The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which was essentially borne out of the chaos of the First World War and began its slow decline partway through World War II, had a function beyond its power to entertain. The classic murder mystery served as a metaphor for war itself: a disruption of social order that tested the mettle of its citizenry, exposing the best and worst in human nature. And what a mystery could do that governments and soldiers could not is provide a quick, logical solution to a complex problem, leading to a restoration of social order in the novel’s community – and a sigh of contentment in the reader.
Critics of GAD fiction say the plots are formulaic and the characters cardboard, and to these accusations I say, “Pshaw!” Classic mystery authors did not have the advantage of mainstream authors to lay bare the history and motivations of their characters from the start. They had to construct a wall of obfuscation around the truth. (Yes, there are occasions when it’s okay to build a wall . . .) The naysayers must take into account that our opinion of nearly every character in a mystery undergoes a drastic change by story’s end, as does our perception of events. If this doesn’t happen, the writer is not doing her job.
See? They all say basically the same thing!
Still, I accept that mystery fiction written between the 1920’s and the 1940’s was subjected to a particular set of criteria – a common trait for all genre fiction – and that we who read and study mysteries tend to rate each book via its author’s success in meeting the standards we set for this criteria. This stringent evaluation process may have backfired on the true fans, for when the Golden Age went out of fashion, all but the “cream of the crop” faded into obscurity. And yet the massive changes wrought upon the current publishing industry by the onset of the Internet has included some surprising benefits for those of us who relish niche fiction. The rise of the small, print-to-order press, coupled with Internet access to titles now in the public domain have resulted in the happy reappearance of authors long forgotten, along with a growing cadre of scholars, both university-bred and home-grown, dedicated to studying and promoting this renaissance.
Many of us who grew up reading mysteries – and generally skimming the cream off the top – are now faced with increased choices and new opportunities. This has led to a rapid increase in the size of our TBR piles (but who’s complaining?) and the potential for new thrills . . . and new disappointments. Two years ago, I had never heard of Delano Ames, Alice Arisugawa, Margaret Armstrong, George Bellairs, Norman Berrow, Anita Blackmon, Eilis Dillon, Siobhan Dowd, Todd Downing, Robin Forsythe, Paul Halter, Mavis Doriel Hay, Annie Haynes, Hans Olav Lahlum, Helen McCloy, Rupert Penny, Tyline Perry, E.R. Punshon, John Rhode, Kelley Roos, Theodore Roscoe, Harriet Rutland, St. John Sprigg, Robin Stevens, John-Paul Torok, Noel Vindry, or Henry Wade.
I was ignorant; now I’m happy.
Now, I love to discover a fine “new” old author as much as the next guy, but every day I realize how lucky I was to grow up on the cream. As a genre, classic mystery novels are short enough to allow for much reading and much sampling. Yet to younger readers who find themselves growing fascinated by this most fascinating of genres, I say to you: “By all means, explore, but it’s important that you immerse yourselves in the classics. Build a foundation on the best of the best so that you can recognize what a truly great traditional mystery looks like.”
This is a process I practice with my film students every year. At the start, I warn them that after taking the class, they will never be able to relax at the movies again, munching their popcorn and leaving with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. They will have a deeper understanding about why a film is bad or good, of how a director manipulated the audience’s response with a selected shot, an arrangement of objects, or a quick edit. They will have undergone the transformation from fans to scholars. It’s not a journey for everyone, but for those who choose to take it, one must study the best of the best.
For me, the crème de la crème numbers four. It is this quartet of authors against whom I rate all others. In the cleverness of their plotting they are unmatched. They share a mastery over the art of misdirection, that ineffable quality so coveted by authors and so prized by discerning readers. Like magicians or con artists, they possess the ability to pull the wool over our eyes and the rug out from under us. Time and again, they make us jump out of our chairs and cry, “No way!”
In style, they could not be more different from one another, and each contributed something lasting to the genre that their peers and successors built upon in order to better their own writing. The first evolved from a traditionalist to an experimenter, and in doing so created perhaps the first detective with a strong inner emotional life who evolved from novel to novel. The second utilized the strict logic and emotionally cold rules of mystery writing to craft mysteries that broke your heart. The third was, quite simply, the master of miracles. And the fourth brought the mystery out of the millionaire’s drawing rooms and made it the provenance of the middle class. Oh, and she was the greatest mystery writer who ever lived.
I present them in ascending order of preference, two today and two tomorrow. In discussing their techniques, I name no killers but offer enough information that certain elements of their work might be spoiled. Take care as you read.
PART I. In which Ellery Queen broods on the act of murder and, like Pinocchio, transforms from a stick figure into a real boy.
It was supposed to be a lark: two cousins, Manny and Danny, the publicist and the advertising copywriter, entered a magazine contest to craft a full-length mystery. They took no chances and fashioned the structure and style of that first book, even the personality of the detective, after a sure thing, the successful mystery author S.S. Van Dine. And like Van Dine, there was something leaden about the first few efforts, although Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee could, from the start, create far more compelling and twisty mystery plots than their model author.
My blogging buddies JJ and Ben are struggling with these early titles. In a recent review (about rediscovered author John Rowland), JJ speaks about something called “the fun factor” an element of entertainment that can cause a book to transcend its own mediocrity. Sadly for JJ, there seems to be a distinct lack of fun in the early Queens. All I can do is urge both JJ and Ben to persist. In the words of the great Dan Savage, it gets better. Then it gets silly, then it gets great, and then it gets really weird and sometimes great.
Ellery Queen, more than any other detective character underwent one metamorphosis after another, partly to take advantage of publishing trends (something that Fred Dannay always had his finger on) and partly because of the Dannay’s evolving moral preoccupations. And it was in the author’s neurotic obsession with the nature of evil that something original and fabulous happened to his main character: he got a soul.
In First Period Queen, the puzzle predominated, the plots were complex in the extreme, the settings and/or murders bizarre (crucified corpses, corpses dressed in backward clothes, murders set near a nudist colony or a raging forest fire or a rodeo/circus) and the objective was to grab the reader by his intellectual gonads and shake him mercilessly. During the early days, the novels that drive some men mad, Ellery the sleuth was a supercilious twit, much like his inspirational hero, Philo Vance. Quickly, however, the authors grew tired of their creation and fashioned cases that took him down a peg. Faced with a series of failures (The Greek Coffin Mystery) or menaced by a forest fire and a first act mistake (The Siamese Twin Mystery), the Ellery of old began to soften. By 1937, he was flirting with girls and had traded his patronizing sense of superiority over even his own father with warm respect and a well-humored interest in mankind.
Perhaps it was the encroachment of World War II that ushered in Ellery’s richest, most psychologically complicated period. Those who do not prefer the later novels complain that the authors abandoned the puzzle mystery for something murkier. There is certainly a shift of emphasis from erudite ratiocination to emotional resonance, an expansion of the mystery plot to include political and spiritual issues, as well as a tendency on Dannay and Lee’s part to experiment with the form, sometimes not altogether successfully. But when they did succeed, the cousins produced wonderful stories that touched readers like the early books never could.
Queen’s favorite strategy of misdirection had to do with the establishment of a dark puppeteer lurking in the shadows and manipulating others. During and after the war, Dannay grappled ever more darkly with, to use a 1951 Queen title, The Origin of Evil. The seed of murder, planted in a man’s heart, could do wondrous and terrible things that extended far beyond the mere taking of a life. Evil was a multi-layered monster that could emanate from an individual’s darkest impulses or rain down from the highest halls of leadership – political, financial, military, or spiritual. Dannay’s cynicism about the corruption of power was evident; even more compelling was the depiction of the putrescent effect of hate or greed on an individual or community.
This was heady, intellectual stuff, and lest one should think that the author was going off the rails, Dannay’s search for depth within the mystery genre was perfectly consistent with the current intellectual trends in literature and theatre that sprang from the likes of Beckett, Camus, and Sartre. Ironically, this merging of the preoccupations of mankind with the prerequisites of mystery fiction inspired Queen to create some of his most brilliant and heart-rending twists. What they lacked in old-school bedevilment, they made up for in other ways.
All of this is embodied in the six novels written between 1942 and 1950, four of them set in the fictional New England town of Wrightsville. Thornton Wilder’s classic play, Our Town, had come out four years before Ellery first stumbled upon Wrightsville in Calamity Town and clearly inspired the cousins both in terms of using the village as a microcosm for human existence and in terms of focusing on the emotional lives of its characters. The members of the Wright family would fit in easily as neighbors to the Gibbs or the Webbs of Our Town. They are not the sort of people who fit into the stereotyped GAD family, found in country mansions and London townhouses, where murder seems like a natural outcome. They are flawed, but they are good people. When something goes wrong and murder happens, the novel doesn’t switch into interrogation mode or stop developing characters to focus on clues. Each step in the journey toward solving the crime affects the characters in ways that ripple deeper into the fabric of their lives. In the end, the case is solved. But order is definitely not restored, and Ellery slinks off with the sense that, even in his success, he has somehow failed these people.
The second Wrightsville novel, 1944’s The Murderer is a Fox, is a better mystery and no less emotionally devastating than its predecessor. It is both a novel of the present, featuring a WWII war hero suffering from PTSD, and one of Queen’s only novels of murder in retrospect. The shadows of the past wreak havoc on the Fox family, casting an epic tone over the proceedings. And yet, Fox is one of Queen’s most intimate and quietly devastating novels, and it continues chipping away at the last vestiges of Ellery as the epitome of the smug 1930’s sleuth.
That’s not to say that Ellery doesn’t find some relief along the way. In between the two Wrightsville books lies 1943’s There Was an Old Woman, which is sort of the screwball comedy version of 1930’s The Tragedy of Y. Both feature a family of grotesques, but where Y is grim and pessimistic, Woman is lively with humor and enough attractive, “normal” characters to balance the Lewis Carroll-like wackos that comprise half of the Potts family. The Queenian concept of the hidden mastermind hangs over both titles. It is positively chilling in The Tragedy of Y and adds a bittersweet note to the shenanigans of the later novel. Queen established himself as a master of the false solution as early as 1932 with The Greek Coffin Mystery, and he is equally adept in at least one of these two titles.
In 1948, Ten Days Wonder, the third Wrightsville mystery, introduces us to another prestigious town family, the Van Horns, who figure in one of Queen’s most audacious plots. This story features a plot device that increasingly became a favorite of the author’s: the series of bizarre, seemingly random events. Only after he can figure out the pattern to these incidents can Ellery begin to grasp the outrageous notion behind the murderer’s plot. What makes this novel so noteworthy is how Queen takes the tropes of classic fiction, like the false solution, and raises the stakes till it feels like we’re reading a mainstream novel that happens to deal with murder. As devastating as the finale of this case is for the Van Horn family, it is Ellery who truly suffers. For the first time in my knowledge, a series of novels traces the psychological breakdown of its main character, the repercussions of which will reach their apotheosis in the next novel and then echo for most of Queen’s late career.
Which sets you up for Queen’s masterpiece, published the following year. Cat of Many Tails works beautifully on so many levels: as a tensely portrayed hunt for a serial killer, as a critique of urban governance, and as a polemic on post-war race relations. New York during a heat wave has never served as such a potent metaphor for society’s ills. The cast of characters is enormous, with only a few clunkers (in that one or two characters seem to be stereotypical holdovers from Queen’s 1930’s work). In this novel, Queen has to be begged to participate, and he enters the search for the Cat with the understanding that can break him. This ramps the stakes – and the novel’s tension – to an almost unbearable degree and makes for some of the best writing of Queen’s career.
I include 1950’s Double, Double here because it is the final novel using Wrightsville as the predominant setting. Ellery will visit the town several times again, but these are, for the most part, lesser books, and the town becomes . . . just a town. Now, when I first read this one, I loved it, but a re-read forces me to acknowledge that perhaps Queen is double-dipping into his bag of tricks a little too quickly. We have another serial killer, another bizarre series of crimes whose pattern must be deciphered, and we have a finale that, moment for moment, strikes me as a stunning repeat of an all too recent title. Yet, even if it suffers in comparison to the stronger titles that preceded it, Double, Double is immensely enjoyable.
PART II. In which Christianna Brand finds the perfect mix of perfidy and pathos, earning herself the sobriquet of crime’s Queen of Hearts.
She had flitted about from job to job – as model, dancer, and governess. And now here she was, working in a fashionable dress salon, and her co-worker was so . . . damned . . . annoying! The only thing for it was to kill her off. Being a law-abiding citizen, however, it might be more constructive to plot this woman’s ingenious murder, put it all down on paper, and see if it would sell.
I wish I could be as informative or insightful about Christianna Brand as I have tried to be about Queen. (Thanks on that score are due in large part to authors Francis M. Nevins and Joseph Goodrich.) I wish a lot of things about Christianna Brand: that she had been more prolific. That she had she started earlier. If she had begun her career in the 20’s or early 30’s, I bet she would have claimed her rightful place as one of the four Queens of Crime, usurping Ngaio Marsh for sure or, perhaps even Marjorie Allingham. I wish I hadn’t read her so long ago or read her books only once. As it is, the enjoyment I derived from her mysteries floats in a hazy wave of memory. It has been so long since I read Death of Jezebel that I don’t remember much more than the gender of the murderer. I had no memory of it being an impossible crime. I’m far more familiar with Green for Danger, partly because I show the faithful film version to my cinema class on a regular basis. And I was so dazzled by Tour de Force (I know, I know, that opinion is controversial) that certain aspects of it – like the dazzling trick at its heart – are (groan) Branded in my memory.
Brand started writing in 1941, the year scholars claim marks the beginning of the slow decline of classic mysteries. Thankfully, nobody mentioned this to Miss Brand, for her work embodies both the style and standards of the best detective fiction. She only wrote ten mystery novels, six of them featuring her most famous sleuth, Inspector Cockrill, and eight of them written over the course of fourteen years, up through 1955. Her final mystery, A Rose in Darkness, appeared in 1979. I distinctly remember walking through a bookstore in London and coming upon this title, which I had never heard of. It was perhaps the greatest gift that such a trip could bestow: the discovery of an unknown work by a favorite author. (One other title, 1977’s A Ring of Roses, released under the pseudonym Mary Ann Ashe, seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. It is the only mystery of hers I do not own, and I would love to track it down.)
Could these two titles be the same book??? Inquiring minds would really like to know . . .
Brand didn’t stop writing, but I can only assume she tired of writing mysteries. She wrote historical novels under a number of assumed names. She even wrote a children’s series about a magical nanny named Nurse Matilda who enters the homes of unhappy families and makes everything right before you can say, “Spit spot!” These were turned into a couple of movies starring Emma Thompson. The character’s name, for some reason, was changed to Nanny McPhee, but much as I love Emma Thompson. Nanny McPhee was no Mary You-Know-Who.
Frankly, I can see Brand writing books for children, for there is a distinct touch of whimsy in her mysteries. They are really novels of manners with crime in them, although only a few take place on great estates. We find Brand’s folk in offices, in London townhouses, at a medieval pageant, on holiday in a tropical paradise, and most famously in an operating theatre during the Blitz. Her books are small gems populated by endearing people, none of whom one particularly wants to turn out to be a murderer. Brand opens her books with a list of the dramatis personae, followed by a warning that goes something like, “Among these six (or eight, or ten) ordinary people were included two victims and a murderer.” She does a commendable job getting you to develop a fondness for her characters, which never fails to elicit a deep emotional response at the end.
Despite being the author most affectionate to her characters, she is as ruthless as the rest of the quartet. No relationship is sacrosanct, and no suspect can be crossed off the list. She is also extremely devious, a true mistress of misdirection. She has great timing as to when to let us in on a thought or action, counting on us to put two and three together and get six. She does this brilliantly in her classic, Green for Danger, where one of the greatest mysteries is one of motive. The victim is a good man and a valued member of the community. And yet early in the game Brand lays out all the elements you need to determine the motive for murder, (and it’s a good one) yet she presents the facts in a way that lessens our ability to put the pieces together correctly. There’s something so open and honest about Brand’s style, mixing humor with an affectionate tone, openly describing an action or person in such good detail that you don’t imagine the woman leaving out a bit of information or manipulating your perceptions so that you don’t get a point that is staring you in the face. This early significant clue is brilliantly slipped under your nose in Green for Danger, in Tour de Force, and in Fog of Doubt. When you read Christianna Brand – and you must – you need to start paying attention right away, or you will lose the game!
Brand is also great when it comes to showing the toll that a murder and its subsequent investigation takes. Murder is a product of an unhealthy schism that has formed, sometimes hidden, within a small community, yet Brand has taken the time to show us the positive aspects of this group, how tightly woven together they are. Thus, Inspectors Cockrill or Charlesworth or Chucky, in working to expose the schism, do even further damage to relationships and personal security. It’s part of the game, but it is never so emotionally resonant as it is in Brand’s work. And the revelation of the killer, more often than not, is devastating because of the author’s sympathetic portrait of the culprit.
In part two of this post, we look at the second pair in this quartet, the two greatest mystery writers of the Golden Age and, perhaps, of all time. (If you guessed Bertha Ribbenthorpe and Oswald Slatt, you would be wrong.) And in the final part, I will illustrate the skill of my Number One Choice with an in-depth, spoiler-full analysis of one or two of her classics.