The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.



Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown


Since this is our final Tuesday with Dorothy L. Sayers for a while, I trust my readers will forgive my wandering a bit on this topic. While working on blog posts for this month, I’ve tried a couple of times, unsuccessfully, to try to figure out why I don’t really enjoy the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m getting closer.

fe6692ed9873eb2ee77c0f6da7d3e414A few years back, I rather thought it was because she’s an arrogant writer, and that’s a quality I don’t find interesting. Arrogant, for me, is creating a 30-page letter as a crucial element of Clouds of Witness in stilted and rather prissy French — and then being surprised when her publishers want to provide a translation. Similarly, I think it’s pretty arrogant to have a crucial verbal exchange in Gaudy Night take place in Latin, although there’s nothing in it that affects the detective work.

When trying to fuck local girls, remember you can read the blog post for help at - this will make it easy for you to meet and fuck - it also has Pink Classifieds a UK partner to these sites.

41q+ZB-iWkL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_And yet everything I’ve heard about this lady suggests that she was not the arrogant type at all. I’m not exceptionally versed in her biography; I’ve read Such A Strange Lady but little else. What Martin Edwards had to say about her in his excellent recent work on the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, (buy one here!) agrees with my impression that she was kind of a galumphing British country lady, swathed in gigantic ill-fitting tweeds and subject to emotional outbursts and sudden enormous bursts of energy. I can’t maintain that “arrogant” is a word you apply to someone who insists upon the complex nonsensical ritual including Eric the Skull that was necessary to become a member of the Detection Club. That sounds more to me like that peculiar turn of phrase, “jolly hockey sticks”, indicating “boisterous enthusiasm”.


Queen Victoria started the trend for “white satin and orange blossoms” for a wedding gown.

I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that DLS used the Peter and Harriet storyline as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, where her romantic life finally came out the way she wanted it. (Including her own statement quoted by Barbara Reynolds, via Wikipedia, that she created Lord Peter as a wealthy man to give herself the pleasure of spending his fortune for him.) But was Sayers herself ready to move within the social circles attendant upon marriage to a peer of the realm? I rather doubt it, actually. She was the daughter of a country doctor who worked hard to get a superb education at an excellent school, and in real life she married an unsuccessful Scottish journalist. She might have made a superb wife for a don, or a country doctor; however, I’ve always felt that the woman who insisted that her stand-in, Harriet Vane, would get married in gold lamé, a fabric beloved of drag queens and trailer trash, lacked an essential instinct, or understanding, that would allow her to succeed in the higher realms of society.

When you need to find sex

If you are struggling to get laid, read up the full review at lonely housewife hookups - if isn't quite what you need, then it might be best to start fucking local women via the new app by They make it very easy to find sex with the hottest of local women via there new app.

I also think that DLS realized it, too. The idea that she would be so thoroughly and repellently patronized for her dress sense by the equivalent of Peter’s sister-in-law is where the idea of Helen came from for her books; in order to make Helen a figure of fun and opprobrium in the novels, she had to have realized that that’s what would have happened to a real-life Harriet Vane who “married above herself”.

But was my instinct correct? I had occasion to go back to the original text of Busman’s Honeymoon recently, and I came across the exact quote about gold lamé; only, to my surprise, there were two references.  The Dean in a letter to Miss Edwards says “she looked like a Renaissance portrait stepped out of its frame. I put it down first of all to the effect of gold lamé,”, and this is the piece I’ve always remembered.  But Helen, Duchess of Denver, later says in a letter to Lady Grummidge that Harriet “had enough sense of propriety not to get herself up in white satin and orange-blossom; but I could not help thinking that a plain costume would have been more suitable than cloth of gold. I can see that I shall have to speak to her presently about her clothes, but I am afraid she will be difficult.”

3af9425bfae0b2d65f2fcc8ecd0fcad3Now, “cloth of gold” may have been a phrase I’d read a couple of times, but it had never quite stuck before.  I had had in my mind that Harriet was wearing a kind of fabric that was newly being manufactured at the time … as Wikipedia defines it, a shiny fabric “woven or knit with thin ribbons of metallic yarns”. The classic gold lamé evening gown is one worn by Marilyn Monroe, and I’ve shown you a picture of it to the left. Thin, glittering, and very expensive fabric that moulds to the body. And I think it’s this level of expensive-looking luxury that I always had in mind, although admittedly I would have assumed that Harriet would have covered her shoulders and neckline. I figured DLS had chosen an expensive and glamorous fabric with about the same lack of knowledge as caused her to make bloomers about Peter’s choices in wine and motorcars.

bb685c566e6e9a49e6812db700067010Cloth of gold, however, is a whole other fabric, in my mind. According to Wikipedia once more, it’s woven with a gold-wrapped or spun weft; the core yarn, though, is usually silk. This material “is mentioned … as a fabric befitting a princess” and it has an association with mediaeval gowns. I’ve shown you one to the left that’s the best reference I could find. As a fabric, I think cloth of gold has more of a formal feel, and it has distinct overtones of the upper classes; under Henry VIII, its use was “reserved to royalty and higher levels of nobility”.

So in other words — far from being the gauche and over-dramatic statement that would have caused Harriet to rightly be patronized by Helen, Harriet — and thus DLS — was on the right track entirely. A woman who had been acquitted of murdering her lover is not suitable for white satin and orange-blossom, since to put it bluntly she’s demonstrably not a virgin. And yet it’s clear later on in Busman’s Honeymoon that Harriet, now Lady Peter, realizes that if she doesn’t take on the trappings of the aristocracy quickly and effectively, Helen will be able to use it against both herself and Lord Peter. I’ve spent 30 or 40 years thinking that the material of Harriet’s wedding dress was a terrible misstep and very revealing of DLS’s lack of understanding of the fine details of social usage at the highest levels. And it turns out that instead Helen and I got it all wrong; DLS knew what was going on and I didn’t.

So, I owe Dorothy L. Sayers a little bit of a re-examination as well as something of an apology. As penance, even though we’re now done with DLS, I’m going to go back and re-read the four novels where Harriet and Peter slowly fall in love. Another 30 years might go by before I publish a full recantation, admitting that Peter and Harriet are lovers for the ages — but I’m getting there slowly!


Posted in Detective fiction, Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Mystery writers, Reference books, Tuesday Night Bloggers
Tagged Barbara Reynolds, Detection Club, Dorothy L. Sayers, Harriet Vane, Martin Edwards

Legacy of Death, by Miles Burton (1960)

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

english-country-nursing-homeWhat’s this book about?

The story begins with an inquest upon the recently deceased Mrs. Mary Tarrant, a wealthy lady of 63 who has been an inhabitant of the private nursing and convalescent home, Forest House, at the edge of the village of Brookfield.  She’s been suffering from rheumatism and the local GP, Dr. Peaslake, has prescribed pain pills for her. The resident nurse, Hester Milford, agrees with everyone that Mrs. Tarrant appears to have taken all twenty of her tablets instead of the two she was prescribed, probably due to her well-known absent-mindedness. The inquest is closed with a verdict of accidental death.

nurse_1471846fMrs. Tarrant’s testamentary dispositions, however, have engendered more trouble than determining the cause of her death. She had found common ground with her best friend at Forest House, Mr. Henry Corfe, a retired and asthmatic tradesman on a small pension; she disliked her daughter-in-law and he disliked his son-in-law, a pushy businessman. Mr. Corfe is shocked, however, to learn that she has left him a legacy of £100,000 in her will (and £100 to Nurse Milford).  According to her lawyer, Mr. Rayne, Mrs. Tarrant changed her will under conditions of great secrecy because she felt her daughter-in-law Nina would squander it — and if the vituperative Nina had found out that Mrs. Tarrant had left her money away from the family, there would be, as the local bobby puts it, “wigs on the green”. (I’ll go into this phrase below.)

VILLAGE_2586271bWe are introduced to the rest of the inhabitants of Forest House, including two elderly sisters, Mabel and Hilda Wembury, who are being approached to invest their savings by a shady Brigadier and who call in their old friend, series detective Desmond Merrion, to vet the investment. He and his wife decide to vacation in the vicinity and see what Mabel and Hilda are involved in. Just as he arrives in Brookfield, the body of one of the inhabitants of Forest House is discovered lying across the nearby railway tracks with her head bashed in.

Desmond Merrion and the local police proceed to investigate all kinds of people who have the capacity to profit financially from their involvement with various of the well-off invalids at Forest House; when another inhabitant dies mysteriously, the situation becomes even more murky. Desmond Merrion is the first to realize that a tiny incident that was assumed by all concerned to have happened in one way had actually happened in another.  He couples this information with a very faint trail that suggests the involvement of one of the suspects with the latest murder, and brings the crime home to the criminal in the final chapter.

Why is this worth reading?

street amThis book from 1960 is the last to be published under the name of Miles Burton, a pseudonym of Cecil John Charles Street, probably better known to the mystery world as the prolific John Rhode. Street’s writing career spanned 1924 to 1961 and an astonishing 140+ volumes, often at the rate of four or five a year. As was common in the Golden Age of Detection, authors who were so prolific maintained two or three pen names (apparently so that the reading public would not associate their high production rate with low quality) and Miles Burton was Street’s second pseudonym.

Both Miles Burton titles and John Rhode titles have been very scarce in the last 30 or 40 years. I’m not sure why, but despite having a backlist that could sustain the entire mid-list reprint line of a second-tier publisher, Street’s work was only rarely published in paperback.  (Not entirely absent, but his paperbacks are few and far between, and all his books are pricey.) That seems to follow along with the number of ex-library copies I see for sale. The picture I’m getting is that all his books sold primarily to libraries; sold for a few months and then dropped off the face of the earth.

51A8aJIwUBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_And you know, I’m not sure why. My blogfriend Curtis Evans (whose blog, The Passing Tramp, is well worth your time if you’re interested in GAD) literally wrote the book on Cecil Street (click here to get a copy of Masters of the ‘Humdrum’ Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 from Amazon). Curtis has a lot of interesting things to say in Masters about Street’s attitude towards social history, and I can’t do them justice in a brief space here. To me, the bare bones of the books are the workmanlike mystery plots — constructed deliberately rather than developed organically — frequently featuring poisoning plots, “infernal devices”, and “motive originating in the distant past” structures. It’s clear, though, that over the course of 140+ novels the man had something to say about non-mystery topics that interested him, particularly social class structures (especially tradesmen and workers). There are patterns and large-scale structures of repeating ideas here that would have been ideal for a publisher who wanted to maintain a huge line of mysteries with a large backlist, and I think the public would have been — and would be today — interested in reading large quantities of Street’s work. Well, at least, I would be!

In fact the prospect of reading my way through Street start to finish is a delightful one to me, and it’s just become considerably more possible by the passage of his works into the public domain in Canada, where I live, as of a few weeks ago. I promptly started downloading a few dozen of his books from and waded right in. Of course the availability of books on and other such repositories depends upon the availability of printed books in the real world, and so the older and more expensive these titles are, the longer they will take to migrate into e-formats. By and large what you can currently find is titles from Street’s later period, like this one.

And by this time in his career (he died four years later at 79 or 80 years old) he had settled into a pattern. I’m not going to say that he repeated the identical formula again and again; but so far to me it seems clear that his later books repeat about three different formulas again and again. As I remarked above, one of them is “motive originating in the distant past”; this formula I’m finding unsatisfying, because a few chapters before the end, the victim’s second cousin/heir from New Zealand turns out to have been masquerading as the chauffeur, or the vicar, or an itinerant worker, the whole time, and I don’t find that story pattern allows the sense of “fair play” that I enjoy. (As in, the chauffeur could have done it but has no motive until you find out that he will inherit everything.) It’s rather like The List of Adrian Messenger over and over again.

The formula in Legacy of Death, though, is more interesting. I’ll confess I don’t have enough evidence yet to identify completely how it works, but it’s a slight change to the long-lost heir plot. In this type of Street book, a character has a motive for murder that is apparent, but for some reason — lack of knowledge, lack of opportunity — is considered to be out of the running as a suspect. Here, there is a squarely-placed clue to what has happened, and Street encourages the reader to misinterpret it … I didn’t, and I suspect you might not either, but I actually enjoy that in a mystery also. I did work this one out in advance because I’m fanatical about that, but I suspect the average reader may reach the end and think, “Oh, yes, so THAT’s what that was all about. I was halfway to the solution but missed that one little idea. Well, at least, I had a fair shot at figuring out whodunit.”

So, is this worth reading? I’ll be honest and say that while this one is pleasant, it’s nothing special. I found it an enjoyable experience because it’s a good example of how Street was constructing workmanlike mysteries at the end of his career. It’s not terrible (he says, damning it with faint praise). I’ll give you a fine distinction that I’ve used elsewhere to describe poorly-written but enthusiastic literature; this is a time-passer rather than a time-waster.

friends-of-united-ireland-wigs-on-the-green-punch-cartoon-1894-f4fn5dOh, and “wigs on the green”? I’m not often completely at a loss when I read an English phrase, but this one was completely new to me. If a bitchy prospective heiress learns she’s not getting an inheritance after all, “there would certainly be wigs on the green.” My research tells me that this is an Irish expression dating back to the days when men wore powdered wigs. Here’s an uncharacteristically literate definition from Urban Dictionary:

Wigs on the green refers to a fight, brawl or fracas, or to a difference of opinion that could lead to fisticuffs. It often appears as “there’ll be wigs on the green”, as a warning (or a prediction) that an altercation is likely to occur. It is originally Irish, dating from the eighteenth century, when men usually wore wigs. If a fight started, the first thing that happened was that the wigs of those involved would be knocked off and would roll incongruously about on the grass, to the amusement of bystanders and the embarrassment of participants. It has fallen out of use in modern times but continues to be used by intellectuals especially in Ireland.

My favourite edition

41KB0QaZJGL._SX239_BO1,204,203,200_The copy I used to prepare this review was from and can be found here; it’s the only copy I’ve ever seen.  As I noted, Street is currently in the public domain if you live in Canada or Australia.

The only illustration that I can find of the jacket of the only edition of this book (Collins Crime Club, 1960) on the Internet is the copyrighted property of It is overall a repellant salmon pink with blue and black accents, showing a man pouring liquid from a small bottle into a large one, and you can see it in all its glory here. If you want to buy one, it doesn’t seem as if they have one in stock; you can get an ex-library copy from about US$22, and a VG copy in jacket for about US$95. (Someone in Hay-on-Wye wants US$185, which seems excessive for merely a VG copy.)



Posted in Detective fiction, Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Humdrum, Mystery, Novel
Tagged Cecil Street, Curtis Evans, Desmond Merrion, John Rhode, Miles Burton

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

The Five Red Herrings (1931), by Dorothy L. Sayers

Red_herringsThis will not be a review in the traditional sense; I haven’t re-read this book in some time and prefer not to get into detail about novels upon whose details I haven’t refreshed myself lately.

However, I felt it might be useful to offer a different viewpoint on “my favourite Dorothy L. Sayers title”. Unlike most of my blogfriends and colleagues and fellow Golden Age aficionados, I’m not much on the love story for the ages that is Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I find them hard to take. The most famous of them is Gaudy Night, which is subtitled “A love story with detective interruptions”, and for me that’s a waste of a perfectly good detective story.  I don’t object to a small love story running in the background of a detective story, like the ones frequently found in Ngaio Marsh and Patricia Wentworth mysteries. But when I have to wait to find out whodunit while Peter proposes to Harriet in Latin, which seems to me both pompous and arrogant, that makes me very unwilling to re-read the novel.

md17046529355That being said, then, my favourite DLS work is the one that has the least romance and the most Golden Age detection — and that, to me, would be The Five Red Herrings (also published once in the US as Suspicious Characters). To me, it is her most “pure” mystery. It investigates the case primarily from the point of view of police officers, rather like Freeman Wills Crofts’ novels, and DLS has toned down her insertion of great amounts of excelsior, as I called it in this blog post. To my mind the book benefits from the absence of a lot of burlesquing of the attitudes and manners of the lower classes, which she was wont to include, and there is a stripped-down quality to the amount of writing that turns this from the size of a doorstopper to a manageable novel with a limited cast of characters.

md6774818687The story of T5RH is set in Scotland, in a kind of artists’ colony frequented by painters. (The area is known as Galloway and specifically the town of Kirkudbright, which I am told is pronounced so as to rhyme approximately with “blueberry”, perhaps Ker-KOO-bree.) The fractious, bumptious, and drunken artist Sandy Campbell is found murdered, and we soon learn that whoever did it had sufficient artistic skill to counterfeit his style of painting. That reduces the suspects to six, and thus means there are five red herrings to muddy the path to a solution.

md1163808347I mentioned Freeman Wills Crofts, whose Inspector French novels were masterpieces of a sub-category of the Humdrum mystery — the “timetable mystery”. Essentially a criminal sets up a complicated alibi that involves being able to “prove” that he was in a certain place at a certain time, when in fact he was not. Inspector French takes an enormous effort to trace every single little thing that would have happened in the criminal’s timetable, to try to expose any possible flaw that would allow him to break the alibi. And this is pretty much what we have here, although with a little bit more liveliness and élan than the staid Mr. Crofts could usually muster.

9780380512195-usIn this novel, Lord Peter and his police colleagues first lay out the facts about what has happened, and try to investigate both the circumstances of the crime and the alibis of the six people who could have committed it. Almost immediately upon seeing the corpse in its surroundings, Lord Peter announces that … well, there’s something that he has understood about what he sees that makes this a case of murder, except that the author deliberately does not tell you what this is. Instead you are invited to consider what Lord Peter has realized and you yourself have not. Of course it is explained before the end of the book.  Instead of slapping your forehead in dismay at your stupidity, you may well have to be reminded that you should have cared about this, since the entire book has gone forward without your needing to know it. Nevertheless, you should have figured it out, and really one wonders why the murderer overlooked it also, but then there would be no mystery. And if you happen to have picked out one particular paperback to read, there is a great whacking clue in the front cover illustration that will have given away this crucial little point. There is very little you can do mentally to figure out the remainder of the plot in advance of the solution; instead this is one where the solution unfolds organically through the course of the novel and you merely appreciate it without trying to master it in advance.

md9727325825At the end, Lord Peter gathers together the investigating team, from the local constable to the Procurator Fiscal, and they reconstruct the crime. This is a very pleasant experience to contemplate, I think, since it involves racing around the countryside at breakneck speeds using a variety of vehicles, trying to demonstrate that one specific person could have done everything that needed to be done within the time required. During this process it becomes clear that there is only one of the six individuals under investigation who meets the complete set of criteria that identify the murderer; that person confesses and states that Campbell was killed in self-defence. We learn in the finale that the jury has come back with a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder (and this is rare for DLS, who frequently kills off her criminals).


This is apparently an actual building that DLS referenced in The Five Red Herrings.

This is a novel that would have found contemporaneous favour with the fans of the Humdrums, and especially the practitioners of the timetable mystery; Crofts, J.J. Connington, and a few others. Perhaps this was DLS’s experiment with writing the type of mystery that was being written by her friends and colleagues, but instead she returned in 1932 to the burgeoning romance between Peter and Harriet in her next novel, Have His Carcase. From my point of view, that was not necessarily a good idea. Although DLS was certainly a more literate and skilled writer than Freeman Wills Crofts, in terms of the timetable mystery he was the master and she the novice. As timetable mysteries go, it has vivacity and moves at a good clip, but is not all that mysterious. If she had stuck at it, she might have written some awfully good timetable mysteries in the next ten years, but that of course would have been to the great disappointment of the many, many, MANY devotees of Peter and Harriet.  My loss is their gain, and I think it’s better that they got the stories they cherish.

13373199928My favourite edition

I’m very fond of the very early Avon paperback titled Suspicious Characters. Isn’t it lurid? I love to think of what this would have looked like on the shelves of a New York bookstall in 1943 … and to the unsuspecting purchaser who was looking for something pulpy and violent. Well, it’s a great cover anyway. I’m also fond of the rather garish offering from the late 1950s from Four Square in the UK pictured above, with a rather smarmy picture of Lord Peter surrounded by the tiny heads of the suspects. Sorry I couldn’t find a larger depiction on the internet.

An “excellent” copy (from the Gollancz archives) of the 1931 first edition with the map endpapers, without the jacket pictured at the top of this post, will set you back about US$1,100 as of today.  Wouldn’t it be nice? I’d settle for a facsimile dust jacket just to own one of these.


Posted in Uncategorized

Obelists at Sea, by C. Daly King (1932)

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Note that there seems to be some small disagreement among booksellers as to whether this book was first published in 1932 or 1933.  Since my copy of Hubin is not at hand, I’m going with what Penguin says in the frontispiece to the copy from which I prepared this review, October 1932.  

And also note: according to a brief note before the book begins, an “Obelist” is a person of little or no value.

13187293416What’s this book about?

Many of the passengers and some of the crew on the S. S. Meganaut, making a trans-Atlantic journey, are gathered in the “smoking room” to attend an auction of “the numbers”. (Passengers lay wagers upon the number of miles to be traveled by the vessel the next day by bidding for the right to own a specific number; the winner may take in more than a thousand dollars, which was a huge sum in 1932 dollars.) Bidding against each other are the wealthy Mr. Smith, traveling with his lovely daughter, and Mr. DeBrasto, a New York lawyer, for the right to own 648, felt to have the best chance of sweeping the pool; the auction has reached $800 and there is felt to be some acrimony between the two men.

Suddenly a number of things happen one after the other in rapid succession. The lights in the smoking room begin to fade and dim to blackness; a woman’s voice from the doorway bids one thousand dollars; there are sounds of breaking glass and a noise of gunshots. When the emergency lights come on, Mr. Smith is dead on the floor, apparently from a bullet to the heart; Miss Smith is lying in a dead faint from which she cannot be roused, and her valuable pearl necklace is missing.

The aficionado of GAD will be delighted to learn that although Mr. Smith’s corpse contains two bullets, both of which appear to have entered his heart simultaneously through the same hole — he did not die of the bullets but from a poisoned cocktail some minutes before. The same poison has affected the young lady to lesser degree, since she only took a single sip of her drink; she is close to death but remains comatose. A number of people in the smoking room were armed and firing shots; a small rubber bulb that had contained poison is found in the pocket of one of the suspects.

C. Daly King

C. Daly King, apparently at sea

Although most of the rest of the events of the book I should and shall leave for your reading pleasure, the remainder of the plot concerns four world-class psychologists who are traveling on the Meganaut. Each apparently represents a distinct school of psychological thought and they collectively offer a hand to investigate the crimes, each one for a few chapters. (I recommend you speak these next names aloud so you’ll more quickly understand the type of book this is, although occasionally the names are missing a key syllable.) Dr. John B. Hayvier (a behaviouralist) first looks into the crimes in chapters sur-titled “Conditioning”, Dr. Rudolph Plechs’s (of the psychoanalytic school) segment is called “Inferiorities”, that of Dr. L. Rees Pons is called “Dominance”, and finally Professor Knott Mittle’s section is called “Middle grounding” (he apparently represents a kind of centrist viewpoint of the “integrative psychology” school that encompasses the other three theorists). Each approaches these events armed with the knowledge of what has gone before, but colours it through his own theories about human psychology. This extends beyond mere theory; one psychologist administers a timed word-association test to a suspect in order to try to demonstrate guilt or innocence.

In a concluding chapter called “The Criminal: Trial and Error”, the investigating team sets a trap for the guilty party, whose identity should be greatly surprising to the reader. There is a lengthy sequence that explains exactly what happened, how, and by whose hand — some of which is known, but much of which will also be quite surprising — as the book ends.

3472877575Why is this worth reading?

Last December, I did a post here about how I would like to read, for Christmas, some extremely unobtainable volumes whose properties combined scarcity and value. Obelists at Sea was one of those books. As far as I know, there is a single paperback edition, Penguin #160, which was published in England in 1938. Since this pre-dates the first North American paperback (Pocket #1 was published in New York in September, 1939), and Britain had extensive paper drives during World War II, its scarcity is easy to understand. The hardcovers are even more valuable due to rarity and age; a near-fine copy of the Knopf first edition (with black Art Deco design on silver cloth — gorgeous!) with the super-rare jacket is offered today on ABE for US$850 and the two available paperbacks are about US$50 each.

A very kind British reader of my letter to Santa got in touch and offered me a copy of Penguin #160 from his personal collection.  I will repay his generosity by not mentioning his name because he’d be inundated with requests for similar great favours, but I will simply thank him with this review.  My copy won’t be leaving my shelves any time soon!

I actually did have a copy of this in my hands once before; my friend, the Edgar-winning author L. A. Morse, whose book collection is exceptional, let me sit in his home and read his first edition over an evening and I gobbled it down, retaining only an impression of what I’d read and few of the details. That was in the 1970s and I was delighted to re-encounter this delightful book because, as you can imagine, I’d forgotten most of the details.

Yes, this is a very difficult mystery to solve, and I don’t think the average reader will manage it. I certainly didn’t, even the second time around. And it’s not exceptional in its “fair play” aspects. One key clue that would immediately solve the mystery is held back by it being enciphered for police secrecy, and the officer who receives it neglects to decode it until the case is solved. There are some complications to the plot, like the two bullets that enter the same wound, that seem more designed to astound the reader and snarl the solution to no purpose.

But there are a couple of things about this book that are so interesting that it seems that this scarce book lives up to its reputation. One is that it has on every page the very rare feeling that the author is having a great deal of fun writing this book, and that’s just a great thing to read, because it communicates to the reader and provides pleasure. I do not mean that this book is about a trans-Atlantic journey of the nature of John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber. In no sense is this a farce; but the names of the psychologists, Drs. (com)Plechs and B. Havier for instance, should give you the flavour of the charm of this book. There’s also a character named Mr. Younghusband and another whose name is I. Gnosens — innocence.  There is very little realism that’s being attempted here, and that makes it slightly easier to take that the reader must accept that the victim was shot twice but died of being poisoned, et cetera. This book is fun, but not silly.

obelists_sea_coverSpeaking of fun; apparently the definition of “obelist” differs with each of King’s three Obelists mysteries. (The third is the unbelievably scarce Obelists En Route, which I am told takes place on a train. Someday I hope to find out.) In Obelists Fly High, for instance, it’s defined as “someone who views with suspicion”. Well, when you make up words, you get to define them however you like!

The other thing that’s interesting about this book is the way in which the four competing schools of psychology are depicted and contrasted. The author was a well-known psychologist who had written a 1932 volume called The Psychology of Consciousness that apparently led the way in its field — he knew what he was talking about. No doubt if you were a world-class psychologist in 1932, this novel would have been absolutely hilarious, and King apparently had to make it clear at the time that he was absolutely not mocking real people with his psychologist characters. I’m not sufficiently educated in the history of psychology to completely understand what’s going on here, but I imagine the theories and ideas that are tossed around in the course of this mystery were very cutting-edge for 1932. In this aspect this book is a “don’s delight”; we’re privileged to overhear the shoptalk of advanced scientific theorists being applied to a rather far-fetched plot structure. But not too seriously; one of the four is hesitant to accept the concept of consciousness at all, and keeps saying so.


C. Daly King

And all things considered, this book is very satisfying. When you learn the identity of the murderer, your reaction is likely to be something like my own: “Oh, rats, I missed that completely!”  Yes, the author’s antics have misdirected you completely and you didn’t think about where people were at a crucial time. Well done, Mr. King.

So — a fun book, with a lovely sense of humour underlying it; an exotic mystery with extremely unusual amateur detectives investigating it; and an extremely difficult puzzle mystery at the heart of it all. I wish you the best of luck in finding your own copy. Given the current interest in classic Golden Age mysteries, I certainly hope an enterprising publisher can acquire the rights to these great mysteries by C. Daly King and make it possible for more than a lucky few people to read them.

The most unobtainable of all of King’s work is a very sad story. Apparently his sales were not very good and he finished a mystery in about 1941 that was never published, because he was dropped by his publishers. But it should give us the hope that someday someone will bring us THAT novel.

My favourite edition

Trust me, any edition of this that you manage to acquire will be your favourite; until and unless this gets reprinted, it will probably be the only one you ever see. For a book hound like me to hold only two copies in 50 years makes it likely that you’re not going to find one at the Junior League Thrift Shop; if you do, you’ll probably have to fistfight a bookseller to get it out of the store.

But if you’ve just won the lottery, the first American edition, with the striking design in black ink on silver cloth, is just lovely. If you had it in original jacket, that would be delightful. In the meantime, I really do like my copy of Penguin #160. Early greenbacks have a kind of literary dignity with their uniform design that did not translate well to the aspirations of American publishers, and they are always nice to look at.


Posted in Detective fiction, Genre fiction, Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Mystery, Mystery writers, Novel, Tuesday Night Bloggers
Tagged C. Daly King, John Dickson Carr, L. A. Morse

The Case of the Buried Clock: some covers

I was tidying books over the weekend and came across a box of Erle Stanley Gardner titles. And it seemed as though I’d been in a mood where I had to have a copy of every single printing of The Case of the Buried Clock (1943), because three different copies of this title were right on top.

I thought I’d collect as many as I could for your amusement, so you could see how cover styles change with the fashions of the times! I might add that I think it’s a good story, with some interesting background about wartime travel habits and the availability of tires that actually adds something to the plot. And there are a few pieces of good descriptive writing, which for ESG were few and far between. I can still remember being in my early teens and learning about sidereal time from this interesting Perry Mason novel!

My favourite? I think it’s Pocket 4509, with the awkwardly-posed sullen sex-kitten in aqua and kitten heels caught in a spotlight. Does this have anything to do with the book? Frankly, almost none of these covers have anything to do with the book.  But I hope to entice you to read it, it’s a good book from his best period of writing. Enjoy!

Posted in Uncategorized

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Tuesday Night FebruaryA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle

Unknown“I finally felt that I was unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails …”

from Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, October, 1944

Despite the fact that I’m starting off with a quote from Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most well-known foe of the traditional detective novel, no, this is not a hatchet job about Dorothy L. Sayers. It is reasonably well known among my acquaintance among GAD aficionados that I’m not a big fan, but recently I had occasion to re-read her work pretty much from scratch.  And in the way of such re-examinations twenty or thirty years later, I got a different idea than I’d had when I was younger.

NaturalExcelsor_xThe main reason I didn’t enjoy reading DLS when I was younger, as I recall, was because of the presence of a great deal of … let’s call it excelsior, for the moment. (Which is defined as “softwood shavings used for packing fragile goods or stuffing furniture”, if you were wondering.) Simply put, DLS stuffs her books with great volumes of extraneous material that apparently has nothing to do with the mystery or its solution. Some of it I think would be called “characterization”, some is “social history”, some is background material.

When I first started thinking about this piece, I thought I’d test my hypothesis. I selected a DLS title at random from my shelves, which contain all her titles; my hand found The Nine Tailors. I opened the book at random and found … well, unfortunately DLS has divided this work into chapters in a way that has more to do with campanology than common sense, and so “The Fourth Part” begins on page 123 of my paperback edition; that’s the best guidance I can give you.

The particular segment begins “Well, now, ma’am,” said Superintendent Blundell. It continues for a grand total of 2527 words (yes, I actually counted) and involves three separate conversations with three witnesses and the mention of about twenty named individuals, most of whom play no further part in the story. Superintendent Blundell interviews the housekeeper of the titled Thorpe family, the disagreeable and snobbish Mrs. Gates, and then gets corroborating evidence from the shrewish Mrs. Coppins and the schoolmistress Miss Snoot, about the precise placement of funeral wreaths on Lady Thorpe’s coffin. Someone has moved them in order to introduce an extra corpse into the gravesite.

The point of this 2527 words is to establish the following, which actually is the last sentence of the segment: “… [T]hat brought the time of the crime down to some hour between 7:30 p.m. on the Saturday and, say, 8:30 on the Sunday morning.” Twenty-four words. The other 2503 words concern the opinions and personalities primarily of Mrs. Gates, who has extensive and unpleasant opinions about the placement of funeral wreaths with respect to the social status of the wreath-giver, the financial circumstances of Mrs. Coppins’s family that brought her to give an expensive wreath of pink hot-house lilies in January, and the fact that the only schoolboy sufficiently mischievous to have moved either Mrs. Gates’s or Mrs. Coppins’s wreaths, one Tommy West, had a broken arm at the time. 24 / 2527 = 1% content, 99% excelsior. In case it’s not clear, I think this is what Edmund Wilson was getting at.  His bent and rusty nails are here the time period during which the second corpse was surreptitiously buried.

Now, it is not for me or indeed anyone to say that fiction must be written economically. Most murder mysteries could be summed up in about a page if that were the case, and that would not be an enjoyable process. But a ratio of 99% excelsior to 1% rusty nails seemed rather excessive to me in my younger days. I’d always held the view that DLS’s works contained a far too small ratio of signal to noise, as it were. And there is almost zero signal here. Mrs. Gates, Mrs. Coppins, Miss Snoot and Tommy West could have been entirely eliminated from the narrative without any damage to the activities of the plot. I am not asserting that I wanted that to happen; the reader has a pleasant moment of dislike for the pompous Mrs. Gates, and has only wasted a quarter of an hour on the 2500 words of … burble.

I have had a lot of experience with good detective stories that contain extraneous material, ranging from fascinating to burble. Perhaps the most famous example was John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, where the action grinds to a halt while the characters break the fourth wall and talk about how locked-room mysteries work. A favourite of mine, Clayton Rawson, regularly veers off within his books for geometry problems and disquisitions on the history of “blue men” and “headless ladies” and all kinds of things. Edmund Crispin introduces humorous disquisitions on unpleasant characters in English literature. One might almost say that extraneous material is a hallmark of the best detective fiction. There is a caveat here, though; most of the extraneous material touches upon and/or illustrates the topic of the mystery. JDC has that chapter about locked-room mysteries because they’re involved in a locked-room mystery. When Clayton Rawson talks about how carnival sideshow acts are created, it’s because the mystery is set within a carnival. The niceties of social class as portrayed in DLS’s placement of funeral wreaths on a coffin do not seem to contribute anything to a story about jewel theft and campanology. (They emphatically contribute to our knowledge of the social history of the 1930s, I must add.)

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

But, dammit, I thought, Sayers was widely read in detective fiction; she was a reviewer and critic and best-seller. I don’t say that a place on the best-seller list provides an automatic assumption of literary quality; Danielle Steele and James Patterson are evidence to quite the contrary. Nevertheless DLS did bring a considerable amount of academic background in the analysis of literature to this process, and I cannot think that she was writing like this by accident. She was capable of identifying the central thread of her story, and theoretically she could eliminate material that didn’t contribute to it. If she didn’t, we have to assume she wanted it there.

So what was she getting at?

In my younger, grumpier years, I thought she was merely in love with the sound of her authorial voice and felt that her readers were as well. There is a considerable body of fannish comment on DLS that suggests that that is precisely the case; DLS fans, and there are a lot of them, just love to embark on a journey into the mechanics of becoming a phony spiritualist with Miss Climpson, or learning the principles that underlie a Playfair cipher, how to pick a lock, etc. Most of these excursions to me seem stuffed to the gunwales with excelsior (the “born-again” activities of the former burglar who teaches Miss Murchison how to pick locks are a repellent example). I felt that for whatever reason, the Wimsey stories were not my style; I set them aside and smiled mechanically when people at my bookstore told me how much they loved them.

I came to this month’s worth of disquisition on DLS, though, with a more open mind than perhaps I had had in the past. It rather seemed that if so many people liked the Wimsey stories, and didn’t find them to be stuffed with excelsior, and this sentiment was shared by some of my fellow bloggers whose opinion I respect, well — there had to be something I was missing.

NPG x2861; E.C. Bentley by Howard Coster

The author who shall not be named here. But he gave his middle name to a style of verse!

Then I had a flash of insight, caused by my having occasion to re-read a 1913 book considered one of the primary texts of detective fiction. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment should they not have read it yet, but I will provide a quote that I found quite meaningful in this context. And those of my readers who are familiar with this text will know exactly what I’m talking about, I trust. The detective is examining the room of a suspect.

“Two bedroom doors faced him on the other side of the passage. He opened that which was immediately opposite, and entered a bedroom by no means austerely tidy. Some sticks and fishing-rods stood confusedly in one corner, a pile of books in another. The housemaid’s hand had failed to give a look of order to the jumble of heterogeneous objects left on the dressing-table and on the mantelshelf—pipes, penknives, pencils, keys, golf-balls, old letters, photographs, small boxes, tins, and bottles. Two fine etchings and some water-colour sketches hung on the walls; leaning against the end of the wardrobe, unhung, were a few framed engravings. A row of shoes and boots was ranged beneath the window. [Detective] crossed the room and studied them intently; then he measured some of them with his tape, whistling very softly. This done, he sat on the side of the bed, and his eyes roamed gloomily about the room.
The photographs on the mantelshelf attracted him presently. He rose and examined one representing [suspect] and [victim] on horseback. Two others were views of famous peaks in the Alps. There was a faded print of three youths—one of them unmistakably [suspect]—clothed in tatterdemalion soldier’s gear of the sixteenth century. Another was a portrait of a majestic old lady, slightly resembling [suspect]. [Detective], mechanically taking a cigarette from an open box on the mantel-shelf, lit it and stared at the photographs. Next he turned his attention to a flat leathern case that lay by the cigarette-box.
     It opened easily. A small and light revolver, of beautiful workmanship, was disclosed, with a score or so of loose cartridges. On the stock were engraved the initials [suspect’s initials].”

My readers who are familiar with this work will already be nodding their heads, because they recognize that somewhere in that morass of tiny details is a single detail that gives the detective a clue which brings him closer to his solution. And then, in a way which I understand is a characteristic of an author who is trying to hide a clue, at the end of the paragraph is a surprising revelation (the revolver). The idea is that the tiny clue vanishes from the reader’s mind because the immediate surprise supplants it. At the end, the reader can go back and say, “Oh, by golly, there WAS a such-and-such in the suspect’s bedroom, I just forgot about it because I was so focused on that revolver.”

In other words, you conceal the clue by burying it in excelsior and then distracting the reader’s attention.

2940With that in mind, my realization is that this is the kind of thing that DLS was trying to do. It’s not merely excelsior for the sake of it, she’s actually burying clues in it. However, there are a couple of differences. I’d say that about 75% of The Nine Tailors qualifies as pure excelsior, which is considerably more than the 1913 work quoted above. And frankly, it is hard to find the very, very few clues to the mystery that are buried within it like rusty nails — because there are so few of them. The Nine Tailors does not actually have many clues; instead it has quite a bit of psychology about who is the type of person to have committed the crimes, and why, and a lot of speculation as to how the murder could actually have been carried out. (A modern novel based on this scenario would have had a terse comment from the autopsy surgeon a few chapters after the body is discovered, and half the puzzle would have been solved in a flash, I think, if indeed the murder scenario would stand up to such scrutiny.) But it seems to me that this is what DLS was doing. She got far too fond of her talent to create excelsior, with funny accents and dimwitted rustics and the antics of the servant classes about which she could be snobby. And Wilson’s “bent and rusty nails” of clues are not much use in coming to the solution of the mystery, to be honest. Lord Peter really works most of it out by being in the wrong room at the right time, and solving a very difficult cryptogram that depends upon a knowledge of change-ringing.

This exercise, though, has taught me something of a lesson. The exercise of trying to place DLS’s writing style in context has been revealing — she is following upon the track of the older author whose name I have not mentioned. I find this contextualization reassuring; it has made me realize that she wasn’t really stepping out and creating an entirely new kind of detective fiction, but merely adapting her personal writing style to the traditions of the genre. And if it takes her 2500 words to say nothing useful at all — well, it’s taken me slightly fewer than 2500 words to say very little about her work, and I can refrain from complaining if you can!





Posted in Detective fiction, Genre fiction, Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Mystery, Mystery writers, Novel, Tuesday Night Bloggers
Tagged Clayton Rawson, Danielle Steele, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, James Patterson, John Dickson Carr

The Twenty-One Clues, by J. J. Connington (1941)

9781616463199-usWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The membership of the Church of Awakened Israel (in an unnamed English town) is led by the Reverend Mr. Barratt, who is on very poor terms with his wife Helen, a cold, beautiful, and aristocratic lady uninterested in the social interaction of the congregation. Helen and her snooty family are depending upon an inheritance from the 87-year-old Mrs. Alvington, Helen’s grandmother, and since she is capable of directing her funds towards the Church of Awakened Israel instead of her family, that’s been a source of great tension. Helen’s uncle has recently divorced, to the shock and horror of the religious old lady, who has darkened her door to him forever. There’s rumours buzzing around that Mr. Barratt is having an affair with one Mrs. Callis of the congregation, and both the Barratts have recently received anonymous and accusatory letters.

At the outset of chapter 2, Inspector Rufford is called in to investigate when two bodies are found in an isolated “Lover’s Lane” — Mrs. Callis and Mr. Barratt have seemingly made plans to run away together, but have apparently instead brought a suicide pact to fruition. The dogged inspector investigates thoroughly, finding many small clues in the vicinity; he determines that both were shot with the gun nearby and that the cartridge cases on the ground match that gun. (In a lovely old-fashioned touch that is now completely out of fashion, we have a diagram of the locations of the bodies, cartridge cases, and trails of footprints.) There is another murder that seems only to complicate the tangle of motives,  actions, and alibis. But it takes the personal intervention of the Chief Constable, series detective Sir Clinton Driffield, to unravel the deep meanings of a list of twenty-one clues, and reveal the answers to the old criminologist’s rhyme:

“What was the crime? Who did it?

When was it done? And where?

How done? And with what motive? 

Who in the deed did share?”

And quite a surprising set of answers it is too.

11904Why is this worth reading?

It’s always difficult to find something worthwhile to say about a book after my friend Curtis Evans has written an introduction for it, as is the case here. His preface to the latest edition of this book, the only copy most of us will ever be able to afford to see of this formerly scarce book, gives the reader an explanation of who the author was (Alfred Walter Stewart, a brilliant professor of science), ably discusses his writing interests and the sweep of his work, and then places this particular work in complete context as to where it falls in his career. And since Curtis literally wrote the book on this author (Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, available here, and I highly recommend it), well, you know, he’s the authority.

Luckily for me, he didn’t have much to say about this one other than that it was one of the author’s final four mysteries, near the end of his life, and that it was “inspired by the notorious Hall-Mills double murder case — probably the most publicised murder case in the United States in the 1920s”. (I can say that from what little I know about the Hall-Mills case, the solution here has no relationship to the real-life case.)

So I will paraphrase Curtis Evans for the moment, who goes into great and useful detail to convince you of something I’ll put more simply; this book is worth your time. It’s intelligent, complicated, logical, twisty, and quite enjoyable. There is a fine balance between a mystery that is too difficult for the reader to solve, and one which is too simple for the reader to avoid solving; this book straddles that line in an interesting way. For me, the most pleasant experience with a mystery is coming to a conclusion about the assignment of guilt, and being proved correct, but then learning that the author has been cleverer than I have and demonstrated that I’ve overlooked something that would have given me a more conclusive theory. I enjoyed this book for that reason, and I think there’s a very good chance you will too.

That being said, the thing that Curtis Evans’s introduction didn’t have space to delve into is the pervasive thread that runs through this novel of “social class”. I have to say this was coloured for me by reading two Conningtons one after the other; the other, Murder Will Speak (1938), has a great deal to say from the lips of an unattractive character about, essentially, the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I may have more to say about that volume later. But The Twenty-One Clues also has a hearty helping of class consciousness.

Here, in the third paragraph of chapter one, we have a clear statement of what’s going on with the Reverend Mr. Barrett’s wife: “Helen was a fish out of water amongst the congregation, most of whom were decent lower-middle-class people with whom she had nothing in common. Her own friends were drawn from a different social stratum, and the narrowness of the Awakened Israelites had long been irksome to her.” And a little while later in the same paragraph, Helen tells it like it is (to her uncle, in private): “They’re so frightfully narrow-minded, not like an ordinary church, somehow. And they’re not my sort. I can’t make friends amongst them. They’re not my class, and they think differently from me on almost everything one can talk about to them.”

From the modern standpoint this emphasis on and fascination with class is very disconcerting. In 2016, one does not think these things; if one thinks them, one does not comment on them, for political correctness has taught us that class distinctions (at least in the United States and for the most part in other English-speaking countries) either do not exist or must be ignored. The problem for the modern reader is that not only are these statements about the immutability and importance of class presented unchallenged, but they are omnipresent; coming from the lips of “good” characters as well as unpleasant ones.

In chapter 2, for instance, two railway workers have reported seeing the bodies, but they have not yet been discovered.  The inspector asks, “Were they tramps, or that kind of people?”

“Tramps? No, they was not tramps. It’s a fair distance, but my eyes is good, an’ I knows a tramp when I sees one. They was middle-class people, by the look of ’em. Not but what their clo’es wasn’t a bit ruffled. But they looked good clo’es; no rags about ’em an’ all o’ one piece, if you see what I mean.”

Obviously an uneducated person by his speech, but by observing two face-down corpses at quite a distance from a moving train, he can tell their social class immediately and give reasons for his categorization. The doctor who examines the bodies observes that the woman is “quite good class, too, judging by her clothes, and the smell of verbena bath salts”.

And then the wonderful dullard Inspector Rufford is constantly judging the “financial status of householders from the general appearance of the streets in which they lived”. When he goes to break the news to Mr. Callis about his wife —

“Good Lord!” ejaculated Callis, evidently revolted at the idea. “Will there be an inquest?” Rufford recognized the tone. It was the old story which he had heard so often before. “An inquest? But inquests don’t have to be held on people like us, surely.”

UnknownPeople like us.  (sigh)  I could easily go on… the fine distinctions and constant reference to social class permeate every chapter of this book. Everyone is surprised to find that a teenager who steals a car is the son of someone who brings in £1000 a year, and they feel sorry for his parents. (And the 15-year-old girl whom he is seeing is “at a glance” categorized as a whore, although the character uses the word hetaira, since “he preferred euphemisms to plainer but coarser expressions …”.  She’s helpful, polite, and truthful, but she’s having sex before marriage and is of a lower class, so she’s a whore.  Nice.) People’s clothes and speech are said to reveal their class origins, and it is clear that everyone thinks that Mrs. Barratt has “married beneath her” and come to regret it. The interesting piece of this is that it doesn’t seem as though the author is deliberately making a point of this “class parsing” to say something about the class system, or that it in any way relates to the solution of the mystery. For this writer, the class system permeates everything he’s writing about, and it’s simply part of the background to be accepted.

For me, this was a part of the book that was hard to take. It didn’t exactly spoil my enjoyment of this clever and well-written plot. Instead it gave me a couple of different mental issues. Principal among them was, “Does this fixation on social class have anything to do with the solution of the mystery?” Well, technically, not really. It has a tiny bit to do with the motives, but not in more than a contributory way. Also I kept thinking, “Did people really think like this and talk like this?” Here, I’m on shaky ground. I recognize that GAD writers need to pack a lot of information about their characters’ backgrounds and personalities into as small a space as possible, and this may have been a kind of literary shorthand that this author felt his audience would understand. Honestly, though, on the balance of probabilities I think it’s a kind of 1941 hangover of an elderly writer’s attitudes from a bygone day. Remember that World War 2 was in full swing for the world outside this book (it is never mentioned within) and class barriers were falling like bombed-out buildings everywhere in Britain. Except if you’re in your late 60s and soon to be pretty much unable to leave your house, as this writer was at the time.

So, by and large, I think you’ll enjoy this book as I did. You may find yourself a little horrified at ideas such as that one could assign a 15-year-old girl to the category of whore simply because of her sexual availability and with whom she chooses to exercise it, but this is not the worst level of language misuse I’ve ever seen in GAD; it’s Twenty-One Clues, not Ten Little anything, so you will not be too horrified to continue. Try it, you’ll like it.

My favourite edition

Really I do like the cover of Coachwhip’s recent edition, shown at the top of this post, which is simple, graphic, and effective (and does NOT partake of many of the modern cliches about the design of GAD reprints, for which my thanks; British Library Crime Classics has a lot to answer for and will soon run out of period postcards to repurpose, I trust.) Coachwhip publishes my favourite edition because it contains the introduction by Curtis Evans, which is excellent and wonderfully informative. Buy your own copy here.

The true first edition from H&S is gorgeous, and quotes the little rhyme that I enjoyed so much. There isn’t one for sale on ABE Books, but the first US, VG in a VG+ jacket, is $200. And it doesn’t have Curtis’s introduction!

Disclosure: I get books from Coachwhip to review, but this wasn’t one of them; it was a Christmas gift. Whatever the source, I never say anything about books that I don’t really think anyways. For fans of GAD, I think Coachwhip is doing an excellent job and deserves your support.


Posted in Uncategorized