Finding new authors to read is a curious mix of recommendations and speculation. I started reading Rupert Penny because he appeared on this list, but then the joy of Max Afford and Norman Berrow followed purely because they were reprinted by the same publisher, Fender Tucker’s Ramble House. Such an approach has typically gone well, and while the care of my choosing could be a factor here, I prefer to think that it’s because RH generally publish very good — and if not very good then at least interesting — books. Thus, picking up this book by Vivian at the end of last year was pure “Well, it’s a Ramble House reprint” speculation, and a simple hope to continue my generally good run from them.
The plot concerns two threads that wind ever-closer: the first being the murder of a man in his hotel room, the perpetrator witnessed leaving the hotel even if how they entered is somewhat up for grabs, and the second being the theft of an important document from a nearby town. Superintendent Wadden and Detective Inspector Head — a raft of footnoted references to previous Vivian titles show that this is far from their first case — work first in tandem, then separately, then sort of jointly by the relating of much information via telephone when one of them goes down to London, and then jointly again but still with plenty of discussion and reiteration of the facts we’ve just read about. Because if you love repetition, then brother do I have the book for you…
A startlingly vast part of the narrative concerns the tracking of who made and who received a particular telephone call, and is about as thrilling as you’d expect. Not only are times and locations thrown about ad infinitum, but we get Head and Wadden discussing what we, the reader, have just followed one of them doing, complete with both policemen restating the conclusions we’ve already seen reached. And that could be fine, if the interviews didn’t go like this:
Head: We’re trying to find who made this telephone call…
Witness: A telephone call?
H: Yes, a call on a telephone; it was made at 7:45 pm. Did you make the call?
W: Did I make a call at 7:45 pm?
H: Yes, a telephone call was made from here at 7:45 pm…
W: I couldn’t have made a telephone call at 7:45 pm…
H: You sound very sure.
W: I was [doing something with no witnesses]
H: Were there any witnesses?
W: No, but why do you think I’d lie?
H: A telephone call was made from here to the hotel at 7:45 pm.
W: Well, I didn’t phone the hotel at 7:45 pm I was [alibi restated].
H: A man was murdered at the hotel.
W: And you think I have something to do with it?
H: I want to know who made the telephone call from here at 7:45 pm.
W: Why would I lie if I was wrapped up in a murder?
H: So you didn’t make the telephone call from here to the hotel at 7:45 pm?
H: Well, that clears that up. Send in the next witness…
Also, did I mention the repetition? All the interviews are like this, only with extra telephone calls thrown in that everyone is only to happy to reiterate they or someone else made or took. One instance of collusion is established cleverly at the beginning of one interview that immediately strikes that witness from the investigation, and that’s a piquant and clever development never to be repeated again (it’s about the only thing that isn’t) so that more drudgery can follow. On three separate occasions! Oh, rapture!
This is particularly frustrating because, after struggling to establish tone, the book comes to life at about a quarter of the way through with the dispatch of one of the policemen (it doesn’t matter which) to London and some decent detection done there. A huge amount of ground is covered believably in some clever, insightful work, and things start to come together. Then two things happen — the first is telephonegate, and the second is that suddenly every character encountered in the Big Smoke must apparently have some sort of linguistic tic to delineate them from everyone else. From the theatre manager wildly veers into over-elaborate speech (I skipped that chapter, as I knew we’d be told about it later) to the lan’lady wot can’t not ‘arf ‘elp sahndin’ like wot sum extruh from Ol’ver Twis’ does in yer nigh’mares. Not only is this tiresome to read, it stops being interesting about as soon as it’s encountered. Maybe Vivian thinks it’s good character work, since there’s nothing else about these people to make them appear as, well, people, but hairy Aaron doesn’t it gum things up.
And that, in brief, is the problem: there’s a real lack of understanding about how to write so people can read it. I’ll take a boring plot, I’ll even take the final revelation herein being dull past the point of even vague distraction (that telephone call at 7:45, incidentally, plays a minor part…), but the sheer poorness of the writing is interminable. Vivian loves a comma almost as much as he loves a long, breathless descriptive sentence to open his chapters; clearly he’s under the impression this sets the tone, as it is repeated almost without exception (the second sentence of chapter 3 is 68 words long and contains eleven clauses…I had to read it five times!). There’s no real attempt to muster this narrative into anything approaching a decent experience for the observer, and so this observer really finds it too difficult to recommend on almost any grounds.
The start of that London thread — and there’s far better to read if that’s your poison — and the occasional Norman Berrow-esque humanising of his policemen through an expression of frustration or disgust with the witnesses and suspects they’re dealt (which is sort of meta, I guess, but doubtless not deliberately) aside, Vivian gives you nothing here that’s worth the effort, however meagre, of galvanising your faculties to retain, against your better judgement, the will and interest of sorting through the vagaries of a plot that, against, one can’t help but suspect, the advice of anyone in an editorial role, remains unfocussed and torpid, and he’s really not helped by sentences like this, which, for some reason, spring up like weeds amidst all the cracks in his plotting, reasoning, and writing. One to miss.
12 thoughts on “#291: Evidence in Blue (1938) by E. Charles Vivian”
Oh dear, this sounds like it was difficult to get through. 😦 Is that why you’ve lined up John Dickson Carr for the next review, as a guaranteed delight in compensation of this week’s tribulation?
P.S. Once again, thanks to your tweets, I discovered that Locked Room International will be releasing a translation of a Chinese mystery novel… I’m torn between reading it in Chinese, or getting the English translation. 😀
Definitely get Death in the House of Rain in English — more money for LRI means more never-before-seen translations!
And, yeah, following the stodge of Vivian I’ve gone back to the earliest Carr I’d not yet read for some….well, not light relief exactly, as this is Carr’s most text-dense period…but let’s say “fun” because it was also the beginning of his most insanely creative period.
I generally prefer to read my novels in English rather than Chinese – especially if the novel has been translated from Japanese anyway, in which case I give priority to the language I understand best. But if it’s originally written in Chinese… Then again I do want to support LRI.
I look forward to your review of ‘Arabian Nights Murder’. The synopsis sounds fun! 🙂
“Because if you love repetition, then brother do I have the book for you…”
Well, I am a Trollope fan…
I should be sorry that you had to wade through this one, but this review was too darn entertaining. And now I’m picturing that telephone conversation as played by Monty Python and it’s almost making me want to go read it (but only almost – I think the need to insert a fish-slapping dance every few pages to relieve the tedium might pall after a while).
Ha. Well, while the experience of reading disappointung books would never really be anyone’s choice, I do maintain that I’d much rather read something and know that I don’t enjoy it than spend 40 years wondering if it might have been wonderful. I stand by that, even — or perhaps especially — after experiences like this one.
The idea of it being played as farce is actually pretty accurate. The whole thing feels like a complete step out of touch with both a) what it’s trying to be and b) any sort of farcical overtones that would make it actually funny. That’s almost a sort of proto-farce, and sort of nails what reading this this is like: a Carry On movie without the smut, double entendres, and shitty acting. So, well, undertake it at your peril!
Though for anyone who fails to see the charm of Inspector Joseph French, this does also feel like a salutory lesson in how not to write a Croftian plot. You’ll run delightedly into FWC’s arms after this experience.
And he would give me an awkward slap on the back, step away and begin discussing the very interesting properties of drainage pipes…
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In my non-mystery life, I’m a court reporter. Frankly, that’s what interviews DO sound like in real life. Lawyers and other interviewers are indeed that prolix and repetitive; it’s a peculiarity of the legal system and they’re trained that way. And witnesses actually are that obtuse.
I’m not saying this makes for a better novel; far from it. And frankly I suspect that Mr. Vivian may be merely a poor writer rather than an experienced interviewer or even a court reporter. But I have a little bit of sympathy for the person who has to ask the same question four different ways to nail down all the possible ways of evading it.
Hell, I work with teenagers, who can be as obtuse as anyone going — not always, of course, but some of the time. I’m aware of the need for patience and repetition in order to get anything out of someone in normal, real life,
But if I wanted real life in my entertainments there’s plenty of Jonathan Franzen to read…!
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JJ, how would you tighten up and improve upon the dialogue that you referred to in your post?
Wow, I mean…that is a huge question. I suppose the main difficulty is that it’s clear from the outset that people are going to hide their involvement for various reasons. Witnesses and suspect will lie or avoid the truth, this happens in probably every novel fo detection ever written. Here, the issues is the amount of repetition not just of diallogue but of that exact conceit: one witness comes in and evades answering for three pages, then a second comes in a does the same thing, then a third…there’s very little variation, and it’s dull once so becomes infuriating three times in a row.
Possibly the equanimity the detective just takes it all with is to blame — he displays no frustration, and when you’re getting frustrated as a reader and the author clearly hasn’t picked up in that then you can begin to suspect that this book is not for you. The blandly stand there and fence for 12 pages withough a single straigh answer and a clear lack of belief in what you are told is simply not human!
So, how to improve it? Either get to the point quicker — have characters refuse to answer, or contradict themselves and then deny that they have and thus be dismssed — or have the detective toughen up and actually get annoyed with all the annoying lies he’s being told. There’s probably a third alternative — have an overall purpose of what will be accomplished byt the end of a scene, and write that scene specifically geared to that purpose — but, since these first two are beyond Vivian’s means, that third option is pie in the sky.