6/30/11

Rated M for Murder: Viewer Discretion Advised

"Television has brought back murder into the home – where it belongs"
- Alfred Hitchcock.
Yesterday, I had one of those lazy days, whose hours were entirely at my disposal to be wasted as I saw fit, and without any intrusions from other carbon-based life forms or anything of actual importance to do it was inevitable that I ended up pulling William DeAndrea's Killed in the Ratings (1978) from my congested shelves – and the book neatly ties-in with the previous, sloppily scribbled, review I posted only a few days ago.
William DeAndrea's Killed in the Ratings and Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Solution (1983) were both bestowed with a nomination for a prestigious Edgar award in the category of Best First Novel, but it was DeAndrea who walked away clutching the coveted statuette to his chest – and having read these narratives back-to-back it became apparent to me why Resnicow was unable to cash in his nominee in exchange for a bust of the father of the detective story. The Gold Solution is an entertaining and diverting read, showing plenty of zest and imagination, but also displays a still inexperienced writer who was testing the waters of the mystery genre. DeAndrea, on the other hand, seemed thoroughly comfortable within the genre in his debut – even though the plot was still rough around the edges. 

Killed in the Ratings formally introduces the readers to Matt Cobb, a corporate trouble shooter in the employ of a television network and attached to Special Projects, in which he handles everything that's too ticklish for security and too nasty for public relations, but in his first outing he has not yet earned his promotion to vice-president and the full responsibility of their dirt-sheet cover-up division – and as the events unfolded in this book I became, more and more, curious how the heck he survived this case to rise through the ranks of the networks. DeAndrea threw everything at him, from a phony murder rap that looms over his head like the Sword of Damocles to a band of mobsters stalking his every move, and he handled it all!

The trouble begins when Matt Cobb receives an uptight telephone call from a man who implores to rendezvous with him at a dingy, second-rate hotel, to discuss matters that will proof to be ruinous to the network and network television in general or else he will spill his story to the FBI, but it takes the name of his ex-girlfriend to agree to the meeting – and I think even the most unseasoned reader of detective stories can guess what happens next. Upon entering the grubby hotel room, Cobb stumbles over the body of a man, with an uncomfortable looking switch-blade stuck in his back, and is clobbered from behind with an ashtray – leaving him with more than he can explain to the cops when it's their turn to come busting through the door.

Making your protagonist one of the prime-suspects has long since ceased to be a revolutionary plot device, but in the able hands of a gifted artist there still is fun to be have with that ploy and I can envisage DeAndrea smirking as he came up with another disastrous plot twist to drag Cobb even deeper into a catastrophic quagmire. The reason why he wasn't charged on the spot is that he had a reasonably acceptable story to tell them and the fact that the homicide detective in charge is a close friend to his family, but the first antagonist he faces in this story is a Second Grade Detective who sees in him an easy collar to polish up his résumé – and he feels strengthened in his precipitate conclusion after uncovering that the blood-spattered stiff on the floor is the ex-husband who whisked away his ex-girlfriend to make her his wife. Cobb didn't help his case, either, by spending an hour at her apartment after the murder. 

But wait, it gets better! In between several botched attempts on his life, he also has to shake off an unscrupulous agitator and his henchmen who shares the detective's conviction of his guilt and holds him personal responsible for missing out on a big chunk of potential revenue – giving the plot more of a hardboiled edge than the later entries in this series. The story gets really violent at one point and I wonder if DeAndrea hadn't fully made up his mind at this point whether he should lean more to the tough, hard-bitten gumshoes or embrace the orthodox, puzzle-orientated approach, but when it was time to wrap-up all the loose-ends, during a William Powell-type dénouement, he had branded, what would become, in the succeeding years, his trademark on this book – equating hardboiled story telling with a conventional, intricately constructed plot and not afraid to crack a joke at his own expense. One of my favorite scenes in the book comes when Cobb is forced to hitch a ride from two gangsters, at gunpoint, to meet their employer while they exchange cutesy insults and acting very much like stereotypical gumshoe/mobsters – at which Cobb reflects that they must have watched the same movies when growing up.

That's William DeAndrea for you! He was well aware that his types of books didn't really require him to gaze too deeply into the human psyche and find the words needed to describe its dreary scenery, but that instead he could pull his readers into a parallel world where he could thrill, baffle or merely make people laugh – and that is, for the most part, enough for me. But just to show-off that he was better than most of his contemporaries in the field he made a social comment on racism and renounced it in a few, effective sentences when it would've taken most writers a couple of hundred pages. The mob-boss in this book is a Jew with a nasty personality and this elicits a comment from the homicide cop, who's doing his best to pin a murder charge on our trouble shooter, at which Cobb muses that it takes only one bad apple to confirm the stereotype and give people the excuse needed to be racist. Great huh? Cobb repudiates both the behavior of the self-styled Godfather and the attitude of the one-track cop without delving into unresolved childhood trauma's! These books should be required reading for everyone who wants to be a published author of crime books.

There are, however, two minor blotches that mar the overall quality of the book. The first speck is that I anticipated part of the solution because it was alluded to in one of the later stories, Killed on the Rocks (1990), but that's hardly a valid complaint when judging this book. The second problem is that one of the plot threads, concerning a key player, wasn't fairly clued and most of the revelatory information, hinting at part of the motive, was withheld from the reader until the final moment, but it's such a rich and complicated plot that's easy to overlook this single oversight and I'm very lenient when it comes to first efforts at crafting a detective story – so I'm going ahead and give this one full marks!

On a final note, I want to say that the next review here will be one in the series of foreign mysteries. But I haven't decided whether to go with a modern or a classic one. One of these days, these luxury problems will drive me sane again!

6/28/11

The Golden Pair

"Have no fear, Sire, I will remedy the oversight at once. The name of the murderer is—" I paused dramatically and looked stealthily over my shoulder.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Isn't this the point in the movie when a shot rings out from the surrounding darkness and I slump over dead before I can reveal the name of the evil killer?"
- Norma & Alexander Gold (The Gold Solution, 1983)
I have with a certain degree of regularity mourned the demise of the vision I had for this place, when I embarked upon this journey in the blogosphere, which was that of a digital mausoleum erected in the memory of the grandmasters and disregarded works of criminal fiction from a bygone era, but that went out of the window as a different pattern started to emerge in my reading habits and completely encompassed me – as the presence of contemporary practitioners, such as William DeAndrea and Bill Pronzini, shooed away the ghosts of John Dickson Carr and Kelley Roos. Today, I realized that my fellow Connoisseurs in Crime have been all but supportive in helping me breaking that habit and instead have been dangling novelists like Louise Penny and L.C. Tyler in front of me – which is the disastrous equivalent of pouring alcoholic beverages at an AA meeting.

But I can't blame them entirely for my precarious situation, in which I unmercifully have to pick and choose between detective stories from two different epoch's, since I picked up Herbert Resnicow without being probed by my habitual tormenters – and it's been a delight to discover another GAD throwback on my own accord.

The Gold Solution (1983) was Herbert Resnicow's first detective novel, in which he introduced the world to Alexander and Norma Gold, two behemoths of physical specimens endowed with an above average level of intelligence, and a penchant for the same kind of affectionate banter that makes the Jeff and Haila Troy mysteries such a joy to read. As a matter of fact, this book is not entirely dissimilar to a Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin story as perceived by Kelley Roos with a locked room problem thrown into the mix. The relationship between the genius Alexander and the snarky Norma here is especially akin to Wolfe and Goodwin. Alexander survived a brush with the specter of death and recovery binds him to an armchair, which leaves Norma with all the legwork and towing suspects to her husbands study – all the while keeping his ego in a manageable size with a few cutting remarks.

Alexander Gold is on the rebound from a nearly fatal stroke, but the road of recovery is a long and tedious one – and his considerable intellect is withering away with inactivity until one of his friends, a high profile criminal lawyers, offers him an enigmatic puzzle to solve. One of his clients, a young man named Jonathan Candell, is accused of killing his employer, Roger Talbott, one of America's foremost architects – and his fiancée and friends are convinced of his innocence. The problem is that he was found hunched over the body, with a bloodstained knife in his hand, inside a locked studio atop a brownstone that resembles a heavily guarded fortress – making it impossible for a second person to have slipped in and out of the room unnoticed to plunge a knife in Talbott's back. The hefty couple sets to work to examine the sealed environment of the studio for cracks and find out who of the partners in the firm squeezed through it to deliver the fatal knife thrust.

The impossible situation is not entirely unlike the one in Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938), but the solution here misses the spark of ingenuity of the titular window in Carr's novel and failed to excite me once the mechanics were explained. It's a workable solution, certainly, but it's also workmanlike rather than inspired – and basically an elaborate reworking of a time-honored trick. But I think the merits of this locked room illusion will be different for each individual reader and I don't want to take anything away from this highly diverting read, which was also his first foray in the genre and I make it a policy not to be too critical of first attempts at crafting a detective story. Imperfections are bound to show up. 

But Herbert Resnicow should be commended for retaining a light-hearted and spirited tone of story telling throughout the entire book, even when it becomes known that the victim had a taste for teenage girls, who bore a superficial resemblance to his dead mother, which would've been a turn for the worse in most of the crime novels of today, but here the focus remains on the intellectual problem – which is also something that was noted in his obituary (yes, he's gone, too!). He preferred to treat his readers on brainteasers, intellectual puzzles and just having some fun all-around.

Is this a perfectly constructed and executed detective story? I'm afraid not, but it's good and fun enough to keep the pages turning – and it's not a book that should be missing from your shelves if you're a fan of mystery solving husband-and-wife teams. Alexander and Norma Gold continued where Jeff and Haila Troy, Jane and Dagobert Brown and Pam and Jerry North left off and literarily demonstrated that there's always a place on the printed page for larger-than-life detectives – even in this day and age.

6/26/11

Columbo: Final Questions

"You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you're laying a mine field and wagging your tail."
- How the Dial a Murder.
Peter Falk (1927 – 2011)
It has been a busy week here, with new material popping-up at the top of the page nearly every day and the plan was to trickle down the outpour of activity a little bit after uploading the review of Patrick Quentin's Puzzle for Puppets (1944). But then the news broke that Peter Falk, whose disheveled appearance, from the rumpled raincoat, stumpy cigar and a tousled head of hair, was as iconic as the deerstalker and the underslung pipe, had passed away – and I just knew I had to watch and discuss a Columbo episode in his honor. 

Columbo slipped into his wrinkled raincoat, to doggedly pursue murderers, long before I was born, but I catch-up with the decades that preceded my existence in just few short years – as I watched well-nigh every episode on DVD and enjoyed almost every minute of it. There were a few clunkers (the embarrassing episode with the robot immediately springs to mind), but even they rarely had a dull moment. But this also left me with a dilemma: should I revisit one of my favorite episodes, like Try and Catch Me and Columbo Goes to the Guillotines, or watch one I hadn't seen yet? After an internal monologue, which turned into a heated debate, I decided it would be fitting to settle on Columbo Likes the Nightlife – as it was the final episode filmed and shows this to be a series that simply will never age and that Columbo is as timeless as Sherlock Holmes.

The episode was shot in 2002 and aired in early 2003, and gives the series a fresh paint job. Remember the opening credits from the 1970/80s, in which the yellow-colored, typewritten opening credits were somewhat shakily superimposed on the screen? Here they've been substituted for flashy computer graphics and techno music, but the set-up succeeding this new opening still follows the same, unaltered classic Columbo format that we all fell in love with. 

Columbo Likes the Nightlife kicks off with the, more or less, accidental demise of Tony Galper at the hands of his ex-wife Venessa – a two-bit actress who employs her new boyfriend, rave promoter and future club owner Justin Price, to obscure the body. Their operation goes without hitch until they start receiving blackmail demands from a notorious tabloid journalist and they realize that he leaves them with only one recourse: murder!
At the scene of the crime
The murder of this two-penny mudracker is another indication that the series has moved along with the times. The on-screen killings were always very clean, usually a single gunshot aimed at the torso of the intended victim, but here we have a particular messy and graphic murder – which commences when Justin Price pretends he's dropping off the blackmail money. He slaps a cord around his neck and chokes him into semi-unconsciousness, ties the cord to a rusty old radiator and when he struggles to his feet he hurtles him out of an open window – at which the radiator is torn from the wall and plummets with its attached weight four floors to an ugly mess on the pavement. You'd almost think you're watching an episode from CSI at this point, but that delusion is quickly dispelled with Columbo's arrival on the scene – who does a top-notch job deducing, by the smell of mouthwash and toe-nail clippings, that the man was murdered and the look on the officers face as the disheveled lieutenant crawls all over the body is just funny. Note that Columbo touches everything with his bare hands and you can only imagine the apologetic shock the crew of CSI would have if they saw him "processing" this crime scene. 


From here on out, the ruffled veteran policeman does what he knows best: driving the felons with their backs up against the wall and he does it with the same playfulness as a cat before pouncing on a mouse – demonstrating that even the passing of three decades wasn't enough the blunt the edge of this old coated bobcat.

Last year, Crippen & Landru carried Columbo into the current decade with the publication of The Columbo Collection, penned by series creator William Link, and this new batch of stories impressed upon me that, even though Peter Falk is no more, the character he portrayed is still out there pursuing murderers who were laboring under the naïve assumption that they were getting away with a perfectly executed murder – and he will be on that job long after you and me have been consumed by the earth or blown to dust by the incinerator.

Oh, just one more thing... Peter Falk, thanks for more than three decades worth of quality television and may you rest in peace!

6/25/11

Suitable for Framing

Willie Wang: "I don't get it, Pop- was there a murder or wasn't there?"
Sydney Wang: "Yes, killed good weekend! Drive, please."
- Murder by Death (1976)
Over the past week, this blog took a cosmopolitan perspective to the detective story with an excess of alien trimmings that would've driven Inspector Cramer up the wall. But today, we're back on familiar turf with a book that has, as he would've said, a good old "American murder with an American motive and an American weapon."

Nope. Contrary to what the opening of this blog entry suggests, this is not a book review that casts a critical glance at one of Rex Stout's novels or bundle of novelettes, but another assessment of Patrick Quentin – a collaborative posse of writers who've gone up and up and up in my estimation! However, the novel that is today's subject of discussion, Puzzle for Puppets (1944), is merely an excellent attempt in lieu of the absolutely brilliant stuff I was exposed to in their last few novels – but it's one of those fun stories in which they took a sadistic pleasure in placing their protagonists in severe peril. I once read someone comparing the Peter Duluth tales to intelligently written soap operas, and I couldn't think of a more fitting label to attach to this series.

The backdrop of the story is nighttime San Francisco, during those dark days when a raging war torn the continent of Europe asunder, where Peter Duluth, now and up-and-coming naval officer, plans to spend his weekend leave with his wife, but an acute rooming shortage threatens to wreck all of their romantic plans – when a kindred spirit, named Mrs. Rose, who's on the threshold of her second marriage, comes along and promptly relinquishes her hotel room to the youthful couple. Problems solved? Nah. Their troubles have only began piling up in front of them. At first glance, Iris is commonly mistaken for her cousin, Eulalia Crawford, a renowned puppeteer, which in itself is innocently enough, but when Peter visits a sauna, to stop a developing cold dead in its tracks, his uniform is stolen – and the clues all point to a lisping man and the scent eventually leads to a drunken man with a beard who spouts riddles ("the red rose and the white rose mean blood. I warned you on page eighty-four. The elephant hasn’t forgotten. Life or death").  

This exhilarating madcappery, inconvenient though it may be, appears to be harmless on the surface, until the trail stops at the front door of the puppet-strewn apartment of Eulalia Crawford – and Peter and Iris discover her blood-spattered body, scattered with roses, slumped on the floor behind a desk with a knife handle projecting from her chest and the last person to be seen entering her abode was a uniformed naval officer. The thief from the sauna has assumed Peter Duluth's appearance in order to commit a murder!

Plans for an amorous weekend? Thoroughly wrecked! It's very hard, if not impossible, to romantically canoodle in your room when the police are in the progress of organizing a massive, state-wide manhunt and allowing a second murder to be committed, on your watch, doesn't exactly help, either. Fortuitously, for them, they have the backing of two local private detectives, who assist them in tailing suspicious persons and tucking them away from the police, which allowed them the freedom needed to backtrack the blood-dripped, rose-scattered chain of murders to a huge circus – where a frantic dénouement causes a near stampede and would've not disgraced the pages of a Sir Henry Merrivale novel. 

In spite of the admirably executed climax at the circus, it's paradoxically also the part that keeps the book from joining Death and the Maiden (1939) and Black Widow (1952) at their top-spot in the first ranks. The solution feels too slight for such a baffling problem and the grand revelation comes at 2/3 of the book, which was far too early, even if it was filled up with an interesting and extensive account of past events leading up the double murder case, but it just doesn't measure up to first part of the book – and even the final, "Ha! Gotcha!," twist didn't elevate the story to its original heights.

Still, this is a fine and solid effort from a vintage brand name in the genre and falls only just short of being a great mystery novel, but it's unfair to expect that every book that bears their nom-de-plume on the cover is a towering achievement in the field. Yes, this a book has its fair share of problems, but there's more than enough to look pass those blotches and enjoy another trying tribulation in the turbulent marriage of Peter and Iris Duluth. Their agony, is our joy!

All the books I reviewed by these writers:

Puzzle for Puppets (1944)
Black Widow (1952)

6/24/11

Guest Blog: Booked for Murder

Note: this is the second installment in a semi-regular series of guest posts, which kicked-off last month with an article on the Japanese detective story, hosted on this blog spot – and this time I will temporarily hand my blog over to M.P.O. Books who transcribed one of his reviews into English. Books is a struggling author of thriller-cum-detective stories, inspired by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Appie Baantjer, Ellis Peters and Henning Mankell, who debuted in 2004 with Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia) and deserving of a more appreciative reading audience. So, if you're an American publisher questing for a new Eurocrime writer, don't look any further than M.P.O. Books!

The Black-Box Murder by Maarten Maartens  

The Black-Box Murder is probably the first detective story for adults written by a Dutchman. The novel appeared only two years after Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to his sleuth Sherlock Holmes. The writer was Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwarz, better known under his pseudonym Maarten Maartens (1858-1915). Strikingly enough he wrote The Black-Box Murder in English, and as far as I know it never appeared in the Dutch language. Though his through-and-through Dutch sounding pseudonym and his real name suggest something else, this writer of literary work spent a part of his youth in England. This is evident in The Black-Box Murder. This detective story takes place partly in England, partly in France.

The Black-Box Murder was released in 1889 anonymously. This wasn't due to Maarten Maartens, as a literary writer, not wanting to be associated with a detective novel. It suited the contents of the book better. Because The Black-Box Murder is written from the perspective of Spence, the "I" person in the story, who considers his book a report of his murder investigation. By hiding his own identity, the writer suggests that we are dealing with a story that truly happened. Hence the reference on the title page, that the story was written by the man who discovered the murderer. Spence is a private detective who happens to witness the discovery of a body in a box two British ladies are travelling with. With the few clues the box is offering him, he starts his investigation, until he has unmasked the murderer.

The story is varied and contains twists which keep the reader captivated effortlessly. It reminds a bit of the atmosphere of the first novels about the master sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Spence isn't a very smart detective though. Anyone paying attention will soon suspect that the perpetrator Spence is tracing, isn't the right one. The question who did commit the murder, is relevant far beyond halfway of the story. But then there are not many suspects. A surprising twist at the end never comes up. This atmospheric detective, that also contains humour and short action scenes, shows how Spence arrives at the truth step by step. By that time the reader might have guessed it. Then the question remains how he will prove he is right.

The English of Maarten Maartens is so pure that it is evident that his British roots do not betray themselves. Most of the novels he wrote, he wrote in English, even those stories that take place in The Netherlands. The anonymous The Black-Box Murder remained quite unknown compared to the rest. Maartens was better known for The sin of Joost Avelingh and God's fool, also English titles that did get a Dutch translation. The last few years of his life he lived in the same town where I come from, Doorn, where the castle-like Maarten Maartenshuis still reminds us of his life. His books are, particularly in The Netherlands, long forgotten. The Black-Box Murder ought, however, to be rescued from oblivion.

M.P.O. Books' Bibliography:

Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia, 2004)
De bloodzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005)
Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006)
De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)

6/23/11

Detective Stories – Both Foreign and Domestic

"I saw the world. I learnt of new cultures. I flew across an ocean..."
- Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days)
Let the reader beware: I'm not entirely sure if this is an inspired, half-developed brilliant idea or merely one of my brain farts.

There's something I need to confess: I'm not very well read when it comes to the indigenous detective stories of my country.  
For eons, I had a pocket-size panoramic view of the Dutch crime genre, which was restricted to our historical mystery writers, Robert van Gulik and Bertus Aafjes, and a smattering of modern practitioners of romans policiers, like A.C. Baantjer, Simon de Waal and M.P.O. Books, whose books occasionally crossover into classical territory. This was the scope I had of home-grown detective stories, until I changed upon a thriller blog with a monthly feature, entitled "Plaat van de maand," focusing on mystery authors whose names were obliterated from popular view – which are both enthralling as well as frustrating!

These brief blog articles have brought numerous potentially interesting novelists to my attention, but also infuriate me because they are limited to summary biographies and barely glance at the stories themselves – and that just baffles me. Why dwell solely on the person behind the books, fascinating though they may be, if your main objective is bringing these books back under everyone's attention? I want to know where to place these tales within the ambit of the genre and determine if they're of possible interest to me. I prefer traditionally plotted, fair-play whodunits over suspenseful thrillers and hardboiled stories (although I'm not averse to a combination of both), but it's impossible to discern to which category these mysteries belong – and google isn't exactly helpful, either, as it only spits out links to secondhand book dealers or, if you're really serendipitous, a slapdash synopsis of the plot. This means I have to pick and choose these books based on their cover illustrations (oh, pretty colors!) and my gut feeling, which isn't my preferred method for selecting reading material.

Anyhow, the intention of writing this post wasn't to moan incessantly on a luxury problem, but translating a thought process by stringing a coherent bundle of sentences together and making a clear point – of which I'm already doing a pitiably job, I know. But what put my train of thought in motion was the realization that this tiny speck of a kingdom churned out an ample lump of conventional crime fiction, and you have to keep in mind that this place hasn't exactly been kind to the orthodox detective story nor has it been a safe and nurturing environment for traditionally minded artisans to practice their craft. Our first mystery writers, Maarten Maartens, was forced to publish his only mystery novel, The Black Box Murder (1889), in English because he was scorned and ridiculed here and the same kind of critics wrote contemptuously about Baantjer and Van der Wetering – until their translations started to garner favorable reviews in America and they changed their tunes. Hypocrites. Want more proof? Marco Books. Who? Exactly! Here we have have someone worthy of calling a littérateur of crime novels, skillfully finding a balance between the contemporary thriller and the time-honored whodunit novel, but he's nowhere to be found on the bestseller lists – and most bookstores don't even stock his books!

But I'm rambling again, aren't I? What I'm trying to say is that if this lap of land, in the circumstances I just described, is able to produce a pile of detective stories like that, and still fly under the radar of the likes of me, than what treasures are buried in other countries? We're all well aware by now what's to be found in France and Japan, but I'm pretty sure that until I posted my reviews of Bertus Aafjes and Tjalling Dix that very few of you had expected that there were detective stories "of more than a passing note produced by The Netherlands" – and I refuse to believe we're an exception and therefore advance the following proposition: we, the members of the international online mystery community, pool our collective knowledge and update the GADWiki with bibliographies (and, if possible, reviews) of our native GAD writers. Yeah, I know, it's not practical information for the simple reason that we're unable to read most, if not all, of the stuff that will be posted on there – but I believe that cataloging could proof to be a first step in making a portion of these stories available to a global audience.

I'm not sure how, though, but at least we have something tangible – and who knows what surprises might turn-up! Maybe we'll learn that there was an Luxembourgian counterpart of Raymond Chandler... or a man in Bulgaria who was the equal of John Dickson Carr...  or a Norwegian Conan Doyle.

Please let me know what you'll think of this plan. 

On a personal note, I'm feeling a bit indisposed and lack the concentration needed to read a book, but the moment my physical strength and mental prowess return to me, I will try to put up another Patrick Quentin review as soon as possible.

Finally, a list of the all foreign mysteries discussed on this blogspot:

The Trampled Peony (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
Death in Dream Time (S.H. Courtier, 1959)
Murder During the Final Exams (Tjalling Dix, 1957)
Elvire Climbs the Tower (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, 1956)
Murder in a Darkened Room (Martin Méroy, 1965)
The Sins of Father Knox (Josef Skvorecky, 1973)
What Mysteries Lie Under the Rising Sun (guest blog by Ho-Ling on the Japanese detective story)

6/22/11

Exams Can Be Murder

"There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it... and expose every inch of it."
- Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet)
From what I've read, Libbe van der Wal was a well regarded and remarkable individual within the academic circles of his time, who held the position of rector at a gymnasium in Delft and was appointed a professorship at the Delft University of Technology in 1952 – which he combined with his work for the Humanist Society until he retired in 1966. Fortunately, these exalted labors still allowed him the time needed to work on his books, of which two were works of fiction, Een kogel voor Oedipus (A Bullet for Oedipus, 1954) and Moord op het eindexamen (Murder During the Final Exams, 1957), published under the byline Tjalling Dix.

Van der Wal was one of the Dutch Dons of Crime, a noted academician who wasn't too stuffy to be distracted from his noble pursuit of enlightenment to dabble around with red herrings and alibis, and you'll understand why when you read an anecdote from one of his former students. He seems to have been a man who escaped from the pages of a Michael Innes novel! The story comes from a pupil of his school who one day slipped from his class, to take bathroom break, when, on his way back, he heard how another, disobedient class was on the receiving end of a verbal tirade from Van der Wal – who angrily stormed out of the room to decide their faiths. But to his very great surprise, he saw, when peeking around a corner, that the rector had burst into a violent fit of laughter. He wasn't angry at all, must have even thought they were amusing, but it was his task to discipline them – and after molding his face back into a mask of stern disapproval, failing several times, he marched back into the classroom to dish out their just desserts. What a fun docent he must have been!

Moord op het eindexamen (Murder During the Final Exams), his second and final detective story, is set at a small-town gymnasium during exam period – and the author draws from his own experience as rector of such a school to bring the book alive. The high strung-nerves of the graduating students, the hustle-and-bustle in the staff room and the visiting delegates make this a wonderful period piece depicting the educational system of the 1950s – and the vendetta between Termols, a math teachers who's at odds with everyone and everything in possession of a heartbeat, and the beloved and popular rector of the institute furnishes the plot with a classic set-up for a good, old-fashioned murder case.  

Termols is a particular nasty piece of work, unscrupulous and scorned by virtually everyone in the environs of the school, who jeopardizes students educational careers, and thus their future, if he can score a grubby point with it in his feud with the rector and one has to wonder why nobody cut his lifeline short before – but the inevitable eventually happens when his body is discovered, locked-up in his own classroom, after falling to be present at an important staff meeting. Nope. Unfortunately, this is not a locked room mystery, even though it was teased as such for a brief moment, as the murderer could've snatched either the spare key of the room or made an exit through the open fire escape.

Enter Joris de Corthe: a police inspector who appears to be a literary relative of John Appleby and Roderick Alleyn and he does a competent enough job at figuring out who bludgeoned the unpopular math teacher to death, but the solution he comes up with is workmanlike rather than artistically inspired – hinging on faked blood spatters, a missing piece of paper, a hidden alibi and a trivial piece of information the murderer couldn't possibly possess if this persons hands weren't stained with blood. However, there are touches of ingenuity in the opening chapter, which contains a clever bit of misdirection, and I have to give props for skillfully handling the weakness surrounding the motive. We're not provided with any hints that point to a motive, making it very hard to confirm your deductions or suspicions, but De Corthe is faced with the same problem as the reader – since he grabs as much in the dark were motivition is concerned until after the final confrontation with the murderer, and that's, IMHO, entirely fair.

Overall, this book is neither a tour-de-force nor a disaster, but a proficient stab at having a little bit of fun from an otherwise occupied scholar – and that attitude definitely rubbed off on me. It should also be noted that he seems to have something in common with Hake Talbot and John Sladek: both men published two detective novels during their lifetime with one of them standing out as a enduring masterpiece, while the second one is considered to be an afterthought. Well, from what I understand, Moord op het eindexamen fulfills the position of the latter, while Een kogel voor Oedipus apparently was his magnum opus – one critic even proclaims it as one of the best Dutch detective stories ever written and an exempli gratia of fair play. Looks like I have to go hunting again!




Prof. L. van der Wal
a.k.a. 
"Tjalling Dix"
1901-1973

6/20/11

My 150 Favorite Mysteries (Updated: July 1, 2012)

"There are those among us who claim that the detective story is a form of escapist literature. Lovers of the genre will deny this, and they are right to do so, for the detective story addict is not content to sit back and enjoy what is called "a cosy read." For full enjoyment of the story, the reader needs to use his brains. A problem has been set before him, and the true addict obtains pleasure from doing his best to solve it."
-
Gladys Mitchell.
Last month, fellow blogger and mystery enthusiast Sergio, who's better known under his shadowy aliases of Cavershamragu and Bloodymurder, posted an assemblage of his favorite mystery and crime novels – which is an idea I have been chewing on ever since opening up this blog for business. His post prompted me to start laboring on a list of all-time favorite mysteries of my own and today I was finally in the right mood to put the finishing touches to that compilation, however, this list will look completely different a year or so from now – and I will probably have to extent it to 150 200 favorite mysteries. There are already a few glaring omissions in this one, but at least I tried to make it as varied as possible. My picks range from classic, puzzle-orientated stories to modern hardboiled private eye novels.

A regular review will be up within the next two or three days, but in the mean time you could hop over and take a look at Ho-Ling's blog – who has been on a posting binge the past few days and just uploaded a critique of Bertus Aafjes' Een ladder tegen een wolk (A Ladder Against the Clouds, 1969).

My 150 favorite mystery novels and short story collections:

Lampion voor een blinde (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
Murder Points a Finger (David Alexander, 1953)
Mystery and More Mystery (Robert Arthur, 1966)
Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov, 1954)
The Naked Sun (Isaac Asimov, 1957)
The Return of the Black Widowers (Isaac Asimov, 2003)
De dertien katten (A.C. Baantjer, 1963)
Een dodelijke dreiging (A.C. Baantjer, 1988)
The Sullen Sky Mystery (H.C. Bailey, 1935)
Black Land, White Land (H.C. Bailey, 1937)
Jumping Jenny (Anthony Berkeley, 1933)
Trial and Error (Anthony Berkeley, 1937)
A Question of Proof (Nicholas Blake, 1935)
Head of a Traveller (Nicholas Blake, 1949)
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (Lawrence Block, 1994)
De laatste kans (M.P.O. Books, 2011)
The Case of the Solid Key (Anthony Boucher, 1941)
The Case of the Seven Sneezes (Anthony Boucher, 1942)
Exeunt Murders (Anthony Boucher, 1983)
Green for Danger (Christianna Brand, 1944)
Death of Jezebel (Christianna Brand, 1948)
London Particular (Christianna Brand, 1952)
Hardly a Man is Now Alive (Herbert Brean, 1952)
The Traces of Brillhart (Herbert Brean, 1961)
Holiday Express (J. Jefferson Farjeon, 1935)
Night of the Jabberwock (Fredric Brown, 1950)
Case for Three Detectives (Leo Bruce, 1936)
Chinese Red (Richard Burke, 1942)
The Youth Hostel Murders (Glyn Carr, 1952)
Poison in Jest (John Dickson Carr, 1932)
The Three Coffins (John Dickson Carr, 1935)
The Four False Weapons (John Dickson Carr, 1937)
The Crooked Hinge (John Dickson Carr, 1938)
The Problem of the Green Capsule (John Dickson Carr, 1939)
Till Death Do Us Part (John Dickson Carr, 1944)
He Who Whispers (John Dickson Carr, 1946)
Captain Cut-Throat (John Dickson Carr, 1955)
The Lady in the Lake (Raymond Chandler, 1943)
The Complete Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton, 1911-35)
Partners in Crime (Agatha Christie, 1929)
The Mysterious Mr. Quin (Agatha Christie, 1930)
Peril at End House (Agatha Christie, 1932)
Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie, 1934)
The A.B.C. Murders (Agatha Christie, 1936)
Death on the Nile (Agatha Christie, 1937)
After the Funeral (Agatha Christie, 1953)
The Man from Tibet (Clyde B. Clason, 1938)
Poison Jasmine (Clyde B. Clason, 1940)
Half-Moon Investigations (Eoin Colfer, 2006)
Banner Deadlines (Joseph Commings, 2004)
The Case of the Gilded Fly (Edmund Crispin, 1944)
The Long Divorce (Edmund Crispin, 1951)
The HOG Murders (William L. DeAndrea, 1979)
Killed on the Rocks (William L. DeAndrea, 1990)
The Werewolf Murders (William L. DeAndrea, 1992)
Murder – All Kinds (William L. DeAndrea, 2003)
The Plague Court Murders (Carter Dickson, 1934)
The Unicorn Murders (Carter Dickson, 1935)
The Punch and Judy Murders (Carter Dickson, 1937)
The Judas Window (Carter Dickson, 1938)
Nine-and Death Makes Ten (Carter Dickson, 1940)
She Died a Lady (Carter Dickson, 1943)
The Department of Queer Complaints (Carter Dickson, 1944)
Death in the Back Seat (Dorothy Cameron Disney, 1936)
The Strawstack Murders (Dorothy Cameron Disney, 1939)
The Anubis Slayings (Paul Doherty, 2000)
The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887-1921)
Full Dark House (Christopher Fowler, 2004)
Ten Second Staircase (Christopher Fowler, 2006)
The Eye of Osiris (R. Austin Freeman, 1912)
The Stoneware Monkey (R. Austin Freeman, 1939)
Something Nasty in the Woodshed (Anthony Gilbert, 1942)
Smallbone Deceased (Michael Gilbert, 1950)
The Danger Within (Michael Gilbert, 1952)
Dead Skip (Joe Gores, 1972)
What a Body! (Alan Green, 1949)
The Chinese Gold Murders (Robert van Gulik, 1959)
The Red Pavilion (Robert van Gulik, 1961)
Necklace and Calabash (Robert van Gulik, 1967)
The Fourth Door (Paul Halter, 1987)
Night of the Wolf (Paul Halter, 2007)
The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett, 1930)
An English Murder (Cyril Hare, 1951)
Spelen met vuur (Heuvel and De Waal, 2004)
The Devotion of Suspect X (Keigo Higashino, 2005)
On Beulah Heights (Reginald Hill, 1998)
Murder on Safari (Elspeth Huxley, 1938)
Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (H.R.F. Keating, 1971)
Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (H.R.F. Keating, 1978)
Under a Monsoon Cloud (H.R.F. Keating, 1986)
The Body in the Billiard Room (H.R.F. Keating, 1987)
The Whistling Hangman (Baynard Kendrick, 1937)
The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi (Okamoto Kido, 2007)
Obelists Fly High (C. Daly King, 1935)
The Exploits of Arsène Lupin (Maurice Leblanc, 1907)
813 (Maurice Leblanc, 1910)
The Mystery of the Yellow Room (Gaston Leroux, 1907)
The Columbo Collection (William Link, 2010)
Bloodhounds (Peter Lovesey, 1996)
The Far Side of the Dollar (Ross MacDonald, 1965)
Surfeit of Lampreys (Ngaio Marsh, 1941)
Points and Lines (Seicho Matsumoto, 1957)
Mr. Splitfoot (Helen McCloy, 1968)
The Blushing Monkey (Roman McDougald, 1953)
Pick Your Victim (Pat McGerr, 1946)
The Seven Deadly Sisters (Pat McGerr, 1948)
The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (Gladys Mitchell, 1929)
Come Away, Death (Gladys Mitchell, 1937)
St. Peter’s Finger (Gladys Mitchell, 1938)
Merlin’s Furlong (Gladys Mitchell, 1953)
The Glass Mask (Lenore Glen Offord, 1944)
The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (Stuart Palmer, 1933)
Nipped in the Bud (Stuart Palmer, 1951)
The People vs. Withers and Malone (Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice, 1963)
Death and the Maiden (Q. Patrick, 1939)
Verdict of Twelve (Raymond Postgate, 1940)
Hoodwink (Bill Pronzini, 1982)
Bones (Bill Pronzini, 1985)
Shackles (Bill Pronzini, 1988)
Carpenter and Quincannon (Bill Pronzini, 1998)
The Greek Coffin Mystery (Ellery Queen, 1932)
The Adventures of Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen, 1935)
Cat of Many Tails (Ellery Queen, 1949)
The Tragedy of Errors (Ellery Queen, 1999)
The Adventure of the Murdered Moth and Other Radio Plays (Ellery Queen, 2005)
Black Widow (Patrick Quentin, 1952)
Death from a Top Hat (Clayton Rawson, 1938)
The Gold Deadline (Herbert Resnicow, 1984)
The Gold Frame (Herbert Resnicow, 1986)
The Dead Room (Herbert Resnicow, 1987)
The Case of the Little Green Men (Mack Reynolds, 1951)
Death on the Board (John Rhode, 1937)
Home Sweet Homicide (Craig Rice, 1944)
The Frightened Stiff (Kelley Roos, 1942)
Sailor, Take Warning! (Kelley Roos, 1944)
Murder on the Way! (Theodore Roscoe, 1935)
The Sleeping Bacchus (Hilary St. George Saunders, 1951)
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1928)
Murder Must Advertise (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1933)
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (Soji Shimada, 1981)
Black Aura (John Sladek, 1974)
Too Many Cooks (Rex Stout, 1938)
Some Buried Caesar (Rex Stout, 1939)
The Tattoo Murder Case (Akimitsu Takagi, 1948)
The Hangman’s Handyman (Hake Talbot, 1942)
Rim of the Pit (Hake Talbot, 1944)
The Riddle of Monte Verita (Jean-Paul Török, 2007)
The Maine Massacre (Janwillem van de Wetering, 1979)
The Silver Scale Mystery (Anthony Wynne, 1931)
The Inugami Clan (Seichi Yokomizo, 1951)
 
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