A throwback to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction


While S. J. Rozan’s Bill Smith reminded me of the Energizer Bunny, Patricia Moyes’ Inspector Tibbett reminded me a bit of the Maidenform Woman. That is, you never know where he’ll turn up.  Certainly in general, Tibbett is unorthodox and enigmatic.  He is not, however, at the center of Twice in a Blue Moon.  A young woman named Susan Gardiner is.

Susan is multifaceted: determined restaurateur, sleuth out of necessity, but also a remarkably unwise and susceptible person.  When Susan inherits a decrepit inn near London called The Blue Moon, she decides to use her schooling in hotel management to revive it as a restaurant.  Unfortunately, soon after the restaurant opens, diners die there, suspiciously.  Enter (for an unclear reason) Inspector Henry Tibbett from Scotland Yard.

This is not a lurid crime novel, like Ed McBain’s Shotgun.  Rather, Twice in a Blue Moon feels like an Agatha Christie mystery: a small British world, with an emphasis on the puzzle, and a de-emphasis on violence (or sex).  Most of the book takes place in a village called Danford in Essex County, England, immediately northeast of London.  At times, some characters head back to London.  There is a hint of a larger world outside this circumscribed area but not much of one.  Granted, we all live, ultimately, in a small world, but we know we are affected by global forces.  Presumably, Susan’s restaurant would be affected by global forces as well as local ones.  Anyway—some suspension of disbelief here.

But only some.  Most Agatha Christie mysteries are engaging, and so is this.  This is, in part, because Susan is engaging.  While at first there is something unfocused about Susan, she is resolved to keep the dilapidated Blue Moon (a bequest from her great-uncle), and then, after the first murder there, she thinks fast on her feet, showing admirable resourcefulness.  When it looks like The Blue Moon will fold due to lack of customers, Susan finds a way to attract business.  Meanwhile, she assists Tibbett’s investigation, as here:

Breathless, I watched the picture take shape… [It showed Pargeter with] a sort of chisel in his hand, working away at the flagstone that had covered the incriminating photos…  So, here was solid proof.  I must get on to Henry [Tibbett] right away.   (139)

Susan’s detective work is invaluable. She is smart; several women in this book are smart.  Still, Susan falls for the charms of her cousin James mysteriously quickly.  This turns out (no surprise) to be dangerous.

From the first, Inspector Tibbett—unlike, for instance, Christie’s Poirot—is jokey and unofficial.  His mode of investigation can also be less than official—e.g., assessing gossip at a tea party.  He is aboveboard and then cryptic.  He comes in close, disappears, and then re-appears secretly.  Tibbett has an informality and unpredictability that serves him well.

At one point, Tibbett’s wife Emmy does a bit of shrewd detection.  Daphne, housekeeper at The Blue Moon, ably assists Susan’s detection.  It seemed there might be a thread of feminism here, but if so the thread quickly breaks at the end, when Susan, reduced to a damsel in distress, turns to the comforts of Inspector Derek Reynolds.  So much for that possible theme…

Still, the puzzle of it all, hands down, enthralls!

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Keeping it real–and really good


S. J. Rozan’s Bill Smith is like the Energizer Bunny of detectives. He keeps probing and interrogating and investigating, up and down New York City. When, occasionally, not detecting, he is confabbing with his literally kick-ass partner, Lydia Chin.

But—at the start of No Colder Place, Bill Smith is conducting an investigation on his own, and he hits the ground running.  Not that he has any choice.  Not long into Bill’s undercover job on a construction site, his fellow bricklayer, Mike DiMaio, suspects him—aloud.  (“Nobody ever done any serious bricklaying loses his moves like you.”—29.)  Bill responds fast.  He tells Mike the truth and he enlists Mike as an ally.

Generally, Bill moves fast.  After a suspicious death on the site, Bill quickly calls in his partner, Lydia Chin, for backup.  He moves quickly from Sal Maggio’s junkyard (to trace a stolen frontloader) to Denise Armstrong’s office at Armstrong Properties, which is financing the construction.  He moves quickly from a confrontation with the aptly named Mr. Hacker, the architect’s agent, back to Denise Armstrong.  He moves from an interview with the head of City College’s Engineering evening program, where a victim had been studying, to a meeting with his employer to—whatever Bill intends to achieve, it ends with violent death.  But that doesn’t stop him from going and going and going.

Bill Smith is not, however, a mere man of action.  He is learning to play Scriabin etudes on the piano, and these etudes remain significant throughout, nearly as important as the case—

“…[the etudes] needed focus, complete attention, the kind that only comes when time is meaningless, when five minutes or five hours or whatever you need is what you can have. If I wanted to get to Broadway and Ninety-ninth to start my shift [at the construction site], I didn’t have that now.  (189)

Bill also has a wonderfully droll way of perceiving the natural world, e.g., the rain as “an excitable child…pounding the roofs of cars for emphasis, throwing itself against windshields to get attention.” (95)  And that rain is pouring at an inconvenient time.

While Bill is a pleasure, Bill and Lydia together are a treat like, say, flaming rum baba.  Happily, they confer often.  In one scene, they confer a lot about the case (which updates the reader) at the same time that their meeting features just a bit of sexual tension.  It is as if they are both the Greek chorus and the main characters—but in a romantic comedy.  For instance, this is a jab from Bill at Lydia—“You were out drinking with a bricklayer.  Italian, too.  I mean, what would your [strict Chinese] mother say?”  (154)  Lydia is not amused, and she comes back at him in her own way.  They are a duo to look forward to.

There are other characters to look forward to, especially the feisty Denise Armstrong.  She is, actually, more than feisty.  She is shrewd, ruthless, and unyielding.  She does cooperate with Bill but reluctantly, at all times underscoring that Armstrong Properties has priority over his investigation at the site.  She should not be an attractive character, but she is.  Like Lydia Chin, Denise talks frankly and to the point.  In a world of frauds, her straight talk is refreshing.

No Colder Place moves with slow suspense to its climax.  Even the anticlimax has a climactic moment.  Then in the end, despite all its realism, No Colder Place warms your heart.

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Blast from the pulpy past


Right away, there’s a horrific homicide, thoroughly described. It’s like reading Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Right after that, there’s fast and smart dialogue among the police detectives called to the scene, and after that is the first interrogation, of a witness to the murder scene.  All this, before the end of the first chapter.

But there is more to Shotgun than a fast pace.  There is witty and illuminating commentary, and it starts on p. 21 in this bit about the “bullshit” of fingerprinting:

Did anyone ever stop to realize how many people in the United States, especially women, had never in their lives been fingerprinted? Of course not.  This whole thing about fingerprints was something invented by the police in order to scare not criminals but civilians.

It gets even more interesting in Chapter 7, with a couple pages-long depiction of Halloween today (today being 1969). The Halloween mischief involves rape and murder in various degrees, and it concludes with the dry statement, “It was a great little holiday, Halloween.”  (107)  Such commentary appears every so often between interrogations.

Apparently, McBain has an editorial bent.  He observes, reflects, and states unequivocal opinions.  So many characters in this book, however, are indifferent.  They don’t think or care about a world outside their immediate self-interest.  True, a bored building superintendent or jaded bar owner comes as no surprise, but even the mother of a victim, Gloria Leyden, lives in a wealthy bubble in which her “four cats…seemed to have been chosen because they harmonized with the [apartment’s] color scheme.”  (123)  Implicitly, she is keeping disharmonious reality far at bay.

So, what about the story?  It pulls you in from page one.  Progress is happening fast on the case of the shotgun murders, when another murder is discovered.  A lot of adept footwork and a shocking revelation later, the killer is found.  Meantime, the police detectives, especially Detective Bert Kling, have compelling private lives aside from their lives as cops.  In one scene, Kling’s girlfriend, Cindy, worries aloud that Kling is not interested in her doctoral thesis, The Detective as Voyeur.

A lot in Shotgun (like that scene between Cindy and Kling) is absorbing.  Except the characters.  Generally in the book, girls are floozies, and guys are horndogs.  Only Detective Steve Carella has any dimensionality.  It is Carella who provides the enlightening commentary about Halloween, 1969, a commentary that is followed by Carella as playful and loving paterfamilias on his family’s Halloween.  Carella thinks and moves fast, but he is not invulnerable.  While taking another look at the apartment where the shotgun murders took place, he is knocked unconscious.  In the end, however, he makes the—physically strenuous—arrest.

One would not confuse Ed McBain with P. D. James, but then again P. D. James wrote a kind of detective novel in which characterization is paramount.  McBain’s Shotgun is a crime novel in which action and dialogue are paramount—well, action and dialogue with an editorial slant.  The combination works, and Shotgun is a blast!


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Tired, but not a good tired


Patricia Carlon means well.

She presents a puzzle and suspense and well-drawn characters.  This often makes a potent brew.  But in this case something is off, and more than once.

The Running Woman stumbles from the start.  Who is he?  What announcer?  The second what?  Page 1 is less like in medias res and more like in mystifying res.  There is no clear who, what, when, or where—what has the reader done to deserve such a muddle?  Meanwhile, there is a plethora of ellipses, underscoring the enigma of it all.  This is not a pleasure.

Too much of The Running Woman is not a pleasure.  For instance, in Chapter 8, it strains credulity that Lisa Buchanan would answer so many probing questions from Gabriel Endicott, who has no authority to ask any questions whatsoever.  Gabriel is another suspect!  Meantime, why is there a woman named Gabriel and not, more plausibly, Gabrielle?  (In fact, I did once date an Australian girl named Gabrielle.)  Implausibility careens into melodrama, which becomes tiresome fast.  You might start to wonder—is this running woman even real?

The brain-strain doesn’t ease up.  The point of view of the mystery begins to shift in Chapter 12, and this could be interesting, if it weren’t also hard to follow.  A key sentence in Chapter 12 is especially hard to unravel:

…it was still impossible for him to change the known Gabriel of childhood with her passionate defence of friends; passionate protection for the unjustly accused; with her almost aggressive owning-up to scrapes to protect him and other playmates; with the woman [of today] who would grimly see anyone pilloried by gossip.   (119)

It’s crucial to know what that sentence means, and it takes a bit of parsing to understand it. And then Chapter 13 presents one long scene that is difficult to envision.  Overall, the difficulty of this mystery novel could be summarized, simply, as “What’s going on?”

The final chapters of The Running Woman are definite attention-getters, above all, the possibly fatal situation that Gabriel finds herself in.  But—the suspense comes too late.  The inordinate complexity of it all has tried the reader’s patience.

And this reader is tired.



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A trip without LSD

adrian messenger

I’ve been juggling War and Peace and Typee (Herman Melville’s first book, about a Polynesian tribe) for several weeks now.  I am determined to finish War and Peace this time, but given that the book is approximately 1200 pages, this will be a long-term project.  Although I have nearly finished the much-shorter Typee, the reading has been slow, since Melville’s diction is crazy-ornate.

In any case, I felt it was high time to read an undemanding mystery, and so I located on my parents’ bookshelf a short thriller called The List of Adrian Messenger, by Philip MacDonald.  It was a fantastic find.  Yes, there are a few irritants, like the perpetual use of ellipses or the eccentric phrase, “said the telephone.”  But these irritants are easily ignored.  There is much to enjoy: skillful plotting, compelling characters, and clever use of language.

A lot comes under MacDonald’s skillful plotting, first of all, the shocking (and literal) plunge in medias res: a plane crash into the Atlantic.  The crash, we learn, is probably the result of sabotage—but who, how, and why?  And then there’s that list—what does it mean?   MacDonald sets an intriguing stage.  Also intriguing are the many and seamless shifts in points of view; one chapter can feature three or four very different scenes, simultaneously occurring.  Periodically, the killer appears and yet not his identity or method or motive.  Thus, MacDonald both reveals and withholds information.  Similarly, about halfway through, the detective Anthony Gethryn makes a major breakthrough, but the case is far from solved.  This creates a sort of subtle suspense, a constant black cloud hanging overhead, long before the down-to-the-wire suspense of the final pages.

A lively crew animates the plot.  At its head is our detective Anthony Gethryn, who astutely declares—

“It seems to me…that we’re up against something a lot tougher than any paperback Arch-villain. And a lot more dangerous… I give you Mr. Smith Brown-Jones.  An unrecorded, unknown, and to the public eye unremarkable, member of our population.”   (38)

Then there is the killer, who adopts a new persona appropriate to each new locale, like a Method actor, but can hardly conceal the periodic twitch near his right eye. The awkward courting dance between Raoul St. Denis, crucial aide in the investigation, and Jocelyn Messenger, sister-in-law of the unfortunate Adrian, certainly draws our attention, and—less expectedly—so do the minor characters.  One case in point is the sudden shrewdness of Detective-Sergeant Seymour; another, the kind and astute Lady Gleneyre.

The star of this show, however, is the language.  MacDonald has a wonderful writing style that is clever but not precious.  An example is Gethryn’s words quoted above.  Or, a favorite snippet of mine: “[Gethryn] remembered [Sergeant] Flood’s remark, ‘Ramifications two a penny,’ and felt like adding, ‘frustrations free.’”  (92)  Such wit runs like a brook throughout the mystery, whether it is hopelessly baffling (for the most part) or suddenly suspenseful (towards the end).

The List of Adrian Messenger was not entirely undemanding.  Frankly, few books are.  But it was, no question, a fantastic trip.

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Traditional with a twist


Now we go back in time, not as far back as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920s-1930s) but almost (1950). Any age notwithstanding, Josephine Tey is in a class by herself.

            I first read To Love and Be Wise many decades ago, because I wondered what it could possibly mean to love and be wise.  The intriguing title had to be solved!  Well, I doubt that I did—then.  This time, I got it.

            To Love and Be Wise starts like a traditional mystery, perhaps a little more Dorothy Sayers than Agatha Christie but nevertheless traditional.  It’s got a country estate, Trimmings, where dwells a seemingly untroubled family, in a small English village (mostly un-remarkable except for an artistic presence).  Family and village are inflamed by a guest, Leslie Searle—who then disappears.  Inspector Alan Grant from Scotland Yard is called in to investigate.  There is the usual interrogating and scrutinizing.  The evidence points to murder.  And there any resemblance to a traditional mystery ends.

            Also there, we head toward What Really Happened, and that would mean a spoiler.  So—back to the beginning, the very beginning, when Inspector Grant happens to meet Leslie Searle at a literary soiree.  Grant is disconcerted by Searle but cannot tell why.  Searle certainly provokes.  The writer Lavinia Fitch, who invites him to Trimmings, is not provoked by Searle, but she does find him strangely attractive.  She confesses to her niece, Liz Garrowby,

 “I get the same ‘kick’ out of being in a room with [Searle] that I would get out of being in a room with a famous criminal.” (72)

 Liz has been similarly fascinated by Searle’s other-worldly beauty, a fascination that her fiancé Walter Whitmore angrily notices. Meanwhile, Liz’s mother, Emma Garrowby, seethes with silent hatred of Searle, who, in the end, does provoke the usually imperturbable Whitmore.  Then—

            Exit Searle, mysteriously, and re-enter Grant.  So, this is a traditional mystery plot with its small circle of suspects and its astute detective.  It is Josephine Tey who has a unique style.  Tey, who was also a playwright, creates wonderfully vivid characters and dialogue.  Searle is the star of the show, and he comes across forcibly from the start, in Chapter One—

 “I’ve forgotten my megaphone,” the young man said [in the roar of the party].

He said it in a gentle drawl, not bothering to compete with the crowd. The mere difference in pitch made the words more audible than if he had shouted.    (6)

         Searle can certainly make an entrance! Also it seems, from Liz Garrowby’s reactions to him soon after, Searle casts a spell.  Liz’s mother, Emma Garrowby, notes a quality of gaiety and loveliness between Liz and Searle “that was not apparent in any communion between Liz and Walter.”  (37)  Searle—Tey shows us in so many ways—has impact.  (My favorite—a thespian denounces him as a “middle-west Lucifer”!)

            Tey’s dialogues are delightful, especially between Inspector Grant and his sidekicks, Sergeant Williams and actress Marta Hallard.  That may sound like a groan-worthy cliché, but in this case it is true.  In an interchange between Grant and Williams, Williams comes up with the word “push-ee,” which is such a fitting (and amusing) characterization of a suspect that Grant adopts it and uses it in a conversation with Marta Hallard.  Although Hallard wittily tells Grant, “Pretend I’m your wife—which God forbid—and make an audience of me,” she ends up being especially prescient, not at all a passive audience.   (161, 163)

            Tey does overly caricature her characters.  Lavinia Fitch and Silas Weekley both write claptrap, one, lowbrow, the other, highbrow.  Actually good writers, like Tey herself, would be more interesting to read about.  But then, the emphasis would shift.  As it is, the emphasis—well, a major aspect, anyway—of To Love and Be Wise is remarkable, even mildly risqué…

            Read all about it!

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Tightly plotted, but not about its plot

kennedys brain

Kennedy’s Brain is tightly plotted, and evildoing is uncovered. The penny drops more than once, leading Louise Cantor ultimately to a hospital for people dying of AIDS—but is it a hospital?  What does really go on at that place?  This is not left unanswered.

Even so, this book isn’t really about its plot.  It is about a middle-aged woman devastated by the loss of her son.  She turns her devastation into the purpose of detection.  But—after she discovers the truth, if she discovers the truth, then what?  Here is a mystery that is, sadly, never resolved.

Mankell tells us in his epilogue that anger was his driving force.  He does not specify the object of his anger, but I link it to this passage in the book:

“A lot of the [African people] who come here are healthy… They are used as guinea pigs to try out untested vaccines. They’re infected with the HIV virus to see if the vaccine works…”  In sum—“Who care if some Africans are sacrificed if the outcome is drugs and vaccines that people in the Western world can benefit from?”  (309)

The speaker, Lucinda, is herself an African who becomes a victim. To borrow from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The horror, the horror, indeed!

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