Dr. Priestly had not seen his old friend Sir John Claverton in almost a year when he received a note asking him to come round for a visit. When Priestly arrives he finds that Clarverton’s sister Mrs. Littlecote and her adult daughter Helen have taken up residence, and Claverton’s nephew through his other sister, Durnford, is also lurking about.
Priestly sees Claverton soon enough, and learns he’s been ill for some time. Nothing serious, according to Dr. Oldland (a mutual friend). But Oldland is oddly insistent that he and Priestly share a car as they leave Claverton’s residence, and he soon makes the reason clear: Claverton is only just now recovering from a severe spell caused by arsenic. Oldland is unsure what to do about this – he can’t accuse anyone without at least some idea of who did it – so he asks Priestly to keep look in on old Claverton from time to time and see what he can turn up.
Unfortunately, they are too late. Claverton dies two days later from a gastric attack that bears the hallmark of arsenic. Priestly is convinced of this, and convinced he knows who is responsible, and is more than a little surprised to find out he is completely and totally wrong.
Author John Rhode belonged to a school of Golden Age writers in England who were more concerned with the mechanics of plot puzzles than with characterization or prose style. As Julian Symons said, “”Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it.” They were called the “humdrums”, and no book written by any of them could possibly have been more humdrum than The Claverton Affair.
No character in this story exhibits more personality than the precise amount called for by the plot. The prose is impeccably precise, and the events happen in a sensible order. The story doesn’t seem particularly dull, but neither is it particularly interesting. An episode of Dragnet has more suspense and more laughs. Halfway through I began to amuse myself by imagining Dr. Priestly speaking in the most pompous manner possible – Claude Rains, for example, in one of his aristocratic roles. This was much more entertaining than the book itself.
The mystery is eventually explained, at length, and the malefactor is brought to justice. But I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone with more than an academic interest in it. Some books deserve to be forgotten.
Dr. George Matthews, New York psychiatrist, has a new patient, well-to-do young man named Jacob Blunt. Blunt has a good reason for visiting a shrink: he thinks he’s going crazy. Although he doesn’t need the money, he’s begun working for a leprechaun who pays him a dollar a day to wear a specific flower in his hair. Another leprechaun pays him to give away quarters to strangers. Dr. Matthews, naturally, is inclined to agree with his new patient: he is crazy.
The Jacob asks him if he’d like to meet one of the leprechauns, who turns out to be surprisingly real, though not a real leprechaun. He’s a little person, a former circus performer, and he says Jacob hired him. Before Matthews can sort all this out, he’s off on another job, to deliver a percheron – a kind of draft horse – to a well-known actress.
That night the actress is killed, and a drunken Blunt is found banging on the door of her apartment building, the percheron tied to a lamppost. Matthews is summoned to bail him out, but then, on a subway platform, he falls…
…and wakes up ten months later in an insane asylum, where his name is John Brown.
First, forget about the terrible title. It has only a slight relationship to the book itself, as the percherons (yes, there are two of them) are mostly incidental to the plot. This book is an entry in the “innocent victim or manic killer” genre, of which there are not nearly enough, and it keeps you guessing almost to the last page.
It is in fact very similar to Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand, though it doesn’t have the manic narrative style of that book, and because the middle section of Percheron doesn’t have the urgency of the rest of the book. In addition, in Rogers’ book it’s left unstated that the evidence points to the narrator himself as the killer, though it’s clear to everyone – the narrator, the police, and most especially the reader. Bardin’s book is much less subtle.
But it’s still a great book! The fact that it suffers by comparison to maybe the best book in its class isn’t a knock; it’s a superior example of its type.
Martin Edwards has spoken highly Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law on his blog, so when I saw a copy in the local used bookstore, I snapped it up. I’m very glad I did.
It’s late 1939. World War II has started, but Britain remains mostly unaffected, suffering only the irritations of a shortage of manpower and a nightly blackout. Against this backdrop, a rather pompous judge named Barber sets out with his retinue to ride the assizes of the (fictitious) Southern Circuit. The judge finds a certain wartime expediency extremely irritating: the customary trumpeters who mark his passage to court every day have been dispensed with.
Trouble rears its head in the very first town. The judge hears that a man to whom he once gave a very stiff sentence has been released, and is in fact nearby. To soothe his nerves the judge drinks a bit more than usual at dinner; and while driving home he runs a man down in his car. Fortunately the man is not killed, but by coincidence it’s a well-known concert pianist, who loses a finger as a result.
As the tour continues, strange incidents pile up. Is the newly released prisoner behind them? The pianist? His girlfriend, an acquaintance of the judge’s wife whose hostility is returned in full measure? And are these pranks, or serious attempts on Barber’s life?
The truth behind these acts is a bit of a muddle until the very end of the novel, though the ultimate resolution is surprising indeed, but this is not really the point of the novel. It’s much more a comedy of manners. Tragedy at Law is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, despite the fact that the author never stoops to anything as vulgar as a joke (with one exception – that judge’s marshal is in fact named Marshall). In its own way it’s as funny as the Rumpole stories, which similarly feature a barrister, but whose tone is much more jolly.
If you like bone-dry British humor and a well-done legal mystery – and the point of law on which this book turns is very obscure – I can guarantee that you’ll find this book enjoyable.
I’ve just finished the book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by Peter Ackroyd, and it turned out to be very good. Initially got it because I’m working on a story set in Limehouse, and thought this would give me some background. It turned out to be much more entertaining than I expected.
It’s a murder mystery set in London in the 1880s, featuring a set of Ripper-like killings by someone the press dubs the Limehouse Golem. The books helpfully provides us with the killer’s diary, detailing both the details of the killings and their reasons and justifications. The killer even goes so far as to recreate the Radcliffe Highway murders of seventy years before, butchering the family of a shopkeer in the same house where the Marr family was killed. (The Marr killings are a historical fact, but those of the Golem are strictly fictional.)
But there’s so much more here beside the killings! There’s the journey of “Lambeth Marsh Lizzie”, a poor girl who enters the world of the musical hall and becomes a star upon its stage. Through her eyes we get a view of music hall, the odd characters associated with it, and the kindest of them all, the funniest man in the world, Dan Leno.
Then there are scholars such as Marx and Gissing, who rub shoulders with each other in the reading room at the British Museum, along with fictional characters such as John Cree, Elizabeth’s future husband.
The end result is a sort of tapestry that explores London of the times. It was still a city of darkness, with much of the populate living in poverty and desperation, but also a city of great inspiration, as well as a city on the cusp of the modern world. Gissing is, in fact, writing an article about Babbage’s calculating machines, which Babbage intended to bring order and prosperity.
All in all just a great read – erudite and witty, but equally accessible and entertaining. And I got a few bits I can use in my story!
This massive anthology, edited by Ellery Queen, does its best to sum up mystery fiction from its birth in 1841 through 1941, the 101* years of the title, and in large part succeeds. When published, the editor could not have forseen that the traditional mystery would very shortly go into decline; the contents, therefore, amount to a summary of the Golden Age, as comprehensive in its mammoth way as Otto Penzler’s recent Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries, which mentions this volume and contains several of the same stories.
Following a fairly long and generally interesting introduction, the first and largest section is The Great Detectives, beginning with the grandfather of all detectives, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin in “The Purloined Letter”. Many of the stories here will be equally familiar, such as Lord Dunsany’s “Two Bottles of Relish” or Melville Davisson Post’s “The Doomdorf Mystery”. The standout is a Hercule Poirot story called “A Chess Problem”. You won’t find this in the collected Poirot stories; instead is was used as a section of the novel The Big Four.
Another standout, for a very different reason, is M.P. Shiel’s “The S.S.” – to a modern reader, it’s deadly boring. I can’t imaging that the Reggie Fortune story presents him in the best light, either, though others such as Father Brown, Philip Trent, and Lord Peter Wimsey have more respectable entries.
Queen, dispensing with modesty, also includes one of his own stories.
The next section is The Great Women Detectives, and it’s quite short, with only three stories. Two of them, “The Tea Leaf” and “The Mackenzie Case”, are quite good, but Mignon Eberhart’s “Introducing Susan Dare” drags.
This is followed by another short section, The Great Humorous Detective Stories. The lead story may be the most unexpected in the book. “The Treasure Hunt” by Mary Roberts Rinehart features her character Tish in a hilarious farce, and Tish and her friends manage to wrap up a scavenger hunt and a robbery while indulging in all sorts of shenanigans. There’s a Tuppence and Tommy story by Christie, and a story called “The Mystery of the Missing Wash”, by Octavus Roy Cohen. It’s told in a heavily exaggerated black dialect, and honestly, I couldn’t finish it.
The Great Thieves comes next, and this may have been my favorite section. It’s got a very good Raffles, “The Criminologists’ Club”, and an even better Saint story, “Paris Adventure”.
Queen leaves detection behind in The Great Crime Stories, which includes well-known stories such as Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” and Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Suspicion”. Aside from those, the most notable story is “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole”, by Thomas Burke.
The last section is called The Detective Story To End Detective Stories; its selection, as you may guess, is debatable.
Many of these stories surprised me. “The Absent-Minded Coterie”, with detective Eugene Valmont, was neatly done and very amusing; Ronald Knox, famous for his rules for detective stories, is represented by the only good story he ever wrote, “Solved By Inspection”; there’s a fine Albert Campion story, and two humdrum ones with Arsene Lupin.
The reputations of many of these authors, giants in their own time, has suffered in the decades since, but this huge book (995 pages!) is probably the best introduction possible to mystery fiction as it stood seventy years ago.
The Great Detectives
C. Auguste Dupin in “The Purloined Letter”, by Edgar Allan Poe
Nick Carter in “The Mystery of Mrs. Dickinson”, by Nicholas Carter
Martin Hewitt in “The Lenton Croft Robberies”, by Arthur Morrison
Prince Zaleski in “The S.S.”, by M.P. Shiel
The Old Man In The Corner in “The Dublin Mystery”, by Baroness Orczy
The Thinking Machine in “The Problem of Cell 13″, by Jacques Futrelle
Eugene Valmont in “The Absent-Minded Coterie”, by Robert Barr
Arsene Lupin in “The Red Silk Scarf”, by Maurice Leblanc
Dr. Thorndyke in “The Puzzle Lock”, by R. Austin Freeman
Father Brown in “The Secret Garden”, by Gilbert Chesterton
Average Jones in “The Man Who Spoke Latin”, by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Uncle Abner in “The Doomdorf Mystery”, by Melville Davisson Post
Philip Trent in “The Sweet Shot”, by E.C. Bentley
Max Carrados in “The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage”, by Ernest Bramah
Inspector Barraclough in “The Pink Edge”, by Frank Froest and George Dilnot
Mr. Fortune in “The Long Dinner”, by H.C. Bailey
Hercule Poirot in “A Chess Problem”, by Agatha Christie
Superintendent Wilson in “The Owl At The Window”, by G.D.H and Margaret Cole
Lord Peter Wimsey in “A Matter of Taste”, by Dorothy L. Sayers
Dr. Hailey in “The Cyprian Bees”, by Anthony Wynne
Miles Bredon in “Solved by Inspection”, by Ronald A. Knox
Roger Sheringham in “The Avenging Chance”, by Anthony Berkeley
Albert Campion in “The Border-Line Case”, by Margery Allingham
Mr. Linley in “Two Bottles of Relish”, by Lord Dunsany
Sam Spade in “A Man Called Spade”, by Dashiell Hammett
Professor Poggioli in “The Resurrection of Chin Lee”, by T.S. Stribling
Ellery Queen in “The Mad Tea Party”, by Ellery Queen
Colonel March in “The Crime in Nobody’s Room”, by Carter Dickson
The Great Women Detectives
Ruth Kelstern in “The Tea Leaf”, by Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace
Gwynn Leith in “The Mackenzie Case”, by Viola Brothers Shore
Susan Dare in “Introducing Susan Dare”, by Mignon Eberhart
The Great Humorous Detective Stories
Tish in “The Treasure Hunt”, by Mary Roberts Rhinehart
Tommy and Tuppence in “The Disappearance of Mrs. Leigh Gordon”, by Agatha Christie
Florian Slappey in “The Mystery of the Missing Wash”, by Octavus Roy Cohen
The Great Thieves
Raffles in “The Criminologists’ Club”, by E.W. Hornung
Arsene Lupin in “Arsene Lupin in Prison”, by Maurice Leblanc
The Infallible Godahl in “Blind Man’s Bluff”, by Frederick Irving Anderson
Four Square Jane in “The Stolen Romney”, by Edgar Wallace
The Saint in “Paris Adventure”, by Leslie Charteris
The Great Crime Stories
“The Clock”, by A.E.W Mason
“The Most Dangerous Game”, by Richard Connell
“The Eleventh Juror”, by Vincent Starrett
“Philomel Cottage”, by Agatha Christie
“Faith, Hope, and Charity”, by Irvin S. Cobb
“The Hands of Mr. Ottermole”, by Thomas Burke
“Treasure Trove”, by F. Tennyson Jesse
“Suspicion”, by Dorothy L. Sayers
“The Silver Mask”, by Hugh Walpole
“Ransom”, by Pearl Buck
The Detective Story To End Detective Stories
“The Perfect Crime”, by Ben Ray Redman