in His Life was published in 1970, only six years prior to my reading it. I loathed it. In order to tell you why I hate it so much I have to give away the ending. So fair warning my contribution constitutes a huge spoiler for the book though of course I don’t recommend it at all.

The premise is that the title is a huge red herring and the titular “last woman” is actually a man. You see, all gay men are psychopathic stalkers and sad lovelorn losers who love to dress in women’s clothes. Didn’t you know that? This book also has a fairly good dying clue that involves the word homosexual which eluded me and yet left me angry and pissed off. There is an entire subgenre of mystery novels which rely on transvestism as the “shocking” twist when the killer is revealed and they include both men disguised as women as well as women mistaken as men. However, when a writer doesn’t know the difference between a drag queen and a transvestite or know that statistically most transvestites are straight men not gay men then he ought not to write about gay people at all. Most gays in 1970 were not dolling themselves up in womens’ clothes in order to find a man. Most of them were struggling to reconcile their latent urges and admit that they had a sexual attraction to men. Donald Westlake’s A Jade in Aries, written under his “Tucker Coe” alter ego — and published in the very same year — is a much more accurate picture of gay life in early post-Stonewall, though it does spend too much time on the depressed and damaged men more than the well-rounded, content men. The Last Woman in his Life is a poorly conceived plot that only reveals the ignorance and bigotry of Dannay and Lee and whoever was the ghostwriter for this one. I wish I could find all copies of the book and burn them. But amazingly it was included among the Ellery Queen reprints released by Open Road Media just last summer. If only it had been left to rot in the closet of shame where it belongs.

John , I couldn’t have put it better myself (although I tried because this is the book I had chosen!!) But you put it so well (and I am, after all, a gracious host) that I simply had to defer to you.

Which leaves me to bring up the rear, and since nobody chose Christie, I would be remiss not including her here. Still, while there are a number of easy targets, especially from the last decade of her career, I thought I would choose a title not because it’s a bad book – in many ways, it’s one of my favorites – but because it makes me so damn mad! So here goes:

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I wish Christie had not written The Hollow. Is it a good mystery? Oh, yes. Does it explore character in ways that others of her books do not? Most definitely! So why this book?

As a person proud of his Jewish heritage, I understand that if you choose to study, ponder and enjoy a body of work stemming from the first half of the 20th century, you have to brace yourself for the casual racism, anti-Semitism and stereotyping of gay people found in a disproportionate number of writers. Still, the effect is no less hurtful even when one tries to come to terms with the attitudes of the British empire at the time. (And listen, it’s just as prevalent in American books and films of the 1930’s.) Throughout the 20’s and 30’s, Christie’s displays of unenlightened thinking pepper her work. Sometimes this is “balanced” by “sympathetic” Jewish characters, intelligent, charming people whose only true flaw seems to be that they are “a Jew, of course.” And often those expressing anti-Semitic views are actually shown in a negative light themselves. Furthermore, Christie herself claimed to have seen the light after meeting a noted German antiquarian in the 30’s whose declaration that Jewish people should be exterminated cued her into the ugly anti-Semitism emanating from Hitler’s regime.
So then, what is one of Christie’s most vitriolic displays of anti-Jewish sentiment doing in a post-war novel? And worse, the character most guilty of it is one of the most sympathetic, Midge Hardcastle. Midge complains venomously about the “vitriolic little Jewess” for whom she works. Midge calls her “a Whitechapel Jewess with a voice like a corncrake.”

American publishers cut these references out of U.S. versions, and I appreciate the compromise. The Hollow really is a fine book. Still, it is hard to reconcile one’s love and respect for an author’s skill with these inexcusable positions, and in a finer world, Christie would not have held these beliefs or displayed them with such casual insensitivity in some of her best mysteries.

Well, there you have it: a list of books that might not make it onto your TBR pile. Consider this post a public service. If you’ve read any of these choices and agree or disagree, feel free to express your opinions below. And if there are other books you feel we should all avoid or, at least, not judge an author’s overall quality by, let me know about those as well.

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And thanks to everyone who has followed, read, shared and/or commented on any of my first hundred posts. The one-year anniversary draws nigh. I’ll bring the cake!

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36 thoughts on “A CENTENARY CELEBRATION (with special guests!)

  1. Delightful to be asked to collude on this with you, some very good points raised (I remember Kate hating that Blake in particular…ha!).

    And, I know, I know, someone should cry “Sacrliege!” at the Doc’s appropriation of The Hollow Man — I’d have gone Papa La-Bas myself — but I’ve often wondered the same thing: were it not for that one, undeservedly totemic, book, would we have more Carr available? It’s really not his best — top fifteen, sure, probably top ten — and commands an exceptional amount of attention in any discussion that centres on Carr. We detective fiction oenophiles know how much great work he did, and it’s like a band only being asked to play the same song over and over again…so while I don;t exactly support PD’s choice, I don’t exactly oppose it either.

    And Happy Hundred, Brad — here’s to many more of ’em!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post. The EQ complaint is unduly overheated, however. The book does not make any universal claims such as that “all gay men are psychopathic stalkers and sad lovelorn losers who love to dress in women’s clothes” or that it’s not true that “statistically most transvestites are straight men not gay men,” It’s just a story about the people the story is about. If a homosexual male has ever fit into the category of “psychopathic stalkers and sad lovelorn losers who love to dress in women’s clothes,” that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to write about.

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    1. Sam, I have no problem with gay psychopaths, per se :), but I think one point I would consider is the dearth of gay characters in all fiction of that time, let alone mystery fiction. Gore Vidal, a gay author, created tortured characters like the protagonist in The City and the Pillar and, of course, those found in Myra Breckenridge. I didn’t seek out “gay” fiction or gay characters, so when one of my favorite authors included one, I noticed him more. And this killer had a similar profile to Norman Bates in Psycho, with a monstrous mother who wanted a girl and dressed him up in girl’s clothing. Growing up, I NEVER wanted to be a girl or to be any man’s girl. For most of the book, Al is depicted as a man’s man. I would have even been happier if Al had simply gone to Johnny and said, “I love you like you have loved women, and I don’t know what to do about it.” But that wouldn’t have explained the clothes on the floor, so a whole backstory had to go in to serve the puzzle.

      And on a side note that has nothing to do with sexuality, the reasoning for WHY Johnny says “Home” is so overly clever as to be ludicrous. It cheapened the whole dying message idea, and it was totally unbelievable that THIS is what went through Johnny’s mind as he lay dying. There MUST have been a better way . . . !!!

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  3. Lots of interesting choices, quite a few surprises. Wonder what JJ will make of the Puzzle Doctor’s choice? Definitely fun doing these posts and this is certainly a ripe topic for discussion. Impressed everyone restrained themselves from choosing Passenger to Frankfurt.

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  4. Some very idiosyncratic choices here. Surely, many of EQ’s later books shouldn’t have been written, at least not under the EQ name. Perhaps The Three Coffins (Hollow Man) isn’t JDC’s best, but it’s still a tour-de-force, and there are a number of his late books that are far worse. As for Christie, she should have never written The Big Four and neither should anyone else have! Also, I think getting upset because characters in a book express attitudes that are currently un-PC is anachronistic. Whatever you do, don’t read Mickey Spillane, especially Vengeance is Mine!

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  5. Congratulations on your 100th post, Brad! And here’s hoping there are many more!
    I dickered between a Ngaio Marsh and a Patricia Wentworth for this – both certainly wrote clunkers – but the Marsh won out. Artists in Crime ought to be one of her better books but it is spoilt by the painfully coy burgeoning romance between Alleyn and Troy, with conversations that must have sounded ridiculous even back when the book was published. The book then swerves into Grand Guignol with the discovery of the prime suspect dead in a warehouse, having been force fed acid.
    Mind you, it gets worse in Death in a White Tie, in which the happy couple discuss Troy’s fear of ‘The physical side’. Nooo… (covers ears).

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    1. I haven’t been able to crack Wentworth, but I read every Marsh and enjoyed most of them at the time. They don’t have the re-readability of Christie, or her cleverness or sense of mischief in plotting.

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  6. Happy 100th Brad. I’m raising a glass of bubbly over here. Well, okay, gassy lager.

    I’m about to post on one book I wish had never been written, but if I had to choose a clunker by an author I usually admire, it’s Margery Allingham’s The Mind Readers. Small boys doing telepathy. Embarrassing.

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  7. A nifty collection of books and opinions of their unlaudable qualities. Apart from the Queen I’ve read only two others — THE HOLLOW and THE HOLLOW MEN. Hmm… best not to use that adjective in a mystery title, eh? I’ll not be put off by the dismissal of NOT TO BE TAKEN. Berkeley is always interesting to me in one way or another. Except in the case of THE WYCHFORD POISONING CASE. I should have written about that book for all those idiotic spanking scenes and its very anticlimactic ending. Worse than the anticlimax of CURSE OF THE BRONZE LAMP which is my least favorite Carr book.

    I loved that my contribution was the only one attacked and dismantled. Such a cheap and easy target. There’s always someone out there who doesn’t recognize ironic humor and intentional hyperbole when he reads it. I laughed at being called “unduly overheated”. Couldn’t be more accurate at this time of year.

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  8. Congratulations on your blog-o-versary. On to many more years and book reviews.
    I haven’t read too many of these mystery “classics,” but when I ventured out into crime fiction reading as a teenager, I did read Agatha Christie’s books, among others.
    When I was 19, while reading one of Christie’s, I found the anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant views permeated the pages and I stopped cold and never read another book by her again. I also have Jewish heritage and could not stand the descriptions of a Jewish character.

    And, as for Mickey Spillane, I took one look at some of the paperbacks’ covers, saw tortured women and never began reading them. I have not yet and have no desire to do so.
    I kept busy then with the Holmes canon, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason and a few books by Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey.

    My father, who led me on the crime fiction path, loved John Dickson Carr’s locked-room mysteries/

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    1. And that has been – well, I can’t call it my dilemma because I’ve never stopped reading Christie. I might even check out Spillane if that style of mystery were even to my taste. Even Charles Dickens, whom I love, gave us Fagin. It’s part of the cultural attitudes of the past. I get that. But Christie played such a powerful part in my development as a reader, in my tastes and preferences, that this negative aspect of her personality rankles a bit more, due to the sentimental value her books have for me. I totally get where you’re coming from though, Kathy.

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  9. The writer Christopher Hitchens said after going to Christie’s home a few years before her death, that the air was permeated with anti-Semitism. And that was years after WWiI!

    I found a dilemma with the Nero Wolfe books, a lot of dislike of and stereotyping of women. And in one book, Too Many Cooks, overt racist language, including by Archie Goodwin. If that had kept up, I’ve have stopped reading the Wolfe canon, but I didn’t see that repeated in other books, although the attitudes about women kept up.

    Some women friends won’t read the Wolfe series because of that, but I overlook it.

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  10. Late to the party, but congrats on your 100th!

    I second the overheated John concerning The Last Woman in his Life. One of those books that make you want to wash your hands after reading it.

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