Dale Carnegie said: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.” Try applying this truism to the classic mystery, and you can perhaps see why some people turn away from the tendency of these stories to shortchange the emotional aspects of murder, while others are drawn to the emphasis on puzzle out of 1) a desire to exercise their own little grey cells, or 2) a need to put aside the emotional maelstrom of the real world and reside in a more ordered, less messy society for a few hours.
While it’s true that most of the old classics appeal to the brain and tend to minimize matters of the heart, even the most puzzle-oriented of authors occasionally slip in something that tugs at your heartstrings. In truth, I’m an old softie, so it’s no surprise that I’m drawn to those titles and that many of them have found their way to the top of my favorites lists.
Of great interest to me was that as I was compiling a list of books that fit this category, I noted that almost every one of them was written in the 1940’s, specifically during the final stages and aftermath of World War II. Not all of them address the war directly – some not at all – but it seems highly likely that living through this international cataclysm had a profound effect on these writers. It made me wonder if I should be focusing my talents on the SilverAge, where the psychological element began to crowd out the pure puzzle. Yet all of the authors on my list were definitely Golden Age authors, and most of them were, first and foremost, puzzle crafters throughout their lengthy, prolific careers.
Perhaps the fact that my tastes coincide with this historical time is just that – a coincidence. At any rate, while I know many of my readers and blogging friends prefer their crime stories free of sentiment, for the rest of you, I thought I would offer a signpost draped in flowers of books by my four favorite authors that mystified me in that good ol’ GAD way andmoved me in the mysterious ways that the best of writers do.
Agatha Christie and The Artist’s Gaze
I’ve been reading Christie for fifty years. With two exceptions (Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate), I’ve read every book at least twice and most of them 3 – 6 times. I more than love Agatha Christie; I’ve made a study of her. Yet it has taken me many years of living my own life to find the depth of emotion in her writing.
As a plotter, she is ruthless. Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver may live to bring young lovers together; Christie is never afraid to tear them asunder. Much of her ability to surprise comes from her willingness to make anybody the killer. But rarely does the moment come after the killer has been unmasked that everybody’s life falls apart. Husbands and wives lose each other, parents their children and vice versa. Christie quickly cleans up the emotional mess (the bereaved lover has another admirer waiting in the wings; the grieving parent will soon die of cancer and suffer no more) or avoids it altogether by keeping the unhappiest person offstage and mentioned only in passing, if at all.
This was definitely the case through the first two decades of Christie’s career. But the second world war shook her up, and her keen understanding that the genre was changing loosened her up a bit. Plus, as Christie got older, her characters got more reflective so that by the 1960’s there was an air of melancholy behind much of her plotting.
Sometimes, Christie’s tapping into the emotional scene surrounding murder led to greatness, no more so than in a pair of novels from the 1940’s that mirror each other in a way due to their similar preoccupation with art, fame, and greatness. The victims in Five Little Pigs (1942) and The Hollow (1946) (two books I have covered at great length in this space before – but then I love talking about them) are both passionate men. Painter Amyas Crale and Doctor John Cristow have achieved great things in their work but also in their personal lives: Amyas has a thriving career as a renowned painter and still finds time for a wife who is both beautiful and tempestuous, a baby daughter, a gorgeous, willful mistress, an adolescent sister-in-law, and a pair of friends dating back to his boyhood. John is on the cusp of finding a cure for a terrible disease as he still balances an adoring wife and not one but two mistresses. If there is a greatness about them, something larger than life, they are also both great big jerks – giving generously of themselves in their work and conversely selfish in their emotional and physical needs.
Still, it’s not a great surprise that both end up dead, and their murders are not what pull at our emotions. It’s the lives of the people around them, all more deeply affected by the crime than is usual for Christie and all moved by their emotions into action. In Pigs, it is mostly time and the failing powers of memory that create barriers for Hercule Poirot in his quest to prove whether or not Caroline Crale murdered her husband, a crime she did not deny committing until after her conviction, and then only privately. In The Hollow, an entire family comes together to cause confusion to Poirot in an attempt to protect one of their own.
Despite the obstacles of the murder in retrospect or the murder where everybody lies, Poirot reaches the truth in both cases, and this is where Christie succeeds in on an emotional basis. In one case, the unmasking of the killer reveals the shattering loss that the act of murder has wrought on the culprit. In the other, the solution may carry emotional heft, but the real impact occurs afterward to one particular survivor of the events, revealing the shattering power of Art itself to both wound and heal.
Ellery Queen and the Humanization of a Detective
Much has been said of the distinct periods in the life of the fictional Ellery Queen. The changes in the character’s very nature and in the focus of his cases came about as authors Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee followed the trends of popular culture and pursued certain thematic ideas close to their hearts. We speak of three distinct periods, but really there were many incarnations of Ellery Queen, all of them different, if you take into account the fellow you meet in the movies, on the radio, and on television.
The difference between Literary Queens #1 and #2 came about gradually after the publication ofThe Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) and was largely affected by the creators’ desire to appeal to the readers of women’s magazines. So, while the 1936 title Halfway House could have been called The Swedish Match Mystery, the authors began to move away from a coldly intellectual puzzle (the ubiquitous “Challenge to the Reader” was dropped here) and softened Ellery from a pompous decipherer of clues to a more humane individual. Each of the subsequent Period Two novels chipped away further at Ellery’s shell; the only problem was that for much of this period, particularly when Ellery is working in Hollywood, the mysteries themselves suffer and the characterization is not sufficient enough to compensate.
Then the U.S. entered World War II, and Ellery made his first trip to Wrightsville. This marked a rebirth for the detective. In 1942, three years had passed since the publication of The Dragon’s Teeth, arguably one of the weakest Queens ever written. If it also represents a mystery written by the fictional Ellery Queen, one can understand why the character wanted a change of scene to work on his next novel. What he found was a small New England town, reminiscent of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the setting for Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play, Our Town. Both locations share a large cast of characters and a sense that for generations, everything changes and yet stays the same. In Calamity Town, the winds of war are beginning to stir greater change in the people of Wrightsville, but all Ellery sees is a bucolic haven from the frantic pace of the city and the weary grind of crime-solving – in short, a perfect getaway in which to write.
If only Ellery had read his Miss Marple, he could have been reminded that bucolic villages are in reality cesspools of sin. Either that, or Ellery was indeed a magnet for crime, since every single visit he would make to Wrightsville, over the course of many novels and short stories, would engender major crimes and emotional turmoil.
Calamity Town marked a change to the detective and to the tone and complexity of his cases that was in no way subtle. Perhaps this is why Period Three has such clear adherents and equally certain detractors, who miss the acrostic-like nature of the “nationality + noun” mysteries of Period One. There is no doubt that this novel, and the Wrightsville-set sequel that follows, 1945’s The Murderer Is a Fox, lack the chess moves and multiple false endings of your Greek Coffin or Egyptian Cross mysteries. What they lack in clues, they make up for in complex characters, novelistic themes, and emotional heft. 1948’s Ten Days Wonder returns to a trickier pace but is balanced by a grand wallop of an idea, one that Dannay and Lee would explore for the rest of their writing career. It is my least favorite of the Wrightsville novels, but it is important for the effect the case has on Ellery and for how it leads into his return to Gotham and to the authors’ magnum opus, Cat of Many Tails (1949). This novel brings New York to life as no other Queen novel before it had done, in all its gritty, terrifying glory. The mystery is both intimate and epic, containing moments of true terror as a serial killer stalks the heat-plagued summer streets of the city, wreaking havoc with a seemingly patternless series of stranglings, sparking riots and bringing out the worst and best in the citizenry.
When it’s over, the mood feels anything but triumphant, and the novel provides a climax that began in 1942, when Ellery first arrived in Wrightsville on the pretext of writing a novel but, in reality, searching for . . . something. The finale of Catfinds the novelist/detective on the verge of losing everything. It would be a hard-hearted reader indeed who is not moved by the existential journey taken by this previously impervious fictional character over the course of these four novels.
(NB: In 1943, Queen’s publication of There Was an Old Woman interrupted this pattern. The novel is as screwball as a tale by Delano Ames or Kelley Roos. But evidence suggests it had been written earlier and reworked; possibly it was the very novel Queen was working on and had to abandon when Christie published And Then There Were Nonein 1939. I will say, however, that the trick ending does pack a punch, even if it is more of a smack compared to our emotional journeys through Wrightsville.
How John Dickson Carr Touched This Old Heart – Twice!
Sometimes an author can touch you not for what they are best known for but for the cumulative effect of a plot strand or the way a character is created. In Five Little Pigs, Christie doesn’t lavish many of her usual tricks of misdirection; it is one of her most straightforward plots, and yet it is also one of her best because of the way she digs into these people.
When I started reading mysteries at a tender age, John Dickson Carr quickly became my other favorite author because he was equally audacious in his desire to bamboozle us. Ellery Queen could do this too, but both men, at least in their early work, were so technical in their approach to the puzzle that the characters suffered, and our reactions, strong as they were, tended toward the intellectual rather than the emotional.
But as we’ve seen, the 1940’s brought changes to the approach or the interest or the focus of these authors. The difference between Carr and the others is that he never sacrificed the puzzle for more compelling focus on psychology. If the novelistic trappings of the writer couldn’t fit in to his primary plan to fool us, then Carr seemingly had little interest in padding his books to fit that stuff in.
On two occasions in the 1940’s Carr managed to fit it all in. Interestingly, these are both novels that I only read in the last couple of years, and I am the happier for it. Having the insight of a man who has lived some life rather than a boy at the very beginning of it has, I think, allowed me to better absorb the emotional impact of both these titles. And although the mechanism for this works differently in each work, both novels left me reeling in the best of ways.
She Died a Lady, published in 1943 under Carr’s alias Carter Dickson, is narrated by Luke Croxley, the doctor in the small village of Lynmouth. He is old and on the verge of retirement, and he lives with his son whom he is proud to let take over his practice. As usual with a Sir Henry Merrivale mystery, the cast is small, and it centers on a romantic triangle between a gentle old man, his voluptuous wife, and the handsome actor with whom she is carrying on right under her husband’s nose.
The mystery that is presented is a fine one, full of impossibilities laid out on a richly drawn landscape. (That cliff . . . !) In the end, I would venture to say that Carr/Dickson bamboozles us but good! And the nature of that authorial rug-pulling can’t help but do an emotional number on all but the chilliest of us. In the vaguest of SPOILERS I can give, there are reliable narrators and unreliable narrators. Here we have a third kind, and Dr. Croxley proves to be as unforgettable as the chain of events he witnessed.
He Who Whispers (1946) is a different kettle of fish because its status as a puzzle stands on shakier ground. Check out the blogs of a wide variety of folks who admire or love Carr and you’ll see a pretty wide disparity on their opinions of this one. I think some of the antipathy focuses on the clueing. I don’t pay enough attention to this, and I also tend to find my focus blurring over any discussion about the technical aspects of an impossibility. I will also admit here that, although I didn’t catch onto the killer’s plan until it was explained, I identified the culprit pretty much immediately.
That said, this is one of those reads that socks you in the gut, and it all has to do with Carr’s handling of the central character, Fay Seton. Carr has played the game many times before as to whether a leading female character is good or evil, and we know he is willing to come down on any number of sides. Over the course of the novel, the depictions of Fay run the gamut from wronged innocent to a literal, blood-sucking vampire. The truth about Fay is a bombshell for its time and is sensitively handled by the author. What’s more, once the case is solved, Carr has some further matters to take care of. I love a novel where the last sentence truly matters. I was at work when I finished this one, and I remember putting down the book and desperately wishing I had someone of an understanding nature to talk to about this. That’s how hard this novel hits me, no matter how much you want to argue about the quality of the puzzle. (I liked that part just fine, too, but what do I know?)
“Playing with the Queen of Hearts . . . “
I’ll announce this right here. Given how strongly I feel about Christianna Brand, I find it personally unconscionable that I have only read each of her mysteries once. I intend to do something about that, as soon as I can find a good affordable copy of Green for Danger. (I gave a lot of books away when I bought a house, to my infinite regret today.)
Nobody tugs at your heart like Brand does. Her novels are both humorous and filled with pathos. Her characters are never “types” but fully fleshed individuals (albeit mostly of the upper-class British variety). But Brand always takes the time to establish her milieu and the complex relationships between her closed circle. She doesn’t merely show us motives for murder. She also shows who people love and like and feel indifferent about. She makes us care about awkward people and find the good side to difficult folks. When somebody gets murdered, we rarely feel that perverse sense of all mystery readers that a sort of justice has been done. (Come on, was anybody actually rooting for Mrs. Boynton, or Marcus Chesney, or Cornelia Potts, or Mr. Shaitana?)
Because I’ve only read her novels once – and then quite a long time ago – I can’t remember enough details to talk with any authority about her books. But if there is anybody reading here who has not sampled her work, I want to point out that, in addition to the qualities I describe above, here are a few other things you can expect to find in her work:
- Brand excels at spreading suspicion around, at the same time manipulating us to imagine how horrible it would be if X, Y, or Z indeed turned out to be the killer. And even though she casts the net wide, in at least three cases (that I won’t name), she still manages to shock the hell out of us in the final reveal.
- In terms of clueing, Brand has no better in her ability to hide something revelatory in plain sight. How sorely I want to give you fifty examples now! (When I come to London in 2019, can we have a confab where we just talk about Brand??) I will give one example from Green for Danger, as vaguely as I can: Cast your mind back to the killer’s motive and how it rolls out. Part of the brilliance of this is the way characters’ inner mindsets are revealed. Christie also does this brilliantly. Am I confusing you? Go read the book!
- Few classic mystery authors waste much time showing how goddamn awful it is to be involved in a murder investigation. (It’s one of the reasons P.D. James dismissed the whole era with a sniff. I pity her!) This is not Brand. She portrays suspicion as a disease and Inspectors Cockrill or Charlesworth as a doctor trying to effect a cure. Much is made about “the restoration of order” at the end of a GAD detective novel. In a Brand story, you really feel this because she was so adept at depicting the emotional havoc that murder creates.
There are numerous other examples where mystery writers have ignored or bypassed the PFF law (“Puzzle First and Foremost”) to create works that touch our hearts. I was devastated at the end of Miss Pym Disposes by the futility of the main character’s actions as a result of her own hubris. I was deeply moved by the emotional arc of Peter and Iris Duluth’s stormy courtship and marriage throughout Patrick Quentin’s series about them. The love they feel for each other, even when they are torn apart, is a grand counterpoint to the wit that permeates the cases themselves. (This is another series I am re-collecting to re-read after many years.)
If you have favorites that moved you to a surprising depth of feeling, I would love to hear about them below.