Over the summer, I read certain sections of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery by the blogosphere’s very own Passing Tramp, Curtis Evans. Certain sections because, to be perfectly honest, Curtis has done an amazing job in analysing so much of the work of J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, and John Rhode/Miles Burton that it’s clear I need to do a lot more reading to get the most out of what he has written. Upon (in fact, while) reading A Smell of Smoke I went back to see what insight Curtis could offer to explore Street’s motivations or intentions, but there is no mention of it at all; no fault of his, as Street published over 130 novels under his two most famous pseudonyms, but I suspect I know why it doesn’t get a mention: it isn’t very good at all.
To help illustrate this, consider the aforementioned Freeman Wills Crofts: you pick up a Crofts book and you know that he has sat down and worked out the movements of every character and train and bus and car and bird and wendigo within a 16-mile radius of his crime, and that every single detail will be worked meticulously into the prose and then rechecked and redrafted until it’s as precise as possible. By way of contrast, this feels like a first draft where Street more often than not forgot what he was writing about and just veered off into a series of connected thoughts like a magpie flitting from shiny object to shiny object until it suddenly remembers that it was sent out to get a pint of milk and returns to that task.
At times, it’s like talking to the slightly dotty elderly neighbour who has lived down the road from your parents for over 30 years and whom you’re required to go and visit every time you go to see them. The beginning of chapter 2, for instance, would go something like this, and I promise not a single detail is added here for effect:
“Well, you know, Mrs Knapp got to Horry Ingrave’s house to cook his breakfast like she does, she finds the extra money ever so helpful, and he wasn’t there. So, you know how she is, she was going to ignore it, but she though he’d probably been in the Tankards the night before and — well, you know what a drinker he is — maybe he’d stayed there overnight. The Tankards was, as you’ll know, set up in Queen Victoria’s time by William Brean and left to his son John on his death who, when he died, left it to Bob who runs it now. Now, of course, Bob’s younger brother Philip already has a job that he travels to every day, but there’s their sister Hilda — she’s 33 now, don’t you know — and she needed to get a job of her own to support herself since the Tankards isn’t going to provide enough for the likes of her.
“Well, Matthew Calder who runs the mill, his friend George Heckley who lives alone with his wife Violet, but he’s back in town and the travelling all around regular, like, because he’s running such a successful estate agents, and he was worried about Violet being on her own on account of her lonely nature and arthritis. Well, Matthew Calder, see, he knows the Breans well on account of helping John transfer the licence for the pub into his name by putting in a good word with the brewery, and when George said he was looking for a lady companion for his wife, well, Matthew was able to recommend Hilda. And they got on wonderfully, those two, they’ve really become the best of friends.
“So when Mrs. Knapp knocked on the door of the Tankards look for Horry Ingrave, it was Hilda who answered.”
It’s…quite staggering. Four-and-a-half pages that could have been “Hilda, the younger sister of the pub’s landlord, opened the door”. And it goes on like this throughout, with brides abandoned at the altar, filial discord and — linking the two — one of those preposterously irritating situations where if two people had a five second conversation about something it would be perfectly natural to discuss (one character’s illegitimacy is far from the taboo that the society around him seems to think it should be, so it’s not like these two are too buttoned-up to talk about such things) all this could be easily avoided.
It’s worth considering that of those 130+ books Cecil John Charles Street published under these two pseudonyms this is about number 130 and so the barrel was probably all but empty by this stage. There are millions of us out there, myself included, to who the idea of completing and publishing even a single novel seems like some kind of hilarious pipe dream, but it’s entirely reasonable that long before you’ve cracked the century it becomes just another chore and so you take whatever idea you have and fill it out as best you can. Except, you’d imagine that even the most disinterested, disaffected, and downright fed up author of over 100 novels could write in his native tongue without so much of it sounding like a lumpy translation:
“Now let’s drop this most unpleasant subject and talk of something else. I have something to say to you which concerns us both much more closely.”
“What difference does that make to me or, for that matter, to anyone else? Is that the reason why he thinks that you would not be a suitable husband for me?”
It almost becomes a drinking game: Veers randomly off and then back on topic: 1 drink; Dialogue that sounds like five year-olds reenacting Jersey Shore: 1 drink; Someone wants to get home and have their tea: 3 fingers. Good luck getting more than about 40 pages in…
As for the plot…well. Boring Inspector Arnold turns up at the halfway stage, sees what is probably about the two hundredth dead body of his career and — without talking to a single witness, relative, or any other person who could be involved in the case — immediately decides he’s up against a brick wall and calls in Genius Amateur Desmond Merrion. Merrion does all the thinking (Merrion: “Hmmm, this stain on what is effectively a blunt instrument in a case where someone was hit over the head with a blunt instrument could be blood!” Arnold: “Genius! How do you think of these things, you awesomeness of awesome?!” [some paraphrasing involved]), and the main thrust of the plot rests on (as implied in the title) the odour of a particular tobacco which one character smokes. It never seems to occur to anyone that cigarettes can be given to and smoked by other people. Frankly, it’s crap.
Read Death Leaves No Card, a far superior book, but give this one a wide berth unless you’re in the mood for a parody or you want to turn it into some kind of parlour game. For that possibility and nothing else it gets a star; now go and find a good book and put this out of your mind.
26 thoughts on “#190: A Smell of Smoke (1959) by Miles Burton”
Thanks for this one, JJ, I won’t rush to pay over the odds for it. What baffles me is Street’s inconsistency. This may be book 130ish but the following Burton titles, Death Paints A Picture and Legacy Of Death are good, solid detective stories, while Pinehurst, roughly book 15, is shockingly awful. But from what I’ve seen before, the Burton books are handicapped by Arnold and Merrion who rarely shine as characters.
I’ve yet to endounter Arnold and Merrion together in a way that makes sense — this is the only one I’ve read that features them both, as Merrion has ‘flu in Death Leaves No Card. But Arnold is something of a pompous dick, it has to be said. Perhaps when they play off each other well it works, I dunno: there’s still Death in the Tunnel for me to read, so I’ll report back after that.
And what you say about the inconsistency is very interesting — I wonder if the loust Burtons correlate with the top drawer Rhodes and vice versa; maybe he didn’t want one publisher to have all the good ideas, so oscillated with where his attention and effort went each time. Which then begs the question of why he wrote some of these books in the first place…
Merrion is surprisingly colourless. I say surprisingly because Dr Priestley is rather fun.
Fun, but his “I’ve solved the crime, good luck proving it as I’m out of here” attitude is a bit irksome.
Oh dear, that’s the Burton title I have awaiting for me to read on my Kindle… 😦 Oh well, it just means I need to get ‘Death Leaves No Card’. 😀
Did Curtis Evans’s book give any reason as to why Rhode felt the need to write as Burton? Was he dabbling in a slightly different genre, etc?
I don’t remember if Curtis says explicitly why, but I was always under theimpresion that publishers were reluctant to put out too much by one author in a year. Pseudonyms gave the author a chance to stil write the books they wanted, and everyone was happy.
Robert Ludlum wrote a very illuminating introduction on this exact topic to one of his books — I think The Cry of the Halidon — that had originally been published pseudonymously and was being rereleased under his own name. The book’s no good, but the frankness of his admission makes a very interesting read.
As ever thanks for taking the bullet. I liked the array of mental images in this review, ranging from the quite disturbing (Five Year Olds doing a Jersey Shore programme) to quite sweet ones (Magpies going out for milk). I know there is a Jane Austen adaptations drinking game but I have yet to come across a crime fiction or GAD specific one. Probably for the best really.
There should be a GAD drinking game; dammit, are we all teatotalers? Admittedly you’ve have to play it with an auidobook, but — c’mon! — it’d be awesome. In fact, I suggest it as one of the sessions for The Bodies from the Library this year (preferably the one before Stella Duffy…)
Who’s Stella Duffy?
Stella Duffy is a Kiwi autrhor and theatre producer. She is writing the new Roderick Alleyn book based on material and notes found in Ngaoi Marsh’s papers. She presented at last year’s BftL and I found her very…difficult to warm to. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady, but I’d need to be a little drunk to sit through her talking about anything uninterrupted again 🙂
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I am SO writing the rules of that drinking game ASAP. 😉
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Unfortunately, Curtis’ really wonderful analysis of Rhode/Burton rather steered me clear of the guy. Your reviews of him, on the other hand, I could read a mountain of! Thanks for a good laugh before I head off to labor away, JJ!
So you never even gave Rhode a try? You should, at least, take a shot at The House on Tollard Ridge, which is a pretty solid, fair-play mystery and the old penguin edition should not be impossible to get a hold of.
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I appreciate the recommendation, TomCat! With a writer so prolific, separating the gold from the dross can be difficult!
I’ll second the recommendation for The House on Tollard Ridge.
Anything to help, dude!
I’ve read a couple of dozen Rhode/Burton titles and so far I’ve found he has three basic plot structures. (1) Someone from the victim’s long-ago past disguises himself, takes a new identity and commits the murder for revenge or gain; look for the least likely suspect. (2) Someone creates an “infernal machine” or booby-trap, or uses a weird poison, to kill an enemy; look for the obvious suspect. (3) Someone creates a situation where it looks like one type of plot is happening but it’s really something else; this is rather like Christie’s ABC Murders, if I’ve been too vague. The murderer is hoping to conceal the motive. I admit this is probably an oversimplification and as I said I haven’t read more than about a fifth of the novels, but honestly I’m about to give up. It’s getting to the point where I can almost tell what type it is within a few chapters.
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And what a shame, since he wrote about five million books! I find myself craving that one prolific author of greatness who I somehow missed over the past decades. Clearly, there were a lot of heavy writers who simply did not withstand the test of time. But that isn’t fair, since I know many people have mentioned Rhode titles they absolutely loved. Maybe if I find the best one of EACH of the three different plots, Noah, I’ll have had my fill and thought better of the fellow.
I’ll admit to a bit — a fair bit — of skipping, but this is one of those “oh, all the evidence points so obviously to one person for this reason so it’s obviously them” double-bluff plots (so #3 in your summations) but for the stupid reason, as I say, that obviously two people can’t smoke the same cigarettes or, rather, because the person who smokes a cigarette obviously can’t give one of those cigarettes to someone else to smoke. When its revealed that anothe charatcer has, in fact, received some of those cigarettes from the man under suspicion there’s an implied duh-duh-DUUUUUUHHHHH!!!! and you’re clearly expected to be, like, swept away.
It is rather sad, actually.
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My dream is to be able to afford a week in London next summer, including attendance at the BL event. I’m not much of a drinker at all, but I would play that game with you!!
If Noah gives us the rules, I’m certainly game…
Here you go!
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